INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker NOVEMBER 6, 1976 - by Richard Williams
801 has reached a point where almost anything is possible.
A few weeks ago, while writing in this column about the prevailing ghastly organisation of contemporary rock concerts, I mentioned that I hoped one day to leave such as event feeling happy, fulfilled, and not the least bit irritated. Conveniently, and to fit the theory, I'd expunged the memory of one concert which gave me exactly those feelings, in abundance: the appearance of a pick-up group called 801 at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in September.
801 was, of course, the outfit created by Phil Manzanera to fill soe of his time during Roxy Music's alleged sabbatical. Against all the odds, the affair was enchanting and profound in equal measure, an absolute paragon of what can be achieved in this context, given musicians with intelligence, imagination, and sensitivity.
Also, in a way, it summed up an era: the one which began, perhaps, with the Soft Machine's first gig and has now peaked as a commercial force.
But, hearteningly, the concert never came on like an epitaph; rather, it suggested that there may be much more ground still ripe for exploration than has yet been covered. At the concert's close, I felt that these musicians had successfully proposed their own future, and laid the groundwork for a rewarding, creative longevity stretching far beyond the limits of their status as an early '70s commercial phenomenon.
As a live album, it avoids the obvious polarities of function: it's neither a staggeringly "perfect" monument to past glories (like Viva Roxy Music or Rock Of Ages), nor an impressionistic, journalistic document of a one-off happening (like Hard Rain or June 1, 1974).
This is no dead statement, no oddball jotting. It is valuable simply in its own right, as music pure and simple, with a scope and density of content virtually unparalleled in its field.
The musicians are Manzanera and Lloyd Watson (guitars), Brian Eno (synthesizer, tapes, guitar, and chief voice), Francis Monkman (electric piano and clavinet), Bill MacCormick (bass guitar), and Simon Phillips (drums).
Not, you'll admit, a line-up noted for its homogeneity, beyond the obvious link-ups. Yet somehow they coalesce perfectly for the occasion: you might expect Phillips' schooled and session-honed drumming to be too full of current licks, for instance, but he responds to his colleagues' musical demands with a thoroughly sympathetic and supportive display. The same goes for Monkman, another fearsome musician whose role here is mainly the addition of colour and texture (remember, though, that he was rehearsing a new band with Robert Wyatt before the drummer had his accident a few years ago).
For once, to convey the full value of the record, it's necessary to describe it from beginning to end.
The proceedings open with a train whistle (an amusing reference to the cover of Phil's solo album, Diamond Head) before the leader performs a short version of his solo piece, Lagrima, his instrument treated by Eno's synthesizer. It's been edited from the full concert length, and it makes you want to hear more of such collaborations between these two, after the manner of the Eno/Fripp recordings.
Lagrima dissolves into a churning band section composed of contrasting overlaid riffs which, after a couple of minutes, turn out to be John Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows, The choice of this song is the first indication that here is something special: how many other groups would attempt it?
Certainly, there are none who could pull off an interpretation so faithful to the spirit of the original, yet so full of its own character. The spirits are strangely stirred when Eno's flat, mournful vocal reaches the words "...and love is all, and love is everything / It is knowing, it is knowing..." and I was even more moved to discover that this performance took place ten years and one month, almost to the day, after the release of Revolver, the song's parent album.
There is careful evocation of that period: bubbling keyboards imitating speeded-up tapes underline altered vocal sounds (notably one whooshing entry, presumably the result of pre-echo added during the mixing stage). I hope Lennon hears it: he'll be pleased and proud. (I almost added "...of his children.")
East Of Asteroid and Rongwrong focus on a later period in British rock, when Zappa and the Softs were the twin deities and Quiet Sun were among their lesser-known disciples. Both are in a sense abstract pieces, typical of their time in that they concentrate on solving musical equations, tickling a certain 1970 undergraduate sensibility, yet 801's collective wit is acute enough to transform them, superficially, into thoroughly contemporary artefacts. The wandering bass ending to the second song is, though, a real period piece, an example of the kind of technique that Bryan Ferry would annex in the early days of Roxy, in order to broaden the effect of his songs and to give the band its "experimental" edge.
It's a serpentine melodic loop, and I'm sorry it's faded on the album after three minutes, because you wish it to go on forever. Monkman's chattering Fender Rhodes and clavinet add a subtle and apposite extra dimension, and on this kind of composition you can hear Eno growing into something more than a mere purveyor of novelties. (If you don't have Another Green World, please check it out: it's far beyond Warm Jets and Taking Tiger in every sense.)
Side Two opens up with the third recorded version of the same composer's Baby's On Fire. In place of the Rainbow recording's blistering fire there's a lighter, more contemporary feel, and the piece is worthwhile for the twin guitar solos: Manzanera's typical soaring excursion, and Watson's furious steel scrabblings. Amusingly enough, it grinds to a halt on the Black Is Black/I'm On Fire riff.
For the first time, and after an admirable display of reticence, Manzanera takes command for a six-minute reading of his Diamond Head theme.
Again, it's wholly characteristic: full-blown wide-screen romance, the sweet guitar leaping out of the frame in full Todd-AO colour. He's a funny player, some nights sounding like an angel and others unable to hit an E-major chord straight, but here he's consistently workmanlike, and more.
The terse, tough Miss Shapiro comes next, from the same source, its eccentricity pinned down by the rhythm section's devotion and work-rate. The guitars snarl, struggling to free themselves during a torrid introduction.
Now they loosen up, and the fun begins. A familiar chopped guitar pattern prefaces, played with deadpan brilliance and sung in a curious but winning close harmony by Eno, Watson, and MacCormick. Underneath it all, someone hammers out unvarying one note quavers on a keyboard, and the mind races back through the original Re-Make/Re-Model, past All Tomorrow's Parties, and comes to rest with Terry Riley's In C.
Ray Davies meets the System Minimalists! When such confluence can take place, we must realise that we've been living through a period of unusual artistic freedom.
There's an encore: Eno's Third Uncle, with the three rhythm guitarists all flicking out the bludgeoning key pattern. Phillips noodles impatiently during the solo, gathers himself and launches the sextet onto a final bloody assault. If the funk bands try very hard, this is how they'll sound one day. It's vicious, and the point is driven home when the record ends with the last chord of the song, applause deleted.
During the concert, these people collectively reached a point where virtually anything is possible. The music seemed to me to embody all the virtues of the very early Roxy Music, with the freedom to try and the freedom to fail. Except that now they're more confident, more able, more eloquent.
Manzanera, Eno, and the rest of the "school" to which they belong have, if they wish, a lengthy and increasingly fascinating creative life ahead of them. As the words of Tomorrow Never Knows suggest, 801 Live may well be simply the end of the beginning.