The Manfreds man tells the story of his classic that’s been a hit for Chris Farlowe, Rod Stewart and Stereophonics
Betchworth, Surrey-born singer and songwriter Mike d’Abo is best known as the former lead vocalist of 60s rock band Manfred Mann. But he is also the man responsible for penning the perennial favourite Handbags And Gladrags. In 1967, singer Chris Farlowe was the first to release the song, but Rod Stewart’s recording – initially found on the 1969 album An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, and re-released in 1972 – would take it to a wider audience and help ensure its longevity. Handbags And Gladrags was never a hit single for Stewart in the UK, but the song found renewed popularity following its use for BBC television series The Office, while a cover by Stereophonics took it back into the charts in December 2001.
We had the pleasure of hearing Mike tell the story of how the song came to be, what the lyrics are really about and what he thinks of the different versions…
“I’d been listening to the Jimi Hendrix record The Wind Cries Mary, and within the solo there was a certain riff – basically a series of country guitar licks played very much in the style of Floyd Cramer. Over a period of months, this guitar solo stayed in my mind and I basically came up with that instrumental riff. Within the chords I was doing it in the key of G, which means G-F-C-D-E-D and I knew I was onto something slightly different – punching slightly above my weight!
“Anyway, I persevered. And you don’t always set out with a song lyric, but in this particular case I found myself singing: ’Ever seen a blind man cross the road/trying to make the other side?’. Why I came up with that, I don’t know. I carried on in good faith, wondering what words would pop up next. Clearly the muse was with me – and the muse is something that does exist when you’re tuned into your higher self, and you feel you’re in the moment and something wonderful is happening. So then… ’Ever seen a young girl growing old / trying to make herself a bride,’ and I thought, ’Hey, what’s this about?’ I didn’t really know, and basically the rhymes and lyrics kept going.
“I’ve always been fascinated with rhyme and I liked the way ‘handbags’ more or less rhymed with ‘gladrags’, but I was looking for another rhyme so I came up with ’granddads’. In a way, I’m bringing the song rather down to earth, because a lot of people would think I must’ve written about a granddaughter, but I was only 22 years old when I wrote it! I was preaching to a girl who’s wearing all the right fashion accessories and thinks she’s arrived, but my point is there’s a lot more you need than material goods to sustain you through life. ‘Don’t grow up too quickly’, I suppose I’m trying to say. As that image formed in my mind, I kept on writing and knew that I was doing something rather special – my inner voices were still guiding me.
“I played it to the Manfreds and they didn’t know what to do with it. Rod came to me when he was totally unknown and wanted to do it, but I was already recording it with Chris Farlowe. Then Rod came back to my house in early 1969 and said, ’Now I’ve got an album deal, can I do your song?’ And that time I said yes. I produced and arranged that, so in a way, it was the most important recording – that was all my creativity, including my piano.
“I never thought it could be a hit. The formula for hit writing changes all the time anyway. But I knew it was a good song and I just couldn’t believe my luck when 33 years later the Stereophonics covered it and The Office decided to feature it. I have my frustrations about how the song has been interpreted in some ways, but I’m very grateful to every recording. There have probably been 20 covers of the song, and they all help pay my rent!”