If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the time when TV adverts were memorable mainly because of a particular catchphrase or the music they used. If you mention a Cadbury’s Fudge to someone, they’ll instantly remember the tag line, ‘a finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat’ which was used for about 15 years, beginning in the mid-seventies. Well the music used for that was called the Lincolnshire Poacher which was an old folk song, but the words, however, were conceived by the man who wrote many UK hits including this week’s Single of the Week.
That man is the former lead singer with Manfred Mann, the one who took over from original vocalist Paul Jones, we are talking about Mike D’Abo who was born in March 1944 in Betchworth, a small village near Dorking in Surrey. Whilst at school in Harrow he’d been a member of a group called A Band of Angels, but success was never forthcoming because, as Mike agreed, years later, “We looked old fashioned and I knew I looked wrong but I didn’t want to change.”
In 1966, he was invited to join Manfred Mann as a replacement for Paul Jones who was departing for a solo career. Their first hit with D’Abo as lead singer was Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James, which was originally written as Semi-Detached Suburban Mr Jones, but the band thought that with Jones’ recent departure it was not appropriate, so it got changed to the fictitious Mr James. Their biggest success with D’Abo was the chart-topping 1968 cover of Bob Dylan’s Mighty Quinn.
In 1967 he began writing songs for other artists and his first success was Handbags and Gladrags. So where did that song start, “Divine inspiration I guess,” admitted Mike. “I think something special was coming through me, I think it was a little touch of God trying to help me out here. If I think about it hard enough, I suppose if I take it right back to the beginning I might have been indirectly inspired by a Jimi Hendrix record called The Wind Cries Mary and in there is a guitar riff that is not unlike the piano riff in Gladrags. Those who know the country pianist Floyd Cramer will also recognise that sound and I can play like him. I played it to the Manfred’s and they didn’t know what it was all about, we even did it live on The Julie Felix Show on BBC2 but it didn’t really connect.”
The song opens with the lines, ‘Ever seen a blind man cross the road trying to make the other side’, “Where that lyric came from I don’t know,” admitted D’Abo, “inspiration I guess.” The next lines are, ‘Ever see young girl growing old trying to make herself a bride’, “I didn’t know really what I was writing but I knew there was a message in there for a beautiful girl who thought the whole key secret to life was having the right clothes and the right accessories and the message is, what becomes of you my love when they’ve stripped you of all these things, you’re nothing. Then I suddenly came out with the words handbags and the gladrags and I thought, ‘I like that’ but then I needed one more rhyme, hmmm what other word rhymes with gladrags? Ah I know, grandads and that’s how I came up with the chorus.”
There was always a little bit of controversy as to who actually recorded the song first, so here’s the story as explained by D’Abo, “I got a call in 1967 from Andrew Oldham who had been producer and manager of the Rolling Stones who had just parted company with them and was forming his own record label called Immediate. One of his first artists was a young soul singer called Chris Farlowe who had just had a number one with Out of Time which, of course, Jagger and Richards had written. Oldham said, ‘Mike, my partner Tony Macauley had heard that you’re writing songs and were frustrated with the Manfred’s, why not come and work for us writing and producing for some of our artists?’ and I said, ‘I’d love to’, so I played Chris Farlowe some songs and he instantly fell in love with Gladrags and said he wanted to record it. A few months later I got another call from Andrew who said, ‘We’ve just signed another soul singer call Rod Stewart, would you like to go and check him out?’ So I agreed and went to see him with the Jeff Beck Group, with Ronnie Wood on bass, and I thought ‘what a knock-out voice’ so I invited Rod over to the house and played him some songs, he immediately picked out Handbags and Gladrags, but I said, ‘You can’t have that one because I’m recording it with Chris Farlowe and we can’t have two rival versions’, so I persuaded him to record another song I’d written called Little Miss Understood. Rod agree but it came with a deal, he said, ‘I’ll sing that song but only if you let me do Handbags and Gladrags when I get my first album deal’. Anyway, a year later, in 1969, Rod turned up at my house, unannounced, and said, ‘OK, I have my first record deal and I now want to record Gladrags with you on piano, but I want you to come up with a new arrangement and I’ve booked a studio for 10 o’clock tomorrow morning’. I stayed up all night working on this arrangement. I cannot write a note of music, I can play but not write and Rod wanted me to disguise the piano riff and make it sound like woodwind, so I came up with this oboe sound and Rod loved it. We went into the studio the next morning, a bit bleary eyed, and we did it with me on piano, Ronnie on bass, Ian McLagan on organ and Mick Waller on drums all in one take.”
Farlowe’s version reached a meagre number 33 in December 1967, Rod’s remained an album track until it was issued as the B side of It’s All Over Now in 1976, but that never made the chart. The song finally made its chart mark in 2001 when, not only did the Stereophonics cover it and take it to number four exactly 34 years later, but Ricky Gervais decided he wanted it as the theme tune to a new comedy programme he was writing and starring in called The Office. The version used in the show is not the Stereophonics version as many believed, it’s actually a version arranged by the late Big George Webley who had composed the theme to Have I Got News for You and recorded by Fin who was the lead singer with the heavy metal band Waysted. George and Fin were best friends and George invited Fin to record it.
Many versions of the song have been recorded and has obviously make D’Abo a nice little packet, but what does he think about it? “I think it’s the best song I’ve ever written and I may never write another song that is so well known, so it’ll probably be my obituary, my calling card and Handbags and Gladrags will more than likely be the epitaph on my grave, but I’ll settle for that.”