Phil Manzanera / 801: Victoria Palace, London

THERE IS something to be said for the notion that Phil Manzanera’s music, as such, doesn’t exist. Listening to it is like watching a chameleon that can’t remember its true colour – it asserts no identity of its own other than a basic shape. That shape is probably the line-up and the band’s cold musicianship. Beyond that, 801 change style deftly to suit each song, and the songs themselves come in assorted and generally unconnected sizes. Initially this was a qualitative advantage, but by the end it became an annoying drawback.

When they begin, with a slow burn into a slack rendering of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, it is obvious that they are a controlled unit. Manzanera and Simon Ainley’s guitars lock in shrill interplay, Paul Thompson’s drums pin down hard and Lol Creme and Kevin Godley stand at the back adding distinctive backing vocals, sheet music and beer. This impression remains for the next three songs, but even now the confusion begins.

They play ‘Flight 19’ straight, a wry modern pop song of the type 10 cc once excelled at. ‘Listen Now’ follows with a disco emphasis pointing the similarity to Stevie Winwood’s recent single, and ‘Law And Order’ is mechanic enough to draw comparison with latter-day Bowie.

The front line of Manzanera, Ainley and bassist Bill MacCormick is like a tableau; dressed in motionless identical white; all they do is play. The only visual dynamic is the simple but well-geared light show. This comes in to play about the same time as the band undergo the major metamorphosis of the evening. With the second side of Listen Now, ‘City Of Light’ through to ‘That Falling Feeling’, 801 change from streamlined rock to a convincing mixture of Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.

But it wasn’t all like that, and after the ‘Falling Feeling’ set of songs it became noticeably more nebulous. Running from the jet-age (‘Miss Shapiro’) to brat simplicity (‘Remote Control’ — not The Clash, more like The Motors), taking in a leaden version of ‘You Really Got Me’ and, the surprise of the evening, Roxy Music’s ‘Out Of The Blue’.

In spite of all this, I actually like most of the music 801 played. What I didn’t like was the stiffness with which they played it and the confusion of styles.

© Paul RambaliNew Musical Express, 29 October 1977

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