Cult Heroes No. 30: Mama’s Boys
Here’s your starter for 10: what do the following have in common? Rush, The Jam, Motörhead, Thin Lizzy, Cream, Triumph, The Nice, Venom, Beck, Bogert & Appice, West, Bruce & Laing, Raven, ELP, Green Day, Nirvana, Budgie… et cetera, et cetera? Check out previous Cult Heroes here.
Words: Geoff Barton
If you answered “they are/were all power trios” you’d be bang on the button. The pedant in me should point out that some of the above have been known to augment their core three-man line-ups with extra members. For example the ‘classic’ Lizzy configuration might’ve been a quartet, but they started out as three young guys outta Ireland… while Mama’s Boys did the same, just over the border from the Republic.
The power trio must be music’s most demanding formation – unless you’re a rock’n’roll busker with Don Partridge aspirations, of course. The basic assemblage of guitar, bass and drums – or bass, drums and keyboards in the cases of ELP, and The Nice minus David O’List – means there’s nowhere to run, and certainly nowhere to hide. There aren’t any extra members to allow you the luxury of a quick snifter behind the backline. There are no ranks of backing vocalists doing a singalong. There’s no weirdo on a theremin wielding the power cosmic. Nope. What you see, and hear, with a power trio is what you get. However, the possibilities are still endless. Rush can emulate an orchestra; Motörhead can sound like a dustcart. But teamwork is always the key.
That’s what set Mama’s Boys apart from the three-piece pack. Their sense of togetherness was in-built, because they were all brothers. Step forward John, Pat and Tommy McManus, a bunch of farmboys from Derrylin, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The ‘Mama’ in question was Valerie; the father was John Senior. Mum and dad were steeped in traditional Irish music, and they used to tour their homeland and play gigs with their six kids (there being three girls as well as boys).
Around 1978 John, Pat and Tommy heard Celtic rockers Horslips for the first time. Horslips played Irish music in a rock fashion, and they inspired Pat to abandon his fiddle for the guitar, and John to take up bass instead of the uilleann pipes. Tommy, meanwhile, had already acquired a traditional drum kit for Christmas at the tender age of 10; no bodhran-bashing for him (the bodhran being a traditional Irish drum.)
The three formed a band called Pulse and then changed their name to Mama’s Boys – a moniker suggested by Radio Luxembourg DJ Tony ‘The Royal Ruler’ Prince, because Tommy was only 13 the first time the disc-spinner heard the band.
The potential of Mama’s Boys was recognised early on. I have memories of Kerrang! being strong supporters: there might’ve been cover story around 1982 or 1983, and there was certainly a free three-track flexi disc of the band, although admittedly that could’ve been later in the decade.
Mama’s Boys first album was 1981’s Official Bootleg, which was recorded in just four short hours and released on the Pussy label. A single, Belfast City Blues, was later put out on the Scoff label. Were the two label-names related, one wonders?!
Mama’s Boys’ second album, 1982’s Plug It In, was also self-financed, although the recording schedule was much more relaxed: it was completed in a week. Significantly, Plug It In contained probably the band’s best-known track, Needle In The Groove, which was released as a single and gained airplay in Ireland.
The Boys kept at it with third album Turn It Up in 1983. But their big break came when Phil Lynott invited them to support on Thin Lizzy’s farewell tour. That helped Mama’s Boys get an appearance at the Reading Festival and a deal with Jive Records. Their first album for the label, the self-titled Mama’s Boys, was a combination of Plug It In and Turn It Up plus a few new songs. It was released in June 1984 and contained a cover of Slade’s Mama Weer All Crazee Now. That gained them radio play in the States, as they battled it out over the airwaves with a rival version by US band Quiet Riot. (Kevin DuBrow’s mob had previously set the trend for Slade covers by releasing a version of Cum On Feel The Noize.) Mama’s Boys toured with The Scorpions in Europe and then joined Rush and Ratt on their first trip to the States.
Mama’s Boys’ second album for Jive, Power & Passion, was their most successful. It cracked the Billboard Top 100 in America and reached the heady heights of No.55 in the UK.
Power & Passion has stood the test of time amazingly well… even if the cover might not have, to some politically correct eyes. But hey, you won’t get any complaints about its depiction of a nude girl covered in a net curtain wielding a dagger, while reclining on a medieval throne, from this quarter. But quite what the Jive Records art department were thinking of at the time is anyone’s guess….
It’s plain that the success of Mama Weer All Crazee Now had influenced Mama’s Boys: a lot of the songs here – Hard ’N’ Loud and Lettin’ Go in particular – are big-sounding and basic, with plenty of Noddy Holder-style hollering.
Although Mama’s Boys might’ve slipped off the radar in modern day times I urge you to rediscover this collection of glossy-but-heavy 1980s anthems. The band’s enthusiasm is tangible and there’s an endearingly naïve feel to their songwriting that tempers an album that was obviously recorded with an eye on the American market.
The standout track remains the band’s finest song, the aforementioned, re-recorded Needle In The Groove, which has the loping feel of early Thin Lizzy and is a masterpiece of double entendre and insinuation – although lyrics like ‘She’s a hi-fi freak who loves to take it to the peak’ may go over the heads of the digital download generation!
Running Needle… a close second is the thumping commerciality of Don’t Tell Mama – it’s no surprise that the two songs were coupled together as the first single to be released from the album.
With the sleek and Poison-esque Run and the stomping Straight Forward No Looking Back also providing highlights, the only slight low spots are the title track – a combination of Kiss-style stumble-rock and AOR pretensions – and The Professor II, which is probably the only example of Irish-tinged jazz rock you’re ever likely to hear. (‘Professor’ was Pat McManus’s nickname, if memory serves. The Professor I was on the Mama’s Boys album.) But normal service is resumed on closing track Let’s Get High, which again has a hint of Lizzy, this time with its duelling guitar action.
The stature Mama’s Boys enjoyed at the time of the release of Power & Passion was reflected in the size of the UK tour (or ‘rock event’, as it was billed) they undertook to promote the album in April and May 1985. Included were major venues such as Birmingham Odeon and London’s Dominion Theatre, where the Queen stage show We Will Rock You currently plays.
In the States Mama’s Boys supported Bon Jovi and joined up again with their mates from Ratt. The Irish band flew back to the UK to play the Knebworth festival with Deep Purple, and then went straight back to the States. They went to Japan to play with Foreigner and, bizarrely, Sting.
“It was a dream come true playing with Purple at Knebworth as they were one of our favourite bands,” said John McManus. “Sadly we didn’t get to see them play because we were due to play with Iron Maiden in the States the following afternoon, so we had to leave the festival right after out set – missing everything.”
But all the hard work was taking its toll. Tommy had a relapse of the leukaemia he had suffered as a child, and was replaced by American drummer Jimmy DeGrasso. The break-up of the brotherly triumvirate was temporary at this point, but it was to prove a pivotal moment in Mama’s Boys’ career. With John’s vocal cords suffering Keith Murrell was brought in to sing on 1987 album Growing Up The Hard Way but the band’s more commercial sound didn’t find favour with fans. Murrell was later replaced by Mike Wilson as Mama’s Boys tried to regain lost ground by re-adopting a heavier approach.
They lost their Jive deal but managed to record and release two more albums – 1991’s Live Tonite and 1992’s Relativity – before tragedy struck. Having recovered from the recurrence of his leukaemia, Tommy became ill again on tour in 1993; after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant he passed away age 28 in London on November 16, 1994. The band of brothers was torn asunder and the Mama’s Boys saga drew to a close.
“Having done so much together, it was a terrible loss,” said John McManus.
In 1996 John and Pat reinvented themselves as Celtus, a Celtic new-age band, and gained a deal with Sony. After Celtus’ demise Pat worked as a session man and began teaching music. He joined local band The Painkillers and also became a full-time member of Sligo band Indian. He later returned with a completely new combo, Pat McManus & Hi-Voltage. In 2007 he released a solo album, In My Own Time. Pat now fronts The Pat McManus Band, and is promising to release some new material any second now. Pat McManus’ website is here.
John McManus, as far as we know, is involved in writing music for film and television. He also popped up in a recent line-up of Fastway.
What is for sure is that the two remaining Mama’s Boys are all grown up now.