Although not quite the founding guitarist in Roxy Music, Phil Manzanera was one of its three enduring pillars, and his radical instrumental approaches were as much a part of the band’s early stylistic groundbreaking as Bryan Ferry’s equally unprecedented vocals.
Before joining Roxy (as sound mixer; he took over on guitar in early ’72), the debonair Briton who was raised in Latin America spent a couple of years in Quiet Sun, a progressive outfit that had broken up but reformed temporarily in 1975 to cut a debut album. Mainstream is a jazzy, Soft Machine-like outing enlivened by Manzanera’s distortion-crazed solos and slices of other bizarreness (thanks, in part, to Eno’s participation) cutting through the sophisticated instrumental arrangements. Best song title: “Mummy was an asteroid, daddy was a small non-stick kitchen utensil.” The following year, drummer Charles Hayward went on to form This Heat.
Prior to the Quiet Sun reunion, Manzanera stepped out of Roxy for his pleasurable solo debut, the look-what-I-can-do Diamond Head. Joining him on this exploration of diverse styles are Roxy cohorts (Eno, Paul Thompson, Andy Mackay, John Wetton, Eddie Jobson), Quiet Sun (the whole group on one track) and the redoubtable Robert Wyatt, who sings lead — in Spanish — on “Frontera.” Manzanera scarcely opens his mouth on the half-instrumental record, leaving Eno the mic for the wonderful “Big Day” and “Miss Shapiro,” both of which strongly resemble Here Come the Warm Jets.
Manzanera’s next significant side project (neglecting, of course, his contributions to records by Nico, Eno, Ferry, John Cale, Mackay, Split Enz and others) was 801. Originally assembled to play a handful of concerts during a period of Roxy inactivity in 1976, the first 801 consisted of Manzanera, Eno, Quiet Sun bassist Bill MacCormick, drummer Simon Phillips and two others. Recorded in London, 801 Live draws material from Diamond Head, Here Come the Warm Jets and Mainstream, adding the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” A spectacular example of cross-culturalization that should be of serious interest to Roxy fans.
Two years later, a studio album, employing almost the entire performing cast and then some, returned 801 to life. Listen Now consists of new Manzanera compositions and is actually not unlike a solo record, but his partnership with MacCormick justifies the group designation. Unfortunately, much of the record is conservative and dull, an overly smooth and sophisticated collection (maybe it’s Kevin Godley’s influence) that rarely ignites. The long pieces — mostly vocalized by Simon Ainley and a collection of backup singers — are radio-ready but barely sentient.
During another Roxy hiatus, Manzanera created the livelier solo-billed K-Scope in collaboration with many of 801’s players. Clever lyrics sung by Tim Finn (ex-Split Enz) and saxes by Mel Collins (ex-King Crimson) are matched by Manzanera’s invigorated (and invigorating) guitar work and Phillips’ kinetic drumming. There’s calm restraint (like “Cuban Crisis” and the endless “Walking Through Heaven’s Door”) amid the rock drive and dance-happy energy, but that contrast only gives the delightful record even deeper appeal.
To celebrate his tenth anniversary as a professional musician, Manzanera released Primitive Guitars, a solo instrumental album that shows numerous sides of his virtuosity. Guided by chronological and geographical themes that defy instant comprehension, the album stretches the sound of guitar all over the map (much of it to Latin lands) in a challenging zigzag of styles and approaches. Except for one bass part, Phil plays everything on the LP, which suffers not a jot by the isolation. As a fascinating self-defined retrospective of Manzanera’s musical development, Primitive Guitars may be lost on some of his followers, while certainly connecting with others.
The lengthy (over 54 minutes on vinyl!) Guitarissimo “collocation” organizes tracks from Manzanera’s solo records and both 801 outings into four thematic sections. Careful annotation and thoughtful sequencing make up for the compromised sonic quality, but the CD (with four bonus tracks) is an altogether better value.
Proving that even unassailably tasteful artists can take a dive, Manzanera made an unfortunate album with onetime bandmate John Wetton, following the latter’s superstar sojourn in Asia. Wetton/Manzanera is depressing commercial tripe seemingly geared to relaunch Wetton’s career from Asia’s coattails. Strangely, “Keep on Loving Yourself” is about self-respect, something this project pointedly lacks.
Manzanera’s Latin heritage gets strong play on Southern Cross, a record with a lot of taste and seasoning but no strong flavor. Surrounding a glitzy guitar-and-horns rendition of “Guantamera” (ably sung by Ana Maria Velez, one of the album’s three lead vocalists; Tim Finn is another), the original material is bland, with political-minded lyrics (“Dr Fidel,” “A Million Reasons Why”) that are too clumsy and vague to make any point. In fact, the most eloquent track on the album is the dreamy and steamy titular instrumental, performed by Manzanera and Brazilian percussionist Basco De Oliviera.