11th December 2020
Amongst the musical confusion that began the 1970s there were a few shining lights that clearly showed where the future of popular music was headed. Roxy Music was one of the brightest. It is said that Bryan Ferry, the enigmatic vocalist, had the highly stylized look of the band, as well as the artwork for their initial album, planned and ready before they had even been offered a recording contract.
Instead of the moody, denim-clad bands of the day here were a perfectly groomed bunch of musicians clad in leather and leopard print looking as if they were on the way to an avant-garde cocktail party. Their debut album cover alone set them apart. Jon Savage expresses it perfectly in his article for The Guardian; “Before you even got to the music, the record cover was a gauntlet thrown down – an explosion of glamour in a wasteland of faded blue cotton”.
The retro-glam (and today possibly offensive) pinup stood out on the record racks. In Bryan Ferry’s own words; “What I liked about the American bands, the Stax label and Motown, they were into the presentation and show business, mohair suits, quite slick. And the cover art, I thought of all the American pop culture icons, Marilyn Monroe: selling cigarettes or beer with a glamorous image. But it was a bit off-kilter as well; there was something a bit strange about it, futuristic as well as retro. Rather that, than of a picture of the band in a dreary street looking rather sullen, which was the norm.”
Roxy Music’s music needs little introduction and most music lovers of my age have had, or still have, some of their albums in their collections. That iconic first album was produced by King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield. Ferry had auditioned as vocalist for King Crimson in 1970, and although he didn’t get the job, the band were impressed enough to get them signed to EG Records under contract to the Island label.
The album went on to reach #10 on the UK chart in 1972. Not bad for a band that had only been formed a few years earlier. Before I go into a little background let’s take a listen to Virginia Plain, the first single taken from the debut album, which peaked at #4 on the local charts. The single was released in the same week as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and both artists set the cornerstone for the Glam Rock that followed. This video is from their performance on Top of the Pops in August 1972. 😎
One can’t do a mini-feature about Roxy Music without mentioning Brian Eno. Now one of the worlds leading names in electronic music, he joined the band thanks to saxophonist and oboe player, Andy Mackay. Both MacKay and Eno were fans of avant-garde and electronic music. Eno’s credentials were that he could operate a synthesizer (a rarity at the time) and owned a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder. He initially joined as a technical advisor but was soon a permanent and integral part of the Roxy Music sound.
Eno left the band as a full-time member due to differences with Ferry soon after the promo tour for their second album, For Your Pleasure’ in 1973, but has collaborated with Ferry’s solo works, and performed with the band on occasions.
Ferry chose the name Roxy Music partly as a play on the word Rock, and also as a homage to the heyday and dance halls and cinemas and the styles of music that influenced him as a kid. He was fascinated with the era of Fred Astaire and Cole Porter and the glamour it portrayed.
This influence was carried through the band’s album covers who have been graced by the likes of Amanda Lear (Ferry’s ex-girlfriend) and Jerry Hall. Oozing glamour and perfecting his sultry stage presence, Bryan Ferry’s persona as the epitome of the suave, jaded Euro-sophisticate, was firmly entrenched on and off stage. The working-class miner’s son from the north of England had become an international star and style icon.
The second song I have chosen is from Roxy Music’s 5th album, Siren, released in 1976. Shortly after the promo tour for the album, the group disbanded for the first time, but more of that in Part 3. Here’s the band’s only US Top 40 hit written by Ferry and Andy MacKay, Love is the Drug. Ferry claims that the song came to him while taking a walk in Hyde Park kicking Autumn leaves. Whatever the origin, it is a classic. The video is from a 2001 performance at the Apollo Theatre. 😎
Roxy Music reunited in 1978 to record their 6th album, Manifesto, which was released the following year. The band were known for its revolving members and this album saw Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera (who had started in the band as their first roadie and soon found himself guitarist), and sax/oboe player Andy Mackay as original members. The album included the hits Angel Eyes and Dance Away.
The following album, Flesh + Blood hit #1 on the UK charts in 1980, but there were critics who were not overly impressed with the sophisticated change in style that Roxy Music had taken on. Rolling Stone was particularly scathing about both the Manifesto album, of which they wrote “Roxy Music has not gone disco. Roxy Music has not particularly gone anywhere else either”, and Flesh + Blood which they deemed “such a shockingly bad Roxy Music record that it provokes a certain fascination”
The last recordings from Roxy Music included their tribute single, Jealous Guy, which they released as a non-album single after John Lennon’s death. Although some of their singles had charted high over the years, Jealous Guy was to be their only #1 single.
The final album, Avalon, was a jewel in the crown for Bryan Ferry and the various line-ups of talent over the band’s career that made Roxy Music the icons they have become. The album is regarded as a classic, and any doubts as to Roxy Music’s musical credibility were put to rest. Avalon contains some of the band’s most memorable songs and became a must-have album.
The trio of founders backed by a changing line-up of support made up from previous members toured extensively until 1983 when Bryan Ferry officially dissolved the band. The members all went on to gain worldwide recognition for their solo careers.
2005 saw the band reunite to record a new album, and Ferry’s first with Brian Eno in 22 years. However, the plan was scrapped and the songs were released as Bryan Ferry’s solo album, Olympia. It included contributions from Eno, MacKay and Manzanera and some regard it as Roxy Music’s 9th album. Roxy Music was honoured for their contribution to music by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
I leave it to Tim De Lisle of The Guardian to summarise today’s band; “Roxy Music is the second most influential British band after the Beatles. Somehow, in a landscape dominated by Led Zeppelin at one end and the Osmonds at the other, they managed to reach the Top 10 with a heady mixture of futurism, retro rock’n’roll, camp, funny noises, silly outfits, art techniques, film references and oboe solos. And although their popularity has ebbed and flowed, their influence has been strikingly consistent”
Thanks for joining me for today’s look at the phenomenon that was Roxy Music. I’m closing with one of my favourites from Flesh + Blood, the beautiful Oh Yeah. 😎
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2020