The Evolution of Manfred Mann
(article re-printed be kind permission of Classic Rock Society, issue 135, April 2003)
When does a professional musician of almost forty years decide to bring out the definitive double album and DVD set that covers all the hits and more? The answer is if he’s Manfred Mann he doesn’t because he lets his business partner do that for him and now was the time selected for such a package.
“ The truth is that if you’re functioning as a proper person and you go on for a long time, which I have, the past has built up more and more momentum and it sort of starts to have a life of its own. If you start concentrating on releases like this you don’t have any time to do anything else and so I kind of sidestep anything to do with history and just carry on working as a musician. You can’t do it because you’d forever be looking at the past doing compilations and that’s a ridiculous way to carry on,” explained Manfred. However, he still accepts that the past is still important.
“ The past is important to anybody but it starts to become too time consuming, you’re not living in the present and so it’s just a question of the time that’s involved in putting these things together. Over the years we know what’s happened with CD’s with compilations of different things and so it would be crazy to dwell on that, there just isn’t time.”
So it becomes immediately apparent that Manfred Mann still spends time out on the road with the Earthband and working on other projects and although it isn’t readily known the band are still active.
“ We do an awful lot of gigs but we don’t do them in the UK and that’s really down to the fact that there’s not that much interest, although when we do play there’s an enormous enthusiasm for the current group. We did play recently in England and they were really good gigs and people really liked them. We may well at some time start doing a little bit more but in fact we do work but it’s simply because people don’t get to hear us in the UK. Germany is where we work most and Scandinavia too.”
The reasons for the lack of enthusiasm in the UK for many of the ‘classic’ bands is a mystery to some and more obvious to others but Manfred doesn’t agree that it is down to ‘Pop Idol’ syndrome.
“ No I’m not sure it is down to that but I think it’s more like TV trying to tell us that and magazines. I think actually people are buying David Gray and I think at the end of the day the public can’t be fooled for too long with rubbish. You always get the odd year and that took place even in the past. When I was growing up and listening to jazz the No. 1 was ‘All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth’ which was in the late 1950’s, so there’s always been stuff around that we didn’t like. I think the worst thing now is that a lot of it is made by machines and people are using computers and all sort of midi computer timing to do it with and it’s that sort of mindless computer thing that’s particularly bad. I kind of accept all sorts of things if there’s a drummer playing but when you get a machine playing and it’s bad it seems to be particularly bad.”
As Manfred admits himself many people didn’t know that Manfred Mann was the keyboard player in the band and in fact he believes some still don’t know, but for many he is seen as an innovator of the use of the synthesiser in pop/rock, something that he is quick to play down.
“ It’s a big word is innovator, I think that I just found a way of playing a mini-moog and found a way of using it. I sound like me and nobody else and for some reason or other it’s quite nice if you ever find a style specific to you and so I think I just find a style on the thing, I wouldn’t call me an innovator. I just found a style and a way of playing that was very personal. If anyone’s heard Manfred Mann’s Earthband records and I get up to that instrument I can play almost anything and people would know it’s me as opposed to Rick Wakeman or opposed to somebody else.”
To those old enough to remember, Manfred Mann came to public attention with his Manfred Mann band in the 60’s and celebrated hits like ‘5-4-3-2-1’ (64), ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’ (64) and ‘Pretty Flamingo’ (66), to name a handful. I remember my parents buying these records and at a young age loving the music. When the 70’s arrived I found Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd but I also found the MkII Manfred Band in the form of the Earthband and, personally, Mann was up there with the Tony Banks’ of this world.
“ Well I think in the UK pop is the thing that is most remembered. Rick Wakeman is not remembered for anything like ‘Do Wah Diddy, neither is Tony Banks, neither is Keith Emerson, they’re not associated with that kind of thing. You could even see the difficulty with someone like Jeff Beck with ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, it’s always there for him, so I think the first thing in everybody’s head for me was actually that and then second of all the truth was that even in the progressive Manfred Mann’s Earthband era the thing that catapulted us to the success we had were still hit singles like ‘Blinded By The Light’ and ‘Davy’s On The Road Again’. Whereas Genesis were perhaps making better albums than us, even though I was probably playing interesting keyboards on our albums, so I think the mass audience, the mass progressive audience just didn’t hear me as a keyboard player, which is I suppose one of the failures of my career, that I’m not known widely as a keyboard player and yet that’s what I’m most interested in. That’s what I’m most focused on even now, I practice every day and am thinking of doing
things in the future which are much more keyboard based. I’ve always found that in practice the route to success for say Keith Emerson may have been being a keyboard player – and he’s a particularly good and agile keyboard player – where as the route for me was always through people singing songs. So we took a different route; I was right in a way because if I hadn’t done that people wouldn’t have known about me at all because we would have failed if I handed done ‘Blinded By The Light’ and ‘Davy’s On The Road Again’, we wouldn’t have succeeded. Also my keyboard playing, if you think it’s good, is also good in a limited way, it’s good on synthesiser playing a particular kind of sound. It’s a very specialised sort of thing whereas people like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson are much wider players and they play a wider range of music, whereas I’ll set up a band playing and then play a kind of subtle keyboard solo, that’s my kind of thing. I won’t do big orchestrations on keyboards or have me rushing round the keyboards, that’s not what I do,” explained Manfred even though it didn’t change my opinion of him being an innovator of the synthesised keyboard sound.
One thing that Manfred does admit to is, in his own words, not being good enough to play classical keyboard. He laughed, “No I’m no good at that, you’ve got to be better than me. It’s just true whereas Keith Emerson and Rick carry that stuff off with a degree of confidence and conviction. I just can’t, I’m basically a jazz player and never really got in to the other stuff.”
One thing that many kids of the 50’s and 60’s will remember is that shows like Ready, Steady, Go and Top Of The Pops were transmitted in black and white until colour TV appeared at the back end of the 60’s. Psychologically all of a sudden the music and the bands became even more interesting to the viewer/listener but as Manfred mused this didn’t make much difference to them.
“ Well the thing about Top Of The Pops when you’re there it’s already in colour,” he laughed, “so for me it was always in colour but I do know what you mean.”
The demise of Manfred Mann to become Manfred Mann’s Earthband created a very wide dividing line as the band effectively became progressive, something that Manfred agrees with.
“ There was an enormous dividing line. The problem was that the Manfred Mann group had had a wide wealth of talent in it; people like Mike Hugg and Mike Vickers were really, really good musicians and were even better than even fans of theirs recognise. Mike Hugg’s a superb musician and even in the 60’s we were doing some weird, strange stuff but we never managed to make that saleable. The only thing we managed to make saleable was the pop music. Now the cleverness, genius or the brilliance of people like The Who when they did more rock orientated stuff they made it also commercial in a way, I don’t mean commercial in a bad way, but it was just good enough. When the Beatles did some strange records it was so good it succeeded. When we did strange stuff it just never did, it was strange and it didn’t have, unfortunately, the appeal. That even happened with Earthband; you listen to Pink Floyd and they do ‘The Wall’ and it’s superbly brilliant and commercial record at the same time, like ‘Money’. They also managed to have it as a record that the general public would like and I’ve never kind of managed that, with me the general public always liked the cued song or the song even if ‘Blinded By The Light’ wasn’t cued you can kind of sing along with it, the catchy thing. I’ve never been able to quite do that where you do something that’s not just a pretty tune, and I’m not putting them down those pretty tunes, but more than a pretty tune that’s got more depth and more complexity or more sort of edge, whatever the word is you use and yet somehow it still gets across to people, I’ve never been able to do that.”
When I put it to Manfred that role reversal might suggest that the Manfred’s had something that Genesis and Floyd didn’t have with the flow of hit singles he was quick to say, “I think I’d rather have had what they had,” he laughed loudly, “they were a lot better. Pink Floyd are in a different category to us and that’s obvious.”
When luck and being in the right place at the right time is used as an excuse by myself on Manfred’s behalf he is quick to quell any such thoughts. “No I don’t agree with that, I don’t believe in luck. I’ve never met anyone who got no luck, I’ve never seen anyone with no luck, I’ve never met anyone as good as Bruce Springsteen who failed, or Elton John who wrote songs and languished. I’ve heard lots of people tell me that there’s this great songwriter but he doesn’t push himself. Obviously there’s a right place and right time if you try and invent a really good horse trap now it’s not going to work because today there are motor cars. I think generally speaking the talent is recognised and I think Pink Floyd have succeeded and no one makes anyone buy the records. They made absolutely brilliant albums and I think people, sort of, overall get what they deserve, unless they’re completely crazy. There are some people who I wouldn’t work with because when a guy gets drunk he beats up everybody else in the band, so there were cases of, ‘this guy’s a good singer,’ and I’ve said, ‘no, I’m not even going to phone him up because the guy’s violent.’ So there are times when personality might rob opportunity but I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t get some luck. I might say that my career has been a triumph of hard work over talent because I don’t think I’m one of the brilliant guys around, I just use my judgement to make good records. I think it’s a miracle I’ve been as successful as I have been to be honest.”
One talent that Manfred certainly has is being able to select a song written by a more famous person and then making that song successful, i.e. Springsteen’s ‘Mighty Quinn’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’ and Dylan’s ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ to name a few.
“ Well of course it’s a talent but it’s not one of the major talents, I’d rather have been able to write them. Don’t get me wrong I’m not being modest here, I’ve got good judgement of what I’m good at which is why I’ve been successful and if I thought I was a brilliant songwriter I’d be a failure. I suppose that’s honest but I’m quite proud of that I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at, I know what I can half do, I’m a very good arranger, that’s what I’m good at. I’m not a great songwriter and I can’t sing but it’s not that I’m that clever it’s just that some other people have been a bit thick, they missed some really good songs that they could have recorded,” he laughed.
‘ The Evolution of Manfred Mann’ is a rare collection in as much as not many other bands have been able to pull together so many great songs, instantly recognisable hits by an excellent cast of musicians. To be blunt the album is colourful! “Well I suppose so and the other thing is that not many people can go back that far. As time goes by there’s less of them breathing and more of them below ground. I suppose you’re right but it’s sort of difficult for me to relate to, it seems so long ago it almost seems like someone else did it. It’s like in some other era of my life, it’s like I did them in South Africa, another country. You look at your life in South Africa, where was that, was that the same person? The 60’s are a little bit like that for me, it’s so long ago and did I really do that, but I think the thing about 60’s records is that the technology being what it was everybody had to play at the same time. You didn’t have the opportunity to overdub and that did give it a kind of life. I’m sort of doing something that involves me as an instrumental group, sort of maybe doing some very old songs in a kind of jazz-rock way and at some point I might form another group in addition to what we’re doing and I listened to some of the great rock songs or things that were huge hits. I’d listen, for example, to ‘Good Vibrations’ and then I would listen to ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and it’s Frankie Goes To Hollywood that sounds dated, not the Beach Boys. What it is it’s the early parts of technology and so the intermediate technology and the stuff that happened after the 60’s actually stopped some of the spirit in music and so if you listen back there’s a spirit to ‘She Loves You’, everyone’s in the same room just belting it out. ‘Do Wah Diddy’s’ the same, we all stood in the room and played. Later on you’ve got, prior to the computer age, people overdubbing and when you overdub you’re never really in time because you don’t slow up and speed up together. So, there was an advantage in that old technology and when you overdub too much you lose something and it’s very subtle.”
Regrets? Well Manfred regrets not being able to have made some of the more interesting or odd music more successful. “I had the ability to do the strange things but I never had the ability to make it successful. I think that’s the regret, if there’s any. The other is that I’m not generally recognised as a keyboard player, but generally speaking I can’t believe I ever managed to buy one house that I can live in with the results of playing keyboards. I can remember being at school and wondering whether you’d ever be able to earn a living in England or even stay there doing anything, or whether I would have had to stay in South Africa.”
Manfred Mann’s Earthband continues while Manfred has been working on an album “for ages.” He hopes to finish that this year while continuing to enjoy the gigs Earthband do. “I like playing live, it’s a real thing opposed to a thought process. I might also be doing another new project in a different situation in a year or so.”
Manfred Mann was asked about the Earthband playing for the CRS sometime in the future and seemed amazed asking, “Do people play, does it happen. It’s a proper gig is it?” he said. “I’d never even heard about it,” he exclaimed. His comments were obviously nailed upon the point that the live music scene is all but dead and sadly people like Manfred and Roger Chapman know that they are more likely to make a living in Germany playing live rather than the UK. There’s only the punter to blame for that, as we all know at the CRS.