INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker FEBRUARY 12, 1972 - by Richard Williams
Bingo is the scene most nights at the Granada, Wandsworth Road, London SW8. Fruit machines line the foyer and there's a big sign with lots of numbers on it hanging over the stage. It's a cold Tuesday afternoon and the ladies who throng in for "eyes down" later on are still at the Laundromat.
Stroll through a door marked "No Entry" and up the concrete steps into the disused balcony, where the seats are heavy with dust. Suddenly, a burst of machine-gun guitar scatters the cobwebs to be followed by the sound of a rock 'n' roll band gunning their motor through the changes of a song which sounds like the product of some weird meeting between The Marcels and one of the heavier German bands. It's Roxy Music and although the schoolkids outside may be playing football like nothing was happening, it's a very important day for the band.
The Famous Manager has come to hear them.
There are many ways of getting into the rock biz. Most bands work for years in small clubs, with a small time manager, and when they break through to the realms of Sounds Of The '70s and gigs at the Roundhouse they usually dump him in favour of some more experienced career director. That's how so few managers end up with so many bands. What Roxy Music are doing is missing out the primal stage, attempting to move in somewhere near the top. The reason is that they're good, they know it, and there's no point in mucking about at the bottom of the scale. Even though most of them have little knowledge of the business, they're far from being wet - behind the ears kids. They're aware of what's best for them, and that's what they're shooting for, first time out.
They've done about twenty gigs, so far, and only one of them has been anywhere near satisfactory. When you have as part of the band a man who manipulates a VCS3 synthesizer, a tape recorder, an eight-channel mixer and various other electronic devices, it's not surprising that you have equipment problems. They only got a roadie last week after all. But a couple of weeks ago, on their first visit to the BBC's studios in Shepherd's Bush they laid down a set of tracks (for Top Gear) which would blast the head off the most blasé connoisseur. They displayed a freshness and flexibility which made the majority of their contemporaries sound tired and tawdry, plus a welcome awareness of the roots and history of pop. Twangy guitar, honking sax, and doo-wop harmonies all appear, in deliciously unexpected places.
Their gifted and imaginative composer/singer is Bryan Ferry, a Fine Arts graduate from Newcastle University, where he sang with a soul band called Gasworks. Since he moved to London, Bryan has taught, driven trucks and created some extremely beautiful paintings and sculptures. About eighteen months ago, he got together with an old pal called Graham Simpson, who'd left university to play bass in a band called Cock-a-Hoop, and they soon added two more musicians to their embryo band: Andy Mackay (alto, oboe, back-up vocals) and Brian Eno (VCS3, mixer, more back-ups vocals, etc.).
Andy is a teacher, played in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and blows his bugged alto with cutting panache. Eno is a gaunt, pale gentleman who's deeply into electronics and overlays the band's sound with an aural frieze of squeals, squirts, screams and sirens. He adopts a Sinfield-like physical position in relation to the rest of the band, stationing himself at the back of the hall so that he can balance the sound accurately through the mixer. At the moment, Simpson is playing bass by direct injection into the PA, a rare technique but it hasn't worked as well as they hoped and they'll hopefully be equipping him with a regular stack in the near future.
For a while they tried various guitarists and drummers. Then, two or three months ago, Bryan started looking for David O'List, the youthful prodigy who disappeared from The Nice just as their period of success was beginning and drifted into the underworld. Bryan tracked him down and discovered that he was just what they wanted for the band. So David joined, and musically he fits perfectly.
Their original drummer was Dexter Lloyd, an American who eventually left to pursue a career in the classical field and to replace him they found Paul Thompson, a young veteran who's spent the last five years playing in groups and cabaret. "Paul and I have a very good rapport," says Bryan, "because he's a Geordie too, from Jarrow. He's very sensible and practical. When he joined us, he was working on a building site, getting up at seven o'clock in the morning and turning up for the gig in the evening still wearing his wellington boots..." Paul is a very solid, cooking drummer, but he also has an immaculate technique which allows him to shade Bryan's subtler songs.
Bryan himself plays a battered Hohner Pianet and on the Top Gear broadcast their sound was improved by his use of a BBC Grand Piano. He'd never played any kind of instrument until last year, when he took up the piano and had six lessons. "I had to start playing because of my writing," he says, "It's very difficult to write songs when you're only a singer, because all you've got is the melody and it's easy to forget. But when you play something, you learn the songs' chord structure, so when you wake up the next morning you can still remember it."
In fact he wrote almost all of the dozen-or-so songs which the band perform in one period, around the winter of 1970, and only now is beginning to write again. That's partly because his compositions turn into something approaching production numbers, with all sorts of unusual twists and turns. Their subject matter is invariably unexpected: there's one called 2 H.B. about Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and the movie Casablanca and Re-Make/Re-Model features as its chorus a car registration number. Sea Breezes is a little bit of Brighton Rock mixed up with The Dream Of Olwen, featuring Andy's mournful oboe and Eno making wave noises on a synthesizer.
"Actually, we were doing that before King Crimson - it's the first thing anyone does when they get a synthesizer, make the sound of waves. After I heard them do it, I though we'd carry on with it and treat it as a kind of pun." If you can appreciate that, you're halfway to understanding what Roxy Music is all about. At college, Bryan was very interested in the avant-garde techniques of men like John Cage and Morton Feldman. "It got a bit boring, though, because it's music for the head - very academic. Obviously, I always liked people like The Drifters and Smokey Robinson and Leadbelly, but that's not mindless music, of course. Their forms are just as interesting."
Back at the Granada, Wandsworth Road, they've been playing for more than an hour and the Famous Manager (who hired the hall for them) is getting up to leave. He's obviously very interested by what he's heard, and the band gather round ever so anxiously to hear what he has to say. "You've got to use your intuition," Bryan says. "We want to be with somebody civilised, and we don't want to make the mistake of signing something that we'll regret a couple of months later. There are so many things to take into consideration."
I think the Famous Manager said he'd call them. He'd be crazy not to.
(P.S. He did. Last Friday, David Enthoven of ELP and Crimson fame signed them for management. Now you can't avoid them. Great.)