While his popularity has endured for decades, Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., was not an immediate hit; the LP’s first single, Blinded by the Light, didn’t even chart.
But 35 years ago, Blinded by the Light, performed by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, reached #1 – the only time Springsteen would top the charts as a songwriter.
Springsteen has said his enigmatic track was written after Columbia Records president Clive Davis complained that the album had “no hits.” Springsteen responded with a song loaded with obscure references like “madman drummers bummers” (trouble-prone E Street Band drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez) and “Indians in the summer” (Springsteen’s old Little League team).
Mann’s 1977 hit was the latest in a succession of distinctive covers recorded by the keyboardist with the Earth Band and its predecessor, the British Invasion group Manfred Mann.
Manfred Mann band members included drummer Mike Hugg, Tom McGuinness on guitar and bass, Mike Vickers on saxophone, flute and guitar and Paul Jones and later Mike d’Abo on vocals, and Klaus Voormann (yes, that Klaus Voormann) on bass and flute. The roots of the band were in jazz and R & B, but early success on the UK charts concentrated the band’s attention on producing pop hits. Their gift was taking tunes written by others – often already released – and recording versions so unique that they seemed to be originals by the band.
In an interview with Manfred Mann, Tom McGuinness and Mike Hugg, Rock Cellar Magazine learned how these musical alchemists turned obscure songs into rock gold.
Rock Cellar Magazine: This year marks the 35th anniversary of Blinded by the Light reaching #1 in the US. How did you discover the Springsteen song?
Manfred Mann: A DJ in Philadephia suggested that I listen to Bruce Springsteen. His name was Ed Sciaky. The album I had was Greetings from Asbury Park, which I still love for its roughness – a wonderful thing.
RCM: When you decide to cover a song like Blinded by the Light, what is your approach to creating your own version? Does the band work together or do you work independently?
MM: My method is to always work on my own at the piano, playing it over and over, so that I forget the original – I stop listening to the original version. This is why I sometimes make mistakes. Gradually my own interpretation appears; in the case of Blinded it took a long time. I will then rehearse with the band, and the guys will help to mold it and hopefully improve it further. With Chris Thompson singing, the thing really came alive.
We didn’t play the track in concert before it was recorded. In fact, the first few times we played it, it was awful. The changes are very difficult to do live.
RCM: Your Blinded by the Light is much more of a rocker, to its advantage. How did you come to add features of the song like the counterpoint vocals with Chris Thompson?
MM: The counterpoint vocals are a favorite thing of mine, but they don’t often work. I was amazed and very surprised when arranging Blinded that the verse fitted so well over the chorus. We did a cross-vocal like it originally in the early 1960′s at the end of a track called Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James.
RCM: How about the Moog synthesizer?
MM: The Moog lines and big sweeps were put in so that the track could build to a climax before the cut back to the chorus. The record is in a sense a little unusual in that the chorus is a cut-back rather than a build up. But to tell the truth, I was just imitating Supertramp with the piano comping! Although my part is very melodic and nice.
[During the 1960s, Manfred Mann had a run of hits like Sha-La-La (a flop for the Shirelles), Pretty Flamingo (written by Brill Building regular Mark Barkan), and Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn) (a hit before its writer, Bob Dylan, released his own version).
But it was Manfred Mann’s breakout hit in 1964 that introduced the group to the U.S.: Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a disappointment the year before by the popular American R&B group the Exciters: lead Brenda Reid, Lillian Walker, Carol Johnson and bassman Herb Rooney. With hotshot producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and a great song penned by Bert Berns, the Exciters hit #4 in early 1963 with Tell Him.
But the Exciters had little success after their huge hit. Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, the hit machine that had written Da Doo Ron Ron for the Crystals, hoped to turn another string of gibberish into gold by penning Do Wah Diddy for the Exciters. But the tune didn’t climb higher than #78 on the charts. Adding another “diddy” however, the group of nonsense syllables became a #1 hit for Manfred Mann.]
RCM: How were you all introduced to Do Wah Diddy Diddy?
Tom McGuinness: Paul brought along the record to a gig. We played the record in the dressing room and then we went onstage before the gig and learned it. Probably did it that night to the audience. We started doing it live and it really didn’t go down well.
Mike Hugg: Eventually a record company, EMI, signed us up and we slowly morphed into a pop group after having a [UK] hit record with 5-4-3-2-1. When we were recording our first album our producer, John Burgess, asked us if there was anything else we had in the repertoire to make up the right number of tracks.
TM: He said, “Is there anything in the live set that we haven’t recorded yet?” And we said, “Well, there’s this song we’ve been doing, but it hasn’t been going down well, we’re thinking of dropping it.” He listened to it and said, “That sounds like a hit to me!”
MH: We recorded it on a 4-track machine and it was mixed in mono and I think everything including the vocals probably went down on the first take.
RCM: Paul would sing live with the band when you recorded?
MH: Yeah. Probably playing maracas at the same time (laughs).
RCM: So then Do Wah Diddy Diddy is released…?
TM: And the next thing we knew it was out as a single. And John Burgess has edited the record because the original version had an organ solo in the middle. That happened in those days without discussing it with us. The record company cut out the organ solo and repeated the middle eight. The second middle eight on the record is just the first one copied. The first we knew of it was when we heard it on the radio driving to a gig.
RCM: Whereupon you made a huge load of money…
TM: When Do Wah Diddy Diddy hit in America, we were on a deal which paid us one cent in every dollar that EMI earned – between the 5 of us. That was a standard deal. We just signed anything to make a record.
RCM: Talk a little about touring after that…
TM: So we went over to the U.S. in late 1964 and were playing support to Peter and Gordon on the tour. And at the first gig in New York, they decided to add another act on the bill with us: The Exciters! We were vaguely embarrassed. We hadn’t ripped them off, we hadn’t done a cover before theirs even came out. And it hadn’t done anything in England when we put our version out, but still we were embarrassed. They were knocked out to find the record had even come out in England! They performed it, and then we performed it a bit later in the same evening.
RCM: So what was it like for Manfred Mann after the success of the song?
TM: Do Wah Diddy Diddy opened a lot of doors, it took us to America. But it also put an end to our pretensions as hit songwriters. Our record producer said, “You know, it’s gonna be much better to look outside the band for material to record because it’s just not right, bands writing their own material. You need professional songwriters. Bear in mind, this is a label that’s got the Beatles. It was very much old school thinking. And we fell for it.
RCM: Manfred, how did you feel at the time about not being taken seriously as songwriters?
MM: Before Do Wah Diddy was a big hit, I decided that we could not compete at the highest level as writers. Do Wah Diddy was a result of that thought process. Being discouraged from relying on our own material was a good thing anyway.
We were not good enough songwriters, when the Beatles, Stones, Kinks etc. were the competition. There was no shame in not writing, any more than Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, and Frank Sinatra did not write their own stuff.
RCM: What do you look for in a song to record?
MM: I’m not quite sure what attracts me because it is an instinctive process. But generally, something that one can change and alter. It’s often best if the original was quirky and odd, and specific to the writer. I often straighten it out and make it more accessible and easier to get a grip on. For example, one wouldn’t want to do an Elton John song, because he has already done the straight version. There is nowhere to go for me.
RCM: Did you ever hear any reaction from Dylan or Springsteen about your covers of their songs?
MM: Dylan liked them. Springsteen, I think, did not.
[McGuinness, Hugg, Jones and d’Abo reunited in 1991 and were joined by keyboardist Rob Townsend, bassist Marcus Cliffe and Simon Currie on sax and flute to form the Manfreds, a band that mines their extensive catalog of hits in concert.]
RCM: Talk about what your setlist looks like in your shows these days.
TM: We can easily do two and a half hours of hits. The hits we had with Manfred Mann, Paul Jones had solo hits, Mike d’Abo had hits with Build Me Up Buttercup and Handbags and Gladrags… And we’ve written things that other people have recorded, so there’s plenty of hits to draw on.
RCM: Do you improvise or stay close to the originals?
TM: Do Wah Diddy Diddy frequently takes fifteen minutes! We play the song and everyone sings along and there’s a lot of audience back and forth and then Paul plays a long harmonica solo.
RCM: A harmonica solo?
TM: We give him the harp and then we all roar back in. Some of them we just play straight off and some them we stretch and they alter all the time because funnily enough, we’re back to what we were, which is being a live band.
In October 2012, the Manfreds embarked on a 50th Anniversary Celebration tour of the UK, marking careers that have spanned a half-century. Click here for more information about the band.
Manfred Mann reissued Five Faces Of Mann on CD and vinyl in September 2012. For the current tour schedule of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, click here.