Cult Heroes No. 45: Magnum
This week, we take a look at the lengthy career of Magnum, a band who despite a period of considerable success have always been undervalued. Check out past Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
It would appear that my less than ecstatic review of the new Magnum album, The Visitation, has caused an outbreak of ire among some diehard fans of the band. Oh well, that’s the way the penny sometimes rolls, eh? So, I thought it only appropriate to send Magnum through as our latest Cult Heroes, ushering them through a door that’s already had so many worthies. I don’t do it to try and curry favour with Magnum fans who are devotees of the new album – we shall have to agree to disagree on that one – but more because this is a band who deserve wider recognition and respect. A band who’ve been through so much over the decades (even the death of one ex-member), and have faced it all with fortitude.
My association with the band goes back to 1979 – ulp! I reviewed their second album, Magnum II, for the long gone weekly music magazine Record Mirror. I believe I gave it two ++ (out of five. They didn’t use ‘ks’ or ‘*s’ on the Mirror), and was a little disappointed at the production (from Leo Lyons). Something on which the band would later agree with me.
A few months later, I was sent to Nottingham (the Boat Club, to be precise) to interview the band for Record Mirror. They’d just released the live album Marauder, which I loved, and Jet Records.(who also had Ozzy at the time) forked out the extravagant sums to get me to Nottingham and into a hotel.
Needless to say, the gig was excellent – the Boat Club, if memory serves, had a low ceiling and little room to park even a rubber duck, but that only added to the atmosphere – and sharing a glass or two (of water, I hasten to add) afterwards with vocalist Bob Catley and guitarist Tony Clarkin (the band’s mainstays through the years) was convivial. They had no rock star pretensions, took the piss out of each other and themselves, and were such genuinely nice people, as well as having a boatload of talent.
Over the next few years, we’d bump into each regularly. I interviewed them almost annually (sometimes more), and seemed to become something of the Magnum correspondent for Kerrang!. There was a steady rise, even though record label problems were always bubbling beneath the surface, but it seemed inevitable that something would eventually go wrong and hold them back. This happened with the slightly controversial 1983 record The Eleventh Hour album (self-produced), coming hot on the heels of the much-delayed 1982 album Chase The Dragon. Now the band always manfully defended Jet, despite the obvious disinterest the label had in them. I recall tackling Clarkin about why he had produced The Eleventh Hour, when with a stronger production it would have so much better.
“That was my choice,” he insisted, with little conviction. “I didn’t believe we needed to spend money on an outside producer, and I’m happy with what we’ve got.”
Years later, it became clear that Jet had forced the issue, by slashing the recording budget for the album. But then, you had to wonder what Jet’s commitment to the band was. Their sole tour of America came in 1982, opening for Ozzy. High profile maybe, but Ozzy fans were never gonna like Magnum. Put them on with Styx or Foreigner and you had a winning combination. But Ozzy?! Especially at a time when the Crazy Train was allegedly going off the rails. Bats heads were being bitten off, strange objects were being hurled onstage – and in the middle of the maelstrom, Magnum were singing about the Kingdom Of Madness. Actually, that did make a sort of sense. In an Alice Through The Looking Glass kinda way. But such was the parlous state of the band that by the time of their appearance at the Reading Festival in 1983, they were ready to split up.
Bob Catley even called me at the Kerrang! office and asked if I knew of any band looking for a singer, Sad times indeed. The future looked about as hopeful as the odds on a one-legged man beating Usain Bolt. But then a twist in the saga took the band into their most successful period. Enter Keith Baker.
A one-time musician and old friend of Tony Clarkin, Baker had become very successful in the fashion business, and offered to see what he could do to help Magnum. This eventually led to him becoming the band’s manager. But, sceptical of whether anyone cared about them any more, they booked multiple shows at The Marquee Club in Wardour Street, London, to test the waters and see whether there was any fan base remaining. It also gave the guys the chance to test out a couple of new songs,. Just in case the interest was still there. Nobody, though, expected what happened next.
The venerable old club was packed for the first night. You literally couldn’t move, and the roar that greeted the band was deafening. It was a truly moving and emotional experience. Here was a band being told that their fans wouldn’t let them go. They were much loved, and the rapport was electrifying. So much so that, at the end of the set, Catley burst into tears. A man who wears his heart on his sleeve at the best of times, he was just overwhelmed by the atmosphere and the belief. From here on, Magnum were not resurrected and revived, but a band inspired to go on to greater things.
In 1985 they released perhaps the finest album of their career, On A Storytellers Night. It was a Top 30 album in the UK on the independent label Heavy Metal Records, and such was its success that magnum got a major deal, with Polydor. The rest of the decade was stuffed with his singles, big albums, arena tours and appearances at the biggest festivals. Their triumph in the UK and Europe was total.
In 1986, the band appeared at the Monsters Of Rock Festival at Donington. They were second from bottom on the bill, with Ratt (megastars in America) below them. Famously, Ratt vocalist Stephen Pearcy, unable to get his head around what or who Magnum were, asked: “Who are these old dudes playing after us?”. That was the beauty of Magnum. Image meant little, it was all about the music.
Rock stars? Pah! Catley once told an unimpressed bar maid in a Central London pub: “I’m, a rock star, me!”. Of course, she didn’t believe him, b ut he said it totally tongue-in-cheek anyway.
By the end of the 1980s, there were various ‘Lost Weekends’ arranged by Baker. These consisted of a select body of media types (only about four or five of us, and our names remain on the secret list!) who would go up to see Magnum play in Birmingham (usually) and then get totally wasted at the bar afterwards.
The band paid for everything. There were just two rules:
- We were guests, and not expected to anything like write a review or interview the band.
- It was a crime to be even close to sober.
Those rules we could handle – just. The bounds of decency prevent me from telling any tales of the remarkable excesses that took place, although one family may never have recovered from the haggardly sight one year of a bunch of horrendously non-sober gentlemen staggering around New Street Station in Birmingham on the Saturday before Christmas. We still talk among ourselves about that year in hushed tones, barely able to understand how we made it back to London.
That was Magnum. Generosity was second nature. I personally had the pleasure of travelling across Europe with them, seeing gigs, festivals and also going to the studio when they were recording. On one occasion, the Loreley Festival in Germany, I stood at the side of the stage with a certain Bruce Dickinson. A massive fan of the band, he’d flown out to the gig just to see them. Ah, such happy days.
But there were also a few dark clouds, such as the total failure of the American label to properly release Magnum albums. They’d barely trickle out, when their style music could so easily have done well. But, constantly dangling the carrot of a proper US tour and sensible marketing, the label weren’t beyond using Magnum’s huge popularity in the UK and Europe to promote new American acts over here. So, first Kingdom Come and then Dirty White Boy got their chanceto open for the band on big tours, with Magnum being promised similar backing over there. Naturally, the latter never happened.
Such were the political maneuverings that the US label, under contractual obligation, did the bare minimum for Magnum, knowing that unless they did so, the band were free to go elsewhere.
“Let me explain,” an executive in New York once told me. “Magnum are signed to the UK label. Therefore the American company makes very little money from any success they have, even here. So, why should we break sweat for them? However, we don’t want them to go elsewhere and become successful, because that makes us look bad. So, we have the current situation. The British company aren’t too bothered, because they concentrate on their own market. We are left to back our priorities…sure, the band lose out. But that’s life.”
In an effort to get the Americans on their side, the band even agreed to record one album, Goodnight LA, in Los Angeles, working with producer Keith Olsen. But this 1990 release still failed to ignite the States.
By the early 1990s, Magnum were starting to drift a little commercially. They still made good albums – 1992’s Sleepwalking and Rock Art two years later – but their sales levels were slowly dipping. Moreover, there was a bad falling out with Baker. Exactly what happened still remains something of a mystery, but from the outside it was a disappointing end to what had been such a fruitful relationship. And then in 1995, Clarkin announced the band were splitting up, after a farewell tour documented on the Stronghold live album. And so the guitarist, Catley, bassist Wally Lowe, keyboard player Mark Stanway and drummer Mickey Barker (the line-up many regard as the band’s finest) went their separate ways. Lowe was never to heard from again. He took off after the last show on his bicycle, and disappeared from the music scene completely.
But Clarkin and Catley stayed together, in a new band called Hard Rain. To be honest, the best of that band sounded like strong Magnum. How could it not, with those two involved? Clarkin was attempting to expand his songwriting credentials, though, and much of Hard Rain (plus demos I was privileged to hear) underlined that he was a truly gifted tunesmith. The incredible thing is that there are comparatively so few covers of his songs around. This is despite his proven record of being able to compose hit singles, and a huge catalogue of stunning songs Maybe others believe his material is too tied to Catley? Certainly, this is where it works best.
“I don’t write songs,” Catley has said. “Why would I when Tony’s so good? I know that what he does works for me, and I’m always happy to sing whatever he’s written.”
The Hard Rain experiment was ultimately shelved, after two good albums (Hard Rain, released in 1997 and When The Good Times Come, two years later), and in 2002, much to some people’s surprise but everyone’s delight, Magnum returned. Why the surprise? Because while Catley had never lost his affection for the band and always insisted he missed the camaraderie of the old days, Clarkin displayed none of those sentiments. Magnum were over, he said, and there was no going back.
But a new-look line-up did return. Mark Stanway was back on keyboards, but there was no Lowe (replaced by Al Barrow), nor Barker (his place being taken by Thunder’s Harry James). Since then there’s been steady progress, through the albums Breath Of Life (2002), Brand New Morning (2004), Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow (2007, with Jimmy Copley on drums), Into The Valley Of The Moonking (2009, with James back behind the kit) and the just-released The Visitation.
None of these albums, to my mind, has been spectacular. All have powerful moments and are certainly decent. But, personally, I find they lack the great finesse and thrust of old. I applaud the band for moving on and refusing to become a nostalgia act. However, I just feel they’re capable of better, and the right producer is needed to pull it out of them.
There have been highs, though, since the band’s return. In 2005 they played the whole of the On A Storytellers Night album, to mark its 20th anniversary, and two years later they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Wings Of Heaven album with a similar presentation. But there have also lows, none more than the death in 2007 of original drummer Kex Gorin from cancer. He was on the band’s first four albums and will always be remembered with great respect. Clarkin has also battled illness, and it’s to be hoped that battle has finally been won.
So, there you have it. Not so much a detailed analysis of the band’s history (Dave Ling did that superbly on the recently issue four-CD retrospective The Gathering), but a sketch on the varied, chequered career of a band so many care about. One who probably should have been so much bigger (especially in America), yet perhaps achieved more than many expected.
I still have a lot of time for Magnum, still firmly believe they will create another masterpiece and still recall those old times with a smile, and wonder how on earth we all survived those ‘Lost Weekends’!
Time for some music.
Find out more at http://www.magnumonline.co.uk/
Tags: Bob Catley, Bruce Dickinson, Dirty White Boy, Foreigner, Jimmy Copley, John McEnroe, Kex Gorin, Kingdom Come, Magnum, Mark Stanway, Mickey Barker, Monsters Of Rock, ozzy Osbourne, Patty Smyth, Ratt, Styx, Thunder, Tony Clarkin, Wally Lowe