Hot on the trail of the ultimate esoteric headline, James Attlee chews the fat with Bolton's most wanted Mann. The pun-loving GEOFF MANN reveals all.
Back in the early 1980s, when the club scene was proliferating in London's West End and it was possible to hear salsa, funk, soul, Latin-jazz, African and goth sounds in venues a few minutes' walk from each other (if you had the readies and the right clothes - it was the era of the infamous "door-policy" that made some clubs harder to enter than the Pearly Gates), one group of music fans resolutely went their own way. Club-goers traipsing down Wardour Street were bemused by queues of longhaired leather-jacketed youths stretching around the block from the Marquee Club and by posters for bands with strange names like Pallas, Pendragon, Marillion and Twelfth Night. "Rock music - how quaint," they may have said, with the fashion-victim's typical shortsightedness. What they were catching a glimpse of was an anti-fashion grassroots movement that rejected the cultural dictates of the music press. At its forefront were a new wave of bands from the provinces who had never chucked away their Pink Floyd albums and didn't regard the tag "progressive rock" an insult. Nirvana for them was neither an American chart-topping sub-pop band or a Buddhist Valhalla but a blend of wacky Tolkeinesque lyrics and fiddly guitar bits with the aggression and drive of a post-punk era.
"So what?" you may well ask, over the racket of your brand new U2 album. Patience, gentle reader, patience. Among the musicians lugging their gear through the stage door of The Marquee was a young and hairy Geoff Mann, lead singer with cult heroes Twelfth Night and subsequently curate of this parish (or of a parish in Bolton anyway) and star of many media stories along the tried-and-tested "rocking vicar" line. Perhaps more importantly he's also been instrumental in the release of a string of remarkable albums under his own name, as The Bond, A Geoff Mann Band and most recently the quirkily titled Eh! Geoff Mann Band! So how did it all begin? "I was at Reading University" the 30-something moustachioed Mancunian recalls affectionately, "and I heard a racket coming out of somebody's room. It turned out to be a bloke called Andy who subsequently became a friend of mine who was playing his guitar in his room. At the time I was doing art and I did a series of massive backdrops for the solo performances he was doing. Towards the end of my time there I wanted to set up a thing called the Arts Circus which never came together as people wanted to do other thins like join bands - so I thought I might as well have a go myself. I bought a Wem 25 Watt amp, a CopyCat (echo unit) and A Kimbara Strat copy and started plonking around."
Geoff wasn't that much taken with the music dominating the press at the time - his roots lay in Genesis, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the rest. "I thought punk was a marketing ploy by the major record companies - whereas it was good for something to happen I didn't think it was a particularly healthy kind of shake-up. It seemed to be more the drunken bum approach to revolution rather than the constructive alternative approach. Elements of it sunk in though."
Happily for Geoff there were a bunch of people in Reading with similar leanings and one particular group of them had put together an instrumental band called Twelfth Night. "They moved from being a two-piece in 1978 to being a four-piece in 1980. I reckoned they needed vocals - to me it was very visual music, it needed storylines and characters and I wrote a load of stuff for it. One day they recorded a massive track on a self-produced album called 'Sequences' and I sang an entire lyric over the top by putting it on the hi-fi in my living room and setting up a cassette recorder and bawling over the music. It made quite a decent tape actually. At the end you could just hear the postman knocking on the door saying, 'You've got a parcel.' I sent them this tape with the knocking on the end and they liked it, so I joined them as a singer."
Despite their aversion to punk, Twelfth Night were influenced by post-punk acts like U2 and brought an energy and aggression to their live act that soon earned them a live following and the nickname "Punk Floyd". They released two singles and four albums independently before signing a record deal with Music For Nations. Before that deal materialised they spent agonising months negotiating with the major labels who were sniffing around the edges of the "proggie rock" scene, eager to capitalise on the main contenders. As it turned out, EMI signed Marillion and when they failed to shift units in the US, CBS got cold feet about their protégés Twelfth Night and dropped them before signing on the dotted line.
For Geoff, disillusionment and artistic frustration began to make him restless, and this sense of dissatisfaction, combined with the stirrings of a personal religious faith, spurred him to head back to his hometown of Salford. "Just before I joined Twelfth Night I had understood that Christ died for me and that was something he had done for me specifically as well as for everyone else, because of his love for me. This didn't come about through a mission or through going to church; it happened out in the wild as it were. I didn't connect it with Christianity or church as such, I thought it was just a personal religious experience. I didn't know any Christians really but while I was commuting between Reading and Salford I was trying to work things out for myself. This went on for a couple of years. It combined with a feeling that I wanted to do something slightly more avant-garde than what we were doing in the band. Our first child was born in 1983 as well, two weeks before we played at the Reading Rock Festival. All these things combined to make me cheesed off and decide to pack it in at the end of 1983."
Back in Salford, Geoff found himself literally holding the baby. "I've never earned enough money to live on, so my wife was always the worker, ever since we got married. She was running a Citizen's Advice Bureau and as soon as Thomas was weaned I took over looking after him." Despite his domestic duties, Geoff found time to record two albums in 1984 (the self-financed 'Chants Would Be A Fine Thing' and 'I May Sing Grace' on Food For Thought, a subsidiary of Music For Nations). He also began to explore further his religious leanings. "I started going to the local Anglican Church in Salford. All the time I'd been in Twelfth Night, my wife had been going to the church - her rather dormant faith had been woken up by me having this experience, falling off the sofa one night. The sides of my head were shaved and I had beads down to my waist plaited into the remainder of my hair. I remember everyone at the church was very friendly and I was impressed with the sermon. It was there I began to find out the answer to a long-standing question.
"The bass player in Twelfth Night had asked me one night, 'OK, there's God the Father up there and then there's God the Son, that's Jesus, but what about the Holy Ghost?' I was trying to work these things out on my own and rather than admit that I didn't know the answer I said, 'I don't think we use that bit anymore!' When I went to this church and they spoke about the Holy Spirit quite a lot it was like the completion of this process that had begun back in 1981 when I understood that Christ had died for me. It was like the beginning of understanding what my end of the bargain was." Gradually Geoff's appearances became more regular and he got more involved until he began to feel a growing call to enter the Anglican ministry. Initially he was turned down when he put himself forward for training but the local bishop overturned the selection committee's decision and he embarked on three years of training in 1986. He didn't hang up his guitar for good, however, or even swap it for an acoustic and stick to Graham Kendrick material. From the start it seemed the church authorities knew they wouldn't be able to keep Geoff off the stage for long. During his years at college the Geoff Mann Band shrank to become The Bond, a rock band with a keyboard and drum-machine dominated sound and who recorded two albums for Marshall Pickering Records. In 1988 Geoff also recorded with his friend the classical guitarist Marc Catley, thus beginning a partnership that continues to this day and which has just borne fruit in a second album "The Off The End Of The Pier Show" (reviewed elsewhere).
With the demise of The Bond in 1989 the newly ordained deacon found himself with gigs lined up but no band. "What shall I call it?" he was asked by a promoter. "Oh, put 'A Geoff Mann Band'," he replied. The name stuck and in 1990 they released their first album 'Loud Symbols' on Food For Thought Records, continuing the relationship he had had with the label since his days in Twelfth Night. "Originally they had thought 'Oh well, if we have Twelfth Night we might as well have him along as well.' As it turned out Twelfth Night ground to a halt and I kept going! A couple of people there are quite good friends of mine now. They've always liked what I do and I think in a sense they find me amusing. They think it's generally an offbeat idea. . . a lot of what they put out is thrash metaI which sells by the bucket load but they personally hate it. I think I'm the company's pet oddball whom they support just out of sympathy or something! And there's always the outside chance that because we're doing something different it might take off."
On the whole, being on a non-Christian label suits the band although Geoff confesses it's "sometimes an uphill struggle. Like Bono said, being a Christian in the music business you're too weird for the Christians and too religious for the non-Christians. Everybody's suspicious of you - people come and see us live and say, 'Actually that wasn't bad!' We haven't got the ready-made market we would have if we were on a Christian label with their own record club and so on. We'd like to sell records to that market as well. We have approached a certain label - whom we won't name for fear of libel but their name rhymes with 'bird' - to distribute our stuff, but they refused to take it. We've got product available on all three formats ready to go - why they won't take it I don't know, I have no idea. At the moment it looks as though Kingsway might have a reciprocal arrangement with Music For Nations - Music For Nations distribute Seventh Angel, who are on Kingsway, to the secular market, so Kingsway may distribute us to the Christian market."
For their current release the band decided on a major name change - from A Geoff Mann Band to "Eh! Geoff Mann Band!" Press releases left the general public baffled. "For this album we thought long and hard about whether we were going to carry on for a while and we thought, 'Yes, we're going to see this through and possibly another one', so we thought we're not 'a' Geoff Mann band anymore, we're something else so we decided to change it to 'Eh!'. (To get the necessary pronunciation and volume imagine the Mancunian equivalent of the London "Oi!" that can attract attention across a busy street.) "Plus it gives us a chance to talk about the name again, rather than mentioning the name once in an interview you talk about it more and hopefully it helps it stick. The guy in Kerrang! took it a bit too seriously. They said, 'I can't really believe that A Geoff Mann Band have changed their name to "Eh! Geoff Mann Band" so I'll refer to them as A Geoff Mann Band' - so it worked perfectly!"
The band have had some press attention from unusual quarters, usually because of Geoff's choice of day job. After all, there's nothing a hack likes better than a tried-and-tested storyline and your Rocking Vicar angle is always worth a shot. "Most of the press has been through me ringing people up or them ringing me up. Martin Wroe did a piece in the Independent last year which generated a fair bit of interest and we ended up doing a couple of telly things and all the rest of it. But it's a double-edged sword, all that, because one of the reasons people get interested is the fact that I'm a curate. It raises interest but it diffuses attention away from what we're doing. You then have all the titles to deal with like trendy vicar and so on, while what we're doing is not particularly trendy. It's not particularly mainstream - it's hard to see where it fits sometimes. To me a band's about a group of people finding their own voice; what I've been after all along was to find it. You start with your influences - it's a bit like making a stew - you start with the ingredients but it's the cooking of it that brings out the different flavour."
Geoff and his band have been cooking in the pubs and clubs for some years now and have appeared on Channel 4, BSB, Sky TV and Radio 1's Newsbeat and Friday Rock Show programmes. The band have always done the majority of their live work on the "secular" circuit. Comments Geoff, "I've never ever had a letter as a result of playing an evangelistic event but I've had lots of letters from people who'd bought our records at gigs, writing to say 'What's all this about...'. We played in Doncaster the other night to 20 people and sold 11 albums!"
Geoff's certainly succeeded in his aim of creating a band with a unique sound. The latest album, 'Ministry Of The Interior', has a raw feel, complete with off-mic vocal comments and phones ringing; yet the playing is of the highest standard. He's right - it's hard to place their sound anywhere in the current music scene, yet the album still sounds contemporary and very much in a tradition of English left-field rock. Allegory and storytelling as well as awful puns have been the stock in trade of a certain type of British progressive rock since its beginnings with groups like The Soft Machine and Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. But Geoff has not followed some progressive rock lyricists down the self-obsessed road to pomp-rock fatuity. At the same time he won't be pressured into writing in a style he's not happy with. "A lot of our lyrics have explicitly to do with our faith. I've been advised several times to stop it and write about the rain forests or whatever, but I take it that people write about what they deeply need to write about. The lyrics on this album are quite socially aware in a general way, but I've never really been an issues person, I've always taken the more parallel path. . . I don't feel I'm explaining this very well! Put it this way, there are people who sit down and write about the rain forest and say 'it's dead rotten cutting down all these trees' and that's perfectly fine. There are people who say 'let's not bother at all - let's go out dancing, have a couple of beers and celebrate being alive,' and that's fine too. For me, the way I feel led to comment about things is to not so much directly refer to an issue but to set up a little drama, an alternative, parallel world where the comment comes through, almost a mythological world." We all nod gravely. I deferentially ask whether "allegory" might be the word he's looking for and a look of intense relief spreads across the wordsmith's face. "Allegory! That's it! You can cut out all that I said before and just put allegory. C S Lewis was a big influence on me. When I was in Twelfth Night I read a lot of his stuff in the bath with my toes up the taps. In semi-homage to him I'm writing a novel at the moment about a man who turns into a hamster. It's all about redemption and personality - all the big themes!"
Such themes are not popular among many on the rock circuit. One reviewer in Kerrang! labelled Geoff a "washed-up Proggie arse-wipe" and turned his whole review into a personal attack of the vitriolic variety, but Geoff just grins and goes on bearing it. "Controversy's what it's all about. We got a good 'live' review, four out of five. No point rising to it, really." After all, when it all gets too intense there's his day job to put things back into perspective. How does he find time for his clerical duties? "Because of the support I get from the vicar, David Brierly, and the congregation generally it works very well. I have been given time to record my albums as part of my ministry, so I haven't had to take it out of my holidays. All they ask is that I keep my parish commitments sorted, which I do. It makes things quite hectic sometimes. Like last Saturday we played in Doncaster and then I presided at the Eucharist at 8.30 the next morning, a matchstick-under-the-eyes job. By the time we'd unloaded the PA and got home, I don't know what time it was. I had a chicken tikka sandwich at midnight after this gig, I hadn't eaten all day and I was rolling around on the bed clutching my stomach groaning. Still, it gives you something to preach about - the Parable of the Chicken Tikka Sandwich always comes up somewhere. . ."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.