INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo DECEMBER 1995 - by Rob Chapman
THEY CAME FROM PLANET BACOFOIL
Brought together by musical differences, they looked into the future - and it was dressed to kill. They were Roxy Music, and this is the story of their bizarre odyssey from iconoclastic chaos to chilled perfection - and the price they paid.
• • •
A selective but salient résumé: a 1970s band playing 1950s music in the twenty-first century. The art-school dance you could actually dance to. An avant-glamstars who had big pop hits exuding intelligence and humour; rare in an age when the only other options were buffoons in pancake make-up (Mud, Sweet) or clown princes of pomp rock (everyone else). Subsequently irritated purists no end. Fragmented into solo projects 1976. Regrouped 1978. Split, supposedly for good, 1983.
As the '70s became the '80s, they incurred latter-day sneers for becoming Mr and Mrs Mainstream's house band, the soundtrack in every dream home. To have alienated purists across the credibility scale is kinda unique. That's Roxy Music for you. Both ends burning...
Roxy Bryan Ferry grew up in a working-class household in Washington, County Durham. From a co-ed grammar school, Ferry moved to Newcastle Art College, which is where the Roxy story really begins. At college Ferry was taught by pop-art innovator Richard Hamilton, who became as integral to the band as Warhol had been to The Velvet Underground. Hamilton had a penchant for 1940s Hollywood, another motif which would feature heavily in the Roxy panorama.
Ferry remembers the Newcastle art school cliques being built around the jazz-loving French school and the American school. "We regarded ourselves as the cool crew, into The Beach Boys and Tamla. And I had a group life in the evening with The Gas Board, playing harder-edged stuff like Bobby Bland.
He left Newcastle for London in 1968, eventually teaming up with fellow Gas Board member Graham Simpson. Embryonic Roxy rehearsals comprised Ferry on harmonium and piano and Simpson on bass. Next came guitarist Roger Bunn, "a proper musician," says Ferry. When Bunn went off to record a solo LP, Ferry drafted ex-Nice man Davy O'List, who can be heard on the first two Peel sessions. "But he was too wayward," asserts Ferry. "Socially," he adds. Despite this, he did appear in 1974 to add brain-scorching guitar to Ferry's version of The In Crowd.
Ferry met Andy Mackay through artist Tim Head. "Andy brought in a more classical thing," says Ferry. "He was a trained player. When I met him he didn't own a sax, but he had an oboe and a synthesizer. I encouraged him to be funkier. But Andy brought a much-needed musicality to the party."
Mackay also brought his pal Brian Eno round to tape rehearsals. The Roxy sound palate expanded accordingly. Next to join was Jarrow boy Paul Thompson. played in R&B bands by night and worked in the shipyard by day. He moved to London, and in time-honoured fashion answered a Melody Maker ad. "This voice answered the phone. It wasn't a Geordie voice, but he recognised mine. Bryan never had an accent. I asked him why once and he said, 'Ah well, you can't really read Shakespeare with a Geordie accent'."
The first press attention for the fledgling Roxy came in August 1971, with a short piece by Richard Williams in Melody Maker. "They were the first really eclectic group," says Williams. "Eclectic's a horrible word, and very debased by overuse, but they were the first to mix and match - The Marcels meet The Velvet Underground. Ferry's fine arts training was obviously massively influential in that. Other rock stars had been to art college - Townshend, Lennon - but Ferry was like the next stage. He knew how to use not just the attitudes but the techniques as well. He saw the possibilities of collage and montage. In a way he was the first post-modernist to work in anything other than a visual medium."
Roxy hadn't gigged at that point and were seemingly destined for little more than cult status, but Antony Price, a designer fresh out of the Royal College Of Art in the late '60s, became their stylist and transformed them into retro-futurists. One of the early publicity shots shows them backstage at the Lincoln Festival in 1972, spangly space aliens from the Planet Bacofoil adrift in the land of denim and dandruff.
Roxy was different. They knew their reference points. Nowhere was this better illustrated than with the name itself. Other pop icons of the period had been shrewd enough to modernise themselves: Bolan dropped the Tolkienesque twaddle and started writing songs called Spaceball Ricochet; Bowie eased out of Buddhism and the stuff about free festivals to write Starman. These artists had seen the future and it had rayguns. If you wanted to signify modernity in the early '70s, you did not name your band after a picture palace. Ferry and Andy Mackay did. "Andy and I just made this list of all of the cinemas we could think of. Roxy had a resonance and some glamour, faded glamour maybe, and it didn't really mean anything, which I liked."
Richard Williams points out that the name was originally in quotation marks, surely the first use pop musicians had made of such arch irony. But as William's original Melody Maker piece noted, there was already a rather duff American band on Elektra called Roxy, so 'Roxy' became Roxy Music.
The line-up that would appear on the self-titled debut album was completed by the arrival of guitarist Phil Manzanera, then going nowhere with Quiet Sun, a Dulwich band people considered "too weird". Manzanera had previously applied for the guitar post but was passed over in favour of Davy O'List. "I went for an audition in Battersea, where Bryan and Andy were sharing this tiny house. I played them my tape which they hated, but we got on very well. I'd bump into them at gigs. Things like Steve Reich at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Then I helped with the lights at a Christmas party they were doing. They turned up in a van carrying their own gear, except Davy, who was used to having roadies. So I helped bring his gear in."
Manzanera bided his time serving as part-time Roxy roadie. In February 1972, O'List got wayward one time too many and Manzanera received a surprise call from Ferry offering him a gig as the band's sound mixer. Manzanera raised a minor technicality. He didn't know how to mix. "Don't worry, Eno will show you how to do it," Ferry replied. "So I went down to this derelict house in Notting Hill," Manzanera continues, "and basically it had been a ruse to get me in and test me out. But I'd sussed this and learned all the stuff, so I could play it all straight off. It was only years later that they let on that it had been a complete set-up - and I let on that I knew."
Manzanera still marvels at the diversity displayed at those first rehearsals. "We'd start off with Memphis Soul Stew, and then we'd go into The Bob (Medley), this heavy, bizarre thing about the Battle Of Britain with synths and sirens. We had everything in there from King Curtis to The Velvet Underground to systems music to '50s rock'n'roll. At the time we said this was '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s rock'n'roll. Eno would respond to something that sounded like it came off the first Velvets album, then Ferry would play something '50s and I'd play my version of the '50s. I was always a terrible session player. I could never learn a solo and I stuck that 'not quite right' approach onto Roxy. Six people in a band created this hybrid."
A hybrid that was altogether too weird for most A&R types me. The first album was eventually financed by EG Management who also looked after King Crimson, T.Rex and ELP. "Bryan liked Crimson and what we'd done with T.Rex," recalls EG's original boss David Enthoven, "and he approached us with this tape of the songs that appeared on the first LP. I played it over and over again. It was something fresh and new and quirky, and I was big on the quirky ticket. The songs were intelligent and they took risks. Island didn't really get it first, though. It wasn't really their bag.
The fact that Island, easily the most adventurous of British prog independents, were among the procrastinators is perhaps the best indicator of how left-field the early Roxy was considered. Tim Clark, then Island's marketing director, had worked closely with Enthoven to get King Crimson their first contract. "David had given me this Roxy acetate and I took it to an A&R meeting. We sat around Chris Blackwell's big round table at Basing Street Studios and I played the acetate. Chris didn't say a word. No comment at all. I was in a minority of two for it. Everyone else was against, including Muff Winwood, who as head of A&R carried a great deal of weight. There was such a feeling against the tape that I just thought, Oh well, that's it then. They aren't going to be signed. David Enthoven was due in next day with the artwork, and I thought I was going to have to tell him that the whole deal was off.
"We were standing in reception the next morning when Chris Blackwell walked by and just said casually, 'Have you got the deal done yet?' And that was the green light."
"Chris Blackwell understood it when he saw the whole package," Enthoven confirms.
To work as their publicist, the nascent Roxy Music employed a doctor of philosophy, Simon Puxley, who knew Andy Mackay from their time at Reading University. When Roxy signed to EG, Puxley received a call. "I was a supply teacher at the time, as indeed were Andy and Bryan. They came and collected me at the school gates one morning. I had no idea what was involved or what I was doing."
Recorded in March 1972, Roxy Music was produced by King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield. "EG played me these tapes. They weren't actually that brilliant musically but the ideas and the wit were superb. They were delightfully bold, almost in the camp sense of bold."
Even today, the first Roxy Music album still sounds like nothing on earth, half-a-dozen separate bands clamouring for attention. Several tracks have standard progressive rock structures, and now and then you can hear a Mellotron being played 'properly', but the songs are full of decidedly non-rock textures. It's easy to forget just how eccentric Ferry sounded in 1972 - the sleazy crooner with the rockers' quiff. On Would You Believe? he sounds absolutely barking.
"There was a lot of humour," says Manzanera. "A lot of piss-taking of heavy rock. Onstage I used to end up on my knees theatrically freaking out. And, of course, one of the charges levelled at Roxy is that it became too conventional and serious as it went on. But you can't maintain that level of humour. It was a different time, a different ethos."
Sinfield elaborates: "Before Bryan wrote Virginia Plain, Re-Make/Re-Model was probably the only contender for a single. But it had all these holes in it and no chorus, so they added a 'history of music up to the present time' interlude, which is why you end up with that bit of Duane Eddy and The Beatles and Ride Of The Valkyries in the middle eight." The title, Re-Make/Re-Model, was a steal from a 1962 pop art painting by Derek Boshier called Re-think Re-entry. The song's memorable car registration plate chorus "CPL 593H", however, was more out of The Marvelettes and Wilson Pickett school of telephone-number soul.
The nature of Roxy's experimentation depended on the endearing vagaries of their decidedly lo-fi set-up. Pedals were used to control tape speeds. The whole recording process was very Heath-Robinson remembers Manzanera: "For Your Pleasure, for instance, on the second album, has this thing called Butterfly Echo, which involved putting some sticky tape on the capstan of a tape recorder, so when the tape went over it made a sort of wobble noise. If you wanted something unusual you had to stick nails in a piano and do physical things. Now you can do it all with a sampler."
"The bombs going off on The Bob (Medley) were all done with white noise from the VCS3," adds Sinfield. "But on Virginia Plain there's a real motorbike revving up."
Virginia Plain, recorded after the completion of the album (but subsequently added to reissues) was a big pop art canvas of a single. "Bryan was playing eights in the studio, as he was wont to do," recalls Sinfield. "He said, 'I can hear this bass part going braaam like a train.' Then he launched into these wonderful lyrics. It was obviously catchier than anything on the album. There was a lot of discussion about the peculiar ending: 'What's her name? Virginia Plain!' Some people weren't too sure about it, but with my King Crimson training I thought that was exactly what it should do, to catch the disc jockeys out."
Issued in June 1972, the cover of Roxy Music was graced by Kari-Ann, an Ozzie Clark model introduced to Ferry by Antony Price. Resplendent in a Rita Hayworth hair-do, she was a throwback to Flying Fortress fuselage iconography. One of the more unlikely but endearing rock myths would have it that it's actually Bryan trannied up.
Given its meticulous attention to visual detail, there remained one major flaw on Roxy's debut. Pete Sinfield's production was universally loathed. "They were very different live to what they were on record," says Puxley. "The first album doesn't really do justice to how powerful it could be onstage. Which is partly to do with the production, which is a bit clinical and dry. There's too much extreme separation.
How does Ferry regard it in retrospect? "I just wanted it to be as diverse as possible. The second album is more focused, but that first album had lots of great ideas and indications of where it could go. It wasn't so well recorded, though, and the singing was horrible. My voice sounds too thin and too hard. I can't bear to listen to the album for that reason alone."
Ferry now regards their second album, 1973's For Your Pleasure as the best Roxy Music album. "It's the most complete. The one that captured what I wanted to do most clearly." From it's opening global dance-craze spoof ("Do the Strandski" indeed!) to the title track's punning sign-off ("Ta-ra"), For Your Pleasure is book-ended with warped humour. The languid crooning on Grey Lagoons and the barnstorming Editions Of You reveal a band already light years on from the audacious experimentation of the first LP. The Teutonic influence is clear on the relentless centrepiece The Bogus Man. Deep at the heart of the album, though, lurks something altogether more eerie. In Every Dream Home A Heartache, Ferry's sinister elegy to a blow-up doll, simultaneously conveys the twilight sex zone of a Howard Hughes-style recluse and the fumblings of the sad porn junkie who finds his "plain wrapper baby" in the pages of Exchange & Mart.
Eno went solo after the second album - replaced by violinist/keyboard player Eddie Jobson - the band not being big enough to contain two Bryans. "Eno had more feathers than Ferry," reflects Pete Sinfield. "More everything in fact, other than musical talent and hair. Eno was, and still is, a great catalyst in creative situations. But it was impossible to see how he could retain his position in the band because he didn't really do very much."
There they stood at either side of the stage. On the right: Ferry, hunched and leering, earnest and intent, focused on Roxy's future direction. On the left: Eno, the court jester, fashionably plumed and fucking with the sound. Phil Manzanera hints at a management divide-and-rule policy. "I don't think EG were fully aware of what they had. On Top Of The Pops Eno looked terrific, but all you saw on TV was his finger. On reflection, I don't think he was cut out to be in a band. It's too limiting for him."
"If I have any regret now it would be that we didn't stay together longer," says Ferry. "But at the time it seemed the right thing to do. You want everything to be 'mine mine mine'. I didn't think you could have two conceptualists in the band, but, looking back, I think that's wrong."
Once Eno had left, Roxy Music became less of an ensemble. The music stopped resembling a series of chance encounters and Ferry's centrality became more apparent.
"I saw them in Paris around the time of the third album," remembers Richard Williams. "They were hugely popular in France. They came out - four of them - to huge applause. Then there was a pause of twenty seconds and out came Bryan to a standing ovation, and you could see the rest of the band looking pretty surprised. It was a star's trick. He had shrewdly separated himself from the rest of the band, with very good timing on the micro and macro level. It worked for the gig and it also worked for the longer term of the career. Although I still wonder what it might have been like had they stayed as a collective for longer."
"They ran out of naivety," is Sinfield's analysis of post-Eno Roxy. "They'd lost the original muse and it took a lot of stress and strain to move onto another circumstance."
"Stranded was done in the same year as For Your Pleasure," says Ferry, "but not having Eno on that album meant that it suffered, it lost a bit of edge. But it gained other, more musical things." Like Serenade, for instance, the best single Roxy never released, and Street Life, possibly the best single they did release. Andy Mackay's plaintive oboe and sax embellishments enrich the sound like never before, momentously so on Stranded's tour de force, the Mackay/Ferry-penned Song For Europe. Roxy never sounded more grandiose and elegiac.
And then, realising perhaps that trying to shoehorn six shades of diversity into one band was no longer feasible, everyone started peeling off and doing their own thing. Ferry had already cut his first solo album. Manzanera and Mackay, too, had developed parallel careers. An increasingly reined-in player, the latter cut loose with Eno and John Cale on their solo albums. During the summer of 1973 he could be found working for half a day at Majestic Studios on Here Come The Warm Jets, the other half at Air on Stranded.
"Repetition is the great killer for an artist," said Ferry. So off he went to his Cole Porter fantasies and the blue-eyed soul left dormant since his Gas Board days; Mackay to his Eddie Riff alter-ego, and TV's Rock Follies; Manzanera put out two solo albums at the same time - one by Quiet Sun, who Island had originally turned down, and Diamond Head under his own name - and gained impressive co-production credits with Nico, John Cale and Eno. He still seems amazed they ever found the time.
"What's interesting about Roxy is that most people in bands don't do solo albums until they've been together for years. We all started doing solo albums almost immediately. We always had our own agenda, and as long as there was enough common ground we stayed together. There was always a possibility I could have left when Brian Eno did. I felt very loyal to him."
Roxy transgressed every unwritten rule in the book. The orthodoxy decreed that you did your Transit van and Blue Boar apprenticeship. You did not come flouncing in with all your fashion and design chums and start writing pop art singles about cigarette ads on American billboards. You played third on the bill to Hackensack at The Dog And Scrote. You did not, as Roxy Music did, showcase at the Tate Gallery, and then secure a brace of prestigious support gigs with Bowie and Alice Cooper. Neither did you hire an unqualified publicist with a PhD who examined the relationship between Victorian art and literature, and then proceeded to charm the pants off the press.
In fact, as early as that first Melody Maker feature, Ferry was laying down the Roxy line on non-conformity. "The average age of this band is twenty-seven, and we're not interested in scuffling."
"They were distrusted by the muso-ish sections of British rock'n'roll," Sinfield recalls. "They weren't old hippies. They were people who had been to art college or Oxbridge and were very bright. And they understood that if you took three or four chords and used them interestingly, and combined them with cheap and flash influences with a sense of theatre, this could be more exciting than a bunch of pseudo jazzers getting up and blowing away."
Phil Manzanera is equally scathing about the inverted snobberies that clung to early Roxy. "The thing that really annoyed people was that we said that we were 'inspired amateurs'. We just thought, it's not about the dots or about how technically brilliant you are. Five years later, of course, this was the basis for punk."
Roxy Music generally enjoyed good relations with the more open-minded members of the music press, but there was suspicion by the time the fourth, Country Life, came out in '74 that Roxy had become a mere vehicle for Bryan Ferry, and that 'the look' was starting to upstage the music.
"We all loved Roxy Music," recalls Charles Shaar Murray, then at the NME. "They knocked us out when they first started, but it soon became apparent that Bryan took himself much more seriously than any of us were ever able to take him. We started referring to him as Byron Ferrari, Byriani Ferrett... there were loads more."
"Oh, yes!" laughs former NME deputy editor Tony Tyler, relishing the challenge. "Brown Furry, Burn Fiery, Brain Fury, anything but his real name. This used to irritate him madly. If he'd just laughed at the whole thing and bought one of us a drink, I'm pretty sure it would have stopped. But he was far too fond of his own dignity. And then he made a really big mistake. He did this gig at Hammersmith..."
Ah yes, the famous 'Zorro' look. Ferry dolled up like a gaucho. "Oh, that was too much for them," Antony Price snorts. "Bryan said, 'Let's do it for a laugh'." The joke rebounded. NME ran a feature headlined How Gauche Can A Gaucho Get?, with a huge photo of Ferry draped in said pampas chic.
A fifth album, Siren, followed in October '75 featuring bassist Johnny Gustafson, whose finest hour came with the Motown-inspired basslines running like an unbroken spine through the whole album, never more effectively than on Both Ends Burning and Love Is The Drug. The latter was a greater influence on Talking Heads' Psycho Killer than anyone has ever seen fit to acknowledge, but at the time of the onslaught of punk's cultural apartheid in 1976 Roxy Music was temporarily on hold. Consequently they were erased from the picture with revisionist zeal.
The only major setback in Roxy's gameplan was a total inability to crack America. "They put us on some weird bills," remembers Ferry. "Jethro Tull, Edgar Winter, Ten Years After, Humble Pie. Totally the wrong audiences. That whole side of it was very mismanaged, although even to this day you get people coming up saying 'I was there - Mother's Place in Washington.' And you remember there being twenty people in that club!"
The consensus was, still is, that America never 'got' it, that Roxy were just too arty. Not even after Ferry's solo career had ground to a halt with The Bride Stripped Bare album - scarred by the emotional distress of his split with Jerry Hall - and Roxy reconvened to make 1979's Manifesto. Ferry claimed in the year of its release that his output was "down to about six songs a year" but at least the quality was maintained. A million miles from For Your Pleasure, Manifesto heralded Roxy's salon music/luscious disco shuffle era and laid the foundations for Flesh + Blood, the sixth best-selling UK album of 1980, and their final album, Avalon, in 1982. It also produced the hits Trash, Angel Eyes and - most notably - Dance Away.
"I always imagine hairdressers clipping to Dance Away," Ferry deadpanned in 1978. He wasn't wrong. A whole new era of Roxy Music was about to commence.