Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Solar Fire

Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Solar Fire


Released 1973 on Bronze
Reviewed by welbourn TEKH, 06/08/2004ce


Forget ‘Do Wah Diddy’, ‘5-4-3-3-1’, ‘Pretty Flamingoes’ and ‘The Mighty Quinn’ ‘cos you’ll not see nothing like…. these pop ditties again, ‘cos by 1973, Manfred Mann had embraced progressive rock by the proverbial collar. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band consisted of the Mann himself on organ, synths and vocals, Mick Rogers on vocals and guitar, Colin Pattenden on bass guitar and Chris Slade on Fibes drums. This was the third album of this congregation(1) and ‘Solar Fire’ was sandwiched between ‘Messin’ which had been released earlier the same year and ‘The Good Earth’(2) – released in 1974.

The first two albums had been, to say the least, patchy, but ‘Solar Fire’ embraced the popular, progressive music of the time and was a pinnacle for the band, before they ventured off into the MOR, mid ‘70s ‘Springstonian’ mainstream. It ccould be described as a ‘progressive/chorale experience’ that separates it from many ‘trudgey’ albums of the same era.

I can’t honestly hold my hand to my heart and say this album is a classic of its genre, but it is a recording that has stood the test of time better than many of its ‘prog-rock’ peers. Throughout the entirety of this album, Manfred embraces all of the progressive rock clichés and although many of the synth sounds are totally ‘in your face’, he uses them sparingly and there isn’t the overindulgence displayed by many of his ‘keyboard wizard’ counterparts.

When I first heard this album on its release in 1973, I found it to be refreshing and uplifting, although nowadays, many of the lyrics do seem somewhat naïve in sentiment. Of course, as always, they have to be appreciated in the context of their time, for their intention was virtuous and they certainly didn’t fall into the treacley world frequented by the likes of Pete Sinfield et al.

The album was self-produced by the band and there is a depth and quality to the recording that leaves the likes of PFM, Badger and Greenslade in the doldrums. You see, what made Manfred Mann’s Earth Band stand out from their synth-orientated peers is - they had one hell of a guitarist in Mick Rogers. This really is his show and his delicate, disciplined fretwork always surfaces to ground the most testing of Manfred’s keyboard forays.

The album is contemporary with the band’s top-ten hit ‘Joybringer’, a tune that ‘borrowed’ the ‘Jupiter’ theme from Holst’s ‘Planet Suite’. It is important to remember, that at the time, many ‘progressive’ acts were tenuously attempting to link rock music with classical themes, a fine example of this foray being ELP’s clumsy ‘adaptation of Musorgksky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. I guess ‘Joybringer’ was just a more commercial version of this marriage.

Side one kicks off with an extended version of Dylan’s ‘Father of Day, Father of Night’. The track commences, with what sounds like a mellotron, reminiscent of King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. The song is pompous and majestic, as indeed every good progressive rock track should be, but in a more of a Football League Championship kinda way, rather than an F.A. Premiership trip. The track contains a killer guitar solo from Rogers, which terminates in a mother of a ‘forward-to-the-sun’ style riff, which in turn is followed up by a backward recorded guitar, that ebbs from you speakers like honey. Try as he might, Manfred’s absurd synth sounds can’t detract from the brilliance of Mick Rogers and the rest of the band.

Next comes ‘In the Beginning, Darkness’ – a true rock stomper. The half-time drumming lends the track space and is powered along by a trundling bass guitar. The track is punctuated by a military style drumbeat, which gives Manfred the opportunity to tweak some of those ‘I haven’t tried these yet’ knobs on his new synth. Rogers again steals the show, as in creeps the sweetest, funkiest guitar you’ll ever here on a progressive rock album.

I guess at some point during its recording, the boys decided that this space trip they were on was getting, maybe a little too solemn, but this dilemma was solved by the inclusion of the next track ‘Pluto – The Dog’. This boxy, ploddy instrumental was probably saved from the outtakes bin by some bright spark who probably though ‘Hum, our ‘Holstian’ adventure has arrived at Pluto – the dog, ah yes, I know the answer’. The track has, yeah, you’ve guessed it – a dog barking sample! In 1973 I cringed, but time has changed me, and now I roll with laughter and applaud the genius of this production gem. Did the dog get a credit on the sleeve? Sadly not. However, time has not forgiven the ridiculous, reedy synths that Manfred pitches all over this track.

Side two kicks off with, in my opinion, the best track on the album – ‘Solar Fire’. Uplifting and eternally optimistic, it is beautiful in its naïvety. “Looking for an answer look to the sky” sings Rogers as the optimism is underpinned by Pattenden’s brooding and menacing bassline. Manfred’s sonics are not quite Hawkwind, but their clarity and warmth elevates the track beyond its earthly limits. The razor guitar sound is controlled and is reminiscent of Dave Gilmour’s masterwork on ‘Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’.

A two-parter ‘Saturn, the Lord of the Ring’ and ‘Mercury the Winged Messenger’ comprise the second track on side two. Rogers’s guitar is double tracked which gives it a pleading edginess, which breaks down into a ‘cymbolick’ episode where Manfred reveals himself as the true, daft synth wizard. The track eventually rocks out in a ‘Nice’ kinda way - but with balls.

‘Earth the Circle – Part One’ reveals a classic progressive rock track. Totally overblown and absurd, but it is the treatment of Manfred’s synths that enable us to tolerate the incongruous nature of the recording. Again we are reminded, that Manfred owes much to his fine band.

The album ends with ‘Earth the Circle – Part Two’. What we needed was a Rogers rock-out, but we have to settle for a whimsical ‘mother earth ditty’. A ‘Keith Emerson’ style moog bursts in so fucking loud that it shatters the melancholy and makes you split your sides with laughter. It is almost reminiscent of the guitar solos that jump out of The Stooges’ ‘Raw Power’ – you know, the ones that make you smile from ear to ear. It is the fact that the volume of the moog is so over the top, that makes it work. The track ends with a kind of jazz shuffle, but rather than petering out in sort of leaves you wanting more. Many-a-time I have flipped the record over and immediately played Side One again.

‘Solar Fire’ is indeed an oddity, generally overlooked at the time of its release, it stands as an equal, if not grander than some of its contemporaries. Like my T.Rex, Alex Harvey and Be-Bop Deluxe LPs, it remained in my record collection (albeit near the back!) throughout the punk years. I always felt a quiet, underplayed kinship with it – a bit like your quiet friend, who your other friends despised ‘cos he didn’t like football or your mate you didn’t want to be seen out with, because of the Oxford Bags he wore throughout the punk years! You know what I mean! Enjoy.

Notes:
1. 1972 – ‘Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’, 1972 – ‘Glorified Magnified’ 1973 – ‘Messin’

2. Those who purchased the initial copies of ‘The Good Earth’ obtained one square foot of land on a Welsh hillside – I guess it was a move that sparked a whole new movement of hippy landowners!


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