Spectrum Culture SEPTEMBER 10, 2012 - by Nathan Kamal


Roxy Music were never meant to be. Even from their earliest days, they never quite seemed to fit in. In the days of glam rock, one of rock 'n' roll's weirdest phases, they were aloof, like a misfit bunch of time travelers who decided to crunch some chords together and pretend that they were a cohesive unit. But the oddest thing about Roxy Music is that no matter how unlikely their success, they still were amazing. Fronted by a rural coal miner's son who willed himself into Bogart-style heartthrob status and partnered with a non-musical visionary, a guitar god in weird shades, a clarinetist dressed as an astronaut and the great Paul Thompson on drums, it was an unlikely band at best. The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982, like most box sets, is a slightly redundant release, but also one that helps shed light on one of the strangest and most brilliant of all rock bands.

There's really only one way to listen to Roxy Music, and that's chronologically: from their very first album, Bryan Ferry and collaborators seemed to be aware of their modus operandi. The eponymous Roxy Music album (1972) opens with the sound of a party, clanking glasses and conversation, before breaking into the disjointed noise of Re-Make/Re-Model and the strangest ode to a girl ever: "She's the sweetest queen I've ever seen / CPL 593H!" Despite Ferry's claim of "I tried, but I could not find a way," the band was set in their weird sense of exhaustion immediately. While David Bowie and a slew of imitators and competitors tried to up the ante by looking to the future, Roxy Music looked to the past, taking inspiration from antique movies and romantic desperation. Roxy Music, even in retrospect, is a paradox of an album, one that yearns for the past while still seeming of the future. Even as a young man, Ferry sung of impossible, childish fantasies: "Trees were taller / When you were young."

And of course, there is Eno. Of all musical giants of the last several decades, there are few who are simultaneously as colourful and ascetic as Brian Eno. In the Roxy Music era, he was a literal peacock, a weirdo fiddling with musical equipment that he didn't quite seem to grasp while Ferry crooned and Phil Manzanera and company rocked out. Eno famously quit/was expelled by Ferry after the sophomore album For Your Pleasure, and it would be easy to view that as the band's zenith. It would also be wrong. For Your Pleasure is one of the great rock albums of the 1970s, with peaks like Beauty Queen and Editions Of You setting new standards for wordplay and exhaustive emotion. There may be bands that imitate Roxy Music and Ferry may have never searched for the same histrionic depths that his rival Bowie plumbed, but on the other hand, Bowie never sang about his love for a blow up doll as in In Every Dream Home A Heartache. But it's also the work of a band that still had youthful energy to spare and the lack of focus that implies.

The standard story is that after Eno's departure, Ferry's dominance of the band (and craving for pop stardom) diminished the experimentalism. Their 1973 follow up Stranded is a remarkable record, with Mother Of Pearl and Street Life being as experimental and obtuse as any from their first two albums. The former, in particular, may sum up Roxy Music as a band more than any single song: a minute and a half of noise and Ferry wailing until it kicks into a relaxed tempo and the singer stating, "Well, I've been up all night..." Country Life (1974) and Siren (1975) can be viewed as Roxy Music's stab at stardom, but that unfairly reduces Ferry. With the addition of Eddie Jobson, the band became more polished, but still allowed experimentalism like the self-castigating Casanova and the doomed romanticism of Bitter-Sweet. In so far as Roxy Music fandom goes, it's a truism that the middle period of the band found Ferry as a leader struggling for direction, but that's an unfair generalisation. Many of his best songs come from that period, though they tend to have the sense of ironic distance that lines like, "How rich in contrast love can be / Sometimes I'm quite amused / To see it twist and turn / To taste - both sweet and dry."

And yes, there is a nadir to Roxy Music. Both Manifesto (1979) and Flesh + Blood (1980) albums are not the same quality as prime Roxy, with Ferry sounding tired out as a songwriter. Frankly, even the best moments from the albums like Stronger Through The Years feel over produced and motionless. But that makes sense; at the time, Ferry was trying for a solo career that mostly only took off in the UK, and the band itself was more a support system than anything else. But nothing can really prepare for Avalon (1982), an album that feels like it has no edges and an impossible level of smoothness. Even from their earliest years, Roxy Music were known as exhausted romantics, the kind of band that seemed to be playing the sad moments at the close of the party. Avalon is the full culmination of that, an album that feels like the most beautiful, winsome hangover ever. More Than This perhaps sums up an entire decade of regret in a single lyric: "I could feel, at the time."

Like most box sets, The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982 comes with several discs of B-sides and remixes, but they're largely inessential. Little of the releases on the bonus discs here shed light on the band, but they still do demonstrate how remarkable of a band they once were. Ferry, Eno, Andy Mackay, Manzanera and assorted players may have been an anomaly even in the weirdest years of rock, but their albums maintain what weirdos can do.