Friday 18 March 2011

Roxy Music: Ultra Pulp Images On The Video-Cassette Of Your Mind

THE FIRST COSMIC rock law of the Seventies is this: "Everybody is a star". The response is: "So what?"

Roxy Music, undeniably, have formulated the best "so what?" around. I suspect that a lot of the criticism of the band is motivated by jealousy.

Their method of breaking into the music scene has been labelled the work of coldly calculating intellectuals – as if one has to bust his balls touring the M-ways of the hinterlands before one's art reaches suitably grandiose levels (as if the rock scene has no place for intellectuals).
That Roxy hail from working class backgrounds (the only origins for a true rock star) makes their articulateness and intellectualism all the more frivolous and gay.

That people attack their and David Bowie's intellectual postures is cause for considerable concern, because there is an enormously large distrust among the young for intellectualism of any sort. This is not to say that you have to be capable of analysing Nietzche or the meaning of Andy Warhol's art, but, having a wider, more articulate viewpoint does give you greater understanding of and pleasure in the music.

There is also the confused idea that "intellectualism" means "dry and humourless" – like some dusty and archaic Oxford don – while the same critics insist these standards be the guidelines of rock. As if we need 4,000 more ELPs (who, if they had an sense of the absurd, would release a maxi single called ‘Extended Long Player’ or some other silliness). The recent David Bowie debacle in these pages shows just how violently people are prepared to hold on to their old patterns of interpretation. These attitudes extend to a lesser degree to Roxy Music, who are accused of being dilettantes, too computerised (Whispering Bob Harris' view), pretentious, and of all things, frivolous.

The fact is that regardless of whether you choose to elevate your consciousness or wallow in a mire of ignorance, David Bowie and Roxy Music are just the tip of an iceberg.

BRYAN FERRY studied under Richard Hamilton, the English equivalent of Warhol, gaining a good education in pop art. When he realised that even a famous artist could reach only a relatively small part of the mass audience, he turned his attention to music, bringing his art training with him and thus creating 'pop music'. Meaning: a music is full of references to other musical times and eras, as well as films and popular culture in general. This can range from the banal – the wave crashing on the shore in ‘Beauty Queen’ – to the sophisticated – the myriad of references to books, paintings, landmarks, and famous people in ‘Do The Strand’.

Ferry's music often functions on more than one level at once, as in the middle section of ‘Would You Believe’, which has about five ‘fifties trends filtered through The Move, while Andy blows pure Coasters era King Curtis. Or on ‘Editions of You’, with its "crazy music" organ solo straight out of ? and the Mysterions.

The dreaded intellectualism makes its presence known not only in the lyrics but in the manner of presentation. "Is there a heaven?" asks the jaded decadent of ‘In Every Dreamhome A Heartache’, pausing to ponder before concluding, none too conclusively. "I'd like to think so."
Later, he finds the only thing to do at home is pray.

Ferry also stretches and batters words to fit the rhythm, a la Lou Reed: "Lolita and Guerneeka" did the Strand, while "Louis say he preefair laisez-faira Strund."

The lyrics of the first Roxy album tend to be too personal (the "CPF 593A" of ‘Remake/Remodel’ is a license number), but this has been pared away on the second album, leaving cutting wit and wry humour sparkling from lyrics diamond-hard and clear – with judicious use of cliches (a Bryan Ferry obsession) ranging from the obviously humorous (all of ‘Bitters End’; the title is a multilevel joke on Noel Coward) and ‘Pyjamarama’, to the startlingly brilliant: "The words we use tumble...All over your shoulder...gravel hard and loose," from ‘For Your Pleasure’.

Their supposed cynicism is as nihilistic as the early Stones; the unrequited teen of ‘Blue Turns To Grey’ is now the lovelorn lounge lizard of ‘Bitters End’, the confessor of ‘Strictly Confidential’ just a generation more desperate than ‘Satisfaction’.

The piece de resistance of cynicism and coldness, ‘In Every Dream Home ...’, is about as depressing as a Kurt Vonnegut story. Life is, after all, a joke, and I get the impression part of Bryan's reason in writing it is to remind himself of the entrapments that lurk in swish Chelsea palaces of penthouse perfection.

WHILE FERRY'S major forte and interest lies in writing and singing, the other two obvious auteurs' achievements lie in purely musical regions.

Andy McKay and Eno share largely similar musical tastes and philosophies, which is one reason the band isn't torn apart over musical ideology; and, although Eno is becoming the major visual phenomenon of '73, and Andy a "Mr. Music", they are still units within Bryan's vision.
Just watch them live and notice where your attention wanders when Bryan is out of the spotlight. Their musical prowess enables them to conjure forth anything from the charging of conventional rock to Andy's hilarious pastiches of epic film themes (‘The Pride and the Pain’, which precedes their stage act) to that "avant-garde, intellectual" stuff, which they can make us love.

Is there any Stranding kid on your block who doesn't groove to ‘Bogus Man?’ Yet everyone is working entirely at odds to everyone else and, even more importantly, the music doesn't go anywhere. it belongs to the theory that "you can listen to music from point to point and let it come and go" (Andy) or "the fact of repeating something changes it" (Eno). That they can make all the discordant factors work as a song is a tremendous step – but that it also succeeds as Hammeresque creep and clunk, rather than a song trying to sound scary is a tribute to Roxy as a unified band.

The less verbal members of the entourage are what anchor Roxy into solid rock. Phil Manzanera's experience in acid and Soft Machine-rock make his screaming psychedelic solos any song's high-point, especially the cataclysmic live version of ‘Ladytron’, replete with Blue Cheer feedback.

Paul Thompson's powerhouse drumming is almost a cliche of the English style, and it's a joy to feel the thundering road he lays down– the influences, no doubt, of shipyards and construction sites.

Rather than mere songs, these elements combine to encompass entire moods – the tattered nightclub of ‘Beauty Queen’, papiermache palm trees drooping listlessly over the Engelbertish singer crooning about "swimming pool eyes" and "coconut tears", or the pulp-magazine feel of ‘Strictly Confidential’.

Far from being coldly planned, the touches that encapsulate a song are often a spur-of-the moment thought, as in the Fabianesque "mmmm" in the intro of ‘Editions of You’.

Which points up another thing about Roxy – they don't hesitate to go to the real trashpiles of rock for inspiration. I wouldn't be surprised if they cut an even more inept and quintessential version of ‘Surfing Bird’ than the original.

On the videocassette of your mind these moods conjure ultra pulp images of Humphrey "Marlowe" Bogart whisking Lauren Bacall up to his Laurel Canyon Xanadu, and of F. Scott Fitzgerald types throwing handfuls of silver dollars at the windows of the Ambassador Hotel – real Depression era visions of that "screen dream" life at the top.

This taste for trash even exhibits itself on stage, with Manzanera and Mackay leaning heavily towards 30s conceptions of space suits, and Ferry in such wonderfully bizarre contrivances as double zippered pants. Actual stage gymnastics are generally restricted to delightfully sincere imitations of moves from the bible of rockstarobatics, with kitsch elements like choreographed dance steps as icing. Periodically, Bryan will flesh out a songline with pantomimed movements, but it is interesting to note that he relates more this way to a TV camera than he does an audience.

In any case, the visuals are merely pleasant additions; those 15-year-olds didn't come to clutch at Bryan's legs because of optical elegance or because they know who Baby Jane Holzer is, or "because they call it 'Renaysance'." It's because Roxy know the secret of making a great single.

Which brings us back to that bugaboo: intellectualism and articulation. You don't have to understand Roxy's quirks and fetishes to love them, any more than you have to understand Dali's symbolism to be destroyed by his paintings. But you're missing out on half the fun. And, in these grey, supposedly serious days, anyone willing to frolic in frivolity is worth grabbing on to, especially when they can giggle simultaneously on several tracks. Who knows? You may even like the increased horizons.

NME, 28 April 1973
©John Ingham,

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