ROXY MUSIC – ” The Albums ” A Buyers Guide

Posted: January 29, 2022 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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While Roxy Music are generally thought of as being a new wave act, they actually got their start in the early ’70s as an experimental glam outfit that were one of the first rock bands to create a carefully crafted look and style across every aspect of their presentation, from their stage performances and music videos to their album art and promotional materials. Famed solo artist and record producer Brian Eno was part of the group in its early years but after his departure in 1973, singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry took creative control and shaped Roxy Music into one of the most quietly influential rock bands of all time.

Roxy Music very quickly became the epitome of art-rock following their genesis in the early 1970s. The band was originally formed by vocalist Bryan Ferry and bassist Graham Simpson in 1970 after Ferry had failed an audition to join King Crimson as a replacement for Greg Lake. Despite liking Ferry’s voice, Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfield had decided it wasn’t a good fit for their band. They recruited saxophone and oboe player Andy Mackay and synth player Brian Eno (who “treated” the other players instruments through his synth).  Paul Thompson was welcomed as the drummer, chosen for his energetic style that would suit their arrangements perfectly. Shortly before recording their debut album, they became complete with the addition of the Latin American classically trained guitarist Phil Manzanera.

Each member bought their individual background to the band; Manzanera grew up in Latin America, Mackay was classically trained, while Mackay, Ferry and Eno all came from art school backgrounds. One common thread for all the members was an appreciation of the avant-garde experimentation of the Velvet Underground, while Eno’s experiments with synths and tape effects were unusual for a song-based rock record. Roxy Music sought to blur the lines between high art and pop art, making postmodern pop music.

Roxy Music went through a succession of bass players, while Brian Eno was replaced by Eddie Jobson after 1973’s “For Your Pleasure“. After touring behind “Siren“, the group disbanded in 1976. They reunited in 1978 to record “Manifesto”, but the core band was reduced to a three-piece of Ferry, Mackay, and Manzanera, after Paul Thompson quit in 1980. The band’s reunion albums were smoother and less experimental than their earlier work.

Roxy Music were phenomenally successful for a band with experimental tendencies – all eight of their studio albums made the UK top ten. Their sole number one single, a lovely take on John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ released on 1981, isn’t featured on any of their albums.

Roxy Music Flesh + Blood

Flesh and Blood (1980)

The singles from Flesh + Blood are misleadingly strong – the torch song ‘Oh Yeah’ and the funky falsetto of ‘Same Old Scene’ are great songs that promise a great album. Elsewhere, “Flesh + Blood” is disappointingly bland – although that doesn’t apply to the album’s nadir, a bizarre remake of The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’.

As influential as “Avalon” but immediately so, “Flesh + Blood” was the real sales monster: No#1 for three different spells in England. Released at the peak of press fascination with the Blitz kids and New Romantics, the album captured Roxy in an uncomfortable transition: should we luxuriate in sound or should we sway, gently? They don’t answer the question, resulting in an album of gobsmacking highs and bloodless lows.

Playing all the keyboards for the first time on record, Ferry shows impressive range on “Same Old Scene,” the catchiest and weirdest old guard answer to New Wave; “Over You,” a sharper skinny tie Wilson Pickett homage than the “In the Midnight Hour” cover; and the pissed-off title track, in which Ferry, on guitar (!), for once doesn’t mind playing (being?) a creep. But “Rain Rain Rain,” “No Strange Delight,” and “Running Wild” remain.

Roxy Music Manifesto

Manifesto (1979)

In 1975, Roxy Music entered a hiatus as Bryan Ferry and Co. parted ways to work on solo projects and other obligations outside the band. Upon their reunification, a reshuffled incarnation of the group set about recording the first of their more commercially orientated run of albums, “Manifesto“. This new chapter in the band’s path saw them ditch the edginess and creative poetry of their previous work in favour of more predictable dance-friendly material.

Their first studio album in four years, they’d updated their sound for the disco era. They were still weird, but the 1970s art-rock facade was replaced with a dance-pop sound. It mostly works – the singles ‘Angel Eyes’ and ‘Dance Away’ were both successful, while ‘Manifesto’ and ‘Trash’ retained hints of the art-rock of Roxy Music’s earlier phase.

Roxy’s attempt to record an L.A. studio rock album steeped in disco — an anomaly in their catalogue, self-produced, still too underrated. Also their comeback after four years of middling solo careers, so they confused fans on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, who or what were they supposed to sound like during the apogee of punk and the Gibb brothers? The triumph of “Dance Away” we know — their second biggest hit in England and America, as it turns out — so check out “Still Falls the Rain,” “Ain’t That So” (Roxy going Boz Scaggs and liking it), and the pained, modest closer “Spin Me Round.”

Roxy Music Avalon

Avalon (1982)

Roxy Music’s final album is gorgeously smooth, a refined version of the dance-pop they pursued in mark II. It’s less invigorating than the experimentation of their earlier releases, but it’s often beautiful. The melodic pop of ‘More Than This’ is a lovely opener, while guest vocalist Yanick Étienne adds colour to the languid title track. The closing pair of ‘True To Life’, and the synth and oboe duet on ‘Tara’, is gorgeous.

1979’s Manifesto and 1980’s “Flesh + Blood” were tangibly weaker than Roxy Music’s 1970’s catalogue, but the group rebounded for 1982’s elegant swansong “Avalon”.  The sleek ‘More Than This’ is a perfect piece of pop.

You may be wondering where “More Than This” or “Avalon” are? The most commercially fruitful period in Roxy Music’s career came from 1978 to 1982, after an enforced sabbatical. Ferry had only really reformed the band because his patrician image was at such odds with punk and his career needing galvanising with the brand that had once so exemplified cool. The West Sussex manor and the hobnobbing in high society was bound to have some bearing on the Thomas Cromwell of pop and his music, and it was fortuitous that as he was enveloped into the bosom of the aristocracy that he hit on a formula to write the same oleaginous ballad over and over again to handsome remuneration (play “Dance Away” and “Slave to Love” back to back and you’ll see what I mean). They’re still good songs, especially compared with the output of lesser mortals, but they belong to that other Roxy Music, the one owned by the mainstream that has no perception of the abrasive musical insurgency of the past. The first era ends in 1975, and the final trace of the “orchid born on a coal tip” as Ferry described himself once, the last remaining sign of the fuliginous grit of the north-east, can be found in the battle cry of Whirlwind and that opening “Maaaydaaaaaaay!” line that so emboldens.

“There she blows!” he howls a bit later in this nautical adventure perhaps inspired by Moby-Dick, though Ferry would see himself less a Captain Ahab and more a Captain Cook, a derring-do nobleman originally born a commoner. When Roxy Music got together again in 1978, their album “Manifesto” would be a strange mix of new-wave experimentation that didn’t quite work, and sentimental songs that opened up a whole new demographic they’d pursue to the bitter end via the weak “Flesh + Blood” and the cocaine avarice of “Avalon”. “Whirlwind“, then, is the last great Roxy Music rocker, a little bit unloved and under-appreciated, despite having such impressive seafaring legs.

The album holds a bounty of highlights including the lead singles ‘Avalon’ and ‘More Than This’, but also holds so much to be explored in its underbelly with the wonderfully textured ‘True To Life’ always having served as a personal favourite. The fantastic production and mastering on the album make it a must-have for any budding record collectors out there.  

Roxy Music 1972 Debut Album

Roxy Music (1972)

Roxy Music’s debut album is full of ideas – Andy Mackay later said “we certainly didn’t invent eclecticism but we did say and prove that rock ‘n’ roll could accommodate – well, anything really.” The first side, especially on editions that include the early single ‘Virginia Plain’, is amazing.

What a difference a couple of months can make. The first album unexpectedly climbed as high as No 10 in the UK charts, and then out of nowhere appeared the single “Virginia Plain“, fully formed and swaggering, peacock-like, somehow sounding light years ahead of its nine predecessors. If the first album is a triumph of will and dilettantism, then “Virginia Plain” is a genuine slab of pop alchemy: cool, catchy and cutting-edge as hell, with an undercurrent of exoticism and sexual adventure. With its staccato keys, thrilling stop/start motion and noises from the future, it is suave to the point of decadent, sweeping you off your feet and flying you down to Rio. “We haven’t got any further than this; it’s a disgrace,” Brian Eno commented in reference to the Walker Brothers’ 1978 album Nite Flights, when filmed for the Scott Walker: 30 Century Man documentary in 2006, and it’s hard not to feel similar sentiments about “Virginia Plain”, released a whole six years earlier. Mine the annals of music history if you will, but you’ll be hard pressed to find another compact three minutes of pop more perfect than Roxy’s first single proper.

Roxy Music deliver twisted country on ‘If There Is Something’ and deconstruct pop music on ‘Remake/Remodel’, quoting Wagner and The Beatles. The production, by King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield, is a weakness, and the second side can be a rough listen, but most of the group’s ideas originate here.

Roxy’s Music’s 1972 debut opened with ‘Remake/Remodel’, with the band at their most futuristic. The song featured a brief solo from each of the six member. Aside from steady rhythm powerhouse Paul Thompson, it’s fair to say the Roxy of 1972 were musicians finding their way, and Brian Eno on the VCS3 synth notoriously couldn’t really play a note (he still can’t, not that that’s hurt his career any). The gloriously egalitarian nature of pop means ability can come in a variety of different guises, and County Durham’s Bryan Ferry, with his trembling voice, turned apparent shortcomings into strengths. He also approached the serious art of song writing with a dadaist playfulness, in opposition to the prevailing trend in the early 70s of earnest confessional singer/songwriters. Bryan also had a lovely head of hair, and still does. “Re-make/Re-model” is a relentless, pulverising, sonic car crash of a song, and one of the cars in the pile up bears the number plate “CPL 593H” (sung repeatedly as the song’s only chorus), apparently driven by a beautiful woman Ferry noticed in the rear-view mirror on the way to the studio. 

The highlight, however, is ‘If There Is Something’ which begins as a modernised pastiche of country music that later melts away into a new, slightly darker and more intense phase of the track thanks to Eno’s work on the synthesiser. All in all, the album is fantastic as a starting point for the band, but by its very nature as a drawing board, it is a tad unbalanced. 

Roxy Music Siren

Siren (1975)

Siren“, the last album from Roxy Music’s original tenure, is a divisive record because it blends the band’s art-rock with dance and pop textures. But Roxy Music’s daring creativity is still intact, especially on rockers like ‘Whirlwind’ and ‘Both Ends Burning’, and the lengthy epic ‘Sentimental Fool’. The single ‘Love Is The Drug’ was Roxy Music’s biggest hit to date, and John Gustafson’s bass-line influenced Chic’s ‘Good Times’. The album, after all, holds the band’s greatest dance track, ‘Love is the Drug’, which to this day remains the groups biggest hit.

Roxy Music started dabbling with disco on 1975’s “Siren“, but it didn’t affect the quality of their music, with highlights like ‘Sentimental Fool’. The album’s a great showcase for drummer Paul Thompson. The band broke up after this album, reconvening for 1979’s “Manifesto“.

Devotees of Rolling Stone will recognize “Siren” as the most lauded of Roxy’s career. Ferry doesn’t “oversing.” The band’s affection for R&B (“She Sells” and “Could It Happen to Me?” are Stax songs given a lacquer) is pronounced. But I don’t want restraint from Roxy, even when it produces a twosome as bleak as “Nightingale” and “Just Another High,” in which, on the former, Ferry accepts he’s been for years hearing bird calls instead of women’s voices; and on the latter he admits to playing himself for a sucker. Many American listeners consider these attitudes — consider how the direction in which his career unfurled contexualized these moves  — shows of maturity.  These people never understood how irony deepens shows of feeling.

Roxy Music Stranded

Stranded (1973)

Roxy Music’s first album without Brian Eno sacrifices some of their experimental edge, instead focusing on lush textures. “Stranded” also features some of Ferry’s most dramatic vocals – his foray into French on ‘A Song for Europe’ is surprisingly effective. The multi-part ‘Mother of Pearl’ is one of Roxy Music’s best-loved songs, with Ferry’s campy vocals delivering lines like “Thus: even Zarathustra/Another-time-loser/Could believe in you”.

This is the first album to show a lack of experimentalism which can definitely be attributed to the absence of Eno. Fortunately, with the recruitment of Eddie Jobson, the album still oozes with experimental synthesiser elements; for instance, the groovy little number ‘Amazona’ works its way into an interstellar transcendence somewhere in the middle of the track that I personally can’t get enough of.

The Roxy Music song, ‘Mother of Pearl’, is taken from “Stranded”, Roxy Music’s second full length album of 1973. It was the first to be released without Brian Eno, who left after tensions with frontman Bryan Ferry; reportedly Eno was having more success with the ladies.

With the dandyish Eno deposed and Ferry’s concomitant solo career looking ever backwards, it was somewhat inevitable that Roxy Music would plough a more traditional furrow going forward, though the change between “For Your Pleasure” and “Stranded” isn’t as radical as some like to think. Even Eno somewhat magnanimously claimed the latter was the better album (though not many other people think that, and he might not either). It was a severed alliance as significant to the 70s as Morrissey and Marr’s was to the 80s and Anderson and Butler’s was to the 90s, with the latter offering up often spooky parallels: both Roxy Music and Suede were perceived by many to have lost an irreplaceable creative member after the cult favourite second album; both shared a similar creative trajectory over the first five albums, scoring their mightiest commercial success with their third album; both had a song called “Trash” and an album cover designed by Peter Saville. You suspect some of this might have been deliberate on Suede’s part, who also recorded their own Street Life on their underpar A New Morning album. It couldn’t lay a glove on the Ferry song, a swashbuckling paean to walking the mean streets to avoid nuisance phone calls. The rambunctious “Stranded” opener immediately told us three things about Roxy 2.0: first, that they were a band that now cooked (especially guitarist Phil Manzanera); second, that new keyboardist and auxiliary musician Eddie Jobson would be a worthy and capable – if very different – replacement for Brian Eno; and third, that Bryan Ferry had plenty left up his beautifully tailored shirt sleeve yet.

Eno called Roxy’s third album his favourite, and he was right, as he was in most things for the first twenty years of a peripatetic career. Dispensing with experiments like “The Bogus Man” meant a farewell to a certain looseness of approach that benefited Manzanera and Mackay, but “Stranded” compensates with Ferry’s most ludicrous vocalizing and breathless compositions. Roxy found a way to turn a night out into a narcissist’s lament and a devastating valentine in “Mother of Pearl”; such is the band’s artistry that it’s not clear whether the valentine is to the lustrous lady or to Ferry himself. Meanwhile Manzanera plays Guitar Hero on “Amazona” and new kid in town Eddie Jobson plays organ like Sunday morning on “Psalm.” All this, and “Serenade” too: my favourite Roxy song that nobody talks about.

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Country Life (1974)

Famous for its titillating cover (I’m a prude, so I’ve shown the censored version here), “Country Life” continued Roxy Music’s classy, textured art-rock. Opener ‘The Thrill Of It All’ is one of the best arranged and produced songs in classic rock – there’s so much going on in the mix, with Eddie Jobson’s violin and Manzanera’s guitar competing for attention. Jobson’s violin is also prominent in the psychedelic ‘Out of the Blue’, while Ferry reportedly played the organ solo on the seething ‘Casanova’.

Whenever I award “Country Life” top honours I remember “Triptych” and “Bitter-Sweet,” a pair of dirges whose hints of lightness rely on a fully committed Ferry but they’re heavy lifts. And “A Really Good Time” leans on the adverb. But “Prairie Rose” is, like “Serenade,” a terrific example of how Ferry could churn happy love songs so long as the band adapted to his mien.

‘The Thrill Of It All’, from 1974’s “Country Life“, is among my favourite production jobs ever. It’s so lush, and there’s so much sonic detail, with Manzanera’s guitars and new recruit Eddie Jobson’s violin.

Can any other band or artist in history lay claim to having as many exhilarating tracks opening their albums? Roxy Music’s first five introductory numbers are surely unassailable, and out of these magnificent starters, there’s a case for The Thrill of It All from Country Life: The Fourth Roxy Music Album, being the most exhilarating of all. The production packs the power of a jet engine. It is enormous in the way so much British rock was in 1974, six-and-a-half minutes long and ripe for the US market. It was no secret Ferry was interested in breaking America – Rod and Elton had just had No 1’s and Bowie and the Bee Gees were making inroads – but it would be a territory where sustained success would ultimately elude him as both singer in Roxy Music and as a solo artist. The song was even released as a single across the Atlantic and nowhere else, and while it failed to chart, “Country Life” did crack the Billboard top 40 for the first time. It was the kind of well-structured, straight-ahead rock leviathan that arch critic Bob Harris (who’d been so sniffy when the band had played “Ladytron” on The Old Grey Whistle Test two years previous) might have found himself tapping his foot along to despite himself. The best thing about the song, though, is Ferry’s debonair delivery: languorous and elastic, playful and cute; he slides in and out of the blue notes and compels you to hang on to his every word.

Written with Roxy oboe/sax stalwart Andy Mackay, “Bitter Sweet” is a startling show tune that finds Ferry remodelling Brechtian cabaret with such panache that one wishes he’d attempted it more often. Delicate vibes and gentle piano strokes at the outset are violently cast aside by a thunderous, portentous bass sound, denoting that there may be trouble ahead. The titular oxymoron is appropriate, with Bryan bitterly berating the hard hearted subject of the song over the sweetest of verses: “Lovers you consume my friend,” he complains, “as others their wine.” Then, just as we’re settling in, the Weimarian oompah of the chorus kicks in, with stabs of disorientating, spiky guitar; when the chorus comes around a second time and we’re prepared for it, Ferry delivers yet another surprise by switching to abrasive German. According to David Buckley, author of The Thrill of It All: The Story of Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music, the “Country Life” tour wasn’t without controversy, with Ferry taking to the stage in “riding breeches and what looked like jackboots”, as well as “raven hair parted to the side”, and all in front of an “RM” logo emblazoned on velvet drapes set into eagle’s wings. While the visuals were almost certainly for aesthetic reasons only, one can only imagine how Twitter might react were a band of Roxy Music’s stature to settle upon such style choices now.

The music within served as a continuity of the effortlessly classy take on glam-rock that they had mastered with the previous two albums. With the first track, they set the bar insurmountably high with likely my favourite on the record.

‘The Thrill Of It All’ is the most technically impressive track on the album thanks to its complex tempo changes, and it’s a fine example of John Punter’s masterful production skills. There really isn’t a weak song on the album and the only reason it’s not in second place is that there are a small number of songs on the next two albums to be revealed that just have more of a catchy quality to them that ranks them among my favourites; those aside, this is the most consistent Roxy release bar one. 

Roxy Music For Your Pleasure

For Your Pleasure (1975)

Roxy Music peaked with their second album, “For Your Pleasure“. With more time in the studio, their experimental tendencies are channelled into stronger material. The long tracks are the most memorable – the lengthy groove of ‘The Bogus Man’, while the inflatable doll tale of ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ culminates in a dramatic Manzanera solo. “For Your Pleasure” is more energetic than most Roxy Music albums – the opener ‘Do The Strand’, the frenetic ‘Editions of You’ (with a great Eno VCS3 synth solo), and ‘Grey Lagoons’ are all punchy, while the shimmering ‘Beauty Queen’ is marvellous. When asked by the British music press, Morrissey could ‘only think of one truly great British album: “For Your Pleasure.”

Roxy Music’s second album, “For Your Pleasure“, is at the top of the pile. The album is without a doubt up there with the greatest of the glam rock era. Morrissey, the ex-frontman of The Smiths, once cited the album as the “one truly great British album” – one of the few things he and I almost see eye to eye on. The band had taken all the strengths of the first, self-titled, album and tailored them into something so classy and vibrant that one finds it difficult to find a boring second in the LP. There is a fine balance between energetic and slower moments throughout, all the while complimented by Brian Eno’s synth prowess. 

I find it hard to choose a favourite track on the album, but a personal highlight is ‘Beauty Queen’, where Ferry displays a fantastic vocal performance amongst exotic and, somehow, glimmering soundscapes mastered in the instrumentals.

‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ was from the group’s sophomore album “For Your Pleasure“, a societal critique centered around a blowup doll. “I blew up your body/But you blew my mind,” Ferry sings before Phil Manzanera launches into an epic guitar solo:

Roxy Music kicked off their masterly “For Your Pleasure” album with the ebullient “Do the Strand“, a song about a made-up dance craze that tipped a chapeau to the fashionable London thoroughfare of the same name. Ferry’s words are daringly dandyish and frivolous, as he throws references aplenty from La Goulue (the French Can-can dancer) to Nijinsky (the Russian ballet dancer), artworks such as Guernica and the Mona Lisa, and even a witty play on words involving King Louis XVI (“Louis Seize he prefer laissez-faire le Strand”). His confidence as a lyricist was exploding as he became ever more tongue-tied and shifty in interviews, a problem compounded by Eno’s charisma and genius gift for the soundbite. There’s little doubt that Ferry was also cheekily referencing the “you’re never alone with a Strand” cigarette slogan. The black-and-white advert featured a companionless chap taking succour from a fag on a wet London street; famously the Lonely Man Theme by Cliff Adams charted, while sales of Strand cigarettes plummeted and the brand was soon taken off the market. Themes of desolation are explored throughout “For Your Pleasure“, as well as companionship of a more risque nature, as we’ll see from our next song.

Roxy’s influence is wide-ranging, It’s been argued that they were second only to The Beatles in terms of shaping the direction of British music in the latter half of the twentieth century. However, outside of the musical acts who looked up to them, Roxy Music are generally forgotten about or at least overlooked in favor of more popular bands of the era.

Finally, I couldn’t end this list without a mention for ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’, the track is a unique art-rock masterclass, the poetic lyrics tell a most obscure and slightly creepy story of an inflatable doll.

Every Roxy Music album ranked in order of greatness

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