Sunday, November 16, 2014

"For Your Pleasure," an Essay on Roxy Music

All the iconic album covers of Roxy Music, not in chronological order.

Roxy Music, 1972. Top row: Bryan Ferry, Graham Simpson, Andy Mackay. Bottom row: Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Paul Thompson.

Roxy Music, 2000's. Left to right, Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, and Andy Mackay.
I’ve known about the British band Roxy Music for a long time, probably since my infatuation with David Bowie began around 2000, but it wasn’t until ten years later that I started seriously listening to their music. I quickly became a big fan of their unique style. 

Earlier this month, Roxy Music’s lead guitarist Phil Manzanera told Rolling Stone that the group has broken up, which seems like a rather belated announcement for a group that hasn’t released a new studio album since 1982. But Roxy Music did re-form in 2001 and has toured off and on since then, although their last live appearance was in 2011. So what legacy does Roxy Music leave behind? Between 1972 and 1982 they released 8 studio albums that trace the evolution of the band from glam rock and experimental art rock to smooth, slick dance grooves. 

Roxy Music started out as an arty glam rock band, releasing their debut album in June of 1972, the same summer that David Bowie finally broke big in the UK with the single “Starman” and the “Ziggy Stardust” album. Similar to Bowie, Roxy Music looked like they had been beamed down to Earth from some other planet. Lead singer Bryan Ferry’s unique croon was paired with Phil Manzanera’s scorching lead guitar, Andy Mackay’s saxophone and oboe contributions, Paul Thompson’s thumping drums, and Brian Eno’s electronic experimentations on synthesizer to give Roxy Music an unmistakable sound. Their debut album is astonishing. With Roxy Music there were no half measures, no hesitation, no finding your voice. The group seemed to emerge from the womb fully formed. 

Early Roxy Music songs were definitely a bit weird. “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the first song on their first album, had a cryptic backing chorus of “CPL 593H,” which was apparently the license plate number belonging to an attractive woman that Bryan Ferry saw. (The song actually makes a lot more sense viewed through the lens of a failed flirtation.) One of their most famous songs, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” is about a blow-up doll that Bryan Ferry gets a little too attached to. Ferry doesn’t so much sing the lyrics as recite them, like a bizarre prose poem. 

One might think that Roxy lost some of their thirst for experimentation once Brian Eno left the group in 1973, after their second album “For Your Pleasure.” But Roxy continued to expand their sonic palette, as Ferry wrote songs like “Bitter-Sweet,” which sounds like a lost song from “Cabaret.” Roxy Music turned out three excellent albums in a row without Eno, “Stranded,” “Country Life,” and “Siren.” Oddly enough, Eno has said that his favorite Roxy Music album is “Stranded,” the first album the group made without him. The lead single from 1975’s “Siren” album was the insanely catchy “Love is the Drug,” which proved to be Roxy’s only US Top 40 single. Ferry had written catchy songs before, but “Love is the Drug” paired a funky bass line with a killer chorus that made it an easier song to follow than, say, “Mother of Pearl.” 

After the 1976 live album “Viva!” Roxy Music went on hiatus. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to take a break. Part of the reason might have been for Bryan Ferry to focus on his burgeoning solo career. Ferry had released his first solo album “These Foolish Things,” an eclectic collection of cover versions, in October of 1973, just a month before the Roxy Music album “Stranded” came out. Ferry released a staggering total of 10 studio albums between 1972 and 1978, 5 with Roxy Music, and 5 solo. 

Roxy Music reconvened in late 1978 to begin recording “Manifesto,” issued in 1979. “Manifesto” is really a transition album. There are still some rough edges, but it’s definitely a little smoother than their previous albums. The song “Angel Eyes” highlights this. The album version of the song is rougher and rockier, but the single version is smoother and more polished, a hint of the new direction that Roxy would be moving in. The hit single “Dance Away” was also a smoother piece of great pop than they had previously put out. 

The group’s next album, 1980’s “Flesh and Blood” shows the new, smoother Roxy Music in full flower. Personally, it’s my own favorite Roxy Music album, as I can’t resist the slinky tunes like “Oh Yeah,” “Same Old Scene,” “My Only Love,” and “Over You.” Roxy Music followed up “Flesh and Blood” with another supremely smooth album, 1982’s sublime “Avalon.” It’s a perfect pop album. And then suddenly they were gone, breaking up after finishing the “Avalon” tour in 1983.

What made Roxy Music such an interesting band? It’s the yearning passion that typifies their songs, Ferry’s romantic and expressive vocals, the excellent arrangements that seemed to fit each song perfectly, and their stylistic range. It’s kind of weird for a band to go from “Do the Strand” to “Avalon,” but Roxy Music did it, and both songs are great in their own way. 

Visual style was always a large part of the Roxy Music mystique. Bryan Ferry is not only one of rock’s great singers; he’s also one of the most stylish rock stars. Roxy Music was also famous for their sleek and sexy album covers-the most famous of which, 1974’s “Country Life,” was heavily censored in the U.S. The original cover showed two beautiful women clad only in see-through lingerie. The U.S. cover omitted the women and instead featured a close up of the trees they were posing in front of!

Roxy Music never achieved as much success in the US as they did in the UK. Stateside, their highest charting album was “Manifesto,” peaking at #23, and their biggest hit single was “Love is the Drug,” which hit #30. In the UK, all 8 of their studio albums peaked in the Top 10. In all, they had 11 Top 10 albums and 4 that made it to number 1. On the UK singles chart, they had 10 Top 10 singles, and 1 number 1, a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” that was released in early 1981 as a tribute to Lennon. 

Whether you enjoy smooth pop tunes crooned by an effortlessly cool singer, or spiky arty songs filled with references to visual art, you’ll find something to enjoy in the albums of Roxy Music.


Uncle E said...

Inspired write up, as always. I am very much looking forward to the (overdue) Deluxe Editions set for release next year. They're starting in chronological order, so the first 2 Eno ones will represent first. The way it should be.

But I love all phases of Roxy Music, and don't believe they ever put out a bad album.

Mark said...

Hey E! Thanks! I'm looking forward to the deluxe editions as well, hopefully there will be enough bonus stuff to make an upgrade worthwhile.

I agree, I don't think they ever put out a bad album.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to me to read things written about Roxy by people much younger than I who had discovered them after 2000. I was 14 in 1975, and obsessively acquired and listened to each of the first five Roxy Music albums, plus the live "Viva!" album. I wonder how well their music, especially the earlier stuff, holds-up for people who'd not been born yet when it came out, but I myself have known some, and initiated some, latterday fans. To me, being of the era, the band's music declined after the fourth album (and they got chick backup singers for live shows), but there's not much other stuff from the '70s that I can stand to listen to anymore, much less enjoy the hell out of.

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment. Personally, I think that Roxy's early stuff holds up very well. But then I listen to a lot of music from before I was born. I think "Stranded" has a lot of great songs on it, like "Street Life," "A Song For Europe," and "Mother of Pearl." I also like "Country Life" a lot, that's a fantastic album from start to finish.