Sydney Morning Herald FEBRUARY 18, 2011 - by Bernard Zuel


Edgy icons Roxy Music are still blazing the trail.

Roxy Music? On stage? I know what you're thinking. I was thinking the same thing when they last toured here in 2001, having reformed after nearly two decades with all but original tape manipulator Brian Eno returning from the original line-up.

As I confess to sax player Andy Mackay, I assumed this would be a concert in which the art-rockers looked smugly at the comfortable, middle-aged audience chuffed to hear every track from that smooth-as, favourite album of '80s stockbrokers and hairdressers, Avalon.

The infuriating reality for potential sneerers, however, was that the band of Mackay, drummer Paul Thompson, guitarist Phil Manzanera and songwriter-frontman Bryan Ferry, playing a set list dominated by the first three far-from-smooth albums, was in many ways as edgy and uncomfortable (in the best sense) as they had been when they appeared in London in the early 1970s.

"I think that is pretty much the way these current shows are going as well," Mackay says. "Somehow, the songs we really feel like playing and the songs that people seem to enjoy hearing are tending to be stuff from the first three albums. Obviously, nearly ten years later, we are playing to people who are not even second-generation Roxy fans but we are playing with contemporary bands and DJs and the reception has been great."

That early Roxy-style sound, arch and angular, mixing electronics with rock, sounds as relevant now as it ever did. Even more so than the early '80s, when the post-punks and early new romantics were picking up on it.

"Actually, not just post-punk but a lot of the actual punk bands were, as I've learnt subsequently, big Roxy fans," Mackay says, still sounding a little surprised. "The Sex Pistols and The Clash said to me that what we did in the early '70s was open up the possibility of forming a group and doing what you wanted.

"As it happened, we were inclined towards electronic music things, towards glamorous '40s and '50s concepts, but the idea you could put together, in an English rock band, influences from all sorts of different musical and style sources gave people the opportunity to think 'we can do that'."

That blend of jazz and avant-garde, electronic and rock and pop was further influential because it was done with an understanding that you didn't have to be virtuosos or pristine and perfect. In their own way, Roxy Music were pretty punky.

"You don't have to be an old muso," Mackay says. "There was some resentment from parts of the musical establishment that we were inspired amateurs. That was our stance. We learnt, I hope, to become professionals in terms of the quality of what we presented to people but there was the thing that, OK, if you've enough energy and put enough thought into it, you can make it work."

It's hard to picture now how far out to the edges, lyrically, visually as well as musically, Roxy Music went. How many rules they were breaking.

"We were very lucky, I think," Mackay says. "Rock'n'roll is, by and large, a collaborative enterprise and there's always tremendous good fortune in bumping into the right people. Someone like Bryan Ferry is necessary to make a project work because he has almost unlimited ambition. That fired us to do the things we wanted to do."