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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Roxy Music 40 Years Later

The music world has a highly selective way of deciding which bands are worthy of recognition for their achievements and equally adept at neglecting some bands from receiving the credit they deserve. One of the bands most notoriously denied credit for influencing thousands of musicians is Roxy Music. Quickly searching for a reason why this is, it can only be boiled down to one fact: forty years after their enigmatic debut album, and they’re still mysterious and different from all that have preceded and succeeded them.

Roxy Music's first album was indeed released forty years ago (1972) in the United States on Reprise Records. In an era of hippie blues bands and singer-songwriters this album landed like an atomic bomb. The effect they had following their public debut in June of ’72 was absolutely devastating, splitting audiences straight down the middle. While both Melody Maker and the New Musical Express wrote rave reviews for their debut album, Whispering Bob Harris, host of the “Old Gray Whistle Test” TV show introduced them by saying that he wished to be entirely disassociated from their inclusion on the show. But it didn’t matter, really, because by the time their single “Virginia Plain” was released it shot up to Number 4 on the singles charts, with their bizarre first LP following it to Number 6 on the album charts.

Their glam predecessors, David Bowie and Alice Cooper were impressed enough to add Roxy as the opening acts for their shows at The Rainbow and Wembley Stadium, not bad considering you’re opening for the “Ziggy Stardust” and “School’s Out” tours. But enough of that, let’s talk about that album, that weird, creepy album. The front cover depicted a Forties-Fifties era cheesecake cover with an overly made up model who more than slightly resembled the singer, Bryan Ferry.

Opening the gatefold one saw a band where half wore leather and the other half wore weird safari prints, half wearing Fifties greaser hair and the other half looking au courant Black Sabbath metal-friendly hair. The guitarist wore bug fly goggles and one member was simply called “Eno”. But “Gus”, not “Sam”, but “Eno”. The credits were ahead of their time, too: Roxy Music gave hair, makeup and stylist credits. Everything about Roxy Music was weird: their album was produced by Peter Sinfield, King Crimson’s lyricist. Not their guitarist, not their drummer, but their lyricist. Weird!

“Roxy Music” began with “Remake/Remodel”, setting the tone for the rest of the record. The song is a basic two-chord Velvet Underground drone, drenched with a screeching synthesizer, feedback howling guitar and a demented free-jazz saxophone solo in the middle. The band chants either a license plate or robot serial number “CPL593H” all through the song. Bryan Ferry put his best post-modern art lessons from his college instructor Richard Hamilton to use here, by infusing disparate cultural elements on top of each other. The end result is free jazz, garage rock, music concrete (courtesy of Brian Eno), and even science fiction in the lyrics.

The sci-fi vibe continues with “Ladytron” which adds some haunting classical oboe sounds (the only other rocker to toot a mean oboe was Roy Wood from The Move). The reasons for “Virgina Plain”’s success was abundantly clear: it’s a perfect distillation of everything the band represents: referencing Andy Warhol, more simple garage rock chord progressions and that beehive synthesizer buzzing in your face. Just like another genius art school band from England, the Bonzo Dog Band, Roxy Music managed to sonically throw everything but the kitchen sink in their sound, only these guys weren’t joking.

When I heard Roxy Music were headlining the Whisky A Go-Go in December of that year, I couldn’t get there fast enough. Roxy Music came out to a loop of droning synthesizer, much like the one that begins “The Bob (Medley)”, which they opened the show. The band looked striking – Eno in black with peacock feathers sprouting from his shoulder, Phil Manzanera in his fly glasses, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson in their Johnny Rockets meets Captain Video space outfits, and of course, Bryan Ferry, looking like a drag queen Link Wray and crooning in that gigolo falsetto.

As a harbinger of the division that would eventually split them up, the two Brians stood at opposite poles of the stage, Ferry to the left and Eno to the right. Sonically the band was an embarrassment of riches: you had the loudest synthesizer ever heard (at the time) on stage, Ferry’s creepy Jack The Ripper saloon piano, the rhythm section bashing a monotonous Black Sabbath-style beat and more free-jazz saxophone and barfing guitar feedback. With doo-wop harmonies on ‘Would You Believe?”. I remember an early version of “Grey Lagoons” being performed, too.

If I could pitch one complaint about the show, though, it was the actual coldness and detachment they had in their performance, and while Ferry smiled at the end of “Virginia Plain”, you knew these guys were not going to hold your hand. The cold, remote detachment indeed established itself without apologies on their next album, “For Your Pleasure”, an album so dark and cold icicles could form from the grooves on the disc. From the icy transsexual model strutting in the darkness on the cover to the glacial echoes of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” and “Beauty Queen”, there’s a dark, detached feeling all through the record. Eno’s album, “Here Come The Warm Jets”, sounds positively tropical compared to this masterwork. Not surprisingly, Eno spoofs Ferry’s vocals on “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” and sounds off him in “Blank Frank” (“…has a memory that’s as cold as an iceberg”.)

The rest is never-ending history: Ferry dates supermodel Jerry Hall only to lose her to Mick Jagger, but gets a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) from the Queen, gets to sing the theme to the BBC-TV show “Manchild” but then behaves like the lead character by marrying his son’s ex-girlfriend. Still creepy after all these years!

The bottom line is that Roxy Music have influenced every major band that followed them for the past forty years, from The Sex Pistols to The Cars to Blondie to Marilyn Manson, and have had their songs covered by Siouxsie and The Banshees, Grace Jones, The Laughing Hyenas (!) and many more. A true collection of musical mavericks, they’ve captivated the imagination of countless musicians by applying conceptual art theories rather than corny 12-bar blues scales, but somehow eventually managed to get that in there, too. And after forty years they still look and sound as creepy and demented as they did from the day they emerged, no small accomplishment in a world hungry for outrage.

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