Roxy Music Avalon

Roxy Music Invented the 1980s with Their Swan Song ‘Avalon’

Forty years ago, Roxy Music stepped away from the recording studio, but not before leaving behind an album that defined the 1980s. It’s the ultimate marriage of high concept, high art, and high-quality popular music.

Roxy Music
E.G. Records/Polydor
28 May 1982

In the current, off-kilter world of the music industry, ten years isn’t an exceptionally long time. For instance, if you’re a fan of Steely Dan, Boston, or the Stone Roses, you’re used to waiting around almost indefinitely for the muse to descend. (Or, for the court case to finish before the artists deign to enter the studio to record.)

That hasn’t always been the case, though. Just look at Roxy Music. They released eight studio albums, the obligatory live release, and numerous solo projects in a ten-year period, and they still squeezed in a few non-album singles and countless live shows. Obviously, they loved their work. However, when rock scholars discuss the band, it’s the first LP that they shower with praise. Roxy Music’s self-titled 1972 debut LP is a thing of beauty, combining a high concept with some fascinating and unique songs. In contrast, their last studio recording—1982’s Avalon—is warmly regarded yet not seen anywhere near as important or influential as their first.

That’s a shame because it very much is.

It’s a long way from the pop art multimedia collage of Roxy Music to the smooth, supple groove of Avalon, but if you look for clues, the signs are there. The die was cast the minute band leader Bryan Ferry slipped on a white tuxedo and rakishly untied his bowtie. He had ambition and aspirations and wasn’t content to just be rock and roll royalty. Instead, he wanted to be actual royalty. To get to that level, you have to stop singing songs about the Battle of Britain, Andy Warhol acolytes, and whatever “Grey Lagoons” is about and start singing about a vague, beautiful nothingness.

Roxy Music of the early ’80s were battle-weary and curiously directionless. Their last record of the 1970s, Manifesto, recorded after a four-year hiatus, wasn’t quite the triumphant return to the charts they sought. It was also their first (and only) album that followed a trend—the nascent new wave scene—rather than sparking a brand new one. Flesh and Blood (1980) saw the group in a listless mood. Songs like “Oh Yeah”, “Same Old Scene”, and “My Only Love” are great examples of their latter-day work, but in general, it lacks energy and direction. It’s a pleasant diversion that doesn’t really linger too long in the memory. Naturally, expectations were not high for the next record.

Avalon is probably the most ’80s record ever released. It’s all there: from the opulent synths to the glossy packaging, it just screams “style over substance!” Whether the band—now consisting of Ferry and loyal acolytes Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, and a host of expensive session musicians—consciously made an album as cool and detached as Avalon is a mystery. However, it’s the ultimate marriage of high concept, high art, and high-quality popular music. It’s not often that a band gets all their ducks in a row in such a spectacular fashion.

After the dour, DIY aesthetic of punk and the thrift shop stylings of new wave, pop was ready for something a little classier. Roxy Music delivered that in spades, both visually and sonically. Every note on Avalon has been lovingly polished and placed with a jeweler’s eye for detail. It pulls off the same magic trick that Steely Dan achieved with Aja and the Blue Nile did with Hats: music that is as precise as a Swiss watch but still has soul. It’s an artfully assembled soul, yes, but it’s soul nonetheless. Every song is totally frictionless and hangs in the air like a cloud of Chanel No. 5 until it dissipates into the listener’s subconscious.

The opening track, “More Than This”, lulls the listener into thinking that this is another example of a new wave version of Roxy. Manzanera’s guitar chimes prettily, with expensive synthesizers washing behind it, and when he enters, Ferry sings right at the top of his range. Combined with the almost brisk tempo, those qualities give the song a sense of urgency that is nowhere else on Avalon. The lyrics spell out the manifesto for the project: “More than this / You know there’s nothing.” Why look below the surface when the façade is so intricate and beautiful?

Track two, “The Space Between”, sounds like Kraftwerk covering Chic. Mackay’s mournful sax adds an oddly human element to the song, which must have filled the dancefloors of hip clubs the world over for the entire duration of 1982. By this point in the record, you may have noticed that Ferry has whittled his once enigmatic and impressionistic lyrics down to a series of rather prosaic haikus. Gone are the days when he would reference Humphrey Bogart and drop words like “Zarathustra” and “Rhododendron” into his libretto. On Avalon, the words serve a rhythmic purpose and let the listener know where they are in the song, and that is all. If there is one criticism that could be leveled at Avalon, this is it. The lyrics are of little interest or consequence, which is a shame when they come from the pen of someone capable of much more. This is where style triumphed over substance to the detriment of the product.

The title track opens in a surprising ad hoc fashion: Manzanera essays a couple of notes on the guitar, congas tick gently, the bass slides in, and almost imperceptibly, the piece begins. “Now the party’s over / I’m so tired,” croons Ferry in a voice drenched in decadence. You can picture him in some high society soiree where no one is enjoying themselves, faking smiles, and trying to be seen with the right people. It’s only when Yanick Étienne’s otherworldly voice uncurls over the song that it begins to coalesce into something beautiful. It’s a masterful touch and, by all accounts, the result of a happy accident: she was in an adjoining studio to Roxy Music, so they asked her to add a wordless, soulful melody over the tune.

Uniquely for a Roxy Music record, Avalon sports two instrumentals: “India” and “Tara”. Both simultaneously resemble examples of the briefly popular new age music trend of the mid-’80s and have the depth that much of that genre lacked. Kenny G, whose first album came out in the same year as Avalon, seems to have based his career on the limpid textures displayed on “Tara”.

Avalon could not have been recorded any earlier or any later than it was. It is entirely of and about the ’80s. Well, almost. Producer Rhett Davies and engineer Bob Clearmountain manage to reign in most of the egregious noises used on albums from that decade, so the snare drums—which sound like controlled explosions—and the fake keyboard brass sections that plagued otherwise acceptable music from that era are absent. This is a good thing. Although one could hardly call Avalon a “timeless” record, it has escaped the ’80s pretty much unscathed.

Although the LP didn’t send shock waves around the musical world, it certainly made a deep impression. Some of the musical children of For Your Pleasure and “Virginia Plain” may have been initially perturbed by Avalon. Actually, many of them made their own versions of it just a few years later. Duran Duran, for example, managed to get as far as 1986 before they swapped their blouses and eyeliner for something closer to the pages of GQ for their Notorious album. Their archrivals in the new romantic arena, Spandau Ballet, moved quickly from the synthpop of “To Cut a Long Story Short” to “True”, with its Andy Mackay knockoff sax solo pushed well to the forefront. Singer Tony Hadley had scrutinized Ferry to such a degree that by 1983, he resembled a photocopy of the Roxy frontman.

Ferry had been inexorably moving toward the look and sound of Avalon since 1973. First came the white tuxedo and the social climbing, followed by the style magazine covers, until finally, he was no longer the coal miner’s son from the north of England. Ferry was New Gentry. By making that transformation, he became a hero to hordes of council estate kids who were desperate to escape the grey suburbs of provincial England. They spent whatever money they had on clothes and clubbing since, in the early eighties, if you went to the right club and schmoozed the right people, you could be a star, albeit in a very limited firmament. 

Avalon was the ultimate aspirational goal. There is not one trace of the working classes on this record. It became a sacred text to readers of the newly published The Face magazine and soundtracked dinner parties and illicit intimate encounters for years afterward. It’s hard to know how many little Ferrys and Avalonas were spawned due to mom and dad being close to this record. I’d hazard a guess that there wouldn’t be many empty seats if they all turned up to see Roxy Music at Madison Square Garden.

Let’s go back ten years to 1972. The first incarnation of Roxy Music appears as if it’s been dropped from space. At that time, few artists had really looked back at recent contemporary pop culture to plunder for source material. Sha Na Na may have thrilled Woodstock three years earlier, but their fame never extended beyond the borders of the USA. Roxy Music dug deeper, throwing the last 20 years of pop culture into a hat and pulling out references at random. The debut LP’s concept and approach are equally as important—if not more so—than the music in the groove.

Inevitably, Roxy Music drifted away from that cut-and-paste approach, and their records became high-quality but conventional rock artifacts. Avalon, however, stands apart from the rest. The concept seems to be the creation of something impossibly beautiful and unobtainable, and if humanity and soul have to be put aside to do this, then so be it. Roxy Music intended to make a perfect record by all means necessary. As a result, they created an album that was used as an example of sonic excellence in recording studios around the world for years after its release. Ferry ensured that every facet was as flawless as possible, but the record doesn’t feel clinical, whether by accident, design, or the musicians’ skills. There is a warmth and humanity present on Avalon that’s missing from much of Flesh and Blood. Sadly, whenever less adroit artists attempted to use Avalon as a template, they were often left with artless, empty mistakes to show for their mimicry. Lightning can only strike once.

The shadow of Avalon has covered most of Ferry and Roxy Music’s work since 1982. If you saw the band on one of their sporadic tours in the last 40 years, they would have featured many ancillary members in addition to the core band, and they would all be dressed in their Sunday best. That’s the Avalon template. Ferry tried to recapture that sound for his 1985 solo release, Boys and Girls, and although he came close, it just didn’t have that air of otherworldliness in which Avalon is drenched. He’s still trying, of course, and he still hasn’t quite gotten there.

Roxy Music’s Avalon is still revered 40 years after its release. Like Sgt Peppers or Pet Sounds, it inhabits its own universe, but in this instance, the universe is almost, but not quite, reachable. It’s a Faberge egg behind plate glass. It’s a ticket to a destination you will never reach. All you can do is imagine what it would be like to be in that place, holding that thing and living that life. The realization that that will never happen is tempered by one important caveat: because this world of endless opulence is purely imaginary, it can never disappoint you. As long as you think it is perfect, then that is what it is. Avalon may not be flawless, but it’s pretty close. And right now, that’s more than good enough.