Friday, April 16, 2021

Roxy Music: Where to begin, exactly?

1973: Thompson, Mackay, Ferry, Manzanera, bassist John Porter, Eno

Geezer Bob and I have been discussing debut albums over at Geezerology on YouTube, and I cited the first Roxy Music LP, released in 1972, as one that was particularly innovative and impactful. The band's brand of experimental rock and alien sense of style reverberated for years through the British pop scene.

That was all news to Bob, who had never had any exposure to Roxy beyond their racy album covers and their hit single "Love is the Drug" that broke them through in the States later in the decade. During our discussion, Bob expressed an interest in looking into Roxy. After we finished recording Sunday, I shared with him a YouTube video from that era of Roxy performing "Re-Make/Re-Model," the chaotic, rocking opening track of the debut. Bob said he really appreciated the band's "serious rock chops" though he was turned off a bit by Brian Eno's "weird noise."

So that got me to thinking about what might be the best approach to easing Bob into the world of Roxy. I am on a pretty good run -- two in a row -- introducing Bob to music I think he might like. The Velvet Underground was an easy one, I tossed the fairly straightforward rocker Loaded at him, and he loved it. Tom Waits was a little trickier, but we scored with the bluesy rock of Heartattack and Vine.

Roxy Music, though, might be a tough one. The problem here is that Roxy went through three distinct phases in their 11-year recording career, so it's hard to pick a particular album that could be called classic Roxy, or even typical Roxy.

The first phase -- the Brian Eno era, covering the first two albums -- featured some of the bounciest rock-and-roll bangers the group ever performed. At the same time, this period is notable for some of the most adventurous and daring music anyone was performing at the time. Eno's "treatments" -- his term, and his only official credit on the albums -- were essentially weird electronic noises that pierced through the the band's densely layered sounds. You could rock out hard to Roxy's first two albums, but you could also be caught completely off-guard trying to figure out what exactly was going on.

1975: Jobson, Thompson, Manzanera, Ferry, Gustafson, Mackay

The second phase -- the Eddie Jobson era, covering the middle three albums -- pulled back both on the ballsy rock-and-roll and the wild electronic experimentation. Jobson, a classically trained musician when he joined the band as a teen-ager, was as central to Roxy's sound as Eno had been. But now the use of keyboards was noticeably more conventional, and Eno's electronic beeps and boops were replaced by Jobson's piercing violin. Phil Manzanera had learned some electronic distortion tricks from Eno, and he and Jobson could make some crazy sounds together. Free of Eno's strong experimental influence, frontman and songwriter Bryan Ferry became the undisputed star in this era. Roxy Music still was an adventurous band during this time, but the edges became noticeably softer.

1982: Manzanera, Ferry, Mackay

The third phase -- the reboot era, covering the final three albums -- was all about servicing Ferry's career as a suave adult-contemporary crooner. Roxy had disbanded as Ferry turned his focus to his solo career. But the band reformed after about three years with Ferry, Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay and drummer Paul Thompson as a surprisingly conventional pop-music outfit. These records are more typical of Ferry's solo catalog than they are of Roxy Music's. I find it troubling that this stuff is what most American listeners now identify as Roxy Music. It's not at all what I call Roxy Music.

Ferry put the band together in 1971 with Eno, Mackay, guitarist Roger Bunn, bass player Graham Simpson and drummer Dexter Lloyd. Roxy subsequently went through several lineup changes, even before the first album was recorded. Ferry and Mackay were the only constants start to finish. Manzanera became the band's third guitarist by the time the debut was recorded and remained throughout. Thompson, the second drummer, was on every album until the last two, when Roxy officially was a trio (Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay) augmented by session and touring musicians. They went through bass players like Spinal Tap went through drummers. 

So where do you go if you want to start exploring Roxy Music? I have no concrete answer for that -- it all depends on which of these three phases fit best for your personal taste. For mine, I'll list them here in reverse order -- my least favorite to my favorite. My best advice would be to just start with the No. 1 on this list and work your way up the ladder.

No. 8. Avalon (May 1982):
Ugh, I really do not like this record at all. It was the final Roxy Music album, and the one that seems to most identified with them now. It reached No. 1 in the UK, their second chart-topper in a row. On the US Billboard 200, though, it topped out at No. 53, only their fifth-best chart performance here. Three singles from Avalon did not do well here, never cracking the top 100. So I don't know why it has such strong identification except that it turns up in every best-albums-ever list. It's just an album full of Ferry crooning over the same canned, atmospheric rhythm track from start to finish. There's not much variation at all, and Manzanera and Mackay are just part of the wall of sound. Definitely not my cup of tea.

No. 7. Flesh and Blood (May 1980):
Another UK No. 1 album, it hit No. 35 in the States. This, to me, was Roxy's jump-the-shark album. I used to consider this the worst, but I changed my mind when I went through the catalog in the past week. This one jumped past Avalon because there is some signs of life on this album. "Same Old Scene" and "Over You" are decent tracks. Everything else, including covers of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" and The Byrds' "Eight Miles High," is disposable.

No. 6. Manifesto (March 1979):
The first album by the rebooted Roxy, and the band's highest-charting in the US, hitting No. 23. This is the final album with drummer Paul Thompson, who wanted no part of where Roxy was heading (though he did join the touring band of 2001-11). I liked this album and listened to it quite a bit when it first came out. It was definitely a different Roxy Music than I was used to, now more of a poppy dance band. As I remember, this was one of the first albums with heavy use of drum machines and that crystal-clean, sterile production technique that became so prevalant in the following decade. The production is credited to the band. Manifesto is loaded with ear worms like "Angel Eyes" and "Dance Away." The title track, which opens the album, and "Spin Me Round," the closer, actually do sound like something resembling the Roxy Music of old. This album sounds really dated now. But it's the only one of the final three that I find worth revisiting.

No. 5. Country Life (November 1974):
The band's fourth album, it hit No. 37 in the US, No. 3 in the UK. This is a strong collection of mid-period Roxy Music songs, but the production -- credited to Chris Thomas, John Punter and Roxy Music -- is terrible. It's so muddy and dense that I find it hard to listen to. Critical reviews were great, and a lot of people consider this their favorite Roxy Music album. The outstanding songs, especially on the front half, are among the band's best -- "The Thrill of it All," "All I Want is You," "Out of the Blue." But I have a hard time drilling through the annoyingly compressed mix.

No. 4. Roxy Music (June 1972):
The debut hit No. 10 in the UK but never charted here. It really is a remarkable album, especially in the context of its time. Tracks like "Re-Make/Re-Model," "If There is Something" and "Would You Believe?" represent some of the hardest-driving rock-and-roll that came out of the glam era. But some of the experimental excesses can make it a tough listen overall. "The Bob (Medley)" is excruciating. "Sea Breezes" is a little much at seven minutes. Ferry later expressed some annoyance with Peter Sinfield's production and reworked a few of these songs for his 1976 solo LP, "Let's Stick Together."

No. 3. For Your Pleasure (March 1973):
Roxy's second album, the last one with Eno, hit No. 4 in the UK and barely cracked the US chart, reaching No. 193. For Your Pleasure represents a great balance of the Eno and Ferry influences, some great rock songs spiced with a healthy dose of Eno's electronic experimentation. "Do the Strand," "Editions of You" and "Grey Lagoons" are exceptional Roxy bangers. "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" is the iconic track of the Eno days, a perfect blend of Ferry's offbeat songwriting and vocal delivery and Eno's processing of the band's hard-driving rock. But there is a big misstep here with "The Bogus Man," a noisy nine-minute-plus jam that gets torturous after about a minute-30. That track is the only reason this is not one of my two favorite Roxy Music albums.

No. 2. Stranded (November 1973):
The third Roxy Music album, the band's first of three chart-toppers in the UK. It fizzled here at No. 186. Eno long has said that Stranded is his favorite Roxy Music album even though it's the first one he wasn't on. Ferry, and the rest of the band, seem really confident for the first time, probably because everyone is free to breathe without having everything they do filtered through Eno's treatments. Manzanera and Mackay are credited here with their own "treatments." This is the first of three albums featuring a stable lineup of Ferry, Mackay, Manzanera, Thompson, Jobson and bassist John Gustafson. The songs are Ferry's strongest to date, and he is at the top of his game with his challenging and innovative vocal delivery. All the performances are more straightforward than before. There's less unbridled chaos, replaced for the most part with a consistent mid-tempo slow burn with occasional explosions of freakout guitars, saxophones and violins. I go back and forth on whether this is my favorite Roxy Music album. It's almost perfect, though not quite there.

No. 1 Siren (October 1975):
The fifth Roxy album, the last one before the band's first dissolution. It hit No. 4 in the UK and No. 50 in the US. "Love is the Drug" hit No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100, the band's only single to crack the Top 40 here. Siren always competes with Stranded as my favorite Roxy album, and it comes out on top every time I listen to it. It is without question the closest to the center Roxy came in their outstanding five-album run of the first half of the decade. The "treatments" are gone, replaced by strictly organic instrumentation. The extreme highlights as well as the extreme lowlights of the previous albums are gone. But the songwriting and the musical performances and the production by Chris Thomas are consistently outstanding. "Love is the Drug," the opening track, really is the low point. It's all uphill from there. Siren is the only Roxy album with no failed tracks, the closest the band came to perfection. "Sentimental Fool" is one of my two or three favorite Roxy tracks, and "Both Ends Burning" would easily crack my Top 10.

A final note:
Ferry's 1977 LP, In Your Mind, his fourth solo album, was his first with all original material. Supposedly, those songs were conceived for a sixth Roxy Music album that did not materialize. I loved this album when it was released -- it stayed in my regular rotation for years. It would have been a solid followup to Siren. As the final three Roxy albums were more like Ferry solo albums, In Your Mind is more Roxy Music than solo Ferry. Check it out.

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