INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Sunday Times JANUARY 21, 2018 - by Dan Cairns
ROXY MUSIC: THE ALBUM THAT TRANSFORMED POP GETS A RERELEASE
The band's 1972 debut got made thanks to a risk-taking record boss. But experimentalism can only exist if there's an establishment to fight, says Dan Cairns
You can't help feeling sorry for the employee at Island Records tasked with defending Roxy Music's debut album to his doubtful superiors in the spring of 1972. Tim Clark, who these days manages Robbie Williams, was that man. Across the table from him sat Island's founder, Chris Blackwell, and the head of A&R, Muff Winwood. The former wore an impassive expression, so Clark had no idea whether his proposal that the label sign Roxy Music - who had already recorded the album and finalised the sleeve - would get the green light. The latter, Clark recalled later, actively loathed both album and band.
Pop history is littered with such stories: moments when radical sea changes in music came within seconds of being stopped in their tracks, potentially reducing some of the great pioneers to mere footnotes. Dick Rowe of Decca's dismissal of The Beatles - "Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein" - is the most infamous. Winwood's rejection might have been another had Blackwell, the following day, not walked past Clark's office, spotted the eye-catching artwork for Roxy's album and said: "Have we signed them up yet?"
Yet Winwood was far from alone in his hostility. Much of the music press detested Roxy, and even their fans struggled with the band's retro, high-camp image and the album's utterly alien soundscapes and genre-bending songwriting. Some forty-six years later, the album still sounds as if it has been transported in from another planet.
Genres collided, atonalism rubbing shoulders with prog; glam rock was subverted and reimagined by Brian Eno's bizarre electronic flourishes. And there was Bryan Ferry's heavily stylised, vibrato-crazed croon; art-school cool co-existing with rehashed psychedelia, tinged with a sort of futuristic ennui. Music had entertained such notions before, but never at the same time and on the same album.
When the non-album track Virginia Plain, a mad gallop of a song that disdains the need for a chorus, was released in August that year (and went on to reach Number 4), the band's appearance on Top Of The Pops, just weeks after Bowie's similarly epochal performance of Starman there, was a lightning bolt. Ferry, recalling the single's success, has often stated that the band were flabbergasted by it. They had no great expectation of significant sales. The public, clearly, felt differently. So, too, did a whole host of musicians who would follow in Roxy's footsteps.
How remarkable that Roxy's first album - reissued next month on both vinyl and disc, with multiple bells and whistles - and Bowie's game-changing The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars were released on the same day, and how enduring is their influence. Not just musically, though we tend to like to follow that particular trail, joining the dots, pointing out similarities, debts and flagrant thefts. The process brings up names such as Radiohead, Damon Albarn, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Franz Ferdinand, to name just five.
The berserk chug of the Roxy track Re-Make/Re-Model, with a Weimar stomp propelled by Andy Mackay's squealing sax as Eno, seemingly listening to a different song, pulls demonic noises from his tape machines, is the ghost that hovers over any number of Blur songs, or the more experimental end of the R&B and hip-hop spectrum. Ladytron, for which Ferry asked Eno to concoct effects that sounded like a lunar landscape, is another phantom presence in so much of today's more ambitious pop writing.
Rockabilly guitar, oboe, castanets, a drumbeat like horses' hooves on the final straight - modern songwriters can chance on such unlikely combinations at the push of a button, and often do. Roxy Music elected to put them together. The Bob (Medley), a conceptual song suite about the Second World War, complete with simulated gunfire; 2 H.B., Ferry's artful tribute to Humphrey Bogart; Chance Meeting's sonorous piano motif, underpinning a lyric that references Brief Encounter, as Mackay pulls the track under the depths; Bitters End's evocation of a past-their-best barbershop quartet, moping over their martinis in some last-chance saloon... This was art-rock, unafraid to fail, thrillingly strange, thrillingly new.
Look beyond the musical legacy, however, and the band's impact is arguably even more profound. The most important message was, and is: just do it. Don't overthink things, don't shy away from risk, don't pull up at the first fence, however daunting it seems. Don't hesitate on the threshold of experimentalism. Just do it.
The alternative, as so much of mainstream music has demonstrated pretty much since pop began, is the slow death of the creative spirit and the prioritising of profit: singles and albums of generic, safety-first, put-together-by-committee caution - crease-free, risk-free, bloodless. Music that has had a slide rule run over it and has succumbed to the clammy clutches of commerce. If Clark had a hard time persuading Winwood back in 1972, imagine how much more difficult that conversation would be today.
With so much of current chart songwriting in thrall either to the streaming-led, tropical house-heavy algorithm-method approach, or offensively inoffensive, school-of-Sheeran platitudinising, where would that Roxy album fit? Its distinctly mixed messages would presumably struggle to find a place in an environment where clarity and digestibility are prized over anything that might muddy the waters and confuse the consumers.
Albums as influential as Roxy's debut have a further legacy. The success of an avowedly experimental and bizarre work can often foster, however briefly, a willingness by major labels to take some risks.
Now, consider this: no matter how depressing it can be that such flurries don't occur more regularly, were such thinking to be the norm, would anything stand out as clearly, as gaudily, as plain disturbingly, as the first Roxy Music album? With nothing to kick against, no rules to break, would Ferry, Eno and co still exert such a hold on us today? Conformity and caution have a lot to answer for - but they also play a vital role in the making of real art. That may not be the most comfortable conclusion to draw, but it's surely true. For real art isn't just inspiration. It's war.
Each of these albums expanded the cultural conversation: Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home and The Beatles' Revolver revolutionised pop, the first melding breathtaking lyricism with fierce folk-rock attack, the second providing arguably the most pivotal point in the music of the 1960s. Ziggy could lay claim to a similar status in the following decade, while Thriller, in giving a black musician the biggest pop album of all time, represented the ultimate payback after decades of financial exploitation. The Spice Girls, meanwhile, ignited young women's creativity and self-belief, at the same time as opening up a whole new - and much younger - demographic for labels to target.
Roxy Music is reissued on February 2 on UMC