A guitarist at the service of the song

By Sergio Ariza

They once asked Mick Ralphs what mark between 1-10  he would give himself as a guitarist, his answer shows his modesty but also his intelligence: “Minus 20. I never think about things like that. I like to be an all-round guitar player who can play rhythm and lead breaks. That’s because I’m a songwriter and songwriting is all about doing what the song dictates and not what you want to do for the song. For somebody who’s written such great songs as Rock & Roll Queen, Ready For Love, One of the Boys, Drivin’ Sister, Can’t Get Enough and Feel Like Makin’ Love, how could it be any other style than to serve the SONG, in capital letters.

Michael Geoffrey Ralphs was born March 31, 1944 in England. He wasn’t an early guitar player, he never picked up a guitar until one day in 1962 when he heard Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs on the radio. The sharp notes by Steve Cropper seduced him and he got his aunt to buy him a shabby Rosetti Lucky Seven, his first guitar. He would take his first steps in The Buddies, a blues/rock band who put out a single in 1964.

However, it wouldn’t be until 1966 when he formed the heart of the band where he would find fame. That year The Doc Thomas Group was formed and Ralphs was the guitarist, Stan Tippins (also from The Buddies) lead singer and Pete Overend Watts on bass. Their first steps took them to Italy where they would sign a record contract recording an album of covers of R&B that was released in 1967. At the time Ralphs was using an SG and a Telecaster, but the record was but a copy of the Small Faces without original material, nor Steve Marriott's voice.

Things started looking up when in 1968 drummer Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin and keyboardist Vernon Allen joined the band. Ralphs was getting better and was starting to compose his own songs, using some 50 watt Marshalls. He wasn’t a technical player but had a good ear, and knew that the song was the important thing. After moving back to the U.K., they started calling themselves The Shakedown Sound, and not long after, Silence. It was with this name they were discovered by Guy Stevens at Island Records, the man who would make fundamental changes to the band. The first thing was to decide Tippins was not the right guy to be the singer, so he stepped down and became the road manager while the band put out ads for a new singer saying “Singer wanted, must be image-minded and hungry. Soon they contracted singer/pianist Ian Hunter. It was also just around then when Stevens proposed a second change, to name the band Mott the Hoople as a homage to Willard Manus novel.


In May of ‘69 they went to the recording studio to cut their first record, Stevens knew exactly what he wanted, Bob Dylan in front of the Rolling Stones, and that’s what this first record sounds like. With Hunter still establishing himself, Ralphs gave the band its first great classic Rock & Roll Queen, a song the singer always thought had been the inspiration for Bitch of the Rolling Stones. The record never made commercial waves but the chemistry was working to perfection and the band was growing a fan base thanks to their magnificent concerts. Ralphs got Stevens to buy him a Les Paul Goldtop with two P90s for 200 quid and his Marshall amps were already double the wattage. In September 1969 they shared the ticket with another emerging group, Free with Paul Rodgers, it wouldn’t be the last time their paths crossed...

In 1970, amid innumerous concerts (more than 20 a month) they recorded their second album Mad Shadows, with Hunter gaining weight as a composer and Ralphs bringing another couple of songs, one of which he sings, Thunderbuck Ram. It didn’t reach the level of the debut but their live shows were getting better and they did their first American tour. On the road they would share the stage with bands such as the Kinks (they also did a cover of You Really Got Me), Ten Years After and Mountain. A band that would leave a lasting impression on Ralphs, especially guitarist Leslie West, this led him to find a Les Paul Junior which would become his main guitar.

For the recording of the 3rd album, they decided to replace Stevens and produce the records themselves. Ralphs and Hunter equally shared the tasks of composing, with 4 songs each, but it was the guitarist who opened both sides with the remarkable Whiskey Women and It Must Be Love. He’s back singing on the first one and shows that without being a virtuoso he had a knack for pretty effective riffs to spice up the perfection of his songs, as occurs on the acoustic Home Is Where I Want To Be.

During the promotional tour of the USA, in the spring of ‘71, Ralphs lost one of his guitars, but he would get one of his favourites, a ‘57 Fender Esquire with which he would write one his most popular songs, Can’t Get Enough. Ralphs showed the song to the band but Hunter told him politely that he wasn’t the right singer for it . In November of that year they started a tour of the U.K. with Peace, a new project by Paul Rodgers after his first split with Free. Ralphs and the singer would hit it off immediately, and the guitarist showed him a couple of songs he had written, one was Can’t Get Enough. The song fit Rodger’s rough voice like a glove, especially after Ralphs changed the tuning of his Esquire from G to C. The two had a lot in common, so they started writing material together. But it never went anywhere, Ralphs remained committed to Mott, and Free got back together in ‘72.  


This was Mott the Hoople's grandest year. The band was promoting Brain Capers, their best record to date, with songs like Death May Be Your Santa Claus, a dirty, wild number that could be considered an antecedent of punk. Their legion of fans, including a young Mick Jones (future guitarist for the Clash) followed them everywhere they went but hadn’t grown since their first record. Discouragement set in, and they could see with more clarity that success seemed to avoid them despite their enormous talent. It all hit bottom after a March tour that ended at a rundown gas station in Switzerland. On the return to England it all looked like Mott the Hoople was finished. So much so the bassman called David Bowie to try to join his band. But it turned out that Bowie, who was in his rise to fame with Ziggy Stardust, was one of their fans. In order to keep them together he offered them a song that would change everything, All the Young Dudes.

Suddenly the band was recording a new record on a new label with Bowie as producer. After trying Suffragette City, which didn’t work, Changes author showed them All the Young Dudes, and they all looked at him as if he were crazy, nobody gives a song that good away! All of a sudden their outlook changed and the band that was about to throw in the towel became a perfect rock and roll machine. Bowie gave the final arrangement but it was Ralphs who put the perfect intro in Dudes, his best work to date. He used a Gibson Firebird and his own style at the service of the song, he found one of the best songs in history.

The song was more than a success, becoming the official anthem of the ‘glam’ movement. Overnight this ‘hard rock’ band rebounded into the movement and began to dress accordingly. Glitter and platform boots made their appearance. Some, like Watts embraced the idea but Ralphs saw it as a distraction from the music. Success came with a price and Hunter became the visual image of the band. Although the contributions by Ralphs were still essential, like glorious Ready for Love, where the guitarist sang lead vocals, or his collaboration with Hunter on the rocker One of the Boys.

In a flash Hoople were a new sensation, catalogued as ‘glam rock’. But their singer never forgot the old times, Mott, their first record after the success of the one produced by Bowie, saw a band talking about the less glamorous side of rock and roll, about the losers and their countless hours on the road (the rock and roll circus is in town”). The record is proof that Mott the Hoople is one of the biggest bands in rock history, despite not having the reputation of others, to prove it just listen  to the glorious All the Way From Memphis, with its amazing sax solo by Andy McKay of Roxy Music, and another by Ralphs (his favourite of his career) to see why.

The record climbed into the ‘top ten’ on the charts when released in July ‘73, and also serves as the epitaph of the original lineup of the band. After cutting another of the band’s classics that month, Roll Away the Stone, Ralphs left to form Bad Company with Rodgers in August. The lineup was completed with Free drummer Simon Kirke, and bassman Boz Burrell, from King Crimson. They were one of the hottest supergroups of the 70s.

Their first record was released in 1974 and showed that Ralphs riffs and Rodgers’ voice was like a ring on a finger. Ralphs retake of Ready for Love from his time with Mott and put on the table two more perfect vehicles for the singer, Can’t Get Enough and Movin’ On. Ralphs’ simplistic style found its best spot on the spartan instrumentation of Bad Company, guitar, bass, drums, and voice. The record not only became a hit in their native country but also was top of the charts in the U.S..

The following year they repeated that success with the remarkable Straight Shooter, where you’ll find the irresistible Feel Like Makin’ Love, composed by Rodgers and Ralphs. However things started to go downhill with Run with the Pack and Burnin’ Sky, two albums that showed they had stalled and the well of great songs was drying up. Despite some sparks such as Rock N Roll Fantasy, the sad Rough Diamonds were proof that the magic had gone, and after a fistfight between Rodgers and Burrell the band broke up.

There would be new incarnations with other singers until in 1998, Rodgers came back into the fold. Since then there have been new reunions where Ralphs has balanced playing with Mott the Hoople and his own band.

In 2006 Ralphs suffered a stroke from which he has recovered from little by little, but Simon Kirke would admit that he would most certainly never play live again. A real shame because there was never enough of a guitarist that always put his gigantic songs ahead of his playing ability. It’s only normal if we talk about someone who decided to pick up a guitar after listening to the guitarist who best exemplifies serving the song and the singer, Steve Cropper.