Published Feb 01, 2000In the dubious jargon of radio programming, if it's from the 70s, it's classic rock, and if it's from the '80s, it's retro rock, which may mean that no one cared about being alternative in '70s, even when they were, and everyone called themselves alternative in the '80s, even when they weren't. Looking at and listening to the first wave of reissues of Roxy Music's back catalogue (Bryan Ferry's solo catalogue is also being reissued) - 1972's self-titled debut, 1973's For Your Pleasure andStranded , 1974's Country Life and 1975's Siren - their most significant legacy may be that they defined the '80s... by 1974.
Their visual style informed the look of new wave, music videos, album cover art and early '80s fashion: dayglo makeup; high-concept hair; Nagel prints plastered over both undergrad residence walls and Duran Duran covers; and a stylised, aggressively trashy kind of sexiness totally at odds with their time's earthier elements of sexuality.
The sound and visual style of new romantics - Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls and ABC among them - owed a lot to Roxy Music. The pop grooves spiralling out of swirling synths and the clipped whine of high-pitched guitars were predated by Roxy's "Both Ends Burning." If it seemed strange that by the time Roxy's "Same Old Scene" was a minor hit in 1980, they sounded like every other haircut band out there, that's only because the rest of the music world caught up.
"I didn't really know those bands, but they certainly followed the visuals of Roxy Music," says Ferry over the phone as he lounges a little uncomfortably in an outsized corporate boardroom somewhere in Manhattan. "But when I met some of the people from Duran Duran, they said they had been influenced by Roxy Music - they told me that they had seen us play in the '70s and asked us for autographs, which was very sweet of them. There's been a bit of a resurgence in bands influenced by us with people like Blur and especially Pulp. I think Jarvis Cocker is really quite a gifted songwriter. One of his songs, 'Common People' - I wish I'd written that one."
You could probably also add the likes of Urge Overkill and Shudder To Think to a more contemporary list, two bands that credibly reproduced Roxy's dandyism and tongue-in-cheek, artful sleaziness, and like Roxy Music, their artier ambitions translate best when sleek and oily, not creaking under the weight of contrivance. That genuine ambition to produce something unique and lasting may be why Roxy Music remains revered in many circles, while the legions of pouting nasal-toned crooners they helped spawn have long since been relegated to footnotes.
On the other hand, much that is regrettable about Roxy Music is due to their frequent overreaching. Every one of their albums contains songs that convince me of their genius, and others that make me cringe. Relentless, churning songs like "Both Ends Burning" andCountry Life 's "Thrill of It All" (with a discofied string arrangement well before its time in 1974) and bittersweet ballads likeFor Your Pleasure 's "Beauty Queen," whose loveliness is more easily felt than described, sit jostling next to self-consciously arty songs where overdone whimsy mars the kernels of good songs. Their evocations of the archaically elegant were also as likely as not to land with a thud or descend into outright goofiness of the proggiest sort -Country Life 's absurd "Triptych" sounds like something Jethro Tull might have scored forLord of the Rings.
But Ferry, whose studies in Fine Art at Newcastle University in the '60s helps account for his artier inclinations, is still surprised that Roxy Music's ambitions took the band as far as it did. "I think my background in art school was a really good preparation for what we did with Roxy Music. I was concerned with doing things that were good and interesting and artistically valid, and luckily, I found some very sympatico people to work with. One reason it all moved so quickly and we were so prolific at first was that we all got on so well, and we had lots of enthusiasm. None of us had been in bands before, and we didn't have families, so we had a lot more time to devote to the band. And we were quite ambitious to make an impact, but we were really surprised to achieve mainstream success so quickly. I mean, we thought we'd be appealing to an art school audience, but we crossed over immediately - 'Virginia Plain' was our first single, and it went Top 10."
Ferry was especially intrigued by pop art, yet another resonance of Roxy Music with '80s culture. The '80s were, perhaps, the most Warholian of decades in its love of celebrity, poses and surfaces, and Ferry devoted a lot of effort to the surface of Roxy Music's records. In keeping with the continually blurring lines between kitsch and culture, between product and art, Ferry's concept for Roxy's debut was to put a fold-out pin-up girl on the cover. The results were eye-grabbing and pleasing enough for him that what followed was a series of album sleeves graced by semi-satirical cover girl scenarios: luridly made up models in sheer lingerie or spilling through shiny fabrics and a scantily clad Jerry Hall lolling about a craggy shoreline on the Siren cover.
"The colourful sleeves we did looked quite garish and shocking at the time. Our record covers seem very tasteful now when you look back at them. Music is really worked on visually now. It's all on the television, and music magazines are also very different now. In the '70s, the only music magazines were Melody Maker andNME , which ran only black and white live shots, but now there are countless lifestyle and music magazines with photo shoots in studios. I've often thought it was a real pity that there were no music videos during our early years, because we could have done some very good videos."
Flamboyant and colourful, Roxy Music certainly were. After all, during his two-year tenure with Roxy Music, Brian Eno dressed like a peacock with the awkwardly elongated carriage of an ostrich. But Ferry still bristles ever so politely when the inevitable glam rock tag is mentioned.
"I like the glamour of cinema, but not glam as a music movement."
"I think we were very much on the fringe of the glam scene. We felt we were pioneering a new kind of music that was influenced by many different kinds of music. But I do like the glamour of cinema - our name came from the Roxy Cinema - and I like the idea of escapist music, even if I didn't like the idea of being associated with glam as a music movement."
Having six of his songs on the soundtrack for Todd Haynes's recent film ode to that era, Velvet Goldmine , won't diminish Roxy Music's iconic status in glam lore, but Ferry was game to see the film, and actually attended with Eno, who has two songs on the soundtrack.
"To be honest, that was our main interest in the movie," Ferry laughs with a ribald snort. "We don't often get to hear our music in a cinema. It was quite an authentic-looking movie, although I found the story to be a bit boring. It was probably about a half-hour longer than it needed to be, but I suppose I think that about most movies."
The idea of the middle-aged Ferry and Eno amicably taking in a movie about glam rock together sounds like a perfect, full-circle coda to their careers. They were the creative engine of early Roxy Music, but in a famous case of one band being too small for two swelling egos, they became estranged from each other, and Eno left the band after For Your Pleasure to pioneer ambient music. So more's the surprise Ferry and Eno are happily working together again, having recently recorded a number of tracks that Ferry hopes will be released next year. Still, Ferry recalls the collapse of their early partnership with regret.
"When two people work intensely, tempers flare and egos clash, especially when you're young and foolish." -Bryan Ferry on Brian Eno
"When two people are working together intensely, tempers tend to flare and egos clash, especially when you're young and foolish," Ferry says ruefully. "It's a pity, really, because I think we were actually quite good for each other."
Growing Old Gracefully?
But it's hard to imagine Eno sitting still for the recording ofAvalon , Roxy Music's last studio album. Avalon also remains their best-selling and most enduring, despite (or because of) being their most anomalous album - few experiments, no hard-driving songs, and a mood more melancholy than cynical. If early Roxy Music was a collection of voluptuously gaudy objets d'art , Avalon was one of those tasteful paintings of cherubs lounging among the columns of a ruined temple, expanding upon the neo-classical decadence ushered in byFlesh and Blood . It's especially strange that "Avalon" has become a wedding standard, putting Roxy Music in the unlikely company of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and Chicago's tuneless dirge, "Colour My World." Strange because so many of Roxy Music's songs were ambivalent at best about romance, treating it as tentative, recreational or transactional.
"I'm constantly meeting people in airports who tell me how much Avalon meant to them, which I was always find surprising and touching. It had a very beautiful and luscious romantic mood, which was what I was trying to achieve at the time. It's kind of an abstract album, too, sort of misty and drifting, which is partly why we called itAvalon . You know, as I was listening to the remastered versions of some of the songs fromAvalon , I thought it would be nice for us to get together again and play them. I think they're rather under-performed songs," he says in a disarmingly, understatedly cocky turn of phrase, before adding that he has indeed spoken with guitarist Phil Manzanera and sax player Andy MacKay about a possible reunion.
In the meantime, we have his latest solo album, As Time Goes By , a collection of 15 standards and torch songs, most from the 1930s. If you went by the Roxy Music of the early '70s, Ferry would not have made a good candidate to grow old gracefully, but that's just another of the many paradoxes surrounding Ferry - the artist who was so forward-looking in spearheading art rock and defining a sound for a decade yet to come, was also singing the touchstones of the '30s and '40s as early as his 1973 solo album,These Foolish Things .
Ferry has always been a crooner at heart, but the most striking thing about As Time Goes By is its sheer pointlessness. "The Way You Look Tonight," "I'm In the Mood For Love," "Love Me or Leave Me," "September Song" - we've heard these songs played this way a million times, and Ferry performs them as if poised in front of a suspension microphone in a Depression-era radio station. When people like Elvis Costello, Nick Cave or Polly Harvey take on such material, it's a case of the singer reinventing the material; Ferry sounds like he's being reinterpreted by these songs, which may be partly his intention.
"As a singer, it's great, from time to time, to do songs with a lasting quality, and it's simply a treat to be able to tackle the 'great songs.' I also wanted to do an acoustic record because it would be a nice break from the computers and technology I tend to work with at my studio every day. It's also a nice change to do things in what seems like an authentic way. I really enjoyed the fact that you can hear the vocals clearly, and the lyrics and melodies of these songs are great, and it was also good to get away from all the groove-based music I usually do. I think the '30s were the flowering of the popular song. Broadway and film musicals were a great platform for these sorts of songs. A lot of those songwriters had jazz or conservatory backgrounds, so they could find these wonderful chords."
Over a quarter-century of a career built largely on the casual S&M of jaded love songs (think "Slave to Love"), the relative innocence of '30s pop songs gives Ferry a vacation from his own style. If As Time Goes By strikes one as pointless and superfluous, it's also a very personal album in a backhanded way.
"That's the difference between my lyrics and these ones. These songs from the '30s are direct and shamelessly naïve in a way, and very beautiful. [Marlene Dietrich's signature song] 'Falling In Love Again' is so direct, whereas if I was writing it, even today, I'd have to make it ironic and full of double entendres."