UK Interview 1977
Decisions, decisions. For Manfred Mann, there are always decisions.
Backstage at a gig in Southern Germany, he announces a dilemma; "How can I go to the toilet?" he asks. "People will see me".
Manfred has just changed into his stage costume. To be precise, he has
swapped a blue T-shirt for a red one. Changing T-shirts hardly transforms Manfred's appearance. Whether in blue or red, still he looks like a bemused beatnik who took a wrong turn on an Aldermaston march. Manfred,
though, obviously sees things a little differently. It's as though Clark Kent has stepped into a phone box, but still wants to remain incognito despite his codpiece and tights. Hence, the toilet dilemma.
architect of the Donauhalle in the town of Ulm has failed to pencil in a can in easy reach of the star dressing room. Indeed to strain the potatoes one is obliged to cross the stage area in full view of the audience. No
problem, if you're wearing a blue T-shirt, but in a red one, it's a problem. Manfred finds the answer in his overnight bag. An anorak that appears to be made out of silver foil. Manfred goes glitter? Not quite. The foil
is merely the lining, designed to keep out extremes of climate. He zips himself in, and, collar hunched around him, makes for the door, looking furtive.
You may be wondering why Manfred should wish to encourage
debate about his ablutions. It's a little unhip after all. Hardly the sort of thing you would expect from Robert Plant or Ritchie Blackmore or Keith Richard. But that's Manfred. A curious mixture of perplexity,
authority, and self-mockery. Manfred describes himself as "a living rock legend." It's another little joke. Perhaps.
Manfred has just enhanced that legend by scoring a number one single with Bruce
Springsteen's 'Blinded By The Light'. And as he once performed the same trick with Dylan's 'Mighty Quinn', this latest feat rather encourages the view that Springsteen is the new Dylan....
On the other hand, maybe it
just shows that Manfred hasn't lost that ear for a great song that served him so well in the 60's, when he latched up no fewer than 15 hit singles. Naturally, you'd expect a rock legend with a No.1 American single to
ponder the next step. Weighty debate about tactics and policy would come as no surprise. But Manfred's decision making has a range and momentum that goes somewhat further. He tends to agonise aloud over the very
minutiae of existence.
"How can I go to the toilet?" he will ask. "people will see me".
When they come to film the Manfred Mann story, the parts a natural for Dustin Hoffman, re-running his
Benjamin routine from The Graduate. Except that Hoffman doesn't doesn't look like Manfred, and Manfred's naivety is only partly genuine. Mainly it's an elaborate put-on, a defence mechanism, designed to confuse and
amuse potential detractors.
He also frequently adopts the role of the loser musician, offering astute little sketches of life on the road. "How about coming out for a night with the boys?" he says, after
the gig. "Have a tragic little evening sitting in the corner of the club".
So here we are, on the road with Manfred Mann's EarthBand, who were big in Germany before "Blinded" made them big in the
States. A chance to assess the band's long term potential. Will "Blinded" prove to be no more than a brief reminder of former glories? Or is it a major new rock band about to establish itself in the big
Whatever, no sooner have we checked in our Ulm hotel that there's a graphic example of Manfred's obsessive commitment to his music. He has a keyboard set up in his room and is instructing the guitarist in the
intricacy of an instrumental break he's thought up for a new number. He's been working on the song since before he left London three weeks before, and in his own words, "we've changed it every night."
idea is that a chunk of be-bop should spring from the middle of the song, in contrast to the rock riff on which the tune hangs. And he's so keen on the idea he's virtually jiving in his seat as he plays. Upon arrival at
the concert hall the band immediately rehearse the song again, by the way of a sound check. You wonder whether Manfred is perhaps a perfectionist who's gone over the top.
Chris Thompson (guitar, lead vocals) says:
"A person who's had Manfred's amount of success, followed by success all over again, just has to be someone special. You may want to go down to the shops, he just wants to go over an arrangement again. He's always
talking about the music. But working with him is always a laugh." He's not autocratic, in any way? "He's not at all bossy. He analyses himself in the same way he analyses other people. He recognises his own
mistakes. He's always willing to listen."
Manfred explains his approach: "Some very talented bands know exactly what they want and go straight for it. I struggle, sweat and strain and move in ever
decreasing circles around my objective until I get there. Frequently I hover around songs like a vulture over a carcass."
We start a formal interview. I've been warned that Manfred is a tough interviewee. The
warnings prove uncannily accurate. It's as though he becomes a different person when confronted with a journalist's cassette. After 15 years, he's no doubt well aware of the dangers of misrepresenting himself.
The first signs that we're in for a rough time are his avoidance of eye contact and his apparent absorption in the latest issue of a trade paper...
Well, Manfred, congratulations on a No.1 single in the States. What
took you so long? "It's not the sort of decision one takes. You'll have to ask the American public. I mean, you just work, and one day people will buy your record. One wasn't aiming exclusively in that direction.
"We've been concentrating most of our energies on other aspects of our work, tracks that last five or 10 minutes. Also it's a different style of music now. The band's changed slightly since the '60's."
surely this renewed success indicates a change of tactics? Manfred went through a phase at the end of the 60's when he deliberately moved away from hit singles to concentrate on more ambitious music. For some reason,
discussion of his musical policy seems to anger him. So I say: "I have a feeling that at one time you had distaste for commercial songs. Have you now lost that distaste?"
Manfred starts shouting: "It's
a lovely question. Great (to the band). You must observe this: "I have a feeling you once had a distaste". Starting off with a degree of uncertainty, then assuming that this is the case. Now, I'm meant to
answer you assumption as if it is fact. Fuck Off".
From being relatively friendly, the interview has degenerated into flat-out abuse. And that's after two questions. Manfred continues: "Unfortunately the
answer is the same as the answer to your first question. One wasn't aiming that way. That's not to say one had distaste for singles, only the wrong kind of singles. One wanted singles that fitted the band."
dogged reporter plods on with a question about what sustained Manfred in the years of failure. "I decided that I enjoyed being on the road more than writing film music and TV commercials - the other alternative
available in the early '70's. The leisured life of a composer in London didn't suit me. There are aspects of travel that I dislike, but on the whole I prefer being on the road to doing anything else."
This answer is less unpleasant, but certainly no more revealing. He stayed on the road because he preferred it. Surprise, surprise.
The reporter decides to try to outflank Manfred with a little aggro of his own.
Earlier Manfred had spoken disparagingly of the band's "cosmic lyrics". Was he cynical towards what the band offered the public?
"It's merely a healthy ability to laugh at oneself. There's a fine line
between being pretentious and being natural. That's the line we walk. As for me being cynical, anyone who is the least bit intelligent is accused of being cynical, unless he goes around with an insane grin on his face
24 hours a day."
In the course of the next question, the reporter attempts to go for the jugular by calling Manfred "a confident intellectual".
Question: "As a confident intellectual, why do
you sell yourself short? You put other people's songs on the A-side of your album. You sing very little on the album. You call the band Manfred Mann's EarthBand as an apparent gesture to democracy."
(spoken with intonation of disgust): "First of all, I don't feel I'm a confident intellectual. I'm an intelligent, confident human being perhaps, but intellectual, not at all. An intellectual is a guy unable to see
the essence of a simple issue. The quality that marks me out, I think, is that I have very good judgement and that's as high as my ability goes. My judgement tells me that "Blinded By The Light", written by
Bruce Springsteen, is better than "On The Road To Babylon" or "This Side Of Paradise", written by us. I think you'd have to agree that "Singing The Dolphin Through", written by Mike Heron
is better than anything on the second side. That's what my judgement tells me."
Okay, so why do you do so little singing? (Manfred sings the duet on the last stretch of "Blinded"). "I'm not a good
singer. I thought my voice would fit "Blinded By the Light". You needn't be a good singer to sing a little bit, but you need to be a good singer to sing all the while. In this case, my voice was a good
contrast to Chris Thompson's unpleasant, gruff, big hero voice."
Chris Thompson shouts something abusive across the room.
So why is the band called the Earth Band? Is it a gesture to democracy? "Well the
word 'band' rhymes rather well with the word 'Mann', we thought." The interview continues in this fashion for some time, a wearing bout of verbal pugilism. Curiously, when the cassette is switched off, Manfred
reverts to normality. No more paranoia. Instead, there are abundant jokey reflections on the state of the music business, followed by appeals not to quote him. In many way's it's sad. When Manfred is talking for public
consumption, he's guarded, secretive, unpleasant. When he's talking privately, he's frank, open and amusing. The mask is uglier than the face.
As Manfred's band prepare to go on stage, a man with close cropped grey
hair appears to be putting on a pair of combinations. He's Chris Slade the drummer, and it transpires that the outfit is a Kung Fu outfit. Chris Slade is into martial arts, particularly karate and Zen archery. He
explains that the point of Zen archery is not simply hitting the target, but the way you pull the bow. Which is of course true of many things. Chris is known as 'The Guru'. He does not smoke, drink, visit clubs, or eat
meat. Instead he does yoga and meditates.
Does he feel better for it? He says he does - but people keep asking him why he looks so ill. Chris Slade and the bass player Colin Pattenden have been with Manfred the
longest, and both have similar backgrounds. Chris played drums in Tom Jones' group The Squires, and Colin with Englebert Humperdinck's backing band. Colin recalls that Humperdinck still owes his father £5 for petrol.
When Englebert was still called Gerry Dorsey, Colin's dad took them both to a gig in his car. Not that it matters much now, he says.
The EarthBand take the stage to a massive roar. And it's soon clear that Manfred is
no spotlight hog, he has five keyboards, and two are positioned as some sort of screen to hide him from the crowd. All you can see is that bespectacled, scholarly face peering over the top, like an eccentric professor
at a lectern. In fact, he does a quirk little dance behind the Hammond organ, but you can't see that from the crowd.
Equally the show is not given over to endless keyboard solo's. Rather the set consist of melodic
songs, with a rich attacking, ensemble sound. Manfred takes solos, but no more than lead guitarist Dave Flett. Both men favour fast, aggressive flurries of notes which gather momentum from the songs that support them.
No one outstays his welcome.
The front man is vocalist Chris Thompson. On vinyl his voice suggests a mix between Rod Stewart and Elton John. But on stage, the name that suggests itself is Paul Rodgers of Bad Company,
though arguably Thompson has more range and volume.
The biggest number is inevitably "Blinded By The Light", but a number of others run it close. Dylan's "Father of Day, Father of Night", recorded
three years ago being among the most powerful. The only song that can possibly top the reception accorded "Blinded" is "Mighty Quinn", a British No.1 for Manfred in 1968. That's the encore, and the
crowd go bananas. These days it's an excuse for the band to power through some instrumental breaks as well, but it's the appeal of the chorus that counts.
The gig over, there are no wild scenes of triumph. Colin
Pattenden makes everyone a cup of tea, Manfred says he's finally worked out the best possible chord sequence for his new song, and then everyone pelts off down the autobahn for the earthly delights of Munich. At the
Munich Hilton half the party decide they'd rather not go out again as it's 1:30am, and opt instead for a further pot of tea. The more adventurous spirits venture forth into the night.
The next day's gig is in an
equally obscure town - Hof, two miles from the East German border. The Freiheitshalle is yet another sport hall, capable of holding three to four thousand people. But while Ulm was a full house, Hof is not expected to
deliver. Not that anyone's worrying much. Manfred is announcing that once again he's come up with the answer to his problem over that chord sequence for his new song, and Chris Thompson is amusing himself with his dead
bears. Someone at some gig somewhere noticed a choice piece of graffiti on a dressing room wall. "Manfred Mann's EarthBand fuck dead bears", it said. No one in the band is more amused by this than Chris
Thompson. He suggests the next EarthBand tour should be called "Dead Bears Over Europe". It is he feels, a joke that is built to last. Manfred is less convinced. But Chris is unabashed.
He spent most of his
life in New Zealand, coming to Britain three years ago and quickly getting lucrative session jobs singing on TV commercials. "You only need one session for American television a month. You get a huge amount for
three hours work. So you only need a few sessions to live quite well. I was very lucky." He still does ads but the EarthBand is his main concern. Suddenly he's the voice on an American No.1 Was that hard to cope
with? "There's not much to cope with, really," he says. "Everyone's so down to earth in this band. There are no heads in the clouds. If anyone gets excited, Manfred keeps them in line." Dave Flett
was driving a laundry van, as well as playing in local bands before Manfred gave him a month's trial - which just happened to be on an American tour...
At the Hof Freiheitshalle, the jury is somewhat muted. No more
than two thousand people have turned out, which leaves some floor boards on display. A few punters bop to the set's most commercial tune, and the applause has enough momentum to carry the encore. But the mood is
generally a downer.
A dignified dinner follows at Hof's most splendid hostelry, the Hotel Strauss, and the band and road crew trough it into the wee small hours. Colin Pattenden enthuses over the wine, entering into
careful negotiations with the record company representative over who should pay for the bottles. Colin is a wine buff, and used to bear the brunt of Manfred's mockery on this score.
"Then one day, we noticed
that the jokes had stopped," says Chris Slade. "And we discovered that Manfred had joined the Wine Club." During dinner, Manfred is prompted to recall an incident from the 60's, when he was a famous face.
He'd had a car crash on the A1. He was slumped over the steering wheel, both collar bones broken, blood pouring from his mouth. A workman ran up to the car, looked inside, saw the casualty, and said "hey, it's
Manfred Mann. Give us your autograph, Manfred."
The final gig of the tour is Nuremburg. And on arrival Manfred announces that he has finally got the right chord sequence for his new song. The news is greeted
with polite indifference. The band play a driving, energetic set, determined to end the tour triumphantly. By the end of the third song, another by Springsteen "Spirits In The Night", they're already taking
little bows in response to the audience's noisy approval.
By the time they get to "Quinn" they're playing so hard that Chris Slade barely notices a firework that's lobbed out of the audience. It hits him on
the shoulder, exploding noisily, burning his shirt. He never misses 'a beat. For good measure, this is a two encore show. "We never play a second encore." says Manfred. "We can't follow our first
encore." Just so the kids get the message, the lights go up after "Quinn", and a tape plays "Land of Hope and Glory". Go home kids.
But they don't. A good eight minutes of hysteria ensues,
and the band return to bash out an ad hoc oldie that creaks a little from disuse. The champagne in the dressing room is drunk as though it was earned.
On the plane home the next day, Manfred is thinking aloud about
decisions. Not quite taking decisions you understand. Just thinking about them. There is the decision about the next single. The decision about the order of the set for the American tour due to start in three weeks
time. There's the decision about the future of the recording studio he's got a stake in. Of one thing however, he is certain. He's rejected all earlier possibilities. This is the big one. He's finally and irrevocably
got the chords right for this new song. Decisions, decisions, for Manfred Mann, there's always decisions.