|Questa è la prima di una serie di interviste che Andrea Grasso ha realizzato per badsideofthemoon con alcuni dei collaboratori che hanno lavorato con Elton John nel corso della sua lunga carriera. Fred Mandel è il tastierista che ha suonato, sia live che in studio, per alcuni anni a partire dal 1984 e che abbiamo visto anche nei concerti italiani. E' stata realizzata nell'ottobre del 2008.|
Andrea Grasso: Fred, it’s a great pleasure for us Elton John fans to have you here.© 2008 Andrea Grasso / badsideofthemoon - per utilizzare questa intervista si prega di citare autore e fonte
Would you like to tell us something about your early years and how you got into music?
Fred Mandel : First of all, thank you and the fans for asking me to do this interview. I am honored to participate!! I started playing piano when I was about 4 years old and guitar when I was 8. It was in the 1950’s and rock was just starting up with Elvis and Bill Haley. I used to listen to the radio and my parents record collection which was everything from jazz to blues to musicals. I guess that’s why I like so many different styles of music. I grew up in the midwest of Canada and there was a lot of country on the radio too, and I think that influenced me and gave me the basis to be able to play on some country albums today, most recently, The Oak Ridge Boys.
AG: You have worked with some of the best performer in the world, notably Elton John, Queen (and also Freddie Mercury and Brian May as solo artists) and Supertramp. Are you proud of it? What are your impressions about this fabulous career?
FM: I am very proud and honored to have had the privilege of playing with such a variety of great artists. I never really had a career goal to go out and do that but one thing led to another . In Elton’s case, I had always been a fan of his piano playing since “Tumbleweed Connection”. I used to play some of his tunes with my band when I was a kid in junior high school in Toronto but never really expected to end up on stage with him when I was an adult.....maybe not really an adult but more like a larger person with a 9 year old sense of humor!! Of course, Queen was a great experience and to work with Freddie and Brian as well as the whole band on different recording projects as well as live tours was a fantastic experience. The same applies to Supertramp and Alice Cooper which is where I started off in the United States. I also had the pleasure of playing a little on “The Wall” with Pink Floyd which turned out to be such a huge album. All of these musical experiences were different but great in their own way and as unique as the artists I shared them with.
AG: Now we come into our main subject: Elton John. Your first public appearance with him was for the 1984 tour. How do you happen to work with him and what were your impressions about him the first time you met?
FM: I was working with Alice Cooper from 1977-1980 and I ended up being musical director for a while. During that time Davey Johnstone and Dee Murray from Elton’s band played with Alice for a period and we became friends. When Elton needed a keyboard player 4 years later I think I may have been a logical choice because I was friends and a musical comrade with half of the band already. My first impression of Elton was that something was different about his look.
It turned out he had shaved off his eyebrows, maybe he lost a bet, but he looked a little different from other humans I had met:-) In the end, it turned out that his talent set him apart from most people too. He is one of the most badass rock and roll piano players on this planet to this day!
In musician parlance, that means Good:-)
AG: In the first Elton album you played, Ice on fire, you also co-wrote Wrap her up along with other band members (not a well-known fact since in both CD issues they forgot to include writing credits, you have to own the LP to know it!). It seems to me that this song was born impromptu in the studio; can you tell us exactly how this song was created?
FM: It was born impromptu in the studio.
Just kidding.......we were jamming on a tune that Elton had some lyrics for from Bernie Taupin and we all ended up contributing live. Elton was generous enough to give us all credit and I have been making plans to buy a new pair of underwear based on the royalties from that song alone:-)
AG: Both in Ice on fire and Leather Jackets Elton played, apart from the usual piano, some synths, like the ones you played. Was it a choice of the producer (Gus) or it was you that “instructed” Elton to discover some of the new technology?
FM: I was always into new technology in those days. I found some of the new musical possibilities to be very interesting and I guess some of my enthusiasm about those approaches, like synthesis and midi control, may have rubbed off on Elton a bit. He did use some of my gear on some tunes when he had an idea he wanted to record. I don’t remember any “instruction” regarding Elton but we were all in a bit of a learning curve back then and he was receptive to using the new technology to make records. Gus was always very open to recording ideas and it was generally a very creative and collaborative process in my estimation that I look back upon fondly.
AG: The italian fans asked a lot of questions about Leather Jackets, since (I think you know it) it’s a very controversial album, and most of them consider it the worst ever made by Elton. What do you remember about recording it? Was it hard to do? Why Gus decided to do it with a heavy electronic sound? Were you expecting the album to sell a lot? Were you disappointed that it failed to chart? Do you know how the Cher collaboration started?
And also: Elton admitted many times that it’s his worst album since it was recorded during the lowest point of his drug abuse; can you tell us how you managed relationships with him during those difficult times?
FM: I really wasn’t aware that “Leather Jackets” was so controversial. I guess opinions abound about albums. When you’re recording you’re just trying to do the best job possible on every tune. Sometimes you don’t develop a perspective on something until it is in the past as we all know. “Leather Jackets” was not really harder to do than any other album that I recall. I did spend a lot of time sequencing tracks and using synthesizers on that record but that was normal in the 80’s. I don’t remember the details of Cher’s collaboration other than she was friends with Elton.
I personally liked “Slow Rivers” with Cliff Richards and a couple of other tunes, “Healing Hands” etc., but I don’t go back and listen a lot to past recordings. I believe it did chart in some areas of the world...it was particularly popular in the jungles of South America with the red anus monkey population...but that’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s the worst album or not. I only know that even if it were, some of Elton’s worst writing is better than a lot of other artists best writing. In the artistic process, which can be painful at times, the artist is allowed the opportunity to attempt something different in order to progress. The public judges that and we all move on. We never sat around discussing whether or not it would be successful. That is for the public to decide. By the time that album came out we were busy touring and preparing for the next one. That’s basically how it works. The best thing about that album is the back cover and that I look fucking great on that motorcycle. Some people thought we were real bikers.......so if you hated that album.....you better take another look at that picture and think......The keyboard player on that Harley looks like he could kick my ass....I better be nice to him:-) Just kidding ;-) As far as Elton’s personal life during that period, he has already spoken about it in the press many times and I prefer to allow the man to speak for himself on all matters of a personal nature. Artistic situations always cause some friction but that too is part of the creative process. I consider Elton to be a mentor and a friend.
AG: Again about Leather Jackets, I always had a curiosity that I’ve never found the answer to: in the playing credits of the song “Memory of love” what does it mean
“Emulator vocals: Albert Boekholt (Ena Shamples)”?
I really can’t understand the meaning of it all! Can you shed a light on this?
FM: The emulator was a keyboard instrument that was used to play samples of voices etc. It is probably just some inside musician humor which I’ve long since forgotten. I bet it was funny at the time though :-)
AG: Among the many concerts you played with Elton, there is a special show, which many fans consider one of his best concerts ever: the show that was released as the “Live in Australia” album. Do you have some special memories of that night? What were you expecting from that show, since Elton was having troubles with his voice?
FM: I thought the tour of Australia with The Melbourne Symphony was a high point. To have 88 people playing behind you is such a powerful experience plus the fact that
we all had a great time on the road. We actually played about 12 nights in Sydney and recorded some of them. I guess that was the best night but they all had great moments and it was a testament to the talents of Gus Dudgeon and Clive Franks that they were able to record such a massive undertaking so well. Elton just developed nodes on his vocal chords, a common singer ailment. He did his best to soldier through those nights but he did a great job regardless and I never worried about his performances........just my own.
AG: And, speaking in general, how’s the behaviour of Elton before any concert? How the setlist was decided?
FM: After all these years in rock and roll, Elton is a cool cucumber before shows. He pretty much decides the set list based on what he wants to do and his years of experience doing it. Don’t kid yourself....what he makes look easy would have you in the emergency ward gasping for air after a 3 hour set!!
AG: Now, coming to the year 1988, there’s a rumour between fans that Elton recorded, just before Reg Strikes Back, another full album, that still remains unreleased, with Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson playing. I never believed this rumour, but maybe you are able to confirm or deny something about this supposedly unreleased album.
FM: I’m not aware of any such album. We were quite busy in those years and I don’t recall having enough time off to do a secret album. I’m going to see Davey this week so I’ll ask him>>> fast forward.....saw Davey....he doesn’t remember any such album...so...No.
AG: In Sleeping with the past you shared your keyboards duties with Guy Babylon: there was a rule when Chris Thomas had to decide which part was to be played by you and which by Guy?
FM: There were never any “rules”. We just did what we each thought would compliment the tracks appropriately and that was about as complicated as it got. Whoever had an idea tried it out and whatever worked ended up on the album.
AG: Talking about all the albums you recorded with Elton, there are some other anecdotes you’d like to share about their recording sessions? What do you think of these albums nowadays?
FM: I enjoyed recording “Reg Strikes Back” cause we were in the center of London at Air studios and it was a fun experience. I also liked doing “Ice On Fire”. That was my first album with Elton and it was great to be able to record with him and work creatively on a new album and a new direction for my own career. The Live in Australia album was, of course, a unique and powerful experience for a live situation and I enjoyed my time on that tour working with a great orchestra.
AG: Since you played keyboards and synths, and Elton in those years played them too, I think it’s hard sometimes to tell if a keyboard part is played by you or by Elton.
Do you remember to have played some very well-known “riff” or part? Maybe a main part that we all believed was played by Elton and instead was played
by you? (For example, the riff of Town of plenty?)
FM: I played the solo in “Nikita”, the wurlitzer sounding piano on “Wrap Her Up”, the french horn solos on “Blue Avenue”. Also programmed the bass part of “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters part 2”. I also played the last blues guitar solo on “Stones Throw”. The riff on Town of Plenty was played by Elton and I doubled it as I recall on synth. I did a lot of work on those albums and can’t remember all the parts I played but there were a lot of them.
AG: Your favourite and less favourite Elton songs in which you played? And considering also the ones in which you haven’t played?
FM: I liked Nikita and Sacrifice. I also played a blues guitar solo on “Stones Throw” from the Sleeping with the Past album that was fun. I liked a lot of Elton’s tunes live....especially some of the ones we recorded in Australia.....:”Burn Down the Mission”, “Tiny Dancer”, I think my favorite song was Levon or maybe Country Comfort from the Tumbleweed album. Least favorite was Elton’s duet with Jim Nabors on “Born Free” :-)
AG: Apart from the studio work, you also were in the live band from 1984 since 1990, and so you played also in Italy (Milan in June 1984 and Verona, Milan and Rome in April 1989). Can you share with us Italian fans your memories of your trips in Italy? What do you like about our country?
FM: I always enjoyed Italy, especially the calm and peaceful experience of driving over there:-) We always had a great time on tour there and the Verona gig was a magnificent setting for a rock concert. I remember Gianni Versace came to that gig. Really liked Milan too. Rome...I had a fever of 103 degrees for 2 days so I only remember my hotel room with a view of the Vatican, and the bus ride to the gig.
AG: And now the tough question: how and why your collaboration with Elton ended? Do you occasionally still see him or have some contacts with him?
FM: I was called back to help the band rehearse for a few tours around 2000-2002. I also played piano with the band at a tribute to Elton with Ray Charles, Brian Wilson, and a variety of other artists in Los Angeles. I then travelled to London with the band and we did a benefit for The Old Vic theatre in London with Elvis Costello, Sting ,Courtney Love, Sinead O’Connor, Lulu etc. I also played piano on that gig with the band.
Elton went into rehab in 1990 and I went on to work with Rick Davies and some other projects. I still keep in touch with the guys in the band and we’re all still friends.
AG: So, what have you done from 1990 until today? I am only aware of the co-production of the Supertramp song “And the light”. Please tell us what have you been involved to in the recent years and what are you doing today.
FM: I’ve been doing quite a few albums in Los Angeles. Just finished the Oak Ridge Boys record which is , of course, a country album. I worked with an offshoot of the band
“Buckcherry” called “Black Robot” and their album should be out next year. I’m going to finish my own record in the next few months and hopefully it will be out next year. I’ll keep you posted.
AG: Well, it’s been a great interview! Thanks a lot for sharing with us your memories of your work with Elton John, we are grateful for them. Please keep us updated about your current projects!
FM: Thank you and Ciao to all the fans over there. Keep Rocking !!! Cheers, Fred.