By the mid 1970’s, the term “supergroup” had become as clichéd as rock and roll itself. Usually made up of leftover musicians from popular and not so popular acts who had either imploded under the weight of commercial success (or lack thereof), or who felt that they just needed a change of scenery. One of the main problems with supergroups of course is that they typically came with super egos, which meant that most of them were relatively short lived (sometimes not a bad thing).
801 was formed in 1976 by guitarist Phil Manzanera (ex Roxy Music), with Brian Eno (also ex Roxy Music) and several other musicians of lesser known fame. Bill MacCormick had played bass with Manzanera in a previous outfit, known as Quiet Sun, while Francis Monkman (piano and clavinet on this album), Simon Phillips (drums) and Lloyd Watson (slide-guitar) are also highly acclaimed musicians in their own right (according to my research).
This line-up of the band performed only three shows, the final of which, fortunately, was professionally recorded and released as 801 Live, and is one of the last great psychedelic albums of the 70’s.
Side one launches off with the atmospheric “Lagrima”, a Manzanera composition which can be found on his excellent Diamond Head album. It segues into a spacey interpretation of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but you’d never guess, that is until Eno sings the first line. That’s how radical this version is. The original was purely a studio creation, so hats off to anyone who can recreate it live. And here they succeed with gold bullion to spare. “East of Asteroid” is an energetic exercise in prog-rock, where the drummer certainly earns his keep, likewise the rest of the group, but especially Manzanera, who plays like a stallion on heat.
“Rongwrong” is a song originally recorded by Quiet Sun, from Manzanera’s pre Roxy Music days, and it’s jolly nice, in a sort of Syd Barrett if he only had-his-head-together kind of way. In other words, it’s as English as Wind in the Willows, or the Magic Far Away Tree.
It’s fascinating to hear Eno’s “Sombre Reptiles”, from Another Green World, replicated in a live setting. It’s an odd creature to say the least, but it sure as hell beats disco.
“Baby’s On Fire”, beginning side two, is all vivacious pop nonsense, with Eno singing like some genius who’s been locked away in the madhouse for too long. The whole thing is pretty crazy, but you can’t help but groove along to it in any case.
And now we have the exquisite and high-ceilinged “Diamond Head”, where Manzanera unleashes his inner Pink Floyd, with the occasional nod to Hendrix thrown in for good measure. One of the best songs David Gilmour never wrote.
“Miss Shapiro” is also from Diamond Head, and is another excursion into the outer limits of eccentric pop-rock. And when you least expect it, they shift seamlessly into The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, a solid tribute to another great English band.
“Third Uncle”, the last track, is all prog-punk, a bit like the Sex Pistols meets Emerson, Lake & Palmer; not that such a coming together of minds would have ever been possible by the way (I can just see Keith Emerson telling Sid Vicious to stop spitting oysters at the audience).
The band 801 must surely go down in the record books as one of the shortest lived ‘supergroups’ of all time (three weeks’ rehearsal, three shows, one album, respectively). And with no radio play, and certainly no support tour, little wonder it never made much of a dent on the mainstream (shit, even I hadn’t heard of it until around a decade ago). In 1999 the album was reissued with two bonus tracks from the same show. Then in 2009 a ‘Collectors Edition’ was released featuring an extra disc of the band rehearsing from the previous month, but still no additional music from the all important performance itself. Suffice it to say, any fan of Eno (and Manzanera) will find much to enjoy here. I’d also recommend it to anyone who is an avid enthusiast of vintage progressive jazz-rock with a strong twist of psychedelia. In other words, essential.