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Exclusive interview with Tom McGuinness of The Manfreds

Wednesday, 18 July, 2012 - Modified on Wednesday, 18 July, 2012 at 9:03 pm


 Tom McGuinness first came to prominence as bass player with Manfred Mann in the 1960’s. He stayed with the band until they disbanded in 1969, forming McGuinness Flint with drummer Hughie Flint, Graham Lyle and Benny Gallagher. Since 1979 he has been a member of The Blues Band with Paul Jones and from the early 90’s The Manfreds. One of his first bands was a short lived stint with The Roosters, a band he formed with the then unknown Eric Clapton.


Village Times grabbed a chat with Tom recently when he visited Brewood with The Manfreds to play at Brewood Music Festival.


How different is playing with this version of The Manfreds from playing with Manfred Mann in the 60’s?


That’s a difficult one, firstly the 60’s was so long ago and it’s completely different in so many ways. It’s probably more musical now because we just used to go out and bang out half an hour of hits. We were always doing very short sets.


So, have you all grown as musicians?


Well, we always, and I excuse myself from this with no false modesty, the band always had a lot of great players in it. But once we became a successful hit making band, which went on for 5 years, we never played a long set. Half an hour was a long set whereas before we were successful we were playing all night at the Marquee or clubs like that. So, we’d play for two hours or more and it’s a little more like that now because we tend to do the whole show. So that’s a very different experience to when you’re having hit records and having people screaming at you. Now we play a kind of musical history of the band and look at jazz, blues and soul and all this kind of music that influenced us. I know you didn’t ask, is it better, but it’s just a very different playing experience. Although, we’ve just come back from Japan and we had a bizarre experience where our audience was predominantly between the ages of 20 and 40 and we were greeted by screaming girls, who then literally cried hysterically when we played the hits! It was 1966 all over again, except we weren’t quite so young!


What’s the dynamic like having the two lead singers from the 60’s era, which is quite unique among reformed bands?


It is. Well, the thing is that we didn’t reform for any particular reason. There was no plan behind it. We literally got together for my 50th birthday. On my 49th birthday, the drummer Rob, Paul and myself were all in another band called The Blues Band which has been going for 33 and a third years. We were playing in Germany and I was actually feeling quite low on the day of my birthday. I opened all my presents and cards from my wife and children and wished I was at home. So, I wasn’t feeling great throughout the day and then we did the gig and it was great. I was up there doing what I love doing and I thought well I’m 49, I hope I’ll still be doing it when I’m 50 and next year I’d like to get together with everyone I’ve played with over the years. And, it all turned into quite an event. We did it at the Forum in Kentish Town and I had about 600 guests and there were about 1000 paying customers. We had The Blues Band, Gallagher & Lyle, McGuinness Flint and The Manfreds. We rehearsed the day before, The Manfreds and McGuinness Flint and just did that gig. There was no intention at that point to do anymore but we all really enjoyed it and Universal records put out a Manfred Mann’s greatest hits shortly after that. I knew the guy who put it out and he rang me up and said ‘any chance of doing a few dates?’ So, I rang everyone up and it sort of went from there. So, the dynamic has happened by accident and funnily enough we don’t always have both singers. We do quite a lot dates without Michael because he had twins about 6 years ago and he likes to be at home. When he’s not there we do less of a hits show and more of the old jazz and blues we did when we were beginning. It’s funny having two singers because there’s always the alpha male in a pack! Seriously though, it’s great having two singers and they’re both different singers and they each bring their own thing to it. I know this isn’t the answer to your question about The Manfreds but we have the same thing with the Blues Band with Paul and Dave Kelly. Two very different singers but it’s good swapping around. When I formed McGuinness Flint with Hughie Flint, this is a long answer to a short question, our template was The Band and everyone sang in The Band. Even the drummer sang, a great singer Levon Helm, who sadly passed away recently. But that just seemed a great template.


That leads in very nicely to my next question regarding someone else who very influenced by The Band. Can I ask you about The Roosters?


Oh yeah, unfortunately Eric (Clapton) didn’t make it to my 50th birthday. The Roosters were very short-lived, it lasted about six months from the Spring of 63 to the Autumn of 63. We didn’t know how to run a band or keep a band together which is why it was so short-lived and amateur.


Was that the first band you and Eric had been in?


No, I’d been in a band that started playing in a youth club. There’s that hierarchy that anyone who’s any good plays lead guitar, the next one play rhythm and the last one plays bass. The first band I was in was all school friends and that became something that played in the pubs around South London. It was quite an active pub scene then with lots of music going on. The band I was in played Shadows and Johnny Tillotson numbers and some Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. There was a very active music scene already which tends to be forgotten. There was life before The Beatles and The Stones! So we used to do these pubs and the odd ballroom above a Burtons store but I got tired of that sometime around 1962 and said I wanted to play RnB to my schoolfriends. They said, ‘you must be mad, no-one wants to hear that.’ At the time it didn’t seem a big deal, I remember saying ‘I know but it’s what I want to play and it’s what I want to do’. First of all I met Paul Jones around that time and we tried to get a band together in the summer of 62 but finding other people who wanted to play what we wanted to play was really difficult. But, I met a brilliant blues and boogie-woogie piano player called Ben Palmer who was a friend of Paul’s and he Paul and I tried to get a band together but that didn’t work out. Then Paul went off and eventually joined Manfred Mann in the December of 62 and in 63 I was still in touch with Paul and I was still looking for other musicians. I actually went for an audition at the Station Hotel in Richmond where The Stones were playing and I was already seeing The Stones there on a Sunday night and they were great. But, I went for this audition with an RnB band and knew when I walked in the door I was in the wrong place because there were three trombonists on stage as well as piano, bass and drums and they were jazz musicians trying to make the transition to RnB. I went up there, played one tune and got off again really quickly! My girlfriend at the time, who I lost contact with for many years but who I’m now married to, asked how it was when I came off stage and I said ‘oh, it was terrible. I’m in the wrong place’. And she said ‘Oh, never mind, this is Eric who I’m at art school with and he loves the blues.’ And that’s how I met him! We then had one of those conversations where it just consisted of throwing names at each other, he’d say Jimmy Reed and I’d say John Lee Hooker. He’d say Muddy Waters and I’d say Buddy Guy so we knew we were on the same wavelength. So, with Ben Palmer who I’d tried to get a band together with before, we got The Roosters together with an old schoolfriend of mine called Terry Brennan and a drummer I’ve never seen since called Robin Mason. I met someone backstage or at a party about 5 years ago and they said we’ve just come back from Africa and we met someone who’s just retired as the head of Barclays Bank in East Africa who said he’d played with you, I said ‘Robin Mason’ and they said ‘that’s right.’ I remember that he worked in a bank back then so he’d gone on to great things!


Each of us just hustled round trying to get gigs and we used to do the Ricky Ticks which were very much the RnB clubs then. There was the Ricky Ticks Windsor, the Ricky Ticks Richmond, Ricky Ticks High Wycombe, the Wooden Bridge at Guildford, we also played at The Scene in Soho and we opened for Manfred Mann at the Marquee about 2 or 3 times. I think we did it twice and didn’t do it the third time because they wouldn’t pay us enough money! I think we were getting £5 between the 5 of us and the piano player was married with children and he used to come up from Oxford where he lived and he said ‘it doesn’t even pay my fare’. I remember Manfred saying ‘you’re mad, there are bands who’d love to play this opening slot for nothing.’ But we really had no idea what we were doing and eventually it didn’t even break up it just petered out! There was a gig in the diary for September 9th and there was nothing in after that!


After The Roosters Eric and I went on briefly to play with a guy called Casey Jones from Liverpool, Casey Jones and the Engineers. Suddenly that was a bit more like being professional, we had a van and drove up to Macclesfield and exotic places such as that. Funnily enough someone came to a Blues Band gig about 10 years ago and produced a cutting from the Macclesfield Bigot or whatever it is and there was an advert for Casey Jones & The Engineers and she’d come to see us play. We only did about 10 gigs and I turned up for a gig at The Scene club in Soho with the Engineers and Eric wasn’t there and he’d left. So, I did the gig and I left the next night. I walked away from a gig in Reading we did with The Undertakers, another great band from Liverpool, and I remember walking to the Station with a heavy amp in one hand and guitar in the other thinking ‘oh well, another band bites the dust.’ Then I joined Manfred Mann about 2 months later on bass. I exchanged emails with Eric about a month ago because I met Terry Brennan the singer from The Roosters for the first time in about 40 years and I sent him a photograph and had a nice answer back from him.


Has it got easier over the years? Do you still feel the need to practise often?


Oh yes. Do I practise? I play more than practise really but I’m still learning things. I buy magazines to see how other people are doing things, then play it and see if I can do it and find out how they might be doing something.


You still don’t find it a chore to play or that it feels like work?


I wouldn’t do it if it did. It’s funny though, it goes up and it goes down. I’m just speaking personally but I went through a period just recently where I thought, and I don’t wish to sound big-headed, I’m really cracking it at the moment. I’m particularly talking about solo’s. Playing a tune or accompanying someone is a different thing because when it comes to a solo it’s like trying to express something. I don’t play the same solo ever, it comes out differently every night. I said to my wife recently ‘I’m really playing well at the moment’, I should never have said it. I’ve felt that the last two gigs I’ve done have been amongst the worst gigs I’ve played in years. The audience wouldn’t know, I don’t think the band even knows but I just come off stage and think ‘I can’t play, I’m no good!’ Then hopefully it all comes back again, so I’m learning all the time. But practising, I don’t think of it as practising just trying to learn a way of doing something but I am literally learning all the time.


With that it was time for Tom to get ready to go on stage where perhaps inevitably he nailed every solo perfectly. Or maybe he didn’t………but the audience certainly didn’t know!


Huge thanks to Tom for taking the time to sit down and chat with me when he probably had far more important things to do!