Arguably the most influential rock group of the ’70s, Roxy Music’s impact has only grown in the years since the punk return-to-the-basics ethos gave way to a growing interest in high style, fashion and musical sophistication. The “new romantic” movement and the synth fops would have had no historical traditions to follow were it not for the pioneering efforts of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson and their various cohorts. Even though Roxy Music grew pale and timid in its later years, the recorded work (not to mention the countless side projects in which the various members have participated) stands as a seminal wellspring of nonconformity and successful art-pop experimentation.
With the release of their first LP (produced by King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield after the departure of original Roxy guitarist Davy O’List, formerly of the Nice), the fledgling sextet revolutionized rock — trashing concepts of melodic conservatism, ignoring the prevalence of blues-based and otherwise derivative idioms and denying the need for technical virtuosity, either vocally or instrumentally. The flamboyantly bedecked poseurs presaged such low couture iconoclasts as the New York Dolls and all the glamsters who followed; the music mixed all sorts of elements into a newly filtered original sound that set the stylish pace. The tracks — Ferry-penned fantasies like “Re-make/Re-model,” “2 H.B.,” “If There Is Something” and the group’s monumental debut, “Virginia Plain” (a 45 not on the original album, but added to later editions) — are at once amateurish and highly developed, brilliant blunders that took some acclimation to fully appreciate. As much as the music, the album’s kitsch graphics were also widely imitated.
For Your Pleasure, another enduring classic (with the second of Roxy’s many bassists), refines and magnifies Roxy’s style with equally amazing material: “Do the Strand,” “Editions of You” (the album’s punchy rock single), “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and the obsessive nine-minutes-plus “Bogus Man.”
Brian Eno departed after the second album, and ex-Curved Air violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson (a session man on Ferry’s solo debut earlier that same year) joined, either precipitating or merely participating in the successful stylistic downshift of Stranded. Without Eno’s “treatments,” the third album (produced by Chris Thomas) has more subtle sound, favoring piano and restrained, stately songs such as the haunting “A Song for Europe” (one of two songs co-written by Manzanera), “Just Like You,” “Psalm” and the second segment of “Mother of Pearl.” Demonstrating the group’s continuing ability to rock, “Serenade” and “Amazona” do it with dignity, while only the beginning of “Mother of Pearl” and the whirlingly chaotic “Street Life” dances around the maniac fringe.
Roxy’s best LP, Country Life, ran into trouble over its revealing cover photo — some American copies were shrink-wrapped in opaque green plastic; later the artwork was changed to remove the bra’n’panties-clad models and leave only the foliage. Regardless, the ten tracks — a smooth integration of the band’s divergent stylistic designs — are exemplary and of consistent strength, making it a virtual greatest-hits album of new material. Highlights: “All I Want Is You,” “Out of the Blue,” “The Thrill of It All,” “A Really Good Time,” “Three and Nine,” “Prairie Rose.”
Reuniting with Chris Thomas, Roxy made the disappointingly dull Siren (with Jerry Hall crawling on the cover), closing the studio book on their first era. The record contains some great tracks (“Love Is the Drug,” “Both Ends Burning,” “Sentimental Fool”), but an overabundance of forgettable numbers substantially diminishes its value. Roxy then went on sabbatical, with only the one-disc live document (the Eno-free Viva!, recorded in ’73, ’74 and ’75 with three different bassists and a fine selection of songs given decisive, powerful performances) and the absolutely essential Greatest Hits collection issued during the two-year gap.
In 1978, Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay reactivated Roxy Music, making three more group albums with various temporary sidemen. But it was never the same. Cooling down from where Siren left off, Roxy Music had become — whether through maturation, skill or fatigue — a pale, genteel imitation of its old self. Although there are a few brilliant (at least presentable) tracks on each album, the lack of conviction and adventurous spirit makes all three less than compelling for fans of the group’s early work. Fortunately, these records neither embarrass nor contradict the Roxy legacy; this period (subsequently proving to be the group’s last and, in America at least, most successful) is separate and, though not equal, at least estimable.
The self-produced Manifesto has “Dance Away,” “Still Falls the Rain” and “Angel Eyes” to recommend it, but is still easy to live without. The inferior Flesh + Blood (Roxy’s first album without Paul Thompson, who resurfaced years later in, of all places, Concrete Blonde) is more like a Ferry solo record, with session men playing humorless covers of “In the Midnight Hour” and “Eight Miles High.” Even the best originals are unoriginal and fainthearted: the Cars-ish (now there’s irony for you) “Over You,” the schmaltzy (but catchy) “Oh Yeah” and the funky “Same Old Scene.” (Collectors note: UK Polydor also released Manifesto as a vinyl picture disc.)
Regaining its self-esteem if not its power, Roxy made Avalon more like Manifesto, a careful blend of air and beat that amounts to a sparkling if meaningless dance record for would-be sophisticates. Unassailably well made and even occasionally engaging, the worst that can be said of songs like “More Than This,” “The Space Between,” “Avalon,” “Take a Chance with Me” and “The Main Thing” is that they’re too quiet and that the lyrics lack bite. Those who came upon Roxy late probably reckon it’s their best album.
An otherwise needless compilation, The Atlantic Years, skims the cream from Manifesto and Flesh + Blood onto one disc, adding two earlier cuts (also on Greatest Hits).
In 1981, all of Roxy Music’s studio albums to that point — seven in all — were repackaged as a boxed set; add in Avalon, and you’ve got the works. The Early Years and The Later Years also box six of the original albums: the first three in one, and the last three in the other. (What would be wrong with a complete reissue package for once?) The two-record Street Life and the overlapping single-disc Ultimate Collection each mix tracks from the group and Ferry’s solo career.
The High Road, a 12-inch ostensibly recorded live in Glasgow, offers an odd four-song program and a running time of nearly half an hour, as a ten-person lineup walks through Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and two Ferry tunes. The playing is, of course, great and the sound magnificent — only the band’s crucial personality is absent. Exactly the same can be said of Heart Still Beating, recorded in France at a massive open-air concert in mid-1982. (In fact, given the amazing similarity of the EP’s four songs to their performances on the album, it seems very likely that The High Road actually hails from the French date.) Notwithstanding Manzanera’s searing work (especially on “Out of the Blue” and his own “Impossible Guitar” instrumental) and Ferry’s suave showboating, this one is mostly for Avalon fans.
Roxy Music ceased to exist after 1983. Ferry resumed his solo work with a new album in mid-’85; Manzanera and Mackay formed a new trio called the Explorers and have worked on numerous other projects.
As big a long-term disappointment as Ferry’s and Manzanera’s extra-Roxy careers have been, Andy Mackay’s individual efforts reached the blandness plateau way ahead of the pack. His mildly diverting first showcase, In Search of Eddie Riff is a mostly instrumental outing enlivened only by a sweaty saxual interpretation of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and several more-traditional covers. Otherwise, it’s merely a display of his technical abilities.
His next big project was to write and produce two albums worth of pop music for Rock Follies, a neat ’70s British TV show about a female singing trio. They’re neat, but clearly work for hire. By the time of the Asian-oriented Resolving Contradictions, Mackay had banished any trace of wit: the record is a snooze. However, on a literary front, Mackay wrote a useful 1981 text (Electronic Music) on the development of electronic music.
Initially braving waves of contemptuous reviews, Ferry began his solo career as an irregular aside, allowing it to become his primary work as Roxy Music faded out of existence in the early ’80s. Although hardly the groundbreaking titan he once was, Ferry has had far-reaching stylistic influence; disingenuous claims of total self-invention to the contrary, many nouveau poseurs have let Ferry point the way for them to “be themselves.”
A shocking break from Roxy Music’s hip glam-rock (with the accent on rock), These Foolish Things quickly established the difference between the group’s utter originality and Ferry’s suavely adult solo interpretations. (For a number of obvious reasons this gap closed over the years to the point of near indistinguishability.) With a backing group that included then-Roxy drummer Paul Thompson as well as future Roxyite Eddie Jobson, Ferry croons his way through such surprising ’60s selections as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” and the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Even years later, this warped ’70s jukebox sounds weird but wonderful. Another Time, Another Place reprised the exercise, drawing on various epochs for material like “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Only the title song is an original.
For Let’s Stick Together, Ferry reached into the vaults and selected five Roxy Music songs (four from the band’s first LP) and did something with them: recut the vocals, presented alternate versions or simply re-edited/remixed the tracks. Some of these sound fine, but a funked-up “Re-Make/Re-Model” is too revisionist for words. The record is fleshed out with a brace of neat new covers, including the wonderful title track, “Shame Shame Shame” and the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love.” A strange assemblage with some jarring contrasts; still, Let’s Stick Together has more great tracks than any of Ferry’s other solo records. (The CD-3 EP that followed contains four album cuts, including “The Price of Love” and “Shame Shame Shame”; the subsequent 12-inch has two substitutions.)
In Your Mind, produced during a period of Roxy inactivity, is Ferry’s first “normal” solo album — all of the material is new and original — but, bereft of a gimmick and lacking the involvement of his usual collaborators, falls short of Ferry’s best work. Despite a few good tunes (“This Is Tomorrow,” “Tokyo Joe”), the bland sound allows little of Ferry’s brilliance to shine through, and the writing is not up to snuff.
Inspired by his broken romance with onetime Roxy LP cover model Jerry Hall, The Bride Stripped Bare is Ferry at his most emotionally translucent. The hybrid approach — half new originals, half appropriate revivals — and backing by a new coterie of unstylish session pros (including Waddy Wachtel, Neil Hubbard and Alan Spenner) make it radically different in both construction and sound. Some of the tracks are intensely gripping (“Sign of the Times,” Lou Reed’s “What Goes On”); others are subtler and less rewarding. A mixed success.
When Roxy Music finally ceased to exist, Ferry’s solo career took on new significance. Unfortunately, his own music is not that different from end-time Roxy Music: perfectionist studio technique and seamless production of songs that are at best bland and frequently lifeless. Despite its extraordinarily sleek veneer, Boys and Girls (dedicated to Ferry’s late father) is so short on tunes that several of the numbers rely on fatiguing one-note vamps to carry them along. Exceptional lyrics might allow one to overlook such inadequacy, but there’s nothing much happening on that front, either. It’s impossible to dislike the album with any enthusiasm — considerable care, thought and effort obviously went into its creation — still, the lack of even a trace of extremism or subversiveness is unforgivable.
The similarly restrained Bête Noire confirms that palatable adult music is Ferry’s future. That wonderful voice has become the only important ingredient; what he’s singing doesn’t seem so important anymore. But this record’s better melodic development and a wider variety of danceable tempos than on Boys and Girls are palpable signs of life; the involvement of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as a player and the co-writer of one near-exciting song (“The Right Stuff”) is another positive touch. All things considered, “Limbo,” “Kiss and Tell” and “Day for Night” are coolly inviting and likable enough, given the diminished expectations one now brings to Bryan Ferry albums.
With no new music forthcoming, Ferry’s British label began issuing old/retrospective items. The Let’s Stick Together EP is available as a remix on CD-3 and CD-5 (with totally different accompanying tracks) as well as 12-inch vinyl (also different); the Price of Love, another remix, comes on CD-3 and 12-inch, both with alternate mixes of “Don’t Stop the Dance” and two additional items.
Street Life is a poorly annotated two-record career retrospective: 20 songs drawn from Roxy Music as well as solo releases, stretching from “Virginia Plain” to Boys and Girls‘ “Slave to Love.” Also combining Roxy and pre-Bête Noire Ferry tracks, Ultimate Collection adds a new mix of “Let’s Stick Together” to a skimpier overlapping selection. The 1989 release entitled Bryan Ferry is a boxed set of These Foolish Things, Let’s Stick Together and Boys and Girls.