In an office in the middle of Pinewood Studios, former members of Manfred Mann are discussing their EP The One in the Middle. It was recorded in 1964, at the height of their first flush of fame – between the first and second sessions for the EP, their single Do Wah Diddy Diddy had gone to No 1 in the UK and the US. But, in spite of that success, it is perfect evidence of how different Manfred Mann were from their contemporaries in what was then called the beat boom.
The EP features a version of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man. With the greatest respect to peers like the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, you didn’t get a lot of repurposed hard bop from them. It also features a Bob Dylan cover, six months before the Byrds released Mr Tambourine Man and sparked a trend for taking Dylan songs in new directions. Manfred Mann, for their part, retooled With God on Our Side as a kind of epic southern soul-influenced piano ballad. And then there’s the title track, an extraordinarily early example of pop music in self-referential, meta mode.
In the song, Paul Jones lists all the members of the band and their instrumental prowess – “Tom McGuinness lays it down on bass” – but dolefully suggests that he’s just a fame-obsessed “pretty face” and the band’s selling point: the audiences are only there “to stand around and see the singer looking sweet”. It seems to say something about the way pop is manufactured and Jones’s own discomfort at finding himself plucked from the subterranean world of London’s blues revival clubs and performing in front of screaming teens.
I’m expanding on this theory when I notice Jones – still ruggedly handsome a few months shy of his 80th birthday – looking puzzled. “Oh no,” he frowns. “That song was about the Yardbirds. I went to see them play in Richmond and I could see that all the males in the audience were there for Eric Clapton and all the females were there for Keith Relf, who was, it must be remembered, dishy. I thought, there’s a song here.”
He initially offered it to the Yardbirds, he says, but for some unaccountable reason Relf took umbrage at performing a song suggesting the Yardbirds were talented but he was just a bit of eye candy. “He said: ‘I’m not singing that, that’s embarrassing’.” So Jones changed the names and sang it himself.
Still, perhaps the point about their difference still stands: none of their peers got to No 1 by recording a song that satirised themselves and the whole process of getting to No 1. And, in fairness, Manfred Mann do seem to have been cut from slightly different cloth to the other bands that scored so many indelible hits in the 60s: 15 UK Top 20 singles. Alongside a new greatest hits compilation, they are still touring them this month, more than 50 years on, albeit without Manfred Mann himself – who still plays with his subsequent prog outfit Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – and with a gentlemanly arrangement in which Jones shares the stage with his replacement, Mike D’Abo. In Mann’s absence, they simply bill themselves the Manfreds.
The initial lineup, known briefly as The Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers, started as a jazz quartet who “worshipped at the altar of Charles Mingus”, formed in Clacton by drummer and vibraphone player Mike Hugg, and Manfred Mann himself, who had fled apartheid South Africa. They shifted to blues after an encounter with scene linchpin Alexis Korner, but jazz never really left them: even in the mid-60s, they were as wont to release instrumental EPs featuring horn-solo-heavy improvisations based around My Generation or (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction as they were chart-topping pop singles.
Jones joined in 1962, having turned down overtures from his friend Brian Jones to join his new band, the Rolling Stones. “Well, I thought Brian’s idea that he would become rich and famous was excessively optimistic,” he says, laughing. “Alexis Korner and Graham Bond weren’t making a living from playing the blues, and Brian didn’t have any gigs in his book. I had already asked Brian to be in my band, when I was an undergraduate, Thunder Road Inn’s Big Secret, and I’ll never forget what he said: ‘I don’t care to be in any band unless I’m its leader’. That wasn’t why I turned him down, but stick that into Brian’s biography and you get a picture of him, and of the very sad story that came along later.”
Paul Jones was, by his own admission, a blues purist, who “never got rock’n’roll … as far as I was concerned, music was a serious business, it’s not part of a rebellion or part of anything. You did it for its own sake. You wanted to do Rooster Blues, you did it exactly like Lightning Slim, you wanted to do Kansas City, you did it exactly like Wilbert Harrison.”
It wasn’t exactly a recipe for vast commercial success, and so it proved: the first two singles by Manfred Mann – they changed their name before signing to His Master’s Voice in 1963 – bombed. The breakthrough came when they were asked to write a theme tune for ITV’s new pop show Ready Steady Go! In retrospect, 5-4-3-2-1 seems like a very modern kind of single. Written to order, with everything from its countdown to the length of its instrumental passages dictated by the show’s producers, it also featured a canny bit of what would now be called branding: the lyrics feature the band’s name three times, guaranteeing them a mention on every episode of the country’s hippest music show. “It wasn’t smart at all,” frowns Hugg. “It was just doing what Bo Diddley did – you know, he sang a song called Bo Diddley. If we’d had any idea that was marketing, we’d have been way ahead of ourselves.”
Either way, it worked, catapulting Manfred Mann into the Top 5. But when their follow-up Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble – a fabulously raw slice of garage R&B – failed to match its success, John Burgess, their producer, took decisive action. “He more-or-less said to us ‘Bands don’t write their own hit singles – you’ve got to look outside for material,’” says Tom McGuinness. “And this was at a time when EMI had the Beatles! We were allowed to do B-sides.”
In commercial terms, their producer was right, as evidenced by the success of Do Wah Diddy Diddy, previously recorded by US girl group the Exciters: for a moment, Manfred Mann were part of the British invasion of the US. “A stretch limousine picks us up from the airport, and the radio is saying ‘Manfred Mann have just landed, the boys will be here tomorrow’,” says McGuinness, smiling. “What’s not to like when you’re 20-something years old?”
They saw John Coltrane play live with his original quartet and were introduced to the Righteous Brothers backstage at TV show Shindig!, the Brothers informing McGuinness that Phil Spector had just ruined their career by putting strings on a forthcoming single called You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. The band’s enthusiasm for the trip was only dimmed when the tour promoters announced they were adding a local act to the bill when their tour hit New York: the Exciters. “So they sang Do Wah Diddy Diddy in the first half and we had to sing it in the second,” says Hugg, sighing. “I was always vaguely embarrassed around them.”
Back in the UK the hits kept coming – Sha-La-La, Come Tomorrow, Pretty Flamingo, each a gleaming nugget of prelapsarian 60s pop – but so did the band’s misgivings: “Judge us by our B-sides say the Manfreds” ran the headline over one disconsolate music-press interview in which readers were directed to band-penned songs such as Without You and What You Gonna Do? Eventually, Jones quit. “I was brought up in black music and that’s all I was really interested in. I didn’t mind doing With God on Our Side, but then more Dylan songs started and I thought: well, I like Bob Dylan, he’s very good, but this is not what I want to do. Then I left, ended up with the same producer, and recorded other people’s songs just as much as I did in Manfred Mann.”
Manfred Mann soldiered on, bringing in the Beatles’ chum Klaus Voormann on bass and D’Abo, formerly the frontman of A Band of Angels, whose big gimmick was that all the members had gone to Harrow. He brought with him a song he’d written, the classic Handbags and Gladrags, but, incredibly, it fell victim to the band’s long-instituted no original songs as singles rule, and he gave it to Chris Farlowe instead. Another of D’Abo’s compositions, the pop-soul radio perennial Build Me Up Buttercup, went to the Foundations. “Tom and Manfred used to say ‘How do you hear it being done? What treatment?’ and I would say ‘I don’t know – let’s play the bloody thing and see which direction it takes’.” He laughs. “I felt my job was twofold: to sing what I was told to sing and to keep everybody’s mortgages being paid.”
In fact, it’s impressive how deftly Manfred Mann navigated the ever changing landscape of late-60s pop, releasing singles that hinted at a variety of trends – psychedelia, Kinks-y social satire, post-flower-power rootsiness – without ever fully committing to any of them. Sometimes, their singles were fantastic, not least the stunning, hazy (Theme from) Up the Junction. Sometimes, they were perhaps a little too eager to please. “Ha Ha! Said the Clown,” groans D’Abo. “I’ve sung it 10,000 times and I never liked it. Still, it was No 1 in Germany.”
Eventually, they broke up, after a TV appearance in 1969, leaving behind one of the 60s’ most intriguing, underrated back catalogues, where versions of tunes by the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Milt Jackson rub up against indelible pop songs and tough blues. “I remember getting drunk with [TV presenter] Eamonn Andrews afterwards,” says McGuinness, “then getting outside and hailing a cab and thinking, well, that’s that. I’m going to have to do what my dear mum said and get a proper job.”
However, McGuinness was back in the charts within a year – When I’m Dead And Gone, the debut single by his next band McGuinness-Flint, charted for 14 weeks and just missed out as 1970’s Christmas No 1. It was the first in a series of successes for former Manfred Mann members: D’Abo and Jones found fame as actors and presenters, while among other commissions, Hugg wrote the sublime theme for the sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? They reformed in 1991 for McGuinness’s 50th birthday and have toured ever since, balancing the conflicting impulses within the band: with D’Abo, they play the hits, when he’s not available, their set is “more jazzy, bluesy, we stretch out more”. Sometimes, they open those shows with Why Should We Not?, the doomy, jazz-indebted instrumental they released as their debut single at the height of Beatlemania. “You can almost hear the audience going ‘eh?’, even now,” says Jones, with a smile.