Let Me Tell You About The Manfreds

The canonisation of the 1960s has meant that there are few bands who have been forgotten. What’s left of The Who and The Rolling Stones can still fill a stadium when a tax bill falls due, whilst the remaining Beatles continue to occupy a place in our culture somewhere between the royal family and God. But everybody has their place. Bands who barely scraped the charts – The Creation, for example – have been re-evaluated, re-appraised and repackaged over the years, and our enlightened digital musical times have begun the end of the culture of “guilty pleasures.”

Still, though, the musical legacies left behind by some are considerably longer than those left by others, and not all bands have ever been created the same. For every Beatles or Stones, there are ten Fourmosts or Pacemakers, bands left behind by pop music’s rapid shift from two minute bursts of fresh air to something more cerebral. Sitting right in the middle of that mix, however, is one of the decade’s more unusual bands, one that skirted the critical re-evaluations of the 1990s and which remains the closest thing that a musical decade that has been scrutinised as though be electron microscope has to an enigma. It’s all about Manfred, man.

Born in South Africa in 1940, Manfred Lubowitz studied music at the University of Witwatersrand and played the piano in jazz clubs before moving to London in 1961. Taking a job writing for Jazz News meant a pseudonym, and Manfred Lubowitz became Manfred Manne (named for the jazz drummer Shelly Manne), losing the “e” from his surname when he teamed up with drummer and keyboard player Mike Hugg to form The Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers, pun presumably unintended. Originally a band with a sprawling membership (which included Graham Bond, whose later band The Graham Bond Organisation would be the meeting place for Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who would end up forming the rhythm section for Cream, alongside Eric Clapton), the band would end up settling as a five-piece with Tom McGuinness playing the bass guitar, Mike Vickers the guitar, and Paul Jones, a singer who’d already turned down the attempts of Keith Richard and Bill Wyman to audition for their new band.

Signed to HMV records in 1963, the band was approached by the commercial television company Associated-Rediffusion to provide the title music to its new music television show Ready Steady Go. They replied with 54321, which combined lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with a restless, Bo Diddley-esque, rhythm and blues shuffle. The song reached number five in the charts, but with the exposure that came with this early success came pressures. Richmond left and was replaced by Tom McGuinness, and the contradiction that sat at the heart of the band came in 1964, when the schlager of Do Wah Diddy Diddy got to the number one spot in the charts, while their debut album, The Five Faces of Mann, displayed their musical chops and preference towards jazz and blues when left to their own devices.

The frothy hit singles continued apace, but by 1966 it was clear that this was not a band as a “gang”, as so many of their contemporaries were. Paul Jones had stage ambitions, while Mike Vickers’ orchestral ambitions were also unlikely to be kept in check by the band’s output of the time. Jones’ last hurrah with the band was a second number one single, Pretty Flamingo, and Vickers left shortly afterwards. Tom McGuinness shifted from bass to guitar and Jack Bruce briefly filled that vacancy – it’s him playing the bass guitar on Pretty Flamingo – before being replaced by Klaus Voorman, a friend of the Beatles who’d spent part of 1966 designing the now-iconic cover for their album of that year, Revolver. Mike D’Abo, who almost tasted success with his previous band A Band of Angels, replaced Jones as the singer.

This period of maelstrom didn’t end with personnel changes, either. 1966 also saw the band move to the Fontana record label, whereupon they came under the wing of Shel Talmy, a producer who’d already had considerable success in the UK with a CV that already included two of the defining songs of the decade, You Really Got Me by The Kinks and My Generation by The Who. Talmy’s production saw the band shift its sonic palette a little further away from the already dated-sounding rhythm and blues that had been so instrumental in getting them famous in the first place. Singles such as Semi-Detached Surburban Mr James (which had its protagonist’s name changed from Jones to James at the last minute, lest anybody think it a barb aimed at their former singer), Ha Ha Said The Clown, and Just Like A Woman pitching the band as Dylan-tinged bubblegum with a hint of Kinks-esque detached observation about them, even though the lyrical content to this particular song has aged badly, to say the least.

Quinn The Eskimo had been recorded by Bob Dylan as part of his Basemant Tapes Sessions during 1967. Described by Dylan as a “simple nursery rhyme” and, having been picked up by the band and in the hands of producer Mike Hurst, their version of it, under the name of The Mighty Quinn, was released at the very end of the year. It’s arrival at the number one spot gave the band the unsual record of having had number one singles with two different singers. It remains probably both their best-known song and their best work, a charming slice of bubblegum pop underpinned by D’Abo’s sardonic reading of Dylan’s original lyric, flute from Voorman, and Mann’s heavy keyboard sound.

By this time, though, the early adrenaline shot of D’Abo’s arrival was starting to wane. The band would produce the soundtrack to the film adaptation of the 1963 Neil Dunn novel Up The Junction – which had already been adapted for television by Ken Loach for the BBC in 1965 – and three more top ten singles, My Name Is Jack, Fox On The Run, and Ragamuffin Man, all reached the top ten in the UK, but by this time the different directions in which the band members were pulling would lead to its demise. With their last two albums having failed to reach the charts altogether, Manfred Mann split up in 1969.

Mann and Hugg formed the experimental jazz-rock band Manfred Mann Chapter Three – whose biggest achievement would be The Travelling Lady, a blues song which had already featured under the name of “A B-Side” on the reverse of Ragamuffin Man and would also be used on a television advertisement for cigars – immediately afterwards, but the band was later described as an “overreaction” to the pop leanings of his 1960s incarnation and split in 1971. Mann would eventually find further success during the 1970s with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which would reach the UK top ten with Joybringer and hit the number one spot in America with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded By The Light in 1977.

Mike D’Abo had written and produced Handbags & Gladrags for Chris Farlowe in 1967, and this song would also be recorded by Rod Stewart a couple of years later. It would go on, of course, to become familiar to many when a plaintive instrumental version of the song was used as the title music to The Office in 2000. He would go on to write another big hit single, Build Me Up Buttercup, with Tony Macauley, before flitting between film work, occasional forays into the recording studio, and radio work. Tom McGuinness found chart success with the folk-rock band McGuinness-Flint in the early 1970s, while Mike Hugg would move into film and television work, the most fondly-remembered of which is probably his 1972 title music to Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.

And what of Paul Jones, the singer who left in 1966 in search of fame and fortune? Well, he starred opposite Jean Shrimpton in the 1967 film Privilege, but his career became something of a hotchpotch of music, television and theatre work throughout the 1970s before he went back to somewhere near his roots by hosting The Blues Show on BBC Radio 2 in 1985. He stayed in this position for thirty-two years before being replaced last year by Cerys Matthews. Without Mann – who now divides his time between London and Sweden – the other members of the band joined the nostalgia circuit in 1991 as The Manfreds (occasionally with both Jones and D’Abo singing) and continue to tour to this day.

Even at the height of their success during the 1960s, though, Manfred Mann fell between several stools. They weren’t quite pretty enough as an ensemble to be a pure pop band, but at the same time the music which was their natural home was the building blocks to the great pop bands of the era rather than that actual pop environment itself, whilst The Byrds ended up as the band most readily associated with reworkings of Bob Dylan songs. By the end of the 1960s, they were a little old for the relative bubblegum of their later output, and without a dedicated songwriter even pinning them down with a style is specific. Indeed, at half a century’s remove, it might even be argued that Manfred Lubowitz spent much of the 1960s as a fish out of water, waiting for the 1970s to start. Jazz and progressive rock always felt like more comfortable circles for him to be moving within.

Perhaps the prism through which to view Manfred Mann is as one of the 1960s’ great “What If?” bands. What if Paul Jones had accepted that audition with Keith and Bill? What if Jack Bruce had stayed with the band and pushed them in a heavier direction rather than departing for Cream? What if Mike D’Abo’s Handbags & Gladrags had been picked up by his band, rather than being offered out to others to record instead? What if one of the other singers hunting around for fame at the time – say, Marc Bolan or David Jones (later Bowie) – had taken Paul Jones’ place in the band in 1966? Subsequent events make that sound like a remote possibility, but in 1966 Bolan was a folky singer heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, whilst Bowie’s 1967 novelty hit The Laughing Gnome shares the same palette as Manfred Mann’s output of the same era. Either might have been considered a good fit for them at the time, however unlikely either might seem with the benefit of hindsight.

When Britpop came in the 1990s, many of the bands of two or three decades earlier became sanctified. Manfred Mann, however, were overlooked. Perhaps it was their name, which feels as though it roots them firmly as rhythm and blues beatniks of the start of that decade than the sleeker and sharper young things that came through in the slipstream of The Beatles’ global success. Perhaps it was their own rootlessness, which positioned them between several different styles, into none of which they fitted completely comfortably. Perhaps it was the lack of an established song-writer, at a time when “serious” music became preoccupied with the idea of the auteur. Or perhaps it’s just a bit silly to think about this at all, when all members ended up having successful careers in a dizzying range of jobs. Not everybody can be The Beatles, The Who, or The Rolling Stones. But then again, perhaps not everybody wants to be.