Defining art/rock

By Sergio Ariza

Phil Manzanera’s guitar served to define the sound of art/rock during his time with Roxy Music, his original sound and innovative solos that gave more angularity and musicality to a band ahead of its time that mixed art, fashion, and cinema with avant-garde music and rock & roll from the 50s. His curiosity also led him to innovative projects with Brian Eno and David Gilmour.

Manzanera was born on January 31, 1951 in London under the name of Phillip Geoffrey Targett-Adams. His father was English and his mother was Colombian, which led him to live most of his youth in places like South America and Cuba. It was precisely on that island where he got his first guitar, a Spanish one, when he was 6 years old. The first songs he learned were typical of Cuban folklore, inspired by the Cuban Revolution that was taking place when he lived there. However, it was in Venezuela, at age 9, when he fell in love with rock & roll, thanks to gents like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, which made him ask his parents if he could study in England. Once there he would experience the arrival of the Swingin London scene with groups like the Beatles and Stones. With his first electric guitar in his hands, a red Hofner Galaxie, he decided he wanted to form a band.  

By the time he finished high school, he chose not to attend university but rather devote his life to music. His mother was worried about his future but his older brother calmed her saying, “I know someone who is a professional musician that can give Phil some tips. He was talking about David Gilmour who had just joined Pink Floyd and was recording his first record, A Saucerful of Secrets with them. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last years. Neither of them recall what was said that afternoon, but Gilmour remembers thinking, “I must have given him fantastic advice, because 5 years later he was with Roxy Music”.

Gilmour was not the only rock star he knew, thanks to the MacCormick brothers, Robert Wyatt was also on his list of friends. Thanks to the member of Soft Machine, his group, Pooh and the Ostrich Feather, got their first gigs. Over time they would change their name to Quiet Sun and went on to form part of the progressive scene of Canterbury alongside bands like Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong. The band got into complex instrumental passages, close to jazz/rock, with complicated tempos and a lot of room for improvisation with his flaming red Gibson ES-335, a guitar he bought in 1970.

But Quiet Sun dissolved when Bill MacCormick left the group to join Matching Mole, Wyatt’s new band. Manzanera needed a band and the opportunity presented itself when he saw an ad in Melody Maker that said, “wanted, the perfect guitarist for an avant-garde band. There were also a series of attributes that were required: “Original, creative, adaptable, melodic, fast, slow, elegant, ingenious, scary, stable, complicated. Only quality musicians”. Manzanera heard about these guys, had heard one of the demo tracks and was completely intrigued.

He showed up at the audition with his 335 and a wicked cold, on hand was singer Bryan Ferry, the sound wizard Brian Eno, saxophonist Andy MacKay, drummer Paul Thompson and the original bassman of the band, Graham Simpson. They said to him “Let’s jamand they began to play a Carole King song with just 2 chords. Manzanera couldn't believe it, used to the intricate tempos of Quiet Sun, this was a breath of fresh air, here he had complete freedom to develop his creativity. The audition went well, but among the 20 or so candidates that were selected was David O‘List, from The Nice, and it was O’List who ended up with the part.   

Despite it all, he made a very good impression and they offered him a job as “roadie”, so with no other choice, he hopped aboard. That was how he began to fall in love with the band’s sound. Without them knowing, he learned their repertoire on guitar which he found easy when, one day, after several fights with other band members, O’List didn’t show for rehearsal. Manzanera stepped forward and the chemistry they had was evident from the get-go. It was February 3, 1972, one week later the band signed its first record contract and in less than a month they were cutting their first album.   

Roxy Music was an art/rock group whose image was fundamental. One of the first things they told him was to change his guitar, and get a white Stratocaster. He did, but he would also play the 335 on the band’s first record, that started a small revolution and was released the same day as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie. Glam became art and the sounds of the 50s were mixed with electronic experiments by Eno. In fact, most of the band’s instruments, Ferry’s keyboard, MacKay’s oboe and Manzanera’s guitar were played through Eno’s VCS3 synthesiser.

The result was a unique sound together with such irresistible songs as Re-Make/Re-Model, Ladytron and Virginia Plain, written by Ferry. The latter was what vaulted them to fame, charting in the British Top Ten, which led to an appearance on the well known Top Of The Pops. The song’s solo was totally improvised by Manzanera in the studio, based on his influences like the Velvet Underground.    

Manzanera by now was totally immersed in the band despite being the youngest, and not having gone to university or art school like all the rest. His image had been synthesised with the band’s glamourous presentation but was still missing ‘the icing on top’. After the 335 was stolen, an ad in Melody Maker gave him an idea. A 1964 red Gibson Firebird VII was for sale, he had no idea what it was, but was captivated by its shape and fell in love. He paid 150 quid and that instrument became the most important one of his career.

The Firebird could not have had a better debut. The band’s 2nd album For Your Pleasure was the best of their career. From the liveliest moments in Do the Strand and Editions of You, to the chilling stillness of In Every Dream Home a Heartache, to the strange Bogus Man, which could have appeared on a Can record, or Beauty Queen and Grey Lagoons where they had full rein in their special love for 50s music, For Your Pleasure confirmed that Roxy was the most original Glam band, who had more of their own personality, with each member contributing things like Eno’s futuristic synthesisers, Ferry’s way of modern ‘crooning’ and original Mackay solos on sax and Manzanera on guitar.

The latter had his own moment of glory with the incredible final solo in In Every Dream Home a Heartache, perhaps the best of his career. The instrument he used appears on the album’s inner cover, it was the Firebird, along with the rest of the band holding strange models like a Hagstrom Swede, or a Weissenborn slide.  

After the tour, Ferry and Eno, the two visible faces of the band, were at odds over the band’s direction, and Eno jumped ship. Despite everything, Manzanera remained friends with Eno and Ferry, but it was a tough situation, combining both. The month of September ‘73 was one of the busiest for Manzanera, working from 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Eno’s debut album, Here Come the Warm Jets, then taking the metro to the other side of London to cut his third record with Roxy, Stranded, without saying a single word to Ferry about his double life. But it was worth the trouble and helped him become a composer for both, writing Amazona for Roxy’s record, where he also shines on guitar, while with Eno, he wrote delights such as Needles in the Camel’s Eye and Cindy Tells Me.    

Eno’s exit meant the band’s drifting towards greater sophistication but did not diminish their popularity. Manzanera and MacKay started contributing more, the first was to co-write another of their great songs Prairie Rose, and the second did the same with Love Is the Drug. Even so, Ferry began combine his solo albums with the band and MacKay did the same. So in 1975 Manzanera started recording his first solo album, Diamond Head. Contributing to the record were mates like Eno, Robert Wyatt, John Wetton, his Roxy mates Paul Thompson and Andy MacKay, besides the MacCormick brothers, with whom he decided to cut a record like Quiet Sun called Mainstream. He then returned to Roxy, but the band broke up after the Siren tour in 1976.  

In that time Manzanera reunited with Eno and released the influential 801 Live, an album that was praised by names like Robert Fripp or Gilmour, besides he did put his second solo effort, K-Scope, with the song that gives its tittle being sampled in the future by Jay-Z and Kanye West on his successful joint album Watch The Throne. But the arrival of punk and New Wave made that Roxy Music was fashionable again so Ferry, Manzanera, Mackay and Thompson reformed the band. The best album of the new period was Avalon, where their sound became more sophisticated and grown up on classics like More Than This or Avalon.

Despite this success, they split again in 1983 and he began a closer relationship with Gilmour in 1987 by co-writing a song One Slip, for Pink Floyd’s album A Memory Lapse. In the 90s he played with Bob Dylan and produced for groups like Héroes del Silencio and Os Paralamas do Sucesso, making him one of the main producers in the Latino market.  

In 2001 Roxy returned for a world tour and Manzanera dusted off the Firebird, as well as various Les Pauls, which he also used on his tour with Gilmour in 2006. He produced his solo albums On An Island and Rattle That Lock, and Pink Floyd’s last record, The Endless River.   

It turns out that his mother didn’t have much to worry about, Phil Manzanera knew perfectly well how to take care of himself. We don’t know what Gilmour said to him one afternoon in ‘67, but Phil Manzanera not only became a professional musician but managed to be one of the chosen ones to leave his mark.