In 1972 Roxy Music thought itself into being with the song ‘Re-make/Re-model’, the first track on the group’s eponymously named début album. A clutter of found sounds from a cocktail party gives way to a music hall piano riff that in turn surrenders to a barrage of frantic guitar, synthesiser, and sax playing. The hi-hat wouldn’t be out of place on a punk track and the bass is continually pulling at its leash.
The instrumental folly or controlled cacophony during the four minutes of the song is given space to express itself, thanks to a simple standard structure, and herein lies a major governing force of the band’s output, herein lies the essence that is Roxy Music. The battling instruments borrow their fighting styles from jazz typified by the solo breaks in the final third of the song and these solo breaks are themselves themed motifs and quotations. And then somewhere from the back come Bryan Ferry’s anguished vocal strains leading to the rather effete conclusion:
I could talk talk talk talk talk myself to death
But I believe I would only waste my breath
Oh show me
As we slip aimlessly from pastiche to parody, characterised by the bass guitar detuning the riff from ‘Daytripper’, the song concludes by breaking down chromatically into an exaggerated drum roll that doesn’t know quite when to end. Until, that is, Brian Eno pulls the plug on his EMS VCS3 synthesizer.
This is Roxy Music taking its place in the English pop tradition – beyond the reductive label of glam rock and the pretentiousness of art rock ‘Re-make/Re-model’ stakes its claim on the camp. The English brand of camp is not be confused with the effeminate; English camp is a deliberately theatrical aesthetic that only middle class, or even upper middle class men can afford themselves as a means of subverting the rigidity that the English class systems forces upon them.
Whether rightly or wrongly, if class is to be understood as a performance of inherited values, including inherited gendered values, then the camp positions itself as the exaggerated performance of identity that allows one to destabilise those said values. It follows then that camp allows one’s image to become, in Michael Bracewell’s words, “an agency of social mobility”.
In 1975 Ferry described Roxy Music as a “state of mind” inhabiting a “new, imaginary world”. This definition seems to confirm the group’s place in the English logic – only two years later in 1977, the year of English punk, Seamus Heaney famously wrote about ‘Englands of the mind’. And later in his book Understanding the United Kingdom: The Territorial Dimension in Government (1982), Richard Rose simply defined England itself as a state of mind, perhaps revealing himself as a Roxy Music fan.
Of course, this definition pulls the received ideas of grand narratives on nationality out from under our feet and equally subtracts any notion of the physical reality of territorial borders from the equation. We find ourselves immediately thrust into a state of inbetweenness or, to pick up on a description used by Michael Bracewell in the introduction to his extremely detailed account of the origin of Roxy Music and their defining first album, “a hitherto hidden and instantly desirable demi-monde”. The revelation of this demi-monde is an instance of the marginal forcing a gap in the mainstream and expressing itself both as subject and object, as self and other.
Bracewell’s book, Re-Make / Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music (2007), makes much effort to stress this state of perpetually shifting fusion that the imaginary allows us and that Roxy Music exploit. The opening chapter focuses on Ferry’s early life and takes a moment to consider the year 1956, when Ferry was just ten years old: this was the year that the first jazz record entered the UK top 20 and equally the year Richard Hamilton collaged PopArt into existence at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition entitled ‘This is Tomorrow’.
Part of the exhibition was the poster for the film The Forbidden Planet, featuring Robby the Robot carrying “a swooning, mini-dressed blonde starlet”—technology made camp as the Lips from The Rocky Horror Picture Show remind us, “ooh ooh ooh”. In fact Robby would become a template for camp mechanical beings from C3PO to Marvin the depressed robot in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. All three of these robots seem to suffer from their not-quite-beingness which may be understood as an underlying trait of what it is to inhabit the slippery notion of Englishness itself.
This collision of jazz and PopArt, and the later electric influence of white American rock ‘n’ roll, would plant a seed in young Ferry’s imagination and would “reappear in their mutated, concentrated form in Ferry’s early pop vision.” In fact, it is here that Bracewell sees the notion of identity performance pushed to beyond its limit, what I have chosen to call camp rock, that is “the idea of music being performed as a total event – its sensory power compressed to capacity; the image, sound and demeanour of the musicians achieving an eruptive, above all startling, display of bravura effect.”
There are other overt instances of the camp that manifest themselves in Bracewell’s narrative, most noticeably Ferry’s intrigue with cycling that Bracewell qualifies as the “continental chic of the cycling jerseys”, “ the masculine elegance of the bikes” and the “Gallic sophistication of Tour de France magazine”. This translates into the birth of an interest in uniforms that would characterise Ferry’s take on dandyism, from the Edwardian velvet jackets of the teddy boys to militarism to the pose of Mod with its nod to jazz and existentialism.
This fundamentally English fashion for ‘dressing up’ would eventually evolve into androgyny where, as Bracewell puts it, “‘queerness’ would become far broader metaphors of identity and outlook – filtered through fashion and music to become public statements of otherness and fashionability”. This was the moment when David Bowie let Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars loose upon the Earth to great critical acclaim and commercial success. And just ten days later Roxy Music released their début album.
There is another essential manifestation of inbetweenness that Bracewell underlines — the cityscape of Newcastle that was the backdrop of Ferry’s formative years. Bracewell’s vision of Newcastle as a mixture between the weight of a fraught tradition and the promise of a fresh popular culture may still hold true today, but what he seems to be alluding to here is more than a sense of flux, he is alluding to a physical tension between the architectural presence of the past and a palpable change in taste and fashion.
This sense of structural paradox would find itself formalised in the very first architecture section of the Venice Biennial art exhibition of 1980 entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’, as if echoing the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition held a quarter of a century earlier. Of course, it was at this particular Venice Biennial that architecture truly defined the tools of postmodernism as irony and parody, tools that allow for a perspective that goes back beyond modernism’s break with history and gives way to the exploration of the past as a nostalgia free zone, or as the radical architect Paolo Portoghesi put it, “The past whose presence we claim is not a golden age to be recuperated”.
Bracewell’s take on Roxy Music’s “nostalgia for earlier glamour”, I would argue, appears then to be mistaken. It seems quite clear that Roxy Music positioned themselves as postmodern: boundary blurring, self-reflexive, both serious in an art rock vein and playful in a glam rock vein—perhaps they could even be seen as injecting seriousness into glam rock and playfulness into art rock. Musically the band continually explore a past governed by a folk and music hall tradition but use this as a means of letting loose their own futurist tendencies. Indeed, you only need to listen to ‘Ladytron’ to get a sense of this; or to quote from ‘Re-make Re-model’, “looking back all I did was look away”.
And yet Bracewell insists on trying to show how Roxy Music are caught between on the one hand a sense of modernism and on the other a romantic sensibility, and this is one of the two flaws of his otherwise extremely well-researched tale of the genesis of the Roxy Music album.
Contrary to what notions of modernism and romanticism might infer, there is no real sense of solitude or alienation on this album, and as Linda Hutcheon remarks, “the postmodern artist was clearly no longer the inarticulate, silent, alienated creator figure of the Romantic or even modernist tradition”. Bracewell is right to explore in some depth Ferry’s fascination with the work of Marcel Duchamp, the French surrealist and Dadaist. Quoting Jonathan Takiff’s 1974 article for the Philadelphia Daily News headlined, ‘A Cross Between Marcel Duchamp and Smokey Robinson?’, Bracewell understands Ferry’s references to Duchamp as contributing “a further finesse to his pop vision – an awareness of artistic process, and the resonance of myth.”
Ferry is then cited himself saying that he likes the idea of Duchamp “taking something like a bicycle wheel and just placing it in a different context and putting his signature on it.” This is the beginning of PopArt, Duchamp moving modernism onto something else through his experimentation with quotation and the distance that parody affords. Indeed, this is the becoming of postmodernism.
The other aspect of the book that perhaps appears lacking is the space Bracewell gives the music. Much room is accorded to extensive extracts from original interviews with the main actors as well as influential peripheral players of the early Roxy Music era, and these open up vast tracts of hinterlands to explore if we are already sold on the music of the band. But if you are looking to learn more about the actual tracks the group produced in their initial years, then this may not be the place to start.
There is no doubt, however, that this is a book packed with insights into the nascent Roxy mindset, and one should not forget the subtitle of the book is ‘Becoming Roxy Music’. The success of the book is in its underlining of the huge influence that Ferry had on the group with regards to both their aesthetic and musical influences. Critics often focus on Eno’s input, on his genius as a soundscapist and how he made Roxy Music. This is the demystifying power of Bracewell’s book and this gives it great credibility. But Bracewell is also quick to underline how Ferry and Eno were in osmosis at this early stage in their careers and how they both understood that Roxy Music was indeed a becoming, a process of releasing serious artistic ideas into the mainstream.
Ferry’s adventure with the fine arts from Duchamp to his first night in London spent in David Hockney’s flat in Notting Hill are fundamental in shaping the performance of Roxy Music. Ferry wanted to become a fine artist, but was also fuelled by his urge to write songs, and he would try to reconcile these strands through Roxy Music’s refusal to choose between the one and the other. But as Bracewell quite rightly points out, for all of Roxy Music’s semblance of elitist posturing, the central drive of their musical production is that of all pop music and products of fashion: commodification.
In fact, Roxy Music’s musical production was flamboyantly presented as a product of fashion with the album sleeve crediting the hair and clothes of the band members. The sexual allure of the model on the album cover is reminiscent of pin up girls from cigarette cards of the 1950s. The lush satin frills — but especially the detail of the pink rose pinched between the model’s fingers — push the image in the direction of the camp.
There may be no doubting the heterosexual undercurrent here, but this is heterosexuality starting to deconstruct itself into Eno’s famous Carol McNicholl feather collar. Though there is a “scent of artificiality” here, as Bracewell puts it, what you understand is that this is the authentic experience of Roxy Music. Fundamentally what Roxy Music are selling is a lifestyle.
Oh show me.