The guitars behind five Roxy Music classics, plus a Skill Centre special as Phil shows you the chords to 'Love Is The Drug'.
Phil Manzanera dons his favourite guitars (and some smart jackets) and talks Tony Bacon through some of Roxy Music's finest moments.
Nowadays, Phil Manzanera busies himself with the Explorers, his group with Andy Mackay and James Raithe, while another current project sees him teaming up with John Wetton aided by drummers like Alan White and Carl Palmer.
But today we're here to talk about the past. You may have spotted a new Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry compilation, "Street Life", snaking up the charts. What an opportunity, we figured, to listen back to a few old favourites in the company of the guitarist who made them all possible.
Before we place the laser beam on the little disc, Phil points out that the running order and choice of material on the compilation are nothing to do with him or Mackay - and they weren't approached. Does that annoy him? "Yeah. It did annoy me. It really is Bryan's personal view of this period, and it's not mine."
So, laser still hovering, what about a lightning overview of Roxy's career? How does it pan out in retrospect? "You start off as a band, you all play together, and it's quite easy to play together - you've been on the road," explains Phil. "The first two albums were like that. Then you get successful, you don't play together very much, you get rusty and you find that it's not easy to play together in the studio. From the second album up to 'Manifesto' we would rehearse for a week with some backing tracks, do all the overdubs, and then Bryan would try and write a top line.
"And then people invent rhythm boxes! The big difference occurred when I got my studio - 'Flesh & Blood', 'Avalon', 'Jealous Guy' were all started with the Linn and built up. The end result was that 'Avalon' type of sound, working in lots of different studios. So it was easy to do backing tracks again, quickly - but then you wonder if you've lost the feel, and you go back to the idea of rehearsing a band for six weeks before you even start recording, and try to combine both. It's funny how things come around..."
And now, let's go back to the records...
When he joined Roxy, replacing the shortlived David O'List (ex-Nice), Phil brought with him his semi-acoustic, jazzy Gibson 335. "None of the other guys from Roxy liked it," he complains. Why was that? "The sound was a bit too mature," he laughs. "Well, unrock, if you like. It suited my previous group Quiet Sun fine. Anyway, the others said what you need is a Strat as well. I got one, but the 335 was great, that sort of thicker sound. So I did 'Virginia Plain' with the 335."
The screaming feedback sound of the guitar you hear on the single shows how the 335 reacts to being wound up and pushed a little: people have often asked Phil about 'That great synth bit on the first album' which invariably turns out to be feedback or treated guitar. "All the sounds are very confused," he remembers. "We did that on purpose at the time, and Eno would treat them through the VCS3, which was an early synthesiser."
Oh, and the opening surges over the piano are Rick Kenton's fuzz bass, not guitar, OK?
(45 released 2.73)
Not only did Phil's early purchases include a Strat, but soon after the first album he bought a guitar that has been his trusty companion ever since, an original 1963 Gibson Firebird 7 complete with gold-plated fittings, Maestro wang bar, three chunky humbuckers and an ebony fingerboard. Phil's never seen another red one, and nor have we. "I bought it from an American kid, sort of a rich kid whose parents had bought it for him, they lived in a big posh house in Regent's Park. He'd bought the Firebird in Chicago when they first came out. It's on the cover of the second album and I've used it on every album I've done since.
"It doesn't sound like a Gibson Les Paul, it's not big and thick. The bass strings are very tight in their frequency for some reason. They don't resonate and have a lot of bass end to them, which is very useful for power chords and things like that. It has a tight power chord sound, not spread out like a Les Paul. It works very well for recording - you can place it in the background and you'll always hear it, it doesn't take up any space. It makes its own space."
No wonder he's used it so much. An early appearance was on 'Pyjamarama': and that intro - what we might call the 'chug-a-chang' sound - seems familiar. Do we hear echoes of Pete Townshend? "I was always a Who fan," admits Phil. "It was that idea of having an open tuning, I think it was something silly and not particularly flash, maybe E, B, E, G#, E and E. Yes, very E! It was one of the first times I'd used notes ringing through, leaving the same notes here and there and changing a few other notes in the chord. It's a nice way of getting a big sound when you're not playing with anyone else, as well - you've got these sympathetic strings, really. And it's more enjoyable to play if you can't play great finger style, you have these strings resonating to keep the beat going!"
(from "For Your Pleasure" LP 3.73)
This has always seemed not so much a song, more a repeated chorus with the occasional join. "Yes, sort of stop and start," suggests Phil. "Bryan used to come up with a chord sequence and then sort of flog it to death, really. And so because we were into very textural and atmospheric sort of ideas, all of us, we could take one idea that was strong and make it work. Actually there are two parts to 'Do The Strand', an intro bit with the piano sound, and the 'do the strand...' bit.
"The real cream on the cake was the lyrics. No-one had any idea what they were going to be, not even Bryan. The whole instrumental thing was totally recorded before there was any idea at all about what the lyric was going to be. We added textures, and Bryan put it all into focus by adding the lyric, which was brilliant. Bryan may have had an idea, but he certainly never told anybody.
"That was the beginning of a method of working where we'd record everything, do all the overdubs, and then he'd take it away, scratch his head, and try to write a top line. I think about 60% of the time over the whole period of Roxy it worked really well - 40% was pretty average. When it worked it was tremendous."
The middle section of 'Do The Strand', over a couple of repeated chords, is a good example of how in this period Roxy managed to slip a few layers of their more adventurous tapes-and-treatments experiments into good pop songs. Phil and Eno were both using Revox tape machines then, on stage and in the studio, modified to give ADT and layering facilities; Phil's also had a pedal to adjust the machine's motor speed for echo effects. On stage Phil's guitar would be split from his Pete Cornish pedalboard to the Revox and to Eno's famous 'treatment' VCS3 synth.
"You can see it on that 'Whistle Test' film of 'Ladytron' that they keep showing - at the end there's supposed to be a solo between the two of us where he treated what I played. But a lot of the time the sound that was coming out of the amp didn't seem to relate to what I was playing at all. I'd be looking at Eno: what are you doing?"
(45 released 5.80)
This was the first Roxy track started at Phil's studio, Gallery, built into the converted coachhouse next to his 1930s Surrey home.
"Gary Tibbs, Bryan and I were sitting in there with a Roland CR78 drum box," remembers Phil. "We started playing that riff, which has been used a hundred times before, but I was playing the bass on it for some reason. Then everyone went home and I put the little guitar bit over the top. Next day Bryan heard it and said ah, I can do something with that. We worked on it a lot over the months, changed it lots of times. We tried putting a proper bass player on it - in England, in New York - but it never sounded the same. So we ended up with my cruddy bass playing."
Phil used quite a variety of guitars on this track, too: most of what you hear is his '51 Telecaster, but the solo in the middle is his black Les Paul, and the bits on the end, aptly described by Mr Manzanera as "the dee-do dee-do dee-do part", were done on one of his Strats.
"It's not unusual for me to put that many guitars on a track, although since then I've developed more of a formalised thing: I tend to use the Strats and the Teles, both Fender and Fernandes, for the clean jangly rhythm work, very clean things, and the Les paul and the Firebird for power chords and soloing. I also use my mini guitar, made by Ashley Pangbom, a sort of tiny Explorer with a really short scale. It really sounds like the biggest guitar... for the last three or four years I've only used a Rockman and a Rock Box, I haven't used amps at all in the studio. That little Pangbom through the Rockman sounds enormous."
(45 released 6.82)
The very last track that Roxy Music ever recorded, coming right at the end of the album sessions. It was put down at Gallery, at Odyssey in London, and the Power Station in New York. Guitarist Neil Hubbard had bolstered the Roxy guitar sound since the "Flesh & Blood" sessions, and the two styles are evident here: Hubbard more soully; Manzanera more poppy, his sparse rhythm part continuing the reggae influences.
"But it had become more of a production thing than of a band playing by this stage," sighs Phil. "So it became unsatisfying to me in the end because we'd lost that band aspect of it. Bryan liked the super production type thing, and obviously that led to him going on wanting to do that. But once he'd decided to go solo and go his own way, really none of use wanted to see each other any more, and in fact we haven't seen him since going down in a lift in Philadelphia after the last gig in 1983."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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