In the early seventies, awash in the hangover of the previous decade, the world of cultural transaction was a world of blue denim and unwashed beards. Earthiness and so-called authenticity ruled the day. It’s not that there weren’t good albums being made – Who’s Next, Sticky Fingers and Meddle immediately come to mind – but there was also a lack of glamour, playfulness, colour, fun even. To rock in the early seventies was to be overly and stereotypically masculine; tough, dour, straight, inflexible (and in the case of Pink Floyd, stoned). You knew what you were getting when you bought into these bands. There would be little in the way of surprises.
Roxy Music, along with David Bowie, were one of the first groups to introduce pastiche, playfulness, role-playing, and pop-art collage into their music and looks and in such an intentional, self-conscious way (The Who were most certainly dabbling in pop art in the mid to late sixties but it would also be difficult to describe The Who as playful).
The influence of the art school on British pop shouldn’t be underestimated (Townshend, Ray Davies, John Lennon, and Freddie Mercury all studied in such an institution) and Roxy lynchpin Bryan Ferry was fortunate to attend school under the tutelage of major British pop-artist. Reconciling his equally strong desires to be either an artist or a rock/pop star, Ferry found a way he could be essentially both by bringing the ideas of pop-art to pop music: “There was one particular seminal piece I did, which was a collage, which I thought “oh well, I’ll try and do something like that in music and collage all the different things I like or feel that are important to me.” (1)
Ferry’s main interest was glamour; the debonair feel of the American standards, the classy pin-up, models of Vogue photoshoots, and film stars such as Humphrey Bogart, as well as the more experimental rock of the likes of The Velvet Underground. By marrying these obsessions with Phil Manzanera’s stinging guitar lines, Andy Mackay’s classical, stately oboe playing and Brian Eno’s squalls of synthesized, electronic noise and textures, the Roxy Music sound was born, desiring, as Michael Bracewell put it, “to inhabit the point where fine art and the avant-garde met the vivacity of pop and fashion as an almost elemental force in modern society”.
True but the music was also supremely fun, seductive, and unique and was extremely influential on musicians as diverse as Steve Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, Duran Duran and Nile Rogers. There are not many bands who can say that.
Here is my Perfect Ten for this most perfect of artful, glamorous bands.
The song that started it all, being the first track on Roxy Music’s first album. If you wanted a concise summary of what Roxy Music were all about, at least initially, then all you would need to do is listen to this marvellous collision of art, pop and rock, all melted together into a noisy, glamorous whole.
There’s a brilliant sense of tension between tutored ability (guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist/oboist Andy Mackay were both accomplished musicians, with Mackay being classically trained) and wilful amateurism (Ferry taught himself to play piano in his mid-twenties and Eno proudly described himself as a non-musician, armed only with cool synths and wonderfully strange sounds).
This gives the song a clashing, clanking, jagged quality that, when people talk about how Roxy influenced the early British punks, they’re referring to songs like this. Not everyone can play and not everyone can make a great record, but this song makes you believe you can.
Ferry in particular sounds like he’s straining at his leash for greatness. He was not a natural singer per se and was in the early stages of developing his sophisticated romantic crooner persona and vocal, but one thing I’ve always admired are artists that are clearly straining at the limits of their abilities in the aim of breaking through their own barriers. More often than not it creates a frisson, a feeling that everything can fall apart at any second, which contrary to alienating the discerning listener, creates an illicit excitement. Ferry sounds wild here, struggling to control his voice into a croon, whereas it yelps with surprise and excitement at its own vitality. It’s perfect because of its own imperfection.
The song famously features a section near its end where, in keeping with the band’s post-modernist, retro-futurist collage approach to songwriting, each player gets an opportunity to “quote” a well-known musical phrase: the horns give a blast of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, the bass stretches “Day Tripper” into a new shape with notes bent to the edge of their patience, the guitar gives a snatch of a simple, classic rock and roll rhythm, the drums give a simple, solid Stone-like roll and Eno, well, does Eno exceptionally well.
And what other song uses a car’s license plate to such genius effect? CPL 593H!
Both Ends Burning
Roxy brings the art school to the dance floor, enveloping the disco in a mysterious heat haze from which there seems to be no escape, for either the listener or Ferry’s conflicted protagonist, who seems to feel a torturous desire for both the exclusive affections of his lover and the illicit excitements that the secret after-hours world of all-night parties can offer.
The chords seem to leap in unexpected ways from one to the next, pushing and pulling the listener on a queasy emotional journey and rising and falling like a rollercoaster, a journey as uncertain as its narrator. This feeling is aided by a wash of synth that forms the melodic centre of the song, dominating without overwhelming the song into being a strict electro composition. Part of that is due to the synth’s sound, which is elusive in nature, evading description but evoking the melancholy feeling you get at 3am when you’re too messed up to continue drinking but you can’t muster the effort or desire to do anything else. The evocative saxophone hook only confirms the feeling.
For such an insecure melodic sequence and musical palette of colours to be coated over such a firm, disco groove, while standard in the post-punk era, was still unusual in 1975 and to this day gives the impression of a song beamed in from another world. If you can listen to this track and keep your feet still, you’re not breathing.
Editions of You
When people talk about the influence of Roxy Music on punk, you can certainly see it in the playfulness and the clothes, you can perhaps here how the cruder elements of playing and singing on the earlier records would inspire those who did not aspire to smoothness or sounding professional. But a lot of people would be hard-pressed to see the musical influence on punk per se, certainly the later records. And then you hear “Editions of You”.
This is Roxy in take-no-prisoners mode, storming out of the traps from the start and taking command of the stage with the sheer glamorous muscularity of their presence here. The drums, aggressively insistent, incessantly stomp all over the rhythm like bovver boy boots on the terraces of Chelsea of the time. It’s the drums that drive the song through its cool, crunchy descending and ascending power chord sequences, the guitar and overdriven, phased keyboard sounding aloof, confident, in control and tough with it. It manages to be suave, classically cool and relentless all at once, a neat trick if you can pull it off. Roxy could.
Like “Re-Make/Re-Model” before it, the song makes an open space in the middle for each player to have an opportunity to solo, a bit like a jazz tune, although placed as they are in the middle of an avant-rock/pop song, and knowing Ferry’s predilections for the glamour of a certain kind of showbiz, it recalls more a classic sixties soul revue, with the bandleader giving each member of the group a moment to shine. Eno makes his most exciting collision of noises, Manzanera plays a great, rocking solo, and Mackay’s sax solo just oozes sex appeal. The old once more becomes new in Roxy’s hands and impossibly exciting.
Lyrically, Ferry takes his pop-art approach to songwriting and applies it to his lyrical subject matter, viewing life through “an old picture frame, just waiting for the perfect view”. What is in that view? “another fine edition of you, a pin-up done in shades of blue.” See, Ferry, in his pop-art, glamour obsession, is unable to find an object of desire made of flesh and blood and is in fact more attracted to ‘woman as glamorous object’ – as framed and given meaning by the media she is represented in. This suggests that everything we see, everything we desire is mediated beyond our control and presented to us as fetishized and subjectively. Perhaps the likes of Instagram and Tik Tok take this idea to their logical conclusions. There’s something very JG Ballard-like about the idea, but JG Ballard was never this much fun.
Part of the attraction of Bryan Ferry’s lounge lizard crooner persona early on was that he wasn’t completely to reach it. This meant that he was at least able to have fun with it, adopting the persona and wearing it like a costume, playing a character and taking pleasure in working out how it ticks. This is why, in the late seventies onwards, when Ferry finally became what he was only trying out previously—when he legitimately became a successful smooth crooning superstar, the fun was gone, just leaving an empty banality in its place. Partly this was due to the songs, which were nowhere near as creative or imaginative as previously, but were also a case of wish fulfilment turned sour: be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.
“Beauty Queen” is an example of how much fun can be found in playing a role as opposed to committing to it (bad faith, as Sartre would call it). Here, Ferry’s voice is a thing of beauty, trying out different phrasings, the various ways he could breathe life into the melody, testing the limits of the different registers of his voice. The later Ferry wouldn’t allow such testing and flexibility in his voice; once he hit the ‘winning’ formula, he stuck to it. This is a Ferry in love with the idea of being a singer, the kind of singers he’d admired in his youth, a Ferry ecstatic at the idea he can try all these different approaches and not be nailed down. It’s one of the greatest vocals of Ferry’s career and a large part of is down to the pleasure you can literally hear in his voice at the freedom he allows himself.
Of course, the Roxy of the period were not into replication but bricolage and collage of their influences into a new whole. To this end, we get an eerie, wavering synth introduction, a strangely spacious arrangement through the main body of the song that allows Ferry the room to try out his crooner persona, and a busier middle section that sounds a little like The Who but also sounds like they’re using themselves as part of the collage – that middle is as much pure ‘Virginia Plain’ as it is the work of Mr Townshend.
This is blue-eyed soul as remade in the art school but, unlike the paranoid, decimated likes of the brilliant Station to Station Roxy take joy in their innovations. It’s a joy I share in.
In Every Dream Home a Heartache
One of the most haunting things Roxy ever recorded, the tale of a rich, isolated male who can only find connection and intimacy with a blowup doll of all things should by rights evoke much laughter. And yet, like a lot of risks Roxy took, it actually works!
Part of that is the sheer power of the mood created by the music. The song unravels slowly, almost imperceptibly, like fog dissipating without losing its mystery. A texture of quivering keyboard and haunting guitar usher Ferry’s hushed, disturbing monologue to our ears, the story getting ever longer, the details ever more involved, building the tension by refusing to allow any release of tension until the song is good and ready.
When it does so, with a pregnant pause and a campy Ferry delivery of “but you blew my mind!”, the song explodes much like the planet at the end of Eraserhead – with quiet majesty and strength. This is not a Who-esque round of feedback and windmill arming, but a semi-restrained release of powerful, slow, doomy rock processed by Eno’s gadgetry so as to sound as if the very tape they are recording on is being dissolved or being distorted, a cigarette burning through the very tape the song is being recorded on. It’s dark and disorientating and the false fade near the end is a wonderfully theatrical device well-deployed – when the song fades back in, you can’t help but feel you’re being set up for more punishment.
A masterpiece of dynamics, arrangement and theatre.
Out of the Blue
As Roxy progressed, they increasingly integrated elements of then-modern-day soul and disco into their art-rock-pop glamour collage. By the end of their run, they had smoothed out any of the edges from their music in line with their singer and leader’s ever-increasing suave public persona. But during the post-Eno years pf their initial run they were not so bleached out, putting the groove and the strange on equal footing and letting them duke it out.
“Out of the Blue” is a great case in point. Ushered in on a seductive bed of phased guitar and keyboards, and set alight by a mysterious, sensual oboe hook, the whole thing feels secretive, exclusive, a hushed whisper of a seductive confession into a potential lover’s ear, a frisson palpable in the excitement of saying something you shouldn’t. It’s a heady mix and an extremely evocative sound for sure.
There are two stars of the track and surprisingly neither of them are Bryan Ferry, whose vocal is great of course, but whose lyrics of the surprise of unexpected love are overshadowed by the majesty of the music.
The first star is that wonderful, wonderful bass, played by prog legend John Wetton, which drives the song along with its muscular propulsion, refusing to remain still, in love with the groove without surrendering its toughness.
The second star was Eddie Jobson’s heroic violin solo that rode the groove with exceptional attack and equal grace, phased to the point of being overdriven and a perfect way to end things. Never in the history of rock and pop has a violin been so exciting.
Post-punk starts here!
In the early seventies, the concept of the street, for the proto-punks, foreshadowed the attitude of their heirs; the street was urban, cool, seedy and dangerous. Lou Reed’s protagonist in “Sweet Jane” was standing on the corner, or was chasing the next hit in “I’m Waiting For My Man”. The Stooges and Big Star were down-and-in the street respectively. As for the MC5, John Sinclair demanded “dope, guns and f*****g in the streets.”
The concept of the street suggested an authenticity that an element of rock’s then-practitioners felt was required to be true to the genre, which they identified as being the music of the new post-war blue-collar and working-class kids; these tough, exquisitely cool, immaculately dressed teenagers.
In reality, however, the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, if standing on the corner, had walked themselves there out of the comfortable middle-class backgrounds (which is not to say such backgrounds were happy or loving, of course). Even John Lennon, although as the result of substantial family trauma, had a middle-class childhood, and was known to put on the ‘scouse’ during his Beatles days to give the impression he was from working-class inner Liverpool.
There arose then a kind of dilemma of identity: middle-class rockers wanted to adapt the language, look and imagery of the street without addressing the gap between the image and the real to give them an authenticity they felt was demanded of them. This interestingly pre-dates such arguments found in hip-hop, particularly gangster rap, where authenticity is king and tales of violence and gun crime would be questioned or called out by other rappers if there were any doubts about the veracity of such tales.
The same questions were rarely raised, if at all, of those early seventies’ rockers. But for the likes of David Bowie and Roxy Music, who shared a taste for the dangerous rock of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, their art backgrounds saw no such issue as the need to appear authentic – ironic, as both Bowie and Ferry came from working-class backgrounds.
Instead, Bowie and Ferry would promote any lack of authenticity with eager excitement, trying on roles, costumes, sounds and personas like an actor in the theatre. They were self-conscious in a positive way about this approach, playing games with their audience and collaging their favourite things into their art.
The idea of the street was just one of those things. In Bowie, who was more drawn to the street than Ferry, this attraction expressed itself in the street alien star-rock of Ziggy Stardust. With Ferry, though, we got this amazing slice of art-pop that took to the street with a skip in its step and tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Eddie Jobson had just replaced Brian Eno and what he lacked in strange noises he made up for with cool, arty sounds from his synth (the same VSC3 as Eno, as it happened). Here his synth intro to the song gives a clanking, siren feel as if there are various alarms going off the street. This quickly switches to a hook made of a synthesized horn-type sound which gives the song its cool, strutting, semi-soulful feel. Manzanera, meanwhile, plays a spindly accelerating guitar line throughout that matches the sugar rush feeling of listening to the best pop and the street world it describes, even if the truth is often removed from the pretence.
Meanwhile, Ferry, more likely to be seen at a debonair ball than hanging on the corner, plays his part of street cruiser with evident glee and tongue-in-cheek, focussing on the glamour of sexy, fashionable young things treating the street as a blank canvas, where all things and opportunities are possible (until you commit to a choice of course, but Ferry seems to posit that if you keep your wits about you and not fooled by the gutter press and the supposed status enhancer of the ‘right’ universities, then all choices are magical).
This, then, is the first street of pop as opposed to rock. No wallowing in drug-fuelled angst here. Instead, Ferry presents the street as the colourful rush of a spinning 45rpm disc; a world of cool sounds, new languages, new loves, and brilliant nightclubs (“Weekend starts Friday soon after eight/Your jet-black magic helps you celebrate”).
In fact, the only concession to only street darkness is the frustration at being constantly hassled on the telephone, and in the last line, and even there’s an optimistic, positive tone: “You may be stranded if you stick around/And that’s really something”.
Now, that’s really something!
Do the Strand
You’ve done the hop, the mashed potato, the block. Time for something a little more sophisticated. May Roxy Music present to you…The Strand!
Bryan Ferry described his idea for “The Strand” as “the ‘dance of life’ – thus bringing to mind earlier dance phenomena, such as the avant-garde passion and exuberance of both The Ballets Russes and the controversial Jazz Age dance craze, ‘The Charleston’”. Which is all good and well, except the song never tells you how to dance the thing! And that’s because the song is a dance of the mind.
How do we know? Well, as is especially true of the early Roxy, there are references to disparate works of art and creative people throughout: the Mona Lisa, Nijinsky, Lolita, the sphinx and the dancer La Goulue. Ferry instructs us that we should do the Strand when we feel love, but Roxy’s love early on was for art and ideas as opposed to flesh and blood people.
By juxtaposing all of these works of art and artistic people with the dance in humorous ways (“If you feel blue/Look through who’s who/See La Goulue/And Nijinsky/Do the Strandsky”), Ferry is giving us the key. Much like Ferry himself (and perhaps Eno), the collage approach to his art, recombining his obsessions through pop music, had reinvented his life, literally and artistically. He recognised that it could do the same for others if you just embraced it. That is what doing the strand is all about.
Musically, the song is a stylish assault on the listener, switching between staccato, insistent stabs of piano and rolling, pounding drums driving a glittered art-soul stomp over which Eno makes sounds from another dimension to conflict with and yet compliment Mackay’s tasteful, passionate saxophone.
This is the closest Roxy ever came to a real manifesto (and no, I don’t mean that other song!)
Mother of Pearl
We finally arrive at Roxy’s magnum opus; their first epic song in the vein of a “Hey Jude” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, a song that builds into a dramatic circular chord cycle complete with celebratory chant or cathartic incantation that often brings people together in a way some of the best house records would later emulate in their own way in the late eighties.
Lou Reed aimed for something of this nature with the end of “New Age” on Loaded before it was interfered with and neutered. Now it was Roxy’s turn, and they nailed it with such success, something that is even more outstanding when you consider that it wasn’t even the group’s intention: the song started life, in fact, as an instrumental.
The sequence of three chords that dominates the main body of the song was stretched out for so long on the demo so that the band could come back to it and jam some further ideas over and around it. To everyone’s surprise, however, Bryan Ferry came in one day with the lyrics all written down and proceeded to lay down the complete vocal track, transforming the piece into an epic song of exhausted, compromised love that subtly built up with layers of instrumentation until it reached it’s strident, confident climactic chant of “mother of pearl/I couldn’t change you for another girl.” Eventually, the music drops out, leaving Ferry’s voice, multi-tracked, harmonised, exposed yet determined. It’s a perfect moment.
Even more exciting is the song’s first part, which almost feels like its own song in its own right. Taking a fast, solid rhythm and blues groove and making it razor wire sharp and tungsten hot, the band lays down possibly the most rocking, vicious moment they ever committed to tape. Ferry snarls about people trying to waste his time and has a schizophrenic moment talking to his overdubbed self (“No, no, no, no,” “yes”!), while Phil Manzanera nails a solo tight and wiry to tear the flesh from your face with.
Before “Mother of Pearl”, Roxy were dabbling in the pools of greatness. With this one song, they surpassed it. It’s that good.
A Song for Europe
And so we come to the end of my list, and what better way to end than with an overwrought, bombastic, dramatic ballad in the grand tradition of the Eurovision Song Contest?
There’s something very Ferry about this number. For many years, the song selection TV programme to choose Britain’s entry into the European Song Contest was called “A Song for Europe.”
Here was Ferry making his offering to an institution equally celebrated and reviled as camp nonsense. Ferry, understanding camp to be a particular kind of playfulness which also allowed for pastiche, possibly identified the mock-seriousness of the typical Eurovision ballad of the time to be ripe for the pickings for his ever-progressing lounge lizard persona.
Over a doleful, romantic piano and saxophone combination, Ferry details a romance gone wrong by using a litany of European imagery. The cafes, bridges and Notre Dame for a backdrop for the mood of the song to trail its shoes along, as Ferry takes obvious pleasure in the big choruses, again trying out a variety of registers and vocal approaches for size, tossing them aside like discarded costumes and reaching for the next disguise.
When he starts tearing up phrases in Latin, of all things, and French at the end, the sense of fun and self-conscious theatre is clear. And yet, the drama of the thing, however ridiculous it all might seem, wins through and stays with you long after the song has finished. A perfect end to a perfect ten, then.
What do you think, dear reader? Did I get it right? What did I so shamefully leave out? What would your Roxy Music perfect 10 include? Let me know in the comments!
(1) More Than This: The Story of Roxy Music, Documentary, 2008.