INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Classic Rock JULY 2001 - by Andy Robson
PLAYBOYS OF THE WESTERN WORLD
For anyone brought up on Avalon, it may come as a surprise to learn that Roxy Music was once considered one of the most experimental rock bands of all time. With four-fifths of the original line-up now back together, Classic Rock reveals the true story of one of rock's great innovators. Big girl's blouse: Andy Robson.
A pudgy faced, floppy haired rockster in a dodgy suit who's old enough to know better - no, not Bryan Ferry on the comeback trail with Andy Mackay, Phil Manzanera and co., but an icon from the very dawn of rock history. If you've ever scratched your head and wondered: Roxy Music - why? Well, blame it on Bill Haley...
1956: the Empire Theatre, Sunderland, and the UK, let alone Wearside has never seen its like before. Rock'n'roll fever has grabbed the nation by the throat and Haley's Rock Around The Clock, propelled by its success in The Blackboard Jungle, is more than a teen anthem. It's the battle cry of razor wielding, drape donning, duck's arse flaunting class warriors: or Teddy boys to me and thee. Haley's arrival in Britain was watched in horror as a generation took to slashing cinema seats and serious Brylcreem abuse. And watching it all, from his front row seat, was a quiet eleven-year-old lad, who'd won tickets to see what your average Brit, hiding behind their chintz curtains, saw as nothing less than the end of civilization.
I went with my sister, remembers Ferry, we had front row seats for that amazing first rock'n'roll tour. There were plenty of Teddy boys dancing in the aisles, although I was a bit young for ripping up seats... But this inspirational trip was not a one off for the sprog Ferry. Before he'd reached his teens, Ferry had caught jazz giants like the MJQ. Before he'd reached his teens, MJQ in Newcastle and Sunderland. And again, it wasn't just the music all fiery passion capped by a veneer of cool but the image that intrigued the boy who was already watching the world with a dispassionate painter's eye.
Those bop jazz guys wore sharp suits which later the mods would do, and, yeah, the Teddy Boys were there too. And there you are, the two elements of my future style or should that be fetishism!
And Ferry allows himself the gentlest chuckle. He is not famed ass the most ebullient of interviewees which usually gets read that he's too much of a rock star, too much the arty poseur to talk. But when it comes down too it, he's just a quiet and very shy guy. Ferry, from the earliest age, escaped into a private world of music and cinema.
Yeah, I was totally alone in my little world. I remember my first EP, by the Charlie Parker Quintet. I learned all the solos by heart and I still remember them now. In fact I've still got the EP and it's a very treasured possession.
Ferry's lonely passion was fuelled by the radio, which catered for people's strange obsessions. You could hear everything, jazz club, blues hour all jumbled together... and reading. I read everything, especially Melody Maker from front to back while doing my paper round.
From the pages of the now defunct rag came stories and pictures of a world of glitz and glamour, fin-winged cars and pneumatic blondes, a world that at first seemed impossibly far away for the son of a miner's ready experience.
But despite the patronizing twaddle of movies like Billy Elliot, you could live in the north, be the son of a miner and have a decent bit of culture in your life. By a working man's standard, a miner's wage was decent, and since nationalization, work was regular. Improving state education meant that Frederick and Mary Ferry could expect Bryan and their other three children to win qualifications and take their place in the booming '60s economy that welcomed the teenager.
So beware of the Roxy myth that Ferry mooned around his home town of Washington emulating Romantic poets like Shelley while everyone else wore clogs and beat ten bells out of each other after a skinful of a Friday night.
As well as the jazz and blues, Ferry, contrary to the myth, enjoyed his sports I was a loner at school because I was the only one into art, but I wasn't a loner on the sports field. I was meant to be an aesthete, a lonely pathetic figure, but I was good at basketball, like the young Jagger tennis and high hurdles...
Mmm, so much for the wandering lonely as a daffodil then. Indeed, like any teenage student, Ferry was happy to sweat to earn a few bob. Vacations were spent working. In a factory, the steelworks or a building site. It was normal to do that so you could earn the cash to buy your winkle-pickers or records.
But those jobs went out the window during his last summer before going to the Newcastle University to study fine art. Having sucked in all the influences from white teeny boppers like Johnny Ray to soul masters like Sam Cooke, Ferry's first band, The Banshees, hit the working man's club circuit. Ferry immediately made amazingly good money well, more than on a building site.
At college, the new band, The Gas Board, was even better. We did blues covers, Freddie King, all the Kings, this was the peak of the blues boom, after all, - and we had a horn section [including film director Mike Figgis] which made us pretty sophisticated. Hitching down to London to see Hendrix, and the Stax review with Otis Redding, that was a conversion like the road to Damascus. That's when I decided to make a living out of music.
Redding remains a life long influence on Ferry. Ask his first son; he's christened Otis.
Earning that living wasn't quite so easy though. For two years Ferry struggled on as a teacher. Until he got the sack because his ceramics classes turned into music sessions.. Um, yes, we had all these immigrant girls in the class. They just liked all the music I played...
Ferry tried to join other bands, even auditioning for King Crimson. Fripp, diplomatically, remembers Bryan hustled for an audition. Obviously, he had something but it wasn't for Crimson but what he had was good for Roxy. Ferry reckons he didn't get the gig because they wanted a bass player who could sing, which is why Boz Burrel got the job. He omits to mention that Burrel couldn't play bass either and was shown around the fretboard by Fripp... But either way, if Ferry wanted to be in a band it looked like there was only one way: he'd have to start his own.
With mates from The Gas Board, particularly Graham Simpson on bass, Ferry put around a dozen songs together. But who would want to play in a band with a guy who wanted to combine Redding, Sinatra and Lotte Lenya with rock'n'roll and a taste for modern composers like John Cage? And whose voices wobbled like a frog in a blender...
Cue: Andy Mackay. Let's face facts here. If you want to cut it in the rock world, being a classically-trained oboist is a crap place to start. Er, yes... I did place an ad in the music press, offering my services, but didn't get any replies. 30 years on Mackay still sounds slightly hurt.
But Mackay must have had something going for him because Ferry took him into the embryonic Roxy even though he was looking for a keyboard player. Not only were Mackay's keyboard skills slight, but Ferry recalls that Andy didn't know much about sax at the time so I played him all the people I liked: Sonny Rollins, King Curtis, Parker.
Mackay agrees. I only really knew the sax in a European classical tradition, mostly French, but bits of Walton and Vaughn Williams too. But I had played in a band at university (Mackay, brought up in inner city Pimlico, studied music and English at Reading) and I'd picked up on soul. It was very cool if you had a Sam And Dave record, and Gino Washington was the star of the English scene, with a very impressive sound. But I wasn't a jazz person; I liked sax when it turned up in funny contexts like The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, or in rock'n'roll, Johnny and the Hurricanes in particular...
But the non-keyboard playing part-time saxophonist had a trump card or two that sold him to Ferry. In the back of his dad's car, which he'd borrowed to get to Ferry's, was a VCS3 synthesizer one of the few in the country. And he had a mate willing to wrestle with the anarchic bleeps'n'beeps it emitted. A certain son of a postman, one Brian Peter George St Baptiste de la Salle Eno.
As Ferry remembers the meeting of the big three was more comic than cosmic. We didn't have a tape recorder to tape the sessions, so Andy said he knew a guy and the next thing I know, Brian Eno's turning up with a huge Ferrograph, this enormous great German tape recorder, so heavy he could barely get it through the door. This was very funny. And he saw the synthesizer and started tinkling around ...Quite funny really. Anyone who turned up at my place ended up staying...
Literally in Mackay's case, who moved in with Ferry in mid-71. It was fine as a domestic arrangement, reckons Mackay. Roxy are easy to live with; we'll share rooms with anyone! and slowly the Roxy sound coalesced in sessions that, as described by Mackay, must have been bizarre to witness. We were convinced it would work on some level, progressive rather than pop. We didn't have a drummer, but that was good because we concentrated on sounds, layered textures, that you can hear on the first album.
All of which may have pleased the avant gardists, Eno and Mackay. But pragmatic ambitious rocker Ferry wanted more. Nothing less, indeed, than a 'wonder drummer' and a 'perfect guitarist.' Yup, in another universe Bryan could have been a great advertising copywriter, remembers Mackay of the ads the band placed in Melody Maker. Phil Manzanera doesn't just remember the ad. He's still got it.
It's about an inch square; I'd heard of Roxy because Richard Williams had written them up in his Melody Maker column: Names That Could Break The Sound Barrier. Bryan had sent him a Roxy tape and I thought, blimey, this sounds more interesting than what we're doing!
We, in this case, was Quiet Sun who played very complex jazz rock in 13/8 timing. So when I get to this little working man's cottage in Battersea where Andy lived and there's him, Bryan, Brian, Graham Simpson and Paul Thompson in this tiny little room and they say 'Right, let's jam around a Carole King number', just two chords, I thought, 'Great, a doddle!' and, of course, I didn't get the job...
Instead, the gig went to Davy O'List. Which must have seemed some coup for the complete (and completely broke) unknowns. Davy was quite starry, recalls Manzanera, of the pyrotechnic guitarist who'd found fame with the Nice and then filled in for Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett started to lose the plot. With O'List on board Ferry reckoned the big name guitar god would open record company doors which so far had stayed resolutely shut.
I'd hump all these tapes around places and insist on playing them to, people who pretended to be on the phone, remembers Ferry. Mmm, this is the music of the future, they'd say. Come back in a year, when the future's arrived...
By now Roxy (or Roxy Music as they now were, as an American band had been discovered with the shorter moniker) had landed their 'wonder drummer' the aforementioned Thompson. That was down to Bryan, reckons Mackay, he was instinctive in going for the drummer with the rock'n'roll proclivity. Which is Mackay speak for 'he gave the drums one hell of a thump'. And not only the drums.
Manzanera, who was helping out as a roadie, still can't quite credit what happened next.
I was at the management audition for Roxy with EG Management. On come the band, then Davy O'List and Paul Thompson proceed to have this punch up! And I'm going 'Uh! What's going on?'. Anyway, the management obviously said 'Get rid of the guitarist!' And suddenly Manzanera's back in the frame for the guitar job.
O'List was quite troubled, quite difficult to deal with, says the ever sensitive Mackay; Manzanera, by contrast, couldn't have tried harder to fit in.
I knew the Roxy sound was unique from the first time I heard Bryan's tape, says Manzanera. I'd listened to everything from psychedelic '60s stuff to Bryan's tape, says Zappa to Varese and I knew this was special and I had to be a part of it. I secretly learned all their numbers. Then one day I get the call to mix their sound. I said 'I don't have the foggiest idea how to do it' but they said 'Eno'll show you'. I turned up to this derelict house in Notting Hill and they say Davy's not turned up, did I want to play some guitar? And I knew this was my moment...
Manzanera landed the job and within six weeks he was in the studio helping cut that first Roxy album. No wonder he felt every day was like Christmas. The speed with which Roxy moved from obscurity to record deal was not that odd. The songs were written and had been honed in gigs for a year, Richard Williams, the Steve Lamacq of his day, had raised media awareness and the statutory Peel session had been broadcast. What's more EG management, who'd been alerted by Fripp to the upcoming Roxy since Ferry had failed the Crims audition, already had a hot line to Island, then the home to all things prog and exotic. If Roxy were an overnight sensation, it had been a bloody long night out in the cold.
Yet immediately they found themselves abused for not having 'paid their dues'. Whispering Bob Harris, in a rare moment of truculence, announced the band on The Old Grey Whistle Test by saying if he'd had it his way they wouldn't have appeared. Ignorant of Mackay and Manzanera's technical abilities, blind to the years spent by Ferry and Eno on the margins of experimental art, the critics piled in. At best Roxy were a pseudy Sha Na Na, at worst as pre-packaged as The Archies.
In response the band purposely provoked the critics, describing themselves as inspired amateurs. As Manzanera explains. We came up with the phrase to annoy people but the concept that anybody with an idea and enthusiasm could make it in pop was a serious one that carried through to the punk and today's guys sat in their bedrooms with beat boxes. But you have to have an idea to start with. For Mackay, the attitude was simpler. We were more arrogant then. Who cared what Bob said...
It was the oxygen of notoriety that nourished the band. Their appearance on OGWT, with Eno preening like some anorexic peacock from Planet Tharg, and Ferry leering like a Dracula-type Presley as Ian Hunter would call him, was bizarre enough; but it was the sound, notably Mackay's gorgeous oboe intro to Ladytron that would seduce the viewers. A danceable solution to teenage revolution had arrived...
Even if it was a little rough at the edges. We were ragged live, admits Ferry, but there was a charm to that.
Smart arse was more how Manzanera remembers it. We'd do things like not have any speakers on stage. So everything was mixed through Eno's synth and he was in the audience. Why? a) because he was banned from stage because he was so nervous that he made us nervous. And b) when mixing he had no idea what to do and he'd wander on stage in the middle of a number and go 'Oi, what's that knob for?'. He'd sing harmonies from the mixing desk, too, and no one in the audience had a clue where this noise was coming from.
The band were none the wiser themselves. Manzanera again. You couldn't tell what was going on! Eno would put my guitar, the piano and Andy's sax through a filter and suddenly you'd disappear. You'd be thinking 'Am I playing this or him?' We'd cobbled together a very English, Heath Robinson, wonky sound going through doctored Revox tape machines, all in the tradition of the BBC Radiophonic workshop (think theme to Dr Who) and Ron Geesin with Pink Floyd. With all our modern technology, it's difficult to imagine how radical it was. But underneath we had the raunch of rock, with this great drummer, whose mentor was John Bonham, laying down a beat which let us do whatever we wanted over the top.
And whatever critics like Harris made of it, the crowds loved Roxy. From the earliest they attracted the strangest mix, from art school dandies to teeny bop screamers to prog rock 'heads'.
In fact they were a little too keen, remembers Mackay. We had no idea how to respond to a live audience we only knew the songs on the first album, so if they wanted an encore we'd have to repeat a number from the set, usually Virginia Plain, which was great 'cos it hadn't been released as a single yet.
Not all the audiences were so keen. In their enthusiasm to get the band to the public, promoters stuck Roxy on some strange bills. Like supporting Rory Gallagher, the exuberant blues rocker whose macho, lumber-shirted style couldn't have been further from Roxy's.
Rory's fans thought we were a bunch of poofs. We were in this boxing ring or at least it felt like it. They hated us! recalls Mackay. Nowadays it doesn't seem strange to dress up for a gig, but then it was a duller denim world. People in the inner cities or industrial towns were desperate for a bit of glamour and we gave it to them.
But the daft bills didn't improve, even when Roxy made their first assault on the USA in '72. Ferry still sounds rueful. There were lots of mistakes made, supporting various people that were unsuitable. Jethro Tull? Yes, even him. (sic!) They didn't know where to put us. It was the story of our life in America. The irony now, of course, is that we're are considered establishment in the UK, which is a little sad, but in the USA we're still underground with amazing street cred.
Mackay concurs. We'd get showered with water bombs, like in Fresno they'd try and make your mascara run! And when we opened for Jethro Tull we were completely out of our depth. We had tiny little amps, no experience and sounded totally wimpy. They had bowler hats and Union Jacks and sounded absolutely amazing. It was a good learning curve. And the likes of Humble Pie were really good to us they had a Lear jet and after gig buffets. They'd ask us up and we'd go 'Cor, this is the life' and it was. An incredible experience!
But a 1972 drew to a close, so the first real cracks appeared. Graham Simpson had already gone, the mental and emotional strains having taken their toll. Rik Kenton did the business next, but for the recording of that 'difficult', and, as it turns out, triumphant second album, For Your Pleasure, would see John Porter come in, as part of Roxy's continued revolving door policy toward bassists.
But the growing schism in Roxy was at its creative heart, between Ferry's unrelenting ambition to make Roxy a commercial success and Eno's avant garde conceptualism. Even now Ferry is coy. I guess Brian wanted to go and do his own thing... and he'd rather play up their current good relations.
We've recorded recently, and there's a song we wrote together on my new album it's quite cordial between us. Yet as far as the Roxy revival was concerned, There wasn't really a chance of him coming in on it. We never thought about it. He doesn't really have a stage playing life. I asked him three years ago when we were writing together if he'd do a concert, just as us two, but he said, 'God, no. I could never go on stage again.'
Manzanera, who kept a foot in both camps throughout the split, bluffs and flusters rather more about Eno's role in the new Roxy. We talked about it. It was one of those 'I thought you were going to ring him, oh, I thought you were' things. And then you think maybe he wouldn't like the new stuff anyway... It was a complete bungle.
For Mackay in particular, who'd known Eno since college days, the '73 split was personally painful and professionally a turning point. I was very upset at the time. What happened was what I feared. The band became more predictable; it moved along a pop path. It's idle speculation to wonder what would have happened if he'd stayed in the band. To be candid there wasn't really a role for someone like him in a group that was turning into a rock'n'roll band. Actually I did ring him (about the revival). He wasn't in.
The growing tension in the band underwrote what for many, including Ferry, is Roxy's greatest album, and a seminal moment in Brit rock. For Your Pleasure mixed pop-rockers like Do The Strand with Eno weirdness like The Bogus Man and Ferry's ballad Beauty Queen. And it was during Ferry's heartfelt performance of his favourite ballad that the Roxy split finally came. The scene was a York festival where Eno had already made his loyalties clear by performing with his old mockers Portsmouth Sinfonia. As Ferry warbled his way through Beauty Queen, Eno's fans shouted for their hero. The story goes that Eno walked off the stage to leave it clear for Ferry. But Bryan felt Brian was walking out on him. Either way, the creative axis of Roxy was smashed.
And for many that was the end of the Real Roxy Music story. As Mackay feared, their unique amalgam of commercial pop, flagrant rock and avant garde electronica soon dissolved into increasingly smooth sounds, fiercely directed by Ferry's perfectionism. Perversely, though, Eno still names Stranded, which he doesn't play on and is the follow up to For Your Pleasure, as his favourite Roxy release.
But although moments of genius spark through Country Life, and Mackay has affection for albums as late as Manifesto, the Roxy Sound became increasingly smooth and studio-bound. My early dreams of a synthesis of rock'n'roll and avant garde took a downturn, admits Mackay. Drugs, too, which were barely part of the early Roxy story, seemingly kicked in during the last three albums, when a great band seemed intent on dancing away their talent.
These days, though, the Roxy crew are happier with the world. Ferry, after living the lifestyle of one of his songs and consorting with as many of the girls who decorated Roxy covers as he could, finally settled to 18 years of married domesticity, picking up Grammy nominations and the occasional near-death airline experience. Mackay, who suffered the tragic loss of his wife in 1992 and subsequently gave up music to care for his kids, has never remarried and composes music which is part devotional, part rock'n'roll. Manzanera, for his part, has returned to his South American roots, playing and producing with Latin and Cuban musicians.
Manzanera's early years were spent in Cuba, and those who reckon Roxy never paid their dues should bear in mind his introduction to music.
We lived across the road from the dictator's chief-of-staff. My dad worked as a spy on the quiet. When Castro and the revolution came we spent nights on the bathroom floor, bullets flying around our heads, our faces pushed into the mosaic on the floor, the sky lit up by gunfire... guards across the road from us were shot; my brother took pictures. I've got pictures of me being patted on the head by guys with big beards, cigars and machine guns. And in that context, I learned my first songs, Cuban folk songs. That's where my musical journey started...
Bill Haley in Sunderland? Kids' stuff...
THE PRODIGAL DRUMMER
What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless. But Paul Thompson had a cunning plan when he had nowhere to crash. I moved in with Eno. I was working on building sites at the time, and I'd use his pans to fry my chips. I ate rubbish food. I still do. I think he was a bit reluctant to have me move in, but I put him under pressure...
Thompson, the bluff Geordie and Eno, the avant garde artiste, may seem an odd couple, but that was what early Roxy were all about. I saw this ad: 'Wonder Drummer Wanted For Avant Rock Group'. I didn't even know what it meant but it sounded interesting. I was into experimental stuff. Bryan answered the phone and immediately picked up that I was a Geordie he still had traces of an accent and we got on. They wanted a straight ahead rock drummer, I wanted to do something different so it all fell together straight away.
The Roxy mythology likes to paint Thompson as a bit of a grunt, whacking away in the style of his hero John Bonham while the arty ones pranced about with their synths and jazzy guitars. But there was always more substance to Thompson's style than he got credit for, which meant Mackay and Manzanera were also quick to have him on board for their side projects. Within Roxy, it was Thompson who held it together during the anarchy of the early gigs. But even he couldn't rescue them during their ill-fated first American tour. Miami Speedway was especially bad. We had no sound-check, so the sound was crap. They hated us.
Madison Square Garden supporting Tull wasn't much better. We were playing to an audience who all had question marks above their heads. We were playing out of context, but there was no context to put us in!
Like most of the band, For Your Pleasure remains Thompson's favourite album, because I had more input into the songs. Despite his closeness to Eno, though, Thompson believes his replacement by Eddie Jobson was right for the way the band was going at the time, a more commercial rock sound. Thompson, though, was to find even his place in the band wasn't permanent. In 1980 Ferry showed him the door, taking on board the more American funk-lite of Andy Newmark.
Bryan's writing was going one way, and I wasn't going with it. Musical differences! They did ask me in for the tour but I had a mishap on the way to rehearsal on my motorbike. I broke my thumb. I think we'd have gone different ways even if I'd done the tour. It was a blessing in disguise really. It wasn't me. Even if I pretended that I could play the stuff well, I wouldn't have enjoyed it. But funnily enough I enjoy playing it now...
Which was where Thompson has the last laugh. After Roxy he played with Gary Moore (a hard taskmaster and a half; he goes through more musicians than underpants) and then went gold in the USA with Concrete Blonde. I never had a hit in the US with Roxy, which is why I guess they wanted that slicker sound (to break the USA) but then I went and did it on my own, which made me smile, just for my own satisfaction...
Thompson's private life took him back to Newcastle, where he's been happy playing pubs. I've not slipped to the bottom of the ladder, I went there intentionally. But when the call came for the Roxy revival, he had to say yes. Which will satisfy me gran who kept ringing twice a year to ask if I was going to play with the band. So what was it like meeting up again?
Weird. The equipment's changed so much. I walked in and thought, ah, that's the PA system and it was just the monitors. The size of a house!
And what will Mr. Thompson wear on the tour? The blue jump suit or the leopard skin Tarzan outfit? I was a bit reluctant about dressing up in the old days. I liked the jump suit though. I was rather taken by Andy's green bobbly satin thing. And I'd have you know that leopard skin was fake fur! But for Top Of The Pops I'll wear a black t-shirt I think. Edible, preferably.
Makes a change from chips, then.
THE CRUCIAL ENO-ERA ROXY ALBUMS
Roxy Music, released August 1972, produced by Peter Sinfield. Cover girl: Kari-Ann Moller.
Andy Mackay's favourite Roxy album. I taught up to the day we went in the studio, remembers Mackay now, who taught at Holland Park Comprehensive. Actually I felt I was letting the school down. We'd already done the John Peel show at least the kids believed me then that I was in a rock band!
Top Tracks: The Bob [Medley], a strange Eno/Mackay collage, contrasting with Ladytron, all tapes and oboe and Ferry's yearning, unique voice. I think we played everything more or less as we did it live, says Mackay, although obviously there were overdubs. Somehow we did that set of songs rather than anything else because of the force of Bryan's determination. He made them work.
Ferry, crucially for Roxy's image, took control of the cover work Kari-Ann Moller, a chocolate box candy, ready for unwrapping. Ferry ensured that Anthony Price (clothes) and Nick de Ville (art direction) received credits. Both are on board for the Roxy revival cover. It was the artwork that allegedly swung Chris Blackwell, the Island boss, behind a band he felt, at best, ambivalent about. Roxy's example, combining rock, art and commerce would set the tone not just for the new romantic popsters but future market-conscious artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin.
For Your Pleasure, released march 1973, produced by Chris Thomas and Roxy Music. Cover girl: Amanda Lear.
Ferry's favourite (although Avalon's a close second) It was the first time I felt I'd got the songs right. They'd matured a lot over the year. We also had good people like Chris Thomas helping us. I'd got on a roll with the song writing, especially with In Every Dream Home A Heartache and Do The Strand.
Top Tracks: In Every Dream Home A Heartache - Ferry finds his ideal love: an inflatable doll? Beauty Queen - remorse, faded love, ultimate romance. Aaaaaah, sweet.
For Manzanera, re-learning the material from this era for the new Roxy has been a bit of a shock. The patterns of how you play over the years change and I'm finding it hard to work out where I was in my head when I did those things. There's a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of rhythm and a lot of not putting your fingers in the right places I wish I knew someone who knows it and could show me how to play it all.