Classic Rock AUGUST 2012 - by John Foxx


Ferry and co's entire studio output collected in a must-have set that's bursting with creativity, art, widescreen rock classics and much more.

It was 1972. I was at art school in Manchester and happened to be sitting in a pub in Blackburn, Lancashire, when Virginia Plain came on the jukebox. Hadn't heard it before. The guys who put it on were rockers - leather jackets and DA haircuts. They moved in a cool way to the beat, eyes focused beyond the bar. They'd taken possession. It was theirs. They were almost protecting it against everyone else. It Was their badge. They played it several times. You could tell they felt it was deeply important. So did I. But I couldn't place it - Dylan or Lou Reed with a new band? Not quite. The song and the vocals had that ragged beauty of New York rock, but the lyrics were pure English art school. And there was that angular electronic bleep bit in the middle.

Then I saw them on TV. It all looked like a comic strip, just one panel after a voice balloon says: "I know - let's form a band!"

A generation witnessed the cast of Forbidden Planet fronted by Young Elvis, playing Electron Rock of the first order. Technicolor wildre. It rescued us all from years of generic Brit blues solos. Manzanera projected neon guitar intelligence over Eno's delicious bleeps and Paul Thompson's monumental beat foundation as Andy Mackay wove heartbreak melodies between them all. Ferry crouched exactly where every true rock star should be - just an inch the right side of ludicrous; an Elvis/Aznavour splice, poised, pained, painted and forever sad at sunset.

Roxy made vivid movies in your head. This truly was the dreamhouse door. Roxyworld contained Grey Lagoons, Ladytrons, Dream Homes and electronic landscaping fit for a new decade. They'd co-opted everything of any relevance - French chanson, The Velvets, avant-garde electronics, sheer heavy rock, Technicolor movies, Elvis posturing and styling by Cadillac.

Not all the internal mechanisms were fully integrated yet, but even the odd gear clash felt recognisably brave. It took the rest of us a little time to get right inside the references, the puns, the poise, the irony, the joy. And the timing of their entry to the scene was immaculate. By the next album, For Your Pleasure, everything was consolidated. Chris Thomas's massive production made the sound as gloriously fierce and enveloping as we all knew it could be.

Then they enlarged the territory with each album. There were moments when the band wrestled with stormy times, but every song still provided more new angles than a hall of mirrors.

We watched enthralled as Ferry repurposed every man-type, from Byron to GI before becoming F. Scott Fitzgerald scripting Playboy, and giving it all as much unexpected new depth as Alan Moore rewriting Superman. This trademark - elegantly doomed romanticism - is most fully and finally realised in the best tracks on Avalon, where the words are minimal, the music is spacious, spare - and always achingly beautiful. This is Roxy at another kind of peak - the distillation of a certain pleasurable melancholy, a dignified, restless longing.

But this was also Roxy without danger, without angularity and seemingly without promise of new territory. Ironically, it seemed the door had been gently closed by beauty. Even the lapses and divisions along the way are interesting: Ferry jumping ship for solo albums. Eno cast adrift. That flirtation with disco. Some moments of empty self-imitation. But in the light of their achievements, these were minor lapses. What really counts is that massive contribution to popular music at a crucial time in its development, plus the sheer pleasure they afforded. Roxy made us all richer.

Ferry also succeeded in removing all the surviving divisions between art and attainment. He became Pop Art, more completely than any painter ever could.

Ferry also wrote sparkling, intelligent and engaging songs. He introduced French chanson into British rock. No one else ever achieved that. He also introduced us to Eno.

It was sad when Eno finally went, and I still miss his unpredictable input. He ran the Roxyworld tourist office for avant-gardism, glittersex and technoflounce, and become serious visual competition for Ferry, so it would have been fascinating to witness what might have occurred if he'd continued. Instead, we got an entire new music genre before he developed a serious new career as a producer of Important Music. I doubt if all this would have happened in quite the same way without a determination fired by the Roxy firing.

Roxy moved on, incorporating Eddie Jobson as a replacement. Eno generously admitted that the two albums after his departure are another Roxy peak - and so they were. What they might have lacked in raw, angular potential was compensated for by enlarged landscaping and musical consolidation.

The Roxy covers are also worth attention. From this distance, they seem to achieve a sort of new sexism with the tawdry or exploitative distilled out - a more wholesome, formalised erotica, some genetic splice between Vogue, Playboy and VistaVision Hollywood. Women liked it as much as men. It hinted at a world we could all enjoy, where women might be wilful and men might be wistful. The most magnetic was Country Life, a glistening, nocturnal essay - Health And Strength published by Condé Nast. Utterly delicious.

Along with Bowie and The Velvets, Roxy were one of the very few bands not thrown overboard in the year zero of punk. They were far too inexplicable, outrageous and universally admired to be dismissed. We were all too aware that we hadn't solved their mysteries yet, and Manzanera's guitar could blister the make-up off your face. Street Life, Both Ends Burning and Love Is The Drug were unbeatably cool and powerful, and there was that epic, overlapping songform that was perfected by Ferry, where it got better, louder and bigger with each roll.

Incidentally, I suspect they also galvanised Bowie into making Ziggy a much more vivid creature than he might otherwise have been. Of course, he recognised Roxy as kin, but kin that had taken aspects of music and style a little further. He certainly made a beeline for Eno's services.

So these recordings are a map of a supremely original band's journey from unconsolidated beginnings to rarified perfection, with lots of tiny, tantalising studio outtakes and unrealised ideas littering the glittering path. It's all rather like a collection of films and scenes from HollyWood's golden years. The era that encouraged such magnificence has passed, but we are all left with riches that become more mysterious with time.

The entire collection should be sent off in a space capsule for some future alien race to intercept and decode. It might take them a little while, but they'd have lots of fun. And I'd love to witness the dress code when they landed.