This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Half a century! Can it really be 50 years since six odd-bods without a recording contract booked a studio in Piccadilly to make an LP which still sounds as odd as a cat with two tails? It takes some believing what a thin year 1972 was for pop music. As David Hepworth has written persuasively in Never A Dull Moment, 1971 supplied a veritable harvest. That was the last roar of the Sixties, without the nonsense that accompanied the flower power period.
Grizzled old-timers were not impressed
The following year was terrible. Guitar bands, the heavy brigade, prog-rockers, and a flotilla of singer-songwriters cast a long shadow over 1972. Or, to put skin on the bones of this dismal parade, it was the year of Wishbone Ash, Deep Purple, Yes and Cat Stevens.
Thank goodness for Roxy Music.
It was Bryan Ferry, a sometime art teacher, who led the team into Command Studios that spring to flesh out nine songs he had written. Island Records, who had been sniffing around, swiftly added them to the label’s roster, and that first LP, called Roxy Music, was released in June.
Two months later, when “Virginia Plain” reached number four in the charts, and the band camped it up on Top of the Pops, they were a phenomenon. Groups in those days were supposed to reach maturity by spending months on the road. This quirky bunch, knowing and playful, had conquered without appearing to try. Roxy Music: even the name suggested a world unknown.
Grizzled old-timers were not impressed. Bob Harris, presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, the late night music show on BBC2, called them “cold”. Long-haired supporters of rock and “progressive” music, who had turned in their kaftans for RAF greatcoats, thought they were too clever by half. Which is partly why those of us who were aged thirteen that year, looking for something we could claim as our own, warmed to these odd ducks.
Later that year, having bought Roxy Music at Rare Records in Manchester during Michaelmas half-term, I returned to school delighted to be blazing a trail. A house prefect five years senior, familiar with those boring rockers, took one look inside the cover, and, noting Ferry and pals pouting in all manner of poses, proclaimed: “Look at this, everybody. Henderson has bought a record by a bunch of homos!”
And that was before you got to the actual sound. When Richard Williams, the journalist who discovered Roxy, played the demo tape that Ferry had left at his flat, he may have felt like Livingstone at Victoria Falls. They sounded, he said, like five bands playing at once.
Here was a group that defied categorisation, from the opening bars of “Remake/Remodel”. That first track, which featured a chorus of a car number plate, “CPL 593H”, was nothing less than a call to arms, with feathers and eyeliner.
It was also the summer that David Bowie’s career took off. In fact, Ziggy Stardust was released on the same day, 16 June, as that first Roxy disc. But Bowie had been around for four years. Roxy came from nowhere and sounded like no other.
Ferry’s vibrato, in a year dominated by David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, rang like a bell from some faraway realm. That wasn’t the half of it. On “Ladytron”, the second track on that debut LP, Andy Mackay weaved his oboe into the texture of a rock band. An oboe!
You felt as though you belonged to a special club
Mackay had read English at Reading University. Phillip Targett-Adams, the roadie-turned-guitarist, was the son of a diplomat and a Colombian mother whose surname, Manzanera, he assumed for the stage. Brian Eno, like Ferry an art student, emerged from the world of sonic experimentalism. His self-imposed role, until Ferry tired of it, was “doodler-in-chief”. Musically, and socially, here were exotic fruits.
The captain of the ship was forged in two very different worlds. Ferry, born in County Durham to a father who looked after ponies at the local pit, had studied art at Newcastle University with the pop collagist, Richard Hamilton. Roxy Music, for its founder, was constructed as a collage in human form.
Ferry loved the American popular song in all its guises, black and white, old and new, and sought a way of arranging those elements into something fresh. “Virginia Plain” was a refraction of mythical Americana (“where my Studebaker takes me”) through the eyes of one who grew up in the north of England after the Second World War.
Yet the most important feature of this musical laboratory came from the back, where Paul Thompson provided a steady beat behind the drums. It was Thompson, who was labouring on a building site when he went for his audition, who ensured that Roxy never became another art school band. This meshing of musical styles and human personalities made them unique, and those first three albums (the last made without Eno, who was ousted in the summer of 1973) still sound remarkable. If you got in early, as some of us did, you felt as though you belonged to a special club, and like all clubs one of the perks of membership is the opportunity to keep others out.
Oh, what fun to be at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 28 October 1973! It was a misty Sunday evening, a week before Bonfire Night, and Manchester had not yet emerged from its post-industrial fog. But here, and in other northern cities, Roxy planted their flags of conquest before loyal audiences.
An American limousine (perhaps a Studebaker) drew up outside the hall that night, and out stepped a group of men and women togged up for one of Jay Gatsby’s Long Island parties where revellers cavorted to “yellow cocktail music”. People did not dress like that to hear the Doobie Brothers.
That tour was Ferry’s shining hour. It was the month he assumed Humphrey Bogart’s identity from Casablanca, the identity he had stolen in sound on that first LP with the homage “2HB”: “white jacket, moon, black tie, wings too”. He sauntered on to the stage in Manchester as the band played the introductory bars to “Street Life”, just in time to “wish everybody would leave me alone”.
Nobody left him alone that autumn. “Street Life” shot up the charts and its parent LP, Stranded, concluded Roxy’s rise to the summit. They were the cleverest, wittiest band of all, and if you said they were also the most self-conscious, whose studied difference was almost a provocation to non-believers, they wouldn’t have offered much of an argument. Yes indeed, that night in Manchester was one to remember.
You can have too much of a good thing
There was one more evening, in April 1974, at the Floral Hall in Southport; a warm-up gig for a tour of America, which (quelle surprise) never took to Roxy. But the bloom was beginning to fade. Ferry had launched a solo career, which took up more of his time, and the songs lost their tartness. Although “All I Want is You” (October 1974) and “Love is the Drug” (October 1975) were perfectly good pop songs they represented a retreat from the high ground of “A Song for Europe”.
When they parted in the summer of 1976 they had left me behind. Eighteen months it lasted, that golden period of discovery; long enough for their purpose, and mine.
They reappeared in the early Eighties as a pop group, and enjoyed considerable success. Avalon, released in 1982, was an international triumph. Even Americans bought it. To this day I have never heard a bar. Roxy were a different group, playing to a different crowd. When a friend offered a ticket to hear them in Manchester I wasn’t tempted. We move on. Pop was only ever a gateway to the world of music for me, never the world itself.
Nor have I returned very often to those early records, which isn’t to say they don’t have their place. It may not be Keats on reading Chapman’s Homer, but the echoes of “Remake/Remodel” will always linger, no matter how poorly that groundbreaking album was recorded. That amateur spirit — “let’s do the show right here” — was part of its charm.
Which song defined that early style most faithfully? It must be “Do The Strand”, the first track on the second album, For Your Pleasure, where Ferry’s name-dropping was a cheeky wink even to those of us, the overwhelming majority, who had never heard of Cole Porter or Nijinsky:
Had your fill of quadrilles?
The Madison, and cheap thrills?
Bored of the beguine?
The samba isn’t your scene?
But playing our tune …
Ha ha! In March 1973 it was certainly “our tune”, out of bounds to all who had not supped from the silver chalice. As Larkin wrote in his poem “For Sidney Bechet”: “Oh play that thing!”
You can have too much of a good thing, and the industry that has subsequently grown up around Roxy, with crimpers, stylists and assorted hangers-on waffling about days of yore, can be tiresome. But I didn’t think that when I saw Ferry driving down the King’s Road in 1973. He was touched by something special that year, and those who caught Roxy in their pomp will never disown their inheritance.
It was a grand club, the Roxy fellowship, and I was proud to be a founder member.
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