Today we’re talking about Magnum’s classic On a Storyteller’s Night album, released thirty two years ago this year. And we’re talking to Mark Stanway, the man who contributed all the keyboards on the record, about what remains one of British hard rock’s cornerstone albums.
“Good morning Australia!” It’s a suitably rockstarish greeting, though you couldn’t level such a pejorative at Stanway, who’s easily as humble and pleasant an interviewee as we’ve encountered at Sentinel Daily in a while. I counter with my own ‘good morning West midlands!’ and, ice broken, we’re away and talking about one of my favourite British hard rock albums of all time.
To put things in a little bit of context before we move on to chatting about the album itself, Mark, can you tell us what the mood was like as the band prepared to go in and record the album? “The mood was very good because we’d just picked up a new manager, Keith Baker. We financed the album ourselves – we actually made it for nine thousand pounds, if you can believe that – and recorded it in less than a fortnight. But we’d done all the prep work and demoing beforehand. I’d not long come back from (Phil Lynott’s post-Thin Lizzy band) Grand Slam, because Magnum were in a situation where they had a deal sorted out and nothing was happening with Grand Slam. I’d never really left Magnum, but when they weren’t doing anything I had to earn money because I had a wife and children, and a mortgage… so I went and worked with Grand Slam whilst Magnum were ‘contractually trapped’ by Jet Records and weren’t allowed to sign with anyone else. But then Bob (Catley, vocals) and Tony (Clarkin, guitars) called me and said ‘we’ve got a deal, we’re recording an album, come back!’ So the vibe was very good, in fact”.
Jim Simpson was drumming for the band at that point, wasn’t he? “That’s right. Kex (Gorin) had left, and Jim Simpson was recruited, but shortly after the album was recorded, Jim was offered the chance to go to the States with UFO, which he was very keen on. And I was keen on getting Mickey Barker into the band, who’d been a friend for years and is still one of the greatest drummers on the planet in my opinion. So we were able to secure him. Jim did a great job, but Mickey is on another level really and we were very pleased to get him”.
Let’s get into the album now. What do you remember about the recording of the first track, How Far Jerusalem? “I remember that Kit Woolven (who produced the album), who I’d met when I was working with Phil Lynott, was working on the album. He’d cut his teeth engineering for Tony Visconti on those classic David Bowie records, so he had some real credibility and a whole load of interesting techniques that he showed us. He came up with the idea of backwards reverb for this song. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film The Exorcist? When you hear the voices when the girl is possessed? They used the technique of backwards reverb. What they would do is that you’d say a word, which would have the reverb on the end of it. Then they take the reverb away, reverse the word and put the reverb on the front of it. When I heard it on Bob’s voice I thought ‘wow! What a great effect!’ It really did help set the mood for that track”.
It gives it great atmospherics as an album starter. “Yes. And from a keyboard point of view Midi had just been invented which meant I could use one keyboard to send a signal to another one in order to get all those great layers of sounds going. It was the first time I’d ever been able to use that technology. Before that everything had to be tracked and then overdubbed. For the boffins out there I’d just got the latest thing from Yamaha which was a DX-7, which had all the latest tools and technologies. It was wonderful to have all that at my fingertips with Kit at the controls”.
The second track, which was released as a single just before the album came out, was Just Like an Arrow. “It was one of the more commercial things Tony had come up with, ideal for a single release. Or the record company thought so, anyway. It did us very well. We made a video for it in some freezing cold quarry down in Surrey. But it looked very good. Something to do with a Jeep and a woman on a horse, although I’m not sure what that had to do with anything. It was our first real video! It was all quite exciting!”
You were on TV for the first time too, then – I remember seeing you on the show ECT. Was that all to do with Keith Baker taking over? “Keith and the record company. Keith worked really hard for the band. For not a particularly big guy he had nerves of steel. He wasn’t scared of anybody which was just what we needed at the time. He was instrumental in getting a lot of opportunities for us”.
The next track is the title track. “A magic track. It’s Tony Clarkin’s writing at its best – where there’s a bit of fantasy and mystery involved. He sets a great scene. And he and (artist) Rodney Matthews came up with a great sleeve for the album. I still think it’s one of the best album sleeves I’ve ever seen. It depicts the magic of Magnum. It was fun to record too. I had such a free rein with a producer who allowed me to try everything I had in my head – there was a nice artistic freedom on this album which I thoroughly enjoyed”.
And you’re right in the front on the mix, aren’t you? It’s quite a keyboard-heavy record. “keyboards have always been important in Magnum, its the thing which sets them aside from many rock bands, because of all the different colours that keyboards can add. Things like …Storytellers Night show that off quite well I think”.
What sort of hours were you keeping in the studio? A strict nine to five? “Fairly conservative, and we were strict at it – we’d get eight to ten hours a day in, depending on what was going on. Kit was meticulous with the way he worked. We never had to sit around waiting for him, he was very efficient”.
Next up is Before First Light. “A fairly straightforward track with lots of keyboard colours, A straight ahead track. We had all the tracks ready beforehand, so we didn’t have much to add in the studio. All the icing was provided by Kit”.
I saw you play at the Marquee just before the recording of the album. I definitely remember Two Hearts being played, which was a new song to the audience obviously. Was that important to you to road test those songs as part of the preparation for the album? “We always used to have the songs ready and rehearsed before we recorded them. In the days before home computers the only way you could do that was to learn it as a band. I still think that’s the healthiest way of recording anything. So it definitely helped to be able to play these things live, and it’s how we came up with some of our great endings, You’ve got to have an ending live, you can’t just fade the song out! Audience response is good for testing how good any given track is too”.
That year, 1985, I think I went from seeing you at the Marquee in London, to playing Monsters of Rock at Donington and headlining Hammersmith Odeon. It was quite a year for live performances. “It all happened quite quickly! That was our first headline show at Hammersmith. That was a thrill, to be headlining there at last””.
It was the Mecca for British rock music lovers. “Absolutely. And it’s still my favourite venue of all of them. It felt intimate even though there were nearly four thousand people in there. The best designed theatre for rock I think you could have”.
Next track is my favourite – Les Morts Dansant. “That went through some quite different changes. I can remember demoing this at EMI’s sixteen track studio in London. Tony pulled this guy in from the street who was drunk as a lord. But he had these bagpipes which Tony wanted to try. We got drunk off the fumes of this guy! We did try lots and lots of things on this before we settled on the album version. Personally I think the demo was better than the album version”.
Really? “It’s just a personal thing really. When I listen back to the album version the keyboards sound a bit twee. How we ended up doing it live was far better. Still a great track and still in their show today”.
Tell us something about Endless Love. “A bit like Before First Light; straightforward, lots of keyboards… a great chorus and what was so great about Magnum at the time was (bassist) Wally Lowe’s backing vocals. He harmonised so well with Bob, which comes through well on all of these tracks. That’s sadly lacking today by comparison with how it was when Wally was in the band. He had the most powerful falsetto I’ve ever heard”.
What’s Wally doing now? “He’s retired, living in Spain. He opened up a bed and breakfast for cyclists. Cycling was his passion. I’m not sure if he still cycles – he’s probably riddled with arthritis with the amount he used to do! But he’s in the warm, he’s happy. He doesn’t have anything to do with music now”.
What about Two Hearts? “When this came out it was my least favourite but it ended up growing on me. It developed live quite well and I ended up getting a keyboard solo out of it which was quite rare! I enjoyed it even more after that! Again it was a straightforward track, really, no secrets or hidden messages at all. But it ended up being very popular with the crowd. The version that we recorded at Birmingham Town Hall was a very good version”.
It became very powerful live – intense. “You can develop things live. And when we got Mickey Barker on drums it changed everything. He was a wonderful player. Still is”.
He’d been playing in a reggae band before Magnum hadn’t he? “He could play anything. He was a bit like me. We both came from jazz rock backgrounds. Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham – we did like a bit of funk! The same sort of background as Jimmy Copley who did an album and toured with Magnum. But Mickey became a great double bass drum player, one of the best double bass drummers I’ve ever heard. He helped make things very special live as well”.
The next track is Steal Your Heart. “I’m not sure about that one! I mean it sounds good on the album… another love song I think. I’m not sure if we ever played that one live”.
What about All England’s Eyes? “Still in the set to this day. A nice pompous approach from the keyboards which I enjoyed”.
Your keyboard part at the end is very anthemic. “It is. It always went down as one of the best live. It was always quite weird playing it in places like Germany, when you analyse what it’s about… but it always went down a treat wherever we played it so it remained in the set”.
When you were in rehearsals before recording, how much to-and-fro was there between the rest of the band and Tony Clarkin. Could people say ‘I’m not so keen on this one’? “Absolutely. I could say something like ‘I’m having trouble with this one’ and he’d come up with some other suggestions. It was only when I dried up and didn’t have a particular part for a song that he’s step in and say ‘well try this’. It was a really healthy, happy working relationship then. I loved it”.
So did you run through the tracks with Kit too before you started recording them? “Yes. Kit came to a rehearsal. He had all the demos we’d done too so he had some fixed ideas on approaches that he wanted to try. He knew it as well as we did when we started”.
The last track on the album is The Last Dance. The original demo of this track was an uptempo, dance version. The original idea of the song was the bloke puts his quarter in the jukebox and has his last dance of the night. To me, that meant the song should be slow. I went home after one of the sessions and came up with a piano part that could be done as a slow ballad, with just piano and strings. Which was how it ended up. Which was great because it was my arrangement and my idea. I’m proud of that one. To me the song suddenly made sense. We got the best out of it. The notation and the lyrics stayed the same, all I did was slow it down and give it a ballad approach”.
But in that it becomes a quintessential Magnum song, doesn’t it? It’s a cornerstone Magnum track in its style. “Yes. As I say we’d only just got all of those new technologies. Kit and I worked late one night putting all the orchestra parts down one at a time. We approached it like the string section of an orchestra, but obviously with synthesizers, and the end result, the way Kit faded the strings in and out – it worked out really fantastic. Those were the days when I had more input!””
It ends the album really well. In fact the whole album flows really well. “Yes it does. In those days we had our heads firmly stuck in vinyl – you had to finish side one and then start again! So you are right – the closing track on side two is a very important one. You leave on that one. But it does flow very well. Bob had a lot to do with that. He was good at setlists too. Once we’d decided what we were going to play he’d put them in order and ninety nine times out of a hundred he got it right”.
And that’s that. It’s a very important album for fans and band alike. “Yes. It was our first Gold album – I think it’s gone platinum since but they didn’t give me one of those! But I’m very proud of it”.
And so, I think we’d all agree, he should be.