We have lost the talents of too many musicians this year, including one, Overend Watts, whose passing went relatively unheralded.
The name Overend Watts may not ring with recognition among many music fans, but it certainly does for followers of the once mighty British band Mott the Hoople and for Phil Hendriks, the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist of the power pop and punk band the Stiffs.
Watts was a founding member and the bassist of Mott the Hoople, which released its first album in 1969 and hit it big in 1972 with their David Bowie-produced album All the Young Dudes. Watts’ posthumous first solo album, He’s Real Gone, was released last month by the innovative United Kingdom “heritage” label Angel Air, “where the artist has a voice.”
Angel Air “prides itself on eclectic re-releases,” but the new 14-song Overend Watts album is an initial release. The person who can best speak about it is Hendriks, who plays on the album, was responsible for post-production, and was Watts’ friend for more than 35 years.
Hendriks says Watts wrote all the songs on the album except for two covers: “Endless Night,” a demo recorded by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Group, and “He’d Be a Diamond” by the Bevis Frond.
Watts sang all the lead vocals on the album “and played pretty much everything on most of the album,” Hendriks says. “Whilst he’s best remembered as a bassist, Overend was a damned fine and inventive guitarist with a wild and unique style of his own. All the guitar solos are his, except for the twangy bits on ‘He’d Be a Diamond,’ which I added.
“He’d try his hand at most instruments and had a house literally crammed full of instruments and old gizmos, from original 1960s Stylophones to classic guitars, old synths, percussion, and everything in between. He didn’t care if it was worth 1 pound or 5,000 pounds if he could use it to get just one wild noise. At one point around 2001, he regularly talked about recording an album in which the combined purchase cost of all the instruments was limited to 100 pounds ($132 today) per song.”
On “She’s Real Gone,” the opening track of He’s Real Gone, the main keyboard line was played on “a cheap, old, plastic 1980s Casio synth-guitar, which had a built-in drum machine and a button you could hit to trigger the insane drum fills that you hear on the track,” Hendriks says.
On the sixth cut, “Prawn Fire on Uncle Sheep Funnel,” Watts played an old dulcimer that he found at an auction, though he didn’t have “a clue how to tune or play it,” Hendriks says. “Then he told me: ‘You wouldn’t believe it, son, but I found a book, How To Play The Dulcimer, at a car boot sale.”
Hendriks likens Watts to “a mad, musical scientist” surrounded by instruments “to concoct his own unique musical brew.”
Hendriks added “some sweetening on several of the tracks,” but, except for a bonus cut, the rest is all Watts with no accompanying musicians. The bonus cut is a Mott the Hoople demo of “Born Late ’58,” which features Dale Griffin on drums and Morgan Fisher on keyboards.
About six of the album’s songs “were more or less fully realized,” and several tracks were rudimentary demos, Hendriks says. “At Overend’s funeral, Peter Purnell from Angel Air records informed me that Overend had given the authorization to release his album after his death and left the instruction ‘Get Phil to finish it off!’ As flattered as I was to be bestowed with the honor of finisher, I had some trepidation how I could do that without the main man present and without access to all the multi-track recordings.”
Hendriks says Overend and his Mott the Hoople mates carved an important niche in rock-and-roll history.
“Mott the Hoople was a group that influenced many of the artists who went on influence other artists,” Hendriks says. “Artists like Morrissey, Billy Idol, Mick Jones of the Clash, David Bowie, Brian May, Joe Elliott from Def Leppard, and the New York Dolls were enthusiasts of the band, so Mott the Hoople undoubtedly had a role in the development of rock music.”
Hendriks first saw Mott (a short-lived successor to Mott the Hoople that featured Watts, Griffin, and Fisher) perform live at King George’s Hall in Blackburn, England, in 1976.
“I was a 14-year old kid attending my second rock concert and wasn’t entirely familiar with the group’s history or canon of work, but they knocked me out with their swagger, energy, volume, and showmanship,” Hendriks recalls. “Nigel Benjamin had replaced Ian Hunter on lead vocals by that stage, but they were still filling halls. Shortly after that concert, they dropped the Mott name, brought in John Fiddler on lead vocals, and became British Lions. I went to see them supporting AC/DC at the same venue around 1978, but they never showed up, and I’ve never found out why!”
In 2009, 40 years after their first album, Mott the Hoople reunited for some shows, and Hendriks was able to see them at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.
“Wattsie had been telling me for years that it would never happen,” Hendriks says. “It was an emotional experience not only for the music, but it also was the last time drummer Dale Griffin appeared on a stage with the band that he’d campaigned for years to reunite. Dale was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was, sadly, only fit to play on the encores.”
Mott the Hoople reunited for some more shows in England in 2013 with Martin Chambers of the Pretenders on drums. Hendriks saw them at London’s O2 Arena.
“It was another special moment, particularly because I knew Overend was recovering from his first bout of cancer treatment, which he’d kept quiet all the way through. It was also the only time my daughter got to see ‘Uncle’ Overend perform, so it was special for her, too. After all those years, it was emotional to see them playing the country’s biggest venue.”
Besides the Mott the Hoople shows, Hendriks says he’s been fortunate to see hundreds of great concerts, including ones by the Jam, the Clash, Blondie, Bruce Springsteen, and Rod Stewart.
“Ironically, one that has stuck in my mind as a particularly stellar moment was a 1977 show by the British band Mr. Big—not to be confused with a later American band of the same name,” Hendriks says. “Oddly enough, Mr. Big shared the same tour manager as Mott the Hoople (Stan Tippins); they had an album produced by Ian Hunter, and their bassist rented a room at Overend Watts’ home. They were musically as indefinable as Queen but were most famous in the U.K. for an acoustic ballad called ‘Romeo.’ As a live show, they rocked hard with an exciting two-drummer onslaught, unusual melodies and arrangements, and a controlled aggression that gave the impression the band was permanently teetering on the verge of a punch-up. Ironically, I recently spoke to one of the drummers, and he told me there had been a violent inter-band backstage brawl after the show that I saw!”
Humor—not violence—was the hallmark of Watts, who “shunned the idea of being a celebrity,” Hendriks says.
“Overend was a hilariously funny person to be around and had a really unique and irreverent sense of humor, frequently sprinkling spoonerisms into general conversation,” Hendriks recalls. “You’d have to pause for thought to unravel the spoonerism whilst he continued the conversation. One of my favorite examples came straight off the cuff when he was embarking on a lengthy walk and said: ‘I’ve just been checking the runtents of my cocksack’ (instead of the contents of my rucksack). Names got corrupted, too. Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols was always referred to as Old Man Gletlock, whilst glam rocker Alvin Stardust was re-christened Starvin’ Aldust.”
Watts manipulated and corrupted the spoonerisms into new words and often reversed humorous phrases such as “Why don’t you take a short walk on a long pier?” Hendriks says. “He retained his sense of humor right until the end. He told one close friend he couldn’t figure out how he’d survived the cancer for so long and added: ‘I don’t know what’s gone right with me!’ ”