"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New Musical Express SEPTEMBER 24, 1977 - by Angus MacKinnon
HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU WINSTON SMITH
Phil Pulls A Creepy One
We may paranoid but that doesn't mean they're not out to get us. The cover of Listen Now pictures two furtive exchanges of news and views. The four faces are grotesquely airbrushed, in bruise blue and vein purple; chain links angle across the scene as sky scrapers lean out of a drab sky. Roll on 1984 and the regiments of Thought Police. Philip Castle's artwork mirrors the Orwellian tenor of Listen Now all too well.
Of course, former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera commissioned song lyrics from the likes of Eno, John Wetton and Robert Wyatt for Diamond Head, his first solo album, but these weren't thematically unified. Here bassist Bill MacCormick and his brother Ian have supplied six sets of words; their preoccupations are closely linked with the cover theme. To wit, Listen Now ("Talk on the wire about force and choice / It's uncomfortable to raise your voice") and Law And Order ("It's easy to take what you are told / They said we need law and order") consider media manipulation and the strong state as actual/imminent. City Of Light ("Blinds are drawn across windows facing nowhere / In the day, the darkness is complete") sets a scene of inner city scarescaping; Flight 19, Postcard Love and That Falling Feeling describe the concomitant breakdown of personal relationships.
I'm not reading too much into it am I, chaps? No, I don't think so. But you get the drift, and a bleak, apprehensive one it is too. Apprehensive? Unsettled, unsettling? On reflection, that quality's not new to Manzanera's output. I'm thinking of the harshly ferrous edge to his work with John Cale (Gun and Heartbreak Hotel) and Nico (The End) - to say nothing of the barely screened hysteria of some of Mainstream, the belated offering by Quiet Sun, his pre-Roxy concern. As it is, Listen Now provides a more explicit framework for these aspects of Manzanera's musicianship.
And despite the fact that Manzanera is obsessively attentive to detail in the studio, that the album was recorded at intervals over some eighteen months and that it involves fifteen or more players Listen Now is - almost surprisingly - a coherent composite. It would be pointless to reiterate every initiative taken by Manzanera and 801 on this showing. Nonetheless Sheet Music - to my mind, the apogee of 10cc's achievement - serves as a useful point of comparison. Listen Now shares a similar outward urge.
Flight 19 is sophisticated rock craftsmanship of the highest order. Savour its structure (verse, chorus, middle eight, solo, repeat) and adventurous use of same. Although for the most part typically reticent, Manzanera fronts three instrumentals, Island (as in refuge and sense of calm) reveals his catholic tastes; it's Diamond Head rephrased, a heady turn of melody interspersed with vaguely Hawaiian lead parts. Que? is a terse funnel of serrated sound and Initial Speed exactly what its title implies: a spiral synthesiser motif alternating with Manzanera on guitars, various.
Songwise, Listen Now, and Law And Order open and close side one, both pieces sidestepping around a rhythm reminiscent of Roxy Music's Love Is The Drug but with twice the snazz thanks to Bill MacCormick and drummer Dave Mattacks. Listen Now bridges unexpectedly through a Mel Collins sax solo into a military big band coda - sound for thought. City Of Light treats Simon Ainley's vocals (Eno and Robert Wyatt crossed) over brutal staccato piano; the ominous atmospherics are reinforced by Manzanera's chilling chord fractures. I haven't been this intimidated by studio sound since Can's Tago Mago. Postcard Love and That Falling Feeling round off; a pair of wryly arranged but profoundly depressing ballads: the, er, human catchment.
Just for the book, among those contributing to Listen Now are Brian Eno, Eddie Jobson, Francis Monkman and Split Enz Eddie Rayner (keyboards), Simon Phillips (drums), Kevin Godley (voices) and Lol Creme (Gizmo). Listen Now bears out its conceptual premise.