“Dave came up in the morning and borrowed Pictures and lent me Roxy Music”
I was almost dreading the debut mention of Roxy Music in this blog.
Why? Because it is extremely difficult to explain the impact that the band – and their style – had on this particular teenager. It’s also difficult to explain to an audience now wholly familiar with their sound just HOW radically different they appeared to be in 1973.
Vocalist Bryan Ferry – originally a ceramics teacher from Newcastle – formed Roxy Music in November 1970. This was a few months after he had failed to secure the spot as King Crimson‘s new lead singer following the departure of Greg Lake. (Yes, that Greg Lake) However, Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield liked Ferry so much they helped the vocalist’s young band obtain a management contract with EG Records.
Ferry started the band with bassist Graham Simpson, then recruited saxophonist Andy MacKay and drummer Paul Thompson via wanted ads placed in Melody Maker. MacKay brought along his university chum Brian Eno to act (initially) as a technical advisor. Phil Manzanera joined the band just as they started recording their debut album, replacing former ex-Nice guitarist David O’List.
Ferry initially monikered the band “Roxy”, an homage to the name given to old-fashioned cinemas and dance halls across the UK. He then found out there was already a similarly-named American band, so added “Music” to differentiate the two.
The band’s debut album was recorded – along with their quirky hit single “Virginia Plain” (not included on the original LP release, but subsequently added to LP & CD re-issues) – in March 1972 and unleashed on the public a few months later.
I feel somewhat ashamed in retrospect that it apparently took me until January 1973 to first acknowledge it!
The sleeve alone stood out as completely different to everything else I was listening to at the time. Whilst groups like ELP, Deep Purple or the Edgar Broughton Band featured terrible representations of the band members, Roxy Music turned things on their head by having an extremely glamourous model – Kari-Ann Muller – lounging across the gatefold.
If that wasn’t enough to draw this impressionable teenager in, then the musical contents certainly did.
The opener, “Re-Make/Re-Model“, starts with the sounds of a cocktail party in progress before launching full-tilt into what, on the surface, appears to be a traditional rock & roll song from the 50’s, complete with solos from each of the band members. Subsequent listens unveil a whole separate texture to the song, with Eno’s futuristic synthesizer sounds and MacKay & Manzanera’s instruments creating an almost cacophonous roar. There’s more than just a cursory nod to The Beatles “Day Tripper” in the riffing, but the most off-the-wall element is the vocal chorus of “CPL 593H“, allegedly the number plate of Ferry’s car at the time!
“Ladytron” is one of Ferry’s (what-would-become) trademark ‘seduction’ songs, and kicks off with an eerie duet between MacKay’s oboe skills and Eno’s synthesiser blips and gloops before eventually descending into another band battle of sounds and noises.
“If There Is Something” is quintessential early-Roxy. It forges a sound that the band would duplicate over and over again;- Ferry’s vibrato – but utterly nonchalant – vocal styling at the forefront with repeated band melodies behind him. MacKay’s oboe playing is nothing short of magnificent, his mid-song solo bringing the tune its melancholy.
It would be easy to think that “2HB“, which closes side 1, is Ferry’s personal tribute to pencils. It is actually a song dedicated to actor Humphrey Bogart, specifically his role as Rick in Casablanca. In keeping with the movie, this song has a detached moody atmosphere, entirely driven by Ferry’s electric piano and MacKay’s erie Eno-enhanced sax.
Side 2’s opener is “The Bob (Medley)” , a bitty & somewhat unstructured affair – and probably my least favourite track on the whole album. Punctured by the sound of warfare (Bob is an acronym for “Battle of Britain”) the song is split into sections that veer dramatically from each other. It’s almost as if the band are showing off just a little too much, or trying a little too hard with this track, although it has be stated that without Thompson’s thumpy drums or Manzanera’s fretwork it would amount to very little indeed.
Things get properly back on course with “Chance Meeting“, one of Ferry’s more traditional love songs. It is peppered with Manzanera’s guitar – having first been fed through Eno’s box of electronic tricks – and underlined by Ferry’s own gentle piano playing.
I personally feel that “Would You Believe” is one of Roxy’s unsung little masterpieces, so ‘unsung’ that there’s no footage available at all on YouTube. The boogie-woogie piano, drum, guitar and sax section that intersperse the contrary starkness is pure rock and roll, and offers more than a mere hint to some of Ferry’s influences,
“Sea Breezes” is, pure and simple, a Roxy Music ‘classic’ – assuming such a thing even exists. It is one of my – admittedly many – ‘shower songs’, wherein I persecute the walls of our bathroom with my singing. It starts off pretty traditionally, Ferry’s gentle voice overlaying some fine guitar, synth and sax work. Suddenly the silence is punctured by a drum break and we find ourselves in new territory altogether, amps turned up to ’11’ and the band members noisily battling each other. Then, as quickly as the noise starts, it all mellows out again and Ferry once again professes his love for the song’s protagonist. Delightful stuff.
“Bitters End” ties the album up, a 50’s doo-wop pastiche containing a strange choral refrain of “bizarre” almost summing up the entire album’s sound. Its also the song that seems to ‘go’ with the band’s image seen on the inside LP sleeve.
I think those images ‘drew’ me to the album as much as the music itself. There’s Manzanera in ‘fly’ sunglasses a decade or two before U2’s Bono discovered them, MacKay personifying “rock’n’roll”, and Ferry & Eno in leopard/tiger skin leather jackets, the latter looking particularly ‘other-worldy’ (and, bless him, displaying early signs of hair loss)
The second Roxy Music album “For Your Pleasure” was the album that REALLY sealed my personal – and lifelong – fascination for the band, but this very assured debut introduced me to their quirky stylings and unique sound in a major way.
It also goes to underline the fact – repeated again for those that have forgotten it – that I was willing to listen to – and appreciate – just about anything that came my way. Whilst many of my school chums may have been fixated only by Heavy Rock or Pop Music my own listening rounded up both of those and a whole lot more besides.
I often wonder if bands such as Roxy Music would stand even half a chance in the current music ‘business’. I would like to think that with someone as always forward-thinking and technically-savvy as Brian Eno in its ranks the band would find a way of getting their music across to the masses but I’m not convinced there would be a 100% guarantee of success.