INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian FEBRUARY 25, 2015 - by Jeremy Allen
ROXY MUSIC: TEN OF THE BEST
There are two Roxy Musics - and our ten deals only with the first, those abrasive musical insurgents, not the smooth balladeers of later years.
1 Re-Make/Re-Model - As mission statements go, the very first Roxy Music song on their self-titled debut album couldn't be any more effusive or less idiosyncratic. Not since The Jimi Hendrix Experience had any one band sounded this good playing over one another in an almost competitive manner, though the glaring difference was that Hendrix's trio were virtuosos to a man. Aside from steady rhythm powerhouse Paul Thompson, it's fair to say the Roxy of 1972 were musicians finding their way, and Brian Eno on the VCS3 synth notoriously couldn't really play a note (he still can't, not that that's hurt his career any). The gloriously egalitarian nature of pop means ability can come in a variety of different guises, and County Durham's Bryan Ferry, with his trembling voice, turned apparent shortcomings into strengths. He also approached the serious art of songwriting with a dadaist playfulness, in opposition to the prevailing trend in the early '70s of earnest confessional singer/songwriters. Bryan also had a lovely head of hair, and still does. Re-Make/Re-Model is a relentless, pulverising, sonic car crash of a song, and one of the cars in the pile up bears the number plate "CPL 593H" (sung repeatedly as the song's only chorus), apparently driven by a beautiful woman Ferry noticed in the rear-view mirror on the way to the studio. The outro features a post-modernist smash and grab, the band chopping up bits of Richard Wagner, Duane Eddy and The Beatles and mixing them all together in their own irreverent musical scrapbook.
2 Virginia Plain - What a difference a couple of months can make. The first album unexpectedly climbed as high as Number 10 in the UK charts, and then out of nowhere appeared the single Virginia Plain, fully formed and swaggering, peacock-like, somehow sounding light years ahead of its nine predecessors. If the first album is a triumph of will and dilettantism, then Virginia Plain is a genuine slab of pop alchemy: cool, catchy and cutting-edge as hell, with an undercurrent of exoticism and sexual adventure. With its staccato keys, thrilling stop/start motion and noises from the future, it is suave to the point of decadent, sweeping you off your feet and flying you down to Rio. "We haven't got any further than this; it's a disgrace," Brian Eno commented in reference to the Walker Brothers' 1978 album Nite Flights, when filmed for the Scott Walker: 30 Century Man documentary in 2006, and it's hard not to feel similar sentiments about Virginia Plain, released a whole six years earlier. Mine the annals of music history if you will, but you'll be hard pressed to find another compact three minutes of pop more perfect than Roxy's first single proper.
3 Do The Strand - Roxy Music kicked off their masterly For Your Pleasure album with the ebullient Do The Strand, a song about a made-up dance craze that tipped a chapeau to the fashionable London thoroughfare of the same name. Ferry's words are daringly dandyish and frivolous, as he throws references aplenty from La Goulue (the French Can-can dancer) to Nijinsky (the Russian ballet dancer), artworks such as Guernica and the Mona Lisa, and even a witty play on words involving King Louis XVI ("Louis Seize he prefer laissez-faire le Strand"). His confidence as a lyricist was exploding as he became ever more tongue-tied and shifty in interviews, a problem compounded by Eno's charisma and genius gift for the soundbite. There's little doubt that Ferry was also cheekily referencing the "you're never alone with a Strand" cigarette slogan. The black-and-white advert featured a companionless chap taking succour from a fag on a wet London street; famously the Lonely Man Theme by Cliff Adams charted, while sales of Strand cigarettes plummeted and the brand was soon taken off the market. Themes of desolation are explored throughout For Your Pleasure, as well as companionship of a more risque nature, as we'll see from our next song.
4 In Every Dream Home A Heartache - Ferry studied fine art at Newcastle University, and in 1964 his lecturer for one year was the pop artist Richard Hamilton, an influence that cannot be underplayed in regard to early Roxy Music; Hamilton used to joke Ferry was his "greatest creation". There's little doubt that Hamilton's actual most famous work, Just What Is It About Today's Homes That Makes Them So Different, So Appealing?, directly inspired In Every Dream Home A Heartache, though while Ferry continued the pithy commentary on rising consumerism, he also took the emptiness and delusion to its furthest logical extreme. Over an isolated keyboard wave, the singer eulogises his "penthouse perfection", but cracks soon begin to emerge and something entirely more seedy emerges as the song develops. "Plain wrapper baby," croons Ferry, "your skin is like vinyl... deluxe and delightful, inflatable doll." He continues to coo to his pliable love interest as we become more and more uncomfortable, until finally the words "and you blew my mind!" are ejaculated forth as the music bursts with prog-like ecstasy to the conclusion. There's a school of thought that Ferry doesn't get his due as a lyricist, with In Every Dream Home A Heartache perhaps the finest collection of words in his vast, undervalued repertoire; Ferry doesn't so much write songs as paint them. "Other bands wanted to wreck hotel rooms," he once said. "Roxy Music wanted to redecorate them."
5 Street Life - With the dandyish Eno deposed and Ferry's concomitant solo career looking ever backwards, it was somewhat inevitable that Roxy Music would plough a more traditional furrow going forward, though the change between For Your Pleasure and Stranded isn't as radical as some like to think. Even Eno somewhat magnanimously claimed the latter was the better album (though not many other people think that, and he might not either). It was a severed alliance as significant to the '70s as Morrissey and Marr's was to the '80s and Anderson and Butler's was to the '90s, with the latter offering up often spooky parallels: both Roxy Music and Suede were perceived by many to have lost an irreplaceable creative member after the cult favourite second album; both shared a similar creative trajectory over the first five albums, scoring their mightiest commercial success with their third album; both had a song called Trash and an album cover designed by Peter Saville. You suspect some of this might have been deliberate on Suede's part, who also recorded their own Street Life on their underpar A New Morning album. It couldn't lay a glove on the Ferry song, a swashbuckling paean to walking the mean streets to avoid nuisance phone calls. The rambunctious Stranded opener immediately told us three things about Roxy 2.0: first, that they were a band that now cooked (especially guitarist Phil Manzanera); second, that new keyboardist and auxiliary musician Eddie Jobson would be a worthy and capable - if very different - replacement for Brian Eno; and third, that Bryan Ferry had plenty left up his beautifully tailored shirt sleeve yet.
6 Mother Of Pearl - Mother Of Pearl is a welcome conundrum and a song that bridges the wild structures of the first two albums with the windswept balladry that would epitomise the latter career. It comes in two parts, the first strangely antecedent to the rockier elements of REM's early work, anticipating them by a whole decade. The second is a gobsmacking serenade to the iridescent nacre, again with a lyrical tapestry of beautifully whimsical poetry and highfalutin references such as Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra was also popular with David Bowie, inspiring both Quicksand and The Supermen). Ferry told Uncut in 2013 that he'd started writing Mother Of Pearl while holidaying on a Greek island with a battered bass guitar, with Eddie Jobson providing much of the ornate "musicality". Producer Chris Thomas was blown away when Ferry unfurled his lyric sheet and delivered the completed song in the studio; up to that point it had been a well-rehearsed instrumental with the second section repeating the same three chords over and over for five long minutes. Suddenly Ferry laid down the words and an instant classic entered the world.
7 The Thrill Of It All - Can any other band or artist in history lay claim to having as many exhilarating tracks opening their albums? Roxy Music's first five introductory numbers are surely unassailable, and out of these magnificent starters, there's a case for The Thrill Of It All from Country Life: The Fourth Roxy Music Album, being the most exhilarating of all. The production packs the power of a jet engine. It is enormous in the way so much British rock was in 1974, six-and-a-half minutes long and ripe for the US market. It was no secret Ferry was interested in breaking America - Rod and Elton had just had Number 1's and Bowie and The Bee Gees were making inroads - but it would be a territory where sustained success would ultimately elude him as both singer in Roxy Music and as a solo artist. The song was even released as a single across the Atlantic and nowhere else, and while it failed to chart, Country Life did crack the Billboard Top 40 for the first time. It was the kind of well-structured, straight-ahead rock leviathan that arch critic Bob Harris (who'd been so sniffy when the band had played Ladytron on The Old Grey Whistle Test two years previously) might have found himself tapping his foot along to despite himself. The best thing about the song, though, is Ferry's debonair delivery: languorous and elastic, playful and cute; he slides in and out of the blue notes and compels you to hang on to his every word.
8 Bitter Sweet - Written with Roxy oboe/sax stalwart Andy Mackay, Bitter Sweet is a startling show tune that finds Ferry remodelling Brechtian cabaret with such panache that one wishes he'd attempted it more often. Delicate vibes and gentle piano strokes at the outset are violently cast aside by a thunderous, portentous bass sound, denoting that there may be trouble ahead. The titular oxymoron is appropriate, with Bryan bitterly berating the hardhearted subject of the song over the sweetest of verses: "Lovers you consume my friend," he complains, "as others their wine." Then, just as we're settling in, the Weimarian oompah of the chorus kicks in, with stabs of disorientating, spiky guitar; when the chorus comes around a second time and we're prepared for it, Ferry delivers yet another surprise by switching to abrasive German. According to David Buckley, author of The Thrill Of It All: The Story Of Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music, the Country Life tour wasn't without controversy, with Ferry taking to the stage in "riding breeches and what looked like jackboots", as well as "raven hair parted to the side", and all in front of an "RM" logo emblazoned on velvet drapes set into eagle's wings. While the visuals were almost certainly for aesthetic reasons only, one can only imagine how Twitter might react were a band of Roxy Music's stature to settle upon such style choices now.
9 Love Is The Drug - If Eno's ejection from the band seemed cruel, then spare a thought for Roxy Music's bass players, numerous and never afforded the status of being actual members. Eno couldn't complain - he took off around the country with his first solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets, in 1973, and only gave up touring because his lung reportedly collapsed from too much shagging. The plight of the Roxy bassist is less sordid or glamorous, with the brilliant John Gustafson - used as session musician on three albums - going largely unnoticed except by your more devoted fan. "Gus", who died in September last year, played with Ian Gillan, the Big Three and Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett during a productive career, but his defining moment might just be his funky, iconic bass riff on 1975's Love Is The Drug, a song that finally cracked the Top 30 of the Billboard charts and is arguably their best-known song (or at least the best-known song from Old Testament Roxy Music). Love Is The Drug is often described as Roxy Music's disco tune, but the rhythms are so emphatic that they practically border on Cuban funk. It's a song that's been covered by all sort of artists, the great Grace Jones included, and it packs plenty into its four minutes, including the sound of someone walking on gravel and a car starting at the outset, and then Ferry's insatiable, colluding and suggestive narrative throughout. The title, too, is unbeatable.
10 Whirlwind - You may be wondering where More Than This or Avalon are? The most commercially fruitful period in Roxy Music's career came from 1978 to 1982, after an enforced sabbatical. Ferry had only really reformed the band because his patrician image was at such odds with punk and his career needing galvanising with the brand that had once so exemplified cool. The West Sussex manor and the hobnobbing in high society was bound to have some bearing on the Thomas Cromwell of pop and his music, and it was fortuitous that as he was enveloped into the bosom of the aristocracy that he hit on a formula to write the same oleaginous ballad over and over again to handsome remuneration (play Dance Away and Slave To Love back to back and you'll see what I mean). They're still good songs, especially compared with the output of lesser mortals, but they belong to that other Roxy Music, the one owned by the mainstream that has no perception of the abrasive musical insurgency of the past. The first era ends in 1975, and the final trace of the "orchid born on a coal tip" as Ferry described himself once, the last remaining sign of the fuliginous grit of the northeast, can be found in the battle cry of Whirlwind and that opening "Maaaydaaaaaaay!" line that so emboldens. "There she blows!" he howls a bit later in this nautical adventure perhaps inspired by Moby-Dick, though Ferry would see himself less a Captain Ahab and more a Captain Cook, a derring-do nobleman originally born a commoner. When Roxy Music got together again in 1978, their album Manifesto would be a strange mix of new-wave experimentation that didn't quite work, and sentimental songs that opened up a whole new demographic they'd pursue to the bitter end via the weak Flesh + Blood and the cocaine avarice of Avalon. Whirlwind, then, is the last great Roxy Music rocker, a little bit unloved and under-appreciated, despite having such impressive seafaring legs.