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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Roxy Music

by Roxy Music
Year:
1972
Overall Rating = 11

Best Song: RE-MAKE/RE-MODEL or LADYTRON or IF THERE IS SOMETHING or VIRGINIA PLAIN

Many like to paint Roxy Music’s evolution thusly: their debut was a Battle of the Brians (pun intended) – vocalist and main songwriter Bryan Ferry versus sonic wizard Brian Eno –, their sophomore effort was Ferry wrestling near total control from Eno, and the latter departed out of frustration, resulting in his own successful solo career while Roxy Music became Ferry’s brainchild. But I feel it’s a little more complicated than that. For one, Ferry is the sole author of every song on here (and only an obscure b-side would feature a non-Ferry writing credit in this phase of the band’s career). I’m sure Eno must have had some kind of material written given what he would pen for his “official” debut in only a year’s time which he could have contributed if he really wanted that much control over the band. And as important as he is in large swaths of the album’s sound, he’s not the dominant force; in fact, I’d say every member of the band contributes about equally on the musical level. That’s what I think the key to getting Roxy Music, both the debut album and the group’s output as a whole, truly is. Ferry could have gone solo to put his unique persona to tape (and he would while still working with Roxy Music) and Eno would go solo to develop his atmospheric capabilities further, but only on Roxy Music could you combine the two with three other musicians who could create such a revolutionary sound: one that, like many glam rockers at the time, was nostalgic for the time of early rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop and, in their case, art, film and European cabaret music, but that combined them with a sound that strives for the future. Yes, it’s basically just a woodwinds, guitar, piano, bass, drums set-up of the ‘50s (with a few exceptions), nothing revolutionary, but each of those instruments is played by avant-garde loving dorks rather than kids in their garage idolizing Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and it’s all filtered through effects that go whooshing and squealing like some high-tech machine blasting into space, whether they came up with their own effects or Eno conjured them up with his synthesizers.

As much as the best of later Roxy Music albums would improve on all these characteristics, to these ears there’s nothing quite like the first side of their debut. If the whole album was like this, no question we’d be listening to their best album. Side one is so great that I can’t pick between three of its four highlights (the first four songs on the US and subsequent CD editions). The opening “Re-Make/Re-Model” starts rather deceptively, with the chit-chat and glasses clinking of a cocktail party (and, if my ears aren’t playing tricks on me, a portion of this song’s refrain buried deep in the mix), before turning into a ferocious rocker, with the drums, bass, guitar, piano and sax all repeatedly pounding on a single beat/note/chord while Bryan paranoiacally expressing desire for a woman in a pre-David Byrne-like manner (there’s no doubt in my mind the way he stutters the “I could talk talk talk talk talk myself to death” influenced the Talking Heads) and Eno leads the occasionally “CPL593H” backup vocal chant (supposedly the license plate number of the sought-out seductress). It’s not especially loud or heavy, but it’s incredibly energetic, and as tension grows, the sax and guitars start veering off into cacophonic noodling before indulging the listener in quite possibly the coolest “introduce the band members with mini solos” sections in rock: a mini-drum explosion on either end of the section, a bass solo ripping off the “Day Tripper” riff, a sax solo ripping off the “Ride of the Valkyries” melody, Eno delivering some weird sci-fi synth squeals and squeaks, a guitar riff mimicking a Duane Eddy-style riff, Ferry sounding like he’s stomping on the piano with his feet… well, you get the idea. “Ladytron” is a complete 180, taking the band into ballad territory, and it’s quite a delightful one. Failing to gain the courage to talk to the opener’s impossibly beautiful woman without turning into an incoherent mess, Ferry seems to decide making a woman from scratch, a robotic woman, is a better choice, (at least that’s what the title and my own interpretation of it would believe), and the song manages to combine the aspects of beauty and robotics quite well, with the romantic, psychedelic weaving of rotary pedal guitars and lilting piano lines and the brief Mellotron string interlude as the former and as the latter, the steady thud of the rhythm section or the spacey, pulsating synth wave paralleling the Mellotron interlude later in the song. And of course, Ferry’s crooning is both as awkward as you’d expect from someone seducing robots as it is convincingly “seductive”. Then “If There Is Something” has the band trying out the multi-parted mini-epic genre, and they knock it out of the park. How it goes through completely different moods and styles – from quirky country pop with honky-tonk piano and pseudo-pedal steel guitar with Ferry surprisingly decent assimilation into the genre’s vocal stylistics to a glam-prog epic refrain à la Van der Graaf Generator (the tense oboe soloing and Ferry’s desperate vocals reminiscent of Peter Hammill especially so) where Ferry tries to seduce a woman with flowers from a garden where “potatoes [are grown] by the score” and finally into a secondary refrain, a nostalgic call-and-response with Ferry’s voice at a cracking point and a cool “when you were young” line led by Eno, underscored by majestic piano – all while managing to sound coherent is beyond me, but it does. And “Virginia Plain” concludes the string of highlights on the US edition (the previous one does on the UK edition) as the ideal choice for their debut single, albeit originally a follow-up to the LP proper. It’s just a terrific glam-rocker, with poppy staccato pianos and distorted, yet bright guitar fills, Ferry’s simple, yet memorable vocal melody breaking down into chaos at the end of each verse – my favorite being the “Baby Jane’s in Acapulco we are flying down to Rio” line before the guitar solo, where Manzanera goes for this out-of-this-world soaring vibe, the best of its kind this side of Ziggy Stardust –, and has a cool breakdown where power chords compete for dominance with Eno’s pulsing synths swaying from speaker to speaker in the Who-like arena rock beauty.

If it didn’t follow up such masterpieces, side closer “2HB” – so titled because it’s dedicated to actor Humphrey Bogart, who’s quoted in the refrain “here’s looking at you, kid” – could have easily been a highlight as well. This is the first tune where the atmosphere is the main strength rather than a complement to quirky melodies, riffs, and vocals, but don’t take that as an insult. The instruments all seem to be filtered in a way that makes it sound like the audio equivalent to an old film's black-and-white graininess; maybe it’s the constant swirl of the electric piano or Wurlitzer-imitating synth and the standards-influenced sax (or oboe?) solo. Not that it’s devoid of melodies either. That refrain sure is memorable as anything else on side one. Side two is where things get much less interesting. Most of the time, it feels like they’re trying to create parallel tunes to side one’s: the opening “The Bob (Medley)” aims to be another multi-part mini-epic like “If There Is Something”, but the different parts seem completely disconnected from one another. And they’re just not as interesting: the chaotic, distorted guitar chords, avant-garde guitar and sax noodling and crazy drum triplet-laced parts where I assume the title character is some monster snacking on Ferry’s girl while they’re on a date is kind of cool in its ugliness, but the softer parts, with its moody oboe and piano base, never seem to aim for any kind of melody, and the atmosphere is empty, if you ask me. “Chance Meeting” is a bit better, with Ferry as the incompetent boob who’s chance meeting with (I assume) a former lover results in an awkward situation, emphasized nicely by the sound’s “growth”, going from sparse piano lines and melodic bass backing Ferry’s quiet mumblings to more aggressive piano, busy bass, and waves of feedback (guitar or synth, I’m not quite sure) backing Ferry’s dejected wailing, where his vocals seem to fall as if he’s falling into the depths of hell. If it had an actual melody, this would be a cool addition to an Eno solo album. “Would You Believe?” is a good example of the Roxy Music sound stereotype of futuristic retro rock, but with the futuristic aspects unfortunately downplayed (they’re mainly represented in the opening few seconds of synth bubbling). And unlike on “Re-Make/Re-Model”, this song’s melodies – containing doo-wop verses/refrains and a boogie-woogie bridge – are more generic. They’re still catchy, and the bridge part is pretty energetic (and both Manzanera’s guitar solo and Mackay’s sax solo are worthy of the greats of the ‘50s, I guess), so I’ll give it a pass. But after side one, this is definitely a bit of a disappointment. The last two songs improve my mood a bit. “Sea Breezes” is a 7-minute atmospheric track, but at least it has a couple of melodies: the anguished falsetto-turned-moody wail its mainly based on, backed by echoey electric piano and oboe playing quasi-Oriental melodies/chord sequences, wave sound effects, certainly paint a great picture of a guy staring out at sea as he regrets and moans about the failures of his love life, perhaps even contemplating suicide, but it doesn’t really have enough ideas, nor does the atmosphere seem to build, to justify the length, even as it changes to a more chaotic section where Paul Thompson plays these disjointed, collapsing drum fills, original bass player Graham Simpson (who quit before “Virginia Plain” was recorded) provides some quasi-funky basslines and Mackay’s oboe lines become a bit more “happy-sounding” in contrast to Ferry’s ever-mournful vocals (though much quirkier by this point). But I like the two sections enough so that, despite the length, it’s the second-best (in terms of creativity and melody) on this side.

Finally, the closing “Bitters End” is a delightful minor highlight. Other critics seem to be less favorable of it, but I like the mix of doo-wop (the backup vocals), cabaret (Ferry’s vocals and half-spoken melody, as well as the sensual sax/oboe soloing) and tango (the piano and drum-based rhythm) it provides, and its at such odds with the otherwise mostly atmospheric side two and the mostly dynamic first side that it just feels right as a conclusion, especially with the bookend feel it has with the sound effects in the opener, with more cocktail party noise and more echoes of the “talk talk talk talk talk” refrain. Actually, the reasons I have to enjoy “Bitters End” sum up my feelings of side two’s flaws quite well, or the LP’s flaws overall: balance. Had the highlights been spread out more evenly throughout the album, perhaps I would be able to appreciate the less creative pop of “Would You Believe?” or the atmospheres of “Chance Meeting” and “Sea Breezes”. On the other hand, the contrast between dynamic music and ambient music was done perfectly by Brian Eno on his own Before and After Science, but this might bolster the argument that Eno wasn’t quite as in charge of Roxy Music as one would like. Sure, that LP came out 5-6 years later, but he also composed it himself, whereas here he’s just consulting Ferry and providing some musical backing. Regardless, on their next effort, despite Eno’s frustrations, the dynamic and ambient side of the band would be able to complement each other in a less split-up way, resulting in a slightly better album… but that’s a story for another time.

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