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Mojo. December 1995
Brought together by musical differences, they looked into the future - and it was dressed to kill. They were Roxy Music, and this is the story of their bizarre odyssey from iconoclastic chaos to chilled perfection - and the price they paid.
A selective but salient résumé: a 1970s band playing 1950s music in the 21st century. The art school dance you could actually dance to. An audio-visual confusion, a collision of retro-futurism. Avant-glamstars who had big pop hits exuding intelligence and humour; rare in an age when the only other options were (a) buffoons in pancake make-up (Mud, Sweet, Slade) or (b) clown princes of pomp rock (everyone else). Subsequently irritated the purists no end. Fragmented into solo projects 1976: regrouped 1978. Split for good 1983. Ciao, Roxy Music.
Remarkably, there is not a single Roxy Music fanzine (there is probably a Woody Woodmansey's U-Boat fanzine), though their music is still played everywhere from high-class catwalks to low-cost wedding receptions. Where once they wound up hairy musos by being camp, they incurred latterday sneers for becoming Mr and Mrs Mainstream’s house band, the soundtrack in every dream home. To have alienated purists across the celebrity scale is kinda unique. That’s Roxy Music for you. Both ends burning.
BRYAN FERRY GREW UP IN a working-class household in Washington, County Durham. No car, no telephone. Got a rented telly in 1953. For the Coronation? "No, Newcastle got into the Cup Final."
Ferry remembers his parents living vicariously, "but we always seemed to be better dressed than anyone else." Musically what else was there apart from 'Cathy's Clown' at the fairground? "My big sister had Little Richard, Elvis, Fats Domino on 78s. I was a bit of a snob, more into jazz and blues."
From a co-ed grammar school Ferry moved to Newcastle Art College, which is where the Roxy story really begins. At college Ferry was taught by pop art innovator Richard Hamilton, as integral to the Roxy equation as Warhol had been to the Velvets, though Hamilton was a seminal influence, not just an enabler. Hamilton was also the first bloke to put the word "pop" into a painting.
Nick de Ville, who was in the year below Bryan at college and who subsequently worked on all of Roxy's sleeves until Siren, was also taught by Hamilton. "He was a tremendous influence. His attitude towards the relationship between popular culture and high art was a real eye-opener." Hamilton also had a penchant for 1940s Hollywood, another motif which would feature heavily in the Roxy panorama. Ferry remembers the Newcastle art school cliques being built around the French school (the squares with beards and sandals into trad jazz) and the American school (the pop art devotees of Richard).
"We regarded ourselves as the cool crew, into The Beach Boys and Tamla. And I had a group life in the evening with The Gas Board, playing harder-edged stuff like Bobby Bland, and things like ‘The Stumble’, the Freddie King instrumental."
Ferry left Newcastle for London in 1968, eventually teaming up with fellow Gas Board member Graham Simpson. Embryonic Roxy rehearsals comprised Ferry on harmonium and piano and Simpson on bass. Next came guitarist Roger Bunn, "a proper musician, a bit older than the rest of us," remembers Ferry. When Bunn went off and recorded a truly weird solo LP for Major Minor, Ferry drafted in ex-Nice man, and fellow North Easterner, Davy O'List. Ferry has made a point of handpicking his musicians over the years. O'List was probably the first to be actively sought out. He was an integral part of their early sound. The evidence can be heard on the first two Peel sessions.
"But he was too wayward," asserts Ferry. "Socially," he adds. Despite this, he did reappear in 1974 to add brain-scorching guitar to Ferry's version of ‘The In Crowd’.
Ferry met Andy Mackay through artist Tim Head (another Newcastle colleague). "Andy brought in a more classical thing. He was a trained player. When I met him he didn't own a sax, but he had an oboe and a synthesizer." So what instructions did Bryan have for Mackay when he turned up? "Listen to this Earl Bostic thing. Listen to this King Curtis. I encouraged him to be funkier. But Andy bought a much needed musicality to the party," Ferry admits.
Mackay also brought his pal Brian Eno round with his great hulking Ferrograph to tape rehearsals. The Roxy sound palate expanded accordingly. Next to join was Jarrow boy Paul Thompson. He had taken a similar musical route to Ferry's, though an entirely different social one, playing in R&B bands by night and working in the shipyard by day. Turning pro at 17, Thompson played the working men's club circuit in a band that also included singer/guitarist John Miles. When this band caught the prog-rock bug and turned its back on pop the gigs dried up. Intent on staying pro, Thompson moved to London, and in time-honoured fashion answered a Melody Maker ad. "This voice answered the phone. It wasn't a Geordie voice, but he recognised mine. Bryan never had an accent. I asked him why once and he said, 'Ah well, you can't really read Shakespeare with a Geordie accent'."
The first press attention for the fledgling Roxy came in August 1971. A short piece by Richard Williams in Melody Maker's ‘Horizons’ section ("New names that could break the sound barrier") talked of avant-rock and a genre-busting demo tape. "They were the first really eclectic group," maintains Williams, today occasional Mojo scribe and resident sports pundit on The Guardian. "Eclectic's a horrible word, and very debased by overuse, but they were the first to mix and match — The Marcels meet The Velvet Underground. They took the naive essence and the avant garde and tried to put it all together. Ferry's fine arts training was obviously massively influential in that. Other rock stars had been to art college — Townshend, Lennon — but Ferry was like the next stage. He knew how to use not just the attitudes but the techniques as well. He saw the possibilities of collage and montage. In a way he was the first post-modernist to work in anything other than a visual medium."
Roxy hadn't gigged at that point and were seemingly destined for little more than cult status. "I didn't think they'd be famous until I saw them," says Williams. "Their demo tapes were interesting but there were lots of interesting tapes around at the time, lots of experimental bands trying out funny things. But when I met Bryan, and saw there was a visual sense at work, I knew they'd be big. I saw them at a semi-private gig at The 100 Club and they already had this little ready-made audience of girls in pillbox hats and tight skirts, and the Antony Price fashion crowd. Ferry had this ice hockey jacket which was avant garde for the time because it was retro. The only retro then was Sha Na Na, which was pastiche. You could see there was the potential for something that hadn't happened anywhere else. Everything else was boring. Even when the music was good, with Little Feat, say, or Steely Dan, the presentation was boring."
Antony Price, fresh out of the Royal College of Art in the late '60s, was living proof that the fashion crowd have always danced to a different agenda. While some may have met the arrival of the '70s deciding whether to buy that new Fat Mattress album. Price was pondering an altogether different set of possibilities. "I was obsessed with the ultimate Jayne Mansfield female, The Girl Can't Help It look, vastly different to all these hooray waifs stoned out of their heads in little flimsy see-through frocks. I wanted buxom, powerful women. And males with shorn-off hair, with ears showing and quiffs. In fact, what I was into is commonplace now but was wacky art college taste then. The '50s thing hadn't happened yet. Fashion is always onto it first, music comes along much later."
Price transformed Roxy Music into retro-futurists. They cut an incongruous clash among yer Stone The Crows and Blodwyn Pigs. One of the early publicity shots shows them backstage at the Lincoln Festival in 1972, spangly space aliens from the Planet Bacofoil adrift in the land of denim and dandruff. A similar effect is evident on early Top Of The Pops appearances whenever the camera pans from Roxy to the audience. "I thought English groups were boring to look at, says Ferry. "I preferred Americans, especially black Americans. So wanted to glamorise it for the audience."
Rock music has been, even at the best of times, a literal kind of animal, not given to multi-layers of meaning. Roxy were different. They knew their reference points. Ferry had done his conceptualist homework. Nowhere was this better illustrated than with the name itself, Roxy Music. Other pop icons of the period had been shrewd enough to modernise themselves: Bolan dropped the Tolkienesque twaddle and started writing songs called ‘Spaceball Ricochet’ and ‘Cosmic Dancer’; Bowie eased out of Buddhism and the stuff about free festivals to write ‘Starman’. Outta space, right? These artists had seen the future and it had ray guns. If you wanted to signify modernity in the early '70s you did not name your band after a picture palace. Ferry and Andy Mackay did. "Andy and I just made this list of all the cinemas we could think of: Odeon, Rialto, Plaza, Gaumont. The Regal and The Ritz had been my locals. Roxy had a resonance and some glamour, faded glamour maybe, and it didn't really mean anything, which I liked."
Richard Williams points out that the name was originally in quotation marks, surely the first use pop musicians had made of such arch irony But as Williams's original Melody Maker piece noted, there was already a rather duff American band on Elektra called Roxy. So "Roxy" became "Roxy Music", although it's noticeable that almost everyone who was ever associated with the band still just refers to Roxy.
The Roxy Music line-up that would appear on the self-titled debut album was completed by the arrival of guitarist Phil Manzanera. "I had a band in Dulwich called Quiet Sun and we were very friendly with Robert Wyatt. Robert left Soft Machine and formed Matching Mole, and our bass player Bill MacCormick went off and joined him. My reaction at the time was, 'Oh shit my mate's gone and become a professional musician’. Quiet Sun wasn't getting anywhere. People were just saying this band's too weird." Coincidentally, the week after Richard Williams’s Roxy article, the ‘Horizons’ column featured Quiet Sun.
"But Roxy sounded more interesting," Manzanera concedes. Manzanera applied for the guitar post vacated by Bunn but was passed over in favour of Davy O'List. "I went for an audition in Battersea, where Bryan and Andy were sharing this tiny house. I played them my tape which they hated, but we got on very well. I'd bump into them at gigs. Things like Steve Reich at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Then I helped with the lights at a Christmas party they were doing. They turned up in a van carrying their own gear, except Davy who was used to having roadies. So I helped bring his gear in. I ended up at their audition for EG in Wandsworth. And before they started playing Dave suddenly had a punch-up with Paul." A scenario Thompson denies, "an argument maybe but not a fight. O'List didn't want me in the band in the first place, but that was the extent of the conflict."
Richard Williams had less doubt about Thompson's worth: "Paul’s joining was crucial, as far as I'm concerned. The percussionist on the demo tape was a guy called Dexter Lloyd; he was a link with the avant garde, and it sounded all over the place. Paul was a very straight 4/4 rock 'n' roll drummer and he anchored them. Even at their most extreme he nailed it down so they sounded like a rock group."
Meanwhile, Manzanera bided his time serving as part-time Roxy roadie. In February 1972 O'List got wayward one time too many and Manzanera received a surprise call from Ferry offering him a gig as the band's sound mixer. Manzanera raised a minor technicality. He didn't know how to mix. "Don't worry, Eno will show you how to do it," Ferry replied. "So I went down to this derelict house in Notting Hill," Manzanera continues, "and basically it had been a ruse to get me in and test me out. But I'd sussed this and learned all the stuff, so I could play it all straight off. It was only years later that they let on that it had been a complete set-up — and I let on that I knew."
MANZANERA STILL MARVELS AT THE DIVERSITY DISPLAYED at those first rehearsals. "We'd start off with ‘Memphis Soul’ Stew, and then we'd go into ‘The Bob (Medley)’, this heavy bizarre thing about the Battle Of Britain with synths and sirens. We had everything in there from King Curtis to The Velvet Underground to systems music to '50s rock 'n' roll. At the time we said this was '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s rock'n'roll. Eno would respond to something that sounded like it came off the first Velvets album, then Ferry would play something '50s and I'd play my version of '50s. I was always a terrible session player. I could never learn a solo and I stuck that 'not quite right' approach onto Roxy. Six people in a band created this hybrid."
A hybrid that was altogether too weird for po-faced A&R types, who took one listen to Roxy's wiggy experiments and pointed to the Way Out.
The first album was eventually financed by EG Management who also looked after King Crimson, T Rex and ELP. "Bryan liked Crimson and what we'd done with T Rex," recalls EG's original boss David Enthoven, "and he approached us with this tape of the songs that appeared on the first LP. I played it over and over again. It was something fresh and new and quirky, and I was big on the quirky ticket. The songs were intelligent and they took risks. Island didn't really get it at first though. It wasn't really their bag."
The fact that Island, easily the most adventurous of British prog independents (they signed Dr Strangely Strange for chrissakes!), were among the procrastinators is perhaps the best indicator of how left-field the early Roxy was considered. Tim Clark, then Island's marketing director, had worked closely with Enthoven to get King Crimson their first contact. "David had given me this Roxy acetate and I took it to an A&R meeting. We sat round Chris Blackwell's big round table at Basing Street Studios and I played the acetate. Chris didn't say a word. No comment at all. I was in a minority of two for it. Everyone else was against, including Muff Winwood, who as head of A&R carried a great deal of weight. There was such a feeling against the tape, and a pretty vehement one, that I just thought, Oh well, that's it then. They aren't going to be signed. David Enthoven was due in next day with the artwork and I thought I was going to have to tell him that the whole deal was off.
"We were standing in reception the next morning when Chris Blackwell walked by and just said casually, 'Have you got the deal done yet?' And that was the green light."
"Chris Blackwell understood it when he saw the whole package," Enthoven confirms. "There was a very strong difference between early Roxy and the glam rock thing," maintains Nick de Ville. "There were some people who were trapped in that as a style, like Gary Glitter for instance, who's still doing it as a fantastic pastiche of himself; and there were others, pre-eminently Roxy, who adopted it in a strategic way for a while until it seemed no longer interesting. That temporary adoption of style and persona was something very much proposed by Richard Hamilton. But it runs deeper than that.
"There were all kinds of popular culture references embedded in Roxy — the way Bryan used clichés in the lyrics which turn in on themselves, that's very pop art. Those lyrics are very abstract in a way. They seem like they're about something but they aren't reflexive. They are about their own condition an awful lot: ‘I've got this problem. I'm writing this pop song'."
All of which could, of course, be consigned to the sealed container labelled 'art wank' if it hadn't been for the fact that Roxy Music got some great songs out of such thinking. They were the conceptualists who could kick ass. And as far removed from the lumpen glam herd as you could get. Could they have written ‘Louie Louie’? Of course not. But they would have done a good job of deconstructing it. (And Louie would have worn sharper clothes.)
Although surrounded by his contemporaries from art and fashion school, those sleeves, and much else concerning the early Roxy look, were masterminded by Ferry. "There were no discussions with the record company about whether the visuals were appropriate or not," de Ville recalls. "I've worked with other bands and most of them don't know anything about visuals and have something projected onto them by a professional designer. A lot of bands are terribly uneven visually, but Bryan wanted Roxy to have a sense of continuity."
"Bryan is a bloody good artist anyway," maintains Antony Price, "but he's also a screaming perfectionist. He's quite capable of sitting down and drawing things himself but he won't. I remember him having a massive nightmare about the signature on the sleeve of Siren, saying, ‘I want it like this'. Until I said, 'Sit down and bloody do it then' — and he did. And it was perfect. And people also say, (adopts ultra-camp persona) 'Ooh, you styled him'. God forbid. Bryan had commercial tastes and knew what he wanted. You can't push things at him."
To work as their publicist, the nascent Roxy Music employed a Doctor of Philosophy. Simon Puxley knew Andy Mackay from their time at Reading University. They'd worked in an experimental 'performance' combo and had played a gig at Winchester Art College organised by Brian Eno. Eno reciprocated with a gig at Reading, "which," remembers Puxley, "involved a tape recorder with a giant loop, tape wrapped round chair legs going round a huge hall. It kept breaking down."
When Roxy signed to EG, Puxley received a call. "I was a supply teacher at the time, as indeed were Andy and Bryan. They came and collected me at the school gates one morning. I had no idea what was involved, or what I was doing."
Recorded in March 1972, a month after Manzanera joined, Roxy Music was produced by King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield. "EG played me these tapes," recalls the man who would go on to write the lyrics for Celine Dion's ‘Think Twice’. "They weren't actually that brilliant musically but the ideas and the wit were superb. They were delightfully bold, almost in the camp sense of bold. There was this wondrous amalgam of soully things and rock things, all bound together with something new and relevant. It was suggested that I might want to produce their album."
Bizarrely enough, Ferry had auditioned to join Crimson as vocalist in 1970. An odd choice, perhaps? "Not really," says Ferry. "I'd heard their first album and thought it was very interesting. It was perhaps too English for my taste but there was a kind of adventure about it. Some of the guitar sounds were really great, and I was into soundscapes. I didn't just want to do blue-eyed soul. But I couldn't play bass."
"This was when we desperately needed a singer after Greg Lake had departed for ELP," confirms Sinfield. "Robert Fripp and I quite liked Bryan. We didn't think he was a great singer — he had this rather strained vibrato — but we liked his bashful attitude. Probably good for him and us that he didn't join. God knows what King Crimson would have become!"
"Fripp's threatened that he's still got the audition tape somewhere," remarks David Enthoven.
TWENTY-THREE YEARS ON, THE FIRST ROXY MUSIC ALBUM still sounds like nothing on earth, half a dozen separate bands clamouring for attention. The aforementioned Velvets and Marcels, a pinch of Krautrock, Johnny And The Hurricanes meet Sounds Incorporated (on acid) and some serious prog mutations. Several tracks have standard progressive rock structures, and now and then you can hear a Mellotron being played 'properly', but the songs are full of decidedly non-rock textures. It's easy to forget now just how eccentric Ferry sounded in 1972; the sleazy crooner with the rocker’s quiff. On ‘Would You Believe’ he sounds absolutely barking.
"There was this very funny tongue-in-cheek, part kitsch, part retro conglomeration of ideas which made the music what it was," remembers Sinfield. "I thought they were hysterical."
"There was a lot of humour," agrees Manzanera. "A lot of piss-taking of heavy rock. Onstage I used to end up on my knees theatrically freaking out. And, of course, one of the charges levelled at Roxy is that it became too conventional and serious as it went on. But you can't maintain that level of humour. It was a different time, a different ethos."
Sinfield elaborates: "Before Bryan wrote ‘Virginia Plain’, ‘Re-make Re-model’ was probably the only contender for a single, but it had all these holes in it and no chorus, so they added a 'history of music up to the present time' interlude, which is why you end up with that bit of Duane Eddy and Beatles and Ride Of The Valkyries in the middle eight." The title, ‘Re-make Re-model’, was a steal from a 1962 Pop Art painting by Derek Boshier called Re-think Re-entry. The song's memorable car registration plate chorus "CPL 593H", however, was more out of The Marvelettes and Wilson Pickett school of telephone-number soul.
The second track, ‘Ladytron’, was equally startling. It comes in like Can and goes out like a vapour trail. Records were either supposed to fade out or stop. ‘Ladytron’ just kind of disintegrates, an effect which Roxy also used in their live act, and which was achieved by Eno taking the signal from Manzanera's guitar into his synth and using that as the source for further random interplay. "Onstage the rhythm would stop and then go off in any direction that occurred," says Manzanera. The same device is utilised on ‘Sea Breezes’.
The nature of Roxy's experimentation depended on the endearing vagaries of their decidedly lo-fi set-up. Pedals were used to control tape speeds. It was all Heath-Robinson out of Valerie Singleton. Manzanera launches into his "Oh yes, my lad, we had proper experimentation in those days" speech: "Recording technology is light years ahead now. ‘For Your Pleasure’, for instance, on the second album, has this thing called Butterfly Echo which involved putting some sticky tape on the capstan of a tape recorder so when the tape went over it made a sort of wobble noise. If you wanted something weird you adopted the Ron Geesin approach and used natural sounds and musique concrete. If you wanted something unusual you had to stick nails in a piano and do physical things. Now you can do it all with a sampler."
"The bombs going off on ‘The Bob (Medley)’ were all done with white noise from the VCS3," adds Sinfield. "And on ‘Virginia Plain’ there's a real motorbike revving up."
‘Virginia Plain’, recorded after the completion of the album (but subsequently added to reissues) was a big Pop Art canvas of a single. A driving-down-the-freeway cut-up of blurred billboard images based on an actual Ferry painting.
"Bryan was playing eights in the studio as he was wont to do," recalls Sinfield. "He said, ‘I can hear this bass part going braaam like a train.' Then he launched into these wonderful lyrics. It was obviously more catchy than anything on the album. There was a lot of discussion about the peculiar ending: ‘What's her name? Virginia Plain!’ Some people weren't too sure about it, but with my King Crimson training I thought that was exactly what it should do, to catch the disc jockeys out."
Issued in June 1972, the cover of Roxy Music was graced by Kari-Ann, an Ozzie Clark model introduced to Ferry by Antony Price. Resplendent in a Rita Hayworth hair-do, Kari-Ann was a throwback to Flying Fortress fuselage iconography. One of the more unlikely but endearing rock myths would have it that it's actually Bryan trannied up.
The other memorable feature of that first album cover was Simon Puxley's totally impenetrable liner notes. (Sample: "Rock'n'roll juggernauted into demonic electronic supersonic mo mo momentum — by a panoplic machine pile, hi-fi or sci-fi who can tell?") What was that all about then, Dr Puxley? "It was an attempt to outdo that convention of sleevenotes which were full of hyperbole. At the same time I was trying to suggest a verbal parallel to the music without describing the music! It was a slightly kitsch, period thing to do. The kitsch was dropped immediately after the first album."
Given its meticulous attention to visual detail, there remained one major flaw on Roxy's debut. Pete Sinfield's production was universally loathed. "They were very different live to what they were on record," says Puxley. "The first album doesn't really do justice to how powerful it could be onstage. Which is partly to do with the production, which is a bit clinical and dry. There's too much extreme separation. ‘Re-make Re-model’, which is a seminal track, was wonderful onstage, a thrashing wall of sound, but that doesn't come over on record at all." Sinfield willingly concedes defeat. "I soon realised they didn't need producers as such. All they needed were smart engineers to get them a decent sound, and certainly all the albums after the one I produced have a decent sound. Listening to that first album now, I should perhaps not have encouraged some of the eccentricities quite so much."
How does Ferry regard it in retrospect? "I just wanted it to be as diverse as possible. The second album is more focused, but that first album had lots of great ideas and indications of where it could go. It wasn't so well recorded though, and the singing was horrible. My voice sounds too thin and too hard. I can't bear to listen to the album for that reason alone." Ferry now regards For Your Pleasure (Number 59 in the Mojo 100) as the best Roxy Music album. "It's the most complete. The one that captured what I wanted to do most clearly."
From it's opening global dance-craze spoof ("Do the Strandski" indeed!) to the title track's punning sign-off ("Ta-ra") For Your Pleasure is book-ended with warped humour. The trademark languid crooning on ‘Grey Lagoons’ and the barnstorming ‘Editions Of You’ reveal a band already light years on from the audacious experimentation of the first LP. The Teutonic influence is clear on the repetitive, relentless centrepiece ‘The Bogus Man’, 10 minutes of awesome. Deep at the heart of the album, though, lurks something altogether more eerie. ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’, Ferry's sinister elegy to a blow-up doll, simultaneously conveys the twilight sex zone of a Howard Hughes-style recluse and the fumblings of the sad pom junkie who finds his "plain wrapper baby" in the pages of Exchange & Mart.
Ah, the early '70s. A time when bright young things went around mispronouncing androgyny, and decadence was a shade of eyeliner pencil your sister bought from Biba. And Dr Puxley's thesis?
"The early '70s were a really seedy time. I remember Tony Palmer went to review Roxy at The Rainbow for The Observer. He hadn't liked the band on record but thought they were a revelation live. His main point was that Roxy expressed the total sleaziness, the dark side of rock 'n' roll, like no other band he'd seen. Which is not the perception that most people have of Roxy."
ROXY TRANSGRESSED EVERY UNWRITTEN RULE IN THE book. The orthodoxy decreed that you did your Transit van and Blue Boar apprenticeship. You did not come flouncing in with all your fashion and design chums and start writing Pop Art hit singles about cigarette ads on American billboards. You played third on the bill to Hackensack at The Dog And Scrote. You did not, as Roxy Music did, showcase at the Tate Gallery, and then secure a brace of prestigious support gigs with Bowie and Alice Cooper. Neither did you hire an unqualified publicist with a PhD who examined the relationship between Victorian art and literature, and then proceeded to charm the pants off the press.
In fact, as early as that first Melody Maker feature Ferry was laying down the Roxy line on non-conformity. "The average age of this band is about 27, and we're not interested in scuffling," he told Richard Williams. "I had a lot of trouble convincing the others at Melody Maker of their worth," says Williams now. There was also, in many quarters, a sour-grapes suspicion of promotional 'hype' (another favoured '70s buzzword). "Totally unfounded," says Tim Clark. "Not half as much was spent on Roxy as on Bob Marley, for instance."
"They were distrusted by the muso-ish sections of British rock 'n' roll," Sinfield recalls. "They weren't old hippies. They were people who had been to art college or Oxbridge and were very bright. And they understood that if you took three or four chords and used them interestingly, and combined them with cheap and flash influences with a sense of theatre, this could be more exciting than a bunch of pseudo jazzers getting up and blowing away."
Phil Manzanera is equally scathing about the inverted snobberies that clung to early Roxy. "The thing that really annoyed people was that we said we were 'inspired amateurs'. We just thought, it's not about the dots or about how technically brilliant you are. Five years later, of course, this was the basis for punk."
Roxy Music generally enjoyed good relations with the more open-minded members of the music press, journalists who knew a good alternative to reviewing East Of Eden at Boston Winter Gardens when they saw one, but the honeymoon with NME was to end abruptly. Roxy's third album, Stranded, was greeted favourably but there was suspicion by the time the fourth, Country Life, came out in '74 that Roxy had become a mere vehicle for Bryan Ferry, and that 'the look' was starting to upstage the music. "We all loved Roxy Music," recalls Charles Shaar Murray. "They knocked us out when they first started, but it soon became apparent that Bryan took himself much more seriously than any of us were ever able to take him. We started referring to him as Byron Ferrari, Byriani Ferrett, there were loads more."
"Oh yes!" former NME deputy editor Tony Tyler relishes the challenge. "Brown Furry, Burn Fiery, Brain Fury, anything but his real name. This used to irritate him madly. If he'd just laughed at the whole thing and bought one of us a drink I'm pretty sure it would have stopped. But he was far too fond of his own dignity. And then he made a really big mistake. He did this gig at Hammersmith…" Ah yes, the famous 'Zorro' look. Ferry dolled up like a gaucho. "Oh, that was too much for them," Antony Price snorts. "Bryan said, 'Let's do it for a laugh'." The joke rebounded. NME ran a feature headlined "How Gauche Can A Gaucho Get?", with a huge photo of Ferry draped in said pampas chic.
MY OWN INTRODUCTION TO THE FORMER DOYEN OF sartorial excess could not have contrasted more with the above. Arriving dutifully early for an 11 a.m. interview, I find the anonymous-looking West Kensington rendezvous as instructed and ring the appropriate bell. No reply. Loading equipment into a van nearby is a personage I recognise as ex-Procol Harum guitarist and current Ferry producer, Robin Trower. We exchange greetings and Trower begins explaining that they've been in the studio for most of the night recording a John Lennon track for a project initiated by Yoko Ono. At that moment the studio door opens a few inches and an unmistakable hank of fringe slowly emerges. It's a bit like if I'd gone to interview Alvin Stardust and been greeted by a black glove.
"Could you come back in half an hour? We were working rather late last night," says half a bleary visage in a haven't-had-much-kip voice.
When I return, Ferry has got his face on, an obscenely good-looking one for someone who turned 50 the previous week. Clad in Left Bank beret and lived-in casuals (endearingly splattered with paint), my host is charming, reflective, eager to talk. Even about the big split. You know: when people said they went well together they meant they photographed well together. But it all ended in tears. That's right: The Two Bryans.
"Eno had more feathers than Ferry," reflects Pete Sinfield. "More everything in fact, other than musical talent and hair. Eno was, and still is, a great catalyst in creative situations. But it was impossible to see how he could retain his position in the band because he didn't really do very much. He created an ambience and an environment and he chopped up sounds with a VCS3 synthesizer, doing similar tricks to what I'd done with Crimson, actually, but that was about it. But he out-posed Ferry and I think that sooner rather than later Ferry would have found him to be a threat. Bryan likes to pretend that he goes along with everything but in fact he's a real control freak. And he wouldn't have suffered at that time anyone who stood in the way of his ambition."
There they stood at either side of the stage. On the right: Ferry, hunched and leering, earnest and intent, focused on Roxy's future direction. On the left: Eno, the court jester, fashionably plumed and fucking with the sound. Phil Manzanera hints at a management divide-and-rule policy. "I don't think EG were fully aware of what they had. On Top Of The Pops Eno looked terrific, but all you saw on TV was his finger. On reflection I don't think he was cut out to be in a band. It's too limiting for him."
"The other thing, of course," adds Pete Sinfield, "was that Eno looked much better onstage. I've never seen anybody who looked so awkward on a stage as Bryan Ferry, but then he made an art of looking uncomfortable. He's not an easy mover but over the years he evolved his own quirky stances."
Twenty years on, Ferry is at ease with the Eno situation. Wistful, contrite almost, as he contemplates the folly of youthful ego. "If I have any regret now it would be that we didn't stay together longer. But at the time it seemed the right thing to do. You want everything to be 'mine mine mine'. I didn't think you could have two conceptualists in the band, but, looking back, I think that's wrong. We had such fun when we worked together last year. [Eno contributed 'sonics' to Ferry's last solo album Mamouna] I hadn't seen such energy for such a long time. It gave me something to react to. That's what I still miss about group projects. The interaction and the friction that comes with shared responsibility."
"They got on splendidly," agrees Pete Sinfield. "It's come full circle. Bryan was happy to go back and try and find something from then that perhaps he's since lost — a little madness, or naivete or randomness. And Eno would certainly provide some randomness. What they both have in common is a great ear. They both hear how things should be, the mood, the temperature and the colours."
Once Eno had left, Roxy Music became less of an ensemble. The music stopped resembling a series of chance encounters. Ferry's centrality became more apparent.
"I saw them in Paris around the time of the third album," remembers Richard Williams. "They were hugely popular in France. They came out — four of them — to huge applause. Then there was a pause of 20 seconds and out came Bryan to an ovation, and you could see the rest of the band looking pretty surprised. It was a star's trick. He had shrewdly separated himself from the rest of the band, with very good timing on the micro and macro level. It worked for the gig and it also worked for the longer term of the career. Although I still wonder what it might have been like had they stayed as a collective for longer."
"They ran out of naivete," is Sinfield's analysis of post-Eno Roxy. "They'd lost the original muse and it took a lot of stress and strain to move onto another circumstance. Avalon's a very sad album but I actually think it's the closest to the first album. It's Roxy Music being brave again." Paul Thompson also pays lip service to the received wisdom about Roxy. "The first two or three albums I liked a lot. After that I think it started to get very safe."
"Stranded was done in the same year as For Your Pleasure," says Ferry, "but not having Eno on that album meant that it suffered a bit, it lost a bit of edge. But it gained other, more musical things." Like ‘Serenade’, for instance, the best single Roxy never released (and criminally omitted from the forthcoming Virgin box set, The Thrill Of It All), and ‘Street Life’, possibly the best single they did release. Andy Mackay's plaintive oboe and sax embellishments enrich the sound like never before, momentously so on Stranded's tour de force, the Mackay/Ferry penned ‘Song For Europe’ Roxy never sounded more grandiose and elegiac.
And then, realising perhaps that trying to shoehorn six shades of diversity into one band was no longer feasible, everyone started doing their own thing. Ferry had already cut his first solo album, prior to the recording of Stranded. Mackay and Manzanera too had developed parallel careers. An increasingly reined-in player, the latter cut loose with Eno and John Cale on their solo albums. During the summer of 1973 he could be found working for half a day at Majestic Studios on Here Come The Warm Jets, the other half at Air on Stranded.
"Repetition is the great killer for an artist," Ferry says now: so off he went to his Cole Porter fantasies and the blue-eyed soul left dormant since his Gas Board days; Mackay to his Eddie Riff alter-ego, and um, Rock Follies; Manzanera put out two solo albums at the same time — one by Quiet Sun, who Island had originally turned down, the other Diamond Head — and gained impressive co-production credits with Nico, Cale and Eno. He still seems amazed that they ever found the time.
"What's interesting about Roxy is that most people in bands don't do solo albums until they've been together for years. We all started doing solo albums almost immediately. We always had our own agenda and as long as there was enough common ground we stayed together. There was always a possibility I could have left when Brian Eno did. I felt very loyal to him."
So why didn't he? "Because I hadn't had my fill of being in a successful pop band," Manzanera says with disarming honesty. "For years that was what I'd wanted to do. When I was sitting on my bed in Caracas, nine years old, listening to The Beatles on the World Service, I just used to think, Got to get to England — this is so exciting. Roxy fulfilled my dreams of all that very quickly with the girls and the limos. But after a while I'd think, Actually I'm a pretty bad pop star, because after about ten minutes I'd get bored with it. Essentially I hadn't created it. It was Bryan's vision."
It had also been Ferry's vision from the beginning "to make it in as civilised a way as possible." Antony Price remembers being in Belgium once when the promoter saw the band arriving for a gig without all the stage gear and exclaiming, "But they look like accountants!"
"It was very civilised on tour," confirms one-time bass player Johnny Gustafson. "Andy and Bryan would usually go off for a meal after a gig. I don't remember too many jolly japes. I remember some of the guys completely blocked my hotel room door with masking tape one night, but that was the extent of our rock 'n' roll debauchery."
In fact they worked their chic little butts off touring. Chris Adamson joined as tour manager in 1973, just after Eno had left to be replaced by Eddie Jobson (the Newcastle connection again: Jobson and Ferry's sisters were friendly from way back), and fondly recalls the disparity between life on the road and the original Pop Art blueprint. On one occasion in Italy the road crew found they had enough power for the sound and the backline but not enough for any lighting. "They ended up playing to 10,000 people with the equivalent of a 200 watt bulb on either side," says Adamson. The subsequent reviews dwelt on how mood-enhancing the lighting had been, with the band sensitively cast in silhouette.
"At an amphitheatre in Paris," Adamson remembers, "Bryan wanted fireworks for the end of the show, which Liquid Len [erstwhile Hawkwind cosmonaut] was looking after. We'd got all these fireworks in the hillside behind the stage and at the appropriate cue it was going to go off. Len turned round to the French guy who was controlling it all and said, 'Everything OK, mate?' The guy took it as his signal, and BOOM, the fireworks went up halfway through the set, bringing everything to a halt. The musicians are all standing there wondering what's going on. Ten grand's worth of fireworks, that's what! "
ONE MAJOR SETBACK IN ROXY'S CAREFULLY-CRAFTED gameplan was a total inability to crack America. "They put us on some weird bills," remembers Ferry. "Jethro Tull, Edgar Winter, Ten Years After, Humble Pie. Totally the wrong audiences. That whole side of it was very mismanaged, although even to this day you get people coming up saying ‘I was there; Mother's Place in Washington.' And you remember there being 20 people in that club!"
"We played Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland to 20,000 people. Then we'd drive 100 miles up the road and have trouble selling out a 2,000 seater," recalls Chris Adamson, and Paul Thompson shares torrid memories of American tours: "We played Madison Square Garden with Jethro Tull and that was chalk and cheese. There were little pockets of support for us but everyone else hated us. The worst gig on that first American tour was at Miami Speedway Stadium. I was really excited about it beforehand. We flew in by helicopter and there seemed like half a million people down on this racetrack. We got on. No sound-check, so it sounded like shit. People started throwing stuff at us."
The consensus was, still is, that America never 'got' it, that Roxy were just too arty. Thompson thinks that while that may be true of early Roxy it doesn't explain the failure of the later incarnations. "I felt we were a bit too 'Euro soul' for the Americans. Bryan thought we would sell more records there if we used American musicians, like, Rick Marotta. And I don't think that works. It's a bit like coals to Newcastle. And Bryan should know all about that!"
Always the earthbound one was Paul. The Ringo of the group; had Roxy fallen in with some '70s equivalent of the Maharishi you just know Thompson would have been the first onto the plane back from India, complaining that it was like Butlins. Manzanera refers affectionately to Thompson's 'hoofbeat' drumming and it's clear that he rooted the band in more ways than one.
When, in the late '70s, Thompson had a motorbike accident Andy Newmark was brought in to deputise. "You couldn't fault Andy's drumming but it never sounded the same," noted Chris Adamson. "We nick-named Paul 'Blooter Blatter', 'cos that's how he played, 'blooter ta blatter ta blooter ta blatter'. Andy was looser, more jazz-oriented. He'd played with Sly And The Family Stone. And part of the joy of Roxy Music was the simplicity of Paul's drumming." Sentiments also subscribed to by Johnny Gustafson. The ex-Big Three, Merseybeats, and Quatermass man toured extensively with Roxy in the mid-'70s, but had originally been brought in as a session player on Stranded and Country Life.
"I can usually find something in any band that will carry me through musically," he says, "but Roxy was puzzling initially as nobody seemed to be directing it. Bryan would have little more than a chord sequence. It was often a complete shambles at first but it would always seem to work. Something would take shape. I would usually stick with the first thing I came up with to anchor it. All Bryan would say was, 'Make it sound black'. "
Gustafson's finest hour came with 1975’s Siren. His Motown-inspired basslines run like an unbroken spine through the whole album, never more effectively than on ‘Both Ends Burning’ and ‘Love Is The Drug’. The latter was a greater influence on Talking Head's ‘Psycho Killer’ than anyone has ever seen fit to acknowledge, but at the time of the first onslaught of punk's cultural apartheid in 1976 Roxy Music was temporarily on hold. Consequently they were erased from the picture with revisionist zeal.
I read Ferry Derek Jarman's much quoted comments about the instigators of punk frantically kicking over the traces to cover the fact that six months previously they'd all been Bowie and Ferry lookalikes. "Siouxsie Banshee acknowledged the debt." Julie Burchill too, I venture. "Yeah," Ferry laughs. "The guys always hide their influences. They're so afraid of being outed. But punk was strange. I went away for a year and when I came back it felt like a door had closed on me."
Ferry's solo career, which had so far yielded three solo albums of daring covers and unashamed indulgence, crashed big time. Nemesis came with the failure of The Bride Stripped Bare.
"It was made in dire circumstances in Switzerland," says Simon Puxley. "The break-up with Jerry Hall occurred while we were recording, which didn't help matters." Ferry, wounded beyond belief at the time by its commercial failure still thinks Bride is one of the best records he ever made. "Although it was so underrated for so long it's now in danger of being overrated," is Richard Williams's assessment.
Late in '78 Manzanera, Mackay et al were resummonsed to record Manifesto. Waxwork dollies and debs at an upper-crust disco on the cover and a title track singing the praises of "the revolution that's coming". "That was inspired by a poem by Claes Oldenburg," says Ferry today. "He wrote a manifesto about his art that was almost like a Ferlinghetti beat poem. That line meant there's always a revolution coming with every generation, and I'm for it. I'm for whatever the new thing is."
Whatever the new Roxy thing was, it wasn't going to feature Paul Thompson for much longer. For starters Mr Blooter Blatter was getting tired of the dress code. "That side of it was never really me. I didn't take to dressing up at all. Some of the early costumes were OK but I just went back to wearing jeans and T-shirts as soon as I could, which must have looked quite boring after being in leopardskins. But it's impractical for a drummer to wear weird stuff, y'know?" Thompson says, getting into best Terry Collier mode, "Drummers sweat when they're playing. On the Manifesto tour we started off wearing suits. No way was I going to wear a suit while playing! I wore one for the first gig, and then went back to black T-shirts."
"THEY WERE ALL RAVING HETEROS, OF COURSE," NOTES Antony Price. "But Bryan had a big gay following from very early on. Andy too. He looked like a male model." The adoption of Roxy as honorary straight icons by the gay crowd was assisted in no small part by Price's penchant for pouring them into a succession of outrageous acid green and red leatherette outfits.
"Bryan is Mrs Straight Woman's dream, because he thinks gay, acts gay but is in fact straight," muses Price. He never got the mileage out of it that Bowie did though, did he? "No, but he's totally taken to heart by the fashion business. His credibility in the fashion business is much higher than any other male singer because they know he knows. They just look at the things he does and just know that he speaks their language, whereas Bowie can get it wrong."
The fact that the fashion crowd has never relinquished its claim on Roxy still irks rock purists. The gospel according to Price is pretty accurately born out by the reactions of persons of my acquaintance when I told them I was going to interview Bryan Ferry. Women: cor, swoon, ooh me hormones, etc. Straight men: grrr, grumble, bloody hair-dressers' music. Gay men: "Why do you think he still looks good at 50? The queens taught him all that, dear."
At this moment ‘Dance Away’ is probably playing at a hairstylist's near you. "I always imagine hairdressers clipping to it," Ferry deadpanned in 1978. This was indeed Roxy's salon music era, the time of ‘Dance Away’ and ‘Angel Eyes’, Manifesto's luscious disco shuffle hits. The follow-up to Manifesto, Flesh And Blood was the sixth best-selling UK LP of 1980. Flesh And Blood produced another bittersweet hit single. ‘Oh Yeah’ was archetypal '80s Roxy: lyrics tinged with some indeterminate loss and regret. Then came loss of a higher magnitude. John Lennon was murdered and Roxy Music's version of ‘Jealous Guy’ gave them a Number 1 hit, their first.
Avalon, the final Roxy Music album, was recorded during 1981-82 at Compass Point, Nassau, and The Power Station, New York. Its immaculate layers (precision-mixed to perfection by the aptly-named Bob Clearmountain), sounded a hi-tech age away from that first album's mad stampede into mix and match experimentation.
Phil Manzanera draws breath and summarises. "When we started out at Command Studios with Pete Sinfield, a lot of that stuff was essentially played live and expanded upon with the Heath-Robinson approach. Everybody brought their individual ideas and expertise to the melting pot, but it was still all based on the practicality of playing and recording and capturing sounds. In other words, it's not using the studio as an instrument. By the time you get to Avalon, 90 per cent of it was being written in the studio. That album was a product of completely changing our working methods. We were using the control room like a primitive computer, doing what people can do in their front rooms now with a computer and sampler. We had the earliest Linn drums, and the first sequential synths. It was Chris Thomas who encouraged us to find weird sounds in the studio.
"But," he adds, "for the last three albums, quite frankly, there were a lot more drugs around as well, which was good and bad. It created a lot of paranoia and a lot of spaced-out stuff."
"There's certainly a hint of paranoia in there," remarks Sinfield of Avalon. "So many layers of percussion and the guitar lines are all so slick. There are no mistakes that one can hear."
Ferry the narrator, on the other hand, is more low-key and hesitant than ever before; lyrics drift by, haunting and obtuse. There are even, for the first time, instrumentals. It's an album that, at times, seems to be dealing purely in tonal resonance. Not unlike the ambient work of a certain former partner, ironically enough.
Ferry recognises the connection. "I've just never specialised in it, that's all; but the instrumentation has certainly become more and more important to me over the years. And you think it's a pity to spoil it by singing over it."
Still his own most fervent critic, Ferry acknowledges that late Roxy and much of his subsequent solo output has had a nebulous, intangible feel to it. "Some of them haven't been as well developed as songs as they should have been, which has been a problem as far as making commercial records is concerned. I've put a lot of care into making what I thought were really beautiful soundscapes, but as I've worked on them for such a long time I can separate all the layers. The casual listener can't take it all in. It's too convoluted." In other words, the classic prognosis of the perfectionist: over-producer's syndrome.
"Working in 48-track studios you could go on endlessly adding instruments," Bryan says. "You didn't run out of space. And that was a huge difference for me and lots of artists like me — if there are any. You hear of people who just got lost in that whole studio world and went on for years making records, really creative people like Lindsey Buckingham. The same thing happened to them in the '80s. Trying to do masterworks," Bryan chuckles to himself.
Ferry still commands fierce personal loyalty within his own camp. For the last four years he's been back with his original management team. There remains, however, hints of discontent within the wider Roxy ranks. I ask Phil Manzanera if Roxy would ever consider re-forming.
"When people ask me that I always say, which Roxy? And would any of them be relevant to 1995? I wonder if any of us are compatible musically now. I also doubt if Bryan has fully come to terms with the amount of creative input Andy and I had." Significantly, Andy Mackay was unwilling to participate in this feature, citing, among other reasons, a dissatisfaction with the way the Roxy back catalogue was being packaged. His polite but adamant that-was-then-this-is-now disavowal of the Roxy legacy indicates deeper, unresolved grievances.
Pete Sinfield thinks that Ferry always wrote better stuff when he had Mackay and Manzanera to bounce off. "His solo work is more indulgent, and he has people around him saving, 'Yes Bryan, that's wonderful,' whereas Phil and Andy were more abrasive. I sometimes think that frictions within a band makes for much better music. It's funny when you consider that Eno was an anti-star who became a star, whereas Bryan Ferry wanted to be a star: Eno is a contented chap these days, whereas I think Ferry is at a bit of a loose end. I don't think he's had much fun in the last few years. I think he's got years left in him but he needs to have fun and not be Bryan Ferry." And the solution? "I think he should write some songs for other people. I'm sure he would write a very interesting song for Tina Turner."
I put this to Bryan. "No way. It's hard enough writing for myself. I wish somebody would write for me, actually."
Claiming in an interview in 1979 that his output was down to about six songs a year. Ferry experienced continued problems with writing throughout the '80s. "I think it's part of the whole thing of going mad as you get older," he laughs. "The soul is just as strong as it ever was, perhaps deeper even, and tunes were never a problem, but I got more and more particular about trying to write grown-up songs and I tried too hard. Early on I always used to worry about over-writing…"
Ferry admits to being much happier working in his small studio, an antidote to all those whopping 48-track consoles of yore. The Lennon track he's working on is ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night;. "The original has a directness and spontaneity," he enthuses. "It sounds like they're making it up as they go along." Everything perhaps that he's missed in his own music these past few years. In a similar vein, Bryan tells me that he likes his Dylan stripped down and still regards his first cover, ‘A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall’, as one of his best. Then he sounds a final note of regret on his dual pop life as interpreter and lyricist. "I was silly, really. I should have perhaps made more of a career out of covering other people's material, but I was always so anxious to get back to my own writing. I never really did half the things I wanted to do. I never really made time."
So what next for Bryan? The answer is kind of obvious when you think about it. An MTV Unplugged surely beckons. A stripped-down band. Back to basics. When I put this to him he makes it clear that he would relish the prospect. In the meantime, however, there's a tour of Europe to attend to, complete with 76-piece orchestra and 76-piece choir. Oh.
As the interview winds down, Bryan asks me what music I listen to. I confess to having sold my soul at the altar of rave when I moved to Manchester. "Music has always meant a lot to Northerners," Bryan reflects. "Is it because it can be very depressing usually there? It's an escapist thing, music in a tough urban environment, but it adds a lot of beauty to your life. You can still always hear what it is in the better stuff that gets them. There's a kind of yearning." And we're off on painterly images again — ravers dancing in empty warehouses that once housed an industrial empire. Ferry gives a parting nod of approval to young Jarvis Cocker and the Bristol thing. "Portishead sounds like home to me. That atmospheric thing with a groove. Combustible Edison, who supported me on tour last year, they're like that. Lounge lizardy movie theme music. With a bit of the ‘Cry Me A River’ chanteuse thing thrown in."
And with that, Bryan Ferry is called to his next appointment; the orchestral arranger from Antwerp has arrived. With a warm handshake he takes his leave and steps back into multi-layered rock dreams: elegant, unhurried, unfulfilled.
© Rob Chapman, 1995