ryan Ferry got an unusual media response when he first announced the re-forming of his classic band Roxy Music in May. Rather than that special groan journalists reserve for reunion tours, he was greeted with a wistful sigh.
"It wasn't the usual carping of 'Oh, God, why are they coming back?," says the still-handsome 55-year-old Ferry. "It was 'Oh, great. They're getting together again!'"
He shouldn't be so surprised. After an absence of 18 years, Roxy Music brings to the rock scene something far more valuable than the typical milk-the-nostalgia tour. Between 1971 and 1983, this restless band created some of the oddest, most intellectual, elegant and underappreciated music of the era. When key members Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera and sax-and-oboe player Andy Mackay bring their comeback tour to the Theater in The Garden tomorrow and Tuesday, they'll carry with them a catalogue of material that bridges different phases of the group, each contrasting groundbreaking music with hyper-romantic lyrics.
"These days you only hear our singles on the radio," explains Manzanera, referring to classics like "Love Is The Drug," "Dance Away" and "Avalon." "You never hear the 90 other songs we fussed over. People know the style of Roxy, not the content."
That content includes the first recordings by one of music's most important innovators, Brian Eno, who pioneered new synthesizer effects on Roxy's first two albums. (While Eno maintains a good relationship with the other band members, he detests being on the road and was not invited to join the tour.)
Early Roxy also provided key influences for the '70s new wave movement. The Cars, for one, learned everything they knew from Roxy's first British hit, "Virginia Plain."
The group also set new standards in album cover art, with high-glamour images that still look avant. That haute style was echoed by the glossy sound of their early-'80s recordings (like "Flesh + Blood" and "Avalon"), which were unsurpassed in the smoothness of their production.
Then there was the indelible persona of handsome frontman Ferry. The epitome of masculine sophistication, he conveyed through his songs the image of a lover ruined by doomed desires. With his fine suits and world-weary charm, he was Humphrey Bogart, Dirk Bogarde and David Bowie rolled into one.
Ferry, of course, has maintained a cult solo career over the years while Manzanera and Mackay have worked consistently on arty solo efforts and session work. So it wasn't lack of opportunities that brought them back together. Instead, Manzanera explains, it all began with an offer they couldn't refuse.
"Believe it or not, it was the first time a promoter came to us and said, 'Here's 50 dates. They start here and finish here. And you get X amount of money.' We couldn't think of a reason not to do them."
Ferry said he gained extra incentive from his "As Time Goes By" solo tour, in which he mixed pop standards with new arrangements of some of Roxy's most obscure material. "I got a taste for it again," he says. "The audience responded so well to songs that aren't well known."
It didn't hurt that 2001 marks a nice round number for Roxy: the 30th anniversary of the band's start. Ferry says his own age is also a factor. "I've had some friends die in the last few years," he remarked, alluding specifically to his best friend, Simon Puxley, who wrote the liner notes for Roxy Music's debut album. "That reminds you to do things while you can."
He had another reminder of that lesson through a much-publicized event last December. Ferry, his wife, three of their four sons and hundreds of other passengers were aboard a commercial airliner flying to Zanzibar when a crazed man broke into the cockpit and tried to down the plane, before being subdued. Ferry jokes that he got more attention from that incident than from the comeback. "It's the whole reason we were able to do the tour," he says with a laugh.
Seriously, Ferry reveals: "I was asleep during most of it. But [when I woke] it was quite scary. Praise the Lord that it worked out."
Manzanera has another, less dramatic reason for the return: the shaky nature of Roxy Music's legacy among the general public. "Nobody else was playing this music," he says. "I'm not aware of any Roxy tribute bands. So we thought we'd become our own tribute band."
Actually, a few of the band's earliest songs were covered on the soundtrack of the glam rock movie "Velvet Goldmine," including "Re-make/Re-model," sung by Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Ferry and Manzanera cite Yorke's band and the neo-glam group Placebo as their modern equivalents.
"Not in the specific sound," the guitarist qualifies. "But in the fact that they're the masters of their own fate. They do what they like whether other people like it or not."
The members of Roxy Music were just as uncompromising in their dealings with each other. That's why Eno left after 1973's "For Your Pleasure." He immediately went on to create revolutionary works like "Another Green World" and his string of ambient projects. Inner conflicts also explain why the rest of the band broke up twice - after 1975's "Siren" and '83's live EP "The High Road," which, ironically, were two of the band's commercial peaks. "The fact that we quit while we were ahead may have added some mystery," Ferry says.
Along the way, the band hired so many bassists, they probably hold the world record. "It became something of a joke," Manzanera says. "But they all left of their own accord. Just when we were going to ask John Wetton to be a full member he said, 'I'm off to join Uriah Heep.'"
Despite the ups and downs, Roxy fostered two radically different styles that each deserve a separate reunion tour. The first five albums, including "Country Life" and "Stranded," feature choppy rhythms, wild sound effects and Ferry's ironic crooning vocals. The last three featured a more polished sound and earnest singing. "I think over time you get absorbed by the system," explains Manzanera of the band's evolution. "You get smoothed down by the whole weight of the music business."
Ferry takes responsibility for the band's split in 1983. "I didn't particularly want to be in a band per se anymore. I wanted to spend less time on the road. And I also wanted to work with lots of other musicians."
"Being in a band is an unnatural state," adds Manzanera. "It's even more unnatural when you're in your 50s. But hopefully we all have wiser heads now."
For the comeback tour, they've hired second guitarist Chris Spedding, whom Ferry has often used in his solo recordings; a violinist to play the old Eddie Jobson parts from the mid-'70s, and bassist Zev Katz from Ferry's solo group. They've also re-recruited their first drummer, Paul Thompson. "It's great to have a really powerful drummer for the arenas," Manzanera says.
All this would mean nothing, however, if the group's material hadn't aged so well. Numbers like "A Song for Europe" and "Amazona," sound as shockingly original now as they did twenty-seven years ago.
For this tour, they have to. "We don't have new material so this is about celebrating our catalogue," Manzanera says. "The tour is about breathing new life into the songs and seeing if they can work in 2001."
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