There’s a strange moment somewhere during the video for Roxy Music’s “Avalon” when it seems as if the band has wandered onto the wrong soundstage, or at least the wrong career — everyone’s wearing tuxedos and decked to the nines with conservative haircuts and wry smirks. You can see the guitarist, Phil Manzanera, silently asking with his eyes, “How the heck did I get here? I used to play rock and roll, dammit. How did I get shanghaied to play in a wedding band?”
OK, that’s not fair. I have no idea what they were thinking when they made this video — in all honesty I don’t possess anything resembling an encyclopedic knowledge of Roxy Music lore. But I like Roxy Music, and I especially like some of the music on this collection. I am also, it must be said, baffled as to just how it is that a band that started so strongly could have transformed themselves in the space of a decade into, well, the arch, faux-upper-crust British counterpart to American yacht-rock like Hall & Oates.
Now, this isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism of early-’80s soft-rock. I know that music has its (actual, non-ironic) fans. But how do you go from “Re-Make / Re-Model”, the lead track off their 1972 self-titled debut, to “Avalon”? There have surely been stranger transformations in music history, but none come to mind immediately.
The Thrill of It All tracks the course of the band’s history, from that very first track on through “Avalon”, the very last track — the Alpha and Omega in the quizzical catalog of one of rock’s most anomalous acts. Watching the earliest clips included here, the tracks off their debut album seem to be less the product of actual musicians than aliens, or perhaps robot aliens, definitely robot aliens of undefined sexuality. Early Roxy — a combo that still included the elfin, otherworldly Brian Eno on keyboards — were one of the oddest glam rock bands around, edging away from the hard proto-metal popularized by T-Rex and early Bowie and towards a much more arty, synth-driven sound, influenced by the likes of Can (a definite presence on their second album, 1973’s For Your Pleasure).
Eno left after For Your Pleasure, and it’s telling that things immediately became less weird. Sure enough, they stopped dressing like colorblind space aliens, but as soon as they dropped the outer-space schtick Bryan Ferry picked up another schtick, i.e., formal-wear or uniforms. He’s usually seen wearing a three-piece-suit or pseudo-military Boy Scout khaki — sometimes even with one of those creepy upper-lip pencil mustaches.
The evolution of Roxy’s fashion sense is absolutely essential to the music itself, despite (or perhaps because?) the music itself is quite good: moreso even than David Bowie or Elton John, Ferry understood that being an rock star meant dressing the part. Only, he didn’t want to be Jimi Hendrix, he wanted to be Cole Porter. Dressing conspicuously like a Grown Adult certainly helped make his case.
One of the interesting things about Roxy Music, for me, has been the fact that the group has always been conspicuously “grown up”. I don’t see a lot of Roxy Music merchandise being sold at Hot Topic, and next to the comparable cargo cults erected around Marc Bolan and Ziggy Stardust, poor Ferry barely even rates. The music isn’t really about the typical rock themes of adolescent frustration and yearning, it’s about real, honest-to-gosh adult lust, avarice and melancholy.
Take a song like “Mother of Pearl” — included here in the form of a great 1976 live performance in Stockholm. It starts with a corny, hard-rock intro, but then segues into the kind of lengthy, lyrical denouement you could expect from vintage-period Kinks or Station to Station-era Bowie. Perhaps this is the missing link that allowed the band to make the transition from 1975’s epochal Siren to Avalon.
While the former is rightly regarded as a classic, and contains the best of the group’s mid-period post-glam smolder (the transcendent “Both Ends Burning” as well as the overplayed “Love Is the Drug”), the latter is still recognizably Roxy despite its sedate, some might say soporific exterior. Once they shook off the youthful costume-party atmosphere, they became a very mature band in short order. Avalon was just too mature.
Tellingly, it was also the band’s final album: from that point on, I guess there wasn’t a lot to be said besides the fact that Ferry’s solo career was a fait accompli. By the time Avalon was released, Ferry had already released five solo albums since 1973, including a couple during Roxy’s brief 1976-78 hiatus.
Despite the uniform excellence of Roxy’s early-and-middle career, their post-hiatus material just doesn’t hold my attention. I admit I may be showing my rockist chauvinism, but I can’t get excited about “More Than This”. Don’t get me started on “Jealous Guy” — ironically the group’s only #1 hit in the UK, and their only single not written by Ferry — and still probably my least favorite solo Beatle song, ever.
Ferry does little to improve a generally execrable track. (Yes, I’d even rather listen to “Silly Love Songs”.) Add in the fact that the early music videos from Avalon and Flesh + Blood just aren’t very interesting, and pall next to the great live footage picked to represent the pre-1976 material, and you’ve got a fairly lopsided collection.
It’s kind of fun to see the band playing a BBC television program organized by ABBA (“Dance Away”, no less, a fairly ABBA-esque number), but the thrills get thin on the ground the closer the viewer gets to the present. A few other appearances on Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test round things out.
Unfortunately, there is literally nothing in the way of bonus material, just the videos for “The Main Thing” and “Avalon” tacked on at the end of the rest of the videos. (Which is odd, considering they’re just two more videos on a disc filled with 18 other videos. But I guess if they say that the last two videos in the sequence are technically “Extras”, it looks better than having no extras at all . . .)
I think after spending some time with The Thrill of It All, I understand Roxy Music a little bit better. They certainly paved the way for a raft of followers, everyone from synthpop pioneers Depeche Mode to the likes of Ladytron, who took more than just their name from a Roxy Music song. Ferry alone possesses one of the most distinctive voices in the history of contemporary pop, and has remained consistently classy for over 30 years.
It’s interesting that while early Roxy Music definitely owed a lot to David Bowie. Bowie returned the favor later in his career when he decided to settle down into a more relaxed, less tortuously chameleonic groove. What is Let’s Dance besides the greatest Roxy Music album Roxy Music never made? Ferry had the original plastic soul.