The Infinite Jukebox: Manfred Mann’s ‘Pretty Flamingo’

Back in the Sixties, not every pop band of the era had a Number One hit. The Who never managed it, whilst entirely undeservedly, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich did, even if it was only for one week. The Small Faces and The Animals had one each whilst The Kinks managed three. So too did Manfred Mann, who were one of only a very small handful of bands in this category who had Number 1 hits with different lead singers, two with Paul Jones and one with his replacement, Mike d’Abo.
Originally, the Manfreds – who had had no success until changing their name to adopt that of their leader and keyboard player, South African born Manfred Mann (obviously) – came out of the blues scene, and Paul Jones in particular loved the blues, whilst Mann and drummer Mike Hugg leaned towards jazz. Their early successes adapted their inclinations to a strong pop orientation, giving them an early Number 1 with ‘Doo Wah Diddy’, surrounded by some solid top ten successes.
In contrast, Mike d’Abo’s era was more straight pop, his voice less powerful than Jones, although his Number 1, ‘Mighty Quinn’, was another cover of a Dylan song, the third the band had taken into the top 10.
My favourite of the three was always the middle one, Paul Jones’ other performance, on ‘Pretty Flamingo’. This is the most pop of the three singles, as well as the strongest actual performance. It’s a very New York kind of sound, an impression instigated by the Americanisation of the lyrics, particularly the opening like ‘On our block.’
The Flamingo of the title is a girl. On our block, all of the guys call her Flamingo, Cause her hair glows like the sun, and her eyes can light the skies. Jones continues the theme, praising her form and the effect she has on everyone. When she walks she moves so fine, like a flamingo, Crimson dress that clings so tight, she’s out of reach and out of sight. In short, the girl’s a vision.
And even though she’s there on the streets, where the guys live and work and play, she’s also a distant vision, an untouchable girl who rises so high above them, from among them. She’s an idol, a dream, a being elevated among them all. When she walks by she brightens up the neighbourhood. Oh every guy would make her his if he just could. If she just would.
And Jones has a dream, that some sweet day I’ll make her mine, pretty flamingo, then every guy will envy me, cause paradise is where I’ll be.
Does this vision of loveliness, this bird of Paradise have a name? Undoubtedly, but we never learn it. If she’s the Brooklyn girl the sounds tells us to expect, she could be a Verna. But to Paul Jones she is Flamingo, arousing in him images of the long-legged bird and the colourful clothes and hair, not by depersonalisation down to just her outer appearance but because she is a stranger to him now. He doesn’t use her name because he doesn’t know it, but when he finds it out…
All of this comes out in an inexhaustible spiel, whilst the band, whose sound is reliant on Mike Vickers’ hard, rhythmic strumming, maintains a solid, palpable sound behind Jones’s voice, even as his words are the sound we take in. There’s an instrumental break in which the melody is taken up by Vickers on flute.
The song moves into the abstract with some perfectly pitched ‘sha la las’ and the repetition of that visionary nickname, until Jones repeats his desire-verse about how all the guys want her to be their own, and his ambition, some sweet day, to make them all envious of him by doing so.
That makes the whole thing sound a bit like trophy-hunting, where winning the prize against other contenders is more important than the prize herself. Certainly, nowhere does the song give any suggestion of who the girl is, underneath her bird-of-paradise exterior, or that any of the men bedazzled by her care.
But that’s the thing about visions. We don’t want them to be real, we just want to gaze at them in awe and dream of holding them, as opposed to actually doing so. Sometimes, when visions become real, flamingos cease to be so colourful and so elegant, and we find they cannot fly off, silhouetted against setting suns that wash them with light.
And of course, when they turn out to be as beautiful within as without…

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