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Mama's Boys: Power, passion and the cruel death of innocence

Mama's Boys
(Image credit: Mama's Boys)

In the summer of 1985, before joining Iron Maiden’s epic World Slavery Tour in America for a trio of gigs local promoters were billing as the ‘Heavy Metal Summer Kickoff’, Mama’s Boys stopped by in Salina, Kansas, for a one-off show. 

The band’s second US album, Power And Passion, had broken into the Billboard Top 200. Having played in the Midwest the previous summer as special guests to Ratt, the McManus brothers – vocalist/ bassist John, guitarist Pat and drummer Tommy – were anticipating a decent turn-out ahead of their support shows with Maiden. They were not, however, expecting total chaos. 

“We knew the buzz was building for us in America,” says John McManus. “We were selling out headline clubs shows between our dates supporting Bon Jovi, we were in rotation on MTV, and when we’d drive to radio stations in every city there’d be half-naked girls hanging out of TransAm cars waving at us. Things were going great. But Kansas was crazy.” 

To the trio’s immense surprise, more than 7,000 tickets had been sold for their booking at Salina’s Bicentennial Center. John recalls walking along a glass-panelled corridor towards the venue’s stage and encountering a hyped-up audience going “absolutely ballistic” as they caught sight of him and his brothers. 

“This sounds like a laughable comparison, but it was a bit like when The Beatles walked out at Shea Stadium,” he says, relishing the memory. “The racket the crowd was making was like nothing I’d ever heard. As we started into the opening song they broke through the crash barriers, and before I could reach the mic I was on the floor, with four girls on top of me. It was madness."

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Quite what the McManus brothers’ neighbours in Aughakillymaude, outside the small village of Derrylin, in County Fermanagh, would have made of such frenzied scenes isn’t clear. Only a few years earlier, Northern Ireland’s fastest-rising rock stars were better known locally as bit players in the McManus Family Group, a traditional Irish music collective fronted by the boys’ parents. 

John and Valerie McManus had met while performing in the Starlight Showband, one of Ireland’s premier dance bands, and had passed their love and talent for music on to their six children. Aged 14, Pat was the All-Ireland tony Fiddle Champion, while his younger brother John made his first national TV appearance aged eight, and was acclaimed as the finest young tin whistle player in Ulster before turning 12. 

“My father was a great musician and also a folklorist,” says Pat. “Traditional musicians would come to him to learn old tunes which had been handed down over the decades. At age five or six, I realised that if I learned an instrument, I’d get to stay up late with the adults, so I starting playing violin. From then on it was all downhill!” 

Northern Ireland in the 1970s, however, also had its own very specific socio-political realities to contend with. In 1972 alone there were 479 fatalities in the political conflict euphemistically dubbed ‘The Troubles’. 

Anyone imagining musicians were exempt from the violence was brutally disabused of this notion in 1975 when soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment (an infantry regiment of the British Army) and members of the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force shot and killed three members of Dublin’s Miami Showband when a plot to plant a bomb on their tour bus at a military checkpoint went disastrously wrong as the explosive device detonated prematurely, killing two of the terrorists. 

As members of another musical group who regularly criss-crossed the Irish border to play engagements, the young McManus boys were not blind to the hostilities.

“We were aware of it because we’d run into… situations,” John recalls. “One night, when I was about seven, we were coming across the border and were maybe 20 metres from a customs checkpoint hut when it exploded: had we been a couple of seconds further along the road, we’d have been directly opposite the bomb when it went off. But when you’re a kid, you don’t think too much about it. Sad to say, you got used to hearing about shootings and bombings. Music was the one thing which stopped us from diving into the reasons why all this was going on."

The McManus brothers credit another Dublin band, Horslips and their fusion of hard rock and trad Irish melodies, for changing the course of their lives. The McManus kids took to following the band all over Ireland, and formed their own band, Pulse, with their younger brother Tommy playing drums, in the image of Horslips.

"We were infatuated with this band – obsessed,” John admits. “They would play to 1500, 2000 people a night all over Ireland, and wherever they went, we’d go. We’d hang out with them ’til 4 or 5am, drinking tea and eating sandwiches and talking about music, learning about Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy. Then one night (Horslips frontman/bassist) Barry Devlin said, ‘Oh, by the way, I heard that you guys play. I’d love to hear you sometime.’” 

By their own admission, the McManus boys knew “nothing whatsoever” about rock music when they started Pulse. They’d never even heard of Led Zeppelin or the Sex Pistols, much less the nascent NWOBHM. Pat recalls scouring his local record shops for LPs by Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Budgie, just to hear songs requested by more clued-in kids at their earliest gigs. 

On August 21, 1977, the day after Phil Lynott’s 28th birthday, the young guitarist hitch-hiked to Dublin to see Thin Lizzy play Dalymount Park and returned to the family farm wide-eyed and incredulous: “It was like he’d seen an alien spaceship land,” recalls John, with a laugh. But the brothers were gifted, and fast learners. 

After seeing Pulse rehearse on the farm, Barry Devlin offered them the opening slot on Horslips’ 1979 Irish tour. Horslips’ manager, Joe Wynne, took the youngsters under his wing, booking studio time for the trio to record their first album. He also suggested a name change. Ahead of the release of 1980’s self-financed Official Bootleg album, released on the band’s Pussy Records label, Pulse were reborn as Mama’s Boys. 

Recorded in just four hours, the album was raw, but tracks such as Belfast City Blues, Without You and Demon, featuring feverish fiddle playing from Pat, had great promise. It landed the youngsters their first trip outside Ireland, for a slot on Hawkwind’s 1981 Sonic Attack tour. The offer, John says, was “like a fairy tale.” The reality of the tour was eye-opening for the innocent country boys.

“We went down like a lead balloon,” John laughs. “By this point we’d seen clips of AC/DC on TV, with kids going ballistic, and we came over from Ireland with the idea it was going to be the same for us. Our first show was at the Hexagon Theatre in Reading, sold out, and when we came to the end of the first song, there was silence, you could have heard a pin drop. There was nothing, not even a ‘fuck off!’ I remember looking at Pat thinking, What is this? We didn’t know what to make off it. We didn’t even talk about it, but we all came off thinking, That was weird. 

“As the tour went on it got gradually worse. In places like Preston and Bristol, Hawkwind had this leftover punk element in their audience, and we were getting real abuse, people spitting on us and flicking lit cigarettes at us. We just thought this is how it is, and it made us work harder on stage. Before the final night Dave Brock came up to us, shook our hands and said, 'Congratulations lads, you’re the first support act that’s ever finished a tour with us'."

Still unsigned, the band self-funded the release of two further albums on Pussy Records, Plug It In (1982) and Turn It Up (1983). The former saw the band score an Irish radio hit with the sweetly melodic Needle In The Groove: the latter gave them their first Top 100 single in the UK, in the form of Too Little Of You To Love

On August 27, 1983, the trio became the first unsigned band to play Reading Festival, appearing below Magnum, Suzi Quatro, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Marillion and headliners Black Sabbath on Saturday afternoon. Record company A&R men would have further opportunities to witness the band’s growing popularity after Phil Lynott invited Mama’s Boys to open for Thin Lizzy on their farewell tour of the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia. It seemed a symbolic gesture from Lizzy’s leader; the passing of the torch from Ireland’s greatest rock band to the nation’s young pretenders. 

“We first met Phil at a match-making weekend in Lisdoonvarna in 1982,” says Pat. “Phil was playing with his solo band and got talking to our manager Joe, because Horslips had played with Thin Lizzy many times. He stood watching us at the side of the stage and when we spotted him we were literally shaking, we couldn’t believe it. But out of that came the farewell tour offer.”

“That tour was a dream,” adds John. “Phil walked into our dressing room on the first night and we were dumbfounded, completely awestruck. As the tour went on, he actually ended up spending more time in our dressing room than in his own, to avoid the liggers. He became a bit of a father figure to us. 

“There were a lot of drugs around, but he never pushed any our way. There was no way we were going to step into that sort of lifestyle. We’d had the experience of playing pubs from an early age with our mum and dad, and saw how grown-ups behaved with alcohol, saw a lot of unhappiness and suffering and decay. 

"We could see how drugs were affecting Lizzy’s show, and that made us sad too, because we loved them. We didn’t want to see them in this place. But they couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming to us, and we’ve never forgot their kindness."

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As Lizzy bowed out, Ireland’s next big things were ready to step into the spotlight. Subjects of an intense bidding war, the trio inked a £1 million deal with Jive Records (UK) and Arista (US), with AC/DC/Def Leppard producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange earmarked to produce their next studio album. 

The first warning sign that the labels might not have totally shared the group’s creative vision came when the trio were encouraged to record a heavy metal version of Sham 69’s If The Kids Are United, but the brothers kept their concerns in the family. 

“We took the opinion that we were lads from the country, we should shut our mouths, and listen to the people who we thought knew better,” Pat admits. “We were too nice, we weren’t street-wise, we just thought we should keep our mouths shut or we’d blow it.” 

Upon the release of the eponymous Mama’s Boys album, a compilation of rerecorded early tracks, plus that ill-advised Sham 69 cover and a more logical re-working of Slade’s Mama We’re All Crazee Now, Arista brought the band to America. Booked to open shows for Ratt, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, the band were riding into Manhattan in a stretch limo when they first heard themselves on American radio. It was a good omen. 

“It was a great tour,” John enthuses. “When we walked on-stage for our first show with Ratt, it was with the same expectations we had when we were with Hawkwind – that everyone would just be standing there, looking at us. But when the lights went out, this huge roar went up. It actually frightened us because we thought, ‘Do they know it’s us? Or do they think it’s Ratt already?’ But when we finished the first song, people were going nuts, absolutely nuts.

“We were a very different band for America. Audiences there were used to Motley Crue and Ratt, but we had nothing to do with glam rock, and we made no effort to glam up our look: we just got up and rocked out. No disrespect to Ratt, but by the time Pat brought out the fiddle for Runaway Dreams, it was all over. 

"They had a really tough job following us, because the audience was exhausted. We were beginning to steal all the reviews too. One night in Buffalo, [Ratt guitarist] Robbin Crosby came into the dressing room and threw one of the national newspapers onto the table. On the front page it said ‘Irish trio blow headliners offstage’. That was an awkward moment.

“But the guys in those bands were great. If we had an introduction to the ‘party’ lifestyle with Lizzy, we’d seen nothing until we went to America. Tommy was our version of [Crue drummer] Tommy Lee, he was born to be in the rock’n’roll business, so he was mingling everywhere. He became very friendly with Bobby Blotzer, the drummer of Ratt, so all of a sudden, it’d be, ‘Right, guys, see you in Syracuse tomorrow!’ and we’d be saying, ‘Where are you going?’ He’d go, ‘Oh, me and Bobby are flying over to see Whitesnake in Los Angeles’. 

"Meanwhile we‘d be in a hire car reading a map to get us to the next show. But it was amazing. We’d no fear at all, and it was starting to explode, really fast.”

Their self-titled album peaked at number 172 on the Billboard 200 on September 1, 1984, but momentum was building. Expectations were high for the band’s first true world-wide release. An earlier promise to hook the band up with ‘Mutt’ Lange never materialised, but Power And Passion (recorded with Judas Priest/ Thin Lizzy desk jockey Chris Tsangarides) was the band’s most compelling and complete recording to date, with Lettin’ Go, a revamped Needle In The Groove, the punchy Don’t Tell Mama and the anthemic Straight Forward, No Looking Back tailor-made for FM radio rotation. 

An appearance at the following year’s Knebworth festival with Deep Purple and at Japan’s Super Rock festival with Foreigner and Dio found Mama’s Boys ready to stand toe-totoe with the rock giants, and confidence was high. And then Tommy McManus fell ill, and the ground beneath the band’s feet began to crumble. 

The youngest McManus brother was first diagnosed with leukemia at the age of nine, later confounding doctors with his rapid recovery. Ahead of the band’s scheduled European tour promoting Power And Passion, the drummer relapsed, and American sticksman Jimmy DeGrasso (later to feature in Y&T, Megadeth and Black Star Riders) was drafted in as an emergency replacement to honour the dates. 

Tommy convinced his brothers he’d be back behind his kit for the tour’s concluding Irish shows, but his eagerness to return to work was a mistake: he was rushed back into hospital after another relapse. Prioritising their brother’s recovery over future promotional work, John and Pat put the band on hold: it would be two years before they returned to the stage. The time-out would prove fatal to the band’s chances of an international breakthrough. 

“1986 disappeared, and 1987 was starting to disappear, and everything in the music business was shifting,” John admits. “Being off the scene for two years after we were on the crest of a wave was a massive gap. Jive Records were more aware of how everything was changing than we were, and ultimately they decided we had to make changes too.” 

“A couple of years away was a lifetime then,” says Pat. “So basically I was told that if we didn’t bring in a singer, we’d be dropped. I should have had the balls to stand up to them, but again, being the nice guy, I thought, Hang on, there’s a lot of people depending on us. We had a road crew, people who counted on us for a wage, and that weighed on my mind. To be honest, I wasn’t really telling the lads what was going on, because I was a bit scared. We’d come so far, and I knew that once you get dropped, it’s hard to come back from, so I went along with it. It was a mistake."

Into the band, at Jive’s insistence, came former Airrace vocalist Keith Murrell. His arrival coincided with the label pushing a new AOR direction on the quartet, with main songwriter Pat encouraged to work with outsider writers in search of a breakthrough hit. With Spirit Of America, it seemed the guitarist had struck gold. Unashamedly aimed at US radio, and boasting lyrics such as “Fast food and freedom/iron hand in velvet glove”, the song was slick, bombastic and shot through with patriotic fervour. 

Yet no sooner had Jive begun circulating seven-inch vinyl promos of to press and radio in the UK, than news came through that Arista would not release the single, bizarrely deeming some of the lyrics politically insensitive.

Bowing again to pressure, Pat McManus restyled his radio hit-in-waiting under the title Waiting For A Miracle, only to see Jive hand the original song to Page 3 model-turned-pop star Samantha Fox, for whom Pat had supplied guitar parts on her 1986 album Touch Me. Fox finally released the song on 1991’s One Night Only album, with Pat’s guitar solo erased in favour of a cameo from Judas Priest’s Glenn Tipton. 

The decision hardly instilled confidence ahead of the most important album of Mama’s Boys’ career. Released in the summer of 1987, Growing Up The Hard Way was a poised and professional comeback record. Crucially, however, it sounded nothing like Mama’s Boys, showcasing a new middle-of-the-road AOR direction. 

When John McManus was first played the album – an album he wasn’t even invited to play on – he felt something inside him die. “I remember standing in the studio being played [the band’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s] Higher Ground and I honestly felt like my spirit had just left my body,” he admits. “I could literally feel something depart. It was a really, really weird experience. But even though I felt gutted, when I detached myself from my personal feelings, I thought it was a brilliant album. 

"The quality of the writing had taken such a step forward and we now had a vocalist who was just incredible. But part of me missed what we’d developed together. Mine and Tommy’s involvement in the album was effectively nothing. 

“When we went out to play the album, I could feel the disappointment in the audience. They just didn’t like it. When we played in Ireland they were very vocal about this: kids would walk up to Keith and go, ‘Look, you’re a great singer, but you don’t belong in this band.’ We were losing the fanbase, because we had lost our identity as Mama’s Boys.” 

“I thought it was the best album we’d done song-wise,” Pat reflects, “but it was different. And when not one person from the record company came to listen to it, I knew the writing was on the wall.” 

Having pushed their charges into a corner, Jive lost faith in Mama’s Boys’ comeback. They refused to underwrite an American tour, and when Growing Up The Hard Way failed to break into the Billboard 200, the band were dropped in 1988. Keith Murrell left the fold soon after, to work with Cliff Richard. Mama’s Boys had been forced to sell their souls for nothing.

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When John looks back on Mama’s Boys’ final years, he remembers a band “who didn’t really know who we were any more.” Vocalist Mike Wilson fronted the group for 1992’s gutsy Relativity, which performed strongly across Europe, and, while Pat insists “it wasn’t all doom and gloom”, John admits, “We were trying to re-sell something that was past its sell-by date.” 

On tour in Italy in 1993, Tommy fell ill once again. Doctors advised him to consider a bone marrow transplant. Pat has vivid memories of his younger brother telling him of his decision as the pair drove to a gig in Switzerland. 

“He was pretty quiet that day,” the guitarist says. “Then he told me, ‘I’m going to go for that transplant.’ I said, You know that’s very risky? And he said, ‘Well, I’ll either walk out of the hospital or I’ll be carried out, but I’m sick of this, I can’t take it any more.’” 

It would be autumn 1994 before a match was found, and the transplant went ahead. Sadly, the gamble failed. On November 16, 1994, Tommy McManus passed away in London. He was just 28 years old. 

Following their brother’s funeral, it was almost a year before John and Pat McManus saw each other again. The question of restarting the band was never discussed. Then, following a pizza lunch in London, the bassist invited his brother into his home studio to hear a new piece of instrumental music he’d composed on a low whistle given to him by Tommy. The piece was entitled Brother’s Lament

“A few days later, Pat came back to the house and we started playing the traditional Irish music we played as kids, for no other reason other than to just play,” says John. 

Out of these therapeutic jam sessions, the brothers began to draw closer again. The first song they wrote together, Moonchild, would become the title track of their debut album as Celtus, a folk group pitched somewhere between Clannad and Pink Floyd

Four studio albums and a live set followed, before Celtus dissolved in 2004 and the brothers returned home. Some 17 years on, Pat McManus is still in County Fermanagh, where he teaches music and fronts the Pat McManus Band, a DIY operation he runs with his wife Sallie. 

Mama’s Boys songs remain in his live sets, though neither he or John make a penny from the group’s old albums. The guitarist ruefully admits that he naively signed away all the rights to Mama’s Boys’ publishing ahead of a show at London’s Marquee Club in the early ’80s. 

“Sallie and myself do everything ourselves now,’ he says, with a note of pride. “I don’t want to contribute to the music industry, because I’ve only ever been taken advantage of. I’ve been doing this for 13 years now and it’s been going well. There’ll be no world domination, but I love playing, and I meet Mama’s Boys fans all the time. I never realised we meant so much to people. At the time I’m not sure we meant anything to anyone.” 

“The real success was the experience we had, not the amount of records we sold or the financial rewards,” adds John, now living in London. “We experienced things as three young lads from a farm in Northern Ireland that we thought we’d never, ever experience. Honestly, it was truly magical, and I wouldn’t exchange a single minute of it."

The Pat McManus Band tour The UK in March 2022.