“Take me on a roller coaster
Take me for an airplane ride
Take me for a six days wonder but don’t you
Don’t you throw my pride aside besides
What’s real and make believe
Baby Jane’s in Acapulco we are flyin’ down to Rio”
Roxy Music were one of the leading lights of the Glam movement and yet to a large extent their music passed me by and I didn’t pick up on it until 20 years later. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of them, I knew them by sight, I liked their weird (to me) image and I loved ‘Virginia Plain’ but other than that they didn’t seem to make it into our household.
In fact, I’m embarrassed to say, that my main memory of them was their artwork rather than their music. I remember standing at the front of Woolworths going through the LPs and, after studying a topless woman on the front of a Pink Floyd LP (‘A Nice Pair’), I discovered ‘Country Life’. For a growing lad this was definitely an interesting album cover and I studied the album intently as I pretended I was going to buy it. Unfortunately I was shopping with my mum who walked up behind me and asked what I was looking at. For some reason my brain never worked well when lying to my parents and I always came up with the weirdest of statements. This time the lie based itself around the fact that I was studying the lingerie the women were wearing. There were two major problems with this lie, the first was that the lingerie was see-through; the second was that I didn’t know how to pronounce lingerie, I’d only ever seen it written down and I presumed that it rhymed with finger. So turning to my mum I found myself saying “It’s alright mum I wasn’t looking at the girls I was looking at their linger-ey”.
Maybe I now understand why none of their LPs made it into our house!
Despite Bryan Ferry’s present day appearance and personae he was born into a traditional working class family. The son of a coal miner, he developed a taste in art that he studied at Newcastle University. This move also enabled him to indulge his passion for music and he joined the band ‘The Gas Board’.
While many people remember Roxy Music as ‘the group with Bryan Ferry’ they were in fact a complete group with each member possessing skills to compliment, and contrast with, the others. Leading from the front however made Ferry the most visible and it was Ferry that started the ball rolling in 1971 as he placed the advert that would result in the group’s formation. Advertising for a keyboard player to join him and Graham Simpson (bassist with ‘The Gas Board’) they received a reply from Andy MacKay. He was brought on board despite the fact that he couldn’t play keyboards (but he did own a synthesiser); he could however play sax and oboe. Fortuitously he also knew a guy from university called Brian Eno who could play synthesiser and was interested in electronic music.
Eno was recruited into Roxy Music as a ‘non musician’ (his words) and initially supported the group with technical advice and from behind the mixing desk (supported by his synths and tape recorders) when the group played live. However this initial reluctance to be a ‘musician’ within the group soon changed and Eno joined the group on stage where his OTT outfits helped to define the group’s image and give impetus to the burgeoning Glam movement.
The group was completed with the arrival of drummer Paul Thompson from ‘Influence’ (where he played with John Miles – “Music is my first love and it will be my last……….”) and guitarist Paul Manzanera from ‘Quiet Sun’.
The band’s first LP was released in 1972 and delivered a devastating musical mix of Ferry 50s style vocals with 60s rhythms and 70s electronics. The variety of styles that shouldn’t have worked together were the elements that gave Roxy Music their distinctive, unique sound as the artistic tensions between Ferry and Eno played out across the music. An early casualty of the group was Simpson who left after the album was recorded; the group never brought in another fulltime bassist relying instead on temporary relationships and session musicians.
Their first single ‘Virginia Plain’ saw them hit number 4 in the charts in August 1972. With their follow up ‘Pyjamarama’ making number 10 in March of the following year it was plain that the group were here to stay.
Their second album ‘For Your Pleasure’ was released in 1973 and contained the classic, if unfathomable ‘Do The Strand’ (“Tired of the tango? Fed up with fandango? Bored of the beguine? The samba wasn’t your scene? Wary of the waltz? And mashed potato schmaltz?” – excellent lyrics and an excellent song that for some reason was released in Europe, the US and Japan but not in the UK?). This album was also the last with Eno. The differences between him and Ferry, coupled with his boredom of the rock star lifestyle and touring, led to him leaving the band. While Eno went on to become a legend of electronic and ambient music Ferry took on the role of band leader.
With Eno being replaced by Curved Air’s Eddie Jobson the band moved away from the experimental art rock of their first two albums and developed a more traditional rock approach. Jobson’s experience brought them a greater depth of rock knowledge and helped lead to the group recording two classic LPs ‘Stranded’ in 1973 and ‘Country Life’ in 1974. ‘Stranded’ also gave them their third top ten hit with ‘Street Life’.
Alongside Roxy Music’s success Ferry started a solo career in 1973. Away from the group his recordings allowed his style to develop into a modern day crooner as he concentrated on primarily covering songs in his own style. Ferry made the charts in his own right in September ’73 with his version of Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”.
With releases alternating between group and individual, Roxy Music started to be seen as more of a vehicle for Ferry than as a unit in its own right. The hits however kept coming, their fifth album ‘Siren’ gave the group a number 2 in the UK charts with ‘Love is the Drug’ (it was also their sole US hit, its success no doubt helped by its disco vibe) while Ferry hit the top 5 with his cover ‘Let’s Stick Together’. Despite the hits the dynamics within the group were under pressure and Roxy Music temporarily disbanded in 1976 after touring in support of ‘Siren’.
The group returned in 1978 with ‘Manifesto’ but the Roxy Music of old was gone. There was now a smooth, laid back approach totally at odds with the Roxy Music who had brought difficult lyrics, time signatures and images to the fore in their early releases. While they would go on to record some of their biggest commercial hits with this style the elements that had linked the group to Glam were severed.