Blurt AUGUST 11, 2009 - by Wilson Neate


The very idea of forming an art-rock supergroup in summer 1976 might have seemed to epitomize precisely the sort of old-guard rockist hubris and pomposity that gave punk its raison d'être. With 801, though, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and friends did just that and, for the most part, managed to avoid the pitfalls associated with such an enterprise.

Just as they poached their name from the chorus of the Eno/Manzanera composition The True Wheel (which also gave A Certain Ratio their name), 801's line-up was similarly incestuous, assembled largely from friends who had previously guested on each other's projects. Ex-Roxy knob-twiddler and Manzanera associate Brian Eno featured as lead vocalist, also contributing synth and guitar. On bass was Canterbury stalwart Bill MacCormick (ex-Matching Mole), who had played on Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets and with Manzanera on Quiet Sun's Mainstream. Lloyd Watson was tapped to contribute slide guitar, having appeared on Eno's Warm Jets. Francis Monkman (formerly of Curved Air) - who had played with MacCormick and Robert Wyatt in a short-lived second version of Matching Mole - provided Fender Rhodes and Clavinet and nineteen-year-old session player Simon Phillips occupied the drum stool. Notwithstanding Eno's much vaunted non-musicianship, this was a bunch of highly accomplished musicians: Monkman had even studied harpsichord and organ at the decidedly un-rock'n'roll Royal Academy of Music.

As it turned out, this incarnation of 801 played only three gigs and the set preserved here dates from their last show, at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 3, 1976 (originally released the following month). The present reissue bundles the expanded 1999 re-release with a second disc documenting the band's final rehearsal at Shepperton Studios in late August '76, giving hardcore musos an excellent opportunity to play "spot the difference." Also included is a booklet brimming with reminiscences by the band members, notebook extracts detailing the planning stages, period press clippings and newly unearthed photographs.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall set draws primarily on Mainstream, Manzanera's Diamond Head and Eno's solo records, and give or take a few guitar solos, some extremely disciplined playing and several fiendishly tricky time signatures, there's not a lot here that would fully justify punk's scorn: these are mostly economical numbers performed without ostentatious musicianship - the songs generally more than the sum of the musicians taking part.

The versions of Eno's solo material provide the most compelling moments. On his solo albums, rather than aim to capture the authentic performance of a song, Eno explored the possibilities for artifice afforded by the studio environment. And instead of concentrating on the finished song and seeing the studio merely as a means to that end, Eno delighted in the studio as a tool for creating and recording music as a process. The 801 album offers a rare look at his work from the other side - preserving live, one-time performances (albeit performances that had been finely honed and tightly drilled in rehearsal).

Away from the experimental environs of the studio in which Eno thrived, these tracks are far from sterile, cerebral pieces - not that they ever were, but these renderings give them new dimensions, a new swerve, as the musicians create something slightly different and don't just pursue faithful facsimiles of the originals. Although Eno would probably blanch at being called a songwriter, his songs were often remarkably strong in spite of their simplicity. That quality comes across in obtuse, oblique pop numbers like The Fat Lady Of Limbourg, which acquires a more supple rhythm than its studio counterpart, and Baby's On Fire, the sound of Eno (originally in 1973) throwing off his glam mantle and looking ahead, towards punk.

Indeed, despite the band members' assorted and illustrious prog- and art-rock pedigrees (and despite the odd beard), 801 were actually a little more in sync with the times than one might think, and these performances underline how Eno's variant of art rock occasionally presaged punk's attitude and sound. With Eno rounding out the guitar attack on his open-tuned Starway, Third Uncle supplies ample evidence of that, charging at an amphetamine pace that few UK punk bands would match. Also rendered faster, harsher and tauter than its studio incarnation is the Eno/Manzanera number Miss Shapiro. Eno even manages to accelerate the song's Dadaist lyrical splurge - try singing this, fast, after a few drinks (no, just try singing it): "Dalai lama lama puss puss stella maris missa nobis miss a dinner miss shapiro shampoos pot pot pinkies pampered movement hampered like at christmas haha isn't life a circus round in circles like the archers always stiff or always starchy yes it's happening and it's fattening and it's all that we can get into the show."

This live set foregrounds the core strength of Eno's work, but the execution of these and other tracks also highlight aspects of the ensemble playing. Francis Monkman adds a funky veneer to Sombre Reptiles, while Diamond Head and Lagrima showcase Manzanera's trademark soaring guitar textures - in both cases treated and processed in real time by Eno. And the MacCormick-Phillips rhythm section is stellar, the pair seamlessly mixing up complex time signatures on the tricky, angular East Of Asteroid.

Despite the undeniable brilliance of East Of Asteroid, it's at moments like this, when the players truly show their beardy, musicianly chops, that they strand themselves on the wrong side of 1976's Great Divide. More problematic in that regard is the cover material included in the set. With the smell of cultural revolution in the air, this was hardly the time for forward-thinking artists to be covering a Beatles song, even if it is one of their best (Tomorrow Never Knows). And if you were going to do such a thing in late '76, you had to destroy the song in order to save it - or at least subject it to some radical surgery. Although they strip it of much of its whimsy and give it more heft, 801 leave Tomorrow Never Knows pretty much intact. It's an unquestionably fine version, to be sure, but, in context, a somewhat redundant musical gesture. It's a little more difficult to say anything redeeming about the Kinks' You Really Got Me, which succumbs to a leaden and pointless retreading.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an enduring piece of work. And that's a rare achievement for a live album since such things generally exist as items supplementary to artists' studio work, rarely functioning as stand-alone artistic statements.