‘I used every chord on the Casio’ – How we made Manchild by Neneh Cherry

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: London Weekend Television/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: London Weekend Television/REX/Shutterstock

‘The first verse came to me as I was going up the stairs of a double-decker bus with a hangover’

Neneh Cherry, singer and songwriter
I was seeing Cameron McVey [producer and now husband] and one day he suddenly asked me: “Why are you not writing songs? You could totally write songs!” I’d been in Rip Rig + Panic, whose songwriter Gareth Sager had such an inventive way of writing about everyday stuff. Manchild was one of the first things I came up with.

The first verse came to me as I was going up the stairs of a doubledecker bus. “Is it the pain of the drinking / Or the Sunday sinking feeling?” I think I had a hangover. When I got home, I started to work out the music on a little Casio keyboard using the “auto chord” setting. I didn’t know what I was doing. When my dad [late jazz trumpeter Don Cherry] heard it, he went: “Wow, that’s kinda jazz. You’ve got seven chords in the verse!”

The person in the song exists, but it isn’t about them as such. “The car never seems to work / When it’s late your girlfriend’s on a date.” I just imagined a guy that worked nine to five in a garage or something, but had dreams and feelings, and an unfaithful girlfriend. I was exploring the more vulnerable aspects of manhood from a woman’s perspective, the way some men are OK with sensitivity while others put up three layers of front.

Manchild was a very important song for me: it was where I found my style. I liked the simplicity of a raw hip-hop beat with orchestrations. When we’d finished recording it at Eastcote Studios, Tim Simenon from Bomb the Bass did the scratching and came up with a really great electronic hook.

The way we worked was very domestic: a lot of work at home, kids in the studio, a baby under my arm. We walked into radio stations like that. Before we talked about ideas for the video, the director Jean-Baptiste Mondino sat outside our house in our little Fiat Panda listening to Manchild while watching my fabulous Jamaican neighbour sweeping the front of the house wearing gold chains. My other neighbour was hanging out the laundry. Then I answered the door with a towel on my head and a baby under my arm. And Jean-Baptiste was like: “That’s it! That’s the video.”

Cameron ‘Booga Bear’ McVey, producer
I’d come up through punk but ended up working with Stock, Aitken and Waterman at the PWL label. We’d play Trivial Pursuit with Kylie and people like that. All the PWL artists were nice, but none of them were really musicians – unlike Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who really knew their shit. The music press saw them as the enemy but they were more punk than the punks.

My mate Jamie Morgan and I did an embarrassing single as Morgan McVey, called Looking Good Diving. I’d just met Neneh, so on the B-side was an early version of Buffalo Stance, with a different title and Neneh rapping. A year later, a proper version became her first single. It was a really iconic track. The easy thing would have been to then do five more Buffalo Stances but that would have been despicable, so Neneh did something completely different with Manchild. That’s why her career really took off.

We met all these corporate tossers who were so heavy with us

I remember transcribing her chords from the Casio. It turned out she’d used every available chord on the machine. The producer Nellee Hooper had just taught me how to sample, so I added a snare drum. Nellee then got 3D from Massive Attack to write Manchild’s rap part. Will Malone did all the strings on a Fairlight but we left the Casio on the finished recording. It made a sound like having your leg sawn off, but it was really good in the background.

Everyone loved Manchild – except Neneh’s American record company, who refused to release it. They wanted another Buffalo Stance, which had reached No 3 in the US. They said Manchild wasn’t white enough to be white, or black enough to be black, and not left field enough to be left field. We met all these corporate tossers who were so heavy with us, because if you fuck up in America they declare war on you. When I was on the plane for the first meeting, the plane developed a fault over Greenland and we had to turn around. I took that as a sign. Manchild was a huge hit everywhere except America.

Like Trying to Catch Lightning in a Bottle, 40 Years of Making Music at Eastcote Studios by Martin Terefe is published by Thames & Hudson. A limited edition of 550 signed copies are available from eastcotestudios.com