INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New Musical Express NOVEMBER 10, 1973 - by Ian MacDonald
A PEARL BEYOND PRICE
In a way, Roxy Music's original ambiguous stance - the Chinese Box thing that was probably their most enticing quality - always fought against their acceptance as a for-real rock 'n' roll band. Even their most commited devotees surely felt deep down a nagging doubt that, after they'd taken the last box out of the last box out of the last box, etc., they'd be left with only a scented nothingness and the distant wicked chuckle of a Mephistophelean Ferry as he, too, did a Cheshire cat and faded into thin air.
The Last Laugh, where Roxy were concerned, took on a wholly new and sinister attribute and the natural tendency became to adopt a defensive posture - to listen with your tongue in your cheek, a pinch of salt laid in for chucking over your shoulder, and a nervously knowing laugh kept in readiness for the ends of those tracks that eerily refused to tell you how you ought to respond. God, it was hell being a Roxy fan.
Well, that's all over. Eno's gone, taking most of the overt craziness with him and allowing Ferry to develop his own mood free from the worry of having to accommodate a totally different creative temperament (viz. - the synthesizer break on Editions of You, a coolly polite invitation to join in - briefly - from one egocentric to another). Now Eno can come out front and speak his piece without interruption (just wait till you hear Here Come The Warm Jets, my dears) and Bryan, in turn, can give full reign to his very different obsessions. The Great Break-Up, in other words, has turned out to be A Good Thing for all concerned. But enough of the background. What of the results?
Simply this: Stranded is a classic, the album Roxy have been aiming at for two years and the long-awaited firm ground for the group's fans to stand on, even if some of the subtleties of the earlier approach have had to go in order to get there. No more Chinese Boxes here. And, more significantly, an end to the charges of selfish autocracy on Ferry's part. Bryan's still the leader and, more than ever, the focal-point of the band and its music. But Stranded is very much a group album, showing Roxy Music in possession of a new strength and confidence, individually purposeful but simultaneously well aware of each other's place in the corporate design.
The songs? Well, Stranded opens with the relatively weak track that's been issued as a single Street Life. It drives along, deriving a special sense of spaciousness from Jobson's faraway synthesizer, but the melody follows the chords rather literally and the bass is mixed down far too far. With the lyrics failing to rise to the occasion, Street Life lacks any detailed impact - a fact emphasized by the immediacy of Just Like You, the delicately pretty ballad which follows it. Here Ferry slides around a lovely sequence in very fine voice indeed, supported by tasteful Jobson piano and soaring Manzanera (who plays brilliantly throughout the record). Amazona, Phil's first composition for the group, brings a welcome transfusion of funk to Roxy, slammed home immaculately all the way by The Great Paul Thompson. All hype aside, Paul is one of Britain's finest rock drummers and, if you require proof, just listen to him effortlessly quadruple the beat under Manzanera's screaming central break. Psalm, Ferry's contribution to God-Rock, is the most obscure nine minutes on the album, building inevitably through a never-ending sequence, collecting heavenly choirs, weirdly-filtered violin, and a couple of Andy MacKays en route, but without reaching, a convincing resolution. Probably dynamite "live", though.
If Side One has its very slight ups-and-downs, Side Two is sky-high from start to finish. Serenade shows how much Ferry got out of doing These Foolish Things, charging along in a manner very reminiscent of Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever (with which it shares a number of tell-tale intervals; Street Life likewise). Then it's MacKay's turn with A Song For Europe, a ballad built on architecturally classical harmonies and a gigantic Spectorish sound. Quite an amazing piece of work - but the killer is yet to come.
Set alongside Mother Of Pearl, even the very best of the rest of Stranded pales into insignificance. This is it, folks: Magnum Opus Time. First, three insanely careering up-beat verses with Ferry snarling, pouting, and grimacing triple-tracked over a sound that comes on like nothing so much as a headlong collision between Captain Beefheart and The Stones. Then, suddenly, Manzanera's guitar nose-dives away below the horizon and the real song swings up in a completely different tempo. It's a single beautiful, chorus that simply goes on and on repeating itself, getting more and more intoxicating as the minutes pass. Ferry's Hey Jude (or Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands?), it would have made a tremendously challenging single that might just have turned the chart scene upside down. Never mind the missed chance though. It's still the best thing Roxy have done so far. Mother Of Pearl interlocks ingeniously with the final, atmospheric Sunset and, all too quickly, the record comes to rest.
Maybe it ought to have segued back into Mother Of Pearl at the end - but, on the other hand, that would probably have completely destroyed the minds of the more sensitive among us. As it is, one hearing of the aforementioned masterwork nearly had me going down for the last time - an irresistibly pleasureable experience, I might add. Stranded is the album of the year, alright. And, since writing about it any longer will keep me from my next feverish listen, I'll sign off with this straightforward advice: Be there or be square.