Roxy Music 2001

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Exoticism comes home

Jordana Lesen, Armond White, Edward E. Crouse & Patrick Macias, San Francisco Bay Guardian (Noise)

NY TRACK YOU play in Virgin's rerelease of the Roxy Music catalog reveals humor and elegance that have not dimmed over 20 years. But there's a story hidden in this treasure trove that's key to understanding popular art's value. It has become standard in England, Roxy Music's home turf, to regard the group's first three albums, Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, and Country Life, as their peak. Though it's impossible to argue against those albums' brilliance (and barely possible to adequately register their magnitude), the rest of Roxy's story is equally amazing.

Almost incredibly, the goal Roxy Music half-consciously set for themselves when Bryan Ferry came from Newcastle to London and recruited guitar virtuoso Phil Manzanera and electronics whiz Brian Eno – to inaugurate new art pleasures, to commune with jet-set high life and achieve American insouciance – actually came to pass. That journey gave a unique take on cultural revolution: a romantic's revolution. No other pop group of the rock and roll era has such an unsullied catalog; every album gleams with new possibilities. Even if Brits can't stand that cosmopolitan truth, Americans ought to know the trip was worthwhile.

Midwestern America, of all places, understood Roxy Music best. What Todd Haynes didn't grasp in Velvet Goldmine (confused by the need to explain and defend camp, queerness, rock, Bowie, Wilde, the American indie movement, and every bohemian pretense under the sun) was the great cultural anomaly of blue-collar, working-class youth embracing British cheek, genuinely grooving to ... Siren. A staple of Detroit's mid-'70s FM radio, Siren was so popular in the Motor City that one of the most requested songs was one never released as a single, "Both Ends Burning." It's the sexiest of all Roxy tunes ("Who can sleep / In this heat / This night?").

Maybe you have to be immersed in Motown to appreciate "Both Ends Burning" 's danceable, rocksteady lunge and flow, but it made people feel romantic while staying conscious of their randiest impulses. Lust with swirling strings spoke the common language of palpable desire. That's a pop victory. The weird pathos in Ferry's crooning voice seemed simultaneously desperate and postorgasmic. Americans love the fullness of Siren's sound, the innovation reined in for epic effect. Those who call it the great rock album have a need to hear their dreams and anxieties solidified; that's why this drum-heavy concept bop is so pleasing. And the distance the expertly programmed songs travel, from hipness to heartbroken resignation – each track hitting an emotional peak – tells the lovelorn's complete story.

Brits understandably revere "Virginia Plain." Released in 1972 without charting in the United States, it has never gone stale. Heard today, its sqwonking, ricky-ticky, stomping progression suggests constant discovery. Still. Is that genius enough? Everything is in this track; it's Ferry's proposition to try out pop music, to cross over into American culture, enjoy mechanical amusements as well as tropical vacation spots. Modern leisure gets a romantic meditation until profundity is found: "You're so sheer / You're so chic / Teenage rebel of the week" (followed by the revving of an actual motorbike). The energy depicted is transformed into high style: "Dance the cha-cha through to sunrise, open some exclusive doors." Then the bottom drops out and the song's whimsy floats in the air, but an amazing syncopation builds tension, then release, leading to ... enigma. "Virginia Plain" has been called "one of the definitive moments in British pop music history," but because it is strange to American taste, its splendor exists on Roxy's other hand. Itisn't as well known here as, say, the contemporarily released love theme from the 1972 hit The Godfather.

"Virginia Plain," titled like a dadaist art work as per Ferry's art school background, could be the Rosetta stone of pop music except that it appeared so hilariouslylate in pop history. But that's part of the joke and pleasure of Roxy Music. Each of the British band's albums is like rediscovering old love letters: you've read them, you know them, but they still delight you, and the passion expressed stays fragrant, making you want to start over again.

Called a "Pop Art magpie," Ferry borrowed from the world of style and art with abandon and good taste. His original vision for the band's music has been described by one critic as "the wide and unusual spread of notes over short periods in a conventional melody ... with unusual notes emphasized in chords to diversify the sound of the arrangement, or the root of a chord emphasized first on one instrument and then on another." Roxy, named after a '50s British comic book (the moniker's also a reference to tarnished cinematic glory), dealt in paradoxes and irony but always with wit and sincerity. Ferry took freedom in the rock and roll moment. (Note the classic "scandalous" album cover art – frequently copied, seldom equaled.) That's why he could kid rebellion. He knew what youth and freedom and sexuality and talent really meant: an aesthetic, if not quite political, license. His true parallel isn't David Bowie but Jean-Luc Godard, who did his own, more theoretical celluloid equivalent of "Re-make/Re-model" (another historic track from Roxy's debut album): deconstruction before the word was coined.

Songs like "Do the Strand" ("A danceable solution to teenage revolution") stated pop history as a participatory spree (tango, fandango, quadrille, madison, the beguine, the waltz, mashed potato). "Editions of You" saw human history in terms of romantic experience ("If life is your table / And fate is the wheel / Then let the chips fall where they may"), so the existential connection Ferry made to music was indivisible. You could properly think of the early albums as manifestos and the rest as the work of revolution. Except for the Beatles', no other group's output has been so eclectic – the marvelous Stranded, featuring the distinct "Street Life," "Psalm," and the immortal "Mother of Pearl" (art ambition achieved!), is sublime yet practically unclassifiable. When Roxy broke up in the mid '70s, then returned at decade's close, on the tail end of disco, they reconnected to pop.

Roxy Music bridged Motown to Brit punk through their 1979 comeback album Manifesto, where disco beats teased punk irreverence. Roxy participated in what Public Enemy eventually articulated as "a journey into sound" – the true aim of every pop band conscious of its roots and forebears. Where the Rolling Stones saw no racial barriers, Roxy similarly saw no boundaries. For Roxy all music connects as it did for the Beatles, but this is also a personal expression for Ferry – the most delightfully melodramatic singer of his time – who acted out his pop generation's need to reach out to and claim a world of music and art and glamour. Oh yeah, that means white to black crossover, a journey beginning in his heart and imagination.

Lyrics to Manifesto's title track recall pop's truest commitment to romanticism and fashion and faith. Ferry rolls them together, then rocks one's sense of seriousness.

I'm into friendship and plain sailing
Through frenzied ports of call
To shake the hand to beat the band
Where love is all
Or nothing to the man
Who wants tomorrow
There's one in every town
A crazy guy, he'd rather die than be tied down

Tweaking that part of punk ethos that was truly evanescent, if not pretentious, Ferry challenged the new wave:

I'm for the revolution's coming
I don't know where she's been
For those who dare because it's there
I know I've seen
Now and then I've sighted imperfection
Studied marble floors
And faces drawn pale and worn by many tears
I am that I am from out of nowhere
To fight without a cause
Roots strained against the grain of brute force

Then, putting punk in its place, Ferry adds a prophet's sardonic grace:

Hold out when you're in doubt
Question what you see
And when you find an answer
Bring it home to me

"Manifesto" is Roxy's edgy-suave consideration of rebellion as style – so very far ahead of the moment's headiness. Punk with a disco saunter. Roxy proved that pop's lighter forms are its most enduring. It may be part of an American pop ethos – something from the perseverance of blues and soul that drifted over the pond to Ferry's brain – that Americans recognize this better than Roxy's native critics have. While Manifesto, Flesh and Blood, and Avalon don't innovate the way the early albums do, they insinuate, hypnotize. These are the most exquisitely produced albums in history, and though more musically conventional (the make-out music of two previous generations), they create no shame for the talent and commitment Roxy Music learned to express.

Chic was the only American group to approximate Roxy's élan. Though Nile Rodgers would eventually work on several of Ferry's solo albums (a topic for further study and amazement), the design of mixing artifice and sincerity is something critics, from jazz to gangsta rap, have never understood about African American musicians. Ferry undoubtedly felt an artistic-emotional kinship. "It was all rather curious, I suppose, to be in Newcastle fantasizing that you were a blond beach idol," Ferry told Melody Maker in 1976. "I loved the incongruity of it all." Play Chic's Risqué back-to-back with Manifesto and feel the precognition. Play Flesh and Blood after Chic's Take It Off: feel fulfilled.

In Paul Stump's maddeningly titled Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural Biography of Roxy Music (the Joy Division steal is never explained, though J.D. were influenced by Roxy) Brit obstinacy about those early albums remains, even to the point of his trashing the two albums that might well be Roxy's peak: Stranded and, especially, Siren. Remember, the latter gave the group their only American hit, the imperishable single "Love Is the Drug" (if you don't love it, you don't love pop). Siren is also the Roxy album that (until Avalon) American listeners loved best – and for the best reasons. While previous Roxy opening tracks ("Do the Strand," "Street Life," "The Thrill of It All") were bashes, letting Ferry rock out, Siren's "Love Is the Drug" shows an R&B-inflected Ferry who has learned to strut. It's sensual and proud: exoticism brought home.

Discussing the Siren songs that follow "Love Is the Drug," Stump claims, "Unfortunately, [Ferry] continued trying the populist seam for the majority of the rest of the album, and it suffers accordingly." But Siren took the whole love song tradition and questioned it as Roxy always had – and never so movingly. "Couldn't believe in my eyes / You drifted into my life / But marriages made in heaven / Can they survive in this life? / Surely it came as no surprise / Love was too hot to handle /Well, I really blew my cool and you / You just blew out the candle." That's Ferry singing as "just another crazy guy," intoning for many souls (brilliantly arranged, he becomes his own harmonizing chorus to emote, "I've scattered my hopes that filled the skies"). The depths of Roxy's romanticism echoed scary wisdom, way past the teenage revolution. "If you only knew how I feel / Wish I could die now don't I?" That's Beckett – and many, certainly David Gedge of the Wedding Present, felt it.

Pop performers risk being so openly emotional and intellectual. Critics distrust it, and listeners have to mature to understand the justification. For all the hoopla that surrounds pop music as an extrovert's communication, the first hurdle is recognizing one's feelings and making sense of them. Ferry lived the pop life, and he wrote its most accurate emotional chronicle: "Street Life." Roxy's musical experiments approached the complexity of modern loving from many directions, verifying the group's self-conscious connection to the troubadour tradition. Sure, they were campy and sentimental, creating an audience of both sophisticated and vulgar elites, but that was an ingenious and still effectively democratic pop strategy. As Ferry concluded on Siren's "Just Another High," "Singing to you like this is / My only way to reach you."

Jordana Lesen & Armond White


The very bitte rness of tortured love proves to be as bracing and intoxicating as its most ecstatic requital.

Vladimir Nabokov foreword to The Eye, 1965

I heard those slinky sirens wail, "Whhhhhooooo!"

Brian Ferry "Editions of You," 1973

SOME AFFAIRS ARE best left one-night stands.

Knowing this (or thinking you do) and then listening to Roxy Music's fifth album, it's still difficult not to fall in love. With the bleachy lyrics, with Bryan Ferry's boiling and eating of his own heart for 42 minutes, with Roxy's sonic empathies, and worse, with love again. What's the use? The band itself's been broken up for 17 years, and in random samples of George Jones, Stephin Merritt, Lyle Lovett, Liz Phair, Mojave 3, it's clear (despite some of the calculatedness on this list) that love is screwing people worse than ever. Anyone wishing to send and deliver a love song first locks horns with the wings of an exhausted, nearly futile expressive form.

It's from this dissipation that Ferry and the Roxy Argonauts approach their "love caper." Siren is a circus, a magic show, where they know that you know and you know that they know and still, like Lola (take a Lola, any Lola), they can't help it. Falling in love again is forging ahead and forging a guise; love is the drug that sparks or douses a bond, hooks or tricks.

Siren's first trick is the cover, or rather its girl. Siren is not a concept album, though the Woman on the Cover makes it appear so. Tabloid reading helps this pretending, trailing the last track on Country Life, the previous album. This "Prairie Rose," a paean to bombshell Jerry Hall lousy with whispered "Texas" rah-rahs, invokes her home state and consummates the early stages of the Ferry-Hall affair that would end three years later with Mick getting the goods. Meaning: so what? At this point it's Ferry's game, and Hall's presence on Siren's sleeve as the fatal muse is the first ruse, as seemingly definitive a statement as George Jones's The Battle cover art (a blond in an empty bed with George's boots, picture, tokens scattered). Thar she slides, over rocks. There she blows, ankle-finned, lips blood-inked, ready to pounce, her crown rhyming with the Roxy's "Y," which on the cover is runically altered to resemble Neptune's trident. Prefiguring, or so one thinks, Bryan impaled in the grooves.

But wait. The first tune is a dance song that lets those who bought the album for the single (a number-two charter, shut out of the top by "Bohemian Rhapsody") get their ya-yas out. It's a track that but for rare, zany mistranslations of "Virginia Plain" is usually the only Roxy song found in karaoke bars. It engages in the Roxy pastime of conserving despair for later on the album, kicking out the first side with a danceable tune. With the first album, Roxy busts out of the mind's garage with "Re-Make, Re-Model." On the second, there's the pomo glam glossarizing of "Do the Strand." The third sees "Street Life," an Astaire-ing conversion of the entire urban scene into one's personal stomping treadmill. And for the fourth, "The Thrill of It All," which manages to sling Dorothy Parker's sorrowful ass onto the punished parquet.

But more than this, in Siren's context, "Love Is the Drug" is a sleight-of-heart fuse-lighting event. Though its recognizability and musical autonomy are unquestionable, this low-down, limboing, fencing, scrimmaging, night-rummaging pre-disco bumper is the beginning to an affair. Like the first four albums, Siren is an elegantly realized song cycle. That each song, even rump-shaker "Love Is the Drug," is a variation on the same theme Love as a constant, necessary, often terrible Force begs for a conceptual capsule. But there is none.

Appropriately, the knot between the start and the finish of the affair is sliced after the first two songs, respectively "Love Is the Drug" and "End of the Line." After this, Siren can roll up its sleeves and get down to the true price of love: wallowing stylishly, madly, gnawing at cruelty, defacing the blues (never mind that Siren's sleeve photo grafts its ice blue-hued, red vise-mouthed vixen from a 1960 RCA-Victor LP called Morton Gould's Blues in the Night).

Dressing the blues in a pop muffler, the third track, "Sentimental Fool," makes a case for Roxy Music as a far more relevant and supple genre band than real poseurs like the Yardbirds or the Stones. The words couldn't be less plaintive, the music less delirious, stinging, insane, a dangerous electrified field. The sax sputters, Paul Thompson's skins clobber, then hesitate, Phil Manzanera's axe is on permanent, crackling sustain. Even if his heart is casting after some voided nothing who has left after a few simple, if cryptic, words, Ferry's multitracked vocals and victim-cum-(self-)counselor persona is really without par, either in movies or music from the same year. Aptly, the song ends with a figurative heart attack.

"Editions of You," from two years before Siren, contains in its sprawling, sputtering words the psycho-chic blueprint for the next six songs: "Whirlwind" ("that crazy music drives you insane, this way"), "She Sells" ("no mention in the latest Tribune"), "Could It Happen to Me?," "Both Ends Burning" ("too much cheesecake too soon"), "Nightingale," and "Just Another High" ("stay cool is still the main rule").

Chance rarely figures into Siren's musical arrangements. The songs are made up of fragments, albeit tightly wound ones. It's as if Ferry couldn't stand the music falling down in tandem with the words. Siren, like so many brands of heartbreak, doesn't really end, collapsing on a refutation of the drugged love titled "Just Another High." Permanent uncertainty is there, skating on bejeweled rock, just long enough for one's ears to wallow in terrifyingly calm words to a lover:

Maybe you're thinking of me
Well, I don't know now do I?
If you only knew how I feel oh
Wish I could die now don't I?

Where to go from here? Or, as Ferry asks, "Will it stop?"

Edward E. Crouse

Roxy video

N EUROPE, Roxy Music are simply part of the architecture. Go to a thrift store in Rotterdam and you'll see posters advertising new Roxy tribute bands. Visit the dockside and you'll find a portrait of Bryan Ferry painted into the cobblestone. It makes sense that in America, without this context, there's a blind spot between Roxy's visual sense and their music. [Editor's note: all three Roxy articles in Noise were written by film critics.]

I don't know how many copies of Country Life I've seen wasting away in used bins in the South Bay alone. And it's not hard to imagine how they got there. Some red-blooded guy buys "the fourth Roxy Music album" on the basis of its tasty sleeve photo alone, probably expecting to find a slinky siren's wail within. Instead, he gets arch imitation kraut rock with a Duran Duran bass line and the CD goes right back to the Wherehouse on El Camino Real.

Folks like this desperately need a remedial course in the early Roxy legacy, which is perhaps best found not on reissues or bootlegs or in written biographies but in film and video appearances.

A whole decade ago Virgin Music Video released Total Recall, a knockout collection of lip syncs, live footage, promotional clips, and other ephemera. There are even outtakes from Roxy's alchemical cover photo shoots, further heightening their sphinxlike mystery even as they work to close the band's sound-and-vision gap.

Recall begins with a ferocious performance of "Re-make/Re-model" at the Royal College of Art in 1972. Ferry is a blur of eye shadow and teeth, half tiger, half Elvis. Never to be outdone, Eno sports leopard spots and does strange things over banks of unfathomable equipment. Manzanera churns out queasy licks in his I-am-the-fly compound spectacles. Sax blower Andrew Mackay is an emerald urban spaceman. Paul Thompson simply thuds away in a shimmering tank top. They have arrived: the glitterati, armed with "crazy music" that "drives you insane."

In the bits of TV shows like Top of the Pops and Supersonic buried in Recall, you get a telling look at Roxy's public and their peers. At one point Gary Glitter (of all people) introduces the Siren-era band to a pop music audience that has fragmented then as now into separate camps, ruled by tartan terrors like the Bay City Rollers, bubblegum idols, and shameless nostalgia acts. Roxy's instructional pomo message of "all styles served here" was embedded in their music but driven home by their hair and clothes, their style and flash.

Another engrossing Roxy sighting can be found on Best of Musikladen, a 50-minute DVD double feature with T. Rex in the pole position. While Marc Bolan hides behind sheets of video effects, Roxy play a no-frills (save for the costumes and Ferry's very funny pantomime) For Your Pleasure set. They're like a beat band giving birth to revolutionary rock and roll, once again for the benefit of hard-drinking Germans in a seedy Hamburg Ratte Keller.

Patrick Macias

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