INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Creem JUNE 1976 - by Kathy Miller
ROXY MUSIC: LAISSEZ FAIRE OR EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF?
Things ain't what they used to be, if they ever were. But in rock 'n' roll, it has become increasingly apparent in the '70s that where once was Something now loom trackless voids. Take, for basics, the whole idea of the rock band - groups in the '60s from The Stones to The Monkees were characterized by a one-for-all-and-all-for-one camaraderie, mates making a stand together, living and dying in allegiance both to the music and their own group chemistry.
Needless to say, things have changed just a bit since then.
The archetypal '70s band views the making of rock as a corporate venture, with musical commitment and fraternal loyalty so far behind the hunger for superstardom and money as to seem almost corny. There is a curious new brand of caveat emptor implicit in the very raising of professional standards: dedication and expertise are taken for granted, resulting in a curious dispassion. Even the rococco is cut and dried. The ambiguities and tensions that have always made rock vital dissipate in surrender to the perfect Product.
Roxy music is more than just a case in point. The first band to live the credo that "style is content" to the nth degree, synthesizing all the proper elements of fashion, art, Hollywood, pop, romance, the avant-garde within a rock framework. The very contrivance, artificiality, of fusing such diverse stimuli was Roxy Music's charm, echoing Susan Sontag's On Style: "All works of art are founded on a certain distance from lived reality which is represented... The work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation... It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work.. In the final analysis, 'style' is art. And art is nothing more or less than various modes of stylized dehumanized representation."
Bryan Ferry, the Face, the romantic fatalist benumbed by urbanity and class consciousness, has at times overshadowed the rest of Roxy Music. He may have more than most of the brains, calling the philosophical shots, but the real muscle of Roxy Music lies in the band. Specifically, guitarist Phil Manzanera and reedist Andy Mackay. Ferry is the titular head of the company, and when Roxy breaks up, if ever, it will liquidate, dissolve, like a corporation. Rock groupdom: last outpost of laissez faire capitalism.
Let Phil Manzanera clarify: "We've spent four or five years of our time and money invested in this group. The last thing in the world I want to see, on the verge of success in America, is Roxy split up. On the other hand, a group lasts only as long as the people want to carry on. We could break up next week. A group is a very artificial thing. I hope by all of us doing solo things we can maintain a group thing as well.
Andy Mackay adds similar sentiments: "Our personal fortunes and our careers are tied up with each other. It's not a question of any one person trying to push ideas on another. Roxy is a band. The whole 'group' concept fostered by The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night - living together, watching television, eating sandwiches, romping in open fields, wise-cracking - all that's not true. A group has a persona stronger than any individual.
"Ever since Roxy was formed people have been saying it's breaking up. The drives that got Roxy started in the first place are strong enough to almost break it up. We've had enough English reserve to just stop ourselves. There have been rumors that I was 'definitely leaving,' or Bryan was 'definitely leaving,' or Phil was leaving - we've had the last laugh. We're still here."
Yet in discussing Roxy there is an aura of ennui that's not, as in the past, affected. Maybe there's nothing new to say, maybe all the questions have been asked too many times before. The feeling left is that the lion's share of passion and creative energies are being channelled into outside venues.
Aside from session work for the likes of Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt and John Cale, both Manzanera and Mackay have been immersed in solo activities.
For instance, last year Phil Manzanera recorded his first solo album, Diamond Head. During the recording, he reunited his experimental pre-Roxy band Quiet Sun for a debut album entitled Mainstream. "I listened to live cassettes of the few Quiet Sun gigs and decided it was worth getting down. I did both at the same time - split up the days half and half."
Manzanera is planning a second solo effort, as well as future efforts with Quiet Sun. "Quiet Sun only existed for eighteen months between leaving college and me joining Roxy. During that time we wrote quite a bit of material. And it's silly to have all this material and not record it. I've thought about touring with Quiet Sun, but it's very expensive. If there is some way to work it out we might do it."
Andy Mackay has been creating an even more distinct solo profile. In 1974 he released his first solo album, In Search Of Eddie Riff, a seventy-five percent sax instrumental paean to twisting in the sand, top-down convertible cruising, conjuring the spirits of all those rollicking beachy instrumental bands always named after some natural disaster - like The Hurricanes or The Tornadoes.
Mackay has a head full of ideas for future solo albums, ranging from quasi-symphonic structures to a drawer full of songs, and has been scribbling ideas and music in every spare moment during Roxy tours. Over the last year he has been the musical director for a six-part Thames T.V. series entitled Rock Follies.
Roughly, the plot is about three girls who start out in a turkey of a Broadwayish musical that flops, meander into rock'n'roll ala The Shangri-Las and encounter all the seamy underbellies inherent.
"It's about how rock music exploits people, how rock and roll is very up and down, success and failure. And it was important that the rock music used sounded like rock music instead of some television jingle-writer."
Every available moment of Andy's time was spent composing, producing, strapped to television's deadlines churning out music. The soundtrack of the series is about to be released in Britain; hopefully a U.S. release is soon to follow. The soundtrack may be the only thing from this series that Americans will be able to experience, unless PBS decides to present it stateside. "It was the first instance I think where an actual rock musician composed rock music for a series. British television is much more free than American television. The language is basically language that people in the rock business speak. It would be considered 'strong' language here. In America you can sell rubbish and half-truths but you can't actually say 'piss-off.'"
In the years since Roxy Music first captivated London in the summer of '72, the band's music has been steadily simplifying, losing the ambiguity, diffusion, and general chaos that initially unsettled audiences expecting another glam-band. They have become a hits-bound, chart-topping band, with Love Is The Drug lurking in the American top thirty, with a bullet. Says Phil Manzanera: "Roxy is now a rock group. We've made a rock album. The other ones [before Siren] were always striving towards rock. We were inspired amateurs striving to be professional. If I want to do something avant-garde, not that I do, I do it outside of Roxy, with people who want to do it, people like Robert Wyatt, Eno, Quiet Sun. I like doing a lot of thing and at the moment they don't all coincide in Roxy. So you do the others where you can. I like having alternatives - it lends a fresher outlook."
Sometimes conjecture in the press nags at Phil. "If I really thought that that's what it was [Roxy Music is Ferry Music, i.e., Bryan Ferry's back-up band] I wouldn't stay. I wouldn't put up with a situation like that. However, it is annoying when you spend three months in the studio, contributing ideas to an album, and not even get your name mentioned in a review. Everybody has their egos."
Similarly, Andy Mackay has slight resentments regarding his commitments to Roxy. On the debut night of Rock Follies "I was in this god-forsaken Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas while this program that I spent part of my life working on was causing a sensation in London."
Even though Andy says he is always proud of his work with Roxy, he referred to Siren in the latest issue of Trouser Press as "just another Roxy album I suppose." Lackadaisical c'est la vie, nobody opting yet for the planned obsolescence of Eno taking tiger mountain by strategy and burning the bridges from whence he came.
Says Andy, with shrug and circumstance: "Being in a group, by definition, has its limitations. Roxy was always a gamble that could have failed. I'm still surprised it hasn't."