April 20, 2024

Manfred Mann wasn’t just another 1960s pop band, you know. For all their adolescent appeal, with melodic ballads such as Pretty Flamingo and Mighty Quinn, and breathlessly energetic rockers like 5-4-3-2-1, they had talent oozing out of every pore. Original guitarist Mike Vickers is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays sax and flute, and his replacement Tom McGuinness originally joined the band on bass before returning to his main instrument, the guitar; had aspirations to be a writer, and in fact wrote the sleeve notes for several of the band’s albums and EPs. Original front man Paul Jones is still a sought-after harmonica player in his 80s, and had successful careers as a stage and movie actor and radio presenter; he and his replacement Mike D’Abo are both prolific songwriters. Cream’s iconic front man Jack Bruce did a stint in the band on bass; and his replacement Klaus Voorman is an artist of some note; it’s his design on the front of The Beatles’ Revolver amongst others.

Somewhere (1972)

The band was originally formed by South African keyboard wiz Manfred Mann himself, as a versatile  jazz combo named the Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers, with a drummer named Mike Hugg. Hugg was himself a multi-instrumentalist, contributing his top-quality vibraphone skills to many of their early numbers, and migrating from the drums to the piano after the original band broke up. He was the primary songwriter in the next incarnation of the band, Manfred Mann Chapter Three, and went on to co-write TV theme tunes and film soundtracks.

In amongst his other projects and collaborations, Hugg also recorded a couple of solo albums in the early ‘70s, although they have been somewhat obscured by the passage of time. Thankfully, they have now been revived and re-released as a 2 CD set named Mike Hugg – The Solo Recordings, on the Umbrella Music label.

What we have here are Hugg’s solo debut Somewhere from 1972, and sophomore set Stress And Strain from 1973, and they are a joy to hear. Firstly, the nostalgia pours out of them like a river. The first album fits right into the middle-of-the-road pop vibe championed by The Carpenters, Peters And Lee, Petula Clark and their ilk. As almost every number is a piano ballad of one species or another, and given Hugg’s light and plaintive voice, think Gilbert O’Sullivan and you’d pretty much be there. The second album branches off into much more varied territory, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

That debut, Somewhere, starts off with an atmospheric sax solo (actually Elton Dean on the saxello), over percussive piano chords, and Hugg’s musical understanding is evident in the relatively complex structure of the song Blue Suede Shoes Again. He reminisces over his childhood, name-checking film stars and songs from the era – Brigitte Bardot, Rock Island Line – remembering bike riding and going out with the girl from two doors down. There are flavours of Mott The Hoople and Status Quo’s early Pye label psychedelia too, with some shooby-dooby vocals in the outro, just to hammer the point home. It shows what a shared experience nostalgia is, because the song conjures up visions of the early ‘70s for me, but for Hugg they must be of an earlier age altogether!

Reminiscence is a recurring theme in this album; Everything Comes And Goes covers similar ground in a jolly tune that recalls Herman’s Hermits. The highlight of this set though, is undoubtedly Don’t Keep Me Hanging On – a slowish three-chord country-pop song with a slightly honky-tonk piano solo. It genuinely could be a Bob Dylan cover. There is some really nice bass work on this one, and a key change leading into some harmony guitars. The keyboard wash is reminiscent of the Earth Band’s Joy Bringer – Manfred Mann does, in fact, appear on this album, but the track credits are unfortunately incomplete.

Stress And Strain (1973)

The following year’s Stress And Strain opens with the title track, and a deep, thudding drumbeat, which drifts off into a jazzy, soul pop song in the vein of Steely Dan or Toto. There are high, tight backing vocals, multiple, layered keyboard and guitar sounds, and a couple of guitar solos – the whole thing immediately sounds like a step up in terms of class. Track two, Picture Of You, is an early highlight – a dour piano lament, it’s true, with really quiet, weeping guitar way back in the mix, sounding almost like a mournful bagpipe. The other instruments gradually feed in, until it becomes a full band number at nearly the two minute mark. There is a step change to a fast rhythm with a Crosby Stills & Nash-style harmony vocal line, before going into a full prog epic in 7/8 with, I kid you not, an overdriven electric violin solo, sadly uncredited.

Woman is a swinging, jazzy pop number with a 1960s feel – think I Can’t Let Maggie Go by Honeybus, or the Nimble bread advert if you prefer. The album goes quite drastically downbeat for a while after this, with a series of introspective piano ballads, before coming back with Tonight, a full-band pop-rocker. It has a very Elton John sound, especially with the piano backing down there in the  mix – or maybe an early Rod Stewart number, perhaps Stay With Me, but sung by Elton, if you can imagine it. This song rocks out a bit at the end, in any case. But a late highlight comes with Paradise City – not the Guns N’ Roses number – a species of funky pop, with an almost Caribbean vibe. He pulls out all the stops for this production, with a horn section and multiple backing singers.

Hugg certainly wasn’t short of high-quality musicians to call upon – the two-album set boasts such former bandmates as Tom McGuinness and Manfred Mann himself, Kevin Peek (later of Sky) and Mick Rogers (from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) on guitars, and a multiplicity of backing singers including Tony Rivers and Madeline Bell. Every song has a different line-up, and identifying the session names from other albums of the era could be a full-time hobby.

But there is something endearingly home-made about it too; Umbrella is certainly no big-time major label, and there are musicians missing in the credits, and in fact the whole second half of the first album is absent from the lyrics list. Who plays the harmonica on the waltz-time Goodbye from the first album? My gut says probably Paul Jones, but who knows?

Does it really matter? It’s clear that Mike Hugg was, and is, a towering talent, a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, with some clout in the industry. It’s only within the last couple of years that he has had to retire from touring with the Manfreds due to health issues, which is a shame, although Paul Jones, Tom McGuinness and Mike d’Abo are still carrying that torch. It’s right that Mike Hugg should share in the limelight.

Mike Hugg – The Solo Recordings – Somewhere and Stress And Strain – is out now on Umbrella Records