People are going to realize how much he’s given the records. I really think Phil’s given an awful lot to both the Roxy albums that I’ve worked on.
Chris Thomas, Roxy Producer, 1974
Having our own studio, and the method of layering, having time to do it, not all going in and playing together, and using the desk as an instrument, with the evolving technology, meant that we started evolving a different kind of music.
For twelve days in September 1973, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera would complete his Stranded recording duties at AIR Studios, Oxford Street London, and take the twenty minute drive across town (over the Thames) to the cheapest 24-track studio in London at the time, Majestic Studios, 146 Clapham Street London, to assist with the guitar duties on Brian Eno‘s first solo album Here Come the Warm Jets. The temperature in London that September set records that would last for 43 years, so it is unsurprising that Manzanera‘s playing and writing that month produced the funky jungle-fever rhythms of ‘Amazona‘ and the heated guitar shimmer (and co-author credit) for Eno’s ‘Needles in the Camel’s Eye‘ and ‘Cindy Tells Me.’
Though Manzanera had recently contributed ‘Hula Kula‘ for the B-side of Roxy’s ‘Street Life’ (recorded at the Stranded sessions), ‘Kula’ was nevertheless an intentional throw-away, a singles-only offering for a series of “miniature pop experiments” with contributions coming from all members of the band (including, intriguingly, Paul Thompson. See Tony Barrel, ‘Train Reaction’). ‘Amazona‘ was another animal entirely and was a significant milestone in the band’s career: as Roxy re-established their working relationship after the loss of Brian Eno in July, the band agreed to a song-credit review and consideration process. To that end, ‘Amazona‘ marks the first co-credit with Bryan Ferry on any Roxy Music album to that point:
Buckley, pp 91/99.
Keeping within the lines of Ferry’s stated Roxy quality-control policy, ‘Amazona‘ does not detract from the sequencing or logic of the album. Indeed, Roxy fans had come to expect a variety of musical forms from the band they had first heard on Roxy Music (1972). The difference now was the production and the musicianship had improved, taking listeners into a richer studio ambience supported by the increasing experience and creativity of the band. Indeed, ‘Amazona’ is notable for its (intentionally) rich soundscape and crackles with Manzanera’s musical synthetic energy and resonance.
Stranded producer Chris Thomas agrees: “The way we did that was we recorded all the backing tracks, which was basically piano, bass and drums. And Phil would listen, take the tape home and work out his guitar part, and he would transform those tracks so much, it was totally amazing.”
“Transformation” is a key word in the Roxy lexicon, and the idea of transcendence and change is essential to the songs of Stranded. It must be said that during the past four years we have focused largely on the Bryan Ferry/Brian Eno axis of musical development and influence. Yet by the time of the Stranded recordings in the Fall of 1973, Roxy Music had become a collective of self-directed creative partners where Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson followed Brian Eno and established their own musical identifies outside of the group, branching out into television, film soundtracks, and session work – with Phil Manzanera in particular establishing a magnificent solo career as a producer, world music promoter and facilitator.
These are the threads that define the Roxy musical path in the 1970s as Phil Manzanara grows his personal musical identity while significantly contributing to the sound and purpose of Roxy Music (Chris Thomas: “People are going to realize how much he’s given the records”). At the same time the guitarist struck up a parallel and distinguished recording career, with highlights including Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy (with Eno); his first solo album Diamond Head (home of the divine ‘Miss Shapiro’), 801’s Listen Now, and K-Scope – all peerless and essential recordings. For our money, ‘Amazona‘ is where this expansion kicks off, and surprisingly, it is more experimental in tone and intent than the two co-credits Manzanera received for the simultaneously recorded Here Come the Warm Jets.
“From Arizona to Eldorado sure is a mighty long way”: the journey from Roxy’s AIR Studios to Eno’s Majestic Studios, early 70s. I wonder did Phil and the boys share cab fare?
And so, with four of five Roxy team members seeking refuge/insanity/a decent pint on Clapham Road, you’d be forgiven for thinking the intention was to enhance the weirdness factor with a cast of fellow musicians (16 of them, by Eno’s count). Brian Eno, after all, was regarded as the “Mad Mekon of the Moog” (Disc). Yet it’s hard to imagine a more peculiar set of songs than those presented on Roxy’s Stranded when you consider the drunk reggae funk of ‘Amazona‘ or the evangelical Stars on Sunday mysticism of ‘Psalm‘ (sung by a rock star in a white tux no less). ‘Psalm‘ runs for eight minutes and is delivered so straight that its selection on the album tips Roxy into neo-insanity territory almost single-handedly. And ‘Amazona‘ sounds like a Roxy song in search of a Roxy song – clutching at ideas until it becomes over-heated and irritable, finally achieving lift-off on Manzanera‘s guitar break like a Formula One race-car, all V8 and horsepower, higher RPM and shades of “but these go to 11.”
Writing in the New Musical Express, November 1973, Ian MacDonald observed, “”Amazona‘, Phil’s first composition for the group, brings a welcome transfusion of funk to Roxy, slammed home immaculately all the way by The Great Paul Thompson.” And how right he is: from the off we can hear this is a different kind of Roxy song by way of an exaggerated John Gustafson plump bass line and a string “pluck” (and response) at 0.4-6s that reminds us of an amateur reggae band tuning up (a bit stoned, it must be said). Formally a work of cod reggae (cod=”fibbing”/”lying”), the track comes hot on the heels of the hard-rock exhilaration of ‘Street Life‘ and the classic Romanticism of ‘Just Like You‘ (surely both as formally different as can exist in rock music), and stops you in its tracks with its humour and difference. ‘Amazona‘ is a fictional construct, slipping into multiple identities, punning on its many geographical locations – ‘Amazon’; ‘zone’; ‘Arizona’ – fictionalizing our expectation of the song as a place firmly situated in so-called reality (say, unlike the strong sense of place in ‘Song for Europe’).
In this regard the track is Son of ‘Do the Strand’ – a fictional trip to another (not so green) world. We catch singer Bryan Ferry having fun with his exaggerated pronunciation of “ama-ZONE-a”/”ZONE-where” and we notice the complete lack of pretense: in the world of Amazona, there is no classic Implied Bryan Ferry character – no Poet Prophets, no dances through history, no trench-coated Lonely Men wandering rain-soaked European streets. In fact the music sounds intentionally free of airs, almost clumsy: ‘Amazona’ is cod-reggae seeking shape, willing to play, unpretentious and in high spirits. Only Paul Thompson holds it together, which, at this stage of the Roxy Music story, should come as no surprise to our readers.
Interviewed in 2011, Phil Manzanera acknowledged that “Everybody expects something new and innovative from a new album” (Manzanera). And in this regard ‘Amazona‘ provides a platform for some singular Manzanera guitar skullduggery: The swampy treatments start around the .34-36 – if electric and water could co-exist, this is what it would sound like – and we move swiftly into the realm of the psychedelic, both sonically and thematically. Manzanera takes up the story of how he came to the treatment and effects:
Eno had just left and the opportunity arose for me contribute to some music for the first time. It turned out to be my first recorded track on an album and I was very proud of it. I had this riff and a bit in 7/8 time signature, which was very unusual for Roxy…I used a specially built guitar version of the VCS 3 synthesizer that Eno had been using and I only really got it to work once and the result is on this track. It created a rather underwater sound and I think it is rather unique. When I finished recording the guitar part I remember everyone cheering in the control room.
And with this experimentation we bear witness to a truism that Roxy die-hards already know: that Roxy Music do psychedelia really well (see: In Every Dream Home, A Heartache). And so, adopting the modus operandi of band recording in late 1967, Ferry invites Manzanera to mess with the texture and fabric of the song, as the narrator enters Alice in Wonderland territory, imploring his love interest to “Why don’t you step through the mirror and see?”:
Amazona is a zone where
There is no doubt
No more fall-out
Why don’t you step through the mirror and see?
From Arizona to Eldorado
Sure is a mighty long way
This is where music and theme are linked and the co-credit between Ferry and Manzanera is imminently justified: Manzanera flushes the sonic landscape with swampy, skeletal guitar ambience, and in doing so creates the musical space for Ferry’s darker lyrical portent:
Hey little girl is something wrong
I know it’s hard for you to get along
The bell-tower rings
It tolls a hollow sound
But your castles in Spain
Still maybe realized
And longings more profound
You see, every cloud has a silver lining
And sometimes paradise around your corner lies
In Amazona everything is nice
Little one, come take my hand
I’ll try to help you there
I’ll take you there
After he left Roxy, Eno proudly observed that the early version of the band “juxtapos[ed] things that didn’t naturally sit together” (Stump, 103). This is certainly true of Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, yet Stranded is also marked by incongruities and formal collisions – look at the striking differences in the (original) first side sequence of songs – ‘Street Life‘/’Just Like You‘/’Amazona‘/and ‘Psalm‘. Moreover, with ‘Amazona’ there is menace behind the amiable cod-reggae: “Hey little girl,” Ferry deadpans, “Is there something wrong?” – as Manzanera’s guitar answers with blasts of distortion and reverb. This kind of peril has its antecedents in previous Roxy tracks ‘Chance Meeting‘ and ‘The Bogus Man’ – two character extremes for Ferry, a man who can play bitterness, horror and grit as well as anyone British rock ever created.
For his part though, Ferry sounds a little confused on ‘Amazona’, as if not quite knowing what to make of it, or where he can (or should) fit in, careful, perhaps, not to step on any eggs for the sake of band harmony (and tight studio deadlines). And so he gives it his best shot, as his lyric and performance breaks into two distinct patterns: baritone dub verse and prophetic troubadour chorus (while Manzanera is like a kid in a candy-store throughout, a Tasmanian Devil swiping bon-bons and gorging on Mars bars). Naturally, the singer finds an angle and sticks to it, but it ain’t pretty –
I know it’s hard for you to get along
The bell-tower rings
It tolls a hollow sound
The menace is real as Bad Ferry gradually peels open the girl’s character (“I know it’s hard for you to get along”) and spooks her (and us) with intonations of death and emptiness (“The bell-tower rings/It tolls a hollow sound”). Yet what chance do you have when the bogus man asks you, “Little one, come take my hand/I’ll try to help you there/I’ll take you there”. This is the central riddle of ‘Amazona’ – is it sanctuary or trap? I’ll take you there, we are told – but where is “there”?
There’s a nice play on words here and a hint of some real band closeness as Ferry punningly and playfully references Manzanera’s South American background: the journey “from Arizona to Eldorado” can be seen on as a metaphor for a hard physical cross-country American trek for any aspiring rock band. But the same trek from Arizona (“Amazona”) to El Dorado (‘Gilded Man’ or ‘Golden One’) is also a reference to the mythical tale of legendary kings, the Muisca (or Chibcha) people, an indigenous group of Colombians who belonged to the lost golden city of El Dorado, where Conquistadors “heard these incredible tales of a city paved in gold they tried every means possible to find it” (ancient.eu).
Phil Manzanara, of course, is well known for his South American/Columbian associations, a man proud of his cultural heritage and musical background, as his website attests: “Manzanera, born to a British father and Colombian mother, has always taken a global approach to his music making, collaborating with musicians from South and Latin America, South Africa, Cuba and continental Europe” (manzanera.com). Knowing that his co-composer spent most of his childhood in different parts of the Americas, including Colombia and Cuba (Wiki), ‘Amazona’ becomes both a launching pad and a tip-of-the hat to Manzanera, as Ferry inducts his co-composer’s cultural backdrop into the song while identifying – with typical Ferry maladjustment – the hubris and vanity behind any search for lost gold.
In this regard the reference to “Castles in Spain” in the song is telling, for Ferry continues on Stranded to rely heavily on literary allusion – and sun, gold, and pearl precious object transformations – extending his For Whom the Bell Tolls reference (Hemingway), to the Geoffrey Chaucer-era (1350) poem The Romaunt of the Rose:
Thou shalt make castles than in Spaine,
And dreame of joy, all but in vaine,
And thee delighten of right nought,
While thou so slumbrest in that thought,
That is so sweete and delitable,
For which in sooth n’is but a fable.
“The phrase to build castles in the air, or in Spain, means to form unattainable projects” (Word Histories). In short, your dream of joy will be in vain; your desires are little more than a fable, a fictional story. Amazona then is a tall tale, a “fable”, a myth. A “zone-where” of illusion and mirrors containing what Simon Puxley liked to call the “effable” and the “indefinable” (Do The Strand Explained). Ferry again adopts the role of the Siren on a Roxy Music track (“Little one, come take my hand”), seducing his audience and young traveller with enchanting music and song (“In Amazona everything is nice”), moving closer to those dangerous cliffs and ragged shores that will leave the girl and his audience beach-wrecked and vulnerable. We listen to the music and recall for the moment the cover of Stranded – the woman, the heat, the “longings more profound,” the swampy Manzanera soundscape, the impracticality..
‘Amazona‘ was very well-accepted by reviewers and critics of Stranded, some citing the cut as their favourite on the album: Roxy observer Paul Stump raved that “Amazona [is] one of the band’s most outstanding tracks” and a “first class” collaboration between Manzanera and Ferry. (Stump). “Blazing, thrilling” noted Barney Hoskyns; “entrancing” said Ken Barnes in Phonograph Record. For critic Simon Firth, ‘Amazona’ was a choice example of giving the band gravitas – or, as he like to put it – “unfakeble guts.” The track certainly stands out, but is that the same thing as saying that ‘Amazona’ is a Stranded stand-out?
so help me, so many questions? & are the answers naked to the eye – or ear? or are they undercover?
Simon Puxley, Roxy Music inner sleeve notes (1972)
I’ll try to help you there
I’ll take you there
Credits: Palm trees alight, California Fires 2020; multi-Manzanera I (1973 w Roxy live); AIR and Majestic Studios (Majestic courtesy “Collage pictures”). Yeh, the Sex Pistols recorded there too (and with Chris Thomas no less); screen captures with Manzanera recording with Eno during Warm Jets sessions (from, Eno, 1973 – trying to find the copyright as this was a by-chance encounter on youtube since taken down); A Muisca tunjo or votive offering, 1200-1600 CE, picture by Ignacio Perez; multi-Manzanera II (1973, inner sleeve Stranded).
Next: Celebrate the holiday season with ‘Pslam’!