Deke Leonard is a guitarist, singer and songwriter who was a member of the group ‘Man’, with a couple of breaks, from its formation in 1968 until it disbanded in 1976. He was then part of the band’s reunion in 1983 and stayed with them until 2004, when he left to concentrate on promoting his fourth solo album, ‘Freedom and Chains’, and writing this, his third book.
‘The Twang Dynasty’ was originally the title of a Man album released in 1992. Now the phrase has been appropriately recycled to represent this informative, entertaining work, part-memoir, part-musical history lesson, a 371-page tribute to a selection of blues, rock and country pioneers by a fellow traveller, a guitarist’s guitarists.
Leonard is not a musician who struggles to express himself verbally. Whilst a member of Man he usually contributed a sleeve note when a new album came out, had a column, ‘Deke Speaks’, in the Man fanzine ‘The Welsh Connection’ and has written reviews and articles for Vox and Hi-Fi Sound magazines. His lyrics aren’t particularly funny but his prose style is; The Twang Dynasty is full of well-told anecdotes and witty accounts of episodes in the lives of music legends.
Occasionally Leonard’s own experience as a fairly successful musician brought him into contact with extremely successful musicians, which makes for some amusing reading, particularly where Eric Clapton is concerned. Leonard has an ambivalent view on E.C., which is refreshing.
Four of the book’s fourteen chapters are dedicated to the blues, which, along with country music, created the vocabulary of rock and roll, which broadened out into the term ‘rock’. This book is specifically about the originators and exponents of rock guitar, and the fact that Leonard is a rock guitarist himself, with specific likes and dislikes, makes the blues history section breathe, even if you don’t share the author’s preferences.
An encounter with the guitarist in Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Mick Green, (and his Fender Telecaster) while playing with Lucifer & The Corncrackers at The Ritz Ballroom, Llanelli, in the mid-60s seems to have been a formative experience in the author’s life. He went on to make a career out of playing (amongst other guitars) the Telecaster in Man, while Micky Jones favoured the Stratocaster.
Leo Fender, Orville Gibson and Les Paul (the inventor of the sold body electric guitar) are discussed in a short segment following the blues chapters. This potted history of the development of the electric guitar acts as a nice buffer between the blues era and the psychedelic era, which gave rise to the Manband and their contemporaries.
There are not many technical terms employed to describe guitar playing itself. (Though it was great to have a Chet Atkins fingerpicking pattern spelt out at one point.) Leonard is more interested in the social history and prevailing fashions which surround each musical movement.
The author’s social conscience is evident, although he rightly distinguishes between an artist’s personality or politics and their musical output (except in one or two cases – Clapton fans beware!) Both Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa come across as dislikeable characters, yet their music was much admired by the fledgling Manband.
The Twang Dynasty finishes strongly. Its penultimate chapter covers some of the same ground as Keith Richards’ recent autobiography, the British blues boom of the early 1960s. This period not only made it possible for the success of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and all that came after, it also revived interest in the American blues musicians they originally copied.
The facts and figures included in the many mini-biographies contained in the book are all welcome, necessary and commendable. Leonard is, however, at his best as a writer when in ‘ripping yarn’ mode, drawing from personal experience. So the closing section on guitarists (and one drummer!) from his native Wales is most entertaining. Leonard describes the reformation of his ‘Iceberg’ band following his final departure from Man, and caps it all off with a moving tribute to the late. great Micky Jones, with whom Leonard played (in Man) for almost thirty-five years.
Jones was a brilliant but lamentably little-known musician and singer who died in 2010. He is hardly mentioned in the previous 350 pages but his influence over the author must have been huge. They weren’t bosom buddies but they complimented each other as singer-guitarists better than anyone. And, believe it or not, the Manband goes on without them…