Melody Maker OCTOBER 29, 1977 - by Ian Birch


"Never forget, that Revenger and Reporter begin with the same letter." So announces Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, one of the most stunning fantasy films ever made. Caution, an American detective, is sent to Alphaville, city of the future, to destroy its heartless computer-controlled civilisation. It's a place where "inhabitants have become slaves of electronic probabilities, tranquillisers come with very hotel room and the eternal present reign." The movie is a amazingly elegant combination of documentary, modern myth and pop art.

Now I'm not claiming that Listen Now tries to vinylise Alphaville (the ever fashionable compass point of Orwell's 1984 is probably more appropriate) but it does have a similar effect. Beautifully refined, intricate and deceptively distanced with a unified concept (to use a now debased word in its best sense) underlying the whole. Don't turn off because you've not so far encountered terms like "aggressive" or "raw" or "high energy" or "buzzsaw": Listen Now is a superb album, and its subtleties emerge with every listen.

The cover artwork bears this out. Based on an idea by Ian MacCormick, who co-wrote three of the songs with Manzanera, it depicts a stylised inner-city nightmare of the future - or is it present?. In the foreground, one dehumanised figure is whispers behind a cupped hand to an incredulous second. To their left another couple, shadowing, the first, act similarly. All four are corralled by chain links and a New York-like skyline.

The music just makes the implications even more unnerving, Manzanera has recruited Bill (also bassist/vocalist) and Ian MacCormick to supply the lyrics and the brothers explore the idea of - dare I say - the Totalitarian State. City Of Light subtitled 42nd Street Blues, describes urban collapse, the stage immediately prior to an Alphaville situation. "Blinds are drawn cross windows facing nowhere / In the day the darkness is complete / Close your eyes and try to cry away your nightmares / You just know the downtown city street / Where darkness reigns". Curfew is just a shot away.

The media is ruthlessly supervised for the sake of Law And Order. A face on the TV falsely assures that everything is all right. "It's easy to take what you are told." The title track goes beyond depicting the callous repression and, in almost biblical imagery, admonishes: "Is it any wonder you've got no power / When your pay a thief to keep it for you?/ Is it a surprise that your wine is sour / When you let a liar choose the brew he ours you?". In the face of such manipulation, personal loves and beliefs become a wilderness of confusion. That Falling Feeling (a great name for a song) starts: "Yesterday you knew what to say / To keep them sweet / But just one fall and it's all you can do / To keep your feet". The tale of Suzie and Johnny in Flight 19 - (which I, to my shame, slagged-off as a single - sackcloth and ashes for a week) charts the anguish that misunderstanding entails.

By now you probably think I'm a contender for Pseud's Corner or just plain mad. All I can do is refer you to the twelve-incher in question. Ah yes, the music. For once the cast list of session luminaries works democratically and with total conviction. It's impossible not to draw a parallel with 10cc in their early vintage period; in fact, Gizmo pioneers Lol Creme and Kevin Godley appear on several cuts, and nowhere is their influence stronger than on Flight 19, with those high-pitched harmonies. Manzanera has yoked the finely wrought song structures of 10cc to both his own understated style and the type of saw-toothed menace he added, for instance, to Roxy Music at their best, the reactivated Quiet Sun project, and John Cale on the epic Slow Dazzle. The parts never gel. They weave in and out of a main theme with consummate brooding ease.

City Of Light opens on a staccato piano reminiscent of A Day In The Life (remember The Beatles?) to be joined by Bill MacCormick's heartbeat bass-line and Simon Ainley's vocals, which sound like a sandpapered version of Eno's. Their meticulous smoothness reinforces the chill, just as much as Manzanera's harsh and splintered chords. Listen Now builds gradually but purposively around another sturdy foundation (MacCormick's bass and Dave Mattacks' drums) with some surprising twists and turns. The harmonies ebb and flow, while Mel Collins overdubs "saxes and big band". As well as the six bona fide songs, there are three instrumentals written solely by Manzanera. Island is a beautifully sensual piece evoking every cyborg's daydream of a palm tree haven Que?, on the other hand, is a quick fire burst of white heat, while Initial Speed makes amphetamine seem like a depressant. Manzanera's guitars snap against Monkman's sprung coiled synthesiser.

A final request: don't let this one slip by unnoticed.