The Grace and Beauty of Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’

It's not often that great bands have the opportunity to end a career on a high note with their swansong song albums, but Roxy Music brilliantly did with Avalon.
Roxy Music

In Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed 2003 movie Lost in Translation, there’s a scene in which Bill Murray’s character, Bob Harris, attempts to sing Roxy Music’s “More Than This” at a Tokyo karaoke club, surrounded by his American friend Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson) and other Japanese patrons. Harris’ performance of the dreamy song starts off awkwardly, but then somewhat improves a little, to the point where he’s almost crooning to Charlotte. In some ways, it recalls a little bit of Murray’s overly-confident lounge singer character Nick Winters, who famously sang “Star Wars” on Saturday Night Live.

That moment in the movie captures the sense of yearning of the lead characters, which makes the choice of the song somewhat appropriate. But on another level, the inclusion of “More Than This” introduced Roxy Music to a whole new generation, especially here in America where the influential British rock band’s stature was somewhere between cult and mainstream popularity.

“More Than This” originally appeared on Avalon, Roxy Music’s eighth and final studio record. First released in May 1982, the album’s lush and stately sound marked a gradual but significant stylistic shift from the band’s abrasive, cutting-edge rock ten years prior, when Roxy Music emerged as an arty and experimental glam rock group. Avalon — recorded by the core trio of singer Bryan Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, and saxophonist/oboist Andy Mackay — was devoid of the camp and irony that partly defined the first five Roxy albums, and instead went for something quite accessible and mature, while still serving as a vehicle for songwriter Ferry’s romantic meditations on yearning and heartbreak. It’s the sophisticated British New Wave equivalent of a classic American R&B or Quiet Storm record.

Thirty-five years later, Avalon remains Roxy Music’s most commercially successful album and a frequent mainstay on critics’ best-of lists. In the Spin Alternative Record Guide from 1995, writer Rob Sheffield gave the record a 9 out of 10 rating: “Avalon remains one of the all-time greatest make-out infernos, a synthesized version of Al Green’s Call Me, Van Morrison’s Moondance, and Joao Gilberto’s Amoroso.” In a similar assessment, Stephen Thomas Erlewine for AllMusic wrote: “With its stylish, romantic washes of synthesizers and Bryan Ferry’s elegant, seductive croon, Avalon simultaneously functioned as sophisticated make-out music for yuppies and as the maturation of synth pop.”

“I’ve often thought I should do an album where the songs are all bound together in the style of West Side Story,” Ferry said in a 1982 interview published in NME, “but it’s always seemed like too much bother to work that way. So instead, I have these 10 poems, or short stories, that could, with a bit more work, be fashioned into a novel… Avalon is part of the King Arthur legend and is a very romantic thing. When King Arthur dies, the Queens ferry him off to Avalon, which is sort of an enchanted island. It’s the ultimate romantic fantasy place.”

Avalon was the last in a trilogy of albums (the others being Manifesto and Flesh + Blood) recorded by Roxy Music when it regrouped in 1979 following a four-year hiatus during which Ferry recorded three solo records. With the departure of Paul Thompson, the group’s stalwart drummer, Roxy was reduced to the core trio of Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay by the time of 1980’s Flesh + Blood. With additional session musicians, Roxy’s sound by this period became more pop-oriented and sophisticated, a far cry from the band’s 1972 adventurous self-titled debut record that featured keyboardist Brian Eno. At a time in the early ’80s when most of Roxy’s peers from were unsettled and vanquished by punk and New Wave, the band was still popular on the charts, thanks to such hits as “Dance Away”, “Angel Eyes”, and a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. Simultaneously, a crop of British New Wave and New Romantic bands, such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, were copping Roxy’s influence in terms of music and style.

“The music was more clearly defined and controlled as opposed to the earlier stuff which was slightly more complex and not so easy on the ear,” Ferry said of Flesh + Blood to the NME, “And I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to make a record people can hear and like it instantly.”

Making Avalon

Work on Avalon began in Phil Manzanera’s Gallery Studios in Surrey, England, before the band moved on to Compass Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1981. In addition the core members, Roxy was augmented in the studio by a large cast of studio players for the album: drummers Andy Newmark and Rick Marotta; bassists Alan Spenner and Neil Jason; percussionist Jimmy Maelen; guitarist Neil Hubbard; keyboardist Paul Carrack; cellist Kermit Moore; and background singer Fonzi Thornton. In an interview with Rolling Stone from 1989, Manzanera said: “We constructed a lot of tracks out of improvisations. In the studio, you can head off into very strange territories by artificial means. By accident, you can plug something into the wrong place on the desk and something amazing happens that you could never have dreamed of. The combination of writing in the studio while using the studio as an instrument had evolved halfway through Flesh + Blood and on into Avalon. It was this soundscape to which Bryan would then write his sort of dreamy lyrics.”

It’s a similar idea that the album’s co-producer and engineer Rhett Davies later recalled to Sound on Sound in 2003: “We started with a blank sheet; there weren’t any songs. Phil might have had some chord sequences or musical ideas, and Andy would have some tunes that he’d written, which he’d present to Bryan, and Bryan would play around with them to see if there was any work he could do. I would then spent time with Bryan alone, writing. It didn’t take that long — we’d go in in the morning and I’d get a groove going to get something happening that Bryan could walk into, and hopefully he’d be inspired by it.”

Work on the album proceeded to the Power Station in New York City with engineer Bob Clearmountain; he had previously remixed Roxy’s 1979 single “Dance Away” from the Manifesto album. Among his credits include Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Bryan Adams, “This record probably means more to me than anything I’ve ever done,” Clearmountain told Sound on Sound in 2003 about Avalon. “I’ve had more comments and compliments on this album by far than anything else I’ve ever done.”

In retrospect, what is remarkable about Avalon is how those disparate elements gelled into something near perfect. “We were creating tracks back then,” Davies said in Mix in 2004. “We didn’t have the songs. The songs were virtually the last things to go on there. We were very much creating a musical atmosphere that we wanted the musicians to respond to.”

The Music

Whereas the early Roxy albums had moments that bordered on controlled chaos, Avalon is one seamless mood record that flows seamlessly from beginning to end. It gets off to a breathless start with the now-classic “More Than This”, indicative of Ferry’s new and mature outlook; the song has since been covered by artists Norah Jones, 10,000 Maniacs, Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs, Robyn Hitchcock and others. According to Manzanera, an earlier version of the song was poppier than the final one that ended up on the record: “Halfway through, Bryan rebelled, and it was all scrapped and simplified incredibly,” he told Rolling Stone. “I must say, I was concerned that we weren’t going to have a hit single from that album. And obviously, wanting to make it in America, we needed to have a single to break us. But in the context of the whole album, Bryan obviously had a broader view in the back of his mind. By the time it was done, it fit in much better with everything.”

“More Than This” is followed by the dark disco funk of “The Space Between Us”, where Ferry ruminates on a relationship that’s “ain’t right”; the melancholy ballad “While My Heart Is Still Beating”, accented by Mackay’s swooning sax, conveys the narrator’s sense of heartache while questioning it all (“Where’s it all leading?” Ferry sings). Andy Newmark’s drumming and Jimmy Maelen’s percussion propel the hypnotic and tension-filled “The Main Thing”. Manzanera’s steady and intricate slow-burn guitar sound recalls Roxy-era Siren in introducing the shimmering “Take a Chance With Me”, while “To Turn You On” is Ferry at his most slyest and sexiest (“I could walk you through the park / If you’re feeling blue”).

The atmospheric “True to Life” is a beautiful and lush penultimate track, furthering Ferry’s search for either love or life’s meaning or both. Avalon is unique in that it features two instrumentals: the cinematic and exotic mood setter “India” and “Tara”, which showcases a very moving sax performance by Mackay against the sounds of the sea, bringing the album (and Roxy’s career at that point) to a fitting and majestic end.

Like “More Than This”, the album’s delicate and romantic title song, which incorporates subtle elements of reggae, has become a Roxy Music standard and promoted with a stylish video featuring actress Sophie Ward. A kind of love-at-first-sight song, the unquestionable highlight of “Avalon” is the amazing backing vocals of singer Yanick Etienne. Remarkably, she was a last-minute addition while the album was being produced at the Power Station. Davies told Sound on Sound that the album was being mixed, and that the previous version of the “Avalon” song didn’t pass muster and was later recut.