The first Roxy Music album begins with what sounds like a boring cocktail party being rudely yet mercifully interrupted by an urgent, machine-like piano figure. A drum roll launches the rest of the band into a lurching rave-up, with bubbling sax and screaming guitar competing for sonic bandwidth, until a young Bryan Ferry, his voice odd and manic-sounding, stumbles in-frame to tell his tale.
“I tried but I could not find a way,” he blurts, or does he say he couldn’t find a vein? Either way, the first line tells us that something weird is going on. We don’t know what, because it isn’t his words but his delivery. Ferry stutters like he’s lost and hopped up on speed. He’s on a mission to find a girl he saw a second ago but she seems to have slipped away, and all he can tell us about her is that he memorized her license plate–CPL593H. Some other hollow-eyed weirdos show up to echo the plate number and that becomes the chorus of the song.
Just when you think “Remake/Remodel” has gotten as strange as it can get and still remain a tuneful pop song, Brian Eno crashes the party with an oscillating synth that sounds like a malfunctioning jet engine. The bass jackhammers away while the sax and guitar battle it out. The synth squeals and vibrates, sending the song into overdrive, abruptly pausing and jerking back into itself until it collapses into a sweaty pile of random sonic images.
This is the Roxy Music that true fans know and love — the wildly experimental pop art band that somehow manages to build coherent, rockin’ songs using no stock parts and working in no set genre. When the eponymous Roxy Music album debuted in 1972, it stitched together the disparate sounds of Glam Rock, Psychedelia, Prog, ‘50s pop and early Disco into something altogether different, and established Roxy Music one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century.
Within a decade, a group of artists that got their start trying (and generally failing) to imitate Roxy — bands like Talking Heads, The Cars, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet — would hit gold, eventually eclipsing their idols in both riches and renown. Today, most people only know Roxy Music through their two megahits, 1975’s pulsing “Love is the Drug”, and 1982’s sultry “More Than This”. It’s a shame, because there’s so much more to the band than those two songs, but Virgin’s new box set, Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings does the ultimate job of setting the record straight.
Contained in the understated outer box are 10 CDs, comprising each of the band’s eight albums plus two bonus discs of singles and alt-mixes. Each of the CDs are faithful re-creations of the original gatefold LPs, which help showcase the band’s distinctive cover art. Coming as he did out of one of those pop-culture-factory London art schools, band leader Bryan Ferry was able to create a visual aesthetic that was sexy but innocuous — a tease that reflected little of the group’s actual sound but one that was open to any interpretation.
While it may seem odd that a band’s visual image would be constructed to deliberately not convey what the music is about, the strategy is classic Ferry, who in his lyrics and performance seems to revel in obfuscation. It also seems a calculated move, as featuring supermodels in odd and often vulnerable poses couldn’t have hurt album sales any, especially for a band that dabbled in such weird sounds and unexpected song structures.
“Chance Meeting”, for example, starts off as a languid ‘70s ballad then abruptly shifts into a bomp-shu-bomp foot tapper, like the Rolling Stones playing a Fats Domino song, until it sidesteps into a theatrical, Bowie-esque fade out. When the first and second albums were being made, all those influences were in the air, but only Roxy Music figured out how to put them all together. With a careful listen, one can hear bits that sound like ‘60s psych-rockers the Move, a dash of early ELO, a healthy slab of T. Rex and a fistful of Velvet Underground all in one song. But what’s surprising is how easy it is to hear traces of bands that hadn’t even been formed yet — bands like XTC, Television and Devo.
It’s no coincidence that a lot of the artists I’ve already mentioned jumped at the chance to work in the studio with Roxy cofounder Brian Eno. Eno left Roxy Music after the second album, but his influence thankfully remained throughout most of the band’s career. After parting with Roxy over disagreements with the control-freak Ferry, Eno went on to become one of the great avant-garde musicians and record producers of all time, lending his astute weirdness to Bowie’s “Berlin” albums; Devo’s groundbreaking Are We Not Men; three Talking Heads albums, U2’s Joshua Tree and about a million others.
Eno’s departure didn’t immediately change Roxy Music’s core sound, but it did leave Ferry very much in control of the band’s direction. Roxy’s third album, Stranded, continues where the last two left off, kicking off with a Farfisa clap-along, into a theatrical ‘70s ballad, then an off-kilter, Creedence-on-mushrooms-style jam showcasing the talent of Roxy’s underrated guitarist Phil Manzanera. Stranded gets a bit weighed down by some gloomy torch songs and a long gospel number in the middle, in which Ferry’s vibrato drones on a bit too long, but the album still ends solidly with “Mother of Pearl.”
The next album, 1974’s Country Life was something of a breakthrough, landing at #3 on the UK charts and for the first time, cracking the top 40 in the U.S. It’s in some ways a similar album to Stranded, though a bit more upbeat and danceable. The title track gives us a glimpse of Ferry’s ascension to the rock star life, which he seems to have taken to quite well. He indulges his lyrical penchant for taking sly digs at ex-girlfriends and dressing down pretentious party jerks, working in a dry humor not unlike Nick Lowe or Randy Newman. “Prairie Rose” is the alarm-bell rocker of the album, melding synths and guitars in a way that had never been done before.
It wasn’t until their fifth album, Siren, that Roxy scored its first really big single, “Love is the Drug”. It’s a song that sounds like it was released in 1985, when it actually hit the airwaves a decade earlier, giving further testament to the fact that Roxy laid the foundation for what popular music would become in the next decade.
At this point, Ferry went solo and the band sort of dissolved for a while, leaving the field open for dozens of up-and-coming new wavers to mine the vein Roxy had opened. In the four years it took for Ferry to regain his senses and get Roxy Music back in the studio to record 1979’s Manifesto, everything about pop music had changed. Glam was definitively gone, punk was already splintering, disco was dead or at least terminally ill, and the image of the “country gentleman” rock star that Ferry had so ably cultivated had become unhip at best. While Manifesto is still a great Roxy Music album, it marks the exact moment that the rest of the world caught up with their sound, and it begins the band’s transformation into a mediocre ‘80s pop group.
1980’s Flesh + Blood shows that transformation taking place. Not so much unlistenable as simply unmemorable, this album clearly puts Roxy on a softer path. Gone are the unpredictable time changes and out-of-nowhere hooks. The guitar and synth sounds are smooth and undistorted, leaving room for Ferry’s crooning to take center stage. Somehow, this ended up as their most commercially successful album, which is probably why the band is still mostly thought of as a sax-heavy, soft rock group.
In 1982, the band released their final platter, Avalon, which is led off by the quintessential ‘80s hit “More Than This”. I can’t tell you why I love this song, but I absolutely do. It hits some kind of bittersweet nostalgia button for me that I’m embarrassed to admit even exists — Bill Murray’s tone-deaf karaoke version in the movie Lost in Translation may or may not have something to do with it. But be warned: Don’t watch the official music video. Bryan Ferry’s metamorphosis into a sleazy yuppie with corny, white dance moves is incredibly painful to watch, especially if you’re a fan of Roxy Music’s earlier stuff. It doesn’t help that the rest of Avalon sounds like something you’d hear at the dentist while getting a root canal. It’s fitting that the cover art is evocative of a Viking funeral, because like the first track says, for Roxy Music, there really would be “nothing more than this” to come.
Still, this box set is solid almost all the way through. I’d have enjoyed some liner notes, but with all that’s been written elsewhere about the band, I guess that’s a small complaint. The first six albums alone are worth the price of admission, and the outtakes discs should please the diehards. If you haven’t heard a lot of Roxy Music but you love glam, prog or new wave, this collection is a great introduction to a band that took on all those genres simultaneously and influenced an entire generation of musicians.