INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Prog AUGUST 2012 - by Paul Sexton
A FABULOUS CREATION
It's forty years since Roxy Music's debut album launched 'sci-fi rock' on an unsuspecting decade. As the band's entire back catalogue gets the deluxe box set treatment, Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson recall the prog, the colour and the torture...
They came to be the emissaries of experimentation, Britain's chargés d'affaires of the daring and dashing. It's incongruous to think that Roxy Music coalesced four decades ago from a miscellany of itinerant trialists, failed auditions, a chap with one of those newfangled synthesiser contraptions and a Geordie who doubled up on lead vocals and driving the van.
Fully forty years later, Roxy's entire recorded output is with us again, in the form of Virgin's The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982, an opulent ten-disc voyage around everything they ever committed to disc. And if some classic catalogues can sound a bit creaky on reinspection, the years have been lavishly kind to this one. It's one thing to sound before your time in the 1970s but, in their full splendour, Roxy Music still sound ahead of the game now.
The group's improbable melange of mainstream rock, avant-garde adventure and an indefinable nostalgia was truly pioneering. Even those in the media who greeted Roxy with an early embrace did so with a certain disbelief, as if they'd just had a close encounter with an unknown life force. "Peace Rock, Acid Rock, Hard Rock, Country Rock, Psycho Rock, Fag Rock and Glam Rock," wrote Steve Turner in Beat Instrumental soon after their 1972 album debut. "Now we've got Sci-Fi Rock."
The Roxy spaceship flew several test missions in 1971. County Durham's own Bryan Ferry, already twenty-six and a Fine Arts graduate, had sung with bands such as The Banshees and The Gas Board years before, lost a teaching job and failed an audition for King Crimson. Then he would join forces with electronics brainiac Brian Eno and former National Youth Orchestra instrumentalist Andy Mackay to record the demos that so impressed Melody Maker's Richard Williams and, a little later, John Peel. The group had never even played live and were still called simply Roxy when Williams seized upon the tapes he'd been sent and identified influences stretching from Ethel Merman all the way to The Velvet Underground.
Missing out on Crimson was perhaps the best bad news Ferry ever had. He made enough of an impression for Robert Fripp to urge him to contact Crimson's EG Management, who would soon be steering the embryonic Roxy. Crimson and Soft Machine were chart bands at the time, and Pink Floyd had smashed straight to Number 1 for the first time with Atom Heart Mother. But Ferry's early comments on the progressive 'scene' say much about their far-reaching ambition. "I don't think Soft Machine were interesting enough," he avowed. "Pink Floyd were more interesting, but still fell a little short. When we formed Roxy Music we actually thought our music would be more experimental than it has been up to now. I certainly think we're capable. We're the most ideas-orientated band around."
That description would run through almost everything Roxy Music put their name to. But their newly remastered legacy of eight studio albums, now augmented by two more of B-sides, alternate versions, live tracks and dance mixes, supports the assertion of diehard fans that they were never as wildly imaginative as in their first flush of creativity, before their mid-1970s hiatus. That's from their own lips.
Tyne And Wear-born drummer Paul Thompson and South American-raised guitarist Phil Manzanera both came into Roxy's field of vision via small ads in Melody Maker. Both speak of an instinctive federation of influences and backgrounds that, for all the acclaim of the later, loungier sound of Flesh + Blood and Avalon, made the group's first recordings unassailable. "I was probably the only one in the band without a degree," laughs Thompson. "I'm from Jarrow originally, and most of them had been to university. It was a totally different planet from where I came from. But I didn't feel intimidated. We were there for the music, really, not anything else, although I used to have a bit of a job understanding what they were talking about sometimes. Bryan's a Geordie anyway, so we had a pretty good rapport.
"I was quite interested in prog rock at the time, so it was the line-up that I found interesting. I'd never worked with a sax player before, or a synthesiser, so it was progressive in that sense. A lot of the music's very poppy, but there is that element of experimentation, which made it a bit different. In '71 I was probably listening to Janis Joplin, I was heavily into Cream and Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. I probably turned up to the audition in denims and baseball boots. I didn't get the dressing-up thing straight away, although that didn't happen straight away. I think Bryan had a concept of the band in his head well before I joined. David Bowie was doing the same thing, and probably other people. It just seemed like the Zeitgeist."
Manzanera, for his part, came in through the out door. "Obviously I had a different trajectory," he says. "Brought up in South America, sent to a boys' school in London, a year later answered the ad, then failed the audition immediately. But then somehow Davy O'List [formerly of The Nice] dropped out and they rang me. Two weeks later we signed the contract, three weeks later we were in the studio recording the first album, six weeks later it was out and we were a hit."
Manzanera's credentials were crucial in their own way. "When I was sixteen, I met Robert Wyatt, who was just starting with the Soft Machine, I met David Gilmour, just entering Pink Floyd. I came to Roxy with all that to contribute, which was totally different to their backgrounds of university or art school - apart from Paul Thompson, who came from a building site. I was just listening to the drumming on the first album and Paul is an absolutely fantastic drummer. What he plays is Roxy. Without that strong Geordie beat and a person who had a hero in John Bonham, we would have been a bunch of effete losers, basically."
That first, self-titled album, recorded in a fortnight for £5,000, made a promising Top 30 start but was buoyed by a single that wasn't on it. Virginia Plain cruised into the Top 10, pulled the album up there with it, and was mainstream enough to entice an even greater audience into Roxy's personal twilight zone of outré sounds, vocals from Mars and fashions from Venus. "No one would have signed this band in this day and age, it's too weird," Manzanera laughs. "I can also see why some people thought we might be a bit proggy, because there's a track on that first album called The Bob (Medley), and it sounds so like prog.
"I think what happened was that all those end-of-the-'60s bands, once they got into the 1970s period, were strung out on heroin, to be quite honest, and everything got very dull and introverted. Suddenly, Bowie and Roxy appeared with a lot of colour and humour, and a bit of a story and a lot of energy, so it was like the new wave taking over.
"I'd come from Quiet Sun, playing complicated, real prog - 17/8 and three bars of 13/8 - so this was an absolute dream. There were like two chords in a song! Okay, the arrangements you had to learn, but from a technical point of view, it was absolutely not difficult. That's the great thing about the first Roxy album - it's terribly simple parts but just all fitting together, and Bryan's weird and wonderful voice rising above it."
As one of the few British musicians of the early 1970s with an EMS VCS3 synthesiser, Brian Eno's mark was indelible, both on the Roxy aura and on his bandmates. "Eno came in as a sort of technician, really, but also a conceptual artist," Manzanera goes on. "He'd been taught by a famous bunch, as it became, of art teachers who'd also taught Pete Townshend and people like that. That was absolutely brilliant in terms of throwing it into the mix and turning everybody's ideas upside down all the time."
The result was an elusive sound that became the bridge between art and glam. "We had Revox tape recorders specially changed to enable you to have sound-on-sound echo. That became totally integral to the Roxy sound. Also, Eno would treat our guitar and saxophones through his VCS3, which no one's done since. It's an amazing idea."
Quitting the band after the second album For Your Pleasure, Eno would later say that his own favourite Roxy record was the subsequent 1973 set, Stranded. "That could be the relief of not having to do it, but he very sweetly says that," says Manzanera. "Everybody has a different opinion about it. A lot of people like the first three, then hate the last three, and the people who love the last three are not interested in the first three They're different sets of people and when you think about it, it's over a period of ten years, so you're changing generations. And so much happened, halfway through with the punk scene and everything that evolved out of that."
"My favourite Roxy album is For Your Pleasure," says Thompson. "A lot of the sound on the title track was through Eno's tape recorder tricks. He had a thing called 'butterfly echo', where he put a piece of Sellotape on the capstan of the tape recorder so it would slip, like using it as an echo unit, but it wasn't constant. To me, that was really exciting."
As they accrued a catalogue of hit singles, Virginia Plain, Pyjamarama, the magnificent Street Life and others all maintained a certain otherness to their sound, even as they cruised into what Tony Blackburn used to call the Fun 30.
A modern-day label exec would have a fit if one of his bands effectively split for three years just after having their first hit in America. Roxy broke that rule too, disappearing down separate solo paths soon after creating the proto-disco groove of Love Is The Drug, from 1975's Siren.
"Bryan went off with Jerry Hall," says Manzanera, "he got on with solo albums. I did the 801 project with Eno, then Split Enz, worked with John Cale and Nico, I formed a band with half of 10cc. We were about to go on the road when Bryan rang up and said, 'Oh, can we get the band back together?' So water had gone under the bridge. In fact, I see that first period as five years then three years off for good behaviour, then five more years of torture. Then eighteen years off for good behaviour, and then... it goes on and on."
The inventiveness of their early years never died, but it was smoothed out in the later Roxy, the contrasts epitomised by Flesh + Blood's jarring covers of In The Midnight Hour and Eight Miles High. A new collection of standards like Oh Yeah and More Than This was still progressive in its own way, but somehow overshadowed the more intrepid mood of Manifesto's Stronger Through The Years, for example. Thompson didn't make it to the end, quitting before the last two albums. "I just couldn't relate to where Bryan was going, I just couldn't get into it," he says. "It was a very big transition in style from the early days."
After three reunion tours in the last decade, no one rules out more live work, although another studio sojourn looks unlikely. Manzanera is just amused to find his band's work gathered together in the marketplace of 2012. "To this day, I'm amazed that this bunch of people are still, forty years later, having an influence - Eno with Coldplay and things he does, Bryan's still out gigging, Roxy did some gigs, I'm sampled by Jay-Z and Kanye West. We still seem to be out there in the business of music. It's incredible, really."
PROG ROX! - FIVE PROG HIGHLIGHTS FROM ROXY'S BACK CATALOGUE
Roxy Music: THE BOB (MEDLEY) - That's 'Bob' as in 'Battle Of Britain', but that reference only partly explains the deliberately unsettling ambience of the first track on Side 2 of Roxy's debut album. Eno's off-kilter synth precedes a relatively conventional Ferry verse, then it's gunfire and explosions in the distance to Mackay's horns. The band's retro references tease out almost a boogie-woogie section underpinned by Manzanera's guitar solo and Thompson's steady beat. More tempo changes lead to an Albert Hall-sized ending. These days, it would be a Prom in itself.
For Your Pleasure: THE BOGUS MAN - The band's second album also includes Do The Strand and the eerie In Every Dream Home A Heartache, but The Bogus Man was one of Paul Thompson's favourites. The strange, relentless drum pattern accompanies a cautionary lyric about a man to avoid. But that framework is almost a haunted house containing so many different processing effects that the overall effect is unorthodox in the extreme - especially when you get to the end and realise that it's been doing that for more than nine minutes. "It's a bit trance-like as well," says Thompson, "so probably before its time."
Stranded: AMAZONA - Roxy's first album without Brian Eno became their first UK Number One, and brought a bit of glamour to a nation descending into the gloom of the three-day week. It included the Top 10 Street Life and Ferry's first songwriting collaborations - with Andy Mackay for A Song For Europe and with Phil Manzanera for this favourite of his. Amazona starts conventionally with Manzanera's rhythm guitar and Ferry's exotic lyrical scene-setting, but reintroduces itself two minutes in for that complex, nimble guitar solo.
Siren: SENTIMENTAL FOOL - The band's fifth set contained one of their greatest theme songs, Love Is The Drug, plus the underrated follow-up Both Ends Burning. This Ferry/Mackay collaboration wafts in with Eddie Jobson's ethereal synthesisers, then Manzanera plugs in for a haunting fuzz guitar motif, with brilliant and subtly off-kilter details from Mackay's oboe, Jobson's electric organ and a great bassline from John Gustafson. Characteristically episodic, the body of the track then begins on Paul Thompson's drums and Ferry's vocals, with Mackay now on saxophone and Manzanera's guitar returning to add yet another layer of sophistication.
Manifesto: MANIFESTO - Things may never have been quite the same again when Roxy reunited, but the Manifesto album has more edge than the later Flesh + Blood and Avalon, by the end of which it felt as it the band had been almost subsumed by Ferry's solo personality. The opening title track features sterling work by Gary Tibbs on bass and Paul Carrack on synths, conjuring a late-night, urban mood. Manzanera's excellent guitar textures also help set up Ferry's peerlessly atmospheric lead lines. 'Question what you see,' he advises, 'and when you find an answer, bring it home to me.'