The Wire DECEMBER 2007 - by Michael Bracewell


Michael Bracewell's book Re-make/Re-model documents the provincial art school milieu of the 1960s that gave shape to Roxy Music's sound and design. Here, he picks up the story in the early 1970s, explaining how Roxy's audacious formal innovations upended both pop and art music conventions to essay a radical revolt into style.

The drum seems to falter, tumble and collapse, each beat sounding as though the deteriorating rhythm has finally reached an end. But then, as though the process of dismantling the song's ground-plan might signify a fresh beginning, rather than complete an exhausted crescendo, a male voice sings with sudden, declamatory urgency. His opening phrases are delivered with brutal precision, cutting the words as cleanly as though they were freshly minted machine parts: "Now that we are lonely / Life seems to get hard..." In a split second, the shifted pronunciation of "hard" introduces an entirely new tone into what has already been a complex ninety seconds of music, the emotional weather of which appears freakish and portentous. The line ends with an unexpected vocal switch from robotic to tragicomedic; a voice that had sounded harsh, metallic, gives an unexpected, deadpan dip into the hurt pout of a bereft, pantomime Romeo. The singer begins to soliloquise, almost sobbing, "Alone - what a word, lonely! / Alone - it makes me cry..." The vocal is still being paced by the staggering yet emphatic, broken beat of the drums, and a wobbling electric bassline; only now, gathering beneath this ruminative lover's complaint, a dark squall of high pitched electronic sounds is beginning to rise, as though the machinery of a sawmill had just resumed action - roaring, keening, spitting, fracturing. From within this cyclone of noise, an electric guitar begins a wild, scrabbling, atonal improvisation, while somewhere close by we hear, incredibly, the chirruping, pastoral and defiantly European sound of an oboe.

So goes the central section of a song called Sea Breezes, written by Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, and included as part of the group's live sets from their first public performances in December 1971. Subsequently recorded during the spring of 1972 for Roxy's thrillingly modern, intensely romantic and utterly self-assured debut album, the track exemplifies the conceptual, rhythmic, lyrical and musical complexity of the group's early material.

From the start Roxy Music described an all-new admix of pop eroticism and art music experimentation, fashionista posing and avant garde strategies. The specific nature of the group's innovation, as demonstrated by their first three albums (Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure and Stranded, all recorded between 1972 and 1973), was the presence of an entirely post-modern sensibility at work. Like mosaics of stylistic quotation, depicting a vivid, fervid, theatrical romance with the very source materials of pop, these were records which seemed to refine the chaotic, vertiginous sum of arch romanticism into a celebration of its own capacity to enchant ("All styles served here", as Ferry sang on Do The Strand).

Footage of Roxy performing their first single, Virginia Plain, at Le Bataclan in Paris late in 1972 reveals the early theatricality of the group. Between the fourth and final verses, to the prompt of Ferry's breathless, rushed admonishment, "So me and you / Just we two / Got to search for something new", saxophonist Andy Mackay, bassist Rik Kenton and guitarist Phil Manzanera maintain a formation line in the centre of the stage, turning sideways and then stage front throughout a lengthy sequence of beat-marking power chords. Meanwhile, at either side of the stage, Brian Eno, before his altar-like VCS3 synthesizer and tape machines, and Ferry, playing a small electric keyboard, appear to embody sense and sensuality respectively. Ferry's eyes are closed, his expression ecstatic and almost sexually entranced as he maintains the repeated chord sequence; Eno, professorial, wholly exotic, provides the linking electronic melody, a reedy, almost buzzing sequence of notes. The hip-swinging formation of the other standing musicians might come from The Shadows or Bill Haley (who was a significant influence on both the young Ferry and the young Mackay).

It's a muscular, abrasive, ecstatic performance, and beneath the cleverly nuanced camp one can see why The Velvet Underground were the only group equally admired by all of the founding members of Roxy Music, and whose influence is so deeply felt at the level of pure attitude and feeling. In terms of sheer energy - a musical interpretation of Quentin's Crisp's adage that "style is knowing who you are and being it like mad" - early Roxy at their furthest-out displayed all of the accelerated, neurasthenic musical intensity of The Velvets circa The Black Angel's Death Song and European Son (For Delmore Schwartz).

To underline the point with regard to instrumentation, just as Moe Tucker's legendary ability to hit a Manhattan telephone directory for twenty-five minutes without stopping was intrinsic to The Velvets' sound, so the sheer physicality - alongside his less acknowledged sensitivity - of Paul Thompson's drumming was essential to the sophistication of Roxy Music. Thompson's abiding love for the music of Bo Diddley (shared by Lou Reed) also introduced a vivid hue to the palette of Roxy's epic modernist canvas.

Bryan Ferry's creative intention for Roxy Music - which he likened to that of Duke Ellington - was to bring together a substantial and eclectic selection of musical strengths, styles and attitudes. A new DVD of the group's appearances on the German TV programme Musikladen in 1973 and 1974 demonstrates how these individual styles were then transposed, through the heightened romanticism of the song-writing, into near caricatures of themselves. Compared to the group's official recordings, the nature of this amplified style is more apparent in the Musikladen sets, as well as on bootlegs of the sessions the group recorded for BBC TV and radio throughout 1972 and 1973, in which the principal characteristic of early Roxy - complex, assertive changes of tempo enabling successive styles to structure the 'theatre' of each individual song - can be heard to far greater effect.

But even on vinyl, Roxy delivered the shock of the new in doses that some critics found lethal. In direct opposition to the perceived 'sincerity' and 'authenticity' of denim-clad blues rock, the directive of Roxy's musical mission was the performance of style above all else - a triumph of artifice and synthesis. To this end, in the gauzy summer of 1972, a purchaser of Roxy Music - having already entered the theatre of the group's fantastical world by way of the audacious, stylistically bi-sexual artwork of the record's packaging - would hear first a rising murmur of what sounded like cocktail party chatter. In itself, such overtly glamorous scene setting introduced Roxy's affiliation to the palaces of the early and mid-twentieth century modernism - cabarets, department stores, trains de luxe, cafes, ballrooms (and in this the subtext of the group's much vaunted retro-futurism would be closer to Kraftwerk's celebration of modernist newness than the sci-fi apocalypticism of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust). Writing in 1974 in Creem magazine, Simon Frith would summarise Bryan Ferry's creative sensibility as colliding European thought and Hollywood glamour - an astute observation, and one which the opening of Roxy Music, at once cinematic and knowingly elitist, had done much to exemplify. Musically, Roxy employed similar notions of time travel, using changes of tempo to slip from one era to another - jiving and shadow waltzing through the hall of mirrors that comprised their sense of stylistic temporality. (As Ferry sang on Do The Strand: "Dance on moonbeams / Slide on rainbows!)

Pitched halfway between a buzz and a drone, its lilting, somnambulant rhythm underscored by subtle pulsars of electronic tone, the eerie introduction to The Bob (Medley), for example, sounded like some outlandish combination of insect song and astronautical technology - while serving as the overture to a track that would feature no less than six tempo changes (including that of a slowed down 1930s tea dance) in the 5'46" of its duration. Such highly atmospheric use of electronica would seem doubly progressive on an album that found almost instant success not just within the more earnest world of 'serious' rock, but with the same pop-teen audience as that commanded by Bowie, Mott The Hoople, T.Rex and Cockney Rebel.

Eno had been experimenting with making tapes of Ambient, cinematic sound for some time prior to working with Roxy Music. While still at Winchester School of Art, where he had organised concerts by visiting members of the musical avant garde such as Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski (as well as inviting down the young Andy Mackay, and his New Arts Group, from Reading University, to perform a ninety minute piece called Mona Lisa Five in the Refectory, Eno had played solos on a signals generator, duetting with fellow student Anthony Grafton.

Ultimately, true to his beliefs in the creative relationship between function and aesthetics, Eno would introduce the device of using electronic and tape-effect Ambient sound as a bridge between Roxy Music's live numbers; his idea being to create a backdrop of atmospheric sound which enabled the musicians to make often complex equipment changes without disrupting the cumulative drama and mood of the set.

You get an idea of the precision with which Roxy Music conceived their early sets from the following extract from Eno's notebook (dated "Roxy Early; 71-72), which details the lighting plan for the performance of The Bob (Medley):

"Tape: Dim blue light building - band
slinking back and forth.
Drum Into: (Spot on Bryan)
Lights on band changing colour on beat.
Piano and Oboe (spot on Andy).
Synth section (spot on me)
Time change (Andy again)
"Too many times beautiful..." Spot three singers.
Guitar solo - stage well lit, changing from
yellow to mauve.
Oboe and piano: spot on me and Andy.
Fade yellow down and out.
Reprise: Spot on back on Bryan/Finale: white
flash on black at end."

Andy Mackay would subsequently question whether the originality and audacity of the early Roxy sound was in part, at least, a fortunate creative accident. His own feeling was that the individual members of the group, during their earliest rehearsals, all had differing ideas of what, exactly, they were hoping to achieve, these differences thus contributing to the pronounced layering of styles and attitudes within the music. By contrast, Brian Eno - who during Roxy Music's earliest concerts had the demanding, threefold role of contributing tape and synthesizer effects, providing backing vocals, and mixing the onstage sound from a desk towards the back of the venue - has suggested that the sheer intensity of Roxy's early rehearsal schedule meant that the music sounded far less radical to the group than it did to their early audiences and critics.

The opening staccato piano chords of Re-Make/Re-Model - the first track on Roxy Music - seem also to emerge from a notion of cinematic mood. Rather than pursuing a straightforward narrative of sound, the anticipatory, urban chatter that opens the album fades suddenly away, ghost-like, at the first introductory chords. From Ferry's opening words, we are made aware of the mesmeric agility of his vocal and lyrical style. He appears always to be acting a role within the often impressionistic narrative of the songs - and yet the acting of each role is already in itself a stylised caricature.. The effect is to cast Ferry, by way of his tireless inhabitation of one style after another, as a vocal actor - a performance of performances, as exaggerated in gesture, grimace and the conventions of depicted feeling as any silent movie star.

Lou Reed once famously remarked that his best lyrics were simply short stories set to music. Likewise, Ferry seems to enter the stage of Re-Make/Re-Model in mid-narrative: "I tried but I could not find a way..." We are straight into the rhetoric of romantic despair, winningly repositioned as a form of highly seductive heroism. The musical backing is grounded in repetition and assertive breaks - again, in rather the same territory as The Velvet Underground's I'm Waiting For The Man, in which the solidity of the beat allows Reed's vocal the space to drawl, preen and perform. The first truly Pop Art flashes of musical and lyrical signage in Re-Make/Re-Model occur in the use of a car registration number as a backing vocal, the now iconic CPL 593H. In the best tradition of readymade Pop source material, the letters and digits are simply dropped in according to their neat spatial fit, the result being a further example of witty, audacious, coolly camp originality.

Bryan Ferry's pronouncement in 1975, "I am, you might say, a collagiste", will thus be seen as no idle boast. Re-Make/Re-Model, as it begins to enter its second half, combines the traditional showcasing of the individual group members (itself a stylised and archaic convention within an art pop rock group of the early 1970s) with a montaging of styles that would lead Richard Williams, reviewing the record for Melody Maker, to liken the track to a musical 'manifesto', a term then virtually unheard of, and laden with art historical gravitas, within the mainstream of the rock press.

The version of Re-Make/Re-Model that the group performed on Musikladen in 1973 is fiery and exuberant. In contrast to the rather more polished, deft originality of the album version, this is a driving, heavyweight rock song, the distinctly un-effete power of which lends even greater impact to the touches of Pop Art styling. During the penultimate 'showcasing' section of the song, as each musician takes a brief, flourishing solo. Andy Mackay replaces the rock 'n' roll sax lick which we hear on the album version with a few bars of Deutschland Über Alles - a reasonably outrageous detour on a German TV programme in 1973. Later still, on Roxy's triumphant reunion tour of 2001, the guitar break in Re-Make/Re-Model would change yet again, from the original's low-slung Eddie Cochran riff to the opening bars of the James Bond theme.

Compared with the studio versions, the live performances, dating from 1972 and 1973, of material from Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure invariably display the far sharper outlines and more vivid colour of Roxy's collage-like founding style. On the version of Editions Of You recorded for Musikladen in 1973, one becomes aware of the precision handover between leading instruments. Entering its instrumental break - signalled by Ferry's bandleader announcement, "This way!", accompanied by a suave shimmy across the stage, left hand still waving, to pick up the melody on his electric piano - the performance allows first Ferry, then Mackay, Eno and Manzanera to respectively drive the excitement, instrument to instrument, of a rising, curving ecstatic note, culminating in a sudden guitar break that allows the thundering machinery of the number to draw breath, so to speak, before commencing the high camp ultimata of the closing verse: "So love me, leave me, do what you will..."

1973 would be a formidably busy year for Ferry, involving not just the recording of For Your Pleasure and Roxy's third album, Stranded, but also of his first solo album, These Foolish Things. With the departure of Brian Eno and the arrival of Curved Air's Eddie Jobson, the sound on Stranded moved a few degrees closer to pop convention - but in doing so achieved a new coherence of musical identity. For, at the same time, Stranded contains some of Ferry's finest and most complex writing - the nearest precedent to which was the outstanding Grey Lagoons on For Your Pleasure.

It is worth comparing the 1972 BBC session recording of Grey Lagoons, with the Musikladen broadcast, a year later, of Amazona off Stranded. As performed with Brian Eno for the BBC, Grey Lagoons is distinguished by a ferocious, intoxicating middle current of electronic noise - the perfect adjunct to Ferry's lyric (including the brilliant image, "Morning sickness on a Friday night..."), but also rendering operational the far rockier interplay between Mackay's sax and Manzanera's lead guitar. Once again, the shifting styles of the song move from sultry technicolour - near doo-wop - to aggressive electronica to dynamic rock 'n' roll, with each stylistic phase seeming to drop neatly into the lap of its successor.

Cut to Amazona on Musikladen. Manzanera is seated, and Mackay appears studious in comparison to his former space-station rocker persona. Ferry, on the other hand, in white tuxedo, appears to have passed through the looking glass of stardom and become the mythic version of himself. Opening with a Little feat/Southern rock-style guitar lick from Manzanera, Amazona contains no fewer than five changes of tempo and mood. But now there is a fluidity to the shifts; as Ferry quips, "From Amazona to Eldorado / Sure is a mighty long way", in a voice that slings the charm of a crooner into the snarl of a lounge lizard, he suddenly triggers a shift into symphonic tenderness - "Hey! / Little girl / Is something wrong?" - commencing an importuning soliloquy which comes close to, but never quite reaches, the sentimental intimacy of a spoken lyric. These changes now provide Ferry's performance with the ultimate cinematic freedom; he seems to have become the character of his songs, rather than their mere representative on Earth, and thus able to enjoy a cocktail of styles which might include Johnnie Ray, Lotte Lenya, Humphrey Bogart and Gene Kelly. Signing off a further change of mood with the high romance of the lines, "I'll try to help you there / I'll take you there...", in what has become his trademark vibrato, the song then moves into a spell-binding passage of darkling funk full of electronic dissonance (as was Grey Lagoons, but now the electronics appear tamed, as opposed to volatile) and threaded through with Eddie Jobson's John Cale/Tony Conrad-like violin drone. The opening guitar lick is finally reprised, framing Ferry as Valentino as the Sheik of Araby: "We're almost there!"

Stranded is Brian Eno's favourite Roxy Music album, and represents the ultimate achievement of the group's early style. It has a soaring, liberated, triumphant quality - different in temper to the angular, nervous, free-wheeling cleverness of Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure. Finding its biggest British fan-base within the big industrial cities of the north, it would perhaps be the only chart topping pop album to bring the high style of the avant garde, as a pioneering innovation, to the damp or dusty precincts of the high street and the shopping mall. And as such, it marked a conscious returning of the fine artistic values of Pop Art to the source media of popular culture