"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sydney Morning Herald FEBRUARY 26, 2011 - by Michael Dwyer
MUSICAL ENCOUNTERS OF THE MULTI-TRACK KIND
Chance meetings look like cosmic events through the telescope of rock'n'roll history. The mind can boggle forever at the big bang of 1953, when the Presley boy wandered into Sam Phillips's Memphis studio to record a song for his mum. Or the day in '57 when Paul McCartney caught John Lennon's skiffle band at the Woolton Parish fate. Sorry, fete.
To those fixated on the slightly younger galaxy of art-rock, the expansion of the musical universe hit a fateful nexus in the London winter of 1970, as a second-hand electronics dealer named Brian Eno prepared to board a train on the Northern Line.
"There was a choice between one carriage and the next," Eno recalled in David Buckley's book, The Thrill Of It All. "I got in and bumped into Andy Mackay. If I'd got into the other one, I wouldn't have joined Roxy Music and I probably would have had a completely different life."
As it happened, Eno only lasted two albums with oboist Mackay, guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson and songwriter-singer Bryan Ferry. After the outre rock experiments of Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, Ferry fired Eno in 1973 for being too avant garde, too clever in interviews, and too popular with the ladies.
Given the timeless wonders of those two albums, one type of Roxy fan - the kind that prefers aural orgasms in peacock feathers to lovelorn crooning in lounge suits - has long rued that day. But pull focus on that telescope and behold a constellation of consequences that all but eclipses what one fan, REM's Michael Stipe, fondly described as "the car crash that was Roxy Music".
Eno was thrown clear, of course. Having launched his proudly non-musical trajectory on Mackay's revolutionary VCS3 synthesizer, his first few albums were anarchic successors to those two early Roxy records.
For his next trick, he invented "ambience" - music for films, for airports, for Apollo launches - while helping David Bowie pull off his last great coup of the '70s with the influential electronic albums Low and "Heroes".
As a producer, Eno shaped Devo's debut, mentored Talking Heads, constructed a blueprint for the future of sampling with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (with David Byrne), and gave U2 and Coldplay the epic grandeur that thunders in stadiums in the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, Ferry's reconditioned vehicle stayed its course. He was a maverick, too, in his more ordered way, who had studied under pop artist Richard Hamilton and brought ironic post-modern aesthetic to a pop scene that was groaning with bearded uber-muso seriousness as the '60s ended.
With the concurrent solo albums that hopelessly confused the Roxy brand, Ferry became the first rock star to challenge Lennon's rather limiting mantra that "before Elvis, there was nothing". This crooner mixed Holiday and Sinatra with his Beatles and Dylan, and came up smelling of carnations to groovy old ladies and budding New Romantics alike.
Mackay and Manzanera enjoyed the luxury of a bet each way. They remained Ferry's foils in Roxy Music for six more increasingly mainstream albums but they also collaborated on Eno's, on Ferry's, on each other's, and on dozens of other delightfully strange and obscure records with scores of players in an art-rock community spanning Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd to members of Suede and Radiohead.
Manzanera's first production jobs included a promising Kiwi outfit called Split Enz. His later stable of Latin American bands included recent visitors to Melbourne, Aterciopelados. Mackay created the music for the cult TV drama Rock Follies. Thompson continued drumming with Roxy and its hyperactive family tree and more recently turbo-charged Concrete Blonde.
In short, if one were drawing a map here, many whiteboards would be needed for the labyrinth stemming from that Northern Line collision between a classical woodwind player and an electronic junk salesman forty years ago.
Hence the dizzying weight to those rare occasions when the diaspora reconvenes to play the comparatively modest Roxy Music catalogue, which spans from the glam explosion of '72's Virginia Plain to their FM radio blockbuster of '82, Avalon.
"When you break it down," says Manzanera, "we recorded, I think, seventy-eight songs. If you walk into any supermarket you might hear two, three, four of them. So that's seventy-four songs left. They might as well be new songs, because many people in the audience have never heard them.
"They don't play them on the radio. They're not on the compilation albums. If we don't play them, who the hell is going to?"
He also reveals a tantalising footnote. Although Eno will be present in spirit only when Roxy's fortieth anniversary tour reaches the Rod Laver Arena next week, all five original members were active players in their most recent recording dates a few years ago. Today, somewhere in Europe, eighteen new and unheard Roxy Music songs exist in various states of completion.
"We lost the impetus and we all went on to do other things, as we tend to do," Manzanera says breezily. "We all do lots of experimental stuff outside of the Roxy brand, as individual musicians. We're always pushing the boundaries. Whether we're brave enough to bring it all together under the Roxy umbrella, let's wait and see."