Q&A with Manny Wolfe of Banging Colours, the legendary pioneers of the London Psychedelic Underground

"Music has - perhaps most of all arts - the ability to touch you unconsciously. You don't have to understand it, you don't have to analyze it, and yet it penetrates into your inner being."

Banging Colours: Imaginative Brain Music

The year 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. On this occasion, many rare finds from the London Underground music scene found their way into the public ear again. Now, with a little delay, perhaps the most important rediscovery from the time of Swingin’ London is available: Iapetus presents a comprehensive review of the work of the legendary British band Banging Colours for the first time, “Hallucinogenic Treasures from the Convolution of an Imaginative Brain” (Released December 4, 2020). During the short period of their existence in London from 1967 to 1969, Banging Colours featuring keyboard player and singer Manny Wolfe was considered one of the most important and influential bands of their time. Performances at the U.F.O. Club and in Middle Earth established their reputation as a cult band by British psychedelia fans. Joint performances with the main acts of the scene consolidated this status as well as their innovative light show, which gave the band its name.

(Photo: Banging Colours 1968 - Manny Wolfe, Keith Friedell, Pekka Jokinen, Young Patel and Bas Ricken)

Double album showcase the extraordinary lineup of Banging Colours: Bas Ricken, whose powerful and soulful playing was acknowledged by the major drummers of his time, is the pulse in which the colours are banging. Pekka Jokinen on bass is an exceptional phenomenon. You don’t have to be a music expert to imagine what a brilliant career Young Patel could have had on the guitar if fate hadn’t objected. He effortlessly freed himself from his roots, the R‘n’B, without ever having to deny his musical origins. Especially his interaction with Keith Friedell is one of the most exciting elements of Banging Colours. While Young lets the blues flow in, Friedell makes the wide field of swing and gypsy jazz fertile for psychedelic proliferation. The creative centre around which this ensemble of exceptional musicians is grouped is Manny Wolfe, who not only wrote all the songs but also lends them the psychedelic sound carpets on organ, piano and mellotron as well as his unusual voice.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Special Thanks: Manny Wolfe, Matthias Derer & Bill James (Glass Onyon PR) 

How has the Rock and Psychedelic Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think what has not left me since the 60s is the conviction that we as humanity, as a society, remain so far below our capabilities. Does anybody really believe that if we had the chance to start from scratch, with a blank sheet of paper, and all of us would get together to create a world based on our real needs and abilities, we would create what our world is like right now? It has always been my conviction in music that so much more is still possible. I feel the same when it comes to the potential of the human individual or the human society.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I find it difficult to establish common external criteria for my music. There was the psychedelic time at the end of the 60s, then the decade of prog rock in the 70s, in the 80s began what was then called world music. In addition, film music or ambient music and so-called serious music.

It is my conviction that music, which deserves this name, is about the dialectic of conscious and unconscious processes. On the conscious level, I am driven by curiosity, the desire for knowledge and the joy of combining, linking. On the unconscious level it is the unresolved conflicts, the unlived desires, the anticipation of something else, i.e. the preconscious (as the philosopher Ernst Bloch called it) and also the repressed (according to Freud). Logic of the mind and logic of dreams work hand in hand. The writer Anna Seghers has said about the creative process that we create things with our reason, but then have to let them sink to the bottom of our soul. When they rise up again from there, they become art.

(Photo: Inside cover of “Hallucinogenic Treasures from the Convolution of an Imaginative Brain”. Matthias Derer has remixed them with great devotion and has given these pearls of the psychedelic era, which were considered lost, new radiance. Wes H. Bernatt was not only a friend of the band and designer of their record covers, posters and the band logo, but also one of the most creative draftsmen and illustrators in London in the late 60’s. Bernhard Wöstheinrich’s revision of the album covers for this compilation brings Bernatt’s merits back into focus.)

What were the reasons that made the UK in the 60s to be the center of Psychedelic Rock researches and experiments?

The funny thing is that London has become the center of psychedelic music because it considered itself the periphery. Everyone wanted to be like the counterculture in San Francisco, except that we knew little or nothing concrete about it. So, we copied something that we only knew from hearsay. And out of that something very suitable and unique inevitably emerged, which in my opinion ultimately surpassed the US-American model. But of course, London was already the center of rock music anyway. Hendrix came to London to make the breakthrough. And with Sgt. Pepper and before that with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ the gods themselves built a temple of music for the psychedelic scene.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There were so many, and they were all somehow significant. And at the same time, the contact was natural, relaxed, uninhibited. It's hard to imagine today, but not everything was as demarcated as it is today. Whoever was in the U.F.O. Club was a part of the whole. Whoever came on stage in the middle of your concert to read their poem was as much a part of it as the stars who came to the U.F.O. as guests: Pete Townshend or Eric Clapton for example.

One of the best pieces of advice I got was from my friend Wes, a genius who did the graphic work for Banging Colours and others. He told me: 'Collect your fantasies in writing, write down your dreams and take your time to find yourself. Work on yourself, on your expressiveness and bring into the world what you feel.’ I would also recommend this to other people.

Are there any memories from U.F.O. Club and Middle Earth gigs, jams, and open acts which you’d like to share with us?

Once, when Banging Colours did the Milkmen Sessions at the U.F.O. Club - which was, as the name suggests, the last spot of the night when it was already dawning outside and the milkmen were putting their bottles in front of the doors - our bass player Pekka was biochemically indisposed, that's how I want to put it. And then Jimi Hendrix grabbed the bass and jammed with us. I don't know if we sounded good or not, I don't think anybody would have noticed at that time, but the mere fact of having played with Hendrix once makes me feel awestruck in retrospect. Or was it me, whose metabolism was heavily manipulated, and I had only hallucinated that? That's the thing about the 60s, that it's hard to make halfway reliable statements. Either way is a wonderful memory for me.

"One of the best pieces of advice I got was from my friend Wes, a genius who did the graphic work for Banging Colours and others. He told me: 'Collect your fantasies in writing, write down your dreams and take your time to find yourself. Work on yourself, on your expressiveness and bring into the world what you feel.’ I would also recommend this to other people." (Photo: Banging Colours)

What do you miss most nowadays from the Swingin' London era? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

What I miss most about London in the late 1960s, and this is probably true for this period in general, is the naivety of that time and the unbroken optimism. Of course, a lot of things were going wrong back then, which we rebelled against. But none of us had the slightest doubt that sooner or later we would change the world, for the better of course. There was no question that the future belonged to us. Today, young people have to fight to ensure that the planet itself still has a future. We lived in the feeling that we could win everything. In this respect we had it much easier than the youth today.

Where young musicians have it better today: A laptop, an interface and software, and you have a studio at home that even EMI at Abbey Roads couldn't have provided us with back then. And with platforms like Bandcamp.com you can make your music public without getting caught by managers and record bosses. You might not get the attention you want. Very likely that is not the case. But you keep control over your ideas. Today, everyone has the best prerequisites to do what Mike Oldfield created with 'Tubular Bells' in a complicated process. Probably nobody would get rich with it, but neither would the wrong ones.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Some people say: 'There is no such thing as a free lunch.' They like to do this when they want to emphasize that everyone is only responsible for themselves. That is not how I see the world. But in terms of the music industry, I would say, 'There is no such thing as a free career'.  Basically, when you sign your first contract, the sale starts. They have the opportunities you want, and therefore they have you in their hands. You have this fantastic music in your head, and for that you need a studio and maybe some additional musicians, good technicians and producers, equipment, someone to promote you, plan your tours, open the doors to radio stations, music magazines and TV stations. And if you're lucky, they'll do it all for you. But there is a price you don't know about. They make you their debtor, and at some point, they demand their investment in you back. From that moment on, at the latest, you no longer make the music that is in your head, but the music that makes them rich. If not, they will drop you. The time at the end of the 60s was still relatively comfortable for us musicians, but all the sharks were already taking their positions. The greater the technical possibilities became, the easier it became to dazzle us. So back to the question above: The most important lesson is that it is always about maintaining your own integrity. And this is an unceasing effort, because it is endangered from the moment your art becomes a commodity.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?                (Photo: Banging Colours' album cover by Bernhard Wöstheinrich)

Music has - perhaps most of all arts - the ability to touch you unconsciously. You don't have to understand it, you don't have to analyze it, and yet it penetrates into your inner being. Making music, and especially psychedelic music, like Banging Colours and others have done, means for me to confront your demons, to acknowledge your own dark sides and to banish them in an aesthetic way. We thus lift them in three ways: We preserve what is as an artistic testimony, we dissolve our inner conflicts and we enter a new level.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I was on the verge of choosing the Berlin of the 1920s. I love swing, and literally, this is the most exciting time of all for me. But for literature you need more time than a day. So, I would actually let myself be taken back to the Roadhouse in London on 15 October 1966, to the Opening Night Launch Party for the International Times. I would like to relive it all, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Pink Floyd with Syd, Soft Machine, the light show by Joel Brown. Perhaps the most influential day in my life.

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