Graded on a Curve: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

So yeah, before we go any further–about the band name, which is unfortunate. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band evokes images of earth tones, earth shoes, earthworms, Middle Earth, the Mother Earth Catalog and turnips, and all of these things horrify me.

I know, I know, poor Manfred got caught up in the whole big “ecology thing” that had every hippie not killed at Altamont waving cardboard signs on wooden sticks (did they even give a thought to where that piece of wood came from? Or the cardboard?) reading “Save the Planet.” Hell, even Charles Manson jumped on the ecology bandwagon, so who am I to judge?

But let’s just write it off to hazy hippie idealism (those poor longhairs really thought they could save the world, har!) and get on to the important stuff, which is that while most sentient beings (and turnips) only remember Manfred Mann’s Earth Band for the coupla Bruce Springsteen covers they sent to the top of the charts, they also got around to putting out some pretty great albums in the early seventies starting with this eponymous 1972 debut, which may just be the best of ‘em.

Like many of his more musically savvy rock cohorts, Manfred Mann had a pop heart and an art head, which is to say that at the same time he was singing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” he was also playing jazz piano, and would later (much to the consternation of yours truly) even go the dubious classical/rock hybrid route, thus placing himself squarely in the progressive rock camp alongside such blackguards as Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

But on Manfred Mann’s Earth Band everybody’s favorite South African auteur sticks to the pop/hard rock knitting with a slew of great tunes featuring lots of state-of-the-art synthesizer (which he never allows to dominate the proceedings) and at least one very impressive jazz piano flourish, to say nothing of some really mean guitar playing by the very underrated Mick Rogers.

The album wins on an eclectic bunch of songs. You got some solid originals that vary from hard rock to pop (including two instrumentals), and five extraordinary covers, three of them written by Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and Randy Newman. I would say there’s something here for everybody but the fact is everything here if for everybody, because there isn’t a dead parrot in the crowd.

The very Pink Floydesque instrumental “Tribute”? I love it. The soulful and tres gritty “Captain Bobby Stout,” which is about a guy with a “pocket full of Mexican smoke” who gets busted and which kinda just steamrolls you under with its big clanking rhythm and group vocals? Pure dead brilliant. The MDA-fueled journey to the center of your mind that is “Sloth”? Groovy! At first the Earth Band’s take on Dylan’s “Please Mrs. Henry” sounds like blasphemy–they’ve transmogrified Bobby D.’s hilariously deadpan, down-in-the-mouth plea for more beer into a ramped-up, jumping and jiving full-tilt boogie, complete with a badass guitar riff and gospel singers. But within a couple of listens I was a convert; like “Captain Bobby Stout” the sound is so big it bowls you over, and Rogers’ solo towards the end is a barnburner.

Mann takes Dr. John’s “Jump Sturdy” and pumps it full of steroids; it still jumps, but it jumps like a tiger rather than a cat. And his piano turn towards the end turned my head; Mann ain’t playing boogie woogie, he’s playing jazz, and pretty damn good jazz at that. “Prayer” is sonically charged and propulsive hard rock; sure, Rogers guitar work is astounding (I wouldn’t expect any less), but so is Mann’s synthesizer playing, and that amazes me no end. This baby is a proto-metal classic with a gigantic bottom, and I’ll betcha your freaky free-form FM radio stations played the hell out of it back in the day.

“Part Time Man” is a great piano-based ballad about a guy failing to find work despite the fact that he’s a bona fide WIII vet; talk about your rank ingratitude! It’s funny and sad at the same time and features some nice plaintive flute and a wonderful singalong chorus. And the Earth Band stuns on their cover of Randy Newman’s “Living Without You”; the synthesizer work is infectious, the song itself is both catchy and lovely, and this one has American Top 40 written all over it. Sad to say it crawled to the No. 69 spot on the Billboard charts and died. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the tastes of America’s pop music lovers.

“I’m Up and Leaving” is a quiet little ditty about wanting to get out of the country to join the rat race, which is to say it’s a kind of Taupin/John “Honky Cat”/”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in reverse. It reminds me of Supertramp, only more stripped down. A sad little number it is; seems the singer’s been talking about packing up and splitting for years, and you have to wonder if this song is just more wishful thinking. Which leaves us with the funky rocker “California Coastline,” which features a rubber band synth and some lyrics that turn the California Dream on its head. ”On the California coastline,” sings Mann, “trying to have myself a good time.” I mean, who has to try to have a good time in sunny California? It’s a cunning little slice of subversion; he actually seems to be suggesting, in his quiet way, that every single hippie in El Lay and San Francisco is full of shit!

Manfredd Mann’s Earth Band would put out a few more very good albums (see Glorified Magnified and Messin’) before descending into astral hooha and so-so jazz fuzak on the iffy Solar Fire, which does unspeakable things to Bob Dylan and insults dogs to boot. But as I said before, if I had to plunk my money down on just one Earth Band LP it would be for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. I know I said a lot of bad things about the earth at the start of this review but the joke’s on me, because the Earth Band’s debut works best because it’s well, earthier. I’ve played it for turnips, and they love it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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