INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Times OCTOBER 13, 2007 - by Michael Bracewell
THE BIRTH OF ROXY MUSIC
Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music was built on a dream of glamour that would take him far from his Durham pit village roots. A new book charts the friendships forged in the early days of Pop Art that led to the birth of a music and style phenomenon.
From their earliest moments of public recognition, Roxy Music stood for an assertion of exclusivity - a conjuring of la vie deluxe, inculcated by a bravura use of style. Achieving fame within the pop mainstream almost immediately, Roxy Music became, as the band's creator Bryan Ferry would observe in 1975, "above all... a state of mind".
This was a dream which had begun for Ferry during his earliest adolescence, and which would possess him throughout his career as a student of fine art at Newcastle University. On moving to London in 1969, Ferry would spend his first night in the capital sleeping on the floor of David Hockney's studio in Notting Hill - a temporary abode which neatly summarised his determination to combine his passion for art with his equal obsession with pop music.
For the son of a former colliery worker from the small mining town of Washington, County Durham, the creation of Roxy Music - that most glamorous of groups - would be an astonishing achievement. But the attainment of Ferry's dream would also describe, as fable almost, the epic subcultural journey from England's austerity years of the '50s (in all their rationed, damp, colourless depression) to the extravagant nostalgia for the elegance of the '20s that would become a high-fashion cult during the early-'70s.
Bryan Ferry: "When my parents were first married they lived in a farmhouse; and there was a hill nearby called Penshaw Hill. On top of the hill was a local landmark - a Greek monument built for the first Earl of Durham. This was where my father was brought up; and his family had farmed on the sides of the hill. Years later, when I showed this place to Antony Price [the legendary fashion designer who would style much of Roxy Music's glamorous image], he said, 'Now I know why you're so interested in visual things: it's because of that monument.'
"And it seemed to me like a symbol, that monument - representing art, and another life, away from the coal fields and the hard North-eastern environment; it seemed to represent something from another civilisation, that was much finer...
"My childhood took place in Washington, which at the time was a small pit village in County Durham. It stands about five miles from Sunderland, and five miles from Newcastle, and a few miles from Durham as well - so it's in the triangle between those three cities. It was a typical pit village, in as much as there was a small pocket of quite heavy industry surrounded by very rich farmland; and then there'd be another village which had its own pit, and maybe a factory - and then more farmland. So it was quite strange, with the combination of being close to the countryside, yet in this very tough working environment as well.
"When I was a boy, I had a paper round, and so I used to read Melody Maker before I put it through someone's letterbox. I dragged my uncle Bryan off to see the Chris Barber Band at Newcastle City Hall; and then, when I got a little braver, I started to go into town to see concerts on my own. I would be dressed in a white trenchcoat - at the age of twelve. I would probably have seen the adverts for Strand cigarettes; I was very interested in style...
"My sisters and I would sit in the cinema and watch any old rubbish. I started going to the pictures early on - even when I was at junior school. My dad had an allotment where he grew his vegetables, and that was right next door to the cinema - the Carlton. It was a local flea-pit really, but it was my Cinema Paradiso from a very early age, because my mother used to make tea for the projectionist - cakes and scones and sandwiches. So he got these free teas, and we got free tickets. There were wooden benches that you sat on...
"Of course, when you got old enough to have a girlfriend, or to go on a date, the only thing you did was take her to the pictures. But that was in the high street of Washington, where there were two cinemas - which were bigger, and had proper velveteen seats rather than benches. One was called the Regal, and the other the Ritz. None of them are there now. When I went to university I would go to the cinema club, which is where I became aware of cinema classics and film-as-art - all that kind of thing. Up until then it was film-as-entertainment. That was all you did - you didn't have television. We got one in 1955 when Newcastle were in the Cup, but so did everyone in Newcastle. We were very poor, you see... So I think it's fair to say that Roxy Music, from my point of view, would be the reverse of this background."
In 1953, the artist Richard Hamilton - now widely credited with conceiving Pop Art - was appointed to the post of "teacher of basic design", at what was then known, confusingly, as the King Edward VII School of Art, within King's College, University of Durham at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His arrival would mark the beginning of an era, inaugurating a chain of events and a gathering of participants that would include, twenty years and many fortuitous encounters later, the creation by Bryan Ferry - who would study fine art at Newcastle between 1964 and 1968 - of Roxy Music.
The line connecting Richard Hamilton's appointment to Newcastle and Ferry's realisation of his own pop vision is drawn between a complex but distinct configuration of points. What emerges from its tracery are various semi-casual cenacles, comprising networks of art-student friendships forged across the '60s. The tenets of these would splice artistic enquiry with bedsit Bohemianism, and a devotion to the shrines of pop music and personal style. And one defining consequence of such a lifestyle - however buoyed up by more traditional undergraduate pursuits - would be an inclination to balance the creative possibilities opened up by an education in fine art, against the conscious honing of a pose.
As the young Bryan Ferry was beginning to envisage a marriage between rhythm and blues and Warholian Pop Art, the two other founding members of Roxy Music - Andy Mackay, at Reading University, and Brian Eno, over at Winchester School of Art - were actively exploring the relationship to music of ideas within the visual arts, electronics, the musical avant garde, science, and performance art. At the same time, at the Royal College of Art in London, within the generation of fashion students directly succeeding Ossie Clark, Roxy Music's future stylist, Antony Price, was creating an extravagantly theatrical construction of image that fused fetishistic sexuality with the attention to technical detail that a Hollywood set designer of the '30s would devote to the creation of a big musical number.
"The world we are talking about was a world obsessed with things clever," Price would later tell me, "and with spotting things clever." And in such a heady constellation of personalities, there were few cleverer than the young Brian Eno.
Brian Eno: "I liked very much the idea of synthesis - of artificiality. A lot of what Roxy was about was a rebellion against the rather maudlin sincerity of the blues movement - which, by the way, I have come to appreciate far more. When you are just starting something, it's much easier to know what you don't want to be than to know where you're actually trying to go. We thought about ourselves in the negative quite a lot, I think. This was most articulated by Bryan, Andy and myself - we were very opinionated, very snobbish even, about what we were doing. In fact, we treated Roxy Music as an art movement that had set itself up in contradiction to what was going on at the time."
In one crucial sense, Roxy Music would be a modern triumph of the applied arts - a bringing together of art, music and design; and with the release of the group's debut album in June 1972, titled simply Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry would present his carte de visite to the world. The record was arch, thrilling, elegant, unique, clever and richly romantic. A style manifesto written in the language of heavily stylised pop and rock music (the songs made use of both genres, in their broadest sense, and at times simultaneously), the album was made all the more alluring by its presentation. The principal musicians, cosmetically beautified, looked sinister, louche, imperial, remote, maniacal and leeringly self-preening. By contrast, the auburn-haired beauty queen whose image lay across the record's ice-blue gatefold sleeve (a model called Kari Ann who had also modelled for Ossie Clark and Antony Price) appeared beseeching, yielding, yearning - at once seductive and seduced. She seemed to have been ravished - or to be achingly desirous of being ravished - by the very music that her glamour was being asked to represent.
In addition to the iconic cover star on their debut album, three other women would be vital to the configuration of individuals and art-student factions out of which Roxy Music would emerge. As observed by Rita Donagh, the artist, teacher and second wife of Richard Hamilton, who would subsequently know Andy Mackay during his student years at Reading University, "Roxy Music was like a coming together of Newcastle and Reading." This meeting was ultimately enabled by Mackay's former girlfriend, another Reading art student called Viv Kemp - who had become friends with the Newcastle fine art graduates in London, including the artist Tim Head (whom she would later marry) and Head's friend Bryan Ferry. Without Viv, arguably, Roxy Music would not have happened.
Likewise, Bryan Ferry's one-time girlfriend Susie Cussins - the daughter of a wealthy Newcastle family, with whom Ferry would share a flat in Kensington in the very early-'70s - would provide some vital financial assistance to the fledgling group; while Juliet Mann, a designer and Rita Hayworthesque muse to Antony Price, would be a pivotal figure within the essentially gay, Notting Hill Bohemia in which Ferry would meet Price and the iconic hair stylist "Keith from Smile" - whose names would later reach millions by way of their credits on the sleeve of Roxy Music's debut album.
Roxy Music, as such, proposed a masterclass in charisma. To those responsive to its infectious charms, the album suggested a hitherto hidden and instantly desirable demi-monde - a place of declamatory style and sophistication, part cabaret, part carnival, simultaneously futuristic and archaic, but swaggeringly self-assured in its balancing of contradictions. The greater formula of this effect, nearly twenty-five years later, would be summarised by Brian Eno in perhaps one of the most coherent definitions of pop music ever uttered: "I thought, and still think, that pop music isn't primarily about making music in any traditional sense of the word. It's about creating new, imaginary worlds and inviting people to try them out."
Brian Eno: "I always felt like a pop star. That's funny... Even when I was at art school I used to dress as though I was something fairly special; I dressed very strangely, and used to have my clothes made and so on. I had the attitude, if not of a pop star, then of someone who could do whatever they wanted. In Roxy, our look was proud and future-looking - not introvert. One of the things about the blues movement that we especially didn't like was that it was all backward-looking - to do with roots and realism and sincerity. And we didn't want anything to do with that - roots just didn't interest us.
"We were Postmodernists in that sense: we thought that anything was there for the taking - it's just a palette. The whole history of music - you don't have to have any reverence for it; you can take what you want, stick it with whatever else you like, and see what you get. That's why those records were so quixotic in their changes..."
Bryan Ferry: "I was the author of Roxy Music, if you like, and it was my vision; but having said that, the various parts of it were very important to the overall make-up. Therefore the fact that Eno was there was supremely important, and also Andy and Phil [Manzanera], and not forgetting our great drummer, Paul Thompson. However, I didn't know exactly what I wanted, at all. It was more a case of having a vague vision... I think that the thing about Roxy Music is that there was quite a vast - or bigger than usual - musical range in the group. We might not have been the best players in the world, but the palette there was quite extensive. And I think that that's what made some of the early Roxy stuff so satisfying: there was a richness to it..."
Of the inner circle of young artists, designers, musicians and stylists who witnessed the creation of Roxy, nearly all would recognise the exuberant pop demi-monde, fixated on glamour and newness, that Roxy Music so invitingly proposed. Making their operational headquarters, as the '60s gave way to the '70s, amid the red-brick mansion blocks, black-railinged squares, stucco-fronted houses and broad, grey streets around Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill and Olympia, a further characteristic of this particular milieu would be their consciously heightened engagement with the concept of modern style.
Individually and collectively, therefore, many of the Roxy circle were more than semi-seriously concerned with the dimensions of their own exclusivity; and as connoisseurs of an intoxicating sense of pose - in one sense aloof, separatist - played games with not only the re-invention of themselves, but the entire notion of class. In this, these artist Bohemians of the late-'60s would emerge in the earliest years of the '70s as both their own art movement and their own high society - fulfilling to the letter the edict of Charles Baudelaire, a century before, that in periods of social transition, the cult of dandyism, "may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy..."
From such a heady fusion of mutated Mod cool, the influence of fine art and the avant garde, Roxy Music would establish themselves in the pop mainstream as the ultimate pop agents of heightened romanticism. Their debut album was claimed by The New Musical Express, on its release, to be one of the greatest first albums ever released, and the group then embarked on an initial ten-year career in which their gorgeously packaged albums and singles seldom failed to reach the top of the UK charts.
Above all, however, Roxy Music's unique glamour became the aspirational style of a generation. As Ferry has remarked of the cult of style that the group inspired, "We would actually get fans turning up in full black-tie"; while young women would attend Roxy concerts dressed as Chandleresque sirens or flapper girls of the '20s. Alongside the boys in greatcoats shaking their fringes, the audience at a Roxy concert in the mid-'70s might have stepped from the pages of a novella by Colette, or a scene from a Hollywood musical - it was all precision-constructed cool.
As Brian Eno's girlfriend of the time, the artist and ceramicist Carol McNicoll (who also created Eno's legendary "feather collar" costume, now in the V&A) has observed: "Central to all of this was the notion that you could take serious ideas from the world of art and apply them directly to the front line of popular culture - without compromising the intentions of either." In short, Roxy Music brought to the mainstream the concept of an "art-directed lifestyle" - a cult of self-recreation that, even thirty-five years later, can be found revived in the contemporary craze for burlesque, and the latest exchange of casual club wear for extravagant dressing up. In this, Roxy Music have proved that style is indeed more enduring than fashion.