Indispensable Feature Story: Phil Manzanera

by Kristine England

Roxy Music is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of its eponymous debut album with a celebratory tour that commenced this week in Toronto. Call them glam or art rock, Roxy Music sounds like no other band. While debonair frontman Bryan Ferry and electronics wizard Brian Eno have claimed most of the limelight since the group’s inception, guitarist Phil Manzanera is perhaps most responsible for the group’s signature sound (often using his “signature” 1964 'Cardinal Red' Gibson Firebird VII). His soaring solos are among the most exciting ever committed to tape, but his name does not appear in the “who’s the best guitarist” polls that litter social media. His work as a musician, producer, and collaborator with some of the most influential creators in music has left an indelible mark, whether you know his name or not.


Phillip Geoffrey Targett-Adams was born in London in 1951 (he adopted his Colombian mother’s maiden name as his professional moniker) and spent much of his youth away from his native country. His father’s work for a British-owned airline took the family frequently to the Americas where he was exposed to an eclectic array of musical traditions. He picked up his mother’s Spanish guitar at age six while the family was living in Cuba, learning the country’s folksongs. Later, in Venezuela, he acquired an electric guitar. The young musician was enthralled by not only the rock music of the 60s but also traditional Latin forms like cumbia, merengue, and the bolero.

Returning to England in his late teens, he started a few groups with friends at Dulwich College, members of which he would go on to collaborate with in the future. One of these became the prog rock outfit Quiet Sun. During these years, he met Robert Wyatt of the Soft Machine and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Their paths would cross again, but the next chapter in his life was about to begin, the result of answering the call for a guitarist by a band called Roxy Music.


Bryan Ferry founded the group with bass guitarist Graham Simpson (the first of many bassists the group would have over the years), with Andy Mackay joining next on saxophone and oboe. It was he who brought Brian Eno into the fold. Then drummer Paul Thompson came on board. All the group needed was a guitarist. An ad was placed in Melody Maker, and quite a few players auditioned.  Phil Manzanera wasn’t the first choice and started with the band as a roadie. David O’List from The Nice was the original guitarist, but he didn’t last long, perhaps foreshadowing the ongoing personnel changes to come. With O’List’s departure, Manzanera finally found his way into the role that he has now played for 50 years.


Roxy Music was released in September 1972 on Island Records and was an immediate success. The first single, “Virginia Plain,” climbed to the fourth spot on the charts, and the band made an impression on “Top of the Pops” that wedded them to the glam rock movement that was trending hard at the time.


The follow-up, For Your Pleasure, was released in 1973 which heralded the beginning of the group’s long collaboration with Chris Thomas. Bass players came and went (including John Wetton), however, soon to be followed by Brian Eno. Two strong personalities in one group is a challenge many bands have contended with other the years. It didn’t work for Roxy Music. Yet Eno’s departure gave Manzanero another creative outlet as the two would collaborate together on the former’s debut album, Here Come the Warm Jets, and subsequent releases, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Before and After Science.

"In Every Dream Home a Heartache"

Amidst these projects, the two also formed 801 in 1976. Consisting of Manzanera on guitars and Eno on guitar, keys, synths, vocals, and tapes, the group also featured Simon Ainley for a time (a member of one of Manzanera’s college bands), Bill MacCormick (ex-Quiet Sun), Francis Monkman (Curved Air), Lloyd Watson, and Simon Phillips. Eno also provided inspiration for the name, taken from the song "The True Wheel" from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). The group recorded 801 Live at Queen Elizabeth Hall, with songs culled from previous releases and covers of “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks and the Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows." 801 released its sole studio album, Listen Now, the following year (with the departure of Watson and the addition of Tim Finn of Split Enz).


Manzanera also found time to record and release his first solo album in 1975, Diamond Head, which featured Eno and all of the then-current members of Roxy Music (Mackay, Thompson, and violinist Edde Jobson), sans Ferry. John Wetton, who was busy with King Crimson at the time, contributed bass guitar. Manzanera would go on to record 14 more solo albums with continued collaborations with Mackay and Wetton over the years.


As a producer, his career is just as notable. Initially working with ex-Velvet Underground artist John Cale on the seminal 1975 release, Fear, he went on to work with a multitude of artists. The artists he produced are impressively diverse, among them “the Godmother of Punk,” German singer Nina Hagen, Split Enz, Spanish pop singer Antonio Vega, Brazilian rock band, Os Paralamas do Sucesso, Argentine pianist/songwriter Fito Páez, and many others. He was also enlisted to work with his old pal David Gilmour on the latter’s solo albums On an Island and  Rattle That Lock while also producing Pink Floyd’s The Endless River, said by Gilmour to be the final Floyd album.


It’s an extraordinary career. And now he’s back on the road with the band that brought him to prominence for the first time in over a decade, an experience which he describes as “this beautiful thing that's there and every now and again you can take it out for a spin.” (Forbes) Indeed.