INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Elsewhere MARCH 6, 2011 - by Graham Reid
PHIL MANZANERA: WHEN WORK IS PLAY
Guitarist Phil Manzanera remembers very clearly how and when he first met the band that would give him his career, Roxy Music.
"Yes, I failed the audition," he says about that day in '71 when he went to a house in Battersea and plugged in his Gibson ES-325 ("unfashionable for Roxy Music") to play alongside singer Bryan Ferry, knob and tape twiddler Brian Eno, saxophonist Andy MacKay, drummer Paul Thompson and the band's original bassist Graham Simpson.
"I had an absolutely streaming cold and I'd read about Roxy, they'd sent a demo in to Melody Maker and the band I was in, Quiet Sun, had done that too. I was playing jazz-rock sort of stuff with funny time signatures and I go this tiny little room and they said, 'Let's have a jam'."
So far so obvious. But given Roxy Music's glamorous implosion of '50s rock'n'roll, oddball sonic squiggles from Eno and post-modern whatever-fits sound of their self-titled debut album of '72 it's hard to imagine what you might have to play at an audition.
"It was two chords from a Carole King number and I'm thinking 'Two chords? I've just been playing eight bars in 7/15 time or whatever' and I thought, 'Freedom! This is wonderful, I didn't need to count time signatures I could just blast away and do mad things'.
"And that is probably why I failed the audition," he laughs.
Manzanera - the son of an English father and a Columbian mother, and who grew up in various parts of South America and Cuba - was miserable at being rejected, kept bumping into the band at concerts and got to know them, acted as their roadie for a bit and got then got the call-up before Roxy Music' astonishing debut album.
Some years younger than most other members he was initially in awe but something about Roxy Music set them apart: "When I first met them they were very grown up - five years older - they had been to university, had bank accounts and were renting a house. This was grown-up stuff. But there was something about them I wanted to be a part of."
Roxy Music were very special. Their first three albums in glamorous gatefold covers - sultry models on the outside, the band posing in retro-spacerock clothes on the inside - brought a sense of glam-retro and art-school cool into play.
And, as Manzanera admits, dressing up gave them confidence on stage for what they were unleashing. He remembers discussing films with Ferry at that audition and realising the band wanted to present their music in a visual away. A someone who had been in the film society at school he was immediately attracted.
"And they all had friends who were starting out as fashion designers, photographers, art directors, all in their mid-twenties. They were people who wanted to be the next generation in that gap after David Bowie.
"He kindly asked us to support him playing to about a hundred people in pubs in Croydon. We suddenly felt we were part of something."
And set apart also: Roxy Music avoided singles, presented their albums and shows like art concepts, Ferry famously fired Eno (or he quit) after two albums for being a "non-musician" which he took as a compliment, various bassists passed through and by the mid '70s they were a dominant force in music and fashion.
With Ferry garnering so much attention it was inevitable he would record solo albums - as did Manzanera and MacKay - and they broke up in '76.
And in the late '70s as punk and New Wave were getting a foothold a highly favourable Rolling Stone review of a Manzanera solo album called him "the world's last psychedelic guitarist".
He laugh again: "Yes, that would apply, that's a lot of my background. Someone said in a recent review my guitar sounded very feral, which I thought was great. Just mad."
Roxy Music reformed around the same time as that Stone review, but the sound of the albums - Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon - was cooler, more pop-orientated and with a glassy production sheen. They split again in '83 - Ferry into a successful solo career, Manzanera making solo albums and doing production work - and then against the odds reformed in 2001, again in 2005 when there were hints of a new album, and now they are on the road again.
It seems fair to ask, given all have successful careers outside of Roxy what the attraction is to keep getting back together.
"The reason I got into music," says Manzanera "was I always envied families with lots of kids and when I was nine or ten it was 'please send me to boarding school'. I just want to be with people and I formed a band at school and it was the social side I enjoyed as well as the musical conversations with people.
"With Roxy it's the songs. It does all come back to music every time, whatever grievance or disagreements you might have about anything, it gets you the minute you start playing some of those songs like In Every Dream Home A Heartache, Re-Make/Re-Model or something from the latter period.
"You think, 'Actually this has a world and life of its own and its very nice to play. And it's ours, if we don't play it no one will ever hear it again. There was no Roxy Music covers band so if we don't play these songs..."
These days Roxy Music are cited as influences by bands as diverse as the Scissor Sisters and Arcade Fire - with whom Roxy have played at festivals, them on an A stage, Roxy on the B - although Manzanera says he can't hear any direct musical connections.
"They are very generous when they say that and they probably did listen to Roxy but whether it has come out in their music I don't know, I doubt it. I wonder if its good to say you like Roxy? That would be fantastic."
Manzanera holds great affection for New Zealand and some of its musicians in particular. He recalls a tour to Australia in the mid-'70s and seeing Split Enz on television in his hotel room. That night, to his surprise and delight, the Enz opened for Roxy Music and he watched them from the side of the stage.
"After they came off I went back to their dressing room and said, 'You guys are mad and brilliant, if there is anything I can do to help...' Then later they rang and said they were doing their first album but would I produce them in the future, and as it turned out they ended up coming to England and we re-recorded a lot of the first album Mental Notes.
That album appeared as the Enz' Second Thoughts album of '76 which became their debut in Britain.
"It is amazing how many people remember them with affection. At that time Neil Finn was too young to be in the band and at one point he came over and they said 'Can you show him a few things on the guitar'. Which is embarrassing to say now that he is such and an amazing musician and songwriter. They played on my solo album and the money from that got them back to New Zealand and then they rose from the ashes."
Although separated by years and distance, there are parallels between Roxy Music and Split Enz: both brought a sense of theatre to the stage, made complex music, and both enjoyed two quite distinct phases, the early dress-up period and the later pop-conscious albums.
As to that mooted Roxy Music album of '05 with Eno briefly back in the ranks?
Some tracks ended up on a Ferry album ("I haven't heard it, I'm told it's good - I've written a track on it apparently") but most of the material was unfinished and everyone moved on to other things.
"But very few bands of our age have got together and done albums that are considered to be one of their best. It's quite a daunting task. I've produced over sixty albums so I know what a fantastic song is. If you do something and think 'It's pretty good'. But is it amazing? The answer is no.
"Do you keep on doing it or not? There is no paradigm for people when you get to this age."
Touring these days, while comfortable, means they are in front of audiences who barely know their music ("and are younger than my children") which means they have to try that bit harder to get attention.
"You try to win over an audience and it's good for you. You are putting yourself and the music on the line.
"And we've got a great visual show using all the iconography of the last forty years. It's wonderful to look at some of the screen with those beautiful women appearing. I can't help it."