Mann is now in his fourth decade in the music industry. Having announced
his arrival in the UK from his native South Africa with a string of
hit singles which illustrated his special skills in finding the arrangement
that turns good songs into massive radio play hits, Manfred has consistently
produced high quality albums that have achieved notable commercial and
critical success while bypassing the usual media hype associated with
big selling albums. Success on his own terms.
If Manfred Mann has a hit song in the nineties, it will make him one
of very few acts whose hit making longevity spans four decades.
Blessed with a sound ear for a good song, as well as a respected business
sense, Manfred's success in the music industry has been built on a solid
His piano playing skills.
There was a piano in the house. If there had been a guitar I might have
learnt that. My mother played the piano. When I was about six, I gravitated
to the corner of the room, and started playing the piano. I was primarily
self taught. Eventually I took lessons, but I soon got bored, because
they were teaching me to read, and I could play better than I could
read. I found the reading process very frustrating, so I kept giving
it up. Even today I don't read very well. I had to teach myself in my
My first influences were boogie, sort of blues really. I got hold of
a book and painstakingly worked my way through it, but, growing up in
South Africa at that time, what could one hear.? I had very little access
When I was around 14 I started hearing different music, and that helped.
I practised really a lot, and then an American piano player, whose name
I forget, came to South Africa. I saw him playing a concert at the Johannesburg
University, and I thought he was great. Then, one night I was playing
in a coffee bar, and he came in. He told me he thought my playing was
great. I thought 'fantastic. He thinks I can play.' I suppose around
then I realised that I could play, but I never thought I'd earn a living
as a player.
Around 1960, I decided to move to England. I thought I might be able
to make a living out of teaching, although I came mainly because I didn't
want to be in South Africa. I certainly wasn't overconfident. In fact,
I had no confidence whatsoever. I've never had any faith. I always think
when people say you've got to have faith in yourself, they're trying
to talk themselves up to a state of optimism because they've got no
faith in themselves.
A user end view of the arrival of technology in the world
When I first started playing there wasn't a whole lot of choice in what
keyboard you played. You played an acoustic instrument over which you
had no control except to hit the notes. Then came the organ, where you
had marginal control over the sound, but which took away the touch response.
That was the whole sixties period. Either piano or organ.
In the seventies, you started getting synthesisers which gave you more
control over the sound. When the Mini Moog came along, for some reason
or other I found a way to play it which is personal. To this day I use
it all the time. I have two Mini Moog's midied up, and its there on
the albums and on the gigs.
The Mini Moog gave you instant physical control of the sound parameters
with your hand. It didn't give you an immensely rich sound in some ways,
but it gave you a degree of control that no other electronic instrument,
except that particular breed of synthesisers, ARP, etc. gives.
What's happened now with keyboards is, you get more and more sounds,
and no real control. You get phoney control, where you can alter a lousy
filter or whatever, but not real control.
So keyboard players are now more the keepers of the sound, and not the
players everybody admires. Its usually the guitar players because they've
got their hands on the instrument. A direct physical relationship between
the player and the sound. The keyboard players are there using their
sounds to imitate real instruments. I can be a string orchestra one
minute, and an African marimba band the next. The importance of the
actual playing is diminished. I think its led by the manufacturer 's
making what they think people want. More and more sounds, with less
control over those sounds. I think its a mistake.
If you think of all the control we have in terms of sounds, and then
you think, well what have these keyboard sounds given us over the acoustic
world, apart from the fact you can do it through computers, what sounds
do you hear on records that are new.? I cant think of more than three.
A reedy string synth sound that's quite unique to synthesiser. It imitates
strings but isn't strings. A mini Moog type synthesiser sound, and I
battle to even think of a third. Maybe someone reading this article
can tell me what new sounds there are that are actually useful. I'm
not saying you cant make up your own wave forms, but what's useful.?
For drums, you can have buildings falling down, breaking glass, explosions,
and yet people use the snare drum most of the time. So it seems to me
that there is something quite fundamental that comes from the acoustic
world that you cant get away from too much. Its what you hear with your
ears and what is made with organic, natural instruments.
I don't think that all this available technology has had a negative
effect on developing players. There are still a lot of people wanting
to play. I think the live player thing is very much alive. The BIG market
is still for people who play instruments. I think there are a lot of
other people around who cant play instruments, who program, and are
very good with technology, but players are still the most important
If your thinking of making a living as a keyboard player.
Don't do it. Its the only advise you can give, on the basis that someone
who really wants to do it wont listen to you, and anyone who has any
doubt will listen to you, and if they had any doubt they shouldn't do
it anyway. There was a woman here the other day whose son wants to be
a guitar player. I said don't give him any assistance whatsoever. Just
hassle him to do his schoolwork. If he really wants to do it he'll ignore
you, and he will come through. You don't have to encourage people. You've
got to be good enough deep down. In my case, nobody made it easy for
me. I wanted to do it enough. You talk to anyone whose had success.
They wanted to do it enough. If your parents can talk you out of it,
you may as well be talked out of it.
For those players who make it onto the next stage, I would say this.
I have never met a single individual that never had an opportunity.
Everyone gets a chance. This idea that you never get a break is nonsense.
Everyone meets someone who listens to them. So if you really are going
to do it, there's just three things to remember. Work Work and Work.
Because one day an opportunity will come your way, and when it does,
you'd better be ready.
Something that many people reading this might not fully appreciate,
for all their faith in themselves, and all their determination, is the
real sense that it is possible to just deliver a record, and the next
minute the whole world is playing it everywhere. Now that's happened
to me a lot over many years. It hasn't happened for a awhile now, but
I know its possible to go into the studio, make a recording, just hand
it in, and six months later the whole worlds exploding. So now when
I work, for all my realism, and for all my self deprecatory kind of
attitude, I know that its possible. I actually know it. I can feel it.
Its tangible to me - the possibility. Maybe for someone who hasn't had
that experience, there's a need to rely on optimism. Maybe an empty
optimism. Not real hope.
Still playing after all these years.
Having played the piano virtually daily for approaching half a century,
how does he feel about playing now.
Its a difficult one. Like a mountain climber. You ask him if he's happy
when he's half way up the mountain. He cant breath properly, he's freezing
and there's no oxygen. I suppose his answer is 'I'm' cold, I want to
have a hot bath, but this is what I do. I'm a mountain climber.'
I don't think I enjoy music in the naive kind of sense I might have
when I first started, but its part of me in a way that it wasn't then.
That's absolutely what I am now. I'm a musician. I will play that piano
everyday. Sometimes just to practise, sometimes just to muck about.
Sometimes just to enjoy the sound of the instrument.
Earlier this year I took some time off to visit Africa. I absolutely
love wildlife, and I went to Botswana. Just one guide, and an open top
vehicle, going round the bush. It was wonderful. I completely forgot
I was a musician. It just didn't matter. Completely inconsequential.
When I got back, and played the piano, I was astonished that I could
play as well as I could play. I just couldn't believe it. I spent hours
just sitting there playing, and I enjoyed it immensely. I thought 'God
I can play this thing'. It seemed like something that had just been
given to me. So perhaps if I was in Africa living in a tent I wouldn't
bother much. Its really hard to say. But, if I'm on a gig, and its going
well, I get a lot of pleasure out of that.
I think I'm burdened in my own mind with making everything I do as good
as it can be, so that now I cant just go down to the pub and play. Sometimes
I wish I could, but then I think someone will look at it and say 'there's
Manfred Mann, and he's playing crap.' When we do gigs I work and work
and work to make sure they're as good as possible.
On recording techniques.
I really don't know much about the recording engineers job. I'm too
much of a musician to ever be really organised on that side. I find
that no matter how much you do a thing properly or unproperly, if the
guy doesn't sing right, you're completely stuffed. You can get everything
wrong, and if the singer sings great, it'll live. The voice is the most
important thing on the record. The most important rhythm instrument
on the track is not the drum kit. Its the voice. I think people really
miss that. 90% is the way the guy sings. I mean, use Peter Gabriel as
an example. Everyone raves about his productions, which are incredible,
but for me the really incredible thing, worth as much as any of his
amazing production techniques, is the awesome way that he uses his voice.
He sings great, and I think people underestimate the importance of that.
In doing arrangements.
Most of the songs I do are covers. Once I've decided on a song, I learn
it, and then I stop listening to the original. I don't refer to it again.
I play it over quite a long period of time. Weeks maybe. Fiddle about
- Try to find a way of doing it that eventually appeals to me, that's
different from the original. Its a very instinctive kind of process.
I have a kind of pride in trying to make it different to the original.
When I arrange the song, at the piano, or on the computer, where I do
a lot of it now, most of the time I do the singing myself, and then
just hope that when we get to the recording the singer will be able
to fit his voice where it works.
Talking Technology .
The interesting thing is, we used to make records in three hours, in
the early sixties. And now, everything's improved to such an extent,
and its all so much faster with Technology, that it only takes two months.
Its this thing of having control over every parameter.
I think the worst thing that's happened is that you've got too much
It all needs thinking about. I'll use an example.
Some things that you do in your life, you don't really control fully.
You should get instructions. Like - open the packet - lean forward -
balance - move your arm toward the counter - breathe in. Many of the
things we do are just not meant to be thought about too much.
Over the last ten fifteen years there's been a kind of love affair with
technology in certain areas, where everyone says 'Hey this is great'.
Then when the next thing comes along its 'That was crap, this is great'.
It reminds me of the digital watch. Nobody wears a digital watch. It
was a crap idea in the beginning. So if you look at those old computers
people thought were great ten fifteen years ago, they were impossible,
really awkward ways of wasting time, and everyone was saying how great
it all was. Like the digital watch, from a working point of view, they
were out of touch with people.
I now like computers because you can treat them like recording machines.
The mindless repetitive button pushing that you had to do to complete
even the simplest of tasks, is no more.
So now its all easier, and better, but what its done, is enable people
to produce recordings on their own. The computer gives you the feeling
that you can. So there's a lot more people making songs in isolation.
I enjoy some of the tremendous advantages of working on the computer.
I do most of my sketchpad arrangements onto a C-Lab Notator, mostly
in my home workroom. Being able to make changes to the arrangement so
quickly is great, although when we get to the studio, I almost always
replace all of it with live playing.
Since 'Davy's on the road again', although Manfred has not
had a major UK hit, there have been considerable sales elsewhere.
There were the various Earth Band albums. 'Somewhere in Africa' was
quite successful in Germany, won their equivalent of a Grammy in 1984.
The song 'Runner' made 22 on Billboard in 1984, and the Earth Band albums
continue to sell steadily.
One recent project, "Plains Music" was a number one record
in South Africa last year.
Currently I'm doing a new Earth band album, as a co-production with
Richard Burgess. I haven't worked with any producers in this way since
the early sixties. Its been an enormous relief for me to be able to
concentrate on arranging and ideas, and leave Richard to get on with
the things that he's really good at, which is really dealing with the
practicalities of those ideas. Hours and hours of sifting through various
takes, and deciding which is best. Seeing him work, I just realised
that he is much better at that aspect of it than I am.
I feel much more optimistic with this album than I have done for a long
time. Again, its mainly songs that I have found. Some new ones by a
South African writer, Cyril Schuman, that might surprise a lot of people,
and others that people might recognise. I search in the most obscure
corners for songs, but its not always easy to find a great song. I'm
the sort of person that whenever a band has a successful record, I go
back to their earlier work and see if there's anything there that people
might have missed. A good song masked by a bad performance. I also go
through loads of indie compilations
Wedded to uncertainty.
I think people always feel better when they have a strong definite direction.
If you sit in a room with people who are undecided, everyone feels insecure.
Then, when the decisions made, everyone feels very confident. At that
moment the creative process ends. I believe in making that strong, powerful
sounding, decision is actually a weakness. Its a weakness because we
cant deal with uncertainty. So were tempted to go with the power of
positive thinking thing. This is the decision - bang - everybody feels
better about it, but it may be the wrong decision.
I believe in putting off that kind of decision to the last possible
second. I will constantly change things, changing my mind all the time,
in what I believe to be positive creative thought. If I'm doing the
last few songs on an album, and its all definite, I'll still listen
to tapes coming in. I'll still bear in mind the possibility that there's
something that I've missed, right up till the last minute. It drives
the people around me crazy. Even if it only serves to show that the
original decision was the right one, I don't think indecisiveness should
be viewed as a weakness.
I don't believe you should have set beliefs about things. It just means
that when your presented with a problem you know how to look at it because
you have a belief that affects your response. Whereas each problem poses
a fresh set of thoughts, and should be looked at clean, without the
baggage of previous experience. Particularly in recording its important
not to be bogged down by how you did it before.
I don't believe that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned
to repeat it. Obviously people will find parallels. Its the people who
think history repeats itself always getting it wrong. Generals fighting
the war like they did the last war. I mean, if history repeated itself,
the Germans would have killed many millions of people in the First World
War. They didn't. In fact there was so much British propaganda about
Germans in the First World War that when the Second World War came,
they didn't believe what was coming out. There was this feeling that
history was repeating itself that blinded them to what as happening.
The pacifists. - Totally right to be pacifists after the First World
War, totally wrong to be pacifists faced with Hitler. These people basing
things on previous experience just get it totally wrong. You look at
the Second World War and say the war was worth fighting, and then become
a warmonger in Vietnam. You cant use that experience. Every situation
over afternoon tea.
there's very little commercial success for me now. I'm regarded generally
speaking as a 'has been' by most people. They meet me and say didn't
you used to be Manfred Mann. In fact Manfred Mann's Earth Band was the
most successful period of my life in commercial terms. In hard market
money terms. Unfortunately people here remember the sixties band very
highly. Although it was a great band, incredibly successful, and some
of the records are very very good, we never quite managed to make successful
records out of the side of the band that was truly exceptional, and
that is as a blues band, and a really good live band. Paul Jones - very
good blues singer, but the songs we're remembered for are the more lightweight
ones like 'Do wah diddy diddy', 'Mighty Quinn' etc. Bands like the Stones
managed to make their best stuff, in one sense, successful. We never
quite managed to get the blues stuff to be successful, and I think that
is what happened to that memory of the sixties. I must say I personally
don't bother too much about it. The sixties isn't a period I remember
with any great affection. I have to be careful about what I say about
that time because I have a great respect for the people I worked with
in that period, and they're all very fine musicians, but somehow I don't
think we ever produced the best that we could do on record. Maybe it
was partly my fault because I was very much singles oriented.
I've not been tempted to do any kind of sixties revival thing with the
sixties line up of Manfred Mann, partly because what I do in Europe
is very valuable, and I think it would be muddied terribly. This year
alone in Germany we've sold over 300 000 copies of the Earth Band compilation
album, and just finished a very successful summer tour, so I wouldn't
risk jeopardising that.
Apart from the fact that in that band, and the guys in the band themselves
know this, you could get up and play without me. To the listener, it
wouldn't matter if it was me or a session player, whereas with the Earth
Band you couldn't put anyone else in there because the sound of the
Moog, and the way I'm playing it, is actually integral to the whole
The sixties band can play without me and sound the same. Mind you, apart
from the voices, its probably true of the rest of the band, because
the success of those songs was more in the arrangement and the voices.
I mean, Pretty Flamingo is still a lovely record, but I wouldn't want
to do it again. I think the past is the past, and tomorrow is another
The thing that keeps me going now is simple. Life and the force of life.
Just a day to day thing. Survival and just be as happy as you can because
you only live today.
3 700 words.