Interviews / Reviews
Look Back In Languor
14 June 1997
Look back in languor
From The Guardian, June 14 1997, by Michael Bracewell
How did a bunch of art-school poseurs become the acknowledged grandmasters of cool? It took even them by surprise. And 25 years on, new bands still strive for Roxy Music's way of marrying look and sound. Michael Bracewell seeks out answers from the elder statesmen of glam pop.
Twenty-five years ago this month, a six-piece band of futuristic teddy boys and mutant matinee idols released their first, self-titled album to instant critical acclaim. A month later, when Roxy Music appeared on Top Of The Pops to perform their first single, Virginia Plain, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about. Here was a group who looked as though they came from not only another era - the Fifties as they might be reconstructed in the 21st century - but also from another planet. Indeed, the keyboard and tape player (who had ever heard of someone plaving tape before?), Brian Eno, had claimed with straight-faced passivity that he was a visitor from the planet Xenon. But having an alien in the band seemed almost less outrageous than the unholy barrage of nerve-jarring electronic squeals and furiously-accelerated piano chords that the group pumped out.
The principal musicians were a sight to behold. Guitarist Phil Manzanera - his eyes concealed behind the glittering lenses of his famous bug spectacles - was thrashing the lead guitar with a demonic swagger. Oboist and sax player Andy Mackay, chirruping an improbable woodwind solo, had all the self-assurance of a classical maestro, but looked like an esoteric rocker. The drummer, Paul Thompson, reversed the time-honoured trend of hiding the percussionist behind the rest of the band by playing centre-stage in an off-the-shoulder fake leopard-skin.
And then there was Bryan Ferry's extraordinary vocal style, in which breathlessly staccato phrasing gave way to something between a fox's bark and a high-camp crooner in the throes of psychosis. But by the time he had reached the pivotal break in the song - "We are flying, down to Ree-Ohh" - the bewildered studio audience of youthfully plump youngsters had ceased their customary expressionless jigging up and down, and were trying to work out just what manner of adult pop freakishness had crashlanded into their hitherto teenage world of Marc Bolan glam pout and Donlly Osmond puppy love.
"If Roxy Music had been like cooking," says Andy Mackay, sitting in the peaceful drawing room of his elegant house overlooking Clapham Common, "it would be like the dish in Marinetti's futurist cookbook called Car Crash: a hemisphere of pureed dates and a hemisphere of pureed anchovies, which are then stuck together in a ball and served in a pool of raspberry juice. I mean, it's virtually inedible, but it can be done."
The founding members of Roxy Music - Ferry, Eno, Manzanera and Mackay - have all aged gracefully in the pursuit of their solo careers sinee the group officially disbanded in 1982. In many ways, Mackay, Ferry and Eno resemble distinguished alumni of their art-school and university backgrounds, who can reflect on their early, rampant success as avant-garde pop stars with a mixture of humour, sagacity and quiet amazement at how a project as experimental and open to the accidents of creative collaboration could have accrued such massive sales and such a mythology. Glam revivalism is glittering like gold dust on the surface of the zeitgeist, with groups such as Suede and Placebo rediscovering the pop power of satin and face powder. The trend will heighten, with Todd Haynes's film Velvet Goldmine - currently filming in London - being more or less a total homage to the era Roxy Music defined, and whose music will feature extensively on the film's soundtrack.
Andy Mackay, in middle age, is dressed in a pale suit and gold tie; he has the countenance and tone of a grave but approachable lecturer. Before acquiring the heavy blue eye-shadow and sensual quiff with which he appeared on the inner sleeve of the first Roxy Music album, he had studied literature and music at the University of Reading, where his interest in electronic and avant-garde music had brought him into contact with Brian Eno, who was studying at Winchester School of Art from 1966 to 1969. Eno had become president of the Students' Union at Winchester, and appropriated Union funds in order to invite prestigious musicians to lecture there - usually to himself. Thus, between Reading and Winchester, Mackay and Eno forged a collaboration that would also include Roxy Music's future publicist and sleeve-note writer, Simon Puxley, who had been in the performance-art group Sunshine with Mackay.
"One of the things about early Roxy Music," says Mackay, "is that we all thought that we were doing something different to the end result. When we did a supposedly 'difficult' song, like Would You Believe on the first LP, we thought that we were playing a very funky rock song. Or when we were playing live, we thought of ourselves as very edgy rock 'n' roll. We were all throwing things in, so you do have to deconstruct the band. I was bringing a more classical influence, perhaps; Phil Manzanera came with a slightly West Coast American style; Bryan had a strange kind of Fifties and Sixties pop influence. And so the music came out in a very particular way.
"All of us were from university art departments or art school, except for Paul Thompson, who had worked in a shipyard. And I think it was important to Roxy Music that there was one band member who was non-intellectual, very physical and just drummed. It was a surprise to us that we were so hugely popular in the mainstream. On our very first dates, when we drove around in my father's battered and unglamorous Austin with the gear on the roof, we were far more art-school. Bryan used to play at the side of the stage, because he wasn't quite confident enough to stand in the centre and sing; Eno was mixing the sound and also playing the synthesiser, so he would actually be in the middle of the audience - if there was one. Then, in the middle of the stage, there was this kind of black hole, where one or other of us might venture to play a solo. All of that changed with Virginia Plain; when that became a hit single, we became a pop group - which we hadn't really thought about. Bryan had maybe thought about it: he'd wanted to be a pop singer, but hadn't quite got around to knowing how to do it."
With this fusion of classical, avant-garde electronics and rock 'n' roll, Roxy Music resembled their heaviest influence, the Velvet Underground, in more ways than one. For the Velvet Underground, it was the mixture of John Cale's interest in the music of John Cage and LaMonte Young (mirrored by Mackay and Eno), with Lou Reed's pop-purist song writing (shared by Ferry), and drummer Mo Tucker's ability to hit a New York phone directory for half an hour without stopping (echoed by the physicality of Thompson). Out of seemingly disparate influences, both Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground honed a musical style that would become definitive - or "seminal" - by virtue of the unique, accidental contrasts that their respective personnel brought together. Which is maybe why both groups have produced a host of imitators, and been so influential. In their time, as the Velvet Underground had touched groups as different as the CowboyJunkies and the Jesus & Mary Chain, so Roxy Music would breathe life into Ultravox and Duran Duran
"I think we were about collaging ideas and techniques," says Mackay, "but it was a fairly violent sort of collage. Interpreting a piece by John Cage gives you enormous confidence to do something on a pop album that other people might think was weird. Obviously, we were all aware of the visual avant-garde, so what seemed daring in pop seemed conventional to us. What's interesting is that we were immensely influenced by the Velvet Underground - but the accidental synthesis that we couldn't control was the fact that the Englishness of RoxyMusic gave it that shift towards something rather different. And I think that Bryan had a tremendous influence on people who perhaps wouldn't have been confident in going out and becoming singers, because they didn't sound enough like soul or rock singers or whatever. And then they heard Bryan - and Bowie, come to that - who both sang like Englishmen. The Beatles had sort of done that, and the Kinks, but there was always a slight acknowledgement of the American influence. Somehow, Roxy Music managed to sound both rock 'n' roll and European - which was the important thing about us and our influence later on."
What swiftly became evident was that Roxy Music could combine their image and their sound in a way that hadn't been seen since the collegiate doo-wop group Sha Na Na had blown the hippies off stage at Woodstock. But where the showbiz anarchy of a group such as Sha Na Na had been founded in besequinned slapstick, Roxy Music's cabaret futura was unsmiling and opaque - set in the aspic of poised cool. In 1973, when the group performed their minimalist paean to luxury living and sexual fantasy, In Every Dream Home A Heartache, on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, Bryan Ferry's unblinking stare would bring to mind the lament of a disconnected millionaire sleep-talking through a wet dream.
Ferry was more off-beat than natural as a vocalist. His distinctive singing-style was melodramatic to the point of caricature, but the effect was shot through with an impassioned eroticism and the languorous anguish of a courtly lover. His singing reflected the operatic drama of his lyrics, through which he acted out the part of the archetypal doomed romantic. As futuristic dandies, Roxy Music were like a fin-desiecle swoon into the arms of technology; as a lead vocalist, Ferry was like a Marcello Mastroianni from Mars. "We'll make the cognoscenti think... " he crooned on the last line of the last song on the album Roxy Music. And they did.
"But I wonder whether Bryan, at the time, was really aware of what he was doing," muses Mackay. "The band he was in before, the Gas Board, was basically a soul band; and it's very interesting that as soon as he got the chance to launch his solo career off the back of Roxy with These Foolish Things, he immediately did covers of all the songs by singers who he admired - which were soul songs. I think he thought he was singing one thing, but because he was English, it came out differently."
Now wearing the mantle of coolest English gentleman with increasing weariness, Bryan Ferry is sitting in the cavernous, incense-perfumed basement of his office near Kensington High Street, reminiscing about the famous people he has met in lifts.
"I was once in an elevator with Stan Getz... and one with Charlton Heston, in Newcastle of all places..." He begins to laugh, tickled by the seeming absurdity of his early contact with the heroes of glamour.
Ferry's famous raven-black hair is greying slightly at the temples, and it suits him. It is almost as though he has been waiting to grow into the leaner features of middle age, but his heavy-lidded eyes retain the glaze of sadness that makes their owner an embodiment of romantic glamour. His voice is quiet, and touched with the faintest lilt of Geordie. He is dressed in jeans and a dark flannel shirt, discarding a loosely-knotted navy-blue scarf as he settles down to talk. After years of celebrity his natural shyness has been replaced with a reserve that can make his recollections sound almost like apologies. And, like Andy Mackay, he has a certain bewilderment at just how famous Roxy Music became.
Ferry was born in 1945, in a pit village called Washington, near Durham. He first appeared on stage when he was 15, playing, ironically, the hapless suitor Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who is tricked into wearing extremely outrageous clothes in order to be ridiculed in front of the woman he loves. You could almost argue that his entire career as a pop idol has been the precise reverse of that first leading role.
"I got a review in the Sunderland Echo for my Malvolio, and I remember that there was a photograph of me. That was the first picture of myself in a newspaper, and it was like a quick flash of fame. I loved dressing up as somebody else; it was much easier than going on stage as yourself. To become somebody else was fabulous, and I think that that's what I did in a lot of the Roxy songs - I simply became somebody else.
"When I was a boy, I had a paper round, and I used to read the Melody Maker before I put it through someone's letter-box. I remember I dragged my Uncle Brian off to see the Chris Barber band at Newcastle City Hall; then, when I got a bit braver, I'd go into town on the bus to see concerts on my own-dressed in a white trenchcoat, aged 12. I'd probably seen the adverts for Strand cigarettes, but I was very into style. My sister and I would sit in the cinema and watch any old rubbish. That was all you did; you didn't have television... Well, we got one when Newcastle were in the Cup, but so did everyone in Newcastle. It was ten shillings a week from Radio Rentals. We were very poor, you see. So I think it's fair to say that Roxy Music, from my point of view, were the reverse of this background."
Ferry studied painting at Newcastle University, where leading British Pop artist Richard Hamilton was a tutor. Here, Ferry formed his first groups - the Banshees, and then the Gas Board - both of which performed covers of soul and rhythm 'n' blues standards. The Gas Board would include Graham Simpson, who would later play on the first Roxy Music album, and John Porter, who would play bass on their second album, For Your Pleasure. And yet, Ferry was committed enough to his art-school career to leave the Gas Board when he was sitting his finals, and to take advantage of a travelling scholarship from the Royal College Of Art in order to buy a year in London, where he put together Roxy Music.
Prior to the band's overnight success, Andy Mackay, Bryan Ferry and their future press officer Simon Puxley were all supply-teaching to make ends meet. As ever, it was the sheer diversity of elements that eventually created the Roxy Music sound and image.
"I'd become aware of Cage and the art composers," says Ferry, "and so my head was full of all kinds of different music which came into Roxy. I wanted to do something very passionate, and hopefully very clever as well; to try to create something more than just throwaway, but hopefully not pretentious. I got a house just up the road from here, and Graham Simpson came down. I started writing songs on an old harmonium I bought for ten quid, which enabled me to play sustained chords. Then, through a friend from Newcastle - the artist Tim Head - I met Andy Mackay, who also stayed... Whenever anyone arrived, they stayed!
"It was rather like The Magnificent Seven - building up the band. We made a list of about 20 names for the group; we thought it should be magical or mystical but not mean anything, like cinema names - Locarno, Gaumont, Rialto... Odeon wouldn't have worked. Then Andy said that he knew this guy called Brian Eno, who had a really big tape recorder, and so Eno came to tape us. I'll never forget the sight of Brian lugging in this enormous, German industrial tape recorder. Eno, of course, was interested in electronic music. And so he started fiddling around while Andy played, and then he stayed as well. You can imagine the scene: Andy and Bryan making this extraordinarysound, and me pedalling away furiously on this old harmonium."
Eno, whose current career as a musician, producer and conceptual artist has brought him to the position of making a controversial speech at the Turner Prize awards ceremony about the role of contemporary art, opts to e-mail his views on Roxy Music, before boarding a steamer to St Petersburg. Eno is a conceptual theoretician above all else, and he possesses a genius for converting intellectual ideas into their material form.
It is telling that a former member of Roxy Music should, in middle age, be both an editorial consultant at Faber & Faber publishing and a visiting lecturer at the Royal College Of Art. ''What was different about Roxy Music was that we were quite ironic, and this was new at the time," transmits Eno, whose role in the definitive line-up of Roxy Music was crucial, prompting rumours that his decision to leave the band after the second album was due largely to a conflict of personalities between himself and Ferry. "We came out of a context where the accepted mode for pop musicians - and most artists, actually - was to be apparently sincere, committed to one's art and immersed within it. We, on the other hand, wanted to do something that was as much to do with showbiz as with the seriousness with which rock had come to regard itself. And the other thing was thatwe wanted to be able to meld our interest in the Fine Arts - particularly Pop Art for Bryan, and contemporary Cage or Cardew-type music for me - with this amazing vehicle called pop music. Roxy was a very unlikely combination of individuals. We never made any attempt to reconcile these differences, and we thought that theywere a source of strength.
"There was a definite Janus feeling abroad at the time: looking to the past in a kitsch way, and imagining the future as it might be - but perhaps in an equally kitsch way. Our costumes were quite deliberate takes on those Fifties visions of space nobility - the masters of the Galactic Parliament and so on. But we wanted to make the world sit up and pay attention to itself, and to reflect its images back to it in weird combinations that hadn't been seen before. To locate romance and threat in strange new places - to look beautiful, but in ways that men had not thought of looking beautiful before. But we really didn't think that the music was that radical. We were quite surprised by how people took to it, and how different it seemed to them."
On the back of Virginia Plain and the first alburn, Roxy Music went within a matter of weeks from art-school obscurity to supporting major stars such as Alice Cooper and David Bowie. And at a time of proliferating pop media, with an accent on the latest teen-style music magazines which catered for a youthful audience of glam fans, as well as the more earnest rock press, the group managed to triumph in both camps. The "accidental synthesis", as Andy Mackay describes it, of melting down pop, rock and the avant-garde, then caught the rising wave of pop-theatrical stylishness and gave Roxy Music a succession of best-selling records throughout the first half of the Seventies.
The departure of Brian Eno more or less coincided with Roxy Music's rise - on the strength of their chart-topping third album Stranded - to super-group status. Eno was replaced by Eddie Jobson, complete with a Perspex viola, and the new single, Street Life, became a defining moment of pop cool.
"Looking back now," says Ferry, "I think that we really lost something - really lost a lot - from not working with Brian Eno any more. When Eddie joined and Brian left, I thought the sound was more musical; but, in an ideal world, I wish that Brian had stayed and Eddie had joined."
"Let's just say that I wanted to see the world," says Eno, who is now working closely with Bryan Ferry once more.
Stranded, Country Life and Siren each compounded the original formula of Roxy's first two LPs, defining their flamboyant image and turning their concerts into fashion statements. Indeed, the "look" of Roxy Music was so much a part of their phenomenon that in 1973, the New Musical Express ran a review of the audience as opposed to the concert: rows of boys with floppy fringes and khaki shirts; eager girls wearing pill-box hats, hip-hugging skirts and anything at all made out of fake leopard-skin. As a received idea, Roxy Music was Forties revivalism with loads of slap, for "all the young dudes" who had left their elder siblings at home with the Beatles and the Stones. And, as Roxy Music's in-house fashion designer Antony Price comments: "It seemed to me that before Roxy Music, fashion hated rock and rock hated fashion."
"The audiences certainly did invent a look," muses Mackay. "They dressed up for Roxy Music concerts, but it seemed to come from nowhere, very quickly and spontaneously. I suppose that Amanda Lear, on the cover of ForYourPleasure, had a kind of glam look; but these girls were turning up in mesh veils and Forties shoes... It does seem strange that Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and myself are all very shy people, because it doesn't come across that way. It simply became much easier to focus on the music when we were wearing these outrageous clothes."
"I was totally in love with all of them," Mackay's wife had mentioned earlier, with reference to the group's romantic impact on generations of young women, "and then I got to marry one of them."
"I was crazy about Bryan Ferry," observes Brian Eno's assistant, "and now I've got Brian Eno for a brother-in-law."
The Roxy look - from futuristic teddy boys through gaucho chic, GI chic and Ferry's impeccable white tuxedo - was a direct reflection of the group's musical and lyrical obsession with a kind of time-travelling between different notions of glamour. Roxy Music took the shock of the old as a presentiment of the future. As Simon Puxley wrote in his sleeve notes to the first album: "What's the date again? (it's so dark in here) 1962? or 20 years on?" Here was the agenda that the New Romantics would pick up on in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
"They were pulling stuff out of the past, but constantly presenting themselves as the future," says Puxley, as he takes down vast albums of Roxy press cuttings and contact sheets for cover art from a bank of white shelves in Bryan Ferry's office. It is interesting to note that these shelves also contain some first editions of Wyndham Lewis's novels (Ferry took the typeface used on the cover of Roxy Music's Manifesto from Lewis's Vorticist magazine, BLAST), and a few examples of art-deco style erotica - the point where pin-up meets the applied arts.
The Roxy "cover girls" on each album made a febrile statement about the band's mission to marry erotic romance to notions of the muse as fetishised centrefold. Kari-Ann, Amanda Lear and - in a barely dressed pose and suggestively - positioned middle fingers, which earned the sleeve a ban in America - Konnie and Evelyn on the cover of Country Life, were all straddling the divide between a lingerie advert in Tatler and sophisticated pornography. But they were precisely articulate about Ferry's musical interpretation of love, lust, or unrequited love. His then girlfriend, model Jerry Hall, would complete the classic set on Siren: a come-hither mermaid washed in aquamarine, with jade coloured false fingernails like offensive weapons.
"The cover girls were like my ideal fans," says Ferry. "In fact, it was rather like designing the perfect fan as well as the music. The girls on Country Life were the sister and girlfriend of Michael Karoli, from the German rock group Can. We wanted it to be like they were at some amazing country house party, caught in the headlights of a car as they emerged from some encounter in their underwear... I don't really have a fixed notion of glamour; I love the glamour of Las Vegas, for instance - the extravagance of showgirls with long false eyelashes, masses of hair and high heels. I think that's fabulous, even though it's completely tacky.
"Very importantly, I'd met Antony Price by then and as a fashion designer, he was vital to Roxy Music. We didn't feel that we were a part of Glam Rock; it was different sense of style altogether, and Price made wonderful clothes - like some kind of sculptor. He loved dressing us up. I had a good talent, I think, for spotting people who could help me get what I want. I will generally try to take the credit for everything, but with Roxy it was very collaborative. Nicholas de Ville's art direction, for instance, was hugely important with its attention to details like the serrated edges of the Fifties-style postcards of us on the first album. But I was amazed by the extent of our popularity. I had felt that Roxy Music were like genuine Pop Art, but I was thrilled thatwe could get an audience way beyond the art galleries."
Roxy Music's manipulation of style, fashion and image was emphasised by their breathlessly-glamorous practice of crediting the names of their hairdressers (Smile), fashion designer (Price) and cover girl on each album. At a time when pop and rock, however glammed-up, were anxious to retain a street edge or the mysticism of far-out lifestyles, Roxy Music introduced the sophisticated internationalism of Vogue or the Sloane Square jet-set to both their songs and their image. Like the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, which Ferry had hymned on 2 HB (Humphrey Bogart as opposed to the pencil), Roxy represented a world of glamorous fantasy which brought the avant-garde to the British high street by way of the catwalk.
In the late Seventies, Price's shop, Plaza, at the Fulham end of the King's Road, would become a mecca for art-school punks who had welcomed Roxy Music's return with Manifesto (1979) and studied the eerie art-work on its cover, in which mannequins dressed in Plaza clothes were caught in frozen, joyless poses as the In Crowd at a lifeless nightclub. Steeped in a potent ambivalence towards its own image, this was pop for posers and a comment on the vacuity of the high life. Roxy Music's relationship with English punk rock was very much a matter of mutual, if ambiguous, acknowledgement.
On the one hand, Siouxsie And The Banshees all met at a Roxy concert at Wembley, and the fashion-conscious end of punk styling owed much to Roxy Music's theatricality. On the other hand, Ferry's solo career and the group's subsequent shift into their beautifully-crafted, softer and more opulent sound in the early Eighties - with Flesh + Blood in 1980 and their final LP, Avalon, in 1982 - showed a polished maturity which had its best equivalent in ABC's luxurious album Lexicon Of Love (1982), on which singer Martin Fry pays homage to Ferry's doomed romantic.
"I liked the energy of punk," says Ferry, "and the hair - but not much of the music. I was trying to be more musical at that time. When I recorded The Bride Stripped Bare, which was edgy and by far my most mature musical statement, the single off it, Sign Of The Times, was an essay on punk from my perspective. I think John Lydon actually liked Roxy Music..."
"I remember talking toJohn Lydon, and he was totally dismissive of Roxy Music for being too bourgeois," says Andy Mackay. "But Sid Vicious was positively gracious to me. I think Siren was our least satisfactory album, although it did give us Love Is The Drug. I certainly think those last three albums were different. It was also the point when Paul Thompson left, and Bryan, by then, had a very fixed idea of how he wanted things to sound - some of which was brilliant, and some of which wasn't. There was very heavy pressure on us to break in America, and somewhere along the way the more experimental material got squeezed out.
If young people were to listen to the Roxy canon now, I suspect that they'd be more likely to listen to the early records, because the Seventies are rather fashionable at the moment."
In 1982, RoxyMusic ceased to exist as a working group. But they left with customary style and two top-20 singles, in a kind of evaporation which scented the air of rock and pop for a long while after the group had disbanded. Now, in an era of constant pop revivalism, it would be easy to imagine a RoxyMusic reunion. But, as the Sex Pistols and Velvet Underground reformations have suggested, such a seductive transaction with nostalgia can often flatten the cultural legend.
"From my point of view, there's every chance - but I have the feeling that it's unlikely to happen," says Mackay. "It may be that the key moment for that has passed. There were some serious discussions around the early Nineties, but obviously it would be down to Bryan, really. I can't help thinking that if we did reform, it would be fantastically good. There would be no problem coming up with our late-Nineties solution to the same set of problems."
Ultimately, Roxy Music's greatest achievement was to authorise a cult of pop glamour in provincial British discotheques and night clubs that were attempting a brave imitation of the jet-setting international chic that the group had come to represent. Roxy brought the heady whiff of sophistication to high streets and precincts, launching a thousand haircuts.
As Brian Eno signs off his e-mail: "I thought, and still think, that pop music isn't primarily about making music in any traditional sense of the word. It's about making new imaginary worlds, and inviting people to try them out."