The soundtrack of my life: Jellyfish's Roger Manning Jr

Roger Manning Jr headshot
(Image credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage)

“Music has always been my obsession,” says Roger Joseph Manning Jr, who’s moved through his 30-plus-year career as nimbly as fingers dancing across one of his keyboards. 

A founding member of Jellyfish and half of its songwriting brain trust, he went on to play in Imperial Drag, The Moog Cookbook, Malibu and his current group, The Lickerish Quartet (with ex-Jellyfish members Tim Smith and Eric Dover), all while releasing three under-appreciated solo albums. 

A long-time member of Beck’s touring band, Manning has also recorded with an incredible array of artists, including Roger Waters, Morrissey, Jay-Z, Cheap Trick, Lana Del Rey, Steve Perry, The Killers and Johnny Cash

The soundtrack of Manning’s life is heavy on the music of the 60s, 70s and 80s, and he has a special affection for Prefab Sprout.

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The first music I remember hearing

The Fifth Dimension’s Age Of Aquarius and Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Spinning Wheel. That tells everyone my age [laughs]. But I was so enamoured with those songs that when I was in the back seat of my parents’ 1966 Ford Mustang, or in a restaurant, I would hear them and get up out of my seat and start dancing like a maniac. Age Of Aquarius also has those verses that are psychedelic and creepy and moody. I love it to this day.


The first song I performed live

I took piano lessons growing up, so you had to perform at a recital once a year. None of us wanted to do that. The stage fright was just numbing. But I have a memory of performing Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, from The Sting movie. That was an entire piano-based ragtime soundtrack, and piano teachers everywhere were so grateful because their students stopped quitting lessons. Because I loved it in a way I didn’t the classical music, I suddenly felt excited and confident.


The guitar hero

So many are tied for first place: Captain Sensible, Jimmy Page, Brian May. As a wild card I’ll say David Rhodes. The stuff he played on the Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel albums was amazing.


The singer

Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout. Even after all these years, I’m still in awe of his voice. It gives me chills. But of course, Freddie Mercury, Brian Wilson, Donny Hathaway, Paul McCartney, Sly Stone. So many from different genres.


The songwriter

Again, Paddy McAloon, for his imagination and harmonic sense. He’s miraculous to me. But so is Burt Bacharach. When I think about songwriting, I think Wings, The Smiths, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Depeche Mode, Echo & The Bunnymen, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Supergrass, Manic Street Preachers, Blur and Damon Albarn. We haven’t even gotten to disco and R&B! I don’t even need to leave the sixties, seventies and the beginning of the eighties. It’s all there. One could spend your whole life trying to get even remotely close to some of the brilliance and genius that happened in that twenty-year window.


The greatest album of all time

There are so many – Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Thomas Dolby’s Golden Age Of Wireless, Queen’s A Night At The Opera, Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Tears For Fears’ The Hurting… And we could spend this whole interview on 10cc – what any one of those four guys accomplished just as individuals, let alone teaming up in that brief moment in history.


The contemporary artist

I’m also in awe of my employer Beck and how he’s continued to reinvent himself. I’m so happy to have been a small part of that over the years. He’s one of the few contemporary artists who I’m in awe of.


The best record I made

Spilt Milk is one of them, and then maybe my second solo record, Catnip Dynamite. All my solo records are things that I didn’t get a chance to realise in Jellyfish.


The worst record I made

It would be one that I was hired as a sideman for [laughs]. I haven’t released a single thing that I do not stand by. Every record was challenging for its own reason and presented its own mess you had to dig yourself out of. I feel like me and my collaborators dug ourselves out.


The most underrated band ever

Prefab Sprout. So few people know about them to this day, even though they had a bit of success. I remember my college roommate and I hearing the Steve McQueen album for the first time. We said: “What the fuck is this? This is like easy listening.” Then we both said: “Yeah, but I kind of like it!” [laughs]. Thomas Dolby’s keyboards on that record are fantastic.


The song that makes me cry

Most consistently, I’d say, Sail On, Sailor by the Beach Boys. The harmony and the way it’s executed is just insanely beautiful. Brian was a master of allowing his heart to be unprotected and just pour out into his three-and-a-half minute pop songs. All those introspective moments that happened alongside the surf-pop-rock-dance songs. I revere that body of work.


The song I want played at my funeral

Til I Die by the Beach Boys, another Brian song from Surf’s Up

When These Memories Fade (Jellyfish singles box set) is out now via New Land.

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.