Viva Roxy Music!

09.21.2004 | J.E. D'Ulisse | Music, Unfairly Forgotten | 2 Comments

I was fifteen years old and in summer school again.  I hadn’t eaten lunch in a week to save up some money to buy a new album. At the time, my music tastes could be defined in two words: Classic Rock. I listened to what WNEW or KRock told me to.  For poor kids it was either that or heavy metal, or you were a fag. I read books for fun, which was already pushing it, so I did what they told me to do while desperately trying to prove my heterosexuality. (Mind you, trying without actually having sex or anything in the general area of sex or being around any girls…) 

My hands were elbows deep within the bargain bin at the Union Square WIZ. Suddenly I saw breasts and I dove for them. The cassette had two women on the cover, a redhead and a brunette. The redhead barely covered her breasts with her hands and wore only panties. The brunette wore a very, very sheer bra; her hand covered her bare, pantyless crotch and the other shielded her eyes. They didn’t look like the plastic women I had seen on MTV but like women that you could actually meet. I needed this album. It was called Country Life by the band Roxy Music. It was better than porn.

 ***

Godard, while playing himself, said, “The problem with capitalism is that you can’t get a good cup of coffee.” Roxy Music was a great cup of coffee.

Their fingerprints are all over modern music. Without Roxy Music, there could be no Television, David Bowie (at his best), Duran Duran, Blondie, The Talking Heads, INXS, Suede, Pulp, or Franz Ferdinand. 

Their first album was glam rock at its finest, and listening to it brings to mind what rock would sound like if it was cut on Venus, as if a crazed tribe of lusty space Amazon warrior chicks hungrily awaited their every single. Paul Thompson on drums, Rik Kenton on bass,  Ray Manzanera on guitar and Andy Mackay on sax (only one letter from sex) did choreographed steps as if they had danced out of a STAX records release. Brian Eno would run synths and tapes backward and forward while Bryan Ferry, the son of a coal miner, sang songs of love.

Look at Roxy Music and you might think that they’re just jumping on to a kitch bandwagon. Listen to them and you’ll bear that there’s more going on than  publicity gimmicks. Their enthusiasm for the music of the fifties (and forties  and thirties) always leads to more than camp recreation. The whole band goes  through Eno’s synthesizer, and it all comes out as new music - Roxy Music. Bryan Ferry writes the songs and the words: they are arranged by the band. To get some idea of the range of the writing, listen to the lyrical ‘Lady’ who turns into a vampire; and to the Velvet Underground-like energy of ‘Remake/re-model’ which drives them to conclude the set. The silver lamee and  the leopard skin is a very serious joke.

—Alice Cooper programme sleeve notes, Empire  Pool, Wembley, June 30th 1972Bill Ashford

If they had stopped there, they would just be a minor footnote in music history. It was the single they released next (quite radically because at the time, albums where in, singles where out) that would change the landscape like an earthquake. The single, now misleadingly included on the first album, conceived the process of creating music in an entirely new way. It was a Copernican revolt and its name was “Virginia Plain.”

Music history will remember Roxy Music as the band who first placed forward the idea of the studio as an instrument. Les Paul and Buddy Holly had pushed the limits but that was to capture a higher fidelity. Phil Spector would create walls of sound, but that was to cover the poverty of the musicians’ talents. Jimmy Hendrix, The Who and The Doors would have guitars flying around your head, but that was to hide the fact that the live experience would eternally outclass whatever was on tape. The Beach Boys would layer sounds and create Bach-like soundscapes but that was to create the image of a perfected sound experience which could never exist. The Beatles would dip tapes in Coca Cola and LSD, searching for new sound possibilities, but they were the Beatles and, in the end, they threw all this out. Roxy Music, a band with one album that didn’t even touch the US charts, demanded the same creative rights as the Beatles.  They viewed the studio as one instrument among many that could be used to express, to be performed and improvised with. If the track was cut on a different day, the song could sound completely different.

There are no mistakes in the studio, just new potential musics. The second album, For Your Pleasure, would fully develop this concept. It is a listening experience beyond compare. It also featured a blond woman walking a panther for the cover art. (How cool is that?) It was all too good to last. Ferry would end up forcing Eno out of the band. Taken aback, Eno wondered what he would do next:

 …every  time I’m asked about the band I call them something different, like Bwana and  the Nigger Girls or Lex Ligger and the Lozenges. My main idea is to drag together a bunch of bizarre people, who will probably all hate each other, give them some strange instrument to play and get people to pay to watch them make fools of themselves…

You see, the dancers in the Lizard  Girls could also be wired up to my new instrument, the ‘Electric Larynx’ which  I humbly consider to be a major innovation of sorts. It had its origins in, uh,  bondage - it was actually an excuse to legitimize bondage by convincing the bondee that it was actually a musical instrument they were wearing rather than just a form of restraint. It’s a series of microphones built into a choker fed through a complex series of electronic devices to produce from the sound of human voice the highpitch of an electric guitar while still possessing the  flexibility of the ‘vox humana’. The player - or the captive as we prefer to  know her - is wired up from the back of her neck directly into the synthesizer…

Brian Eno interview - Nick Kent, NME, July 28, 1973

Tragically, neither the band nor the Larynx would ever see the stage. Eno would instead go about the process of making some extremely good music as both an artist and producer (or studio virtuoso). David Bowie, The Talking Heads and U2 would follow Eno and this new conception of the studio into some of the best music ever made.

Meanwhile, sans Eno, Roxy Music was left with only talent, genius and really great hair to fall back on.


***


            For your pleasure
            In our present state
            Part false part true
            Like anything
            We present ourselves…

            -“For Your Pleasure,” by Bryan Ferry

Why do we listen to The Rolling Stones? They really were never very good. In fact, there are cover bands that play their songs with far more skill then they ever were capable of. (The same could be said of The Sex Pistols, or hundreds of other fondly remembered bands.) The reason is that they (re)present themselves in their music and that is what the viewer desires. To hear the songs well played seems silly because what is interesting to us is the band. Not them as human beings, but Them as a character. Just like in literature, the author is just another character in the novel. There is a chasm between the genetic locus of art and the author’s signature. It is the realization of this chasm that made Roxy Music. (It would also allow Ferry to do some of the best cover songs of all time).

To say that Manzanera is one of the all time great guitarists, or that Mackay is a stunning talent or that Ferry wrote some of the finest lyric verse in the English language is besides the point. What we desire from them is not their talent (which, from what I saw in 2001, remains extraordinary eighteen years after their breakup). What we desire is Them in a stew of fact and fiction.

Roxy Music transformed me in an instant. Tossed out was the denim and with it the desire to dress like a rocker, punk, goth, or anyone else.  Instead I would try to dress like myself, whoever that was. A woman that would want to sleep with me, wouldn’t want to sleep with anyone else.  A smile, a wink and poetry worked far better than pubescent rage. Sure, I could have learned the same lesson from others, but I could never have put on Barry White during a date; I would have gotten laughed out of the bedroom. Roxy  Music fit me perfectly.

Roxy gave me an appreciation for the finer things in life and for glamour without ever forgetting that there could be something more. They taught me something that today’s pimps would do well to learn: It’s not the cars or the rocks or the shoes that makes me cool, it is I that make them cool.

Finally they helped me realize that

            A woman in love
            Can make you feel good—
           You know what you’re living for.
            She’ll give you so much
            And keep you in touch
            With all that’s worth living for.
            Oh once she gets in
            Through thick and through thin
            She’ll show you what living’s for.
            The rhythm of love
            It must go on
            Can’t stop.
            The beat of your heart
            Is like a drum
            Will it stop?

               
                —“Sentimental Fool,” by Bryan Ferry and Andy Mackay



A visceral portrait of the roots of glam if not Bowie's pre-era. Good job!
09.21.2004 | David Walley
Your article reads as easily as Roxy is injested. A glossy tribute to a wondergroup!
09.27.2004 | roxyanna

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