Valentine’s Day, 1967, and Northampton, the county town of Northamptonshire, is designated as a New town. Prime Minister Harold Wilson hoped it would double in size and population by the year 1980. Ten days later, the scientific world was staggered by the announcement that the year before, astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish at the University of Cambridge had discovered a pulsar for the first time. Two days after that, fire broke out at Shrewsbury Mental Hospital, killing 21 patients.
Manfred Mann were at number 1 that fortnight, for the third and final time, with their best chart-topper, Mighty Quinn. The group’s line-up had changed since Pretty Flamingo in 1966 – Paul Jones had been keen to go solo for some time, and was finally replaced that July with former Band of Angels member and Jones lookalike Mike d’Abo. Bassist Jack Bruce had only been with the band briefly before leaving to form influential rock trio Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. His replacement was Klaus Voorman, who was close friends with the Beatles from their Hamburg days, and designer of the memorable sleeve of Revolver.
Around this time they left EMI to sign with Fontana Records, and their cover of Bob Dylan’s Just like a Woman made the top ten. As they moved further away from their jazz and R’n’B roots with new album As Is, their singles continued to do very well, with Semi-Detached, Suburban Mr James and Ha Ha Said the Clown both reaching the top five. The latter was their first release of 1967, but despite the early psychedelia of Pretty Flamingo, the year before, they failed to capitalise on the burgeoning hippy movement as they spent much of the time working on their soundtrack album to British film Up the Junction and Mighty Garvey, which turned out to be their final album.
Among the material was Mighty Quinn, another Bob Dylan cover. Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) was originally a ragged folk-rock number recorded during the sessions with the Band that became known as The Basement Tapes – despite never making it to that album. It would be three years before a version by the song’s author would be released. However Manfred Mann got hold of the song that December, and correctly saw hit potential in the bizarre tale of Quinn the Eskimo, and decided to add suitably psychedelic colour to the bare bones Dylan presented.
Plenty of Dylan’s songs were lyrically obscure in this period, but this throwaway contained some of his most impenetrable words. It is believed to have been inspired by actor Anthony Quinn’s role as an eskimo in 1960 drama The Savage Innocents. Dylan has dismissed it as nothing more than a nursery rhyme, and there’s certainly a flavour of Yellow Submarine in there. Such was Dylan’s power back then, songs he tossed to one side could be made into number 1 singles by the right groups.
It’s fair to say the lyrics don’t really mean anything, and it would be tricky to create a story from them, but we can say that Quinn is some kind of saviour figure – ‘Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy/But when Quinn the eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna jump for joy’. The final verse suggests the influence of drugs, as ‘Nobody can get no sleep, there’s someone on everyone’s toes/But when Quinn the eskimo gets here, everybody’s gonna wanna doze’. Is Quinn a drug dealer? Hard to say, but one thing I do know is my favourite line is ‘But jumping queues and making haste/Just ain’t my cup of meat’. The idea of Dylan sitting down for a nice cup of roast chicken really tickles me.
Analyse the lyrics all you like, but the reason Mighty Quinn was a number 1 was the killer chorus. It’s a real earworm, and Voorman’s rendtion of the main hook on a flute adds emphasis and a kooky charm. The stuttering drums from drummer Mike Hugg are also very effective. It’s very much a product of its time, but this psychedelic bubblegum pop can’t help raise a smile.
The video above features the band performing on the steps of a large country house, deliberately crap dancing and some nice far-out camera work.
Despite Mighty Quinn begin a resounding success on these shores and in the US, some members of Manfred Mann were growing increasingly disillusioned with how far they had strayed from their roots. D’Abo probably wasn’t among them, as he wrote Handbags and Gladrags for Chris Farlowe and co-wrote Build Me Up Buttercup for the Foundations that same year. After two more top ten singles in 1968 (My Name Is Jack and Fox on the Run) and one in 1969 (Ragamuffin Man), Manfred Mann split up.
Manfred Mann and Hugg were writing advertising jingles together already, and when their band split they formed experimental jazz rockers Manfred Mann Chapter Three as a reaction to the pop they had been churning out. They split in 1971, and Mann formed a new group under his name, which turned into Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, best known these days for their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light, a top ten hit in 1977. They also released an inferior version of Mighty Quinn, so Mann must have been rather fond of that last number 1.
Guitarist Tom McGuinness formed McGuinness Flint with Hughie Flint, who had a Christmas number two in 1970 with When I’m Dead and Gone. Voorman was rumoured to be McCartney’s replacement on bass in a post-Beatles group. Although it never happened, he did work with Lennon, Harrison and Starr separately, most notably becoming a member of the Plastic Ono Band. He had a cameo in the ill-received live-action Popeye in 1980, and became the producer of German band Trio, who had a hit over here with Da Da Da in 1982.
Manfred Mann briefly reformed in 1983 to celebrate the Marquee Club’s 25th anniversary. Minus Mann, who had set to work with his Earth Band again, they got together again in 1991 for McGuinness’s 50th, and decided to carry on as the Manfreds. Featuring both vocalists, this group continue to this day.
Due to the sheer volume of great acts in the 60s, Manfred Mann are rarely mentioned as up there with the legends, but nonetheless they were an interesting, unique act. Too jazzy to stay a pop group, too pop to be true to their R’n’B roots, they perhaps deserve further investigation.
Written by: Bob Dylan
Producer: Mike Hurst
Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 February)
Comic-book writer Warren Ellis – 16 February
Actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit – 17 February
Director Anthony Asquith – 20 February