The music man
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media Ltd
White wheels, red car roofs and blue discarded bonnets – a whole auto-jumble of spare parts – fill a corner of the sitting room in Mike d’Abo’s (otherwise beautifully neat) King’s Stanley home.
“Louis’s Lego,” he confirms, glancing at Dagenham-in-miniature. “It’s funny – the twins are so different. He’s such a boy, whereas Ella is into princesses and fairy castles. A certain TV programme will come on and Ella will say, ‘I don’t like this! I’m frightened’. Whereas, with Louis, it will be, ‘Don’t switch it off. I love this!”
When the twins arrived five years ago, it was something of a delightful shock. After 15 years of trying for a family together, Mike and his wife Lisa had almost given up hope. Now there’s an irony. Here’s a man who has timing to a fine art, as his perfectly-crafted hit songs demonstrate. From Handbags and Gladrags – loved by Rod Stewart and Stereophonics, and familiar as the theme to hit-comedy The Office – to the highly-catchy Build Me Up Buttercup (popularised by The Foundations and revitalised in the film There’s Something About Mary), he’s proven himself master of the metronome: gorgeously counterpointed melodies; witty lyrics; brilliantly-orchestrated arrangements. Life – which seems more inclined to write lyrics haphazardly – could really do with taking a leaf out of his book.
If you want an incident that sums up Mike d’Abo’s early days, how about this for starters. We’re back in the 60s, when this former Harrow schoolboy was riding high in the charts as the lead singer of pop sensation Manfred Mann.
“My cousin was playing in an Eton and Harrow match at Lords, and I turned up to watch. I wasn’t in a tailcoat, which is traditionally what people had worn, though I was wearing what I thought was a nice suit. But I was turned away from the box by my Aunty Betty – the mother of the boy playing for Eton – saying, ‘You’ve brought disgrace on the family. We don’t want you in here!’ I thought, How rude! But I said, ‘Of course’, and politely left.”
(None of that frivolous pop-success stuff cut any ice with the formidable Aunty Betty. A year or so earlier, Mike had celebrated his 21st with a cocktail party at the Hyde Park Hotel. Two of his guests were Dave and Ray Davies. “Good heavens! Who are those long-haired boys!” the matriarch demanded. The answer, “Actually, Aunty Betty, they’re friends of mine from a group called The Kinks who are number one in the charts, at the moment,” did not impress.)
It’s funny now – of course it is. But unnerving at the time? “It made me feel an outsider of both worlds,” Mike d’Abo acknowledges. “I felt that my background was actually a hindrance.”
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His voice, beautifully modulated, still hints at a childhood of bowler-hatted stockbroker father and Pinner roots. “In the pop world, I stood out all the time. Even when it came to manners. I remember my first TV appearance, which was with my first group called A Band of Angels [all Old Harrovians]. In the cafeteria, we’d all be saying, ‘Do you mind, could I possibly have some of those baked beans and would you be so very kind as to serve me one more sausage, please?’, whereas the others would be yelling, ‘Hey, love! Pass us that!’ We were going around as if stepping on eggshells, trying not to offend.”
He’s currently writing his autobiography, which would explain why these sorts of anecdotes are at the forefront of his mind. And I can guarantee it will be a cracking read. Goodness knows quite where he’s finding the time – alongside being a dad to young twins, he still performs prolifically, recreating 60s sounds with The Manfreds – in which he performs with Paul Jones, the former Manfred Mann lead singer he replaced – and with his own group, Mike d’Abo & his Mighty Quintet. He’s also still writing songs. “I’m brimming full of ideas, day in, day out,” he says. “I definitely know there are more chapters in the d’Abo journey still to come.”
The last thing I want to do is steal a march on his autobiography – but this is a fascinating story. When Michael David d’Abo was born on March 1, 1944, he arrived under the full weight of traditional expectations.
Indeed, one of his earliest memories is of his mother prepping him for boarding school, aged seven. (His own father had been sent away at the same age, straight after the death of his mother in childbirth.) “So that’s what I assumed everyone did. I do remember my mother making me practise meeting the new headmaster. ‘I want you to take off your school cap and say, ‘Good afternoon, Sir; I am d’Abo M,’ and then bow’.
“Sitting in our carriage in the school train, I saw two other boys crying and being comforted by their mothers. I looked at mine and asked why they were so upset. I was completely up for it. I loved it.”
By the time he got to Harrow, he was proving himself to be not only academic but good at sport and art, and winning prizes for singing and piano. (“I got all my musical side from my mother. My father always said the only tune he could recognise was God Save the King, and that was only because everyone stood up.”) Not only that but, in sixth form, he’d already formed the group, A Band of Angels, which would get him noticed. In other words, Mike d’Abo could have chosen any number of paths to follow on leaving school.
His first choice was theology at Cambridge, on the premise that he wanted to enter the Church. After two weeks of Ancient Greek and Hebrew, however, he realised his mistake and swapped to economics. Keynesian theory proved little more appealing. “Running concurrently with Cambridge was my career with A Band of Angels. The night before my Economics Part 1 exam, I was playing at the Hyde Park Hotel until 3am. I was sent down.”
His parents were amazingly supportive, and his father – acknowledging his son’s musical leanings – got him a job in the Soho branch of Boosey & Hawkes, the music store. “My father still wanted me to have a recognisable career so insisted I wear a city suit. So even though I was there to polish all the instruments in the window, I’d show up in this striped suit, whereas all the other guys were wearing jeans.
“I stopped the suit after a week or two. Shortly afterwards, my mother rang and told me she was coming up to London that day and would take me out to lunch. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s going to know I’m not in my suit and it’s going to get back to my father’. So I kept my overcoat on, tightly done up all through lunch.”
Career-wise, the turning point came in 1964 when A Band of Angels turned professional. Two years later, they happened to appear on the same television show as chart-toppers Manfred Mann, famous for hits such as 5-4-3-2-1 and Pretty Flamingo. After the show, Mike was approached by the group: Paul Jones was leaving to pursue a solo career; would Mike consider replacing him? Sworn to secrecy (at that point, the press hadn’t got wind of developments), he struggled with his conscience: it meant keeping his Band of Angels mates in the dark. Finally, “I said to them, I’m not meant to tell you this – please don’t tell a soul – but I’m going to be joining Manfred Mann. Instead of saying, ‘How dare you leave us in the lurch!’, they were brilliant and said, ‘Fantastic!’
Despite the fact that Mike went on to have seven top 10 hits with Manfred Mann between 66 and 69, such as Ha Ha Said the Clown and Mighty Quinn, there’s another anecdote that needs telling.
“About three years ago, I met Camilla Parker Bowles [by then Duchess of Cornwall], who said to me, ‘I want to talk to you about your wonderful group!’ I said, ‘Manfred Mann’, and she replied, ‘No, Band of Angels. I saw you at Kensington Town Hall!’”
There are plenty more tales in this fascinating career: a spell in America with his first wife, the actress and model, Maggie London, with whom he has two children, Ben and the musician/actress Olivia d’Abo. Or moving to the Cotswolds with his second wife, Karen, with whom he has a son, Bruno. (A move purely prompted by a cricket match, organised by Sir Tim Rice at Coln St Aldwyns, interestingly.)
Or how about how, as a jingle writer, Mike came up with the famous Finger of Fudge tune?
But, no. They all have to make room for the story of Rod Stewart’s version of Handbags and Gladrags, a song the gravel-voiced crooner has declared his favourite to perform. Rod, as he details in his autobiography, asked Mike for the song as far back as 1968; but, at that time, it had been promised to Chris Farlowe.
A year or so later, Rod tried again. “He came round to the house, out of the blue, and said, ‘Great news! I’ve got an album deal and I want to do Handbags and Gladrags. Will you play the piano on it? I’ve booked the studio for tomorrow morning, and I want you to come with a new arrangement featuring flutes and woodwind.’
“So I came up with this counter-melody.” (Which he plays to me on the keyboard in his study. One of those magical moments in which I realise how lucky I am to have the job I do.)
The only problem was, Mike has never learnt to notate music. “Rod left about 10 o’clock at night: I had to have it all written out by 10 in the morning. So I rang round every arranger in town and they all said, ‘Not a chance’. About the 12th phone call, I was told of a guy in Muswell Hill, a violinist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who was looking to make a bit of extra money.
“This guy came round about midnight. He kept asking me things like, ‘Is that a crotchet or a minim?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know but I want it to sound like this!’ About five in the morning, he left.
“When we got to the studio, Rod did the whole thing in one take.”
Handbags is a song with an odd history. Astonishingly, Mike never knew The Office was using it as a theme until Karen, his ex-wife, alerted him, having heard it as the first episode went out. And when he learned by chance that Stereophonics were thinking of recording it, Mike rang up their manager, John Brand, to make a few suggestions. “I said to him, ‘Mike d’Abo here. I’m calling regarding a song of mine, Handbags and Gladrags’.” John Brand replied, ‘You’re not the writer! It’s a Rod Stewart song!’”
Handbags and Gladrags is a good way to finish an interview in which there’s never time to cover all the ground we should.
It is a beautiful song, I tell him. Poignant:
Ever seen a blind man cross the road
trying to make the other side
Ever seen a young girl growing old
trying to make herself a bride
“Everybody has their own guess about what it’s about or what inspired it. If anything, it’s a song that came from divine inspiration. To me, it’s a sermon. It’s saying to this 14-year-old girl: actually, my love, there’s more to life than looking like a lovely dolly bird. You’ve got to have values to sustain you.” The sort of values Mike d’Abo has kept.
“I always felt alienated by the ‘sex, drugs, rock and roll’ labels on pop stars, throwing television sets out of the window and driving Rolls-Royces into swimming pools.
“Handbags is the nearest to expressing my inner self. I like to think I’m trying to communicate enlightenment, which is a very hard word to describe. But it’s like saying, let’s be more spiritual, with more awareness and less shallow materialism. Let’s build a better world.”
• Mike d’Abo and his Mighty Quintet will be performing live at Forest Green Rovers, as part of Nailsworth Festival on Saturday, May 25, 7pm, recreating some of the ’60s best-loved numbers; tickets, £15. To book, and for more details on the festival from May 18-26, visit www.nailsworthfestival.org.uk