Cult Heroes: Man - the Welsh jam band who won't stop playing
With members regularly abandoning ship or being sacked, and never having a stable line-up, Welsh jam-band tokers Man never achieved the level of commercial success they deserved
"The story of the Man band is full of nepotism, dysfunction and intrigue,” Roger ‘Deke’ Leonard casually tells Classic Rock. The guitar, keyboard and harmonica-playing vocalist quit the enduring and much-travelled Welsh group back in April 2004 to reactivate his solo band Iceberg. Today, on the eve of a new Man studio album called Diamonds And Coal, he and the band’s current bassist, guitarist, vocalist and tuba player Martin Ace are reminiscing a while about the legacy of an idiosyncratic group that began life in 1968 and still stubbornly refuses to give up the ghost.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 101.
You could fill an entire issue of Classic Rock with the tribulations of the 20-odd musicians who have at various times been through Man, and dissections of their 13 official studio albums (or around 45 if you include compilations and live recordings). Not too long ago it was calculated that their 17 different lineups had played 7,601 gigs, travelled 1,200,000 miles, signed 121,000 autographs, blown 161 amplifiers, burnt out 121 road managers, crossed 330 borders in and out of 17 countries, slept with 4,163 women, smoked 16,000 packets of Rizla papers and stayed in 6,424 hotels – and had been ejected from only 32 of those. What’s equally difficult to believe is that they also managed to spend more than £200 on clothes.
Until recently the one strand of consistency in this tale was lead guitarist Micky Jones, who played in every line-up of Man. Unfortunately, after surgery on a brain tumour for a second time, in 2002, he could no longer carry on. His bloodline in the band continues, however, with his son George having replaced him on guitar.
“Micky’s in chemo and we don’t know if he’ll ever play again,” Leonard sighs, then lightens the mood by saying: “The only reason he was in every line-up was because he was just too fucking lazy to leave like all the rest of us.”
Martin Ace’s 17-year-old son, guitarist Josh, boosts the Ace family connection in the current band, which is completed by drummer Bob Richards. But, as Jones is fond of pointing out: “Man belongs to those who play in it.”
Musically, the group’s style is equally nebulous, although Rolling Stone magazine’s 1974 description of “a Welsh band with its heart in San Francisco – specifically, in the elongated and textured music of Quicksilver [Messenger Service] and the early [Grateful] Dead” isn’t too far off the mark.
Besides a tendency for members to leave and persistently return, what makes Man’s history more unique still is that the responsibility of leadership has been rotated, and at least three of their members have assumed creative control, with others standing aside or departing – and sometimes coming back.
For the first few albums it fell to keyboard player/guitarist Clive John to galvanise the band, before the baton was passed on to Deke Leonard, and it is now in the hands of Martin Ace.
“What you say is completely true,” affirms Ace, “but it wasn’t what you’d call a formal arrangement. It just worked out that way. We’re a pretty unmanageable bunch of stoned musos, which might have something to do with our lack of commercial success.”
The first line-up of Man – Jones, Leonard, John, bassist Ray Williams and drummer Jeff Jones – came from the amalgamation of Swansea combos The Bystanders and The Dream, and released their debut album, Revelation, on Pye Records in 1969. The track Erotica, which featured a simulated orgasm, ensured brief notoriety. Man wanted to name their follow-up Spunk Rock, but the label flatly refused, so it was entitled Two Ounces Of Plastic With A Hole In The Middle.
By this time Leonard had departed for “family reasons”. Having been replaced by Martin Ace, Leonard then decided to return after all, with Ace switching to bass to accommodate him. With Man’s more free-form inclinations taking hold, they advisedly moved to the more sympathetic Liberty Records, and released the album Man in 1971.
However, most fans agree that the band’s breakthrough record was Do You Like It Here Now, Are You Settling In? For all their upward mobility, a laidback attitude remained. Martin Ace can be heard slurping from a can of cider during the song Manillo, while Romain detailed an encounter with the Belgian police. Many Are Called But Few Get Up (still played in the set today) got its title from something spotted on the back of a matchbox. Safe to say, then, that drugs played a key role in the band’s creative vision.
“Oh yeah,” Ace affirms enthusiastically. “We wrote the songs on acid, and played on it too. It was really good fun. Everybody in the band was tripping and we usually played… okay. We controlled it instead of letting it control us.”
What they weren’t keeping under control, however, was the jamming. “We were once locked in at a gig at Canterbury University, and we think we played for eight hours,” Ace recalls. “I can’t say for sure, because everyone was tripping. But it was pretty mad.”
Continuing after Ace left to form The Flying Aces with his wife George, and Leonard was sacked, Man released Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day (1972) and Back Into The Future (1973) – the latter the first of the band’s three UK Top 30 albums. Leonard was back again for 1974’s Rhinos, Winos And Lunatics, which had a smoother sound than usual thanks to producer Roy Thomas Baker. “Roy was a canny bastard,” Leonard laughs of Queen’s famed producer.
“We were all against using him, but the label held firm. And it was odd; we rubbished just about all of his suggestions, but ended up agreeing to them because they were right.”
A nationwide US tour with Liberty labelmates Hawkwind furthered the increase in Man’s profile and popularity. “For a year or two we were hip. We kept pace with Yes, Genesis and Hawkwind,” Ace recalls of the band’s heyday. “But although Andrew Lauder [label boss] understood what we were doing and gave us complete freedom, we never had a powerful manager to really put us in people’s faces.”
Leonard: “Each time we gained momentum, a break-up seemed to be just around the corner. Barry [Marshall, manager] always used to dread calls from some ghastly place in Germany saying it had happened again. But he gave us enough rope to hang ourselves – and we duly obliged on a regular basis.”
The constant line-up changes and a strong internal rivalry were also hindrances. “I’ve been sacked by every member of the Man band at some point,” Leonard volunteers cheerily, “but they always found out that they couldn’t do it without me and had to invite me back.”
Pruned to a four-piece by the departure of guitarist/keyboard player Malcolm Morley for the self-produced Slow Motion album, the band were rejoined by Ace midway through a US tour with English folkies The Strawbs. It was during this trip that they met their hero John Cipollina, the (now long-deceased) guitarist with vintage San Francisco acid-rockers Quicksilver Messenger Service, who agreed to join Man for a tour of Britain.
“In interviews we always spouted on about Quicksilver’s influence on us,” Leonard says. “Some DJ friends of ours sent him over to meet us without warning. When Terry opened the door to find John Cipollina there, he had to slam it shut again to compose himself.”
With Ace departing again and just two songs finished before commencing work on The Welsh Connection, Man were in the shit. Oddly enough, given that Leonard and keyboard player Phil Ryan were jostling for control, the record ended up being a concise and reigned-in collection of songs. It was only when Ryan “threw his piano” at Leonard while preparing a follow-up that the band realised they’d run aground. “I wasn’t in the band back then, but my understanding is that everyone thought they could do a better job than everyone else,” Ace offers.
By then on their twelfth line-up, Man called it a day with a series of gigs in 1976 at London’s Roundhouse, from which came the All’s Well That Ends Well album, then an intended final show at Slough’s Fulcrum Theatre. “We’d spent seven years either on the road or in the studio. The weight of it all had been building up,” Leonard says.
At Leonard’s behest, Man reunited for series of shows in 1983, including one to commemorate the Marquee club’s 25th anniversary. With drummer Terry Williams away playing in Dire Straits, Gentle Giant’s John Weathers joined Man as his replacement. But old habits died hard. A studio album they’d made in Germany got canned after a row with the producer, and again the band ‘forgot’ to split up.
“We were lazy and daft, sticking to playing the same old songs,” Ace says. “It took us 16 years to get around to the Twang Dynasty album . That tells you how interested we were in being a progressive band. We didn’t move on at all.”
“It was nowhere near as creative as first time around,” Leonard agrees, “but everyone loved playing together. Artistic satisfaction made even the bad times feel good.”
On his reason for leaving Man in the spring of 2004 to revive Iceberg, Leonard deadpans simply: “I felt the need to make a futile gesture.” A frequent broadcaster on Radio Wales, his uproariously funny novels Rhinos, Winos & Lunatics and Maybe I Should’ve Stayed In Bed both received rave reviews.
After more ins and outs than a collection of porn movies, when asked if he would consider returning to Man for one last hurrah, Leonard sighs deeply: “Like James Bond, you can never say never with the Man band. It’s a possibility, but not a probability.” The current line-up of Man had no involvement with the recent Keep On Crinting compilation, and although Martin Ace concedes that the album won’t do the band’s profile any harm, off-the-record comments reveal that the relationship with Liberty’s parent company EMI has sometimes been litigious. New album Diamonds And Coal was released through Voiceprint Records.
Man wouldn’t be Man without the obligatory line-up fluctuation, of course, and keyboard player Gareth Thorrington recently became the latest member to vanish. On top of all this, plans are also being made for the first ever Man boxed set.
“That’s something I’d definitely love to do,” Martin Ace confirms. “But then again it’d be down to me to do all the chasing around. And I’m too busy writing songs and running the band.”
38 years after Man started out, their heady combination of psychedelia, space rock and progressive elements is still sometimes unfairly labelled pub rock – a slur that that’s even perpetuated by EMI’s Keep On Crinting press release. “We ended up playing in pubs, but it would be completely false to lump us in with that scene,” Ace protests. “Dire Straits were a pub rock band, not us. Terry [Williams, the aforementioned future Straits drummer] went on to join Rockpile, who were the definitive pub rock band, but we sounded nothing like them.”
After all this time, people’s opinions of Man aren’t going to change. Which is a shame, as their last few albums – including Endangered Species in 2001 and the following year’s Undrugged – had far fewer bouts of extended improvisation. “Diamonds And Coal continues in that style,” Ace confirms. “That’s not to its detriment, though. People still ask if we’ll ever go back to those days, and I’m pretty sure that we will. God knows, this latest band has the capability to do that.”
Deke Leonard watched the new-look Man when they played at a benefit for Clive Roberts, the late slide guitarist from his band Iceberg. “Someone was giving me a lift home, so I could only watch for two or three numbers,” he says. “But they sounded great. Am I happy for them to continue without me? Good Lord, yes. Man should exist forever, bringing in the grandchildren if necessary.”
Nevertheless, Martin Ace turns 61 years old on, New Year’s Eve. As a pensioner in a band now overrun with teenagers, does he feel pressurised to keep up the pace?
“Well, I’m doing my press-ups, and not drinking so much any more,” he replies with a chuckle. “The way things are going, Josh’ll end up moving onto the bass and I’ll play acoustic guitar on a few numbers. If the boys ever say: ‘Look, Martin, fuck off, you’re too fucking old,’ then I suppose I’ll call it a day. But until then I’m keeping my hand on the tiller.”