Phil manzanera - Sunday Star Times (New Zealand) - Sun 20th Feb
Our music does polarise people, but boy were we good, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera tells Grant Smithies.
ON THE line from his London studio, Phil Manzanera sounds more like a well-to-do English banker than a glam rock guitar god. Now 60, his calm demeanour and moneyed vowels seem entirely at odds with his extravagantly wigged-out guitar playing.
Frankly, I'm shocked. Just before our interview, I slapped on my favourite Roxy Music song, "Virginia Plain", and turned it up until it rattled my fillings. Within a few seconds, my face was flushed, my palms were sweating; I felt like I'd just been baptised in adrenaline. Released in 1972, this is surely one of the greatest rock'n'roll songs ever made, with Brian Eno squeezing lurid squiggles from his synthesiser, Bryan Ferry hamming up his dissolute Lothario lead vocal, and Manzanera right up front in the mix, reeling off a reckless stream of power chords like some amphetamine-addled precursor to the Sex Pistols.
"Well, 'Virginia Plain' is really a punk song, I suppose," says Manzanera, sounding as posh as braised pheasant and also a tad breathless, as if he's just over-exerted himself polishing the Bentley. "It's just three chords and a good subject, isn't it? But I'm glad to hear you've been playing it with the kind of unreasonable volume it deserves. Good for you! We made that song back when we were inspired amateurs and not entirely sure of what we were doing, to be honest. Behind the scenes, we were desperate to get better, which we rapidly did."
Manzanera is on his way to New Zealand with the reformed Roxy Music for a one-off winery gig near Auckland. I suggest the audience will probably fall into two distinct camps: those like me who love the gleefully trashy art-school racket of the band's early 70s records and those who prefer the so-called "stockbroker soul" LPs of the early 80s.
"Yes, our music certainly polarises people. My own favourite is our second album, For Your Pleasure. We were really cooking then. We were six very different people who blended together to create something very fresh and new. It was really surprising music, inspired by the best bits of music and art and fashion and culture from the 50s, 60s and 70s, combined with some really futuristic outfits and presented with humour and flair."
Ad Feedback Yes, about those outfits. Eno frequently took the stage in feather boas and silver vinyl pants, while Ferry favoured a sci-fi take on Savile Row suits. Sax-man Andy MacKay was a lime-green pants and silver-foil jacket kind of guy, drummer Paul Thompson had a worrying penchant for leopard-print off-the-shoulder numbers, and Manzanera sported gigantic bug-eyed sunglasses and jackets upholstered with fabric approximations of the tailfins from classic 1950s American cars. They bought their eyeliner by the bucketload and looked like transvestite spacemen searching for a gay bar on Mars.
Manzanera chuckles at the memory.
"We had friends who made all of those outrageous clothes. Again, inspired amateur, between 20 and 25. Now they're professors of the Royal College of Art and heads of university fashion departments. They're all running the sho, but at the time they were just young guns like us, hot to trot, slapping things together in a very DIY kind of way."
Sadly, this brash, experimental phase wasn't to last. Eno left in 1973 to become a pioneer of electronic and ambient music and, without him, the band slowly evolved into a slightly hipper version of Simply Red. Late-era Roxy albums are not a patch on the early stuff but they sold by the lorry load, their expensive studio sheen and Ferry's increasingly tremulous croon chiming perfectly with the aspirational 80s. One critic hit the nail on the head when he called these albums "make-out music for yuppies".
"Yes, and to be honest, I was the first person in the band to put my hand up and say, 'actually, I don't really like this direction we're taking'. But with more time and more success, you tend to polish things a lot more, often unnecessarily, and also, to be honest, you may well have run out of ideas that far into your musical career. That said, I went back and listened to Avalon recently and it stood up very well. It's got a very strong mood; it really reflects where Bryan's head was at that point, though perhaps not the rest of us."
Ferry disbanded the group in 1982 to go solo and there have been sporadic reunions – minus Eno – since 2000. The upcoming Auckland gig is part of a 40th anniversery tour.
"It's absolutely bloody ridiculous, isn't it? I cannot believe it's been 40 years since we formed this band. That's the thing about music; you're always looking forward, then you suddenly realise four decades have stacked up behind you. But we made a lot of great music in that time.
"Part of the reason we've been touring again is that you get sick of going into supermarkets and hearing the same three Roxy songs. You think, hang on, we recorded 78 other songs! If we don't go out and play these songs again, no one's ever gonna hear them, so we better do it. Time, as they say, is running out."
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