Sunday Conversation: Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera On The Band’s Fiftieth Anniversary Reunion Tour, Bowie And More – Forbes

LONDON: Roxy Music posed in London in 1972. L-R Paul Thompson, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, Phil … [+] Manzanera, Brian Eno (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
Iconic British band Roxy Music haven’t toured the States in 20 years. But the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame group will return to North America September 7 in Toronto for a 10-date tour that wraps September 28 in Los Angeles. They will be joined by opening act St. Vincent.
Lead singer Bryan Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy MacKay and drummer Paul Thompson are reuniting for the first time in a decade to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the band’s 1972 debut album.
As Manzaera explained when I spoke to him over Zoom recently, for the four members reuniting on occasion is a natural joy. “We can get together and do a tour because playing the Roxy songs is so refreshing,” he says.
With the distances the band members take between each reunion tour, he is able to step away from songs like “Love Is The Drug,” “Avalon” and “More Than This” and look at them with a fresh perspective and understand why these songs continue to resonate with fans decades later.
I spoke with Manzanera about the reunion, why his appreciation for Ferry’s songwriting has grown over the years, his love of the Beatles and hosting his own podcast.
Steve Baltin: I want to ask you about the podcast. Is it focused specifically on the John Martyn album? Or does it vary depending on albums?
Phil Manzanera: The podcast is called Not on The List, where two or three people talk about albums that they think are great that people don’t really know about. And you have to talk about why you’re enthusiastic about a particular album. I’m doing it with a guy’s who famous here as a comedian. So it’s gonna be a lot of fun [laughter].
Baltin: I think one of the great things as a music fan is being able to champion those albums you find underrated. As a music geek, what are your two or three albums that for you are not on the list?
Manzanera: Well, that’s one. John Martyn, One World. Such a long time ago. There’s just so many I love, Spirit album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. I love Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. But are they on the list or not? It depends who you’re talking to.
Baltin: The list changes over time too. I became obsessed with Nick Drake.
Manzanera: Well, I was gonna say Nick Drake, yeah.
Baltin: At the time no one knew who Nick Drake was and now every music head is a fan. So the list changes over time. And we’re talking this morning about the fiftieth anniversary of Roxy Music and maybe in 1972 Roxy Music wasn’t on the list and over time that changes so much. Years ago I got to talk with Neil Diamond about the number 50 and what that meant. There aren’t that many people who get to reach that number. What did it mean to you?
Manzanera: To be honest, didn’t even think about it [laughter]. Because all the guys in Roxy, they’re just obsessed with doing music, and they’re on sort of in their own lanes, if you like. Whether it’s Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, myself, Andy MacKay, we’re all doing lots of different musical projects and we have since 1973 and that’s probably why we can get together and do a tour because playing the Roxy songs is so refreshing. If we don’t play them, who’s gonna play them, kind of thing. Yeah, but we’re engrossed in so many other projects. I guess, in some ways we’re all a bit similar, we’re a bunch of individuals who came together and have a sort of band, but at the same time, love to work with lots of other different people and it keeps you energized. It keeps you young, it keeps your brain going and it’s fun. You get to meet new people, and really that’s why I got into a band for the social side to meet new people and travel the world. When you’re 20, 21, it’s like, join the Navy or join a rock and roll band.
Baltin: There aren’t that many bands who’ve achieved the level of success that Roxy did that are able to be comfortable enough to walk away from it and come back to it. You guys don’t live in the past so when you do it, it’s something that’s enjoyable.
Manzanera: Yeah, once we agreed to do this tour I Googled when was the last time we played in America on tour with Roxy? And it was pretty much 20 years ago. I could not believe it. Obviously Bryan must have come and done solo tours. I was out on tour with David Gilmore quite often, but as Roxy we had no American tour since 2003, I think. It’s almost 20 years and as a tour in the rest of the world, we haven’t toured for 10 years. So obviously we came to New York to do the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But we played a little medley that lasted about 15 minutes, rather than talking too much. And that was sort of fun and we thought, “Whoa, we can do it ’cause the songs are there.”
Baltin: All of you can bring new meanings and experiences to these songs. So are there ones that you’re particularly excited to revisit on this tour?
Manzanera: Well, when I analyzed it, I thought, “Hang on, there’s eight albums, there’s 80 songs. You can’t play 80 songs. Okay. So how many songs could you play in the given time before people lose the will to live? Maybe 16, 17 songs.” So I think we whittled it down to like 30 songs and we’re practicing 30 songs and then that way we can see which ones sound good playing live. We’re going back to the original multi-tracks and working out exactly what we played without any jamming and stuff like that and see what it sounds like. And then maybe swap out certain songs, but obviously there will be stuff that we know people will want to hear. Hits or the more well-known songs, but other songs from the albums that haven’t had an airing, or haven’t had an airing ever. Maybe we’ll try some of those. You try them out and when you’re playing live, there is an element of danger, of jeopardy. Everything could go wrong, could be a complete disaster, but it could be fantastic. So that’s the great thing about live, that differentiates it from just going to Spotify or looking on YouTube. It could go drastically wrong. And so there’s a bit of tension in the air and you’ve gotta perform and it’s audio visual. You’re there in the moment and there’s something special about that. And so, that’s exciting to be there. And a lot of actors and actresses talk about theater and doing films and the difference. It’ll be what it is when we get there but the basic tenant of what we always wanted to do was to do interesting music and present it in an attractive fashion.
Baltin: One of my favorite uses of music in a movie ever “If There Is Something” in Flashbacks of a Fool with Daniel Craig. That’s a little known movie, but for some reason that scene just resonated so deeply with people. And again it’s in part because the music has both so many memories but feels fresh. So are you able to look at it now and see why it is that it still feels so vibrant? And does it still feel that vibrant to you?
Manzanera: It does. And I am always surprised that it does sound like it could have been recorded last week. And I know why, because most of the time, we considered ourselves inspired amateurs. We wanted to be professional. It appeared to come out of nowhere. Even Bowie thought, “Where the hell did these guys come from? I’ve been doing four albums and on the same day I released Ziggy Stardust, they bloody released their album.” He’s a sweetheart and loved us and we loved him. But it is like these bunch of people with their simple parts, all playing together, added up to something and we were playing together on analog, there was no computer so we had to actually just do it then and there and create sounds and weirdness out of anything that was there in a way. If you wanted a weird sound of the piano, we used to stick some screws in the piano without the studio manager noticing you buggering up his piano. Or put tape all over the capstone of the main tape recorder, and God forbid they caught you doing that. Or get a broom handle and take the tape to the exit door and create a long echo. These kind of things which grew up, grew out of Abbey Road, if you like, and the Beatles experimenting and stuff. This kind of legacy is what informed us when we were recording. And luckily we had a great producer, Chris Thomas, who had worked with George Martin and worked with the Beatles. So we had that sort of knowledge passed on to us of production and how to make records and play parts and records. And yeah, we created a musical world for a guy who was good looking but had a weird voice to inhabit. And it became different and it still sounds quite different. And that’s why actually it’s very difficult to cover a Roxy song, especially the early period.
Baltin: I didn’t realize that yesterday was the 50-year anniversary of the first album. Were you able to commemorate it in some way? I imagine when you think about where that started versus where that is today, it’s kind of mind blowing.
Manzanera: Yeah, I don’t think about it at all. In fact, the only reason I really know about it was ’cause I was doing an interview, and someone said, “You know what today is?” I thought, “Oh s**t, they’re gonna catch me out here.” And then some lightning bolt hit me. I said, “Is it the actual day of release?” Yes. And of course I had discovered only last year that The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust was also on the same day. [laughter] That’s ridiculous…
Baltin: That was a pretty good day for music. Do you remember where you were the day it came out?
Manzanera: I do remember cruising down the Kings Road, which was a really trendy place and they had a record shop and in the window there were copies of the first album cover. And just to make a record, just to get a record out, I remember we had no singles out for this one, but just to see it in a record shop I’ve been dreaming about that since I was about nine, to get into a band and to make a record. And that would’ve been enough for me. That would’ve been enough. So, wow. [laughter]
Baltin: You say it would’ve been enough. When you think back to looking at that record on Kings Road, never in your wildest dreams could you have imagined that 50 years later there would be an audience that would want to see you headline arenas?
Manzanera: Let’s face it, the whole evolution of rock and roll music is hasn’t stepped to the rules that what when we started. Even the Beatles, I remember when they asked Ringo, “What are you gonna be doing in a year’s time?” He said, “I’ll probably open a hairdressers shop in Liverpool or something” [laughter]. And that was it. People thought this might last one year or two years. “Hey, we’re just gonna have great fun.” And there was nothing about a career or anything like that. It wasn’t about that. It was just getting to the first stage.
Baltin: If you make it five years in a band without killing each other, you deserve a Nobel Peace prize. So the fact that you guys 50 years on are still wanting to tour together, maybe they should send you to solve the UN crisis.
Manzanera: Yeah, if I reflect on it, there’s two ways looking at it. One is that you’re some sort of dysfunctional family.And I know sometimes you’ve got a brother and you don’t see him for like 20 years and you think, “Oh, why am I not seeing him? I must have fallen out. I can’t remember why. Let me ring him up.” It could be something like that. Or it could be this idea you’ve got a garage and in the garage, there’s this beautiful Bentley or Rolls Royce Coupe. And it’s got a cover on it and you go and look at it every now and again. And then you look outside and you see a beautiful sunny day and you think I’ll take the cover off and go for a spin in it. And you go for a spin and say, “That was really great, but it’s a bit dodgy inside and it’s a bit clunky, but it looks beautiful. Okay. I’ve had my day, I’ll put it back in the garage, put the cover on and I’ll get in my normal Suzuki or something like that.” And Roxy is sort of a bit like that, that gives me comfort to think about it like that. It’s this beautiful thing that’s there and every now and again you can take it out for a spin.
Baltin: I talk to so many musicians who say that as they get older, they feel like they’re better musicians because they have more experience. So do you find that as you guys have gotten together, there’s an excitement as well because you’re not just living in the past, you all bring something new to the table? And I know you’ve worked with Tim Finn. So you take the experience of working with Tim. Bryan takes the experience of covering Bob Dylan. You guys all are able to bring this stuff in. So do you find that when you do get together, it’s exciting and fresh because you all have new skills?
Manzanera: Yeah, definitely. Working in particular with Tim Finn, which I’ve done a lot over the last two years — we’ve got a new album coming out at the end of July, a second album. So I haven’t really worked with a singer like Bryan. David Gilmore is a fantastic singer, but he is also a fantastic guitarist. It’s slightly different. Tim is like a proper singer/songwriter so when we’re doing an album together, he’s a kind of person who might say, “Perhaps Phil, you could just change something very slightly. Or maybe you need to redo that again.” And I’ll take it from him because I really respect him. And so my appreciation of what singers need is enhanced by working with someone like Tim. When I come back to working with Bryan, I’m much more open and sympathetic to what I’ve got to do on stage to serve the song. I’m continually learning. And that’s like a deep part of craftsmanship that takes many years and working with lots of different people to appreciate that kind of nuance.
Baltin: How invigorating is it to know that you’re playing stuff like “Love Is The Drug” and songs that are 50 years old, but you’re bringing new experience to them? So even though you guys aren’t touring with new material, in some ways, these songs like “Avalon” become new.
Manzanera: Yeah, also I guess I really appreciate the lyrics a lot more now than I did at the time. At the time the songs were new and they came and went, but they’ve sort of matured like a vintage wine or something. “More Than This” is one, and “Avalon” as well. With you growing as a person, you see more things in the actual lyrical side of the songs that maybe you didn’t. Maybe before I was concentrating on the musical side and the musical context more than focusing in on the words. But listening through to these songs now, going over the whole period of the eight albums, and having tried to write lots of songs myself and done three albums worth with my own lyrics and things, I can appreciate how good a lyricist Bryan is.And with Tim the same, the craftsmanship in their words. Lots of people can in theory write songs, write lyrics but certain people have got it. And they’re almost like poets, and there’s special craft in writing lyrics apart from poetry and stuff. But obviously the ultimate person there is Bob Dylan and then occurring people like that.
Baltin: When you go back and look at some of these songs and Bryan’s lyrics, are you surprised at how relevant they are?
Manzanera: Absolutely. And Roxy and Bryan particularly went to certain areas in his lyrics that I can see now, which have a timeless quality. For instance, the song about the inflatable doll, “In Every Dream Home, A Heartache.” Wow, just that line is so grown up, if you’d like. And when he wrote it, he was probably 26 or 27. But when you drill down on certain lyrics, they really have a long-term appeal. And I think that’s the sign of good lyrics and good songwriting.
Baltin: What are some of those songs for you from other people that you are able to appreciate in that same way?
Manzanera: Well, I was a complete Beatles fan. I just bought into the Beatles, everything about them. And when you get to Revolver and you start hearing songs that aren’t just about boy meets girl and “Drive My Car” and brought out “Ticket To Ride.” And you get songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and then you realize, listening to it back now that there is a lot of autobiographical stuff that John Lennon stuck in there that I had no idea about. Now I realize it related to him growing up at art school and feeling special or a different kind of thought process, which the other Beatles recognized at the time that he was something special, something different or weird and all that. But I had no idea and I didn’t really know about where strawberry fields were, and that it was a place in Liverpool or a woods behind a foster children’s home or something. There’s tons of instances of things like that. But obviously when you drill down on Dylan, for instance, that he can then write a simple love song like, “Make You Feel My Love,” which is just so emotional, but simple. And it’s not like, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or all the other songs that have massively long complex metaphors and allusions. I can appreciate that just as much as a complex song.

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