After leaving Roxy Music and its tour-record-tour-record cycle, Brian Eno became a studio recording artist, creating multilayered masterworks of progressive pop, proto-punk, and ambient environments, often on the same album. As a fan, however, you had zero chance of seeing Eno play any of this live. That is, except for one brief moment in 1976 that just happens to be one of the best live albums of the glam/prog era: 801 Live. It’s pure lightning in a bottle, and for a taster may we direct your ears to the opening number, a grooving, funky, spacey cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (written as T.N.K. on the track list).
Here’s the thing, this wasn’t even Eno’s band. This was instead the band of fellow Roxy Music member Phil Manzanera, who formed an ad-hoc supergroup of friends to play three gigs in England. With Roxy Music temporarily on hiatus, Manzanera brought in Bill MacCormick, from his other side group Quiet Sun, on bass; Francis Monkman from Curved Air on keyboards; popular session drummer Simon Philips; and guitarist Lloyd Watson, who Eno fans will know from his whacked-out slide on “Some of them Are Old” from his first album. Eno provides the majority of everything else, listed in the credits as “keyboards, synthesizers, guitar, vocals and tapes.”
It’s the vocals that are key, though, and his warm tones are perfect for this re-arranged Beatles classic. They also elevate the album throughout from “decent live gig” to essential listening. His version of Quiet Sun’s angular “Rongwrong” is smooth and wistful, turning a jokey tune into…well, into an Eno song.
The band only rehearsed three weeks before the three-city tour started, beginning in Norfolk, then playing the Reading Festival, and finally ending in London at Queen Elizabeth Hall, where the show was recorded. For a set-list consisting of Eno songs, Manzanera songs, space jams, two 1960s covers (the other being the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”) and played by a band that hadn’t really met a month before, it’s a rock-solid album. It also sounds fantastic, almost like a “live in the studio” recording save for the applause in-between numbers.
Eno has rarely played live since then, and when he has it’s been his ambient music, most recently at a one-night-only concert with his brother at the Acropolis in Greece. But to hear the velvety glam-god rocking out? It’s just 801 Live, my friends, and that’s all you really need.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.