Roxy Music sounded like they looked, and they looked like nothing on earth. The band debuted when glam rock was the fashion and still managed to stand out against the hedonism and glitter of London in the 1970s. They made albums that lasted beyond the moment and then the decade and now the century. They didn't churn out a new single every Friday like Wizzard, or the same album over and over like T-Rex, and they didn't lurch from image to artifice like Bowie until all their ideas were spent and their credibility sacrificed. Roxy began burning bright, cooled to a lounge lizard mid-career, spun off a brace of solo albums and regrouped for just long enough to cut a languid farewell, Avalon, regarded by even dispassionate listeners as a classic.
Roxy Music stood out because they had taste and wit, chops and moxie. As a music critic once muttered to me ruefully, they were never kids: they arrived fully formed. Even David Bowie, that great planner and schemer, emerged as Ziggy Stardust only after a series of bad fits and false starts. Roxy Music just plain landed.
The circumstances leading up their arrival are the subject of Re-Make Re-Model, a new book by novelist and art critic Michael Bracewell. A pre-history of the years and days leading up to Roxy Music's 1972 debut album, Re-Make Re-model puts the band in context, charting members' histories prior to their 1972 debut.
Roxy Music was founded by singer and keyboardist Bryan Ferry, a Fine Arts graduate from Newcastle who told Melody Maker in 1971 that he wanted to make music "in as civilised a way as possible." He was joined by a oboeist, Andy Mackay, a student of classical music as well as avant garde composers like John Cage. It was Mackay who invited Brian Eno, a Fine Arts graduate who had studied cybernetics, to join them for rehearsals.
"[Andy] said, 'We've got a synth that nobody knows how to play, why don't you try it?'" Eno told Q Magazine in 1990. "So after soundproofing his tiny bedsit in Camberwell, there were six of us in there with all the gear and the noise was fucking staggering."
Bassists came and went, but the drums and wires stayed. Latin-influenced guitarist Phil Manzanera had worked the sound desk for the band's rehearsals and secretly learned all their songs. When he was finally asked to audition, "I could play them all immaculately - which of course seemed amazing."
Drummer Paul Thompson was an apprentice at the Newcastle ship yards who had been playing in bands in working mens' clubs.
"So okay, they were art students, but it didn't really matter," he tells Bracewell in the book. "I haven't got a degree and that, and there is a big intellectual difference between me and the rest of the boys. But that doesn't matter as long as the musical chemistry is right."
If the Velvet Underground were the great art band, Roxy Music were the quintessential art school band. The Velvets had tooled around in a variety of combinations before falling under the promotional wing of Andy Warhol. They were exciting and brilliant but in retrospect they didn't fit with the scattershot events organised by Warhol and his Factory cohorts. Footage of the Velvets' touring show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, looks stiffly 60s now, Edie Sedgewick whooping it up and Malanga cracking his whip while poor young Lou Reed stands there trying to make himself heard. Warhol and the factory were just a phase, really, before the band grew out of it.
But Roxy's founding members Ferry, Mackay and Eno had been taught first-hand by some of the leading British artists of the day. They went to university to find out about art and music with the intention of making it their career. They were educated, but they weren't snobs. Ferry's father managed pit ponies, Eno's was a post man, Mackay's was a gas fitter who played classical piano. They were clever boys who loved art and rock and roll, and they put the two together, and they made it work.
In 1973 Eno described Roxy Music to Sounds as "luxurious decadence. It upsets some people: they expect you to be pigeonholed, fully committed to one type of music like rock and roll. Well, we certainly don't expect to spend the remainder of our musical days driving up and down the M1 in a van, living in rat holes. We plan to do it in style."
"Roxy Music is a glamourisation," says Ferry at the end of the book. "I didn't think my own name was terribly glamorous; and I suppose, all those years ago, I changed my name to Roxy Music."
"A product," wrote British pop artist Richard Hamilton "must aim to project an image of desirability as strong as any Hollywood star."
Hamilton had already designed the cover for the Beatles' White Album when he was teaching the young Bryan Ferry at Newcastle University's Fine Art department.
"I was a great party goer in Newcastle," Hamilton tells Bracewell. "I remember [Bryan] always being at the parties, and being terribly good looking..."
It was Pop Art's fascination with Americana that would later inspire Roxy Music's famous cover girls: thematic cheesecake in the retro style of Betty Page and Vargas illustrations. Even if you don't know the band, you may well recognise Jerry Hall arched on the rocks for Siren or the girls standing in the bushes in Country Life. Bold even by 1970s standards, the covers have gone from politically incorrect to right back in fashion.
Roxy Music weren't the first or the last band to put women on the cover but their art school irony made it work. The rawness of the images is still a slap in the face because advertising sex in the 70s meant sex was actually being sold. The women look out of place because they were: beamed in from a fantasy retro-America.
On the band's debut self-titled album Kari Ann Muller bares her teeth in in 1950s pinks and blues while inside the gatefold, the boys are kitted out like an outer space Sha-na-na. On For Your Pleasure shiny disco queen Amanda Lear poses with a panther and a Cadillac before the nocturnal Las Vegas skyline. Even Stranded cover girl Marilyn Cole looks as if she's been washed up on the set of Hawaii Five-O. It wasn't until the fourth album, Country Life that the covers went European.
Ferry contrasted the Country Life magazine photography "where you normally have characters shooting ducks or jumping over fences in top hats" with a night portrait of two healthy German tourists standing against the bushes in a lot of makeup and very little underwear. The girls, Constanze and Eveline, were German tourists Ferry met while "writing lyrics" in Portugal and were, he says, "very keen to do the job" of modelling. It was banned in America for being too explicit - and maybe, one opines, just a bit too self-possessed.
The cover of Roxy's fifth, Siren, marks a retreat to safer ground, with Jerry Hall luring men on to the rocks. This time the joke would be on Ferry: after accepting his engagement proposal, Hall dumped him for Mick Jagger.
"Bryan always seemed to have two sides to him," says Hall in her biography, Tall Tales. "I think Texans and the English have a common bond of eccentricity. They both thrive on it. They love eccentrics and try to be eccentric as they can be. But there's this very straight, uptight side to the English, too. Bryan seemed to have both sides.
"His father was a coal miner in Newcastle. And he'd pulled himself up from that and made a real gentleman out of himself, but that always seemed to make him insecure. There were only certain people he could relax around."
When I got to talk to Bryan Ferry on a phone interview for Rip It Up in 1988 the experience was like very politely pulling teeth. Ferry answered the direct dial call so mildly it took me an awkward minute to work that it was actually him on the other end. I'd expected that he'd sound... different.
"How did you think I'd sound?" he shot back, slightly peeved.
"More Ferry-esque," I said.
He did laugh.
"I get a bit unsure about pushing the personality, y'know," he conceded. "That whole image thing can get in the way of the music so easily. It's a drag - it's very hard to find the right sort of balance for that. In the Roxy days it was much easier: one could hide behind the name, or that very anonymous glamour girl image, which I preferred, quite frankly."
Decades after graduating from art school, the singer-songwriter still used painting as an analogy of how he recorded songs in the studio.
"It's very much like working over the same canvas: you paint over a certain section and stand back from it, come back a few weeks later and try something again - a different colour, a different musician, whatever. The vocal part is the tip of the iceberg."
Roxy Music's second album, For Your Pleasure, was one of the first records I ever owned. I bought it late, in 1978, from the Sounds store on Great South Road knowing almost nothing about the group, although I'd heard tracks from their other albums on Barry Jenkins' Sunday night show on Radio Hauraki. I was unsure about the band's Parliament style threads, but the glossy black cover did its job of projecting desirability and then some, and soon I was walking home with it under my arm.
I slipped it on the turntable of the household's fake woodgrain Pye Isotronic and clamped on the headphones. And then, as 'In Every Dream Home a Heartache' goes: it blew my mind. I'd never heard anything like it. And haven't since, despite the many bands who now claim them as an influence. The hammering burlesque of 'Do the Strand'; the liquid, giddy 'Beauty Queen', the hypnotic, lurching 'The Bogus Man.' It was utterly weird and perfectly formed. Where the hell had this come from?
Nearly 30 years later, the book I needed then, is here. Re-Make Re-Model charts almost every connection and influence on Roxy Music, presenting the band as a pure product of London's art, fashion and party culture.Bryan Ferry's manager and co-founder of EG Music, David Enthoven describes the scene:
"The brilliant thing about the latter part of the 60s was that you had that wonderful Pop art movement which had really flourished with [Richard] Hamilton, [Allen] Jones and [Peter] Blake, but then went over to Mary Quant, Biba, Zandra Rhodes. An extraordinary flourishing of fashion, art, music and film - and they were all intermingling. And people were dressing up. It was definitely a period where 20 year olds had kicked over the traces."
Before Roxy Music the "art rock" label meant moody and intellectual. Andy Mackay tells Bracewell how he imagined he would be in a band like UFO or Soft Machine "quietly bent over their instruments.
"Likewise the Velvet Underground were a quiet band - they were all hunched over... I'm never quite sure how Roxy Music ended up being a totally up-front performance band."
The loudness, media commentator Peter York says in the book, came from London's fashion crowd and Ferry's gay friends who pushed him to camp things up:
"Now where did Roxy Music come from? Well, we know where Bryan came from, and it wasn't Earl's Court. Eno - the education system kicked in, and made it right for him. Neither were metropolitans in the first instance - but they wanted to be. And they were not gay. But the huge influence of [designer] Antony Price is there: that he made Bryan be more daring in his gestures, because Bryan didn't want to to be that daring."
"The crucial discovery of Roxy Music would be that you could be serious and have a lot of fun without compromising either," says Mackay. "Other glam rock bands like, say, the Sweet or Slade, went too much for simply being glam rocky - Bowie was somewhere in between - and we would start off expecting to be kind of serious."
"The dressing up was always part of the fun of Roxy," Manzanera told Uncut in 2001. "People tend to overlook the humour that was there. At first, it was just us and Bowie doing it. The more extreme we got, the bigger the reaction. It was a bit of theatre. It gave us something to do to conquer the nerves and feelings of amateurishness before we went on."
"With all the other bands I've been in, when we walked on stage nothing happened," Thompson told Melody Maker in 1972. "With Roxy Music, the audience takes notice right away."
It's difficult looking back at the 70s from our interconnected society of Post-Everything-Ism, but the kids are sure trying. After the politically correct 80s and the corporate 90s, the 70s seem like a Dionysian blast. Fast, helmetless, wreathed in smoke and confidence: an Empire Of Fun, fallen now. And okay, it wasn't really like that. But you only have to listen to the music it produced to become sentimental about how great it was. For it's music that we yearn for, trapped in our seamless nightmare of digital Britney-ess: music that comes from a place you can't locate on a spreadsheet. Rap's lost its punch, soul doesn't have any and punk's nothing more than a tie in a mall boutique.
Stopping as it does in 1972, Bracewell's book talks too little about the music and its compelling, vivid kick. At a press conference at London's Savoy Hotel to announce the band's 2001 reunion tour, Manzanera joked with the assembled journalists that Roxy were reforming to be their own tribute band simply because nobody else could. "You can't cover our songs very easily, so we thought we'd better do them ourselves."
Roxy Music's sound was unique. Rock historians draw comparisons with German kraut rock band Can but as writer Duncan Fallowell tells Bracewell: "I think the whole Can scene was a bit far out for Bryan - it unnerved him. We used to take drugs and talk very frankly and strangely about our inner selves. Well, that's not really Bryan, is it?"
"I liked what Pink Floyd did in terms of the picturesque, but there was no sense of joy in it,' Ferry says to Bracewell. As a student he had DJ'd at Club A Go Go in Newcastle, watching acts that would all add to the blend. Cream, the Spencer Davis Group, Wilson Pickett, Captain Beefheart.
"I wonder whether Bryan, at the time, was really aware of what he was doing," Mackay told The Guardian. "The band he was in before was basically a soul band; and it's very interesting that as soon as he got the chance to launch his solo career off the back of Roxy, he immediately did covers of all the songs by singers who he admired - which were soul songs. I think he thought he was singing one thing, but because he was English, it came out differently."
Eno split acrimoniously from the band in 1973. When the NME asked what he was going to do he said "I'll probably just give up music altogether and become a full-time poseur."
He and his co-founders did anything but. Roxy Music continued until Siren, split for a flurry of solo work, reunited for three more - Manifesto, Flesh and Blood and Avalon and then split again. Eno recorded some remarkable solo albums, produced hits for U2 and Talking Heads and quietly invented ambient music. Ferry's own solo career has been steady but with mixed results. Boys and Girls (1985) and Mamouna (1994) stand alongside Roxy's best: some of the others just lie there.
Nevertheless, Eno's "full-time poseur" remark seems prescient. While Bowie was crash-landing in Berlin with the undercarriage still up, Ferry got himself a proper tailor and a booking at the Ritz for a far more graceful landing. Every rocker of a certain age has picked up on his style, from Eric Clapton to Rod Stewart: a great cut suit, a shaded stare and a sense that the parties are drawing to a close. If a man's career must fade, it might as well be in the cocktail hour.
Avalon, Roxy Music's swan song, featured Ferry's future wife on the cover (again) who would split from him (again), but this time with her back turned to the viewer: an mutual invitation to enjoy the sunset. The single 'More Than This' turned up in Sofia Coppola's movie Lost in Translation, warbled in a karaoke bar by Bill Murray. It was a triple irony: the art house band that had lost its cool and fallen out of fashion was now being name-checked as another art house reference... and thus became classic.
"It's a very hard song to sing," Murray says, "especially after you've had several sakis. But the music on Avalon is some of the most romantic I've ever heard. There's just something about Avalon that shows a possibility about life and about feeling that I want to remind myself of."
And for the eyeblink that constitutes a 21st century trends, at least, the old Roxy Music are back in fashion again, name-checked by bands like Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire.
In the 2006 the original members returned to the studio, this time with Eno, and the old tensions were still at work.
"The band hadn't changed one bit in terms of its internal dynamics," Eno told The Guardian. "Just the same chemistry. It made me wonder if people can ever change the chemistry between them. After all that time, the relationships seemed exactly the same."
Human tensions fuel creativity, and like so many fictional inventions, the art of Roxy Music was a compensation for human shortcomings. The cover girls and costumes emboldened the shy Ferry to express himself. With Bowie the image was clearly a mask; Ferry's achievement was to work the image until it became real, stepped back into the frame of the vision he'd created. Speaking down the phone in 1988 he sounded more than a little nostalgic when I asked how those famous 12" LP covers looked reduced to the size of a CD.
"They don't look too bad, in fact," he said. "But I guess it's time to start designing from that other size up. The other things outsell LPs now ? cassettes and CDs. One has great nostalgia for the vinyl version, of course."
(Originally published in Sunday magazine, 2008)