INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph OCTOBER 18, 2007 - by Duncan Fallowell
HOW ROXY MUSIC TOOK HIGH ART TO THE HIGH STREET
Duncan Fallowell reviews Re-make/Re-model: Art, Pop, Fashion And The Making Of Roxy Music, 1953-1972 by Michael Bracewell.
Michael Bracewell the novelist is also our most assiduous cartographer of English pop dandyism and wrote a delightful book on the subject: England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde To Goldie (1997). From that broad account of small-town boys putting on their gladrags and storming the metropolis, he now advances the art-rock group Roxy Music as in some way unique and revolutionary.
When they appeared in the early 1970s, Roxy Music were caught in the slipstream of gender-bending glamrock begun by David Bowie. The shock of the new and the global reach Bracewell ascribes to them should in fact be credited to Bowie. Indeed, the whole of art-rock actually came out of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album of 1967.
But there's no doubt that Roxy Music were fresh with lots of pizazz. If their achievement was more modest than Bowie's, their pedigree is more juicy. Pop music belongs essentially to youth and is not capable of intellectual development. Success, if it comes at all, comes early, and that's it. So what we have here is a book about education - specifically, how the student institutions of provincial England became the conduits for new theories in the fine arts, mostly from America, which were then precipitated onto the high street via pop and fashion.
The two principal figures are Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. Painfully self-conscious, Ferry became a dandy in order to survive. He studied art under Richard Hamilton, the founder of Pop Art, at Newcastle University, and from here Bracewell's extraordinary map of connections spreads to Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Warhol's Factory, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and beyond.
Meanwhile, Eno is studying art in Ipswich and Winchester but is drawn more to the experimental music of Cornelius Cardew and Morton Feldman. Beardsley, Gurdjieff, Biba, the Everly Brothers, Rita Hayworth, Mod fashion victims and countless others jostle for attention in the onrush of references.
Such is Bracewell's enthusiasm, you could be forgiven for forgetting that this was the era when The Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were all-conquering. But it was bands such as Roxy Music who smelt of the future.
Neither Ferry nor Eno were really musicians - they were clever operators, manipulating ideas pioneered by others. Pop music is especially suited to this since it's the most parasitic of the arts after photography. But Ferry had designed Roxy as his vehicle, so when Eno started to receive the greater fan-attention (because of his androgynous Bowie-esque costumes), a split was inevitable.
Eno, with more radical artistic ambition, went deeper into electronica, following the route established by the German avant-garde group Can, which led towards a new branch of youth music generally called dance. Ferry, whose primary loves were soul and show business, became the first yuppie.
He sidestepped punk and re-emerged in the 1980s as the darling of Thatcherite richesse, specialising in cover versions. Thus he fulfilled the Roxy plan to reconnect rock with corporate kitsch.
But he never lost his creepy, misfit quality, and the effective harbingers of that process - which eventually neutered rock rebellion and reabsorbed it into the pop industry - turned out to be Abba, who are not mentioned in this book.
Abba appeared at the same time as Roxy Music and swept everything before them in terms of popular success, relying not on style but on the old-fashioned virtues of songwriting. As for punk, it turned out to be rock's last fling. Ferry's originality lay in occupying the untenable moment of rock back to pop. He wanted it both ways - high purpose married to the mass market via irony - and the result was soon paralysis, the fate of all those who think that style can be divorced from content and mean something of itself.
But that takes us beyond the scope of the present volume, which ends with the appearance of Roxy's wonderful first album in 1972. This is the story of how student dreams in grubby bedrooms can bring forth fabulous fruit. It is also the first detailed analysis of the origins of 1970s pop style.
That decade has often been considered the trashy interval between 1960s chic and 1980s money. In fact, it was an era of astounding complexity, crazier than the 1960s, a time when reality started to dissolve into cyberspace. It has yet to be properly assessed, but Bracewell has made a notable beginning on one fascinating, romantic corner of it.