The recent rerelease of two of their long out of print albums on CD promted me to dig out and update this retrospective.
This is not the Shakespeare play, but the neglected progressive rock band from the early 80s. While contemporaries Marillion went on (at one stage in their career) to play enormo-domes like Wembley Arena, and lesser bands like IQ and even the derivative Pendragon went on to lengthy careers, both commercial success and critical acclaim were to elude Twelfth Night.
I first encountered Twelfth Night as a four-piece instrumental band when I was a student at Reading University, in 1980. The band were students themselves at the time, and played the student’s union and local clubs in the Reading area. The band’s sound revolved around guitarist Andy Revell’s extensive use of an echoplex. With song titles like “Fur Helene part 1″ and “Afghan Red”, they were either loved or hated by the student fraternity. Old-school rock fans loved them, punk and new-wave fans hated them with a vengeance.
This lineup recorded a live album, “Live at the Target”, which gives a good impression of what the band sounded like at the time. I was in the audience for this recording, in a underground pub with the band’s equipment crammed in a tiny stage at one end of the long, narrow room. The music, described by the band as a “timeless kaleidoscope of sound”, climaxed with the 20-minute epic “Sequences“, which condensed all the best bits of their sound; spacey echoplexed guitar in the early sections, atmospheric keyboard sections, and fluid guitar soloing.
The band sensed they needed to add a vocalist to move forward. After a unsuccessful start with a woman named Electra Macloed, and an awful, awful single called “The Cunning Man“, they chose fellow Reading fine art student Geoff Mann. Then they gave him a baptism of fire; to debut as singer in front of the biggest crowd Twelfth Night had ever played to; the 1981 Reading Festival. Adding vocals to “Sequences“, he transformed the former instrumental epic into the story of an idealistic recruit swallowed up in the horrors of World War One.
A year later, they recorded what was probably their best studio album, “Fact and Fiction“. This established Geoff Mann as a lyrical force to be reckoned with. The two highlights of the album, the lengthy “We Are Sane” and “Creepshow” were both drawn from his experiences with art therapy at a psychiatric hospital. While one critic described “We Are Sane” as ‘Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” summarised in ten minutes’, it came over to me as a statement of how people are brainwashed by the media. For example, this spoken section:
“If the thought processes of an individual can be permenantly limited to the point of strict conformity to an outside source of thought, that said individual need no longer be considered as such. The enforcement of order becomes possible for anyone with enough power to control what is projected”
The overall tone of the album was dark and gloomy, reflecting the times – the early 80s were dark and gloomy, the feeling Thatcher and Reagan had declared war on the young and the poor, and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. Mann’s voice was an acquired taste; more Peter Hamill than Jon Anderson, but there was a passion and humanity in his lyrics, reflecting his strong Christian faith. The albums biggest weakness is the production, a thin sound that didn’t really do the material justice. It’s only recently appeared on CD, with a number of bonus tracks including the single “East of Eden/Eleanor Rigby”.
They played the Reading Festival again in 1983, opening the bill on the Sunday, and I had the opportunity to see what a great frontman Geoff Mann had become; his charisma and lyrics more than made up for his shortcomings as a singer. However, just as things looked as though they taking off, Geoff left the band.
The live album “Live and Let Live comes from his final gigs with the band at the Marquee club in London. Certainly the band’s best album overall, the band here is on excellent form. Much of the material is superior live takes of the songs from “Fact and Fiction“, but we also get the previously unrecorded opener “The Ceiling Speaks”, and the full version of the epic “Sequences”. This album has also recently been rereleased on CD with extra tracks, now including “Creepshow” and “East of Eden” that weren’t on the original vinyl release.
Geoff Mann went on to train as an Anglican priest. He continued to gig and record with his new band The Bond, who I saw live a couple of times. To my tastes, they lacked the musical scope of Twelfth Night, and it seemed to me that Geoff had lost his lyrical edge too. Sadly Geoff was to die of cancer a few years after being ordained. Who knows where his career might have gone?
Twelfth Night themselves regrouped with new singer Andy Sears, and recorded the mini-album “Art and Illusion”. By now the sound was a little smoother and more commercial, but still retained enough depth to be interesting. In 1985 they finally signed to a major label, Virgin Records.
Sadly, the resulting album, titled simply “Twelfth Night” was a mess, musically, and a major disappointment. It’s as if they couldn’t decide whether to be Pink Floyd or Duran Duran. If it was an attempt at commercialism, it was a dismal failure. Only “Take a Look” came together and reflected the Twelfth Night of old. It didn’t sell, and year later the label dropped them. The band split.
But this wasn’t quite the end of the story. In 1988, the Geoff Mann lineup briefly reunited in the studio to record “The Collector”, an 18-minute epic played live but never recorded. This was to appear on the 1988 compilation “Collector’s Item”, a retrospective look at the band’s entire career.
(An earlier version of this appeared on Where Worlds Collide)