Roxy Music 1973
ROXY MUSIC / Photo: AVRO, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

50 Years On: Roxy Music and Robert Palmer Transcended Fashion

In 1974, Roxy Music and Robert Palmer transcended changes in musical fashions not only in terms of their influence but without sacrificing their artistry.

Country Life
Roxy Music
Island / Atco
15 November 1974
Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley
Robert Palmer
September 1974

In 1974, rock music was at the peak of its power, and no artists embodied its glamour more than Robert Palmer or Roxy Music‘s Bryan Ferry. Both were sleekly voiced singers pitched between the soulful and the slick. They were also suavely mannered and stylishly attired frontpeople who crafted images that projected a clear sense of the music they made. Photographs from the early 1970s show Robert Palmer always neatly coiffured, his hair getting shorter as those around him grew it longer. The members of Roxy Music dressed in striking outfits, with Ferry a focal point as an enduringly handsome icon of glam rock. At a time when the gatefold sleeve was the de facto visual currency of rock, Palmer and Roxy Music’s album designs hung on the maxim that sex sells.  

By 1974, Roxy Music was established as the UK’s premier art rock band, with the art school backgrounds of Ferry and keyboardist Brian Eno burnishing the reputation of the early albums, 1972’s Roxy Music and 1973’s For Your Pleasure, despite neither member having had much conventional musical training. When Eno departed in 1973, he was effectively replaced by Eddie Jobson, a classically trained violinist and keyboard player, whose consummate ability would push the band to continue innovating whilst streamlining their sound on 1973’s Stranded and 1974’s Country Life. Eno’s continuing divergence from rock conventions and his self-identification as a non-musician would make him an unlikely proto-punk. Still, Ferry and company remained comfortable in unfamiliar territory whilst making concessions that would ultimately earn them transatlantic success. 

From 1971 to 1974, Robert Palmer had been the co-vocalist for British blues rockers Vinegar Joe, who frequently toured the United States despite their relatively low profile. That gave Palmer closer exposure to the contemporary R&B and US rock scenes. When given the opportunity of going solo, he seized the chance to work with several of America’s top session musicians on 1974’s Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. In doing so, he was in the vanguard of a stream of British vocal talents embracing blue-eyed soul and breaking out of a homeland that wouldn’t come to appreciate his talents. In the late 1970s, he would tour America almost exclusively whilst living in the Bahamas, and while he didn’t make a huge impression on the Billboard charts, he earned the respect of his collaborators on the music scene. 

The boom in the music industry at around this time contrasted with an overall economic malaise. Yet, record sales in the United States were worth two billion dollars a year, while in Britain, record sales had reached 110 million units in a year. There may be nothing more representative of the immoderation of 1970s rock than the double album and the gatefold sleeve, but in the wider world, an oil crisis and a paper shortage would affect the two most important commodities in record production, the vinyl for the records themselves, and the cardboard for the album packaging. A further effect of the continuing demand for records outstripping the supply was to shrink the appetite of the industry for new talent. Even record labels that were specifically in the market of progressive rock, the likes of Harvest Records, the home of Pink Floyd, and Vertigo Records, the home of Black Sabbath, would stop signing new acts.  

Meanwhile, Britain’s nouveau riche rock stars were facing taxes on their rising incomes of 83%. The Rolling Stones had most famously outed themselves as tax exiles with their 1972 album Exile on Main Street, and by 1973, the band members were living across Europe in countries such as France and Switzerland. Many of Britain’s star performers were unconcerned by high tax rates, and many found enough good reasons to stay at home. But for those looking elsewhere, America was the most popular destination, as the base for many of the world’s top professional musicians, its earnings potential as the world’s biggest market, and its lifestyle attractions.  

For those in the business of writing about music who had witnessed a period in the 1960s when rock musicians had written very directly as part of their generation, there was a sense that rock music was in danger of becoming irrelevant, that it “had come in off the street and cocooned itself in a cozy escapist world all of its own”. This growing critical backlash against the apparent estrangement of star performers would build momentum toward punk rock, which was bubbling underground. With this combination of a newly wealthy cohort of musicians and a music business with a sudden aversion to taking risks, the music of the period could, therefore, be characterized by eclecticism and sophistication but also decadence and insularity.  

With a cast of six musicians, Roxy Music outnumbered many heavy rock and progressive rock groups who got by with four regular members. By the time of recording Country Life, the band had, in the manner of an orchestra, a reeds player in Andy Mackay and a strings player in Eddie Jobson. In retrospect, this expansive palette was a logical progression in Bryan Ferry’s ambition to balance artistry and commercial success.  “It always seemed strange to me to work in such a rarefied atmosphere as the art world. Even if you’re incredibly good, only a handful of people can ever appreciate it. Pop music has a much wider audience. Everybody has the original copy of a record. You can make as many as you want. Millions, hopefully.” 

Although Ferry had trained in fine art, the band had acquired a reputation for a different sort of aesthetic. As guitarist Phil Manzanera would relate, “In the beginning, someone described us as inspired amateurs, which is something we’re well aware of, and so we’re always striving to become professionals. You can’t remain an inspired amateur all the time. You just have to progress.” Although Roxy Music’s musicianship was becoming more elaborate, Country Life retained many features that jarred with the polished professionalism of the period. Manzanera’s trebly, razor-sharp guitar lacked the overwhelming presence of a guitar hero. Jobson’s electronically processed violin eschewed the pure timbres associated with much progressive rock. The record’s hazy wall of sound didn’t match the pristine stereo creations that would soon find favor amongst audiophiles. The Roxy Music approach would continue to bear comparison with Brian Eno’s beloved Velvet Underground even as the songs would move the band towards the mainstream.  

In the same year as Roxy Music were recording Country Life, Manzanera would also guest on solo recordings by Eno, as well as two ex-Velvet Underground members, John Cale and Nico. The following year, in 1975, Manzanera would record his solo debut, Diamond Head, a collection of guitar-orientated songs recorded in collaboration with the likes of Eno, Soft Machine percussionist Robert Wyatt, and King Crimson bassist John Wetton. Side projects were a window into the disparate musical mindsets of Roxy Music members at this time, with Ferry having recorded two solo albums, 1973’s These Foolish Things and 1974’s Another Time, Another Place, each nostalgic collections of cover versions of 1960s pop, rock and soul. Mackay’s In Search of Eddie Riff was a collection of instrumental mood pieces drawn from both popular and classical sources.  

The song which best exemplifies this period while encapsulating Roxy Music’s trajectory up to this point is “The Thrill of It All”, a glam rock epic pushed and pulled by an unorthodox instrumental combination of Ferry’s thrusting piano and Jobson’s soaring violin. The song advances the Roxy Music tradition of exhilarating album openers, going back to the early brashness of “Remake/Remodel” from 1972 and the outlandish “Do the Strand” from 1973, and onward to the seductive “Love Is the Drug” from 1975. “The Thrill of It All” is also the only Country Life song to exceed six minutes, and with its primary verses juxtaposed by Mackay’s gliding saxophone and Ferry’s airy vocals, this sudden shift is reminiscent of another band tradition in songs such as “If There Is Something” from 1972 and “Mother of Pearl” from 1973, those songs which started out as conventional hard rock numbers but which careened rapidly and interminably off course into abstract experimental territory. By giving structure to “The Thrill of it All” and a sense of proportion to its parts, the song is given considerable extra power.  

Elsewhere on Country Life, his muse ignited by his solo albums, Ferry draws the band away from the future into the present and to the past. “Singing other people’s songs takes a burden off me, and I learn an awful lot from doing them. It’s like an author who, apart from writing books, will do in-depths reviews of other people’s work.” Ferry considered two of his own songs to have the potential to be covered by other artists. “If It Takes All Night” is a Southern rock pastiche that draws from classic honky-tonk as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd. “A Really Good Time” is a string-laden ballad that is equal parts Tin Pan Alley pop and Electric Light Orchestra. “All I Want Is You”, the lead single, is a modern, melodramatic slice of glam rock enlivened by symphonic guitars in the manner of Queen, while “Casanova” uses the twanging flourishes of the clavinet, a keyboard instrument which was found all over Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti

Roxy Music were never a regular rock band in the sense of being guitar-led, which had suited Phil Manzanera, and would shape his other collaborations. “I could have done total guitar music, but it would have been boring, and anyway, I’ve already decided I don’t want to be a John McLaughlin.” McLaughlin was the British jazz virtuoso who had played on Miles Davis‘ celebrated fusion records. “I went through the various stages of heavy rock, acid, complex time signatures. When I joined Roxy, I left that behind for simpler things that require greater concentration on textures. I could never play those West Coast solos anyway.”  

Referring to the West Coast sound of Spirit, the psychedelic 1960s group, Manzanera’s could as aptly have been speaking of the contemporary Californian studio scene epitomised by Steely Dan. In writing the most colourful songs on Country Life, the guitarist was “sifting out the best licks rather than have long instrumental passages.” Manzanera’s relatively clean, ringing guitar drives verses which twist into Eddie Jobson’s electronically warped violin solos on the album’s headiest song, “Out of the Blue”, sounding very much like a Byrdsian hybrid of psychedelia and folk rock. Call-and-response riffing between Manzanera’s driving guitar and Mackay’s raucous saxophone opens the heaviest song, “Prairie Rose”, which evolves into brief instrumental solos as the album vamps to a close. 

Unusually for a saxophonist in a rock band, Andy Mackay’s sound bore no influence of jazz and a subversive relationship with R&B. “Classical music is very much a part of my background – and also a lot of other people, whether they admit it or not, or whether they’re aware of it or not. And it’s part of my background as a European musician.” In his solo project, Mackay tempered the atonal style of Roxy Music’s early recordings with greater emotional range. “One of the strong elements of Roxy is style, I think – particularly on Stranded. It’s a kind of cynicism and a replacement of emotion with style. Which in turn means we miss out a little bit on the whole range of human emotions which are equally important, like sentimentality.”  

Mackay’s two contributions to Country Life are collectively its most expressive compositions. “Three and Nine” is the lightest piece of music on the record, requiring a reflective lyric delivered by Ferry on the innocent pleasures of a visit to the cinema. “Bitter-Sweet” is, by contrast, the album’s darkest and most polarising song. It is rare to find a record review that praises “Bitter-Sweet” and “All I Want Is You”, for example, and the song would break new ground in what could be called rock music. Inspired by Kurt Weill, its music bears relation to Mackay’s earlier composition “A Song for Europe”, but where that song was lushly melodramatic, “Bitter-Sweet” is another prime example of contrasts within Country Life, swinging wildly between coldly theatrical piano and shards of industrial guitar which look forward to the experimental pop music of the following decade. 

Giving form to all this multifaceted music was the rhythm section of bassist John Gustafson and drummer Paul Thompson. Whilst Roxy Music’s biggest hit of the 1970s, “Love Is the Drug”, was shaped by its indelible, danceable bassline, the group frequently changed their bass players, and their role in the Roxy Music sound would be underappreciated. On Country Life, the bass is prominently positioned to offset Manzanera’s trebly guitar, and particularly on the harder-rocking numbers like “The Thrill of It All”, “Out of the Blue”, and “Prairie Rose”, it is the bass which fills in the riffs, motifs and melodic hooks, allowing the rest of the group the freedom to explore textures. Thompson’s beats are typically propulsive and straightforward, with awareness of the dense patterns above them. 

Eddie Jobson, like Mackay, was a bona fide classically trained instrumentalist. Like Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, who were exploiting rock music’s visibility as a vessel for their art, Jobson had a utilitarian relationship with popular music. His ambition was such that as a teenager, he took a year-long sabbatical intending to later enroll at the Royal Academy of Music to gain experience as a working musician. When no vacancies arose in a classical orchestra, he joined a rock band instead. His skillful technique would elevate the songs of Country Life. It was his violin playing that took Manzanera’s “Out of the Blue” into the realm of the psychedelic, his piano playing that gave Mackay’s “Bitter-Sweet” its theatrical edge, and his arrangements that gave Ferry’s “A Really Good Time” its emotional depth.  

What all this input brought to bear on Country Life was an eclecticism that could rival any progressive pop of the period, with Roxy Music touching upon all the mid-1970s musical touchstones of hard rock, orchestral rock, soft rock, and funk. While these variances from song to song make the record a rollercoaster ride, the most satisfying aspect of the album is in the subtle contrasts that play out within its best songs, reflecting the increasing confidence and input of individual members resulting from the opportunities afforded to them. Roxy Music, like Robert Palmer, was signed to Island Records, perhaps the most iconic British label of the period and a true independent enterprise, and both would benefit from the bounty of the industry boom and the special attention of their label. 

Island Records chief Chris Blackwell had seen something special in Robert Palmer when he first signed Vinegar Joe, anticipating that he would one day go solo. So, with Island’s substantial support, Palmer flew out to America to record Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley with his choice of musicians. One year later, in 1975, Rod Stewart would rock up with Atlantic Crossing, a gritty Memphis R&B platter featuring legends from Atlantic Records, while David Bowie would turn his attention to Philadelphia soul, recording Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. Palmer would work in New Orleans with producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint, soul bands the Meters and Stuff, and guitarist Lowell George, the leader of the Los Angeles rock band Little Feat who was also changing up their sound with an appetite for New Orleans flavour. 

These musicians, Palmer included, might all accurately be called industry figures. Allen Toussaint, as a songwriter and producer, crafted a regional style of rhythm and blues as distinct as Motown in Detroit or Stax in Memphis. His industry renown would lead to him producing three records by British blue-eyed soul singers in 1974, with him also working with Frankie Miller and Jess Roden. The Meters were Toussaint’s house band and recording artists in their own right who developed a brand of instrumental funk comparable to Booker T & the MGs at Stax. Lowell George was beloved in the Californian music community, whose songs were covered by Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, but the Little Feat style was too eccentric for the band ever to earn a classic rock radio hit. 

Robert Palmer developed a strong rapport with his collaborators, especially Little Feat, and spoke confidently in a 1976 interview about his ongoing association with the band. “Right now, I’m in the position where I can’t get in the studio without Richie or Bill calling me up and asking me if I want a song or if they can come and play. I could never have contrived that, much as I wanted to. And the fact that it’s occurred just through my enthusiasm to sing is a real delight.” George’s unique flair for combining American roots rock, warm SoCal vibes, and lyrical absurdity wasn’t something Palmer could straightforwardly emulate, and he brings his own sense of Featsian fun to Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.    

Any fan of Little Feat would be aware of the striking transformation in their sound between their second record, Sailing Shoes, a collection of quirky roots rock, and their third, Dixie Chicken, on which the band settle firmly into the feel of New Orleans R&B. The band would cover an Allen Toussaint song, “On Your Way Down”, and later record a medley of two songs which had previously been released on Sailing Shoes, “Cold Cold Cold” and “Tripe Face Boogie”, all revamped in their new style. There was something playful going on in Palmer’s choice to record his own medley featuring the Little Feat song “Sailing Shoes”, from the album of the same name, played in the Dixie Chicken style, and choose to name the album for his own Toussaint cover song “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”. 

Two of Palmer’s original compositions show how his artistry reached beyond the interpretation of other’s material. Recorded in London with two singers, one being Palmer, two percussionists, one being Palmer, and a drum machine, “Hey Julia” completes the opening medley, deepening and thickening the swamp-pop groove with a marimba, anticipating the synthesized beats of disco, and taking a leaf out of the Little Feat lyric book. The album closer, “Through It All There’s You”, is an improvised jam session that neatly showcases Palmer’s spontaneous musical camaraderie with Lowell George, Stuff, and an assortment of guests. Clocking in at over 12 minutes, the track reflects Roxy Music’s early habit of improvising ideas over a rolling backdrop. Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley is rounded out with a selection of Palmer’s songs in the New Orleans R&B style, such as the slow-burning “Get Outside” and the breezy “So Much Fun”.  

Palmer’s fondness for material that others had made their own would lead British critics to dismiss his albums as the exploitative work of “a mediocre English talent attempting to cut it on the basis of somebody else’s reputation”. In retrospect, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley was part of a legacy of talented British singers relishing the opportunity to perform authentic American soul that went back to records such as Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. Palmer would continue to reinvent his style with each subsequent record, crowing that “nowadays I’m given so many opportunities to do this and that, and to a certain extent, I expect a lot of them because I’m working towards them. It seems that when I do it, and I do it well, things happen for me.” 

Roxy Music’s stature as trailblazers of art rock was assured by their first album and had the band not regrouped for 1982’s Avalon, a record which became their biggest commercial success and matched the tone of Bryan Ferry’s solo career, then their subsequent influence on new wave would still justify their reputation as a band ahead of its time. Robert Palmer, on the other hand, could by now have fallen into obscurity if not for his 1985 hit single “Addicted to Love”.  

In his memoir, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny”, Nile Rodgers would cite Roxy Music in his concept for disco pioneers Chic. When inducting Roxy Music into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, John Taylor was “proud to say that without Roxy Music, there would be no Duran Duran“. By 1985, Robert Palmer would be making further connections, joining Chic drummer Tony Thompson and Duran Duran members John Taylor and Andy Taylor in the supergroup Power Station, a testament to his enduring regard amongst his musical peers. 

To watch MTV videos of Bryan Ferry or Robert Palmer singing slick adult contemporary pop while cavorting with young models could be seen as an unedifying conclusion of years of musical decadence and insularity. Still, the eclecticism of Country Life and the sophistication of Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley had shown that these two chameleons had the means to transcend changes in musical fashions not only in terms of their influence but without sacrificing their personal artistry.  


Irwin, C., & Partridge, R. (1973) “Plastic, paper and petrol famine shakes the whole music scene — ROCK CRISIS!”. Melody Maker.

Jones, E. (1975) “Bands on the Run From the Taxman?”. Melody Maker.

Farren, M. (1975) “The Kids Are Not Necessarily Alright”. New Musical Express. 

Coon, C. (1975) “Bryan Ferry: Putting On The Style”. Melody Maker. 

Bell, M. (1975) “Phil Manzanera: Head hunting in darkest Acton”. New Musical Express.

Hynde, C. (1974) “Andy Mackay: In Search of Marcel Proust”. New Musical Express.

Salewicz, C. (1974) “Roxy Music: Discovery of Amazing Corporate Hippie”. New Musical Express.

Stewart, T. (1976) “Robert Palmer: How to Get Rid of the Nude in Your Bedroom”. New Musical Express.