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Class ?

Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Arena Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Manfred Mann fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Manfred Mann fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1972

We all know that Manfred Mann spent the Sixties jumping from one bandwagon to another, with generally mixed results; and if there's anything we know about his lengthiest project of all time, the Earth Band, it's that it represented his willingness to jump on the progressive bandwagon when the time was right (1972! you couldn't choose a better moment than the year of Thick As A Brick and Close To The Edge!). However, the transition wasn't immediate, nor was it ever complete. Manfred Mann had spent the goddamn Sixties as a serious commercial figure, after all, and he was only willing to tread experimental musical water as long as it didn't threaten the accessibility of whatever he was making. In other words, here was a jazz-lovin' pop figure lured into a different genre by all the whacky progheads of the time.

In a certain sense, this here debut album might have been the best offering from the band anyway. It wasn't entirely original, but nothing by MM ever was, and at least this record offered enough hooks, diversity, and qualifiable playing to forgive the change of direction as well as the occasional clouts of cheesiness; only occasional, mind you, because one good thing is, Manfred Mann's Earth Band never - at least, at this point in their existence - really took themselves too dang seriously. The band's main moving forces, Manfred himself and guitarist Mick Rogers, evade both the corny ballads and the pompous anthems that could have earned anybody's disgust, and while the singing on the album isn't outstanding, they didn't try to get a super-duper seventeen-octave vocalist with operatic flourishes (David Byron!!!) which would exterminate the music, kill off the fun, and forever ruin your kidneys.

In fact, I'm blurting out nonsense, because the bottom line is: this is not a prog album. It's a straightahead hard-rock/pop album with a few experimental pieces and occasional artsy flourishes, such as complex arrangements, lengthy keyboard and guitar solos and stuff like that, all of which was invented around 1966 and not at all around 1969-70. It's also a good hard-rock/pop album, with a healthy portion of sincere-looking grit and energy: when the songs on here pretend to R-O-C-K, they really do, and the drive is certainly present. It's not like Manfred Mann would ever aspire to become my personal hero - trend-followers are trend-followers no matter what - but he does his job well on this one.

The album, of course, came equipped with a well-versed pop single, Randy Newman's 'Living Without You', equipped with everything necessary for commercial success: a warm sunny feel (never mind the singer is going 'it's so hard living without you', you know he's really lying behind his teeth, the dirty scum), a catchy (though rather blunt, if you ask me) vocal melody and magnificent moderate guitarwork - that slide part in the chorus really gets me going every time I hear it. It's not a masterpiece, but every bit as good as the kind of pleasant derivative Beatlesque power-pop bands like Badfinger were putting out at the time. So you can see that even in the midst of "aggravating" his music, Manfred Mann never could resist the temptation of putting out something poppy.

Elsewhere, the band is all over the place with soft rock, gospel-folk-rock, hard-rock and pop-rock (feel the difference!). As 'California Coastline' opens the album, you get the impression you're listening to something Eric Clapton wouldn't mind recording in the mid-Seventies, something mildly generic, but mildly catchy and very friendly and it's got the vibe, brother. It ain't got much vitality, but ooh the vibe is good. Which doesn't explain the necessity of stretching the folk song 'Captain Bobby Scout' to near-epic proportions - seven minutes, Lordy Lord, and it doesn't get off its main riff for a second, much less change tempo or tonality or a thing like that. Even so, it comes off rather well, maybe because that main riff is so good, and the gospelish chorus of 'brother why are you here' is weirdly authentic, if you don't mind me risking my authority here. The guitar and synth solos are cute as well, anyway, I didn't even suspect the song was that long until it was too late and it was replaced by the synth instrumental 'Sloth'. This is where Manfred's progressive ambitions first show up, as he concocts a, uhm, sonic sequence rather than melody, I'd say, but it works - if you deal with a sloth, you expect a lazy sluggish sound, and that's what you get.

Then there's the pop hit, and then there's, well let's see, I'd say the artsier/rockier sides of the band are rather equally represented by the instrumentals on one hand and the vocal numbers on the other. And that's a weird mix-up coming out there. 'Tribute' drags on for five minutes paying tribute to no one in particular (no-one I am familiar with, at least), and is the album's weak atmospheric link, but when it has almost managed to lure you to sleep - the final thirty seconds are almost impossible to hear - the rip-roaring cover of Dylan's 'Please Mrs Henry' comes crashing out of your speakers and provides the perfect jump-start for your relaxed organism, brother. If you ask me, it simply annihilates the original, and while people with good taste would cringe their nose at the guitar wankfest in the middle of the song, I find it acceptable. I like how it emerges seemingly out of nowhere and smoothly leads back into the chorus. So sue me.

To end this up briefly (too much honour for Mr Mann), 'Jump Sturdy' and 'Prayer' are two more ferocious rockers, the first one with funky overtones, that work fine, and the album ends with two brief intimate light piano-based numbers that cool down your motor and leave it in a state that's just ready to warm up and get going for the band's next offering. 'Part Time Man' in particular is just beautiful in parts, a melancholic soulful number that proves the Brits can do country when they really want to. Oh wait, it's got no fiddle to it. Screw me. Good album all in all; not sure how well it sold at the time - the bad news is it doesn't sell much at the present time, but that situation is up to you to remedy.



Year Of Release: 1972

Wow! Finally! After all these years of longing and lusting, I get a song dedicated to ME! "Our Friend George", no less! Never mind that the chorus goes 'something just ain't right, something just ain't true about you' (well, maybe they're right, I dunno), or that I was all of minus four when the song came out - true art is timeless, as we all know. Worse is the realization that the song once again just builds on a simple repetitive riff with keyboard solos around it, and even if it goes on for three minutes and not seven, it just doesn't have as much gripping power as 'Captain Bobby Scout'; the best part about it is the "grumbly" passage in the middle, when it almost seems as if the earth was shaking around these guys. Still, I'm flattered.

But on the whole, despite the overblown title, the album just doesn't sound all that interesting. It isn't as diverse as its predecessor, nor is it as contrastive, and the hooks are generally of a less obvious character. Even the obligatory Dylan cover is kinda unimpressive, plus, the choice of 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' was really stale, with so many performers already having laid their imprint on the song - the Byrds most notable of all, of course. Here, Mann tries to transform it into a looping epic, stretching out the lyrics and being rather messy with the general arrangement: on first listens, the lyrics in the second part of the song seem to be springing out of nowhere, as if Mann just set the band on autopilot and twisted and twirled the lyrics in a completely improvised manner. Not that there's anything wrong with it, of course, but fact is, this approach is typical of the album: a mess, and not a controlled one.

There are some solid songs we can extract from the package, of course, with enough good will and frozen whiskey. 'Down Home' is a funny barroom rocker, for instance, with not a whiff of ambition and a whole lotta Lynyrd Skynyrd attitude, or maybe Faces attitude if the word "redneck" sends shivers down your spine. 'Meat' and 'I'm Gonna You All' boogie along at a solid pace, the former in a jazzy, almost be-boppy mood, the latter in a more general rock pattern. Mick Rogers really shines on the latter, bravely daring to display his rock'n'roll chops that are soooooo Sixties on an album that pretended to earn them a place in the Seventies; and 'Meat' progresses along in the same way as you could expect a solid Colosseum jazz-rocker to do, or maybe even Deep Purple on a particularly good day (throwing out the organ-annihilating and feedback-drenched gimmicks).

Much too often, however, what I get is exactly the kind of material that DOES make me wonder why the hell am I wasting my time on Manfred Mann when I could as well be listening to, I dunno, Aimee Mann, for instance, and I don't even mention Barry Mann. Sludgy mid-tempo rockers with not very interesting riffs, not very interesting vocals, not very interesting solos... not very interesting everything, although I can't exactly say "hey, these guys make a boring three-chord song that never goes anywhere and is utterly generic, so I'll go ahead and put it down the toilet", because that's hardly true. I mean, 'Look Around' does have a classy bassline and 'One Way Glass' does have a moody doomy atmosphere, but so what? I could just as well be listening to Traffic.

At least the acoustic folksy ballad, 'Ashes To The Wind', sounds authentic enough to qualify as a... you ready... first-rate Traffic imitation. But that hardly explains why the hell it is followed by the two-minute 'coda' called simply 'Wind', with a naggin' ear-destructive keyboard instrumental where Manfred sounds like a bee that's naggin' around your ear, almost ready to sting, and this makes my head split. I'm all for experimentation and I'm all for nasty sounds, but not physically nasty sounds, if you get my drift. 'Course, if you live among a set of beehives, you might appreciate that.

The instrumental title track that closes the album is certainly intriguing, though: the way Manfred plays his keyboards there was certainly novel for 1972, at least I can draw that conclusion since some passages remind me of Paul McCartney's electronic work on 'Temporary Secretary' eight years later (not that it's a particularly shiny happy comparison, but I don't mean it in a bad sense). It also paves the way towards the excesses of the several following albums, what with the pompous chorale and church organ and everything. But overall, Glorified Magnified is much more of a transitional album than its predecessor - lacking the diversity and conciseness of the former. It's almost as if at this point the band still wasn't sure whether it was qualified for engaging in lengthy complex compositions, and kept falling back on its jazz-folk-pop formula even if they no longer had anything truly vital to squeeze out of it. In short, a band in a state of chaos. That can be good if you're a pack of geniuses (like the Stones in 1972 and 1976), but if you're Manfred Mann and his croonies, tough luck.


MESSIN' ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1973

Well, this one's BIG. It's also pretty weird. It doesn't look like Manfred has really decided on his further directions once and for all - for any dedicated prog band of the time, it would still be kinda hard to reconciliate the irreconciliable between convoluted epics like 'Messin'' and straightforward rock songs like, uh, 'Get Your Rocks Off'. But at least it's possible to see within each separate song where it's actually headed for. There's only seven of them, and they all have a point; and I'm only glad that that point is different for every single one of them. And the melodies are generally better, too. And you can get your rocks off, or you can dig in to the lengthy solos and everything. Well, since there are only seven tracks, let's skedaddle through them one by one.

The title track actually has a social message, whoopee. It's anti-pollution. It's also rather dubious, since what they're aiming for is a prog anthem and what they get is very much of an arena-rock anthem; granted, arena rock was nowhere near as disgusting in 1973 as it became several years later, but still, the lumpy leaden slow metallic riffs don't make me want to rock all that much. The vocal melody is cute, though, and the female chorus of 'we're messin' up the earth, we're messin' up the sea' is kinda catchy, though novel. Plus, Mick Rodgers gets in more of those phenomenal Sixties' rock solos, and the instrumental section does achieve ignition towards the end (when it's almost too late, but better late than Uriah Heep, you know?).

The title 'Buddah' logically presupposes something slow, pompous and pretentious - unless you're talking Steely Dan - and that's what you get. Seven minutes, an acoustic pseudo-majestic opening, and then the tune starts kicking gear with a series of hard rock riffs and Emerson-like solos. None of this stuff matters as long as you got all the real prog classics on your shelf, but if you haven't got 'em, this might work as a qualifiable substitute. To tell you the truth, nobody sounded exactly like that at the time: "hard-art" was really dominated by the likes of U.H., and 'Buddah' kicks these lousters smack dab in the face.

'Cloudy Eyes' sounds a bit too soundtrackish to my ears, though, with a really simple and monotonous theme going through it, kind of a cross between adult contemporary Santana and hardcore Camel - but the theme is actually well-written and maybe heartfelt (though I wouldn't want to insist on it), and the interplay between Rogers' weeping guitar and Mann's contemplative keyboards deserves a special notch in my book. But 5:36, without a dang change of tempo and that riff repeating over and over? That's carrying the "have yourself some nifty atmosphere, little brother" idea a bit too far. Good thing it then segues into 'Get Your Rocks Off', the only three-minute song on the album which is just solid multi-layered mid-Seventies hard-rock. The kind of song Bad Company would appreciate, but I have nothing against the small bunch of good songs by Bad Company (there, I said it).

Then there's the second instrumental, 'Sadjoy', which is hardly a big improvement over the first one... you still following me? This one sounds like a 'Land Of Hope And Glory' imitation, replete with pompous background chorales and stuff. My problem with it is absolutely the same, though - 5:26, and there's never a change in the theme. What's up with these mouldy guys? They know how to make songs multi-part (see 'Buddah' for reference), what's up with stretching out and stretching out one single movement without even building it up or anything? Not enough ideas? How about not releasing two LPs per year, then?

"Black And Blue" doesn't have anything to do with the Stones' album of the same name, but it's a pretty gritty and dark blues workout all the same, again never really changing tempo or tonality for all of its seven minutes, but at least they do try out different things on it, like a creepy "astral" Moog solo appearing out of nowhere and a really quiet, really subtle passage where you can spend some time picking out the juicy details. Nice take on the blues, anyway, and then we close in carnivalesque atmosphere with 'Mardi Gras Day', with the band dropping all the pretense and just playing a stupid Cajun tune for three minutes.

All in all, Messin' is a good album, and although the band occasionally veers on the border of violating the rules of good taste (most obviously on 'Cloudy Eyes'), the level of self-confidence is high enough to guarantee not placing it in the Barclay James Harvest bag. In fact, it's all fun - you don't often see Sixties survivors trying to really fit in the music of the Seventies. Too bad nobody's even heard this record today, because what with all of its ups and downs, it deserves to be heard. Kinda like Breakfast In America or something.



Year Of Release: 1973

Well, this one's BIGGER. The splash finally comes, with Manfred Mann embarking on an all-time bombastic project, seemingly dedicated to the actual problems of the origins of the universe and all that other astral shit. Hell, why not? The others can do that, and why can't we?

But I gotta give it to them: the idea of transforming one of their usual trademarks - at least one Dylan cover per album - into a prog gimmick worked absolutely marvelously. Remember the little 'Father Of Day' tune on Bob's New Morning album? The one with some sparse piano and some whiny universalist prayer lyrics? Well, Manfred Mann took it and turned it into a powerful multi-part ten-minute progressive suite, and the most marvelous thing about it is, it worked. There's little preserved of the original but the lyrics and the little between-the-verses melody, but never mind, the important deal is, they do get a full-fledged prog album and still manage to do a Dylan cover. (Of course, ever since Yes covered Ritchie Havens on their second album, this kind of creativity wasn't wholly unprecedented, but still, I can't help but admire the choice of the cover!).

Anyway, 'Father Of Day, Father Of Night' comes off as a majestic and even - there I said it - emotionally resonant piece, despite my knowing deep down in my heart it ain't much more than a clever gimmick, and even the lumpy arena-rock riffage in the middle of the song can't really spoil it. However, the best composition on the album is still 'In The Beginning, Darkness': again, it's a pretty straightforward rock song without tricky jazz signatures you'd expect from such a well-versed jazzy guy like Mann, but it's well-written and it has the edge - the worst thing I can say about it is that it hardly gives us anything that wasn't done equally well or better in the previous six years by everybody from the Doors to Black Sabbath, but heck, don't forget Manfred Mann was always rooted in the Sixties anyway, so don't judge him by the exact refined standards of Yes. Instead, just appreciate the sound of Mick Rogers' guitar throughout the track as he assaults you from the left channel, then switches on to the right, and plays incredibly versatile - and yet restrained - solos. Dammit, I really like that guy's style.

Where my problems start to really speak up is on the second side, cluttered with pretentious instrumentals that just don't manage to paint enough of those vivid otherworldly pictures. The good news is that they dropped the "let's stretch one idea out to exhaustion" approach: 'Saturn, Lord Of The Rings - Mercury, Winged Messenger' (okay, okay, don't cringe, it's just a couple of planets, after all), packs quite a few distinct sections into its six minutes. The bad news is that only the fast final one manages to attract my attention, with Rogers kicking the manure out of his guitar again in the genuine rock'n'roller fashion. The other sections are just kinda slow and meandering and, uh, well, again, I don't think they're all that different from, say, Camel. Decent atmospheric soloing over a bluesy/jazzy background, no flashy chops, no deep feeling, no untrivial guitar tricks. Same with 'Earth, The Circle Part One'; that one has an extremely cool organ tone but unfortunately, Mann loses it just as quickly as he gains it, with just about fifteen seconds of really fun soloing and three minutes of boring noodling around it.

The two other vocal numbers aren't that much better, with the poppy title track a bit too hookless for my tastes, and 'Earth, The Circle Part Two' way too childish for those same tastes; what's up with the wimpy piano and wimpier vocals? Is an album that deals with grand matters of Mother Astronomy supposed to end up on a note similar to that of McCartney's 'Warm And Beautiful'? Like little kids getting together and singing their overtly naive anthems to the pretty sun and the blue sky? I don't exactly get that. But then again, Sixties, Sixties, Sixties... the "childish" vibe was so essential for the psychedelic era anyway, so maybe I shouldn't be too harsh on the band. And nothing prevents me from turning the album off a bit earlier than supposed, either.

And don't you be thinking at this point Manfred Mann couldn't take a joke - crammed in the middle of all these self-important compos is 'Pluto The Dog' with genuine dog barking and a "comic" Moog solo. (But why does it seem like the main bassline was taken from CCR's 'Sailor's Lament'? Or am I dreaming?). It doesn't belong anywhere in the proceedings, but boy am I glad it's there. It's FUN! Makes me wanna haul out my Disney movies and all, except I don't have any Disney movies. So, whatever. Maybe the best example of the Sixties' artsy spirit as applied to a Seventies' proggy album - maybe the rating is a bit low as well, if you feel my generalization is right, feel free to punch it up some.



Year Of Release: 1974

You sure didn't expect this, did you? (And I don't just mean Manfred Mann finally justifying his band's name - hey, you thought it was about chthonic monsters, but it was all about the ecological aspect instead. Bummer! Prog rock my ass!). An album with but seven tracks on it, and an album essentially dedicated to something as banal as "eco-rock" or whatever you might call it - of course, maybe some Manfred diehards would want to assert his pioneering functions in that particular department, but for some reason, eco-rock always strikes me as something pathetically shallow, never mind the priorities - but also an album filled with good music throughout. And this for a record that lacks even the obligatory Dylan cover, first time in ages. (Oh wait, Messin' didn't have one, now did it?).

Put it like this - a Solar Fire that shreds some of its pretentiousness and builds up on solid pop and prog melodies, or on instrumentals that actually attract you with well-meant gimmicks. The title track opens with a cock crowing, for instance, with the crowing distorted and mixed with a bunch of flurry guitar noises soon afterwards; that is way cool in my book. And then, when they start singing 'give me the good earth...', again, they manage to infuse the song with a naive - but very honest - hippie vibe that's ten times as exciting as the most exciting songs Styx ever created. Sixties' survivalism on the road again.

Of course, Manfred Mann wouldn't be that kind of bi-emmy guy if he didn't include at least one potential hit poppy song, and this time it's the mid-tempo folksy popper 'I'll Be Gone', well-written and adequate as almost everything he did in that department, with ringing choppy guitar riffs supporting the verses and cute lyrics like 'some day I'll have loving, loving isn't easy to come by, by the time it comes I will be gone' - how can you resist something like that? Unless mid-tempo gets you in a rage because you spent the last day hearing the same Bad Company song on every radio station for miles around, of course, but you gotta admit that'd be a pretty desperate situation.

The central piece of the album, of course, is 'Earth Hymn', and my judgement is suspended on that particular song. Obviously, not appreciating it would mean a death sentence to the entire record - it's like a central pole to everything else, and is actually reprised in a 'muddier'/medley-esque version at the end. However, it's obviously pretentious and demands sincere and religious adoration; I'm still not ready to give in to it of my own free will, but in the bottom of my heart I do feel some kind of yearning for this kind of sound, and admittedly, the vocal melody, as well as the slightly Steve Hackett-like guitar passages in between the verses are very well done. In Mann's honour, it should be said that the melody isn't anthemic as such; on the contrary, it's pleading and 'miserable'-sounding in a way that's very easy to empathize with. Plus, if I ever could have any doubts about the main part of the song, that totally mad jamming piece in the middle, fast, furious and unique sounding, really gets me going. Nobody played their Moog like that, with that speed and that tone combined. It could have been just another nice jazzy interlude in the 'Meat' fashion, but instead, it's about two minutes of a masterful musical thunderstorm.

There are also the ballads: 'Be Not Too Hard' and 'Launching Place' are both decent, done in the same hippiesque/folksy style but never soaring to multi-kilometer highs, which isn't bad if you really ask me about it. There's only so much grandness I can take from somebody whose name is Manfred Mann and who used to storm the charts with 'Doo Wah Diddy'... er, sorry, there I go again, I promise to never mention that song any more. Now where was I? 'Be Not Too Hard' has a very pretty vocal melody. Like another very good Traffic song.

The filler here is, in my opinion, limited to specific parts of songs rather than entire compositions (even that boring instrumental, 'Sky High', has some great classical sounding piano pieces, and a solid build-up overall), so there's no serious, venom-filled complaint I could really voice at the album, and I suppose I'll just leave it at that; too many people have already insulted Manfred Mann for what he's worth and more, so let this be implanted in your mind: The Good Earth is way better than that title might make it seem. You do have to get used to it, though. At first it sounded like second-hand Seventies Traffic to me, and only subsequent listens have managed to prove that at this point Manfred Mann had much more musical creativity left than Stevie Winwood. Gotta congratulate them, too, on releasing an artsy album in 1974 that not only didn't suck, but actually had something to say. Hear that, progheads? Stick to your Tales From Topographic Horrors, I'll take this one instead. Even if it has a cock crowing.



Year Of Release: 1975

Oh well. Five albums into their catalog that all range from decent to very solid, the band's well finally starts running dry. Not coincidentally, Nightingales was the last album to feature the original Earth Band lineup; apparently, Manfred felt the need to inject some new blood into a project that was running stale, and rightly so. The formula could be diverse, and the formula could be exciting, but an end was bound to come, and here, they're just overreaching.

It often happens so that after a particular peak, the band is so drained it thoroughly lacks any kind of new ideas - this is just the case. Okay, so Mr Mann found himself a new gimmick. "Say", he said to himself one fine night after rummaging through his weekly selection of fresh (or not so fresh) records to steal ideas from, "I bet our old guy, the Zimmie boy, is quite out of gas for now. And anyway, we've been covering him for so long, there's no more good songs left from his catalog. I betcha anything that New Jersey kid can act as a fine replacement, now can he? The new Dylan and everything. We'll give it a try". And so the band covers Bruce Springsteen's 'Spirits In The Night', no less. And guess what? I like the cover more than the original. It is now structured as a prog rock epic, almost so (although the violins in the chorus sound suspiciously Saturday Night Fever-like, don't they?), with a flaming guitar solo and all the attributes. And it loses one hundred percent of Springsteen's "working class actuality", which is a nightmare for some but a blessing for me. Not exactly sure what Springsteen himself thought of this version (granted, if he ever actually heard it), though. But does it really matter?

But then again, apart from this song - a gimmick along the lines of Manfred's reinterpretation of 'Father Of Night', but, of course, somewhat less appropriate - there's simply nothing to raise your eyebrows about. They're still doing their fast jazz thing, like on the instrumentals 'Countdown' and 'Crossfade', but by now it gets really old; all they do is just engage in more of those tasty, but pointless, guitar and Moog solos, and if you really can't live without them, there are the earlier records. Yeah, everything can only be appreciated in comparison, right? You bet your life. In fact, this time around more than half of the album is purely instrumental and that's just not right: we all know one of the band's main forces always lied in their vocal melodies. Here, there are but four vocal melodies, and one of them belongs to Springsteen and another one ('Visionary Mountains') to Joan Armatrading and it's just a bad song and I won't even say anything else about it.

As for the real originals, 'Time Is Right' has a vocal melody of Black Sabbath quality, which really says it all. Remember the way Black Sabbath melodies sound? 'Has - he - lost his mind? Can - he - see or is he blind?' (The tricky thing is not to sing this, but recite this in mid-tempo, and you'll get the same effect Ozzy gets). This particular vocal melody, if I'm not mistaken, almost note-for-note emulates 'Behind The Walls Of Sleep'. Or maybe not, but then some other BS song. And then there's 'Fat Nelly', a strange piece of sick black humour that builds upon a synthesizer line ripped off of 'Won't Get Fooled Again'.

As you can see, no good words have been spared for the album. It seems that in a desperate effort to compensate for the lack of true creativity, Manfred and Co. put most of their strength into the production department; the record is overloaded with all kinds of special effects, weird percussion, exquisite synthesizer tones, panning, phasing, tricky guitar distortion, etc., etc. I hate to make a statement, but it just might be the most intricately produced Manfred Mann album ever, and you know that guy sure wasn't no Iggy Pop when it came around to producing records. But it just goes to show that no kind of weirdass production can ever replace a real solid melody.

In the end, if you're a dedicated, obnoxious fan of Manfred Mann's instrumentals, you'll probably be happy with this record cuz it's just swamped with 'em. More instrumentals than in your average Sanskrit literary monument (ha! you should know your basic grammar theory to get the pun!). But it's all been done before, and - well, maybe not necessarily better, but at least fresher. Come on now, you'd have to be a Superman to do all these albums and not stagnate at a certain point, and if Manfred Mann is Superman, then I am at least Ray Davies.



Year Of Release: 1976

Pathetically, this is - to the best of my knowledge - the only Earth Band record that is currently available for the majority of US customers (and I'm not really sure about the rest of the world either). It's also been lauded by critics, so that you might be sure you'll get a recommendation to buy it from some other source than mine, but heed this warning, too: this album sucks rotten eggs.

Okay, let's precede this with a disclaimer: the cover of Springsteen's 'Blinded By The Light' deserved to hit #1. It's creative as hell, and totally and absolutely reinterprets and revs up a song I have always considered lame, clumsy and utterly Dylan-derivative in its original version. With synths, guitars, unexpected tempo changes, and above all super-duper intricate vocal arrangements that actually remind me of the Beach Boys at their most complex, it drops all the pretentiousness and adds playfulness and melodicity where one could only dream about these things in the Boss' hand. And truly and verily, new vocalist/guitarist Chris Thompson almost sounds like Mike Love when he's singing those harmonies! HA!

Unfortunately, he also sounds like a complete dork on most of the other tracks. Continuing the "let's be serious" line of Nightingales, Manfred Mann completely breaks all of his ties with the 1972-74 period. No more catchy rock'n'roll numbers; the commercial proposition of 'Blinded By The Light' being made, the man dedicates the rest of the album to pretentious, bloated suites and ballads that sound as if the band really believed they were working on eternal values here. Okay, so some might take it; I don't. I have nothing against the musicianship, it's solid as usual. I have to question the lack of hooks, though. This time, the ballads only get by through the 'emotionality' of delivery - Chris Thompson's got a good voice, no question about that, but it's not good enough to save songs that seem to have taken three minutes to write and three years to arrange and produce.

The eight-minute "symphonic" sound of 'Singing The Dolphin Through' pretends to soar to atmospheric heights and beyond, but what we really have here is a nagging repetitive chorus that seems to come straight out of a kiddie tune (from one of Disney's movies, for instance) and a mid-tempo 4-4 set of verses that could have just as easily been done by the same Bruce Springsteen or anybody else. Oh yeah, and of course there are predictable guitar solos and all kinds of heavenly crap like revved up synths and backup vocals which I personally tend to equal with beyond-the-screen laughter - "see now, there's a heavenly guitar solo here, this song is supposed to be cathartic, ya know. So shed tears, you soulless bastard!"

They 'push the boundaries' even further with 'The Road To Babylon', a tune that starts with accappella female choruses (with Orthodox church influences?) and then transforms into full-blown Styx mode. I don't know how naive and innocent a person might be to actually appreciate this putrid, derivative, bombastic heap of pretension, especially since - get this - once you've actually taken the time to listen to it, it becomes clear they're playing much simpler music than they did before. Yes, indeed, there are all the pompous gimmicks thrown around, but essentially, what happens here is that Manfred Mann forgoes his jazz background, and without his jazz background, he's a nobody. Any semi-decent prog band of the time played this stuff better - so yeah, the melody fades in and fades out, but that's not exactly equivalent to a tempo change, you know?

Even the only instrumental on the record, weirdly entitled 'Waiter, There's A Yawn In My Ear', doesn't attract me in the least: it's no longer destined to show us how tight and energetic the band can be, it's just there to pump out more 'heavenly atmosphere' and also display the chops of Thompson. And Thompson is, of course, much more of a "choppy" player than Rogers and probably a far more appropriate choice to play straightahead "progressive", but in doing so, they also entirely drop the Sixties vibe, and perhaps the only thing that kept me from dismissing the Earth Band as a useless derivative outfit was this linking of the Sixties with the Seventies they had on their best records. Here, it's entirely gone, with Thompson just playing the same type of licks that Steve Howe used to do much better. Heck, he could probably give some competition to Steve Walsh, but that's not exactly the best of news.

All in all, a huge disappointment for me - and a record that will certainly be loved by the average prog fan as well. But in case you wanna follow my advice, get something like Todd Rundgren's Utopia instead if you're really hungry for some obscure prog. At least that album takes itself less seriously, with far superior musicianship and, actually, far more twisted and complex music. And Roaring Silence? More like Boring Lack Of Silence, if you ask me.


WATCH **1/2

Year Of Release: 1978

Are you with me? Have you managed to cross the infamous field of two-star ratings? Are you a big fan of Manfred Mann's Earth Band? Are you a neophyte wishing for biased opinions? Come with me, ye faithful reader, and let us drive the Satan of pretentiousness and inadequacy from the eighth album by prog rock's most Sixties-influenced outfit! Exorcise the demon of Manfred Mann!

Truth be told, it's not at all Sixties-influenced any more; more truth be told, I just personally cannot stomach Manfred Mann without the humour. Just like Roaring Silence (which at least had the kitsch of 'Blinded By The Light'), Watch is deadly serious. Deadly obsolete for 1978 as well, and deadly pointless. At this point, the band isn't really all that different from Styx, doing lame-hook-based poppy numbers mostly dedicated to eco-rock, social critique and the usual blah blah of acts who think they're gonna save the world with their output but nobody really gives a damn anyway. Okay, so I'm not saying Manfred Mann wanted to save the world, but the music which came out of their minds sure wanted, yet the world basically told it to go fuck itself. That's my understanding of the metaphysical "music and ambience interaction" process.

Everything's well-produced, everything's well-played, and everything's boring to the extreme, as if they were so dreadfully out of ideas it didn't even matter to add up to the "gimmicks pool" or to concentrate on the album's production; I don't even hear Manfred Mann coming up with a particularly new type of Moog solo or anything. It's pretty telling, then, that six and a half minutes of the album are dedicated to the band playing a live rendition of Dylan's 'Mighty Quinn', which was a hit for the early Manfred Mann. It's also telling that it's easily the best track on the album. Their original rendition was fun, and this live track is done with verve and energy, and the typical "hot solo" intermission.

Out of the new material, though, about the only track that really gets 'em hips shakin' and 'em whips crackin' is 'Martha's Madman', which alternates a nice poppy melody with solid arena-rock riffage, and then finally the band kicks into overdrive, with a speedy bassline holding them together as Mann and Thompson trade flashy solos. I mean, heck, you don't need to convince me that this band can really rock, and while I've always preferred Mick Rogers' guitar over Thompson's, when it comes to, ahh, shredding, Thompson's the boss in any case. He also shines on 'Chicago Institute', which is otherwise a pretty lame protest number in the vein of the Kinks' 'Here Come The People In Grey' (message-wise), and could have been a highlight on any Styx album - same dumb, if maybe honest, rage over a generic and bland musical background.

Add to this the murky power ballad 'California', next to which 'Hotel California' is at least Mahler-quality, and you're nearly all set. You know, something really makes me think this Thompson guy must have been a big Beach Boys fan, what with all the Mike Love imitations on 'Blinded By The Light' and elsewhere, and, of course, the hicky falsetto harmonies on this track, which, let's face it, ain't no 'California Girls'. If my hypothesis is true, then the band entirely missed out on the fun quotient in Beach Boys' records, yes, even if they were trying to go after the heavenly atmospheres of Pet Sounds, because don't tell me there's no fun quotient in Pet Sounds - there's a lot of it there, from the uptempo punch of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' to 'Sloop John B' and stuff. And instead, we get pretentious pseudo-folk crap like 'Davy's On The Road Again'.

The funny thing is, when I saw the track listing I thought it could be a decent return to the band's early glory days; after all, how come you have titles like 'Martha's Madman' and 'California' and a funless pretentious record at the same time? Well, somehow it's possible. Granted, it's not as depressing as Roaring Silence, but apart from those last two songs, I just don't see anything endurable. 'Davy's On The Road Again'? Please! I'd rather be listening to the real Boston, thank you very much. Hey Mr Mann, give me some humor, like on your website!



Year Of Release: 1979

I don't have the least - nay, not the tiniest - nadah, not the teensy-weensy-schminsy-Britney-Spearsey idea of why this record turned out to be so much better and so much more adequate and enjoyable than the previous two, but fact is, it did, and I'm positively stumped.

After a few moments' reflexation worthy of a Rodin statue, though, here's what I have to say: Angel Station is really seriously different from its predecessors in many objective aspects. First, there's a lot of covers, and the choices are mainly solid. Second, the album is much more pop-oriented, with more songs, less pompous generic instrumental passages and less pretention in general - all the while retaining some edge, though. Third, Chris Thompson is really good here, taking things ever so slightly tongue-in-cheekier than before. I mean, not a single song sounds as straightforward, dumb, and choking with self-exaltation as 'Davy's On The Road Again (To Get His Piece Of Mouldy Cheese)'.

In all, Manfred Mann obviously wanted to step away from the stale prog formula that had rendered most of his formerly creative output so utterly unlistenable - and he did, and in his honour I must say that he did not choose the simplest way. There are slight New Wave elements on here, but none of the generic synth-pop that was about to replace disco, and no disco either. Well, okay, so I guess some of these songs could have been called "synth-pop", but it's not that synth-pop, you know. It's Manfred Mann synth-pop that he'd been doing ever since the world began, much like Jim Morrison did with the blues. These are really interesting pop songs with really interesting hooks. Not everything works, but not everything is supposed to work.

The two first songs are easily the best ones; I had spent truly delightful minutes humming 'You Angel You' to myself - hey, what a delightful poppy little gem! what optimism! catchiness! grace! power! ooh! - when I realized it was actually a Dylan cover, but it's just that by this time it looks like Manfred Mann's main motto was "If you can recognize a cover version, it ain't worth shit", first really aprobated on the Springsteen covers and now stretched over to Mr Zimmerman (apparently, the Boss proved to be way too trivial for Manfred Mann or something). Unfortunately, I can't verify this hypothesis on the other covers whose originals I've never heard, but all the same, the lyrically tedious eco-rocker "Don't Kill It Carol" ("it" is just a flower, if I'm not mistaken) is absolutely infectious melodically, with a wonderful "bass/talkbox guitar" interplay, great descending basslines and a dancey ABBA-esque chorus. Really smokin' guitar and keyboard solos as well, with my opinion on Mr Chris Thompson improving in spades. Heck, this is the first album where I never actually miss the lack of Mick Rogers, the poor chap.

Another positive highlight is the weird, near-mystical ode 'Angels At My Gate', in this reviewer's humble opinion, one of the best songs in Manfred Mann's entire catalog. The AMG review had an interesting idea about how Peter Gabriel's 'Games Without Frontieres' might have been influenced by this composition, and hey well you know, they just might have something there; in any case, it's hardly any worse, and sports pretty much the same thrilling otherworldly atmosphere, with echoey ominous drums, misty vocals and heavenly synths somewhere high up in the sky. And the only thing that can keep that threatening chorus out of your head - '58, 56, 54, good angels at my door...' is the fact that you can easily mess up the numbers.

The rest of the album is mainly dedicated to over-arranged ballads and stuff like that, but it's still much of an improvement. Take, er, 'Waiting For The Rain', for instance; now doesn't it sound fresh and luvverly with real violins thrown in and all? And the synths actually hidden in the background? Now have the courage to admit, if Styx had gone ahead and done a song like that, they'd put the wheezing synths ahead and they'd also sing this with soooo much more of that thing they usually call "feeling" (but in the case of Styx, I wouldn't dare to speak that term out loud). And Manfred Mann just goes with the violins, and that's a pretty damn hot violin solo out there, countryish and yet classically-influenced all at once.

But it's not even the end - no, the final tune is 'Resurrection', a cute little poppy ditty about the commercialization of religion (with the notably memorable refrain 'We'll sell them Jesus dirty books too, I wonder what Billy Graham will do'). The best closer to a Manfred Mann album I've heard in years. Yoopee, it is the best Manfred Mann album I've heard in years, even if there's still some filler I'm not going to discuss. Well okay, so I've only been listening to Manfred Mann for a few months now, so you do your own little maths and I'll write my own piddly little reviews and in the meantime let's just hope and pray somebody in the future has an anti-commercial nerve to go ahead and make this album available for the general public.



Year Of Release: 1980

Not bad, but nothing to tell your grandma about either. (As in: 'hey grandma, 'If You Want Blood You've Got It' gotta be the greatest song ever written!'). It's essentially Angel Station Vol. 2, except that the 'lighter' atmosphere of that record again cedes way to gloomier overtones and there are no obvious melodic highlights like 'Angels At My Door' or 'Don't Kill It Carol'. And they're back at covering Springsteen again! 'For You' is the third time they've done a Boss tune, and again it comes from his debut album - as if post-1973 Springsteen was a non-existent persona for Manfred Mann. Third time the worst, too, because if at least they presented 'Blinded By The Light' as a Beach Boys-styled number, they essentially presented 'For You' as a Foreigner-styled number. 'I CAME FOR YOU! [booming distorted power chord plus cheesy keyboard rhythms ensue]'. I can't argue that the chorus is well-structured and catchy, catchier even than most of the Foreigner choruses, but that doesn't make it less generic and inadequate - I mean, it's one thing when the Boss grumbles and mumbles it out to himself, and another when Chris Thompson chants it out as if he were the only God-sent singer on the planet.

Still, at least the rest of the material is pretty consistent. There are, like, tiny little hooks everywhere and essentially, this time around you're bound to confront your definition of good taste rather than the unmemorability of the songs. For instance, is Newman's 'Lies (Through The 80s)' arranged in a tasteful manner? And is the 'pull up the trees, put up a parking lot' quote from Joni Mitchell at the end of each chorus indicative of good taste or not? At least, for those who are actually aware of the quotation fact? Here's a serious problem for generations to come. Another question: is 'On The Run' really a rip-off of Status Quo's version of 'You're In The Army Now' or not? I'd say yeah, but I don't even remember the exact year in which the Status Quo record came out. Either way, 'On The Run' is really catchy, and shows Manfred Mann was really living up to the times, drum machines and all.

The real highlights for me are all on the second side. The instrumental 'Fritz The Blank', for instance, introduces a new synth tone for Manfred, and is quite creative with its mix of blues, funk, and pop. At the very least, it caught my eye where the absolute majority of Manfred Mann instrumentals from the previous three or four years could not. The cosmic rocker 'Stranded', slightly reminiscent of ELO-ish takes on the sci fi thematics, is really catchy for all of its special effects, dated already upon the album's release... echoey vocals, spacey guitar and synth tones, an overall feeling of gloom'n'doom, we've had our share of all that from 'Space Oddity' to 'Mission (A World Record)'.

'Hello I Am Your Heart' gotsta be the bestest, then... the lyrical twist is interesting and original (I mean, there've been tons of songs written about conversing with one's own heart, but none actually written from the perspective of one's heart, right?), the leaden guitar riffs work well as counterpoints for the majestic verses, and there's some really cool percussion work, as befits a song about a heart. And yet another song about a heart, 'Heart On The Street', seems to have been inspired by Dire Straits or somebody like that. Just listen to the mood of those verses!

The funny thing is, I can't exactly catch this album by the tail and say, okay, this is its main flaw, so I'm giving it such a small rating. It just goes to further show how much of a sly fox is Mr Mann. Chance is simply awash in quoted, stolen, borrowed, or influenced elements. Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Lynne, ABBA, Status Quo, Krautrock, the list could go on, they are all present here in that form or another, so that you're almost irritated by the thought of this unimaginable "potpourri", yet they're all processed and mixed in the most extravagant way. And these songs are simple, but complex - they pack so many musical ideas that even if you dismiss two of them, the third is bound to have some appeal. It's just that nobody outside of diehard MM fans really needs this, because there are no new conceptual ideas, and the new melodic ideas aren't really worth your money. Especially considering you'll have to waste a lot of it trying to really locate this record. Outside of Russia, that is, the country where polar bears walk the snow-filled streets proudly humming 'Davy's On The Road Again' to themselves, but that's no world you really wanna live in.



Year Of Release: 1980

Don't make the mistake of dismissing this album as another generic "rock star cares about the Third World" type toss-off. Manfred Mann stems from South Africa, and he probably knows and feels the problems of the native population better than anybody else in the white rock business. Or maybe not. Of course, then again you could easily say that this was just another attempt by Mann to sound 'with the times', what with Peter Gabriel's 'Biko' and Sting's activity and all - it's not as if you were able to see a lot of direct African references in Mann's early work.

But whatever be, one fact's for certain: there's nothing like this in Mann's earlier work, and whether it is an honest caring statement or just a sleazy commercial attempt at recapturing some relevance doesn't bother me as long as I finally have something different to write about it. The album I'm reviewing is the American edition, which somewhat diversifies the proceedings by including the band's then-current hit 'Runner' and 'Rebel', with a returning Mick Rogers on vocals. (There's so little information to be found on Manfred Mann albums over the Web I'm not really sure of who takes lead vocals all over the album, and what is Chris Thompson's actual function concerning it). Both songs aren't anything particularly special, though: 'Runner' is a Foreigner-like arena-rocker going nowhere in particular, and 'Rebel' has a funny friendly sax-enhanced ska atmosphere, but little else.

My copy of the album, however, begins with a cover of the Police's 'Demolition Man' which is totally amazing - and I'm pretty sure that most of those Sting-bashers who don't have the patience to sit through the lengthy sax jamming on the original will be just as delighted with this version as I am. The Police used a tricky, complex arrangement that could mask both the catchiness and the emotional heat of the tune, but Manfred Mann doesn't do any of these things; he just speeds the tempo up a bit, cuts out all the solos, brings out the crucial riff of the song so that it towers high and lofty above everything else, and graces the song with a goofy, ominous vocal delivery - not to mention the "puzzle element" of cutting out the concluding 'I'm the demolition man!' of the chorus.

The inclusion of 'Demolition Man' was, of course, a hint at the Police's Ghost In The Machine which initiated Sting's preoccupation with the third world and its problems ('One World Is Enough', remember?). A funny indirect hint at that - 'Demolition Man' has no immediate connection with the third world as such. But most of the rest of Manfred Mann's album certainly does. The cover of Moore and Chappell's 'Third World Service' initiates this long, long string of tracks dedicated to Africa and its problems, with alternating gloomy and cheerful notes (and also alternating involving and boring moments, but what can you do, it's better to be so inconsistent like Manfred Mann than so unbearably consistent like Foreigner).

Among a small bunch of short tribal 'interludes' that sound like they're supposed to sound, three things stand out - 'Tribal Statistics', 'Redemption Song' and the mastodontic 'Africa Suite'. 'Tribal Statistics' is credited to one Andy Qunta, who, according to his name, is probably a Xhosa in origin, but I'm no big specialist in Bantu as of yet, so I'll leave that to the experts. The song isn't particularly interesting, though, due to a very generic synth-pop arrangement. Not so with the fine cover of Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song' which is as uplifting as a cover of Bob Marley can potentially be. My copy of the album includes two versions of the song, both of which are intertwined with Mann's own 'Brothers And Sisters Of Africa', and while I certainly could do without the lengthy seven-minute version, the shorter one is strong and vital.

Which leaves us with the sprawling ten-minute anti-apartheid 'Africa Suite'. And it's good. You ask me - is Manfred Mann able to weave tribal elements and world beat into his usual ponderous style? And I'll answer, yes, he can. 'Brothers And Sisters Of Azania' is complex and ponderous, and it also carries the African spirit pretty well with all the tribal chanting in the background. And besides that, the 'To Bantustan?' part is friggin' catchy; put different lyrics instead of the 'what do they do with a man whose Father was a Swazi?..' part and you get yourself a potential pop hit.

In all, the album sure is a glorious mess, and the facts that (a) Manfred Mann was in the midst of a lineup change back then, (b) the British and American editions are so different and (c) you'd be hard pressed to gather any exact information about it nowadays, all these facts only make the listening process more exciting. I guess no-one but Manfred Mann could put a Sting cover, a Bob Marley cover, a Foreigner-style rocker, and a lengthy half-prog, half-world beat suite all together and get away with it. An extra half-star for audaciousness and for managing to befuddle me so goddamn much.



Year Of Release: 1984

The most interesting thing, for me, about this album, is that Manfred Mann's band actually got around to playing Budapest before the lifting of the Iron Curtain; they certainly weren't the first rock band to set their foot on Eastern Europe territory (didn't the Stones play Warsaw as early as 1967?), but still every case like that deserves to be mentioned. Manfred Mann's Earth Band wasn't exactly a disco ensemble, you know. Nice.

Anyway, I somehow ended up with a shortened version of this album - not only does it not include the two or three bonus tracks appended to the new CD issue (including 'Don't Kill It Carol', aarrgh, one of the band's best songs), but for some technical reason I'm also missing 'Spirits In The Night' which apparently used to open it. Not that it's a tremendous loss, but anyway it kinda sucks. Manfred Mann's Earth Band didn't have that many live albums out - this was their first one - and apparently, they were really good at playing live; Budapest Live isn't a shattering record, but it has the band in fine form, inspired, energized and churning out the hits and non-hits with pretty of verve.

The setlist isn't entirely nice. I never had a thing for 'Davy's On The Road Again', and while they actually seem to speed it up a little on here and make it kick more ass than you'd expect to, it still remains what it was: a corny arena-rock adaptation of a generic standard folk melody. And likewise, 'For You' comes off somewhat better without the slick overproduction, but it's still not a very good song due to the booming stadium arrangement. Although the guitar solo really smokes on that one, but that's to be expected if you're playing an anthemic arena-rock standard.

However, they certainly redeem themselves with newer material. 'Demolition Man' is an excellent inclusion, and while the singing is a little bit more slurred and less fun than on the studio original, the driving gruff riff is intact, and they end the song in a flurry of high-pitched bluesy guitar explosions that really bring on some Sixties associations, again. 'Lies (Through The 80s)', again freed from the extra slickness, reveals itself as an equally great concert standard, although I wonder what caused them to drop the 'pull up the trees put up a parking lot' line throughout the song. Maybe Joni Mitchell threatened to sue? What the hell - this wasn't even Manfred Mann's song in the first place... or maybe I'm missing something.

Of course, no Earth Band concert can pass without an explosive performance of 'Blinded By The Light' either. Have I yet mentioned how much more I like their version than the Boss'? Well, I do, and even more so because they're able to reproduce the "double vocal melody" bit on stage perfectly, without missing a note in the process. Sure it's cheesy, and distorts the original atmosphere, but hey, anything that distorts Springsteen's atmosphere is perfectly all right by me. In fact, I'd like to hear Weird Al singing a whole album of Springsteen covers... sorry, got carried off topic here.

The topic was that there's also a short acoustic-and-organ-only version of 'Redemption Song' (guess the band was too poor to hire an entire chorus/orchestra to help them on tour, eh?). It works maybe even better than the original, and it's nice that the audience doesn't join in, because this takes away a portion of pomposity and makes the song more like a personal soulful ballad (come to think of it, the Hungarian audience probably had no chances of joining in anyway). Maybe it would work even better had Manfred restrained from playing the keyboard. Finally, the album ends with an obligatory (I guess), but fun performance of 'Mighty Quinn', which Chris Thompson takes on with perfect ease. Funny how you really really can't go wrong with a Dylan cover - geez, there's nothing really special about this proto-metallic arrangement, yet it's tremendous fun anyway.

So, overall, the Earth Band was probably a solid attraction live. The songs occasionally - not often - differ from the original arrangements, there's a little bit of space open for improvisation, the players are tight and professional, the repertoire is spotty, but tolerable, well, in short, this is Manfred Mann's Earth Band, whatcha want. You either hate 'em or love 'em anyway.



Year Of Release: 1986

Don't know about no tango, but putting the cover of 'Hey Bulldog' on this album sure was a criminal thing to do. In the past, Manfred Mann's covers were classy - able to emphasize the original vocal melody and transforming the original instrumental one into a big fat glossy lump of kitsch. People could love or hate the method but it was sure performed with skill all the time. But whatever be, Manfred always had the good taste to evade doing Beatles covers, maybe because he knew many of the Beatles songs already contained the kitsch element in themselves.

This time, though, the group is so desperate for material that they finally commit the sacrilege. They don't even butcher the song, they just reduce it to nothing. The notorious piano riff disappears, giving way to a mushy pseudo-break-dance synth arrangement; the barking and the general scurrying of the song's coda are gone, too. The first verse is repeated twice and there's an endless 'you can talk to me' fade-out coda instead which, to me, means one and only one thing: neither Mann nor the others really knew what to do with the song, so they just made it long instead - you know, some people are impressed when there's a big fat nothing that goes on not for three, but for four and a half minutes. So the question is: if it's so goddamn lame, why did they release it?

And the answer is: because it's actually the best track on the entire album. Or, at least, hardly worse than anything else. With just three or four original compositions and the rest of the space dedicated to covers - which, apart from the Beatles, also include Joni Mitchell, some old rockabilly number or sumpthin', the Jam, and some more unknown people - Criminal Tango shows that Mann and his Menn pretty much shot the very last remains of their load on Somewhere In Africa; now, exhausted from the effort, all they could do is make sort of a Roaring Silence update for the Eighties. A bunch of unmemorable, absolutely generic synth rockers and ballads, with the originals just as bland as the life-devoid covers, it doesn't have one single song that I'd want to put up on even a "Best Of Vol. 5" compilation or something like that. Perversely enough, it was the first Manfred Mann album to be released on CD.

Mick Rogers and Chris Thompson both appear on the album, sharing guitar and vocal duties, but that's no consolation for such a typically nineteen eighty six album. Even if the song has melodic potential, the arrangement totally squeezes it out. Joni Mitchell's 'Banquet' on here sounds like a lame attempt at crossing over into Depeche Mode territory, but while the atmosphere might be the same (after all, it's not very difficult to have your synthesizers all echoey and "menacing" and a slight Eastern pattern to the most deeply placed ones to have that "mystique", right?), the hooks are entirely lacking. How could they not be if everything is so disgustingly merged together? Not a single instrumental pattern that actually stands out!

And where there is a pattern that stands out, it's usually a soulless generic synth-riff, like in the original 'Rescue'. I guess Rod Stewart was churning lots of similar songs at the time, particularly on that 1986 album of his; which means that just about everybody was doing it at the time, right? Right. And no, gentlemen, putting up a meaningless three-minute instrumental ('Crossfire') at the end of the album doesn't mean making it more "serious". It just makes it even more diffuse and ridiculous than it already is. Blah.

So consider that measly extra half-star as my willingness to admit the band still has good taste in covers. After all, you don't often meet the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and the Jam ('Going Underground', by the way - nearly as lifeless and expendable as 'Hey Bulldog') shaking hands on the same album. The bad news is, I can't imagine one single non-mental person who'd actually want to listen to these covers, much less like them as much as - or more than! - the originals. I guess at this point Mann just should have packed it in; unfortunately, the more I think about it the more I realize that the artists who were doing all this schlocky synthy garbage in the mid Eighties simply could not, not even in theory, realize the ridiculousness of what they were doing, because this electronic stuff was all the rage and so trendy and all. By the standards of 2002, Criminal Tango sounds like an offensively dated joke; in 1986, the boys were probably hopping around mad in the studio totally pleased with the, ahem, "results". That's the stupid way life goes.


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