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Manfred Mann: "I'm not very good at writing songs"

Manfred Mann
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s probably fair to say that no prog musician has had more singles chart success than Manfred Mann. Between 1964 and 1969, the band that bore his name had an astonishing 13 Top 10 singles in the UK, making them one of the most popular acts of an era in which The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who were all contemporaries.

“It’s not what I wanted to do,” says the keyboard master now. “But it was a case of doing what was going to give me success at the time.”

Born in Johannesburg, Manfred Mann (his real name is Manfred Lubowitz; the stage surname came from jazz drummer Shelly Manne) had started off playing in South African jazz clubs, before relocating to the UK in 1961. Over here, he began to write for the magazine Jazz News, and in 1962 formed the Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers with drummer Mike Hugg.

“What we played was serious jazz and blues. But nobody wanted to know. We were getting nowhere, and decided to make the music more accessible.”

So, with a name change to Manfred Mann, the new-look band signed to EMI subsidiary HMV and went on that enormous run of success. But by 1969, the keyboard player felt it was time to get down to more serious music again. So, along with Hugg, he started Manfred Mann Chapter Three, the name reflecting the third phase of his career.

“Mike and I were getting anxious not to be seen as pop stars who would disappear as soon as the wind changed direction. So we went back to our roots and pursued jazz again. Only trouble was that nobody else really got into what we were doing. After two albums which sold virtually nothing, I broke up Chapter Three. There’s just nothing you gain from carrying on with a project that might be musically worthy, but is selling no records.”

Manfred Mann - The Five Faces Of Manfred Mann

(Image credit: Manfred Mann)

This time around, he got together Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, with a move into more clear-cut progressive territory, but with a distinct flavour for commercial songs. In fact, one of the defining motifs of the Earth Band has always been their tendency to record cover versions, some of which (like Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded By The Light and Bob Dylan’s The Mighty Quinn) gave them considerable chart success. However, it also led some people to ask why it was that this band seemed so reliant on other people’s songwriting abilities, at a time when most bands were keen to showcase their own talents. It’s an argument for which Mann himself has no sympathy whatsoever.

“I’m the first to admit that I’m just not very good at writing songs. In fact, none of us in the Earth Band were – or are – very good at doing this. So, why should we write our own songs when we could do so much better in taking other people’s and adapting them to what we did?

“All this emphasis being placed on writing your own material… why is that such an obsession for so many people? Why is it all that important? I don’t recall people putting Frank Sinatra down for never writing his own songs. And the same is also true of Elvis Presley. And do you ever hear anyone having a go at a classical orchestra, because they didn’t compose the symphonies they’re playing? No. Everyone applauds the musicianship or singing with these people, and nobody cares about the lack of writing. Yet, when it comes to the Earth Band, it’s an issue. All I would say to anyone who has a problem is that they should be grateful we don’t write songs. They’d be terrible.”

Mann understands his own worth, and knows where his real strengths lie.

“I know I’m very good at taking a song I hear on the radio and adapting it for the band. That’s something I am confident I can do time and again. To be honest, the only music I hear does come from the radio. I listen to pop and jazz, and that’s it. I have no interest in what some might call progressive music. What I get into is the melody. That’s what catches my ear. It’s why I’ve done so many Dylan and Springsteen songs, because they get my attention on the radio.”

Manfred Mann's Earth Band

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The veteran keyboard player has never been afraid to give credit where it’s due in the Earth Band. That applies to the origins of the name as much as it does to anything else.

Klaus Voorman – a member of Manfred Mann in the 1960s and an associate of The Beatles – has always publicly claimed that he came up with the name Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, as he tried to convince the band leader to go for a harder, more rocking sound as opposed to the pop style that had made their name.

“Is that what he says? You know, I have no clue whether that’s true or not. All I would say is, why would anyone make such a claim if it were untrue. So, if Klaus wants to take credit for the name, then I’m happy that he should have it. I can’t dispute his story, and I really have no interest in doing so. The origins of the name are lost in time for me, so he can take full responsibility – for better or for worse!”

Another point of interest is that the band have had a succession of quality vocalists go through their ranks over the years. These have ranged from current incumbent Robert Hart (with his melodic rock roots) to the celebrated Chris Thompson (who has worked with the likes of Jeff Wayne, Alan Parsons and Starship) and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, one-time Go West frontman Peter Cox. But while the mere mention of Go West is likely to send shudders of horror down the spine of most prog fans, once again Mann sees no reason to have to defend his choice of singers.

“What’s wrong with people? Do they have to make up their minds as to whether someone is a good singer solely based on what bands they’ve been in before? I’d say that every vocalist we’ve had has done a very good job in presenting our music in the best possible manner. And is anyone going to argue that Peter Cox wasn’t an appropriate choice at the time for us? I don’t recall people turning up to our gigs with huge banners in protest.

“I find vocalists through various means. Sometimes I hear a singer on the radio and think they can do the job. On other occasions, they’re recommended to me. All I’d say is that you should make up your mind about whether someone is good or bad only through their voice, not through their past. But maybe the Go West connection with Peter means more to people in Britain than it does anywhere else…”

Manfred Mann

(Image credit: Manfred Mann)

All of which is a slight dig at the fact that, these days, Manfred Mann feels there’s little support for the Earth Band in the country where he’s made his home for over 50 years.

“We tend to avoid playing here, because nobody appears at all interested. We have four shows lined up for May, and we’ll see how they go down. If enough people turn up and make it clear that they’d like to see more of the band, then of course we will come back and book some more. But if only two people and a dog are there, what would be the point? We don’t want to go where we’re not wanted. That wastes everyone’s time. This isn’t about our sort of music being in vogue or not. As far as I’m concerned I have no idea where we fit. Some people call us progressive. That means nothing to me. So any changes in the way that genre has been received never affected what we did.”

While UK tour dates have been at a premium, the Earth Band have been consistently successful in Europe, with Germany a major market for them.

“Don’t ask me why they like us there, but we have always been able to tour and attract large crowds. The same is also true in other parts of Europe. Maybe they’re not so led by trends and listen to us for who and what we are, rather than anything that they read about us in the media. I’m not knocking the UK media… they’ve rarely said anything bad about us, because they’ve rarely said anything about us!”

Now with a 40-year history, which was recently celebrated with the release of a 21-CD box set, the Earth Band have never been afraid to be innovative. Their use of classical themes, even adapting Holst’s Jupiter from The Planets Suite for surprise hit single Joybringer, has also been one hallmark of the band’s approach.

In 1983, they went out on a limb by releasing Somewhere In Afrika, which used indigenous South African musicians and sounds to highlight to evils of apartheid. It predated the celebrated Graceland by Paul Simon by more than three years. Yet it’s typical of the Earth Band’s profile that such musical innovation seems to have been ignored over the years.

“That’s because Paul Simon did it better than we did,” shrugs Mann. “I chose to tackle apartheid because it is a subject close to me, having grown up in South Africa. I was even refused entry to the country at the time, because of my views, but the other guys in the band went out and got a lot of local musicians involved. Yet what ultimately mattered to me wasn’t making any political statement, but how these sounds worked musically.

“In the end, I messed up this so-called concept album, because it has got a cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song in the middle of the second side, which was supposed to be all about South Africa. I do ask myself why I did this. It’s the usual thing with me: how to take a good idea and dilute it. So, if anyone says Somewhere In Afrika deserves more respect, I just tell them that it doesn’t, because it’s not good enough.”

Manfred Mann has little time for his back catalogue.

“Have we done a classic album? No. People mention Solar Fire or The Roaring Silence. But are they really classics? At best they’re half decent.”

Perhaps that’s what keeps Manfred Mann active even now: the search for an album he’ll be proud of?

“No, I just enjoy playing. Even if nobody else cares, then I’m happy playing for myself.”