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Not Quite Overnight Sensations - Part 2

The original impetus of Manfred's new direction was simple, a back to the roots type band. The cost of putting together a large type ensemble like Chapter III back out on the road was financially disastrous, doing a Paul Jones or Mike D'Abo project all over again was a step back and most importantly could Manfred survive the new decade after all he was not exactly giving his original fans quite what they wanted. A new audience was what he most needed, a new identity at this point was vital to his future survival.

An extensive rehearsal period followed. It seemed logical to record some songs targeted at the commercial rock market to somehow or other regain his flagging popularity. Manfred was one of the first musicians to experiment with a mini moog, a new keyboard instrument, of which he would later be renowned as the ultimate master. Once again signed up by Phonogram, this time to the Philips label, his first two singles, Bob Dylan's "Please Mrs Henry" and Randy Newman's "Living Without You", a minor hit in the States, were both relative commercial failures on these shores. Both were credited to simply Manfred Mann, however during the flight to a Dublin Gig a new name was debated. 'Head Band' was out for sounding too hippyish, 'Elastic Band' was out for sounding too silly. It was vegetarian and ecology enthusiast who finally suggested 'Earth Band'. The Group looked at each other and said "yeah that's it". 'Manfred Mann's Earth Band', their eponymous debut album appeared in February 1972. In my view interesting but somewhat muddled, though it was a step in the right direction.

There are some really nice bits 'Prayer' a reworking of 'Dealer Dealer' from the ''As Is'' album was for me the icing on the cake. The song was an early strong show opener and Captain Bobby Stout, though not that powerful on the album, was certainly very different live, where it hit hard and went on to become a live favourite for many years to come. Before long Manfred had abandoned his original commercial intentions and was quick to realise the potential in his Earth Band and decided 'that's my new direction, melodic progressive heavy rock'. MMEB had musically gelled together so quickly and had carved out a unique identity with Manfred and Mick improvising a lot on the instrumental passages by augmenting the lead solos. An early tour of Australia was soon underway.

For some strange reason the promoter reverted back to the Chapter III namesake and would you believe they received the distinction to tour with two on Britain's premier rock bands; Free and Deep Purple in a package deal. Apparently every night the Manfred's went down a storm. Towards the end of the tour they eventually one night headlined over the enormously popular Deep Purple, on their reputation alone.

Once back in old blighty MMEB recorded an 'in concert' for John Peel's Radio One in Concert. Three songs, 'Ashes To The Wind', 'Happy Being Me' and 'Black Betty' were previewed displaying an astonishing progression in such a short time. On the subject of these early tours between 1972-1975 MMEB supported ELP, ELO, ZZ Top. More diversely they also undertook a coast to coast tour with 'Bronze Label Mates' 'Uriah Heep' when Canadian superstars 'Rush' were third on the bill. Also in 1974 MMEB toured the States, this time round they topped the bill over 'Kiss', as well as fulfilling European tours with the 'Sensational Alex Harvey Band' and 'Hudson and Ford'.

It was also during the same year that Mick Rogers was to receive his perfect accolade when MMEB supported his mentor 'Frank Zappa'. This esteemed honour was to have a prolonged effect on the guitarist who was totally besotted with the late great musician. This was to be the proudest moment of Mick's entire career when Zappa personally invited him to play bass with him at a gig, something he has never quite recovered from. From that moment onwards it was Zappa, Zappa and more Zappa driving the rest of his colleagues nuts. Yes Mick was totally obsessed with the man to put it mildly.

As we all know MMEB Mk 1 stayed together for five and a half years, releasing six studio albums (the same length of time the 60's Manfred Mann had lasted). In my view this will always be the definitive line up, although I dearly love the band all the way through but somehow the original MMEB were something very, very special. I avidly remember the day when 'Solar Fire' was released. I waited impatiently at Cloud Nine record shop in Wimbledon for its arrival, bunked off school for the day, ran home to play it. For me it was MMEB's masterpiece. I will remember how I forged a sick note to my school so I could stay at home all week and played it over and over again. In fact all the other bands I liked, Heep, Argent, Gentle Giant, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Atomic Rooster and King Crimson all took a back seat for months. I must have played Solar Fire at least 400 times straight before I gave anything else consideration. A quarter of a century on it still stands as my favourite album of all time.

Anyhow by 1975, I witnessed Mick Roger's final show with MMEB at the Greyhound, Croydon. I had tickets for the Rainbow Theatre to see John Martyn, Kevin Coyne and Hatfield and the North, but I ended up giving my tickets away to a friend. Hell on earth wouldn't deter me from missing an MMEB gig.

I kept my eyes glued to the music press for further information and regularly phoned the Workhouse who were always very kind and helpful to me. By this time I had become a huge fan of U.S. heavyweights 'Blue Oyster Cult', and I was absolutely over the moon when MMEB paired up with them to co-headline a European tour with provisional British dates to follow, (with a pencilled in date at the Hammersmith Odeon Theatre in London). I think I ended up driving the Workhouse to a frazzle. sadly these gigs never took place on these shores.

Following the release of 'Nightingales and Bombers' in August 1975 a band meeting was called. Mick Rogers, still smitten with the Frank Zappa bug and increasingly wanting to steer the Earth Band into a jazz rock unit parted company by mutual consent. When I heard the news I was devastated. Would MMEB continue, and if they did would it ever be quite the same for me again? Would such an important band member ever be replaceable?

Auditions were soon underway. The best Manfred had heard so far, via the time honoured code of a demo tape, was an English born gentleman who had spent most of his life in New Zealand by the name of Chris Hamlet Thompson. Hamlet was deliberately double barrelled because there was another Kiwi singer of the same name who incidentally was the other Chris Thompson's next door neighbour (small world eh). Anyhow, when the vocalist finally made the audition stage he was promptly invited round to Manfred's house to sing his heart out. When Manfred answered the door, his would be hopeful applicant was to his horror sporting a Frank Zappa tee shirt. Manfred's initial reaction was 'Oh No' not again!

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