INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian OCTOBER 27, 2007 - by Michael Faber
THE ART OF NOISE
There's too much waffle in Michael Bracewell's study of Roxy Music, Re-make/Re-model, says Michel Faber.
The first track on Roxy Music's eponymous debut album, Re-Make/Re-Model, offers one of pop's most energised, succinct and instantly seductive opening salvos. The opening lines of Michael Bracewell's book might almost be a satirical attempt to produce exactly the opposite: "The subject of this book is a particular constellation of determinedly creative individuals... How this cast assembled, their interests, activities and relationship to one another, is also the story of one of their most spectacular manifestations." Granted, Roxy Music were all about odd mixtures, but some readers may find the tone here - stuffy lecturer celebrating the glamour of a 1970s rock band - an incongruity too far.
To be fair, Re-make/Re-model is not really a rock biography; it is a dissertation on fashions and concepts in art and popular culture, as we might expect from the author of The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth and England Is Mine: Pop Life In Albion From Wilde To Goldie. And the lecturer comparison is no idle snipe: much of this book examines the ideologies that were taught at the tertiary institutions where Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and a host of their friends and mentors studied in the late '60s.
The radical curricula and behaviourist experiments at these universities dissuaded some students from becoming mediocre painters and provoked them to express their artistic ideas in other ways. Such as... forming a band called Roxy Music, which would be the ultimate modern art statement, an audacious fusion of futurism and nostalgia, uncompromising avant-garde soundscapes and pop thrill; a coolly premeditated package devised not just by musicians but by cutting-edge couturiers, photographers and so on. The way Bracewell tells it, this pop-music-as-art-project idea was unique to Roxy; other contenders, notably David Bowie, are airbrushed out of the picture (fashion designer Juliet Mann recalls a pal of hers dancing with Bowie "quite by mistake" in 1970 - and that's as big a role as David gets to play in his cultural milieu. The book's index namechecks Abraham Zapruder but not Ziggy Stardust).
Still, there's no doubt that Roxy's debut album (the book ventures no further) was something very special, and Re-make/Re-model will enrich your knowledge of the many influences that fed into it. There's even a five-page interview with the Knightsbridge hairdressers known as Smile, complete with hilarious period photo. The author seems less curious about the music itself, but band members Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and Eno fill in some of the gaps.
Almost all the interviews are new; Re-make/Re-model is a substantial work of original scholarship rather than a cut-and-paste job. Yet Brace-well's handling of the material makes the book fatter than it needs to be. First, he sums up a chapter's main points; then he begins to ruminate, quoting snippets from interviews which we'll get in full later; then, when the interview is imminent, he paraphrases it and adds his gloss; then we get the interview verbatim.
Ferry comes across better than he often has in the past: the self-protecting blandness and aspirational snobbery remain, but he's more candid and affectionate about his working-class background. The extensive interviews with Richard Hamilton and Roy Ascott (recounting their controversial tenures teaching at Newcastle and Ipswich) paint a detailed picture of the struggle between the old guard and the new. Roxy's fellow art students, such as Rita Donagh and Viv Kemp, are given their due and everyone has fond memories of Simon Puxley, Roxy's charismatically inept publicist. The pop art painter Mark Lancaster, generally agreed to be the epitome of cool, reminisces gauchely about his encounters with Andy Warhol. It's all sort-of-interesting, borderline-boring stuff, until Eno comes along (almost two hundred pages in) and provides the book's first burst of high grade entertainment with his quirky reflections. In contrast to the vacuous chatter of London fashionistas ("It was all parties, parties, parties..."), Eno's account of his formative adventures in rural Suffolk, spurred on by a menagerie of eccentric relatives, evokes the emotional substance beneath Roxy's glossy veneer.
Sceptics may scoff at the antics of art-school dandies, but it's a fact that art students often noticed what the rest of society was too blinkered to see. During the '60s, Eno would invite the cream of British music's avant-garde to lecture at Winchester without payment: "art students would be there, but no music student ever came to anything that we did. They were never even curious!" In a January 1967 issue of Reading University's student rag, Bracewell finds the following announcement: "This Saturday's dance features the Pink Floyd, who claim to be the first psychedelic group in the country. During their act anything might happen... " Dryly, he notes: "Tickets were still available."
Re-make/Re-model would have benefited from more of this sort of droll concision and less waffle. Even so, there's something poignant in the way Bracewell, for all his sophistication, remains as ardent a Roxy fan as any '70s adolescent. His adoration of the band's "stunningly handsome" leader is obvious even in the childhood scenes: "Meanwhile, if we could look into the depths of Bryan Ferry's eyes - when he was, say, fourteen years old - what might they have seen?" Bracewell, like many champions of modernism, cherishes the ideals of a by-gone age, and it's clear that he still regards Roxy Music as "the portal through which one might glimpse, or even reach, the empyreal world". Re-make/Re-model is remarkably free of cynicism and, in refreshing contrast to most contemporary biography, it doesn't leave you feeling less respect for its protagonists than when you began.