AN INTERVIEW WITH A STRANGE WALKING MAN
THE MANDRAKE PADDLE STEAMER INTERVIEW
I could begin this by describing how the Mandrake Paddle Steamer began as yet another London art college band and how their entire reputation is based around one 1969 single for Parlophone, the A-side of which, the superb ‘Strange Walking Man’, no self respecting compilation of English psychedelia ever seems to be without: originally included on ‘The Perfumed Garden’, I’ve lost count of how many it’s appeared on since, some going so far as including the half-decent keyboard-driven B-side ‘Steam’ as well. Other recordings, including a melancholic ditty from 1969 called ‘Sunlight Glide’ (which was only released in Sweden for some Godforsaken reason, with a thing called ‘Len’ on the B-side) have appeared on subsequent compilations, and in 1991 a poorly-produced CD collection entitled ‘Mandrake Paddlesteamer’ was being hawked around. This was superceded by a collection entitled ‘Overspill’ which, despite appalling sound quality, nicely summarises the band’s unreleased recordings from late 1968 / early ’69 and even includes their solitary BBC ‘Top Gear’ appearance with John Peel from April ’69. Needless to say it, too, is a bootleg, but ‘Senlac Lament’, the wonderfully titled ‘Ivory Castle of Solitaire Husk’ and the sweepingly surreal guitar landscapes of ‘The Janus Suite’ (a.k.a. ‘Slo Blo’) make it well worth seeking out. There’s also some tapes from circa. 1971 credited simply to ‘Mandrake’, including the neatly titled but sadly forgettable ‘Pale Green Vauxhall Driving Man’, being circulated if you care to dig deep enough.
But, I shan’t begin that way:- instead I shall let Paul Riorden tell the story himself, as guided by the expert hand of Mr. Saloman way back in November of 1991.
PT: Where shall we start? I believe you only had the one single...
Paul Riordan: One single release, recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road, two tracks.
The strange thing is, the Mandrake Paddle Steamer nowadays have the reputation of being the archetypal slick British psychedelic band. How did it all happen? Were you playing in other bands prior to the Paddle Steamer?
Mandrake was centred around Walthamstow Art College, the nucleus being Brian Engel [drummer] and [guitarist] Martin Brierly. I was playing in cover bands in the Ilford area and I got a ’phone call one day saying, “We need a bass player and we’ve heard that you’re the best one in Ilford... we’re playing next week at the Walthamstow College, can you help out?” So, I learned all the songs in a week and we did a support gig at the college - it all happened very quickly.
Did you just gig around the London scene?
The Mandrake Paddle Steamer were involved in a lot of the college stuff that was happening. I think that after the first few gigs we started all working together. We had a keyboard player and a drummer, and used to rehearse in Lambourne End. The drummer’s parents had a huge house with a garage, so we could make as much noise as we wanted. Every night after work we would go down there and work out a set. The gigs were quite infrequent, until we got ourselves a manager who started hustling for work. We did a few support slots, the first one I think was for Pink Floyd. We got quite a lot of work out of that.
Was Syd Barret still involved with the Floyd at that stage?
I think it was one of Dave Gilmour’s first gigs.
So this would be early in 1968 then... who thought the name “Mandrake Paddle Steamer” up, incidentally?
As far as I know it was Brian Engle and Martin Brierly.
And once you were established, you were off on the circuit, supporting bands and gigging around in the usual way?
Yeah, and we also used to run a place in Streatford called ‘Asgard’, because we were very into the Viking scene, everything stemmed from that. Brian was heavily into ‘Ride Of The Valkyries’, so we used to do the Asgard Club every Friday night. We had ‘Pale Green Limousine’ do the light show. When we were booked to gig elsewhere we were approached by someone asking if he could run it, and that was Paul Fenn who now runs Asgard.
Was that in the Railway Hotel?
Yeah, Sam Apple Pie used to do the nights we couldn’t do, various other bands were involved as well.
There were a few bands that came out of that scene - Creation/Eddie Phillips for example.
We didn’t really know many other musicians, we were just tucked away writing and hoping that something would come of it.
How did the record deal come about?
I was working in Town and I got to know someone who was working for Polydor, she in turn knew someone from Shapiro and Bernstein and they got EMI interested in us. We didn’t have a clue about business at all. They just signed up all our tracks, put us in a studio and we recorded about eight songs in a day. Somewhere there’s a tape with all that stuff on [which subsequently became the LP ‘Mandrake Paddlesteamer’]
Do you remember what tracks you did?
I used to love a number called ‘Blitz’, one of those numbers which turned out different every night. There was a verse and chorus at either end which used to lead on to avant garde improvisation. There was also an instrumental called ‘Slo Blo’, I think that was on a BBC session with John Peel.
From what I know of the Paddle Steamer, there was one called ‘Senlac Lament’, ‘The Ivory Castle of Solitaire Husk’, ‘The World Whistles By’...
Yeah, that was quite strange, we had at that time an instrumental version of ‘Carmen’ which was our finalé number - quite a dancey thing, unfortunately we gained a reputation for doing that. Once we'd done it once or twice we used to get requests for it, and since it was our encore number it sort of started sending the band in a different direction - I think it was the wrong direction really.
Your single actually came out on the Parlophone label, which was a bit of a surprise?
We were promised to go onto Harvest because it was what we were all about, unfortunately though because we weren't managed by anyone with any substance it was never really pushed. We just let them do what they wanted. The week that the single came out, the total advertising was one three inch high advert in Melody Maker. That was it.
It always baffles me as to why labels sometimes sign up bands and then choose not to promote them at all. It was a one off single deal, no album or anything?
That’s right, we just didn’t have that side of it together at all - we just concentrated on playing live. After the single we just carried on as normal doing gigs. I can’t remember how long the five-piece band lasted, but it soon folded into a 4-piece when Brian Engel the vocalist left - it was then that we changed the name to just ‘Mandrake’.
Did the ‘Paddle Steamer’ bit go because it was seen as being a bit passé? A lot of bands wanted to drop the psychedelic tag and become “progressive”.
What was happening was, heavy music was coming along and we were being told to go ‘heavy’, but we weren't really into it. Martin Brierley then took over as the main songwriter; he was quite a commercial songwriter, very attractive songs - his style of guitar playing was like a turned-on Hank Marvin, very clean-cut - so the material started to go in that direction, one which had no bag. Sort of “psychedelic pop”, which couldn't be placed anywhere at that time.
You must have done some very memorable gigs?
We did some gigs in Germany, in fact we used to backwards and forwards to Germany and Switzerland quite a lot. We did some gigs in Montreal supporting the Vanilla Fudge, we did the tail-end of their tour which was fantastic! We supported the Floyd two or three time I think, did some good nights at the Lyceum supporting Free, had a spate of supporting the Nice - because we did this ‘Carmen’ number we were on a par with Nice, the keyboards were slightly classical-based.
You mentioned earlier that your tape machine was on loan from Dave Gilmour - does that relationship stem from those times?
No, I didn’t know Dave then, I only know him vaguely now because I worked for the Floyd from 1979 to ’83. I looked after Dave’s guitars and got his guitar collection together. The roadie that I was using in a band that I joined after Mandrake split, he knew that I was heavily into guitars and said “we’re looking for a guitar man...”, and so I got involved in building up Dave’s guitar collection.
Going back to the 1970s...
Well, we were a four-piece with Martin Brierly as main songwriter. After two years of doing the Star Club in Hamburg and various gigs/colleges, Martin left to join Greenslade as bass player and from that he joined Mick Ronson and from that he’s gone on to doing his own albums. I think he played guitar on a Julian Lennon hit, and I’ve since noticed that he’s written a couple of tracks on a Jeff Healey album.
So what happened to the remaining three members?
We got quite a heavy drummer in after Brian Engel left, and then Barry Nightingale left as well. Getting a heavyish drummer in was a bit of a mistake, because it started to send the music in that direction. It started going all out for excitement at live gigs instead of any subtlety and eventually we ended up as a three-piece, Martin Hoover on keyboards, me on bass and David Potts on drums. No guitars! I think we carried on playing live, just a gigging band with no intention of ever getting a record deal.
Looking through the magazines of the time, there were no interviews or anything really...
No, we never got anything in Melody Maker, basically because of a lack of management. Really we just thought we’d write songs and get the band together and then someone would come along and handle that side of it for us. But they never did...
After a while, things weren't going anywhere so you split?
Well, Keith Cross came up and saw a gig and stole me as his bass player. I was most impressed because they actually had a manager.
Were you in T2 then?
No, not in T2, this was after T2 split up. In between T2 and Cross & Ross, just with Keith Cross. I think we recorded a few things and tried to write stuff which didn’t really happen.
What about the Mandrake stuff that's recently appeared, tracks like ‘Pale Green Vauxhall Driving Man’?
That’s from when Mandrake was a three-piece, I think Martin Brierly and Brian Engel got together and got a deal with Air and were producing some good commercial songs.
So that’s why these tracks don’t sound like Mandrake Paddle Steamer - it’s just Engel and Brierley putting out these poppy type songs rather than the three-piece Mandrake.
That’s right, I think it was members of the original band trying to get something together and being led into a very commercial direction. After Keith Cross, I just kept my head above water as a musician. I did quite a lot of auditions, managed to get in with the Marquee Agency and from that played bass with Dave Elliott, we did the last European tour of King Crimson. I took various different gigs as a bass player right through the ’70s, did a few sessions and TV commercials and then gradually swapped bass for guitar, and I’ve now started working as a guitarist. After the Pink Floyd experience I became more and more involved in the guitar.
And more recently you’ve been doing these Library LPs?
That stemmed from being asked to do TV commercials, getting more involved in that and finding out that you could actually produce music that you wanted to produce and get paid for it! At the same time I’ve still got a band happening, called Disciples.
Regarding the film library stuff, there’s a lot of late ’60s and early ’70s library material which is incredibly sought-after, things like Conroy and the Roland Kovac Set - quite an interesting area that people don't generally known much about.
When you mention library stuff to most musicians they go “eurgh!”, but generally it’s got a bad name because people tend to give their failed songs to library companies - you don’t get any mechanical rights, just paid for the amount of time used, therefore you’re recording for no cost. They cover recording and pressing costs and if the company use it, then they pay you. I put my heart and soul into my stuff, but then again I hope it gets used by people who maybe like music with heart and soul in it.
You say you’re gigging with a band called Disciples, I believe you were gigging with another band before that as well?
No, I was just doing solo, John Martyn stuff. I did that for a year or so as a support act. Disciples is me writing with a Canadian songwriter who lives in Walthamstow, he came over here because he didn't like the scene in Vancouver. We met and got on like a house on fire - I’ve always been writing instrumental stuff and he’s a lyricist. It’s a five-piece band which has just started doing gigs, Dingwalls and the Mean Fiddler, places like that.
Interview: Nick Saloman (1991). Article: Phil McMullen (1996)
© Ptolemaic Terrascope