Re-Make/Re-Model: the very title of Roxy Music’s opening song encapsulates the band’s entire early 70s ethos. With their art school background, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, Graham Simpson and Paul Thompson embodied pop art in music: picking apart the past; raking through pop culture’s touchstones; sticking it all together and building something new. Something they themselves didn’t always understand.
On stage in 1972, Ferry would lead the charge dressed as a space-age Elvis, flanked by an equally space-age Dracula/ Mackay on sax, Manzanera a guitar-playing fly about to run a marathon, Simpson a geography teacher moonlighting as a bassist, Thompson a tub-thumping caveman. And out in the audience: Eno, dressed as an ostrich, mixing the music through a VCS3 synth – wrestling an eruption of organised chaos into something entirely alien to the band actually playing it. As Manzanera told this writer five years ago: he thought he was in the Velvet Underground, Ferry probably thought it was more Elvis or Otis Redding, Eno figured it should have sounded like John Cage or Stockhausen.
They also had a song called 2HB. Mark Lancaster, friend and first Artist-In-Residence of King’s College, Cambridge, thought it was about a pencil. It was actually Ferry’s paean to Humphrey Bogart.
Writing about Roxy Music is a bit like trying to trap a hurricane under a microscope. They recorded two albums of avant-garde art-rock, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, in 1972 and ’73 respectively, then Eno left to record the future while Roxy smoothed their rough edges for a further three records of wonky pop, crafting albums that worked better than ever before as long-players. Their singer took a second job as a solo artist, wore dinner jackets and recorded a series of covers albums, further re-making the past while re-modelling himself into a crooner. He dated a string of high-profile models, many of whom started appearing on Roxy’s ever-audacious sleeves; Jerry Hall was nicked from under Mick Jagger’s thumb and embodied 1975’s Siren.
Yet Ferry was really an oddball: a singer with a voice that trembled, even as he barked orders about making him a deal to show to Robert E Lee (his lawyer/the American Civil War Confederate general – it works both ways) while taking a trip to Rio in a song about a woman/brand of tobacco called Virginia Plain.
Roxy made music you could dance to – usually kicking off each album with a stormer: Street Life (Stranded, 1973), The Thrill Of It All (Country Life, 1974), Love Is The Drug (Siren). Hell, they even invented their own dance – out of bits of others, of course – with For Your Pleasure’s Do The Strand. They made terrifying music (the infamous In Every Dream Home A Heartache, a love song to a blow-up doll); they contemplated the (sometimes) hollow thrill of it all on music even they might not have anticipated (Mother Of Pearl, Just Another High). They released instrumental B-sides to singles without Eno that presaged their old bandmate’s mid-70s soundscapes with Bowie. They embarked on a four-year break before Bowie’s Low was even released.
Perhaps typically for a band as irresolvable as Roxy Music, they returned to achieve their biggest hits with their weakest music. By 1979, punk had happened. Manifesto’s album’s title track struggled to declare its own relevance; regardless, the single Dance Away hit No 2. The following year’s Flesh + Blood beat Bowie to the punch as Roxy recorded soulless 80s mush four years before his Tonight. Ferry’s penchant for covers crept in: an anodyne take on Jealous Guy pleased the crowds, hit the top spot and owed more to his solo albums than anything resembling Roxy’s music. A revolving-door rhythm section never settled into anything like the grooves Roxy once rode so effortlessly.
And then something very odd happened. 1982’s Avalon should have seen them at sea on an MOR raft without a paddle. Yet, despite being chock-full of sleek 80s pop tropes, it’s a delicate triumph. With the likes of More Than This, the group once again inhabited various worlds at once: the office party and engaged/engaging music-making. The album’s a bit of a sonic masterpiece, with deft soundscapes from a band that once again sounds interested in working together.
And, for now, it remains the last evidence of Roxy Music doing just that. On-off sessions going back to 2006 threatened to result in a new album – with Brian Eno’s input, of all things. Ferry’s most recent solo album, 2010’s Olympia, trumpeted “collaborations” with Eno, Mackay and Manzanera… but still no new Roxy, even as they celebrated their 40th anniversary with a 2011 tour. For now, this is for your pleasure: 10 discs; all the albums, plus non-album A- and B-sides. More than this? It would be churlish to ask.