Rock Album Review: Ian Hunter’s “Defiance Part I” — Miles To Go Before He Sleeps

By Jason M. Rubin

Now an octogenarian, Ian Hunter remains a gifted songwriter, a distinctive vocalist, and a man who truly has a rock and roll heart.

Defiance Part 1 is a perfect title for Ian Hunter’s new album; after all, he will turn 84 on June 3 yet he insists on putting out recordings that are far stronger than anyone his age and moderate level of fame has any right to. Until COVID, he had been delivering great albums every couple of years; Defiance Part 1 is part of that pandemic-era wave of releases more or less recorded virtually rather than with musicians gathered together in a studio. No matter, this recording boasts a stylistic cohesion that renders the nuts and bolts of how it came together moot. And how about that “Part 1” aspect of the title? Clearly, Ian Hunter still has miles to go before he sleeps.

Hunter has never been a household name (his biggest hit was the David Bowie-penned “All the Young Dudes,” which he recorded with Mott the Hoople, a band with perhaps less name recognition than Hunter himself), but he is a gifted songwriter, distinctive vocalist, and a man who truly has a rock and roll heart. His reputation in the industry is demonstrated by the list of guest artists who appear on this album, including Jeff Beck, Mike Campbell, Johnny Depp, Billy Gibbons, Taylor Hawkins, Todd Rundgren, Slash, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeff Tweedy, Waddy Wachtel, Brad Whitford, and some guy named Ringo Starr. Having lost Beck and Hawkins in the last year, it is especially fortunate that Hunter snagged them for this album while they were still here. Longtime collaborators Andy York (guitar), Andy Burton (keyboards), and Dane Clark (drums) are on hand as well.

Defiance Part 1 is Hunter’s 15th solo studio album since 1975. His formula has remained consistent: humanistic lyrics about life, love, and the crazy culture that we find ourselves in, served up via crunching rock and roll riffs or as tender, emotional ballads. His voice, which has always been sandpapery a la Rod Stewart and Bonnie Tyler, has not degraded much over the years; nor has his wit or candor. The fact that Defiance Part 1 is on the legendary Sun Records suggests that he is a living master who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It is possible that his refusal to go away quietly is also responsible for the fact that he has been married to the same woman for half a century; that’s about the only thing about him that isn’t rock and roll to the core.

Slash’s piercing guitar opens the album on the title track. Hunter sings the refrain, “Defiance defiance,” in almost a teasing way, as if he knows something we don’t (and he does). The couplet, “Too many winters of discontent/Took no advice, gave no consent,” says it all. The tune also features Metallica’s Rob Trujillo on bass. The next track, “Bed of Roses,” has Ringo on skins and ex-Heartbreaker Campbell on multiple guitars. Hunter’s voice is expressive as he sings about old times playing clubs. He opens with a clever pun (“We used to call it Camelot/With all the ladies of Shalott/The people liked to Lancelot/At the bed of roses”), then goes on to explain the dues he had to pay: “The boy stood on the burning deck/The strap was buriеd ’round my neck/My fingers bleeding on the frеts.” Ultimately, in his own cheeky way, he notes, “I was proud to be a thorn/In the bed of roses.”

Ian Hunter today. Photo: Ross Halfin

You’d think “No Hard Feelings,” which features Beck and Depp, would be a real burner, but it’s a ballad featuring a short but emotionally rich guitar solo. I could definitely have used more Beck, especially now, but it’s a nice song, and he does continue his keening guitar work in the outro. The next song, “Pavlov’s Dog,” is a Stone Temple Pilots reunion, with guitarist Dean DeLeo bringing the heat, along with his brother Robert on bass and Eric Kretz on drums.

Hunter and Todd Rundgren have collaborated on and off over the years; on “Don’t Tread on Me,” Todd lends rhythm and lead guitars, as well as background vocals. Rundgren has a habit of making other people’s songs sound like his own, here he respectfully defers. In fact, at the end of the third verse, Hunter sings, “Respect is the key/Don’t tread on me.”

The narrator of “Guernica” says he painted it, so that must make him Picasso, though the line “These are dangerous times for thinking” is entirely relevant in the present day.

While most of the big guest stars on this album make just one appearance, Taylor Hawkins drives all of the last three songs. On “Angel” he plays not only drums, but guitar, piano, and background vocals as well. Brad Whitford from Aerosmith adds slide guitar with Waddy Wachtel on lead. Though it’s a sweet love song (no frenetic drumming on what might have been Hawkins’ last recordings), Hunter’s cheek returns: “I always want my angels to be perfect/Except on Saturday.” “Kiss N’ Make Up” addresses the divisiveness in America today, with Billy Bob Thornton providing co-lead vocals and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons delivering a twangy solo. Finally, “This Is What I’m Here For” is a self-celebration of Hunter’s career and his continuing excellence: “All I wanted was a song I could sing/A little music and a band that could swing/These are a few of my favorite things,” he sings, later triumphantly proclaiming, “Well when I was thirty, I was over the hill/And fifty years later, I still kill ’em all … When I’m through I’ll notify you.”

Not mentioned anywhere in the packaging, an alternate version of an earlier song, “I Hate Hate,” which I prefer to the one that appears in the track listing, is tacked onto the end of what turns out to be the penultimate song. Frustratingly, it’s not a separate track, so if you just want to put “This Is What I’m Here For” on a playlist, you have to take both. That is an exceptionally minor quibble for what is probably going to be one of the best rock albums of the year — by anyone, no matter their age. Ian Hunter’s lifetime catalog shows us just how much exceptional music is lost when a first-rate artist dies young. Thank heavens Hunter’s still here, and still being defiant.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for nearly 40 years, more than half of which as senior creative lead at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency, where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His latest book, Villainy Ever After (2022), is a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

1 Comment

  1. Dean Prescott on October 26, 2023 at 3:27 pm

    Perfect article. Ian Hunter is a great master of songwriting from his heart. We are so very lucky to have him on Earth! Thank you Ian. Again Jason, great writing and the WHOLE article is spot on! Thank you!

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