Music

Counterbalance No. 107: Roxy Music's 'For Your Pleasure'

I bought you mail order, my plain wrapper baby. Your skin is like vinyl, the perfect companion. You're the 107th most acclaimed album of all time. Roxy Music's 1973 classic is this week's Counterbalance.


Roxy Music

For Your Pleasure

US Release: 1973-03-23
UK Release: 1973-03-23
Label: Island/Warner Bros.
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Mendelsohn: I'm completely confused by Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure. I'm unsure how to work it in to my musical narrative, let alone placing it contextually in the canon of great albums, so I'm just going to work it out as we go. From the outset, this album seems a little off-kilter and yet so progressive and forward-thinking that it sounds a full decade ahead of its time. There are so many opposing forces working in the music that it's hard to believe the band could make a coherent whole, and that strange dichotomy seems to be personified in the presence of Roxy's dapper frontman Bryan Ferry and the flamboyant, oddball Brian Eno.

This record is strange and wonderful. I'm left wondering why I hadn't given it much of a chance until now but I can't help thinking that a certain amount of patience and appreciation for the forebears of the punk and glam standard would first have to be cultivated. In my younger days, I don't think I would have made it past the first couple of bars of "Do the Strand" and that would have precluded me from finding the scary genius of "In Every Dream Home a Heartache", the epic grandeur of "Strictly Confidential", or the sly funk of "The Bogus Man".

My only question is, where did this album come from? Looking back to the early 1970s British rock scene, you have a rather large power vacuum created by the absence of the Beatles now slowly being filled in by the likes of David Bowie and Pink Floyd. To my ears, Roxy Music is more in line with the glam that Bowie was proffering than the bluesy space funk from Pink Floyd. Even so, For Your Pleasure seems like such a non sequitur in comparison to Dark Side of the Moon or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Or are we looking at a music supernova—an odd mix of both—where the rambling, explorative space funk ran headlong into the bright lights and glitter of the glam ethos?

Klinger: Well, it certainly seems that there are two distinct forces at work here, between the grit and glitz of glam and the more esoteric soundscaping of what critics used to call "art rock". And you're right, in one sense For Your Pleasure seems very rooted in its time, and yet it also sounds very much like something we could call the headwaters of New Wave. I've always heard a distinctly retro sensibility in glam, although sometimes it's hard to put my ear-fingers on exactly what I'm hearing that puts me in that mind. Still, I suspect it's very much there, from Mott the Hoople's "All the Way from Memphis" right up to Bryan Ferry's modified quiff. There are flavors of that all the way through For Your Pleasure as well, especially when Andy Mackay's saxophonery heads down into the honking range, like it does on "Do the Strand".


That feeling never lasts too awfully long on this album, though, as the mood usually shifts pretty abruptly into something decidedly more forward-thinking. I notice it most in "Strictly Confidential", where the big open chords of the chorus keep morphing into something somewhat otherworldly (and as Andy Mackay switches from tenor to soprano sax or even oboe). By many accounts, we have Brian Eno to thank for much of that experimentation, but it's also a function of several highly skilled musicians given the space to breathe with sympathetic arrangements and production.

Mendelsohn: This album is indeed somewhat of a showcase, not only for the competing sectors of art rock and glam but for some very talented musicians. The greatest example of that may be in "Grey Lagoons", a song that starts off as piano-driven pop as a bedrock for Ferry's warbling croon before it transmutes into a glam sax breakdown courtesy of MacKay, followed by quite possibly the best use of harmonica I've ever heard—the competing solos that Ferry strings together are simply amazing—and then we are treated to some of the glam roots you spoke of earlier, with a shedding guitar over a rootsy, rockabilly piano work out before the song drops back into the rollicking pop groove. I didn't expect any of that, and the first time I made it through the album I wasn't sure what I had just heard.


Looking for this record it's easy to spot the elements that would turn into New Wave over the next decade—Roxy Music's influence is spread over the music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s like so much Nutella over toast. But for a band that had so much influence, and so much talent, I never really saw too many bands past the mid-1980s reaching back to Roxy Music for inspiration. Did they become lost in the breaking crest of New Wave or am I just not familiar enough with the band to recognize the genetic material that has survived over the following decades?

Klinger: I'd say it's entirely likely that many American listeners just never made the connection. I know that my initial experience with the group only made it as far as occasional airings of "Avalon" and "More Than This" during the early days of MTV and maybe the odd appearance of "Love Is the Drug" on the radio (or am I imagining that?). Overseas, their name was a good bit better known, even if they were occasionally lumped in with the rest of the glam movement.

But because they lacked many of the yobbish tendencies of, say, Slade or Mott the Hoople (two groups I love unabashedly, by the way), they might not have been looked at as askance by the punk and post-punk movements. The Guardian paper in the UK called them the second most-influential British band, (I can't remember who the most influential group was. Freddie and the Dreamers? Something like that.) and Morrissey cites For Your Pleasure as the only great British album. (Although he later rescinded his Roxy love after Bryan Ferry came out as a supporter of fox hunting. As one does.)

Mendelsohn: So it seems that my lack of knowledge concerning Roxy Music doesn't stem from my laziness; rather, it arises out of my cultural upbringing of not being British. Good to know. As we've made our way through the Great List, we've encountered that disconnect many times to varying degrees. It is well-documented that the list is made up of mostly American and British recording artists, but I'm always surprised by how much difference there is in reaction to a record depending on what side of the pond you find yourself on. Do you think, due to the UK's musical upbringing with pastoral folk and heavy doses of whimsy—as opposed to the blues and cynicism of American rock 'n' roll—that our British counterparts are more open to the glam and grandeur of Roxy Music? Did it just miss the mark for American listeners?

Klinger: Something tells me that American rock audience (and that likely includes critics of the time) were a little too hung up to really get behind the suave sybaritic sounds of Roxy Music. It couldn't have helped that the band was often dressed like a bizarre hybrid of The Rocky Horror Show and Sha Na Na (we prefer our androgyny to be a little earthier—you know, more like Mick Jagger or Robert Plant).

Nevertheless, Roxy's sound clearly did make its way into our consciousness, albeit gradually, in the artsier New York scene half a decade later. In his masterful defense of Roxy Music, critic Tim DeLisle even points to Chic adopting Bryan Ferry and company's bespoke sophistication. I hear their musical harkening back to eras past in Blondie's amalgamation of pre-Beatle pop and herky-jerky rhythms. Sadly, no one appears to have used "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" to bring to life a musical subgenre related to blow-up dolls, but there's always time.


And I know I've said it before, but ultimately this is one of the real benefits of rock criticism in general and big crazy lists like this one. For every time we find ourselves bemoaning the hegemony of another Dylan album or another Stones album, there's a chance we'll come across something like this that has the potential to make someone dig in a little bit deeper and discover something new. I like to think that one of those people will be some teenage kids somewhere, and they might use these charts to navigate their way through the music—and maybe come up with a new classic all their own.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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