Pick of the Week #13
Phil Manzanera: K-Scope
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By Beppe Colli
Mar. 7, 2021



"We're rolling".

These words, as spoken by a sound engineer - presumably, Rhett Davies - to signal the start of the recording session, immediately followed by a loop of a piano arpeggio, are the first thing one hears when listening to the Quiet Sun album called Mainstream.

An album I bought, fresh off the presses, and already greeted by very favourable reviews, in August, 1975 at the reduced price of 1.75. In fact, in those days it was customary for Island to release those albums that, while recorded cheaply, appeared to face a "risky" commercial outcome, in a "mid-price" line, called HELP, at a price that was about 60% of the full price. (The same thing happening with the commercially "controversial" album (No Pussyfooting), by Fripp & Eno.)

The many positive reviews from 1975 greatly differed from those rejection letters that record companies had sent the group at the time it was still an active, and hopeful, entity. (The letters appear in the CD edition released many years later by Expression Records.)

A group of young, hopeful musicians in 1970, by the time of the release of Mainstream, Quiet Sun featured two musicians that were quite well-known: bassist Bill MacCormick, greatly appreciated as a member of Matching Mole - the group assembled by former Soft Machine Robert Wyatt - on their two studio albums; and guitarist Phil Manzanera, a fine instrumentalist who was also a star as a member of Roxy Music. A group whose enormous popularity in the United Kingdom was quite difficult to perceive at the proper scale when looking from the Continent, or the U.S.A.

Two members completed the quartet: keyboardist Dave Jarrett, who by the time of the 1975 recording was a full-time university teacher; and drummer Charles Hayward, not really well-known at the time, but about to become quite popular, in an "underground" way, for being a member of such groups as This Heath and Camberwell Now.

"Caravan meets Soft Machine, but without the saxophone" is the best I can do in order to describe the music played by Quiet Sun, though I'm perfectly aware that my definition is far from satisfying. Recorded in the spirit of doing mostly "first takes", with just a few overdubs, showing a fresh quality in the performances that doesn't reveal that the group is for the most part playing "vintage" material, Mainstream is an album that one can still listen to with great pleasure today.

Since the album was not recorded in 1970, the actual recorded performances greatly benefit from the more advanced skills group members had acquired in the intervening years. Hayward's drums are a joy to listen to (please, a moment of nostalgia for a world where people called you on the phone just to say "I've listened to a record that features a fantastic drummer"), and so are the others; the featured repertory is varied; Phil Manzanera's guitar is timbrally versatile, while avoiding any excess.

Though appearing "later", the Quiet Sun album reveals what had happened "before". After the group split, Manzanera hit the jackpot when becoming a member of Roxy Music, whose debut I remember as being quite controversial, and not only for reasons of style. (I have to admit that seeing the cover of their debut album when, after school, I passed in front of a record shop whose window had displayed Patto's first album not too long before didn't appear as a good omen about what was to come.)

Personal inclinations combined with group format were the foundation of Manzanera's guitar approach in Roxy Music: not a lot of "soloing", but a lot of "texture". In doing so, Manzanera was greatly helped by the presence - both instrumental and conceptual - of Brian Eno, whose approach to the still-young instrument called the synthesizer was quite different from the prevailing use of the time (just listen to the VCS3 intro to Matching Mole track Gloria Gloom, whose sinister atmosphere is bound to remind one of the Todd Dockstader masterpiece titled Quatermass). Besides, Eno started treating and filtering Manzanera's guitar, greatly enhancing its timbral possibilities. Something that obviously worked as an encouragement for Manzanera's experimental attitude.

While perfectly able to work as "leader", in those days Phil Manzanera was mostly a "team player". From the list of albums he worked on at the time, I'll single out those first two albums released by Brian Eno after leaving Roxy Music: Here Come The Warm Jets (1973), and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974). Both fine albums, both original in their way, whose impact today appears to be muted by the huge amount of work Eno did later, but that in my opinion deserve a fresh listen.

Amid the confusion created by Roxy Music's leader, Bryan Ferry, when deciding to start a solo career in parallel to his work with the group, Manzanera found the time and the people to record his debut solo album: Diamond Head (1975). At the same time, he also recorded the Quiet Sun album I talked about earlier.

In my opinion, Diamond Head's only weak point is a lack of coherence. Which also could be said of Eno's first two albums. The point being that the human voice acts as a kind of "glue", giving a sense of "coherence" even when "poly-style" is the dominant character, and Eno's voice is highly recognizable. While Manzanera doesn't sing (even though, like some of his illustrious colleagues, he possesses a quite unique "voice").

Diamond head is the kind of album that is both pleasant and interesting to listen to. On vocals, Robert Wyatt, Eno, John Wetton, Bill MacCormick (his first recorded performance as a vocalist), and, in an important cameo, Doreen Chanter.

Frontera combines Robert Wyatt and almost-"ambient" guitars. Diamond Head is an instrumental piece that in time will become a kind of "signature" tune for Manzanera. The Flex, featuring Andy Mackay on saxophones, reminds one of Roxy Music. Same Time Next Week is a very cerebral piece of "funky" music. Big Day and Miss Shapiro are Eno 18k. East Of Echo, Lagrima, and Alma come to us from the Quiet Sun repertory.

Wisely, the album features Paul Thompson from Roxy Music on drums as an anchor; on bass, former King Crimson John Wetton is an excellent instrumentalist.

Manzanera plays a lot, but he's very often "invisible", proving himself to be a mature player. Here I'll have to mention album final track Alma, whose closing guitar "solo" is an atypically "heroic", almost Crimson-sounding, moment that takes the album to its brilliant close.

Totally unexpectedly (Internet was not even on the horizon), I saw a magazine review of an album I knew nothing about: 801 Live. Reviews were enthusiastic, the instrumental part was excellent, the featured names being: Eno, Manzanera, MacCormick on their usual instruments; a totally unknown Loyd Watson on slide guitar and vocals; former Curved Air Francis Monkman on electric piano and clavinet; and a 19 old boy, Simon Phillips - whom I found again in a short while, playing on How's Tricks by Jack Bruce - on drums.

The album mix sounded quite "American" to me, the rhythm section really coming forward. When paired with Simon Phillips's astonishing drums ("Who the fuck is this drummer?", my colleagues asked me every time I put one of the tracks on the air), Bill MacCormick uses a degree of aggression that's more typical of Jack Bruce than his usual performing approach. Everybody plays admirably, of course. (Strange to notice that nowadays this album is quite forgotten. For no real reason, I'd say, the album being quite "entertaining".)

The featured repertory is what one would logically expect: something by Eno, something by Manzanera, something by Quiet Sun, plus covers of The Kinks' You Really Got Me; and the Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows.

I have to confess that I had great expectations for 801's new album, and I hoped that the group would deliver. Well, deliver they did: both their albums - Listen Now (1977) and K-Scope (1978) - greatly exceeded my expectations. But - of course! - there were changes in the weather.

Released under the name Phil Manzanera/801, Listen Now appeared a lot later than what one would logically expect, given the quite favourable reviews that greeted their Live debut. According to the album's liner notes, recording sessions lasted one year and a half, though the real recording sessions did not take this long. But Phil Manzanera was again busy with both Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry; while Eno had many projects cooking. It's not too strange, then, that when listened to as a whole, Listen Now can appear a bit too heterogeneous.

Having said that, I have to say that I regard Listen Now as one of the finest albums in my collection; an album that today can be regarded as an archetype of music-making, and a clear demonstration of what studios and engineers in the United Kingdom could produce and record in those days.

Listen Now features the many styles we've come to expect from those involved. Highly skilled instrumental performances. A perfect cast. A recorded sound that can be quite moving or very chilling. A perfect sound placing in the stereo field (most of the music featured in this article was engineered by Rhett Davies).

The mood of the album is sinister, dark - under those Grey Skies that Stewart & Gaskin will sing about a short time later; the scenery, Orwellian, starting with the cover. So, the album is more "of its time" than many albums released the same year.

I was quite surprised to read very shoddy reviews that talked about this album as "old stuff". Why?

Usually, in cases like this, the culprit is "punk", and those changing times. The sad truth is that Eno had left the building, and since many rock writers were only interested in 801 as a Eno project, the moment he left, they left, too.

(Of course, I know nothing about contracts and the like. I assume that all "shared work" came out as 801; an album where Eno didn't do much, and didn't sing, came out as Manzanera/801; and one where Eno did not appear at all came out as Manzanera. I could be wrong.)

My ideas about Brian Eno will not be part of this writing, if only for reasons of length. But it has to be said that Eno understood perfectly what was required to stay afloat. Clothes so extravagant as to make him visible on a stage he shared with quite taller colleagues. Pictures taken after shampooing, those "duck beak clips" still in his hair. A few "ribald" interviews. Those who were not present at the time cannot even begin to guess how potent the deflagration of the bomb "I'm a non-musician". Having said "bye-bye" to 801, Eno started collaborating with David Bowie, on the Low album.

What could the other members of 801 offer the press?

Listen Now is an album where Bill MacCormick and his brother Ian - in those days a successful music journalist at the New Musical Express under the name Ian MacDonald, later as the writer of a beautiful book titled Revolution In The Head: The Beatles' Records And The Sixties - weave a socio-political narrative that's lucid and aware.

Opening track Listen Now presents a sinister scenery combined with an arrangement that closely resembles the Temptations as produced by Norman Whitfield. A "funky" bass guitar, very fine vocals, former King Crimson Mel Collins being perfect on a sax soprano solo, and later as the "big band" that takes the song to its close.

Flight 19 is a lively track, quite resembling the Beatles/10cc, featuring Simon Phillips on drums, could have been a hit single in a parallel universe.

Island is for this writer the only weak track on the album, an instrumental - I hope Phil Manzanera will forgive me for saying this - that to me sounded like a jingle for Coca Cola.

Law And Order is a tense picture, with a fine guitar solo, and a fantastic final section.

A fine instrumental moment of great clarity and brevity, Que? works well as an intro to...

City Of Light, a song that in spite of its title appears to live inside a deep fog, where of course dangers abound. Great vocal work, excellent "filigree" guitar by Manzanera.

Initial Speed is an instrumental that's maybe a bit out of place here, but of a great quality. Simon Phillips on drums, Francis Monkman on keyboards, Bill MacCormick on electric bass, plus former 10cc Kevin Godley's "heavenly voices".

A sad episode, but a change of scenery anyway, Postcard Love opens with a great-sounding solo guitar on the verge of feedback, great piano by Eddie Jobson, a quite restrained vocal performance, Simon Phillips only playing what's essential.

This is the right moment to talk about the vocal parts, and the drum sound, on this album. Lead vocals are for the most part sung by Simon Ainley, who will tour - also on rhythm guitar - as part of the "slim" line-up that toured for just a few dates in support of the album. Both on its own, and in combination with Bill MacCormick, Simon Ainley's voice gives this album a "British" mood that perfectly complements the melancholy of the featured stories.

Drums are played by two excellent musicians. While Dave Mattacks is his usual self, Simon Phillips is the revelation. It was already apparent that, in his "turbo" mode, he had few peers. But what is really astounding is the measured approach he chose for the songs, a trait that the engineering and production work skillfully highlights with great use of dynamics, some tom passages appear to "come out" of one's loudspeakers.

Closing track, That Falling Feeling, with lyrics by Ian MacDonald, is a frightening moment that's bound to leave listeners speechless. A "Floyd-sounding" episode, also in the guitar solo, the song combines "fat"-sounding toms, a perfect snare, cymbals with phasing, and voices that sound as moving inside a deep fog. Not really "heaven-bound", Kevin Godley's "heavenly voices" take the listener to the brink of... something.

Released one year later as an album by Phil Manzanera, K-Scope immediately appears as a very different kind of album. A different studio, different engineers - the album was recorded at the personal studio of Chris Squire, the bass player from Yes - also a different way to feature the rhythm section, with the drums placed "inside" the sound, making the tension audible but more "implicit".

The most important change is in the vocal dept., with Tim Finn (and his brother Neal, later in Crowded House) from Split Enz (a group produced by Manzanera) replacing Ainley. Finn's way of singing gives the songs a more "unstable" dimension that greatly changes the mood of the music, although Side Two, featuring Bill MacCormick as solo vocalist, takes the listener towards climates that resemble those featured on Listen Now.

An album that's more homogeneous than its predecessor, featuring a few instrumental moments that appear to be better integrated in the whole, in the end K-Scope sounds even darker and more neurotic than Listen Now due to its more "compressed" sound. Provided my memory works, I remember an old interview where Bill MacCormick talked about a mix that was done in a hurry in order to have the album released sooner, but of course I can't say if this is the real/only reason for such a different sound.

A very Manzanera-sounding melody, an instrumental track called K-Scope, is the album opener. A great performance by Simon Phillips, very fine keyboards, a lively Mel Collins on saxophone.

Penned by Ian MacCormick, Remote Control is a side of a "punk" single with pushy drums by Paul Thompson.

Cuban Crisis is a bitter-ironic tale - if I understand correctly, the lady the narrator is in love with destroys the Cuban Revolution by giving Fidel Castro the "wrong" suggestions - rich with a subtle element of tension coming from the drums. Very fine piano, bass and guitar in a "reggae" mode, fine close by Manzanera on solo guitar.

"Too many drugs at the disco" could be an alternative title for Hot Spot. A perfect mix of vocals - Kevin Godley & Lol Creme are back - and an assertive guitar solo by Manzanera.

Closing Side One, Numbers featuring John Wetton on vocals is not what could have been.

Let's listen to Side Two.

The other side of the "punk" single, Slow Motion TV inhabits a quite neurotic mood, and is as "punky-sounding" as a track featuring a very fast piano and a baritone saxophone can be.

Chordal guitars played with echo, assertive bass, and drums that very skillfully underline the mood, Gone Flying presents a "toxic" landscape, with a great synth "slowing" at the song's close.

N-Shift is another fine instrumental, quite fast, with fine work by Simon Phillips giving the perfect backing to Phil Manzanera, whose guitar work here is more aggressive than his usual.

Split in two parts - the first featuring synthesizer, soprano sax, bass, and vocals; the second sounding quite tense, with a nervous rhythm guitar, loud bass, superb accents on the snare and the hi-hat - Walking Through Heaven's Door is the real album close, a highly dramatic moment that will stay with the listener for a long time.

(For unknown reasons, the liner notes appearing on the cover of the CD edition I own add John Wetton as playing bass to the line-up of Walking Through Heaven's Door, something which is not present in the liner notes to my original LP from 1978. I recently saw that this piece of (dis)information transmigrated online. In my opinion, the instrumental touch is without a doubt Bill MacCormick's.)

The brief instrumental piece You Are Here, composed and played by Manzanera, ends the album, as a kind of "ear cleaner".

Given that my information at the time was far from complete, I think I can say that while reviews of Listen Now had mostly been on the lukewarm side, those about K-Scope were of the "not terribly interested" variety. New music was still welcome, but only when coming from new names: the Police, Dire Straits, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson.

We know how the story ends. Roxy Music got back again, and sold gazillions. Bill MacCormick assembled a new group, Random Hold, and then left music. Simon Phillips is still one of the busiest session men around. Mel Collins is back in King Crimson. Somebody died.

Quite unusual, after a fine career as a honest worker, with good results in the "Latin"-influenced climates he got to know thanks to his mother, and having contributed to albums by Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, Manzanera hit the jackpot for the second time.

Giant hit No Church In The Wild, by Kanye West and Jay-Z, sampled and slowed the start of Manzanera's penned K-Scope. Hence, a fine check, mucho popularity, and a new cover of... No Church In The Wild that one can listen to.


Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 7, 2021