Mike d’Abo chats with Kevin Cooper about the state of English Cricket, his ‘Finger of Fudge’ jingle, that song; Handbags and Gladrags and his forthcoming tour with The Manfreds.
Michael David d’Abo is an English singer and songwriter, best known as the former lead vocalist of Manfred Mann and as the composer of the popular song ‘Handbags and Gladrags’.
After leaving the Band of Angels he joined Manfred Mann in August 1966, an established chart-topping group, as a replacement for Paul Jones. His first big hit with them was ‘Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James’. It was nearly recorded with ‘Mr Jones’ in the title before it occurred to the group that it might be interpreted as being an implied reference to Paul Jones.
He composed and produced Chris Farlowe’s ‘Handbags and Gladrags’, a hit single, which was also notably recorded by Rod Stewart and Stereophonics and subsequently became the theme music to the BBC television show The Office. With d’Abo fronting, Manfred Mann enjoyed numerous hits, including ‘Ragamuffin Man’, ‘Ha Ha Said the Clown,’ ‘My Name is Jack’ and the Dylan-penned number one hit, ‘Mighty Quinn.’
Now back touring with The Manfreds for what he says is the last time, he took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Mike how are you?
Hi Kevin how are you today?
I’m very well thank you. Before we begin, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
That’s fine Kevin, you just fire away and I will do my best (laughter).
So how is life treating you?
Life is very good and just to bring you up to date on my domestic life I have twins who are now just seven years old. So they keep me pretty busy being a hands-on Dad. Obviously I have got my older children who range from 30 to 40 to 46 (laughter). So to suddenly get Louie and Emma popping up as they did only a few years ago puts me very much in the domestic role as a Dad. However I have never stopped my song writing which keeps me very active as well. There simply are not enough hours in the day (laughter). I am also writing an autobiography which, when time allows, I will take a little further but I am currently up to 1982. Being the chef in the house and being responsible for cooking all of the meals as well; I would gladly turn it into a 28 hour day if I could (laughter). But unfortunately life doesn’t work that way.
You are going back on the road with The Manfred’s playing over 30 dates in 12 weeks. You obviously still enjoy touring?
I will be totally honest with you Kevin, I got talked into it (laughter). The last tour which we did was two years ago and it was the 50th Anniversary Tour which actually coincided with Manfred Mann forming in 1962, and after that tour I told the guys in the band that it would be my last. I was so confident that I would stick to my guns but I got talked into this one (laughter). I have been in Florida for six months and there have been a few emails going backwards and forwards together with a few little incentives. There have also been some very moving and personal messages from members of the band saying that the tour simply wouldn’t be the same without me, so I sort of got talked back into it (laughter). So I am not really great travelling but I do love the live show itself. But when you are away from home for days and days on end, and you have got to plot out your travel arrangements, all of that is not my favourite part of it Kevin. So I am fine about touring again but I think that I have made it clear to the guys that this will definitely be my last tour (laughter).
Talking of the guys, do you all still get along?
Yes we get on fine. I mean if you look back on the history of bands or brothers like The Kinks with Ray and Dave Davies, and Phil and Don Everly, it’s not unknown for people to walk out of the band. It got to the stage where Ray and Dave Davies couldn’t even stay in the same hotel. So we know all about that and we have probably been through our most argumentative period and we have come out the other side. Everyone now is old enough and mature enough to let each one be what he wants to be and how he wants to be. Of course there is the odd little irritation that crops up, but if you are mature about it and know how to deflect the problem, nobody should throw their toys out of the pram anymore (laughter). It works pretty well Kevin.
So what was the catalyst behind the band getting back together and forming The Manfred’s?
Paul (Jones) and I have worked together on and off since 1992 and that’s when the reformation of The Manfred’s started. Tom McGuinness had a 50th birthday party in 1992 and suggested that we get the band back together again. It was meant to be a one-off thing but the offers came in and it was at that point when we really decided to call ourselves The Manfred’s. We can’t be Manfred Mann as there is an individual who still has the rights to the name called Manfred Mann and he still has his Earth Band so we are The Manfred’s. Mike Hugg who was the co-founder of Manfred Mann with Manfred, is part of the line-up. He used to be the drummer but he is a very, very accomplished keyboard player.
So with Paul and Mike Hugg being the original members and Tom McGuinness came on-board shortly after 5-4-3-2-1 which was a hit in 1964 and then I joined the band in 1966. So we have four original survivors of the sixties you might say (laughter). Paul and Tom still play with their band, The Blues Band, which Rob Townsend has been in for about 30 years, and he is now our drummer in The Manfred’s. And now we have bought in two younger guys, Marcus Cliff on bass and Simon Curry on sax and a variety of woodwinds. Having said that they are not as young as they used to be either (laughter). So as you can see Kevin it’s a pretty good line-up.
I don’t work all of the time with The Manfreds, I’m an occasional member now but as far as the tour was concerned, they said that it just wouldn’t be the same without me so I add a little bit of weight and a bit more variety. Without me they can play all of their hits from 1963 to 1966 and with me there we can do all of the hits that we had from 1966 to 1969 so that broadens the repertoire a little bit (laughter) and it always seems to work pretty well. We have toured almost every 18 months for the last 20 years so what’s one more tour even though I said that I wouldn’t do anymore, here I am doing it all again (laughter).
You are once again playing the Royal Concert Hall in here Nottingham on Tuesday 11th November. Do you have any fond memories of the City?
You have very good Indian restaurant’s (hysterical laughter) that’s one memory. On a personal note I love Trent Bridge cricket ground because I am a cricket fanatic.
Well you will have noticed the changes at Trent Bridge over the years. It’s a fantastic ground.
Yes Kevin you are right, it is a fantastic place to go and watch cricket. But I have also noticed a few changes around the Royal Concert Hall too. When we first played there as far as I can remember there used to be a road running around the back of the venue but now it is a shocking great tram way. And so parking and things like that have changed so you have to keep amending your plans. You think that you know the place and exactly where you are going to park, and that you are going to have a pint in such and such a pub. However, when you get there you find that the pub has gone and the parking restrictions are worse than ever (laughter). You have to keep modifying your plans and try to keep up to date.
But that’s life Kevin isn’t it, but I really do love Nottingham and I’m so glad to hear you enthusing about Trent Bridge. As you say it is a very different ground with those little, as I call them, Battle of Agincourt tents. But they tell me that the ball doesn’t swing as much there now as it did when Richard Hadlee was playing for Nottinghamshire. Apparently the different heights around the ground have changed the atmosphere and affected how the ball swings.
In answer to your first question, when England play well and win Test Matches that also makes me happy. Everybody was laying into Peter Mores, Alistair Cook and Paul Downton but it has come right for them all and I am so glad for them.
Moving away from the music and talking about cricket for a while, my one criticism of Alistair Cook in the role of England Captain is that he doesn’t try to make things happen; he tends to sit back and wait for something to happen.
I totally agree with you Kevin, he is very defensive and I don’t think that he has got that flair that you get from Steve Waugh or Ricky Pontin and people like that. In his defence, I think that Cook has had to react to circumstances, like when he reached rock bottom after Lords. Shane Warne was saying in the press just how defensive and totally predictable Cook had been as the England Captain
But I’m with you on this topic, I like the Australian Captains like Alan Border. He wouldn’t be frightened to change his field settings after every ball if he wanted to try and make something happen.
Yes I know exactly what you mean Kevin. I’m not sure whether you are born with that instinct to try something new.
Now returning to the music and you in particular, ‘Passion Driven’ your first album in 25 years, why has it taken you so long?
(Hysterical laughter) the problem is that nobody signs you up these days; you can’t get a record deal and therefore you have got to pay for it yourself. To be honest I was quite happy with it but I was very disappointed that it didn’t get any exposure at all. It was on a tiny little label that a friend of mine had and perhaps I should have involved bigger studios and more musicians. It was a bit of a home-grown affair, but I thought that it deserved to get a little play on Radio Two. I didn’t get one National play on any of the tracks but the regional radio stations played it a bit. And now it’s sort of been and gone and that was that. It probably sold 100 copies; I don’t really know. So nothing really to get excited about but at the time I really believed in it, and thought that I would be able to generate more publicity and attention than turned out to be the case. But then again I suppose that my era of recognition is probably a long time ago.
I never stop recording and I have got a whole lot more stuff which I might put out on another album but I want to be sure this time that it would get a little more exposure on National Radio. I may also have to raise the standard of production a bit more and farm it out to a younger guy who will inject it with some of the ingredients that people need to be hearing for this day and age.
From a personal point of view I loved ‘Tiny Miracles’ I absolutely loved it.
Thanks Kevin, and I thought that was a great little song about the twins. When I first wrote it my wife Lisa was pregnant and we both thought “wow this is great, this is the time; this is a tiny miracle” and for the first few months after I had written the song, we assumed that Lisa was having just a single child and so the song was called ‘Tiny Miracle’. However when we finally got a scan to confirm that it was twins I had to change the tittle to ‘Tiny Miracles’ (laughter). My wife being a little superstitious and worried about a full-term pregnancy said that I could not record the song until they were born. I liked that song a lot and that was the one that I was told that Radio Two would play. I was told that Aled Jones would feature the song on the Sunday Morning Show and so I had to fill out a questionnaire about my religious beliefs.
I am a Christian and I was in fact going to go into the church so I thought that I would pass that test, but in the end they never played it and I never got my little interview which I was rather hoping I would on the strength of that song. And that would have been my little bit of Radio Two exposure but it didn’t happen in the end. But thank you for your kind words Kevin, it’s a song from the heart, I loved it (laughter).
On the subject of songs, I can’t speak to you without mentioning ‘that song’.
You are talking about Handbags and Gladrags aren’t you? I was very lucky as that song came to me over a period of 24 hours. I was only 23 at the time living in London and if you believe that such things are possible it felt as though I was communicating with my higher self. Or to put it another way, divine inspiration sort of popped into my head and when people talk about ‘the muse’ which is the word from which music is derived, the muse sometimes just descends upon you and you find yourself doing things and you think to yourself ‘where is that coming from?’ I think that all of those elements were at work and at play when I wrote that song. (Mike then performed an impromptu version of Handbags and Gladrags on the piano for me).
When I came up with that in 1967 I thought that it was fine. But later when I actually got to meet Rod Stewart who nobody had ever heard of in 1968, he told me that he wanted to record the song but he wanted to do it with a variation on the piano riff. (Mike then performed the final version for me, again on the piano). So that was Rod’s input in getting me to come up with a flute or an oboe phrase and his version came out on his first album. I had already recorded the Chris Farlowe version which was a minor hit in 1967, then Rod’s version came out in 1969. After that everything went really quiet for some years; people would play the song and like it and often say ‘that’s a great song’, but it wasn’t until The Stereophonics covered the song which bought the song to a whole new generation for me. Then people would start focusing back onto the Rod Stewart version and so over the years the song has actually had a lot of covers but what we do when we do the tour, I obviously play the song and I introduce is as ‘the composers version’.
I met Kelly Jones once and he told me that he had been working in America with The Stereophonics and he had a day off whilst in New York and he had gone into a record store and bought a Rod Stewart compilation which featured Handbags and Gladrags as the first track. He told me that he never got beyond track one, he just kept playing it and playing it. Which is why he copied the arrangement which I had made for Rod, and he was obviously trying to copy Rod as well.
So out of all of the cover versions of the song, do you have a favourite?
I suppose that I have a soft spot for the Chris Farlowe version because that was the first outing that the song got. Secondly I would have to say the Rod Stewart version because without that The Stereophonics would never have recorded the song. And without the Rod Stewart version I don’t believe that Ricky Gervais would have ever chosen the song as the theme tune to The Office. I did speak to Ricky and he told me that they had originally wanted the Rod Stewart version but the Record Company wanted an arm and a leg for the use of it so they did their own generic version, which of course I had nothing to do with and I didn’t know that the song was being re-recorded then. So really it is all down to Chris Farlowe and Rod Stewart that the song has now had a subsequent revival of interest.
I have to say that it is a beautiful and timeless song.
It is Kevin, and as I say it just came through that higher self; that divine inspiration, because it seemed to be the perfect marriage of words and music and chord combinations. Everything just fell together over a period of a couple of days. It is possibly the finest thing that I will ever do, but you still live in hope that the muse will descend upon one again for one more final outing but we shall see (laughter). But if nothing else comes up out of my creativity, I will be very happy to be associated with that one song, that’s for sure.
Even more so than ‘A Finger Of Fudge’?
(Hysterical laughter) well that was just a little throw-away thing but I really do have happy memories of that Kevin. I had a jingle agent called Sue Manning who used to ring me quite regularly and tell me that Cadburys or The English Tourist Board or Dulux Paint would be looking for something. So we would all have a meeting ad I would come up with whatever it was that I thought they wanted. Invariably I would ask them to give me a day or two in order to come up with something. Hang on, I’m still at the piano. (Mike then proceeded to perform an impromptu version of his jingle for the Cadburys chocolate bar, a Finger Of Fudge).
I sent that over to the guys at Cadburys a couple of days later and they told me that it was exactly what they were looking for but informed me that it had to be sung by a young boy as they had already done some filming in a school playground of the kids playing conkers. So we auditioned a few boys from the Corona Stage Academy and we finished it by using one voice. My good friend Klaus Voormann, who by this time was the bass player in The Manfred’s had previously played the jingle on a recorder, and I just added a little piano. It was just a session that came and went one morning and that was it. I got my £500 for writing the tune and never thought anymore of it. Over the years, some 13 years later, it was still being played. I think that it was used on the television from 1974 until 1987, something like that. It was certainly on the air for well over 10 years.
Everyone naturally assumed that I had made a fortune from it but in reality you get paid virtually nothing, a half-penny per performance. But it is a song that everyone remembers so when I am performing ‘An Evening With Mike d’Abo’ which I do occasionally, I will throw that in for a lighter moment in the evening (laughter). I always say that I will start the song and let the audience finish it and everybody just sings along with it. I contacted Cadburys some years later asking them if they would like to revive it, but they showed absolutely no interest at all. However it does seem to have a place in peoples nostalgic memories from the 1970’s and 80’s. Whether it is because they were all going to school back then I simply don’t know. They used to play the advertisement during Breakfast Television and mid-afternoon so it was obviously aimed at the kids to try and get the mums to say ‘Ok Peter, you can have a finger of fudge when I next go shopping’ which was the market that they were aiming for.
However, I love jingle writing but unfortunately I never got asked to do it again. In my hay day when I would do them it was fun because you had an out-let for the music. I am writing music all of the time and it comes very naturally to me; in fact I heard the other day that SPAR UK had used Handbags and Gladrags for one of their campaigns. There were no vocals, just the instrumental piece that I played you earlier. On the strength of that I came up with some lyrics about SPAR UK which I submitted to the Advertising Agency, who surprise surprise never got back to me. Sometimes you feel that in this day and age that one’s contribution has been rather forgotten. I found that with Handbags and Gladrags on The Office; when it happened the BBC never even contacted me or my publishers about using the song. They simply farmed it out to a Musical Director called Big George, and I thought ‘why didn’t someone contact me, I could have told them how to play the tune’.
At the end of the day one is grateful for any exposure that a song gets because it brings in a little bit of extra money which is always welcome, especially when you have got young twins and you are trying to educate them (laughter).
When something happens like it did with The Office you must find that quite offensive?
Well Kevin I found out only because someone phoned me and said ‘do you know that your song is being used by The Office’. So I rang my publishers who knew nothing about it. So I called the BBC and the guy said ‘who are you’ and so I told him that I was the guy who had written that song. They said ‘no you’re not, it was written by Rod Stewart’. I just said that no, actually I wrote it and that I wanted to know how they had used it without my permission. I then called my publishers again and asked them how the BBC could be using my song without my permission. To my surprise they informed me that the BBC could use my song because there is an agreement in place which allows the television companies to use any piece of music that they want to use as long as they pay a royalty and therefore they don’t have to consult you.
The unfortunate thing was that I didn’t find out about The Office until it was a done deal, which obviously did upset me, as I felt that it was the job of the publishers to make me aware before they had done it. I didn’t think that they did justice to my tune in the way that is was used in The Office. Surely I as the composer should have been consulted and I could have told them how to play the piano part properly. But still such is life Kevin.
Taking into consideration all of the songs that you have written, and continue to write, is that made any more difficult because you can’t read music?
No Kevin, that is not a problem at all. I always use the example that the Paul Simon’s and the Paul McCartney’s of this world can’t read music. You have to know your chord sequences, for example I have to know that I am playing a G Minor and a B 7th and that stuff but I can rudimentary read music. I can see on a piece of music when the notes are going up and when they are coming down, but I can just play music, remember it and write down the lyrics and it’s there, locked away. However the disadvantage comes when you want to, for example, make an arrangement for a string player. Then you have to get a copyist in to work alongside side you, as I did with the Rod Stewart arrangement for Handbags and Gladrags. You then tell them the parts that you want the oboe to play; the parts that you want the string quartet to play, because I wouldn’t be able to write it down. And then you have to pay them for their time, and you feel a bit of a chump because you can’t really do the complete job yourself as you would like to.
But that is the price that I pay for having stopped my music lessons at 14 years old (laughter) after my piano teacher told me back in 1958 ‘d’Abo you are not making any progress; you are not practicing, nor are you doing your finger exercises, I would give it up if I were you’. It was at that point that I decided there and then to continue to learn my Cliff Richard, Tommy Steel, and Ray Charles songs but I couldn’t be bothered with the written notes (laughter). But it has served me pretty well.
Now you may be able to finally clear up the mystery of the name change in ‘Semi-detached Suburban Mr James’ for me?
Well it was originally called Mr Jones but Manfred felt that it was causing offence to Paul (Jones) and suggested that we change Jones to James. And so we did (laughter).
Mike thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me.
Kevin it’s been great, you are a love. I have really enjoyed speaking to you. We will speak again one day. I look forward to seeing you in Nottingham.