Roxy Music

A Danceable Solution To Teenage Revolution

Strongest album: Siren
Weakest album: Flesh and Blood

'Tis a terrible thing to have loved and lost, but 'tis a....ah, you know the rest. Whatever agonies of the soul drove Bryan Ferry to woo a succession of beautiful women and then moan on record about the doomed impossibilities of romance, his band produced some of the '70s finest and most accomplished music. In fact, it would not be exagerrating to call Roxy Music the best and most influential band to emerge in the immediate post-Beatles era. They didn't invent the synthesizer, mind you, but synthwhiz Brian Eno found out how to use it intelligently - as a unique electronic instrument that complemented/competed with the rest of the band, not simply a tool to mimic string sections or what have you. Ferry's melodramatic crooning style, which owed more to Sinatra and Martin than Morrison and Jagger, but with a strangely campy, detached, alien affect, was also revolutionary (and still hard for a lot of people to take). And let's not forget the sleek, elegantly metallic majesty of Phil Manzera's guitar, or Andy Mackay's cheesily atonal, burping sax, both important elements to Roxy's sound. They practically invented the sound of the '80s a decade early: take a close listen to these records, and the Cars, Blondie, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, ABC - heck, every synth-pop band to flash their cool haircuts on MTV in the early '80s - will sound like a pale, derivative imitation. Okay, maybe not Blondie 'cause she's a girl and so she can't sing like Bryan. Futuristic and retro, Roxy Music may put you off initially 'cause they're so weird, but once you let their hooks in it's like the call of the Siren. For those who fall beneath the spell, here's the Roxy website Madness In My Soul.
Roxy Music (1972) ****

When I first heard this, I had to check the recording date twice - over a quarter century later, it still sounds ahead of its time, more 2002 than 1972! Hard to believe that's going to sound dated in four years....Roxy's debut announces that the future is now! and the future is Casablanca. Literally, in "2HB" ("To Humphrey Bogart" - see, Prince didn't invent that form of spelling!). A nervously tinkling piano, an impatient synth grunt, and they're off at the gate - "Virginia Plain" zooms off the runway, cramming in a travelogue that takes you to Acapulco, lover's leap, and midnight blue casinos where you dance the cha-cha thru 'til sunrise. And it has flamingoes, too, and stop-starts-stop-starts-stop-starts -stop-starts-ends with a gurgling three-note Moog line and the important question, "What's her name? Virginia Plain!" At this point Roxy are an appealingly ramshackle unit, with instruments crashing into each other cacaphonously - which works great at the end of "Remake/Remodel", each player blurting a five-second instant improvisation - and the multi-sectioned songs showing their seams, which doesn't work so well except on "The Bob (Medley)" which stitches together heavy metal thud, party rave-up of a '40s pop tune, piccolo solo, quiet piano poetry interlude, and back to metal thud again. A few of these songs are way too sloooooowwwww (try making it through six minutes of "Sea Breezes"), Roxy's Achilles heel. And to be truthful, some of Eno's "treatments" are more interesting than actually compelling. You don't know what Eno's treatments are? Well, basically he runs, say, a guitar through a synthesizer so it comes out totally fucked up, but sometimes in a good weird way. I've heard that when Roxy played some of their early gigs that people thought they hadn't finished setting up yet. "Where's the rest of their equipment?" they'd say, "And why are they all plugged into that keyboard?" Bryan Ferry wasn't given Eno's treatment, but you can hardly tell from the way he sings. Their most experimental and arguably influential album, if only because originals are most original the first time around, it's Roxy in its embroyonic form: its rough edges might be hard to take for those used to their later sleekness, and its anarchy to their later restraint.

For Your Pleasure (1973) ***1/2

Roxy refine their sound for their second album, and their songs hold together as organic creations, not some Frankenstein's monster of separate parts(mostly - the jetted-up solos in "Beauty Queen" and "Grey Lagoons" aren't integrated well into the balladic material of the songs). Their sleek, steely style has begun to jell, with a bit of the anarchy of the first album left over. This makes "Do The Strand" and "Editions Of You" perhaps their most exciting fast dance rockers or whatever you wanna call'em. In the first one Ferry trips his tongue over snazzy couplets like he's Cole Porter on fast forward or somethin', the piano poundin', asking rhetorically if you're sick of all the old dances, well here's a new one you can dance on moonbeams, in furs and bluejeans. The second one is notable for the amazing instrumental break: it's not as if there's a whole lot of them, but for my money this song contains the greatest synthesizer solo in the galaxy. Go, Eno, go! The problem with the rest of the album is that it's too slow. With its morbid pace and Ferry's Dracula croon, goth probably has some roots here - too bad I don't like goth. I have to admit, though, "In Every Dream Home A Heartache" sucks me in. The minimalistic playing gets the funereal atmosphere right as Ferry creepily intones an ode to an inflatable doll that's oddly, um, moving.

Stranded (1973) *****

Feeling that the band couldn't handle two egos (and talents) moving in opposite directions half the time, Eno quit the band after For Your Pleasure. This move made Roxy Music less quirky (and innovative), but more focused, without ugly synth grunts unsettling Ferry's mannered music and melodies. There's still plenty of weirdness and odd sound effects, but these are incorporated more subtly - the telephone ringing on "Street Life", the castanets punctuating "Mother Of Pearl". Roxy practically reinvented their sound on each album, and here they are elegant and stately, with Latin rythms reinforcing its Mediterranean flavor. Smoothed out, they sound like a much different band - no longer would their music contain the hint of anarchy; every piece is integrated without seeming patched on. When Manzara's guitar cuts through the stroll of "Amazona", it's the kind of shock that you live for, a half-court jump and slam-dunk through the net of Ferry's pretensions. The operative adjective for Roxy's first true masterpiece is gorgeous (it's the same adjective for their final one, too), a far remove from the first two albums. "Just Like You" contains lovely falsetto singing from Ferry, and a razor-lyrical guitar solo from Manzanera. The futurism of the first two albums gives way to the world-weary nostalgia of "Song For Europe", which admits "There's nothing left for us to share but yesterday." The centerpiece, "Mother Of Pearl", might be Roxy's finest seven minutes. Charging in with blazing guitars, the music suddenly gives way to a stately piano ballad - the effect is startling. Ferry soliloquizes on the elusiveness of true love, rhyming odd metaphors like "serpentine sleekness/was always my weakness", summing it all up with the so-true phrase, "If you're looking for love in a looking glass world, it's pretty hard to do." Continue that quest for thy damsel in distress, Bryan, as long as you always keep it this interesting.

Country Life (1974) ****

Manzanera's metallic, heavily over-dubbed guitar dominates Roxy's fourth album. The tone is harsh and abrasive, with Teutonic overtones (Ferry gnashes brutal German lyrics on the Kurt Veill-ish "Bittersweet"). More straightforward and hard-rocking than on previous albums, Roxy still maintain the elegance and lushness they perfected on Stranded, if overall the material here is somewhat weaker than the previous album. A driving rocker, "All I Want Is You", is the obvious single, and though very conventional by Roxy standards, a great song - "Don't want to learn about etiquette/From glossy magazines" chats Ferry, contradicting himself. "Out Of The Blue", with an amazing backwards violin solo, and "Prairie Rose" (about Ferry's then-lover Jerry Hall?) are also standouts.

Siren (1975) *****

Perfectly titled, Roxy's best album kicks off with their best dance song and single, "Love Is The Drug", which is reigns as, to my ears, the most get-down disco groove of all - kicks serious bootie over those Chipmunk-voiced Bee Gees and that fake-orgasmer (that a verb?) Donna Summer. And that's not all - you can dance all over this record, with "Both Ends Burning" clocking in as a close second as greatest disco song of the singles-bar era. Does it seem like these guys change direction almost as much as their wardrobe? - you know, we just finished with guitar-rock and now we're into disco? Well, they do maintain a pretty consistent signature no matter what style they're playing - Ferry's croon, Mackay's sax, Manzanera's guitar, and Paul Thompson's rolling drums see to that. And each album contains a number of Ferry's by-now patented balladic meditations on doomed romance. "Just Another High" may be the best of'em - he admits that he's "just another crazy guy/playing that love was another high/just another high." Refreshingly warm and emotionally straightforward where the earlier albums were often arrogantly playful, Siren's most poignant moment may be when Ferry begs her to "Take me as I am/An ordinary man". The pinnacle of all that is Roxy, the band is hard, sleek, metallic, and stylish. An album of which you can become as obsessive about as Ferry does about romance.

Viva! (1977) ***

Roxy broke up for a few years after Siren, leaving this live album. It's interesting to hear Eno-era compositions played without Eno, but really "Do The Strand", "Chance Meeting", "The Bogus Man", etc. don't sound that different without him. Obviously a live album isn't the way to go with these crafters of lush, detailed studio soundscapes, but the band (all ace instrumentalists) perform the difficult job handsomely. Like all live albums, rather redundant, but this one's entertaining at least, and well-performed.

Greatest Hits (1977) *****

This has been out of print for a while, and isn't even on CD. However, you can still dig up plenty of vinyl/tape copies out there, and as far as song selection goes, this is the ideal Roxy album. It's the perfect introduction to their work, containing many of the first five albums' highlights. If you only intend to buy one album by Roxy Music, track this down - it's far superior to any of the several later compilations on the market, since it contains their early, best work.

Manifesto (1979) ***

Reconvening for a second go-round, Roxy deliver a decent, enjoyable album that possesses little of the innovation that made their earlier work so compelling. The disco flirtation of Siren has become the foundation of their new style, alternating with Ferry's modern soul balladry. Quite a bit of this fails to rise above the merely pleasant, though are a few memorable moments. "Still Falls The Rain" contains a brilliant sustained guitar line from Manzanera, and may be the album's best song. "Dance Away" is a classic soft soul ballad; "My Little Girl" is almost as good in a similar vein. "Trash" gets the aesthetic right with cheesy Farfisa and "heavy metal trick or treat", though it's not a quarter as good as "Editions Of You".

Flesh And Blood (1980) ***

Slightly weaker than Manifesto, Roxy continue their descent into slick mainstream rock. The covers of "In The Midnight Hour" and "Eight Miles High" are arrestingly odd, which only shows up the blandness of the original material. However, "Over You", "Same Old Scene", and "Oh Yeah" are all great, dancey-melodic tunes, making this album worth it after all. Unfortunately, the filler is sometimes barely listenable, either silly (the title track, trying-to-be-feminist dumbness), or soporific ("My Only Love"). Tellingly, Roxy's weakest album should sound the most superficially appealing to the beginner - there's nothing weird or far out to put anybody off, just well-crafted AOR synth-rock.

The Atlantic Years, 1973-1980 ****

Either a rip-off or a public service, depending on your point of view. Other than "Love Is The Drug" and "Editions Of You", the material on this album comes from Manifesto and Flesh And Blood. Collecting the high points of those two albums makes for an entertaining listen, and makes them redundant. If you're on a budget, pick up this instead of the original two albums.

Avalon (1982) ****1/2

Roxy's final gift of glory in their waning days. This feels autumnal, which is why I found it dull when I first heard it - there's none of the raw excitement of the early Roxy. Instead the music is soft and atmospheric, with Ferry's synthlines sketching out a moody soundscape of a rare elegance. One of the most gorgeous albums you'll ever hear, with Ferry sounding warmer and more genuinely soulful than he ever has before (or since). This enormously influential album pointed the direction for many of Roxy's '80s proteges, showing the haunting textures and gorgeous melodies that synth-pop could create. "More Than This", "To Turn You On", "Take A Chance With Me", the title track, etc., are sweeter and more emotionally vulnerable (and believable) than their previous work, and Ferry's singing is at his peak. Manzanera and Mackay play an understated, subtle role, rarely adding more than a few spare lines to counterpoint Ferry's synths. A surprisingly great farewell from a band that realized it had runs it course, and decided to end it all with a graceful, lovely exit.

Heart Still Beating (1990) **1/2

A fairly dull concert recording that subsumes the previous taster EP, The High Road. Recorded in France during the early '80s, Roxy display their polished chops with style and aplomb, but with little energy or passion - it's the work of a band at the end of its days, very professional with all the notes in place, but lifeless. A job's a job. Manzanera shines on his "Impossible Guitar" instrumental, and the covers of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" and Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane" are inspired reworkings, and surprisingly apt choices for Ferry's hyperromantic stylings. Only two songs overlap with Viva!. For hardcore fans only.

Street Life: 20 Greatest Hits (1986) ****

The only widely available compilation covering both Roxy Music and Ferry's solo endeavors, it maddeningly shortchanges the early Roxy material. Which makes it far from ideal, since Roxy's first five albums contain their inarguably greatest work. Also, four songs from Flesh And Blood overrepresents their weakest album. However, it's a good listen beginning to end, and the only decent overview you'll probably be able to get your hands on.

Roxy Music have a 4-CD Box Set out, though I've yet to see it; considering their commercial (non)stature in America, it should be very hard to come by.

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