Roxy Music was considered musical pioneers from the moment they stepped onstage.
They earned that distinction with their provocative record covers, their lyrics influenced by classic art and film, and their ability to innovate within the realm of pop music.
As far as glam-rock goes, they were never as big as David Bowie in America, but Roxy Music’s fingerprints can be traced to the disco sounds of Chic, the New York punk scene of the late 70s, and the work of Boston new wave band The Cars. British artists including Sex Pistols’ John Lydon, Duran Duran, Morrissey, and even Bowie expressed admiration for the group.
The group was the brainchild of art student Bryan Ferry. He would be joined by guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist/oboist Andy Mackay. Other members throughout the band’s decade-long studio career included drummer Paul Thompson (Concrete Blonde), keyboardist Eddie Jobson (Jethro Tull), and most famously, producer and ambient music artist Brian Eno.
Roxy Music’s self-titled debut was given a deluxe re-release for its 45th anniversary in February (which came out a year late, but who’s counting?). The New Times has put together a beginner’s guide to the band and how their influence can be heard in the music of today.
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Roxy Music, 1972
Having the first 30 seconds of the opening track on your first album begin as if it were playing in the background at a cocktail party is a bold statement. It mixes elements of rock, jazz, and classical into one artful package. Then there is Mackay’s dizzying saxophone, Eno’s bizarre knob-twisting on his synths, Graham Simpson playing the bass line to the Beatles’ “Day-Tripper,” and the band shouting a license plate number for a chorus. “Re-make/Re-model” succinctly conveys that every piece of music you will listen to from this point on will never be the same. If you have heard Roxy Music before, then you already know. If you haven’t, then you had better prepare yourself.
Roxy Music, 1972
If “Re-make/Re-model” was trying to turn music into something artistic, “Virginia Plain” is what happens when style influences pop. With lyrics referencing everything from high-end cigarettes to Warhol muse Baby Jane Holzer, this song somehow encapsulated Roxy Music’s future for the next decade: bold experimentation, a clever sense of humor, light self-indulgence, and a love for the iconic. More stunning than Eno’s synth work is Manzanera’s impressive guitar (legend has it he improvised his solo). Then there’s that question asked at the song’s conclusion that brings the festivities to a complete stop: “What’s your name, Virginia Plain?” It is a clever ending that leaves you wanting more.
“The Bogus Man”
For Your Pleasure, 1973
If Roxy Music’s debut album was a celebration of classic American cinema, then For Your Pleasure was certainly its first foray into '30s German thrillers, down to this riveting nine-minute exercise in Krautrock. You can practically hear the dark shadows creep over you as the macabre “The Bogus Man” begins. Ferry sings of a sinister stalker who is “clutching at your coat” as Mackay’s saxophone pulsates like a siren over and over again, adding to the track’s impending sense of dread. This is a wonderful nightmare brought to musical reality. You can feel Peter Lorre creeping up behind you.
“In Every Dream Home A Heartache”
For Your Pleasure, 1973
Ferry moved from anxiety to exploring the emptiness that comes with indulgence in the disquieting track “In Every Dream Home A Heartache.” The forlorn singer narrates the most melancholy real-estate listing in existence as he searches for a room where he can find some solace. There is companionship to be found in the form of a blow-up doll floating in the pool outside. The ominous organ that plays for the first half of the song ends when Ferry sings his final words to his lover: “I blew up your body/but you blew my mind!” Manzanera’s guitar and Eno’s phase-shifting techniques explode all over the second half of this track. The perversions of the rich have never sounded so droll.
“Mother Of Pearl”
Having done all he could do within the confines of Ferry’s musical creation, Eno left Roxy Music shortly after the release of For Your Pleasure to pursue a solo career. This freed Ferry to steer his ship in directions that might not have drawn new lines on the musical map, but still felt fresh and adventurous.
The most stunning example of his intrepidness is the seven-minute epic “Mother Of Pearl.” The song begins thematically where For Your Pleasure left off: turbulent and bleak. Then the tempo slows, the piano kicks in, and Ferry finds a companion that epitomizes the finest things in life that he would give up his jet-set existence for. Romantic longing has been a lyrical theme that the songwriter has leaned on throughout his entire career. It comes through loud and clear in this beautifully sonic-layered number, which was featured in the finale of the indie film SLC Punk.
Country Life, 1974
It would be difficult to ignore how Country Life’s provocative cover art, which features two women dressed in sheer lingerie, almost overshadows the band’s strong work on the album.
But David Byrne was listening to the album’s final track “Prairie Rose.” It serves as Ferry’s ode to his then-girlfriend Jerry Hall (yes, that Jerry Hall, who would leave Ferry for Mick Jagger and eventually marry News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch). The Talking Heads’ singer would use a line from the vigorous number as the title for his song “The Big Country,” which appears on their album More Songs About Buildings and Food. Ferry wanted to compose “a song of praise” to Texas, Hall’s home state. Byrne is on a plane flying over it and says that he “wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” The producer of this Talking Heads' classic was none other than Eno, so it would be reasonable to assume that some shade was being thrown in Ferry’s direction.
“Love Is The Drug”
Hall would appear as an alluring mermaid on the cover of Siren, but it was the seductive bass line opening “Love Is The Drug” that listeners on this side of the pond found irresistible. The single gave Roxy Music their first American hit. It also influenced musicians for years to come, most prominently in guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers. You can trace his band Chic’s funky rhythms to Manzanera’s rhythmic guitar and John Gustafson’s bass on this single. Rodger’s credits also include David Bowie, Duran Duran, and Daft Punk, proving that the legacy of Roxy Music and this song, in particular, continue to resonate over four decades later.
Ferry put Roxy Music on hiatus so the band could work on other projects. The band came back with Manifesto right as the disco scene was exerting its influence on seemingly everything. “Dance Away” was one of those singles that could have been played at Studio 54, but still retained the DNA of what made the group so great: clever lyrics (“You’re dressed to kill/And guess who’s dying”) and an elegant fusion of jazz and rock that raised Roxy Music above their peers who merely pandered to the music fads of the time.
You can hear Ferry’s weariness in the opening line of the title track of Roxy Music’s swan song. He quietly sings, “Now the party’s over/I’m so tired.” But the song’s unforgettable power comes from Haitian siren Yanick Etienne. Album producer Rhett Davies and Ferry heard her voice in the studio where they were mixing Avalon and knew they had to add her show-stopping vocals to the album. She reaches those high notes with grace and finesse, allowing “Avalon” to rise above its smooth jazz leanings to create an indelible single.
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“More Than This”
Sofia Coppola picked up on Ferry’s enervation in “More Than This,” bringing it to her 2003 film Lost in Translation. Bill Murray's character conveys the feeling well as he croons “It was fun for a while/There was no way of knowing” in a Japanese karaoke bar. The original can't be outdone, however. Roxy Music so successfully envelops the listener in that exasperation with such hauntingly beautiful chords that Ferry would spend much of his solo career attempting to recreate what he captured in this song, with varied results.
For further study, check out the soundtrack to the film Velvet Goldmine. It features covers of early Roxy Music tunes sung by Radiohead's Thom Yorke.