Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Final Word on Roxy Music. I promise.

Sweet poster, huh! Marlene Dietrich! 

The first time I heard of Roxy Music, I was 14 and read a review of their then-current release Stranded in Creem magazine. Sounded interesting. I was intrigued by the name of the band, and since there weren't any pictures of the group to give me any idea who was who, for all I knew there was a lead singer named Roxy Music or some such (remember, these were the Gary Glitter days), and that sounded cool to me. So, the next time my parents made their weekly trip to Louisville to visit friends and shop, I got the ten bucks they usually gave me, headed over to the Oxmoor Center record store I liked to frequent in those long-gone days (but I don't remember the name, sorry to say...Disc Records or something like that. Not Disc Jockey, by the way) and plunked down my cash for RM's third elpee. Looking at the inside sleeve on the way home, I first noticed that there was nobody named "Roxy" in the group at all, and it was kinda hard to tell much about the fellows in the group since they were represented by monochromatic, blurry pictures on the inner sleeve. But when I got it home and put it on I was transfixed. I had never heard such sounds before in my life, from the swirling atmospherics of Eddie Jobson's strings to the melancholy, retro-sounding woodwind sounds of Andy Mackay, to the live-wire guitar of Phil Manzanera...and the attitude and world-weary air of the singer totally captivated me, or as much as a fourteen year-old Kentucky boy could process the Ferry mystique...I listened to that album constantly for the next few weeks. At some point later the same year, RM's next LP, Country Life, was released, and of course I had to get it. When I plucked it out of the rack, I was a bit puzzled...I thought RM always had pinup girls on their covers. Why was this one covered in opaque green shrinkwrap? When I sat down in the mall after purchasing it, and looked under the wrap, I discovered why! There were two girls, photographed from the thighs up, both wearing nothing but their lace undies (one topless!)! I sat there and wondered how the hell I was gonna keep my parents from seeing this one...then I had a brainstorm: I just wouldn't take the shrinkwrap off. And I kept that record in my collection like that for the next few months, sliding it out of the wrap (when they weren't home) to...admire...the photography. Yeah, that's it. Heh. Anyway, I eventually left it out and kept it in my growing record stack, being careful to keep it out of sight (my 'rents were pretty cool about a lot of things, but not nudity or cussin' in their only son's records). By the time the year was over, I had also picked up the first two RM albums, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, and had added RM as one of the pantheon of my favorite Glam bands like Bowie, T.Rex, and others in those waning days of Glitter Rock.

Of course, as is so often the case, not long after they got their hooks in me the band went on hiatus after releasing the excellent Siren and began to concentrate on solo projects for the next 4 years. I dutifully bought as many as I could find, and while I liked (even loved) many of them, I kept hoping they would reunite someday and give me another Stranded. Problem was, as the times changed, so did Bryan Ferry & Co.'s tastes and styles, and when RM did finally get back together it sounded like an altogether different creature. Gone was the avant-garde experimentation and the what-the-hell edge, replaced by Ferry's world-weary lounge-lizard persona cranked up to eleven and a overly slick, synth-dominated sound, professionally if not passionately played by some of the most well-known studio musos in the business. So while I found much to like, I wasn't nearly as captivated by this edition of RM so eventually I stopped buying. The last RM-related albums I picked up were Ferry's 1987 bland Bete Noire, and Phil Manzanera's 1989 Southern Cross- an overproduced, glossy snoozefest with no trace of that fantastic, distorted, howling guitar sound of his RM peak.

Okay. Now, here's my top five favorite RM records, in order of preference.

1. Stranded (1973) Even though Eno had left, there was still enough of the reckless spirit of the first two records left with Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay that every cut here is a keeper, from the Eno-ish opener "Street Life" to the closing, hushed, even reverent "Sunset". I don't think Ferry ever wrote better lyrics than those to "Mother of Pearl". Underrated cut: the lovely and atmospheric "Just Like You". This record strikes a perfect balance between the compromised convention of subsequent records and the nutball feel of the first two.

2. For Your Pleasure: The Second Roxy Music Album(1973) I just think it sounds better with the full title. My favorite cover. This one is strong cut for cut but has a couple of clunkers which keep me from completely embracing it: the plodding, endless "The Bogus Man" and the lugubrious title cut, with its cheesy-spooky vocal treatments as it gradually comes to an end. But the good ones are very good indeed: the audacious "Do The Strand", the creepy/cool/weirdo Manzanera/Eno showcase "In Every Dream Home a Heartache", "Editions of You", fun and rocking and a chance for everyone (even Ferry, who plays a hilarious one-hand keyb solo) to take the spotlight, and the crooning "Grey Lagoons" with its strong melody and interesting arrangement.

3. Siren (1975) Their fifth group release is more conventionally structured than the first four, but every cut is strong both lyrically and musically. "Love is the Drug", their only US hit, is deserving and very catchy but it's the two songs after that, "End of the Line" and especially "Sentimental Fool", which grab me the most. "Just Another High" is also a remarkable song...but there's a samey-ness to this album which tempers my enjoyment a bit.

4. Country Life (1974) There's a samey-ness to this one, too, but it's a murky kind of feel rather than the pristine-ness of Siren. After I had listened to this one for several years, I could tell that they were beginning to feel a bit limited because there's a trace of ennui in all these songs, even though they're all great cuts. My faves include the surging opener "The Thrill of it All", the insistent "All I Want is You" (love the ending "Oo-ooh, I'm all cracked up on you"), "If it Takes All Night", which has always had a vaguely Fifties-ish feel to me and I wish Dave Edmonds would cover it, and while some may disagree, I've always had a soft spot for the goofy closer/tribute to Ferry's then-girlfriend "Prairie Rose", with its wink-wink lyric and chiming Manzanera guitar.

5. Roxy Music (1972) This is just a weird-sounding record. Everything sounds excessively separated and muffled, and can be distracting, especially upon first listen. I suppose in hindsight, getting King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield (a longtime favorite artist of mine, I have to add) to do his first solo production job for your debut might not have been the strongest of strategies. Still, there's not a bad track on this one, and some are brilliant, like "If There is Something", one of my fave RM tracks, and "Sea Breezes".

Others, and I won't list solo releases because this is already a Godzilla-sized post, include the 1976 Viva! Roxy Music Live! which isn't really all that bad for a live record but doesn't particularly improve on the songs chosen; 1979's Manifesto, the reunion record but really, it sounds more like a Ferry solo record that he invited the others to play on. It has a stripped-down, disco-poppish sound and some OK tracks, including the title cut, "Trash", and "Dance Away". The next record, 1980's Flesh and Blood is even more anonymous and bland than its immediate predecessor but when I get in a mood I can enjoy the title cut, the Byrds cover and "Oh Yeah". Everybody seems to love 1982's Avalon but me. I mean, "More Than This" is a great song, but nothing else on this slick, overproduced, homogenized record registers with me at all. Still, lotsa people dig it so what do I know?

And that concludes, boys and girls, my thoughts on Roxy Music. Thanks for your time.