"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Scotsman JANUARY 25, 2011 - by Peter Ross
Saddening though it is to commit this fact to print, Roxy Music are not, probably, the best British band of all time. But they can claim certain other superlatives. They are, for instance, the best British band to have at its creative core two men with (more or less) the same unassuming first name - Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, though only the former will be performing in Glasgow next week as part of a tour which marks their fortieth anniversary.
Roxy Music last played Glasgow in the summer of 2001, their first UK concert for eighteen years. To see them in the flesh - well, silver lamé - playing Love Is The Drug and Ladytron seemed, at first, unreal.
They were quite, quite brilliant, and as the final encore For Your Pleasure faded away, it felt as though this was an experience never to be repeated. Now, however, there is a second chance.
The tour is named For Your Pleasure after the 1973 album, songs from which, presumably, will loom large in the set list.
It's a deathless record, and one which exemplifies the second Roxy superlative - rooted in both bibliothèque and discothèque, pop art and pop radio, they are the weirdest British act ever to have enjoyed massive popular success.
That weirdness is by no means restricted to the way Ferry and Eno looked in their pomp, which is to say like a Geordie Gene Vincent sharing the stage with some monkish, vampish, hermetic, hermaphroditic, feathery, leathery thing. The weirdness is all over the music, too.
Re-Make/Re-Model, the first track of their eponymous 1972 debut, is a manifesto of sorts, opening with the sound of a cocktail party before the song proper comes galloping in; before it goes galloping out, every instrument will have taken a solo and Daytripper by The Beatles will have been referenced.
It's quite a way to start a career, and what's clear both straight away and in the follow-up album For Your Pleasure is that Roxy are a band of great individual moments: the everything-all-at-once opening to Do The Strand; the way Ferry's urgent vibrato rubs up against Andy Mackay's stately saxophone and oboe in If There Is Something; the sudden a capella ending on Virginia Plain.
The phrase "mood music" is generally used to mean music which is relaxing, soporific or sometimes blandly sexual. Roxy Music is mood music of an entirely different kind.
The early work is manic and overstimulated, an attention-deficit disorder in the form of songs.
Roxy's later work, by contrast, evokes a sad and weary romanticism, an erotic ennui. This was exemplified by the scene in Lost In Translation in which Bill Murray sings More Than This in a karaoke bar, turning his drunken gaze on Scarlet Johansson to heartrending effect during the chorus.
To say Roxy Music were ahead of their time is a truism; and it seems especially the case when one considers their porn-chic album art, a look that would, eventually, become ubiquitous in hip hop, R&B and pop (Ferry's recent enthusiasm for Lady GaGa seems apposite in this regard). However, there's always been something old-fashioned and nostalgic about them, too.
The loneliness and frayed glamour in More Than This and other songs seems to reach back and connect with artists of an earlier time. Edward Hopper, had he lived, might well have been a Roxy Music fan. Ditto Scott Fitzgerald. Toulouse-Lautrec would most likely have appeared in one of their videos.
Musicians are often unable or reluctant to analyse their own work, but Andy Mackay has described his band as well as anyone, and with typical bohemian intelligence.
"If Roxy Music had been like cooking," he has said, "it would be like the dish in Marinetti's futurist cookbook called Car Crash - a hemisphere of pureed dates and a hemisphere of pureed anchovies which are then stuck together in a ball and served in a pool of raspberry juice. It's virtually inedible, but it can be done."
Essentially, Roxy Music are a great idea for a band rather than a great band per se. It's such a great idea, though, that they come pretty close to actual greatness.
Sometimes they can appear too cerebral, a band to be appreciated rather than adored. But then there comes the great bit on In Every Dream Home A Heartache when Ferry, utterly sleazy and camp, sings "I blew up your body... but you blew my mind" before Phil Manzanera's tension-releasing freak-out guitar solo comes coiling in. At that moment, Roxy join the rock pantheon.
And that particular track, by the way, is the third superlative to which the band can lay claim - it is, by some distance, the best-ever love-song written for an inflatable sex doll.