INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker JULY 29, 1972 - by Richard Williams
Almost a year ago to the week, Bryan Ferry sat in a council flat in Shepherds Bush and explained his timetable for the next year. He had this band called Roxy and, he said, that they were going to make it "in as civilised a way as possible." All he wanted was the best management, the best agency, the best record company and a large bag of gold coins - and if he got them, he knew the band would be very good, and very popular. One year later, their management is E.G., their agency Chrysalis, their record company Island - and their first album's at Number 29 in the MM chart. They're playing the best gigs (with Alice at Wembley fast month, with Bowie at the Rainbow next), and in November they're off to the States. Their first single comes out this week, and if it doesn't make the chart then it'll be the first thing that's gone wrong in twelve months. For if Roxy Music go very much further, they'll he one of the great success stories of modern times.
One imagines that countless hard-gigging pros, up and down the island are swearing their heads off at the way Roxy has taken off. After all, only couple of the band's six members have any real experience of life on the road. Dues paying, as far as Roxy is concerned, has been virtually eliminated by a combination of imaginative excellence and intelligent strategy. And these two adjectives - imaginative and intelligent - pretty well sum up where they score over the muddy morass of mediocre pickers truckin' nightly up and down the M1.
A large part in the band's success has been played by John Peel - who, with his producers John Muir and John Walters, has been giving them regular airtime since the very early days. They're playing at Crystal Palace this Saturday, with Edgar Winter, Osibisa, Stone The Crows and others. Doubtless many new listeners will become ardent fans through exposure to their blend of witty visual style and Ferry's strange, compelling songs. There can be little doubt that they're moving the music forward, stylistically and aesthetically, while reaffirming the strength and validity of its roots.
Bryan Ferry is wearing a somewhat distracted air, these days. His album's in the chart, he's moving house, he's trying to write some new songs - too much to be taken in at once. How does it feel, Bryan? "Couldn't tell you. I feel in a complete void at the moment... very unsettled. It'll get better when we go to the States... the travelling will be more interesting."
Facts: he comes from Durham, is twenty-six years old, and studied Fine Art (painting and sculpture to you) at Newcastle University. Started singing in soul bands, notably Gas Board, and then returned to painting. Won a scholarship from the Royal College of Art exhibited his ceramics, and veered away again in the winter of 1970, when he began teaching himself to play piano, and started a period of intense writing which produced most of the music Roxy Music plays today.
Their single, Virginia Plain exemplifies his approach to writing, which freely criss-crosses between the visual and aural arts. It's based around a painting of the same name which he did years ago, and which is itself a three-way pun. The name, of course, comes from a brand of American cigarettes - and the painting consists of a large cigarette pack, with the motif of a girl, placed at the end of a plain; so the cigarettes are Virginia Plain, the girl is Virginia Plain, and the plain is Virginia Plain. How it translates into the song is rather more complex. "The painting was a sort of throwaway water colour," he says, "and the song has lots of little images and throwaway lines. The painting was done in '64, and although the song was written this year, it reflects the feeling of that time - I was up in Newcastle, living with a guy who'd helped Warhol to make the Marilyn (Monroe) silkscreens. It's a whole American Dream thing, living up there yet constantly thinking about Warhol's Factory and Baby Jane-Holzer. It's got some other things in it now Vegas, Nevada, Route 66..."
The sharp-eared will doubtless catch the line, "Baby Jane's in Acapulco - we are flying down to Rio," which also reflects the way Bryan can translate cinematic references to song (as he did In the album's 2 H.B.). There's also a few seconds of motorbike noise - shades of Leader Of The Pack."
"It's a bid to get on Top Of The Pops, actually... just a way to get to meet Pan's People. I think a single is necessary - after all, most of the best things in pop have been done in that medium. We've always wanted to make them, and I don't want people to think it's a cop-out - that's silly. There's nothing wrong with being commercial if it's good - like The Who and The Stones. I'd like our single to be thought of in that area." Will it be a hit?
"It could be much stronger. We did a live version for the BBC yesterday which was full of power - thick and rough. But the record has some fine bits. Oh, I don't know what to think of things any more." Bryan wants to make their second album much quicker and cheaper than the first - which itself wasn't expensive to make. "We'll just do a couple of takes on each number to get a 'live' sound. That's what interests me... there weren't enough mistakes on the first album. It'll be much wilder." He's frustrated by the fact that he can't hear properly what they sound like on stage - "and people say we're much better live than on record. I never expected that - I always expected that we'd be a recording band, really. But I'm really pleased about it."
Andy Mackay would have made a great hipster, had he been born a quarter of a century earlier. Almost over-endowed with cool, he'd been great in a zoot suit and a naked lady tie. As things are, Andy adds a lot to Roxy Music, in terms of style. His playing isn't secondary though as befits a fancier of King Curtis and Earl Bostic, his contributions are trenchant and memorable.
He began his musical life as a teenage oboist playing in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, and didn't take up the saxophone until he went to Reading University where he took a pleasant course which combined Music with English Literature (How? "Old English madrigals."). Unusually for a reedman, he had no jazz influence whatever and played in a college soul band called Nova Express, as well as joining the university orchestra. He also became heavily involved in avant-garde music and began to organise concerts with guest artists from London. Among his influences at this time were Morton Feldman and John Cage.
Leaving in '68, he hung around London for a while before splitting to the East, "which was the obligatory thing to do that year." Coming back he worked at odd jobs before leaving again, this time for Italy. He stayed a year, practising and writing music, and teaching English. On returning, he met Bryan in January '71.
"I knew I had to be a musician, and I wanted to be a rock musician. I suppose I could've been a classical oboist, but it didn't seem free enough; and I couldn't have supported myself by playing electronic music - also the audience is very limited, the only way I could be a musician was in rock - but with people who had a lot of ideas. The way we tackled it... we could have gone on the road and played all the colleges, but very early on we decided to do it the other way, to do only what we wanted. Being on the road for the first time is great - I haven't enjoyed myself so much in years."
Andy is very much involved in the band's visual style. "Last year I'd have been very surprised to find that what we're doing now is so much in fashion. It seemed very remote then - but now, it's a feeling that's around that we happen to represent. We'd got it all worked out by the middle of last year, so it's not just something we've jumped on all of a sudden. "If the single is a success we'll attract different kinds of audiences and we'll be freer to do more things. Already there's pressure, because people are expecting certain things, from us... I just hope that it's pressure to come up with creative ideas."
While the rest of the band were mixing the B-side of the new single, Eno was sitting in the control booth with a set of log tables, a notebook, and a rapidly blunting pencil. "I woke up this morning," quoth he, "with a theory about prime numbers." The column of numbers in the notebook grew apace.
With stripey-dyed hair and pallid maquillage, Eno operates the band's synthesizer, prepared tapes, and other electronic aids. He also does a nifty line in back-up vocals. Having spent his early years near a USAF base, his interest in rock is long-term ("We used to get the new American records from the PX stores"). At art school in Ipswich in the mid-'60s, he discovered the properties of the common domestic tape recorder - and within three or four years, had amassed no less than thirty such devices.
"I realised that there were certain areas of music you could enter without actually learning an instrument which at my age I certainly wasn't about to do." At Winchester School of Art between '66 and '69, he made himself president of the Students' Union, and spent the union funds on hiring prestigious avant-garde musicians to come and lecture - mostly to himself. He also collaborated with some of the famous men: Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, John Tilbury, Morton Feldman. Influenced by Cardew's piece called School Time Composition, Cage's book Silence and the Systems Artists ("Their emphasis is on the procedures rather than the end product"), he was brought to Reading University to lecture by one Andrew Mackay.
Some years later, when Andy had just met Bryan, Andy and Eno bumped into each other on the tube and Eno was invited to join the group, playing Andy's VCS3 synthesizer. Now he uses four tape machines at home, transferring the results to an Ampex cassette machine for gigs. Soon he'll be getting a new synthesizer, incorporating a memory circuit which will retain any sequence of notes, up to two hundred and fifty-six in fact. It'll also have various custom devices including phasers and phase shifters and "a device which gives the effect of quad in two speakers - honest!" He's also about to acquire a special long-delay echo unit, which will delay its repeat anything up to fifteen minutes.
"At the moment, I'm mostly interested in modifying the sound of the other instruments. You get a nice quality - the skill of the performer, transformed by the electronics. Neither the player nor I know what each other is going to do - which means you get some nice accidents."
Apart from possessing one of the finest drum kits I've ever seen, Paul Thompson was, until the arrival of Rik Kenton, the only member of Roxy Music to have been through the rock 'n roll mill, and the only one to whom life on the road wasn't something of a shock.
Like Bryan, Paul is from Newcastle. And started playing before he left school. He worked in a shipyard for a year, and then played with various bands - The Influence, Yellow, and Smokestack among them. He came down to London with Smokestack early last year. "But it fell to bits after a while, and I went back home and did nothing." His determination rebuilt, he returned to London a few months later and worked on a building site while looking around for a band.
He and Roxy Music met each other through an ad in the MM. "Wonder drummer required for avant-rock group," it said, and after an audition he was in. On the face of, it doesn't seem to be the kind of band any self-respecting heavy funk merchant would want to be associated with. Not, In fact, drummers' music.
"But I'm not into drummers' music," says Paul. "I'm into group music, something that comes out of a unit. I'd never played anything like it before, but I'd always wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I can't stand the heavy bands that just play riffs - only Led Zeppelin are good enough to get away with it. I try to play melodically as well as rhythmically, and I try to create my own licks. For instance - when drummers go right round the kit, they almost always do it clockwise. It seems to be the natural way. So I sometimes try it anti-clockwise - and sounds really interesting."
At first, Paul was rather reticent about wearing make-up and strange garb on stage, having been brought up in the jeans and sweat shirt school. "I was a bit reluctant at first, because I'm basically shy - ahh! - but I've lost that as the group's gotten better known. With all the other bands I've been in, when we walked on stage nothing happened. With Roxy Music, the audience takes notice right away. There's an immediate impact."
Phil Manzanera's association with Roxy Music began when he was invited to become the group's sound-mixer. Soon afterwards he replaced David O'List - and his bejewelled shades are now an integral part of the group's teen-appeal. Born in London, he spent his childhood moving between Cuba, Hawaii and Venezuela which ensured that he was exposed to the youth culture of North America.
"The first 45 I ever had was Teenager In Love," he says. "I was brain-washed, and I've never recovered. I used to watch all the old Shindig shows on TV, and I started playing guitar when I was twelve - Wipe Out and things like that. Nothing too difficult. I was completely swept up by the Beatles/Stones thing. That provided a lot of the impetus for me".
He came back to Britain to go to Dulwich College, and formed a group with bassist Bill MacCormick and drummer Charles Hayward. It was psychedelic era, so they became known as Quiet Sun with a heavy Soft Machine influence, because Bill's mother knew Robert Wyatt's mother, and they were into The Softs right from the Love Makes Sweet Music single. "When we got Dave Jarratt in on keyboards, we started experimenting with time a lot. But it fizzled out - no interest from outside, and no work." MacCormick, of course, is now with Wyatt's Matching Mole.
Phil auditioned for Roxy through the famous MM ad which also attracted Paul Thompson, but the band was looking for O'List and found him. Phil saw them play at a party, though, and was still interested - so they planned that he should mix their sound on gigs. He'd never done it before, and was completely baffled by the mixing equipment - but fortunately O'List left in time and Phil was invited to join.
His influences on guitar were originally George Harrison and Chuck Berry - more recently, Randy California and Lou Reed and Jimi. "McLaughlin's not a influence - because at a certain point I decided I'd never reach that stage of technical ability. Roxy Music fits in with my ideas of playing guitar, and with my limitations. I think people are getting fed up with long guitar solos, because very few people can maintain that level of creativity for any period of time - those who can are mostly playing jazz anyway. Perhaps after playing with Quiet Sun for a long time, I'm just reacting the opposite way - getting into songs and simple rock and roll music. I like to be economical, and I'd rather play two bars of something nice than half an hour of something mediocre."
Rik Kenton's role, as Roxy's bassist, is generally to mesh with Paul Thompson's drums to provide a tough, tight platform over which the instrumental lunacies of the front-line can stretch unworried. Rik started off playing organ and guitar in Nottingham about five years ago, playing with local bands like Woody Kern. It was mostly soul music and jazzy blues, until he came to London in '69 to audition for a band called Mouseproof, on bass for the first time.
"That band wasn't too far away from what's happening now," he says. "The guy was into tapes and stuff, but he wanted a three-piece band and it wasn't that successful. I played with them for a long time - their manager was Jack De Johnette's brother-in-law, by the way."
From Mouseproof he joined Armada, meeting crazed American tenorist Gary Windo - "who taught me a lot about the technology of music. Just playing with him was an experience - he's quite a musician." Armada was another-jazz influenced outfit, and through meeting various new friends, including ex- Crimson drummer Mike Giles, Rik began to get into the aspects of bass playing exemplified by the great Richard Davis. The band lasted eighteen months, and then he met Leigh Stevens, formerly leader and guitarist with the American prototype heavy band Blue Cheer. "Leigh was a big influence because he was a side of rock that I'd never met before. I played with him for about three months - we didn't do any gigs, though. It was hard to get on because Leigh didn't seem to want to, and although he's very talented, he didn't have any confidence. That finished last Christmas, and although I did a lot of auditions, I couldn't really find what I was after. Eventually I got together with Roxy through knowing Pete Sinfield and the people around the King Crimson scene. I'd heard the album, and I liked Bryan's songs and voice, and Andy's oboe-playing. So when Graham left, I joined!"
Nerve-rackingly, his first gig with them was at the Lincoln Festival on May 27. "Being on the road has given the band a lot of soul," he says. "From the outside it may not look like a musicians' band, but it is - in fact it gives me a lot of scope, because the music varies so much and I'm called on to do a lot of different things. There are four lead instruments, so I have to be careful not to overplay when I'm supposed to be laying down a rhythm feel, but at other times there may be only me and Phil playing. As Bryan gets more confident on piano, it'll loosen up even more!"
He's a great admirer of melodic bass players - McCartney, some of Jack Bruce's work, and the Motown sessionmen in particular. "I keep making discoveries about the Motown guys. A lot of bassists forget about dynamics - for instance, that the pinnacle of a phrase should be louder than the rest. It's also something to do with playing near the bottom of the fretboard, to give it a certain depth."
Rik believes that Roxy's greatest strength is its all encompassing attitude. "In Bryan's voice, we've got something that's identifiable straight away so we haven't got to keep the music straight in order to retain a 'Roxy sound'. That's one of the reasons why there's plenty of room for the band to grow. It's very stimulating."