“A bit of a weird
experiment”: the Roxy Music guitarist revisits his short-lived, legendary, art-rock
supergroup, newly reissued.
BY WILSON NEATE
In the scorching British summer of 1976, with Roxy Music on
vacation and with punk about to explode, Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera and
friends convened the art-rock supergroup 801. Featuring several rather
musicianly musicians and one avowed non-musician – speaking mutually
incomprehensible languages – this incarnation of the band was a short-lived,
precarious alliance. However, the seeming irreconcilability of 801’s
constitutive elements was a source of uniquely creative tension throughout its
fleeting, six-week existence. During that time, the band played just three gigs,
the last of which was preserved on the 801
Live album, recorded in September 1976 and originally released the
following month. Manzanera did continue the project in 1977, but not with this
With Roxy Music, Manzanera played a key part in one of the
most influential and iconic British groups of the ’70s, but he’s always been
especially proud of his work with 801. So much so that, with old bandmate and
longtime associate Bill MacCormick, he’s now assembled the definitive version
of the only album by the original 801, bundled with a completist-pleasing
booklet and a second CD that features a revealing recording of the group’s
final dress rehearsal at Shepperton Studios. (See the Blurt review of the just-reissued 801 Live elsewhere on our website.)
Phil Manzanera fills Blurt in on the whys and wherefores of
the band that was almost called Sponge and discloses the identity of Sid
Vicious’ favorite Roxy musician.
BLURT: When 801 got
together in summer ’76, had Roxy actually disbanded or were you just on hiatus?
MANZANERA: I think we’re always on hiatus [laughs]. I mean, right now, until about an hour ago, I was wondering
how long a hiatus could last, but then I’ve just spoken to Bryan [Ferry] and we
might be hatching a new plot. The whole story of Roxy is one of complete
no-career-path-at-all: you know, people just seem to do what they feel like
doing and pay no attention to building a long-term career — which is probably
the correct thing to do. Which, I suppose, is why you become a rock musician,
because you don’t care about a career, really. You just want to get on and do
it, and you don’t think about that. So, at any given moment, Roxy are in flux
and at that moment in ’76, I can’t remember which particular flux we were in.
But we must have been in one.
What prompted you to
reissue 801 Live at this point?
Well, it’s been a labor of love, really. I’ve been in love
with this project for many years. Bill MacCormick, the bass player in 801 —
who I’ve known since I was about 12 years old at school — helps run the web
site and we’re like a little cottage industry. We’re always plotting and
planning and scheming. The 801 project is something we’ve both always been very
proud of and Bill suddenly realized he had this tape of the Shepperton
rehearsal and then we started wondering if a friend of ours, who took photos,
had any pictures that we hadn’t seen. So we tracked down this guy, who lives in
Switzerland now, and he looked in his attic and he found these rolls of film.
We had them printed and all of this new stuff appeared. So we thought,
“Right, let’s give this a good send-off — once and for all!”
[laughs]. And then I couldn’t help but just stick lots of other things in the
booklet that accompanies the album. You know, it’s just one of those things you
almost do for yourself, really. You get to a certain age and you start looking
back and you say, “Oh that was nice!” And then you start dragging out
pictures. It’s like looking in your family album.
The 801 project really captures a moment, in all different
areas: in one’s youth, in each person…. It was literally a month or so before
Eno went off to work with Bowie, for the rest of his life virtually [laughs].
It’s just before Simon Phillips became a famous drummer and everyone wanted to
work with him, people like Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger — you name it. Francis
Monkman, at the time, was just about to start doing all sorts of interesting
new things, like Sky with John Williams. We just happened to catch these people
for six weeks and made them rehearse. We hatched this plot, you see — me, Eno,
Bill and Bill’s brother, Ian MacCormick, who’s now no longer with us, I’m
afraid — in a cottage in Shropshire. Those six weeks won’t happen again, and
it was just a miracle that a series of things led to it being recorded.
Was it always
intended to be momentary? Was there no plan, at the time, to develop 801 and
write original material after the live shows?
No, you couldn’t have kept that band together. In the
booklet, I got everybody to write something about their experience, even if
it’s virtually nothing. So Eno, Francis, Simon, me and Lloyd [Watson] have
something, but Bill actually writes about 3500 words. He has diaries and
everything. So people will be able to read there exactly what happened with 801
and why — which I couldn’t remember. Eno’s thing is, “I have virtually no
recall of the ’70s. I don’t know what happened.” So it varies from that
and gradually you get more and more until, finally, you get 3500 words from
Bill, which I edited down because it had gone off into short story territory
[laughs]. So it’s all there in the booklet in a lot of detail. It’s great for
me to read it and see the what, why and how — what was going on and the
context of it all.
You knew Bill, Eno
and Lloyd Watson. How did the others come to be involved?
Bill brought Francis along, because they were going to form
a band with Robert Wyatt. It was going to be a continuation of Matching Mole,
the band Robert had before he had his accident. I think they may have even
played together a bit. And I had met Simon when he was up at Air Studios and we
were recording with Roxy. I’d heard him play. He was incredibly young. We were
all totally equal shareholders in this and we wanted it to be a band thing. At
the time, Simon was just doing sessions and he wanted a session fee, and I had
to actually say to him, “No, you don’t understand, this is like a
band” — because he had actually done sessions for Jesus Christ Superstar and, at the time, you could either take the
money or percentage points, and he took the money. I had to explain to him that
we were going to do something and that this was going to be for life:
“It’s not like you just get 100 quid for this and then that’s the end of
it. We’re doing this ourselves — there’s no big, horrible manager.” The
whole point of this was that it was a sort of communal thing: a different
approach. So, it’s rather nice that we’ve always got little dribs and drabs of
money from 801 and always shared the credibility. And everybody’s pleased that
it’s coming out now.
How did you see 801 as different from what you were doing
Well, it was very different because the musical source of
all 801 was Eno solo material, my solo material and the material I was doing
before Roxy with Quiet Sun, and all that music came from a different area than
the Roxy Music music. It came from a different set of source pools, if you
like. I think, on balance, that’s true. I mean, from Roxy to 801, obviously
there’s a certain consistency with Eno’s use of tape loops and things like
that, but really 801 was drawing on a slightly different set of influences
Was there an idea of getting back to basics? Away from the
glitz of Roxy, to a more straightforward approach?
There was no thought about the image side of it at all
really, whereas Roxy was all about image and music. Rock ‘n’ roll is at its
most potent and powerful when it combines music and image, but I guess that 801
was more about music and ideas,
musical ideas, rather than the visual side, really. We had a strong identity in
the 801 — being 801, having a band name — but it wasn’t so visual.
Whose idea was it to
use the famous number — 801 — from “The True Wheel” as the band
As I said, we were down at this cottage, me, Eno, Bill and Ian
and that’s when the whole thing was hatched and that’s when the name was
decided on. In the booklet that comes with the album, you’ll see the whole
explanation of where it comes from. It’s finally revealed — well, it’s an
attempt to reveal it. Also, in one of the notebooks that I photocopied, you’ll
see, in Eno’s writing in fact, a series of names that we were thinking of for
this project and one of them says “the 801.” Some
other possible names were Flight 19, the Central Shaft, the Host, the Bridge, Reactor,
Sponge [laughs], Anarchist, hmmm…. The booklet is a thing of beauty.
I’m very proud of it. There’s all sorts of nooks and crannies in it. It’s 50
pages, with lots of handwritten things from the time when we were going through
Was there any plan to
include “The True Wheel” in the live set? It could have been your
There was, actually, but I don’t think it cut it. It’s a bit
wimpy… that chorus! I don’t think it was hard enough, especially if you’re
going to play “Third Uncle” — you don’t want to be playing “The
True Wheel.” It might sound a bit fey, somehow.
Were you very aware of punk? This was 1976 and forming a
prog/art-rock supergroup could have got you burned at the stake.
Yeah, I’d actually be interested to look at the dates of
when the Sex Pistols played that so-called seminal gig at the 100 Club….
It was September
So in fact punk hadn’t made its
presence fully felt by then, but give it six more months and there’s no way
we’d have dared to do 801, without a fear of getting beaten up! But then,
having said that, you suddenly find out later that people like the Sex Pistols
and Johnny Rotten loved Roxy and we never knew. People said that the punks
liked us but we thought, “What? Surely that can’t be right!” We were all
scared we’d get beaten up. But people said, “No, they loved you!”
Lydon was one of the few punks who actually fessed up to
liking art rock and progressive rock.
Well apparently, Sid [Vicious] went up to Andy Mackay once
and said, “Yeah, Roxy Music — fucking great! Except for that Bryan Ferry
— he’s a real cunt” [laughs]. We were like, “Phew!” — mopping our brows in relief. But, no, you’re right,
given a bit more time, we probably wouldn’t have dared with 801.
When you look at a song like Eno’s “Third
Uncle,” though, that was ahead of the curve, punk avant la lettre, really.
Yeah, thinking about it, exactly. That was definitely ahead
of its time. And with Roxy we used to say — I don’t know whether anyone
believed us — that we started with exactly the same conceptual attitude as
punk: you didn’t have to be able to play your instrument particularly well; as long as you had good ideas and a lot of
energy, you could be successful. And, obviously, there was the visual side as
well. As long as you looked good and had ideas. So we did see some kind of
relationship between Roxy and what punk was all about, because when we started
with Roxy we got a lot of stick from professional musicians saying, “Who
the hell are these people? They only know a couple of chords and can hardly
play. What are they doing?”
801 featured several rather accomplished musicians and one
famous non-musician. Did this produce interesting creative tension?
It created hilarious situations,
like with “East of Asteroid,” where you’d get someone like Eno, who’s
not used to playing in funny time signatures, and then you’d get people like
Simon Phillips and, particularly, Francis Monkman, who went to the Royal
Academy of Music. “East of Asteroid” starts in 13/8. And Eno only had
to come and play one note, but getting him to play at the beginning of a 13/8
bar was a bit of a struggle. Me, I span the two things: I’m into playing rough
old rock ‘n’ roll as well as having had the training in the other area. So
there was a little bit of “Oh, fuck off”. There was a lot of tension,
actually. The thing is, we rehearsed a hell of a lot, for about six weeks, and
only did three gigs and, by the end, it was a miracle, probably, that we even
did the three gigs, because by that stage the musician versus anti-musician
thing had become a bit of a problem.
Eno came at it with a conceptual, experimental approach —
how did that manifest itself?
In his use of instruments and
sound effects. He had this tape that he put on at the start of “Tomorrow
Never Knows” that he’d pre-made from a mixture of radio and backwards
stuff, and he just pressed play on the tape recorder at the beginning of that
number. And every time we played the song, it would come in in a different
place. So in effect, he was using prepared-tape on that. On the other, more
jazz-rock, proggy rock songs, he’d find a part to play that would be pure Eno
stuff against the others, to combat
perhaps what he was hearing that he might not have particularly liked. By
forcing this other sound, his sound, against it, it created something unusual
that was a reaction almost to that other kind of music. So it wasn’t intended
to be sympathetic; it was intended to somehow counteract it or obliterate it.
It was a series of interesting skirmishes.
With Eno introducing these chance, random elements, did the
songs change from performance to performance?
That’s the interesting thing if
you listen to the differences between the rehearsal tape and the gig itself.
Obviously, where there are verses and singing parts, things are the same, but a
lot of the other bits are different. That’s why I thought it would be
interesting to put out the second CD, because anyone who’s heard the live album
a lot will know roughly what the solos are and they’ll hear a totally different
set of stuff now. Not that we’re in the same league as the Beatles, but I think
it’s like when you listen to the Beatles’ Anthology and you hear the acoustic version of George Harrison singing
“Something” or his demo version; the solo is different and you know
the final version of the solo so well that it’s sort of interesting and weird
to hear the other version. It’s a real collector’s sort of thing [laughs].
The songs 801 played
came largely from your and Eno’s albums. How do you think the 801 performances
Totally. I think it really brought
them to life. I think it was a lot more exciting than it was on the original
records. One of the reasons was the drumming, because Simon Phillips was and
still is an incredible drummer. He was about 18 at the time and he was like a
force of nature, a tornado. He was so confident in his playing that it just
provided such a rhythmic, grooving sound that you could then take risks. People
always say, “You’re only as good as your drummer” — the drummer’s
such an important part of any band.
Talking of drummers, you worked with Charles Hayward in
Quiet Sun. Was there ever any possibility of his being in 801?
No, and I don’t know why, unless maybe he was doing This
Heat by then. I did an album last year with Charles — after the last Quiet Sun
album in 1975 — and we played at Ronnie Scott’s for three nights and also went
on tour in Poland. Charles has turned into an even
better drummer than he was in Quiet Sun. He’s turned into an absolutely
fantastic drummer. I don’t know if you’ve seen him recently, but he does a
one-man show here supporting lots of trendy young bands, who adore him. He’s
mad as a hatter. Seeing him play is an extraordinary thing to behold. I can’t
remember why he wasn’t in 801, but I suspect he was doing other things.
During Roxy’s early
gigs, Eno processed your guitar as you were playing. Did that happen with 801?
Yes. “Diamond Head” is
all going through his gear.
“Lagrima” too. The
beginning. Absolutely. So, yes, 801 did include the types of thing we were
doing in the original Roxy and that Eno continued to do through his solo
albums. We were trying to accommodate that in the live scenario as well.
Was it disorienting for you to be playing and have Eno
simultaneously treating your sound?
Well, in Roxy, when we very first
started up, we had no amps on stage — Eno did the whole thing and he was out
in the audience. It was so incredibly unsatisfying that we had to stop it
because we felt like a bunch of complete muppets. And we couldn’t hear
anything, either. It was like an Eno-fest out the front, but it was also
fantastic, of course. I certainly hadn’t seen anyone else doing that before
Roxy. It was “Ladytron” particularly, that was the track where he
used to do it. It used to end up with just him and me, him treating my guitar
and it going through all these Revox tape recorders, with him slowing them down
and speeding them up. And by the end of that number, I was literally just
strumming the thing. I didn’t really recognize what was coming out of the
speakers. It was actually a bit of fun at the time, as well. So, no, I didn’t
Was the 801 set
actually conceived and constructed with a live album in mind?
No, it was just that I suddenly
thought, “Hey, we’re only going to be doing three gigs — why don’t we
record one of them?” If you think about it, it was quite bold at the time.
At that time, recording a gig was a big deal: getting the mobile recording
studio to come and park up outside. I’m amazed they let us do it!
Do you recall who
suggested the cover versions that 801 did?
It could have been Ian MacCormick
who suggested “Tomorrow Never Knows” and I think “You Really Got
Me” was me.
Why those particular
At that time, “You Really Got
Me” hadn’t yet been played by 50 million karaoke bands. It seems
incredible, but at the time it wasn’t that long, only ten years or so, since
it’d come out, and it was one of my favorite songs. So we had no problem with
covering it: it was before every Tom, Dick and Harry, Van Halen and everybody
else did it. And we did “Tomorrow Never Knows” because we were all
Beatles fans, but also obviously because of the experimental nature of the
song. It was totally correct conceptually that it should be the vehicle to
deposit all that combination of musicality and sounds. It’s like, you’d always
say to a new band, “Do a cover,” because by doing a cover you learn
something about what you’re about, your style. If you do a cover in your style,
you learn something about yourselves. And, you know, when I listen to
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” all the ingredients of what 801 is about are
in that track. Although it’s by somebody else, I could relate it to all the
other bits on that record, to our own songs in some strange way.
What would you say are those ingredients of your version of
“Tomorrow Never Knows” that embody 801’s overall aesthetic?
Well, you’ve got the random
element of the tape that comes in at certain points. You’ve got the sort of
riff-playing, the sort of prog rock-y bit, and you’ve got the harmony singing.
You’ve got a bit of slide guitar solo, or actually that’s me pretending to play
slide guitar. You’ve got the amazing drum build-up at the beginning. You’ve got
the demonstration of Francis’s technical abilities, but applied in almost a
raga-type fashion. There’s also Bill’s bass playing, coming via Jack Bruce —
using the bass as a lead guitar. And I’m just playing a tape loop-type effect
rather than the reverse, where I should be soloing away like mad and Bill
should just be holding it down — but he’s not that kind of person. You can’t
hold Bill down [laughs]. So you’ve got all the people introducing their wares,
if you like — laying out the table there, right at the beginning of the
You consider 801 Live one of the most prestigious
projects you’ve been part of. Why is it such a storied record?
It was just one of those times in life where everything
comes together for a brief moment, with the right musicians coming together at
the right time. It was designed to last a very short amount of time, and it
couldn’t have gone on any longer: you know, there were different camps and
people were going to kill each other [laughs]. It was a bit of a weird
experiment. I think we all left the building quickly before the whole place set
on fire and self-destructed.