© Dave Ling - December 1995 - previously published in FRONTIERS magazine
Four-fifths of Magnum are drinking in a public house on what is supposedly the first day of rehearsals for their latest UK tour, which kicks off in December. Only this is a trek with a difference, for it will be the band’s last. That’s right, the seemingly indestructible pomp rockers are preparing to wind up a career that began backing Del Shannon (honestly!) and has now spanned two decades in rock over 12 official releases, via countless record companies of variable repute. As we all know, Magnum have somehow managed to plumb the depths of despair and scale the very peaks of success this past 20 years, but the consistency of their music and the support of a legion of loyal fans have enabled them to negotiate just about any hurdle that has presented itself. Until now…
The decision to dissolve the group came from Tony Clarkin, the man responsible for writing the band’s rich catalogue of songs. Renowned as a composer par excellence, he saw Magnum’s ‘Les Morts Dansant’ re-recorded by Patty Smyth on her ‘Never Enough’ album in 1987 (under the new title of ‘Call To Heaven’) and seems to have developed an itch that badly needs scratching. Tony picks me up at Birmingham New Street station and seems chipper enough, but on the way to the rehearsal studio he explains that this was a decision he felt guilty in making. Regardless, he had to reach it for his own reasons.
Clarkin has already recorded some seven new songs with vocalist Bob Catley, and it seems that post-Magnum the two will continue to work together – for the short-term at least. Keyboardist Mark Stanway, bassist Wally Lowe and drummer Mickey Barker were less than ecstatic when Tony broke the news to them, but have had time to reconcile themselves and now seem as chirpy as circumstances would permit. Barring Wally, who plans on taking a year out before considering a new band, they all want to continue in music. This is the first time the band – minus Lowe – have sat around a tape recorder to discuss the situation. Initially things are a little uncomfortable.
“[Comparing us to] dry lettuce leaf is so unfair. We were at least as heavy as
a moderately thick slice of cucumber!”
Mickey Barker on the band’s epitaph
“This will probably sound really selfish, and I suppose it is, but Magnum takes up 24 hours of my life every day,” Tony somewhat hesitantly begins. “Now I just want to do other things. It’s been on my mind now for about a year, and I figured that unless I did something about it now then I probably never would. There are so many things I want to do, and I won’t have time to be involved with Magnum as well. I know that some of the things I want to do will probably never take off – perhaps none of them will – and doing this might be the biggest mistake I ever make. But I’ve got to try.”
And what was the reaction when Clarkin divulged his feelings to the others? He shrugs sadly: “They told me to fuck off.”
“I’ve known that Tony hasn’t been happy for quite some time,” admits Bob. “He’s felt restricted and if I’m truthful I can’t really blame him. But in December we’ll have been going for 20 years, so we’ve had a good run. After the tour I’m gonna finish off these songs with him, then God only knows what I’ll be doing.”
So will there be at least one more Magnum studio album?
Tony: “No, these are just a collection of songs. I want to keep on recording and recording till I come up with something I haven’t done before. If we did some of these songs as Magnum, people would go, ‘What?!’ So I’m gonna start writing stuff for other people.”
Besides the musicians, the people who deserve the most sympathy for all of this are the band’s fans. Magnum devotees are a breed apart, often following the quintet all over the country. In certain extreme cases, Magnum are the most important thing in people’s lives. Even though the news of the break-up is just a few weeks old, the response has already been overwhelming.
Sighs Bob: “They’ve been writing in and saying things like, ‘It’s like a girlfriend leaving me’. They’re devastated.”
During interviews for the band’s last album, 1994’s ‘RockArt’, Clarkin was quoted as saying that so long as the bills were still being paid he would be perfectly happy for Magnum to continue – even if they ended up playing the clubs. That situation has obviously changed.
“Magnum still pays the bills, but there’s more to it than that,” he says, trying to make his meaning clear. “It’s a common story that bands tell, but over the years we’ve found it so hard to get our hands on the money we’ve made. If we were to go round the table and ask the band how many records we’ve sold, there wouldn’t be one person here who could tell you. It wouldn’t be like that if we were making cars and not records – someone would have to be answerable. But we simply cannot get the information, and it pisses us off.”
“I don’t know about the rest of you but I’ve never, ever had a royalty statement where Magnum’s concerned,” pipes up Stanway. “The only time you can be a hundred er cent serious that nobody’s ripping you off is to split up!”
“At the moment we haven’t got a record deal,” continues Clarkin once the gales of laughter have subsided. “We’ve been offered lots of deals because people know that Magnum will sell them records, though perhaps not to many these days. We’re a ‘no-risk’ business venture. I’m sick of people signing us and just going through the motions. Only once have we had a great record company. Polydor did an exceptional job; perhaps we’ve been spoiled by that. But I don’t want to sign my life away for the next three fucking years.”
“The only time you can be a hundred per cent serious that nobody’s ripping you off is to split up!”
The peak of Magnum’s commercial success came in 1988 with their ‘Wings Of Heaven’ album. Spawning such huge hits as ‘Days Of No Trust’, ‘Start Talking Love’ and ‘It Must Have Been Love’ (all Top 30 or thereabouts), it signalled a drastic turnaround in their fortunes. Clarkin’s sharpest songs were accompanied by clever videos and even an image revamp, which really did the trick. The man credited with masterminding this renaissance was band manager Keith Baker, who’d taken up the reins at around the time of 1985’s quintessential ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’ album.
Baker had instigated the visual facelift and looked after the business side, by all accounts leaving Magnum to get on with the music. He parted acrimoniously with his charges after 1992’s ‘Sleepwalking’ opus. There’s little doubt that the band’s fortunes have since declined, but they feel Keith’s influence has since been exaggerated.
“If Keith Baker takes the credit for masterminding the success of ‘Wings Of Heaven’, then he must also take the blame for masterminding the failure of ‘Goodnight L.A.’,” reasons Mickey Barker, referring to the band’s most disappointing album, released in 1990. “It was under his influence that Tony co-wrote some of the material [with Russ Ballard], and that it turned out the way it did.”
Expands Stanway: “We spent a fortune making an album in America that wasn’t even released out there. How stupid was that? When Keith stepped in, he had all the enthusiasm you would expect of a good manager. However, it wasn’t sustained.”
Clarkin: “But it has to be said that Keith did a good job of perking everybody up. When ‘…Storyteller…’ came out, we were basically a no-hope band. But then suddenly people started paying attention again.”
Somebody heads off to the bar again and the mood lightens. We discuss the highs and lows of Magnum’s career. Predictably, headlining and selling out the NEC in Birmingham tops everybody’s lists in the former category.
“Keith and I went to see Marillion at the NEC in 1987, and after they’d finished we stood on the stage as their crew were loading the gear out,” reminisces Catley fondly. “He said we’d be playing there within 12 months and he was right.”
When I ask to be regaled of a few low spots, Stanway grins again: “How long’s your cassette?” Okay then, how do Magnum now feel about playing places like the Army & Navy in Chelmsford after headlining such prestigious arenas?
“Honestly, we enjoy it just as much,” insists Bob. “There was no atmosphere at some of the bigger gigs, but at some of the pubs and clubs we’ve played people are there because they love the songs. I’ve even been passed around the audience and been plonked back onstage a couple of times – you can’t do that at the NEC!”
The conversation moves onto the foursome’s favourite and least favourite Magnum LPs. Despite being their biggest seller, ‘Wings Of Heaven’ isn’t regarded as positively as one might expect. Stanway hated recording in Holland and Clarkin remembers there being too much pressure.
1985’s ‘Vigilante’, produced by Queen drummer Roger Taylor, is something of a favourite, although Stanway speaks happily about the freedom that Magnum afforded themselves on ‘Keeping The Nightlights Burning’, an acoustic album released in 1993.
Although the band are splitting up, there will be more Magnum product available. Certain dates on the ‘Last Dance’ tour will be recorded for a double live album and video. They are also bringing back four or five old classics such as ‘Soldier Of The Line’ and ‘Invasion’ into the set to make things really special. But how does everybody expect to feel after the last chords have rung out at the last date in Wolverhampton on December 17?
Stanway: “I have to keep putting it out of my mind. I’m not looking forward to it at all.”
Catley: “It’ll be very emotional, but I’m gonna get out all my old jackets and hats and make a real parade out of it.”
Of course, Magnum have already split up once before. In order to escape the clutches of Jet Records they decided that an appearance at 1983’s Reading Festival would have to be their swansong. Will this split be final?
“Funnily enough, we didn’t actually split up as such at Reading,” Stanway clarifies. “We’d been trying to get away from Jet and realised we had no alternative but to call it a day. So we told a few people that’s what we were doing, and that same weekend they decided to let us go! But to all intents and purposes this farewell tour is a real farewell, not a Status Quo ploy.”
Everybody is quick to nip in the bud any notions of one-off reunion concerts.
“It’s a nice thought,” ponders Stanway, “and we’re all close enough to discuss the possibility in the future. But I can’t see it myself.”And what about a somewhat bizarre rumour doing the rounds that the band might actually let the dust settle and then pick up the pieces with ex-Stampede/UFO guitarist Laurence Archer filling the Clarkin role?
Tony (laughing): “I reckon that’s what’ll fucking happen!”
Catley (looking surprised): “That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
Stanway: “Funnily enough, you’re the third person to ask me about that. Maybe Laurence is going around telling people? But without Tony writing the material it wouldn’t be the same. No, it hasn’t even been discussed.”
Catley (with a grin): “Anyway, he probably wouldn’t even shave his head!”
Finally, I remind the band of their listing in the Kerrang! Direktory Of Heavy Metal. They are somewhat uncharitably described there as “about as heavy as a dry lettuce leaf”. How would they prefer to be remembered?
“A dry lettuce leaf is so unfair,” smiles Mickey wickedly. “I’d say we were at least as heavy as a moderately thick slice of cucumber!”
“Actually, I totally agree with the lettuce leaf comparison,” pipes up Tony unexpectedly. “If you mention the name of Magnum to somebody who’d never heard our music they’d probably say, ‘Oh, they’re a heavy metal band’. But we were always a rock band that liked to do different things. If a song needs to be nancy – even a bit poncey – that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s possibly worked against us in the long run, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
Mark Stanway ponders: “This band have four or five songs – ‘The Tall Ships’ [from 'RockArt'] would be one of them – which are among the best I’ve ever, ever heard, but which never quite did it [in the charts]. We’ve always delivered with passion.”
“I’ve been very proud to be in Magnum, and to have the fans we’ve had,” concludes who else but Bob Catley. “If somebody writes to you and says that a song like ‘When The World Comes Down’ has helped them through a difficult time in their life, that’s a very special thing. I’d like to be remembered for that if nothing else.”
They will be sadly missed…
The official Magnum website
When is being in a pub with Magnum anything less than a party experience? When the band are rendez-vousing to discuss their imminent demise, that’s when. Don’t know how their break-up affected you lot out there, but it made me very sad indeed. They’re some of the nicest guys in the business and a truly wonderful band. Looking back to it now, the atmosphere that day in 1995 was very strange; Tony Clarkin’s excitement at forging a new career contrasting sharply with the discontent of his colleagues. It was to their credit that they were able to put a spin of pleasantry and wit onto proceedings. Now, of course, Magnum are back together again. (25th August, 2004)
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