Man – Life On The Road, On Air 1972-1983: Album Review

The legendary Welsh band Man, the improvisation wizards of progressive and psychedelic rock, are justly celebrated on a fantastic new box set.

Release date:  30th September 2022

Label:  Esoteric Recordings / Cherry Red Records

Format:  4CD/2DVD Box Set

Man were formed in 1968 in Wales, and initially brought together, band members from the Bystanders from Merthyr Tydfil, including guitarist Micky Jones and keyboards player Clive John, with from another band, the Dream from Swansea, guitarist Deke Leonard. Their music developed in a new direction, incorporating aspects of progressive and psychedelic rock, with improvisation at its core, and inspired by the emerging American west coast sound, pioneered by bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead. 

This exemplary CD/DVD box set, released by Esoteric Recordings and Cherry Red Records, brings together the surviving UK radio and television sessions and concerts recorded for the BBC, together with the film of the Farewell At The Roundhouse show in 1976. 

CD Disc One opens with Spunk Rock, recorded for BBC Radio 1 in Concert at the Paris Theatre, London, on 20th January 1972. The lineup is Micky Jones, on guitar and vocals, Deke Leonard, on guitar and vocals, Martin Ace, on bass and vocals, and Terry Williams on drums. Clive John, on keyboards, had left shortly before, though would reappear in another subsequent Man lineup. The ever-changing personnel of the band is a characteristic of Man, and perhaps why their music never stood still and was constantly evolving. The lineup on Spunk Rock, is the four-piece that recorded the extraordinary and freewheeling Live at the Padget Rooms, Penarth, album, released later in September of 1972. It was the first Man album I heard as it played in the school common room. It created for me an enduring affinity and connection with their music.

This live version of Spunk Rock clocks in at nearly nineteen minutes. It is a recording that tells you a great deal about the musical greatness at the heart of the band. The introductory section is pure West Coast wistful psychedelia and could be the Jefferson Airplane in full flight. The lyrical and anthemic central theme, played by the guitars in unison, originates from a shorter track called Spunk Box, from the 1969 album 2 Ozs Of Plastic With A Hole In The Middle. It provides the launchpad for the thrilling guitar improvisations that follow. Guitar phrases are developed and allowed to evolve in gleaming cascades of notes and engaging melodies. The contrasting guitar sounds of Deke and Micky provide a mesmerising variation of tonal range in the playing, yet they also complement each other perfectly. There are frequent changes of rhythmic pace supported by Terry and Martin’s lightness of touch and swing in the drums and bass, which provides space and encouragement for the improvisations. The creative building of successive sublime guitar solos throughout the piece has echoes of the great West Coast band Quicksilver Messenger Service, heroes of Man. 

Moving to the 1973 Sounds of the Seventies session, the lineup has changed again, with Deke and Martin leaving, to be replaced by Phil Ryan, on keyboards and vocals, Will Youatt, on bass and vocals, and Clive John returning, this time on guitar and vocals. Life on the Road from that session has a Grateful Dead rhythmic shuffle, underpinning Phil Ryan’s sparkling organ and electric piano fills. Micky plays some flowing, stinging guitar lines, that jump out of the mix. 

The interlocking guitar and keyboard-drenched sound that defines this phrase in Man’s development, reaches its zenith on CD Disc Two, on the lengthy tracks C’Mon and Bananas. Recorded for the BBC Radio 1 In Concert programme, at the Hippodrome, London on the 21 September 1973, these two classic tracks have become standards in the Man live set. At this point, Clive John has left and Alan ‘Tweke’ Lewis has been drafted in on guitar. In respect to Clive John, it is recommended to check out his You Always Know Where You Stand With A Buzzard solo album, particularly the funky prog classic Hold Your Ferret Aloft, which also features Phil Ryan on keyboards.

On C’Mon, Phil’s atmospheric keyboards alternate beautifully between organ and synthesizer, exhibiting a lilting, floating texture, while the guitars gently lift out of the mix to soar over the band. Mickey’s solo is full of emotional power and is followed by his angelic wordless vocalising. It is a musical suite that hits many musical peaks and will repay repeated listens. Another live version of C’Mon, that is required listening, can be found on the Back Into The Future album, where Man are joined by the quite wonderful Gwalia Male Choir, whose voices take the piece in a whole new direction.  

Bananas is another tour de force of keyboards playing, with Phil’s synthesizer solo conjuring up a striking quixotic soundscape, that Micky’s guitar solo runs with. In fact, Micky’s solo is perhaps one of his very best to be heard on a live recording, full of passion and artistry and yet also gracefully understated. Micky’s voice has an optimistic timbre that conjures up a picture of the sun emerging on an autumn day. I would venture to describe this as the best recorded live version of the song, which is praise indeed for a piece of music that never sounds the same twice in performance.

The line-up changes once more as we reach the BBC Radio 1 session recorded on the 27th February 1974. Phil, Will and Tweke have departed, with Phil and Will forming The Neutrons, whose debut album Black Hole Star. If you never heard it, seek it out and you will be in for a real treat. Coming into the band are the returning multi-talented Deke Leonard, who also brings along fellow members of country-tinged rockers Help Yourself, Malcolm Morley, keyboards, guitar and vocals, and Ken Whaley bass and vocals.  In another footnote recommendation, listen to the two performances of Help Yourself, with Deke Leonard and pedal steel guitar player BJ Cole, on Mona and Eddie Waring, on Christmas At The Patti, a live album, recorded at Man’s Christmas party, in December 1972. They are an exemplary example of West Coast-influenced guitar improvisation at its very best.

A real gem from the February 1974 session is an early version of Scotch Corner from the Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics album, called God Gave Us Turtles. Deke brings in references to the great actor Shirley MacLaine in the lyrics, and the trading of high-octane guitar solos and Terry Williams driving drumming create a thrilling embryonic version. Another gem recorded for this session, is a country-tinged version of Help Yourself’s Blown Away, with a delightfully expressive vocal from Malcolm Morley, and some very nice supporting harmony vocals from the band.

By CD Disc Three, and the BBC Radio 1 session (31 October 1974) and BBC Radio 1 In Concert from the Paris Theatre, London (21st January 1975), Man were back to a four-piece, with Malcolm having left. This disc contains some excellent session and live versions of songs from the album Slow Motion, though the highlight for this reviewer is Man’s in-concert version of Deke’s 7171 551 from his solo Iceberg album. Several of Deke’s always excellent solo songs found their way into Man’s set lists, and the version here is propelled forward by Ken Whaley’s snaking bass lines, that recall Jack Cassidy’s finest work with the Jefferson Airplane. The guitar work is constantly inventive, and Deke and Micky’s solos which are both incendiary, and full of melody, literally shoot out of the speakers.

CD Disc Four begins with a live version of Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You, a song associated with Quicksilver Messenger Service, recorded live at Loughborough University in 1976. This track found its way into the Man live set, when the legendary Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina toured with the band in 1975. The line-up for the Loughborough University recording, alongside Deke, Micky, and Terry, includes the returning Phil Ryan on keyboards and the excellent bassist John McKenzie from the band Global Village Trucking Company. It is a free-flowing version with a country blues influence, imbued with Man’s psychedelic edge through the magnificent spindly guitar lines, and with some trademark Man vocal harmonies. This and Born With A Future, from The Welsh Connection album, also recorded at the Loughborough University show, have apparently only recently come to light and are a great find. 

This Man line-up, after extensively touring the UK, USA, and Europe, decided to call it a day, with Man reforming seven years later in 1983. The new lineup consisted of Deke and Micky, a returning Martin Ace on bass, and the very talented John Weathers, from progressive rock luminaries Gentle Giant, joining on drums.  Disc 4 concludes with a recording of this lineup’s well-received appearance at the Reading Festival on the 26th August 1983, aired on Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show. Highlights include a hard rocking performance of Deke’s the Ride and the View, driven by some superb drumming by John Weathers, and a frenetic Bananas with an infectious groove-laden instrumental section.

So, to the two DVDs that visually capture Man in a number of different lineup configurations, playing live, in concert and in session, and also rehearsing and recording in the studio. A treasure trove of delights for all of us that love their music.

DVD Disc 5 includes in concert footage of Man playing Ain’t Their Fight, broadcast on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in November 1973. It’s the Phil, Will, Tweke, Micky and Terry lineup. As the band stretch out the number, Terry’s intricate yet powerful drumming drives some very engaging guitar solos from Micky and Tweke. In particular, the film shows Micky completely emerged in his playing, as he effortlessly builds successive guitar phrases into a really arresting solo. Phil and Will uniquely add layers of sound that provide a soulful, and jazz-influenced feel, to the improvisations.

New Horizons: Man’s First Seven Inch Record is a recently unearthed gem of a BBC documentary, previously thought lost. Filmed in 1973, it captures Phil, Will, Micky and Terry rehearsing and recording for the Back Into the Future album. It provides a unique insight into this lineup’s approach to developing new songs. It also has an excerpt of the band playing C’Mon, from what appears to be Man’s concert at the Roundhouse with the Gwalia Male Choir. In addition, there is film of the band being photographed in vintage costume at a railway station, with family and friends, for the iconic album cover of Back Into the Future.

Completing Disc 5 are two live songs from the Old Grey Whistle Test, in January 1975, featuring the Micky, Deke, Terry and Ken line up. On Day and Night from the Slow Motion album, Deke’s vocals have a wonderful bluesy swing, and the band seem completely in sync with each other, to the extent that all the instruments and vocals feel to be in magical harmony with each other. The classic Many Are Called, But Few Get Up unleashes a psychedelic storm, that you feel must have come close to blowing some of the fuses in the studio. Man’s awesome fluid playing in the BBC studios transports the viewer to San Francisco and echoes the Quicksilver Messenger Service at the height of their musical powers.

DVD Disc Six is the filmed farewell show in 1976 at the Roundhouse. The lineup is now Micky, Deke, Terry, the returning Phil Ryan, and new bass player John McKenzie. This lineup had further developed the Man sound and made an excellent new album, the Welsh Connection. With some great new songs and a new musical chemistry brought by Phil and John, the band has a fresh energy. The results live are stunning, as best viewed on Bananas. John’s bass playing is just superb, bringing a fantastic flowing tone to the band’s live sound, and Phil’s keyboards add a shimmering quality to the live sound. This seems to further encourage Micky, Deke, and Terry to reach new musical heights in their collective playing.

I was privileged to see Man live four times, each time of course with a different lineup. They played with a tremendous heart, a wonderful ear for melody and harmony, and scaled dazzling heights of improvisation. They also seemed to be possessed of a very engaging romanticism and optimism, at the core of how they played, which communicated a joy in the music they made. A very rare quality indeed. This fantastic box set manages to communicate this very well, ably assisted by Michael Heatley’s wonderfully comprehensive, and at times poignant essay, on the band, in the context of its performances recorded by the BBC. It is a lovely read that fully captures the essence of the band.

Man have made some incredible music, and their legacy lives on despite so many band members having sadly been lost to us in recent years. Martin Ace leads a Man lineup that Malcolm Morley occasionally joins. While Micky’s son George plays in Son Of Man, who live, play a great mix of their own original material and some classic Man songs.

With my brother, I met Deke, Micky, Terry, Martin, and John Cipollina, on their 1975 tour of the UK. Sneaking into their dressing room at the Glasgow Apollo, they were incredibly gracious and welcoming, and Deke ensured we went away with everyone’s autograph. They say never meet your heroes, well Man has to be the exception, such a lovely group of guys, who absolutely made our day. Thank you, Man, for all the wonderful music.

Here is a video of Man performing Day and Night on the Old Grey Whistle Test. The lineup is Micky, Deke, Terry and Ken.

There are Man and Son of Man Facebook pages: Man. Son of Man.

You can find out more about Cherry Red Records releases here: Website / Facebook

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