Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Phil Manzanera - Diamond Head

This is one of those records that has been with me in one form or another since its release in 1975. My first copy of this was on pre-recorded cassette, then came the LP, both of which I wore out.

When my disposable income allowed me to indulge in record collecting in a big way, I tracked down a pristine vinyl copy, the sound of which is simply gorgeous, better than the first CD version from the turn of the century. The last CD remaster that came out on Expression Records in 2011 however has done the sound the justice it deserves.

That this seamless beauty was recorded and mixed in a 26-day gap in Roxy Music's schedule at the tail end of 1975 through the beginning of 1976 before beginning a North American tour is quite astonishing, especially in an era when the rock heavyweights took a week to lay down a two note guitar fill, maan. Even more remarkable is that within this time frame he also recorded an album with his pre-Roxy Band Quiet Sun, unbeknownst to his record label! More on that later.

Manzanera penned all the music, and called in the kind of supporting cast most could only dream of; Robert Wyatt, Eno, John Wetton and Bill MacCormick contribute lyrics and vocals to five of the nine songs here. Manzanera's ex-Roxy colleague gets two, MacCormick, Wyatt and Wetton one apiece. The other four tracks of the original album are instrumentals where a marked Canterbury style gets shown how to flamenco by Phil's spicy electric Iberian guitar stylings, via South and Latin America, a result of his widely travelled upbringing. Joining Phil we have, amongst others, Wetton's bass, Roxy colleagues, all of Quiet Sun, and on bonus track Carhumba a trio of Nigerian musicians and South African trumpet legend Mongezi Feza star on an early foray into what would become known as world music. Oh, and not forgetting one Ian McDonald on bagpipes on East Of Echo.

I make no excuses for this review going down the dreaded "track-by-track" route, as a classic album like this deserves no less. And so, to the backing of a tune coming straight down a dusty track from a high sierra somewhere in an alternate universe, lacking only imagined castanets clicking away, Robert Wyatt gets to wrap his ever distinctive tonsils around a Spanish tale of derring-do and subterfuge from the Frontera. This is followed by the contemplative instrumental title track that unfolds like a waking flower in the desert, reaching full bloom under the sympathetic cultivation of Eddie Jobson's multi-tracked strings. Phil contributes a marvellous understated guitar solo, one of the few on the album.

Unusually for a solo album, the main man's instrument is largely used in an impressionistic manner, leaving the strength of the songwriting and arrangements to do the work. This highlights the lack of ego and pretence at large, something most solo albums of the era suffered greatly from.

Big Day, the first Eno song, sees the protagonist longing for home, in this case Peru, and for once Eno keeps it relatively literal, to an accompanying simple descending chord sequence. It is of course, quite sublime. "Oo-poo-Peru", indeed! The Flex is a dirty funk workout, starring Jobson's Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet and Andy McKay's sax, topped off with a dirty funk-fuzz guitar break from Phil.

Next up is Same Time Next Week, where John Wetton and Doreen Chanter duet on John's laissez-faire hymn to liberated 70s sexual mores, something of a follow up to the devil-may-care attitudes expressed in his lyric to Easy Money, penned only a couple of years before this. The music is a skittering jazz sand lizard chasing the tail of the much heavier Crim tune, topped off with a nice'n'sleazy guitar break from Mr M.

This is followed by the sublime Miss Shapiro, an immediately obvious Eno vocal and lyric. This and Big Day match anything on the "vocal" four of Eno's first five solo albums, before he stopped writing and singing those odd and oblique words, and ran with the ambient themes first expressed on Discreet Music, the odd one out of those first five, all much to our loss.

A typically surreal example of Eno word association, Miss Shapiro is one of those seemingly effortless left-field pop lyrics that he was so good at, and includes a doo-wop pastiche in the chorus that I swear goes "Chop suey, chop chop suey". If it doesn't, it should! Hidden away in the song there is even a reference to the world's longest running soap opera, BBC Radio 4's The Archers. Marvellous! Manzanera's handclap festooned tune to this is suitably throwaway, but timeless all the same. A veritable pop classic.

Lurking around in the studio were the rest of Quiet Sun, waiting to start the nightshift, so why not use them all together for once? This our hero does and adds Wetton's bass, Thompson's drums, Ian MacDonald's bagpipes and Eno's guitar treatments to the instrumental highlight of the album, the wonderful East Of Echo. A space rock opera from The Latino Space Agency, Cuban heels click to Phil's spidery guitar and Wetton's unusually funky bass as we head off into the cosmic dust to be greeted at the apex of our orbit by MacDonald's bagpipes fed through a synth patch, shards of otherworldly echoing guitar leading into the fade-in of Lagrima.

After the full-on epic treatments of its predecessor, Lagrima is a simple flamenco introduction on Phil's Spanish guitar, accompanied only by Andy McKay's oboe. In this dream home the heartache is over, the weary soul has accepted its fate. Without warning the initially upfront Alma crashes in, soon to establish its melancholy urban dislocation with Bill MacCormick's lyric and Phil's wistful tune. The redemptive and defiant outro ups the ante and rides out on another rare spotlight-grabbing moment from Phil; bloody glorious it is, too.

After Alma I usually stop the CD, as this is the proper end to the album. The bonus tracks are interesting, nothing more. Carhumba features some stellar guitar from Phil and great trumpet playing from Mongezi Feza, while Corazon Y Alma is a low-fi demo of snatches of tunes that would end up on Diamond Head, recorded by Quiet Sun as far back as 1971. This goes a little way to explain how Manzanera managed to record this album in such a short space of time and seemingly with little rehearsal, as it appears these are old tunes that Phil already had at least partly worked out in his head.

Diamond Head was Phil Manzanera's first solo album and it is the sound of a musician riding the crest of a wave of unfettered imagination. In my opinion it remains his best work outside of Roxy Music. Diamond Head is a joyous affirmation, and even all these years later it still sounds as fresh as a daisy. That's the wonder of the tundra!


1. Frontera (4:02)
2. Diamond Head (4:30)
3. Big Day (3:44)
4. The Flex (3:32)
5. Same Time Next Week (4:45)
6. Miss Shapiro (6:29)
7. East Of Echo (5:45)
8. Lagrima (2:35)
9. Alma (6:48)

Bonus tracks
10. Carhumba (4:48)
11. Corazon Y Alma (10:24)

Total running time - 57:35

Line up:
Phil Manzanera - guitars, keyboards, bass, fuzz bass, string synthesizer,
Robert Wyatt - lead vocals, timbals, cabasa, backing vocals
Brian Eno - backing vocals, guitar treatment, rhythm guitar, piano
John Wetton - bass, lead vocals, mellotron
Brian Turrington -bass
Paul Thompson - drums
Eddie Jobson - strings, fender piano, electric clavinet, synthesizer
Andy MacKay - soprano sax, alto sax, oboe
Bill MacCormick - fuzz bass themes, vocals
Charles Hayward - percussion
Dave Jarrett - keyboards
Ian McDonald - bagpipes
Sonny Akpan - congas
Doreen Chanter - lead vocals
Chyke Hainu - drums
Danny Heibs - bass
Mongezi Feza - trumpet 

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