Roxy Music: The Solo Albums

Unknown Pleasures

Like a lot of bands, the members of Roxy Music released their share of side projects. Unlike members of most bands, most of those solo projects are worth listening to - this was the band, after all, that gave us both Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. Right now I'm new to most of this music that isn't Bryan Ferry's, but be patient - I'll post some lengthier reviews soon, after I've absorbed some of these albums.



801 Live (1976)

A Phil Manzanera-led band that on this live date includes Brian Eno, this indulges in Manzanera's artier impulses. It's hard art rock of the highest order, ocassionally meandering (this was recorded live, so there's instrumental showboating and jamming) and ocassionally brilliant. Contains a stunning version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and an interesting reworking of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me".


Brian Eno

Eno left Roxy for a solo career after For Your Pleasure, and pushed pop music in many new and interesting directions. However, he's much better known for his collaborations with others - David Bowie, the Talking Heads, U2 - than his own music. Which is a shame, since anyone who's a fan of the above-mentioned acts should find plenty to enjoy among Eno's first four solo albums, when he tackled rock song forms head on. After 1977's Before and After Science, though, he's abandoned pop in favor of what he refers to as ambient music (he's the one who actually coined the term).

Here Come Warm Jets (1973) ****1/2

Eno's first solo album sounds the most like Roxy Music, and the most like a loud and abrasive rock record. It's also groundbreaking and completely fascinating, the type of record that gives art-rock a good name. Though most of the music registers as texture first and foremost, since that's Eno's approach - he foregrounds overall feel over literal sense - the songs themselves are mainly cohesive and excellent, and several work as fully realized songs. His next album would be somewhat more pop-oriented and melodic (and somewhat better); there are a couple of interesting instrumentals, the calm piano majesty of "On Some Faraway Beach," that sounds like the title, and the repetitive, VU-influenced guitar drone of the title track, but mostly the songs are very songlike. Aside from the obvious debt to his old band, Eno's Velvet Underground ("Needle In the Camel's Eye") and Beach Boys ("Some Of Them Are Old") influences are strongly felt. As usual when a member leaves a successful band, the split hardly seems amicable: "Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch," rumor has it, is a coded attack on Bryan Ferry, with Eno indulging in parodic Ferry vocal imitations. The two strongest tunes are the bizarre psychotic goof, "Baby's On Fire," and "Cindy Tells Me," an ode to upper-middle-class feminism (which, if I recall my history correctly, was actually a radical idea in 1973). There are enough oddball hooks and quirks to keep one quite amused, and the guitar work courtesty Robert Fripp and Phil Manzanera is top rate. The next two albums are even better, believe it or not. Just don't think about how Eno came up with the title. It's a reference to "golden showers," know what I mean? The man's a conneisseur of pornography, and if you look closely there are several of his pornographic trading cards on the cover. As anyone who's read a single interview with Eno knows, he's as eccentric as his music and as weird as he looks.

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974) ****1/2

A concept album seemingly inspired by a Maoist socialist-realist play, the "concept" feels like a totally random afterthought, because Eno works backwards compared to most musicians: he composes the music first, and then decides to throw the lyrics in. That's only one example of how Eno's conceptual strategies broke with the standard rules of pop music, transgressions of the rock norm that many modern bands have now accepted as their norm: to Eno, texture is all, and literalness and standard song structures are reactionary. That said, given Eno's later work and his egghead reputation, this comes across as a shockingly straightforward and accessible pop album - a pop album that subtly subverts the strictures of pop, that is. Eno's mannered, adequate vocals are front and center, the songs maintain reasonable rock lengths (none last over six minutes), there are choruses, chords, melodies, and hooks. All of the songs are unique individual creations that work as a whole to create an odd mood of calm, aloof detachment; the exception is the frenzied guitar workout (courtesty Phil Manzanera), "Third Uncle". The airy textures of the hooks and harmonics are so ineffably fascinating that you don't care whether the songs "mean" anything or not; you simply bask in the oddball sensation of the record as a totality.

But don't get me wrong: this is a pop record, and all of these songs contain the musical virtues that good pop songs should have. The first song, "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More," in fact, is a quite conventional catchy pop song, with a literal narrative structure concerning a female aquaintance who moves to China. With the second song things start getting weird; the lyrics are seemingly recited verbatim from a didactic fable in Chairman Mao's Red Book, as the marching harmonies sound uncannily like Peter Gabriel's solo work. This is basically English art rock, after all, but much more interesting and involving than usual. Side One ends with the eerie, darkly melodic droning of "The Great Pretender" that closes with synthesizers imitating the sound of chirping frogs. Then Side Two kicks off loudly with the hard rock mastery of "Third Uncle," with Eno's muttered ramblings completely subsumed by Manzanera's rampaging, but tightly controlled guitar. "Put A Straw Under Baby," is another conventional pop song that is probably the weakest track on the album, but it's followed by one of the stronger ones, the proto-synth-pop of the supremely catchy "The True Wheel." The hypnotic slow majesty of the final track, "Taking Tiger Mountain," is more typical of the album as a whole, however. On this evidence, Eno's work should be of serious interest to anyone who cares about the progression of rock and the nature of pop in the past quarter century.

Another Green World (1975) ****1/2

By this point Eno's inclination towards atmosphere over traditional songs had taken over, making for a much less rock-oriented album than the first two. It's terrific mood music, though, akin to Love's Forever Changes in its tender beauty. Most consider this Eno's masterpiece, and perhaps they're right. Though there are only five vocal songs, the brief instrumentals that dominate the album are brilliantly constructed as individual pieces, and as an organic whole this album seamlessly flows together as few other "texts" in modern pop. What we are witnessing is the beginning of New Age music, essentially (I realize that Eno calls his work Ambient, but such petty genre distinctions aren't that relevant from my detached view) - which is, to quote (of all people) Steve Earle, "music that is made not to be listened to." But, despite the fact that as a genre ambient music is completely worthless outside of David Lynch films and modern art galleries (like I actually care for either), as usual when someone founds an entirely new genre of music, the original source is worth something. The instrumental pieces are interesting even when you're actively paying attention to them, and as background music, this creates an oddly detached, calm mood that takes me to another world as few other albums do. It's a bit hard to describe - should I say that whenever I play this I imagine I'm a fish in bowl, swimming alone in my clear, unhurried little world? Perhaps this album will take you somewhere else, but that's where this album takes me most of the time. Which probably says something about my subconscious, naturally - so this is a great Rorsharch Test album, too.

Before and After Science (1977) ****1/2

Eno's most organically consistent and perhaps best work, Before and After Science successfully integrates Eno's pop and ambient sides into a cohesive whole - his earlier albums were either one or the other (the 4 pop songs on Another Green World stuck out a little too much like sore thumbs), and unfortunately, after this he abandoned pop altogether to concentrate completely on ambient music. The album opens with the mechanical funk of "No One Receiving", bounces jollily with the lyrically absurd "Backwater", revs up a hyperfrenetic pace for the Talking Heads anagrammatical tribute "King's Lead Hat," and calms down on the second side (the final five tracks for CD-era listeners like myself) with music of incredibly soothing, relaxing Zen bliss and contemplation. Perhaps the most striking thing about this album is how, despite the disparate moods and tempos covered, this album flows together as an organic whole, never sounding in the least bit jarring -- it may sound strange on paper to follow the frantically breathless dance pop of "King's Lead Hat," with the soft chant-like vocal harmonies of "Here He Comes," but in practice, you barely notice how get-up-and-move! slides into sit-down-and-relax. This album, like Here Come Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain, certainly influenced a lot of New Wave arriving in its immediate wake, and one can very easily trace 90% of modern dance music's (I'm not sure what fancy name they've got for the latest samey-sounding trend in London discos this week, but the last I remember they were still calling it electronica) sounds to this. In other words, influential.

Music For Airports (1978)

One of his early ambient albums, which means that it's meant for the background; if you actually try to listen to this, it's damn boring muzak.

With John Cale: Wrong Way Up (1990)

A return to the pop song format, with rather lackluster results.


Bryan Ferry

Strongest album: The Bride Stripped Bare
Must to avoid: These Foolish Things

These Foolish Things (1973) *1/2

At the time, this was revolutionary. Ferry took a handful of classics by the Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys, Stones, Elvis, Smokey Robinson, Leslie Gore, Goffin/King, etc., and radically reinvented them. Some swear by this album, claiming that Ferry's reinterpretations force the listener to revise their conceptions of what made the originals so powerful. Myself, I find this album a horror. Ferry doesn't "reinterpret" these songs, he slaughters them! That it's intentionally bad (especially Ferry's Pepe le Phew singing) is part of the point, I realize, but let's face it - this gambit has been done better plenty of times since then (for a current example, the Moog Cookbook does hilarious lounge versions of contemporary "alternative" hits). Which also brings up the point: why do you need a joke record like this, anyway? Actually, there is one good track hidden here. It's the title song, a chestnut from the '30s done in a straightforward cocktail style. A surprising gem that comes at the very end, it makes you wish that Ferry had done a whole album of pre-rock standards like this - those old tunes are right up his alley.

Another Time, Another Place (1974)

Another set of covers, much like the previous one. I haven't heard it and I'm not very tempted, considering what I think of the previous album.

Let's Stick Together (1976) ***

A weird choice of material for this one. Six songs are covers, and they're surprisingly good - Ferry isn't playing it for laughs this time around. Guitarist Chris Spedding adds some much-needed hard-rock earthiness, and the title track, a Wilbert Harrison oldie, is especially fine. The other five songs here are remakes of Roxy Music songs, all from their first album except for Country Life's "Casanova". The remakes are interesting, for the most part, but don't replace the originals, and a funky take on "Remake/Remodel" should have stayed in the can. An interesting but unessential oddity.

In Your Mind (1977) ***1/2

With Roxy Music on hold, Ferry delivers an entire album of originals, making this his first "true" solo album. The problem is that the material isn't as good as the material he wrote for Roxy, and the backup band likewise isn't Roxy, either, fine though they might be. Phil Manzanera does guest a few solos, however, and some other members show up, also. That said, much of this is quite good, if initially underwhelming. "All Night Operator" possesses an insinuating soul chorus, and "Love Me Madly Again" a catchy, driving guitar riff. The rest of the material is similarly fine, and more accessible than most Roxy Music, if considerably less innovative.

The Bride Sripped Bare (1978) ***1/2

Ferry's best solo album was inspired by his breakup with Jerry Hall, who as you probably know if you read People left him for Mick Jagger. It's easy to read autobiography into "When She Walks Into The Room", one of his finest ballads, or his choice of covers in "Take Me To The River" (not as good as Al Green's original, or the Talking Heads' hit version) and the melancholae olde folke ballade "Carrickfergus". It also contains "Sign Of The Times", another of his best originals, and an inspired medley of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" and "Beginning To See The Light". The fatal flaw is that Ferry recorded this in L.A. with a crew of studio musicians, who are too professional and not inspired enough. Had he recorded this with a real working band, Ferry might have triumphed, but as is this album suffers from compromise.

Boys And Girls (1985)

His first post-Roxy Music solo album. Contains the hit "Slave To Love".

Bete Noir (1987) **1/2

Ferry's career after Roxy Music's demise hasn't been too invigorating, from the evidence I've heard. Playing the role of an aging roue reflecting languidly on the bittersweet, "decadent" romances of his youth, Ferry acts as if he's taking lessons from Leonard Cohen or that Sergio Gainsburg (spell?) French guy. Taking cues from Cohen, Ferry has stopped writing strong melodies, and the backing music is reduced to mere back drop for the poet's musings. Unlike Cohen, Ferry's words aren't poetry but simple pop song lyrics; but also unlike Cohen, Ferry can actually sing - one of the album's rare saving graces. The likes of "Kiss and Tell" and "The Right Stuff" are moodily inviting, and light-funkily danceable, even if the mood is cool rather than hot or even warm. Immaculately crafted and highly forgettable background music is what this album amounts to in the end. As the Parisian street music of the title track makes clear, it's very French, too, and as we all know, there is no such thing as good French pop music. "My Way"? That new band Air? "Ca Plane Por Moi"? Let the French stick to painting, fashion, and other visual arts, and let the Brits dress sloppy and form great bands - it's the natural order of things.

Mamouna (1994)

I heard this once and wasn't too impressed: aural wallpaper, moodily atmospheric but no real songs. Also a reunion with Brian Eno as co-writer and producer - coincidence?

Taxi (1993) **

A surprisingly dull set of covers from Ferry. It starts off fine with "I Put A Spell On You", with the eerie, downbeat atmosphere suiting the song perfectly. The problem is that Ferry adopts the same tone for the entire album. Aside from the fact that not all the material is suited for Ferry's langourous vampire-mood music treatment (Goffin-King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"), over the course of an entire album the unvarying stylistic rut will put you to sleep. Also, "Amazing Grace" is a total mistake, but maybe that's just because I was raised Baptist and have heard this song twenty thousand times - enough already! The lone Ferry composition that closes the album is just a brief instrumental that you wouldn't notice if you didn't pay attention to the song credits.

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.

Post Your Comments

Love Me Madly Again