Interview with MARK STANWAY (MAGNUM)

February 2009

When a musician’s talents are in demand in all the right places he must be a real master of his trade even though he’s too humble to step forward. But there must be a place in the spotlight for Mark Stanway whose keyboards playing is an important element of the MAGNUM’s oeuvre and helped Phil Lynott keep afloat. Yet who’s he, the man whose very name makes one think of grand piano? Meet the maestro!

– Mark, you seem to be a classically trained pianist. What made you want to play rock ‘n’ roll?

I only actually had piano lessons for about eighteen months from my great aunt, and I wasn’t learning to play as fast as my enthusiasm desired. I was brought up in a family that loved listening to swing jazz – my father was a big swing bandleader and drummer in the Thirties and Forties. Therefore, the first instrument I learned to play was the drums, second the guitar and lastly, the piano. We always had a piano in the house – fortunately! – my father also played one or two boogie-woogie tunes on it, and he showed me very basically how to play them: this was the real start of my piano playing. At this early stage it was very hard to copy these great boogie players – it still is! – and I happened to overhear my elder brother playing a bluesy type record which had piano on it. It was none other than the legendary John Mayall, and this really was a turning point, as I found it quite easy to copy what he was playing.

I was now obsessed with blues piano and spent several years practising my butt off. During this time – I guess, I was about seventeen years old – I discovered that you could get such a thing as an electric piano, and I sacrificed everything to save up for my first piano, a Mk1 73 note Fender Rhodes that set me back 450 pounds. By this stage, I was listening to everything that had Fender Rhodes piano on it, but I always tended to come back to jazz/progressive based music, including Brian Auger, Jan Hammer, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Joe Sample – the list goes on. This brings me on to the second part of your question.

What made me want to play rock ‘n’ roll piano? The answer is quite simple. I was, in my opinion, not good enough to be playing jazz for a living, and there was hardly any gigs available for jazz piano, so I put an advert in the “Birmingham Evening Mail” asking musicians with a jazz-rock interest to contact me. I had one reply from a guy who to this day is still a close friend, and he had a band playing fusion music that needed keyboards. I arranged for them all to come to my house with their instruments so I could check them out. If the truth be known, they were checking me out as they were and still are all superb players. This was my first real band, and it was called RAINMAKER. We played a couple of cover versions of songs like “Red Baron” by Billy Cobham and “Jessica” by ALMOND BROTHERS and a bunch of original material, and played all the local Birmingham gigs, but we never really achieved any acclaim, as the only people that came to see us were other musicians. Our claim to fame was supporting Stanley Clarke at Birmingham Town Hall and doing a short tour supporting Jon Hiseman‘s COLOSSEUM II, which is when I first met my good friend Don Airey and the great Gary Moore.

The time I am talking about is round about 1978. I was still only semi-pro and kept a job going during the day and the opportunity arose to become a full time professional musician when a friend suggested I played with Alvin Stardust! This was what I wanted to do, play the piano for a living, so I quit RAINMAKER to their disgust and horror to join Alvin’s band as musical director and pianist. I did this for over a year until it all became too much playing “Coo Ca Choo” etcetera every night. For the next six to eight months I played in another local Birmingham band called LITTLE ACRE which had no other than Mo Birch, my wife to be, on vocals and Robbie Blunt, later to be in Robert Plant’s band, on guitar, amongst other local notables. The work was fairly regular but not regular enough so I was still looking for an ideal gig.

Out of the blue, an old friend namely Maurice Jones from MCP Promotions, Donnington’s “Monsters Of Rock” creator, called me up and said I should accompany him to a DEF LEPPARD gig that he was promoting in Derby England, and MAGNUM were the supporting band. I went to the gig and met the guys from both bands, and Bob Catley said to me, “Check out our show and tell us if you want to join the band as we want a new keyboard player”. Well, the show was great, and it was arranged for me to meet up with Tony Clarkin and Bob later that week. At this meeting, Tony said there and then, “You’re in the band, cause we can’t stand the existing keyboard player, Grenville Harding, who had replaced original keyboardist Richard Bailey only a few weeks earlier”. I should mention that I did already know the guys in MAGNUM, and they knew I could play as they had seen me perform with RAINMAKER many times. Anyway, I was immediately retained and signed to Jet Records, and in 1980 started the recording of my first MAGNUM album, “Chase The Dragon”. The rest is history.

– How, in your opinion, Birmingham gave birth – at around the same time – to such different bands as, say, BLACK SABBATH, MAGNUM and ELO?

Birmingham was always full of live and talented bands, how I don’t know, but it was a very small business and everyone knew everyone… still do, actually. Coincidentally ELO, Roy Wood, Ozzy Osbourne and MAGNUM were all Jet acts.

– What was it like – working for Don Arden?

Frustrating, depressing, and I was glad when it all eventually finished with Jet. The best of the Arden bunch was, and still is, Sharon [Osbourne] who managed us for a while. Now I have respect for her, she gets things done and stands no nonsense and you always knew what was happening. She was also very approachable unlike her father Don or brother David.

– You entered MAGNUM at, perhaps, the worst time for pomp bands, after punk and before NWOBHM. What attracted you in them?

When is a good time for rock? Although, thanks to countries like Germany and Scandinavia, rock will always survive. I was attracted to MAGNUM as the songs were well-written and all the players were good. In fact, to this day I would say that MAGNUM are one of the best and most professional live bands in the world.

– Most of the fans consider intro to “One Sacred Hour” the best piece you wrote for MAGNUM. But what do you think has been your greatest contribution to the band so far?

Tony Clarkin does all the writing for MAGNUM – but here is some information that has, until now, not been generally known… My wife Mo actually wrote the original piece of piano music that I later adapted and used for “Sacred Hour”, although her writing credits were refused! One of my personal inputs that I am still pleased about is a track called “The Last Dance”: this was originally an uptempo track that was supposed to be like when someone puts the last coin in the jukebox for the last dance of an evening. I wrote a much slower piano part and suggested we made it into a ballad, and when I played it to everyone there was a unanimous decision to record it this way. It’s on the “On A Storyteller’s Night” album.

– Of all the MAGNUM albums, “Keeping The Nite Light Burning” does surely stand out. Weren’t you afraid of stripping down that trademark sound? How did you manage to retain the band’s identity in such circumstances?

With MAGNUM: at the top

With MAGNUM: at the top

“Keeping The Nite Lite Burning” was an absolute pleasure to record, as we had no record company pressure or some arty-farty producer’s influence to put up with, we just played what we felt. The trademark sound, I am proud to say, took years to naturally develop, and whilst Bob is singing MAGNUM songs with the rest of us, the sound would be there even if we performed it with an orchestra. Something I would actually dearly love to do one day especially after hearing the London Philharmonic orchestra perform on “The Word”.

– Why did you leave MAGNUM and how did you team up with Phil Lynott?

I didn’t actually leave MAGNUM. MAGNUM were tied up to Jet Records at the time and were caught in limbo so to speak, so having a wife and three kids to support, I needed to earn a living and during this time I teamed up with Phil. I only missed six weeks of MAGNUM and still have done every album with them, so I didn’t actually officially ever leave.

– Linking up with Phil, what did you expect: a hard rock band or a pop rock in vein of his solo albums?

I didn’t really have any preconceptions so much as, it was always going to have THIN LIZZY overtones as Phil was the voice and the front man.

– Were Phil’s THREE MUSKATEERS a formal band or a transitional phase on the way to GRAND SLAM?

It was a name that was not really official. The actual tour that saw this band was billed officially as THE PHIL LYNOTT BAND tour. Phil and everyone enjoyed that tour of Sweden so much that we decided to keep the band as a replacement for THIN LIZZY and the name GRAND SLAM came a long time after that.

– Was it you who brought Laurence Archer into the SLAM?

With John Sykes

With John Sykes

Yes. Phil was really disappointed when John Sykes left to join WHITESNAKE and was at an all time low, so I immediately arranged for Laurence to come over to Phil’s for a jam. He only lived up the road from Richmond in Twickenham, and within a week we were back in business and Phil was once again full of enthusiasm now that he had a young replacement – Laurence was only 21 at the time – who was every bit as talented as John Sykes.

– What do you think of Gary Moore’s version of “Military Man” that you co-wrote with Phil – and of Don Airey’s part?

Very good. I was just a bit disappointed that I was missed off the writing credits

– As GRAND SLAM could be seen as a Lynott-Stanway band, could you tell what was the main difference between this group and THIN LIZZY?

Well, there was far more scope for keyboards in the new band, and I was brought to the front of the stage, something that never happened with THIN LIZZY.

– Why didn’t you keep to the title, especially when you had Brian Downey with you in the beginning?

Phil wanted a completely fresh band and start and initially he refused to do any THIN LIZZY songs whatsoever.

– How come that Phil disbanded GRAND SLAM and, as Robin George suggests, decided to re-form LIZZY with Robin and Brian, but not you, just before he died?

I think Robin lives in a romantic dream world, to be honest, He was always very quick to badmouth people, bearing in mind that I got Phil to play on one of his tracks for nothing as a favor – which is how he met Phil in the first place. He also told me that he had to replace all of the bass on the track as it was out of time and tune. Believe what you will, but I shouldn’t give too much importance to anything Robin has to say. Who the fuck is Robin George anyway?

With Phil Lynott

With Phil Lynott

– By the way, were you ever a part of Robin George’s LIFE?

I played keyboards on his album and numerous demos and filled in some dates on a British tour, but I was never officially part of it. Still, I recommended Robin for a one-off MAGNUM tour playing second guitar – he was never part of the band, though – and even introduced him to Phil Lynott and got Phil to play on a couple of his tracks for free.

– There was a rumor of you joining WHITESNAKE, together with John Sykes, in 1984. True of false?

Unofficially, true – John called me from the States and asked me if I would be up for it – but somehow the press got wind of it and it was denied by all parties including David Coverdale.

– You became a part of M3 CLASSIC WHITESNAKE, though. How did this gig come about – via Neil Murray who, I guess, you could meet when touring with COLOSSEUM II?

It actually came about from a recommendation from my good mate Don Airey whom I did meet back in the Seventies whilst touring with COLOSSEUM II – but the bass player was Jon Mole not Neil Murray when I toured with them, supporting with that great Birmingham jazz rock band called RAINMAKER. It was Don who suggested to Bernie Marsden I would be good for the gig. I had also known Bernie since the early Eighties so it was like teaming up with old mates. An absolute pleasure of a gig, I still really miss playing with that line-up, by far the best rhythm section I have ever had the pleasure to be part of.

– How did you feel playing the blues?

As I said I first learned to play the piano to the likes of John Mayall, Brian Auger, CREAM, FLEETWOOD MAC etcetera so blues piano is really the first thing I ever tried to play.

– Wasn’t it hard to tour with M3 and be recording with MAGNUM at the same time?

Not at all. MAGNUM always took precedence if dates should ever clash, and this never actually happened as MAGNUM work so little… for some reason known only to our agent Derek Kemp and Tony Clarkin.

– You’re not doing many sessions but appeared on records by HEAVY LOAD and MOTHERLODE. What about this Sweden connection?

I have actually done many sessions for various artists – both live and on record. Sweden was, and still is, a very important fan base from Phil Lynott’s and MAGNUM’s point of view. As a matter of interest, Kee Marcello, EUROPE’s guitarist, phoned me just two weeks ago do to some work with him, thus maintaining the Swedish recognition

– A couple of years ago you played with the reunited HONEYDRIPPERS. Did you know Robert Plant from the old days?

I have known Robert since the late Seventies and we have been close friends for a long time now. He is a good friend and completely down to earth considering he is a living legend.

– Was it you who took part in PET SHOP BOYS’ “Closer to Heaven” or some other Mark Stanway?

It’s just coincidence that there is another keyboard player with the same name! I have never met him or heard him play.

– There was a band called STANWAY. Was it your attempt to strike on your own?

This was a band that had nothing to do with me, it was my brother Guy Stanway who formed this band, which also spookily had original MAGNUM drummer Kex Gorin, but I never played or appeared with him. I did hear that there was some confusion, and he changed the name to MAZIQUE I think.

– Did you ever think of a solo career – say, a pure piano record – or a Stanway & Birch project?

I have recently done a sort of Stanway / Birch product with a band called THE HUB. This band featured Mo on main vocals, myself of keyboards, Jimmy Copley on drums – he’s the best drummer I have ever played with – the fabulous Ian Jennings on bass, the superb Robbie Blunt on guitar and slide, the unbelievable Micky Moody on guitar and slide, the wonderful Phil Bates on guitar and vocals, and the multi-talented Jim Hickman and Nadia Pearson on backing vocals. This, in my opinion, was the finest band potentially I have ever had the honour to work with and I hope to repeat this and do more gigs when all of that magical star line-up are all available at the same time… not an easy task to achieve but I will make it happen again soon.

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