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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian AUGUST 2, 2012 - by Alexis Petridis
ROXY MUSIC: THE COMPLETE STUDIO RECORDINGS 1972-1982
They became a byword for yuppie pop, music as luxury goods - but Roxy Music were always much odder than that.
In a world of lavish, expensive box sets, you might expect Roxy Music's fortieth anniversary package to be the most lavish of the lot. But there's no luxurious booklet full of pictures; no illuminating accompanying essay by their most ardent chronicler, Michael Bracewell; no sumptuous cover photo of an Anthony Price-styled model: just ten CDs in a box - the last two padding out Roxy's three essential non-album singles with profoundly inessential B-sides, remixes and so on - its cover artwork thriftily recycled from a 1981 collection, The First Seven Albums.
Perhaps thriftiness is the point. The Complete Studio Recordings retails for £50: a fiver per CD. Maybe this befits austerity Britain, but then, responding empathetically to a recession just doesn't seem very Roxy Music. Look at the cover of For Your Pleasure, released in March 1973, a time of stock market crashes and oil crises: Bryan Ferry leaning on a Cadillac, grinning at model Amanda Lear, who's wearing a couture evening dress and stilettos and walking a panther on a lead. It's possible he and Lear plan to spend the evening debating the impact of the Heath government's ongoing rent freeze on the UK property market, but it doesn't really look like it. Its followup, Stranded, was riding high in the charts during the three-day week. Anyone playing it between power cuts would have heard the sound of Bryan Ferry, on Mother Of Pearl, crooning: "Well, I've been up all night again - party time-wasting is just too much fun."
You can see why suburban teenagers embraced it as glorious escapism, but equally, you can see why the press eventually took to mocking Ferry as Byron Ferrari. Listening to Roxy Music's albums in chronological order, it's hard not to feel that Ferry, like a lot of early-'70s rock stars, started out playing a role, but that it ended up consuming him far more thoroughly than, say, Ziggy Stardust did David Bowie. He began by suggesting there was a hollow darkness at the centre of the glamorous lives drawn in his songs - the wealthy protagonist of the peerlessly creepy In Every Dream Home A Heartache is so loveless he's reduced to having sex with an inflatable doll - but by the time of 1974's Country Life, seemed as attracted as he was repelled by that world. For every outsiderish sneer like Casanova, there's a song like The Thrill Of It All or If It Takes All Night to make life among the jaded jet-set sound quite fantastically appealing.
If all the social climbing infuriated you, then it must have been more maddening still that it was accompanied by the sound of a band that never put a foot wrong musically. Some would say Roxy Music lost their avant-garde edge when Brian Eno left in 1973. But their sound just became more streamlined and seamless. For all their brilliance, the debut and For Your Pleasure can be overwhelming, throwing '50s rock'n'roll, The Velvet Underground, doo-wop and avant-garde electronics at you in the space of one song. Indeed, Eno-era Roxy Music occasionally sounded like a band struggling to cope with so many musical ideas: Do The Strand and Editions Of You are gripping precisely because they feel as if they might collapse at any moment.
The ideas are still there on Stranded and Country Life, but more carefully marshalled. Still, what was left was hardly conventional: Whirlwind, from 1975's Siren, pitches the hiccups, tics and weird stresses than constituted Bryan Ferry's vocal style against a ferociously distorted, effect-laden guitar and reedy garage-rock organ.
They sat out punk and re-emerged a more conservative band. Roxy Music's albums had once sounded deeply weird. Now they sounded incredibly expensive, a sort of musical equivalent of luxury goods. Guitarist Phil Manzanera has dismissed their later work, but only 1980's Flesh + Blood - featuring a funk cover of Eight Miles High that makes you wonder what The Byrds ever did to Roxy Music - really implies declining inspiration. 1979's Manifesto suggested Roxy Music's omnivorous musical appetite was intact: unlike a lot of white artists who went disco, they sound as if they were adapting the genre to their own ends rather than being adapted by it. Avalon, from 1982, is magnificent: far stranger than its reputation as the yuppie's seduction-soundtrack of choice suggests. There's something dark and troubled about songs such as The Space Between and True To Life. In that sense, Roxy Music ended as they'd begun: suggesting all wasn't well in the glamorous world.