"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New Statesman OCTOBER 4, 2007 - by Brian Dillon
RE-MAKE/RE-MODEL: ART, POP, FASHION AND THE MAKING OF ROXY MUSIC, 1952-1972
Roxy Music, circa 1972, were a singularly strange group. Far from the laid-back musical proposition of later hits and Bryan Ferry's solo oeuvre, their first album was a thing, by turns, of raging, propulsive energy and addled, neurasthenic sentiment. TV footage from that period (on the cusp, as Michael Bracewell puts it, of their "imperial" phase) reveals a band whose sheer manic blare - not to mention a certain extraterrestrial coquetry - left shuffling, denim-wearing audiences open-mouthed at their audacity. Most strikingly, in a period when laborious dues- pay ing was a mark of musical authenticity, Roxy seemed entirely sui generis. Despite the singer's apparently having taken himself for the offspring of Marlene Dietrich and Johnnie Ray, they looked and sounded like nothing on earth.
Re-Make/Re-Model tells the story of how Ferry and company came to that iconic pass; then it stops dead, before their album Roxy Music is even released. Where the average rock-band biography describes a dismally familiar story arc - camaraderie and ambition giving way to anomie and sloth, diminishing narrative returns matching plummeting creative pros pects - Bracewell has brilliantly sidestepped all of that in favour of a prehistory of the whole Roxy milieu and a study, in a sense, of the creative potential of the scene as such. Extensive interviews with the principals and their numerous associates serve to reconstruct (amazingly, for any book about pop music) the collective invention of the Roxy moment. What emerges - slowly, forensically, stylishly - is nothing less than a portrait of cultural possibilities in Britain during the postwar period.
Dutiful mention of the subject's attendance at art school has become a cliché of the 1960s/1970s rock-star profile (John Lennon, Pete Townshend) without the writer, generally, having much of a clue what transpired at said institution. Bracewell, however, knows precisely what went on, and what it meant: his account of the creative and intellectual archipelago of British art schools in the 1960s would be fascinating enough, without the added allure of Ferry, Brian Eno and Andy Mackay. What set those "hyper-stylised, imperiously aloof" young men apart was the ravenousness with which they devoured ideas: Ferry from Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton at Newcastle University; Mackay from visiting compos- ers such as Morton Feldman at Reading; Eno, at Ipswich, from the cybernetic experiments of Roy Ascott.
In 1969, the gloriously egoistic Eno wrote to his diary: "I was a teenage art school." This sense of omnivorous learning, of the artist as experimental nexus for images, ideas and attitudes, would be essential to the achieved entity of Roxy Music. Influences as diverse as Duchamp, Phil Spector, Warhol, doo-wop, The Velvet Underground and English music hall would all make it into the ravishing mix. A veritable movement of artists and designers would convene to contrive the band's preening, feathered, retro-futurist look. But Bracewell shows, too, how Roxy harked back (via aesthete advisers such as their publicist Simon Puxley and historian Jeremy Catto) to a deeper, more traditional strand of English dandyism. Their idea of pop success seemed to have been borrowed from Walter Pater's instruction at the end of The Renaissance: to burn always with a hard, gem-like flame.
It is no surprise, then, that Bracewell's working title was apparently Roxyism. The band itself was an idea, a movement, a design for life. It's easy, at this remove, and in light of the group's later falling away from this exacting ideal, to paint the Roxyist aesthetic as merely aspirational or naively, even laughably, faux-sophisticate. But their mid-1970s audience - haughty lasses in Waaf uniforms and stilettos, etiolated boys with a taste for electronics and eye-shadow - went on to invent punk and post-punk, to imagine new ways of being between art, music, fashion and literature. In the mid-1980s, a decade and more after its release, Roxy Music was still being passed around classrooms like an invitation to join some secret aesthetic society. Eno, especially, still remains an inspirational figure.
Perhaps because both futurism and nostalgia were always built into their sonic and visual fantasies, because they were so studiedly not of their time, Roxy Music seem immune to the kind of easy periodisation and crude revivalism that plagues rock bands today. (Of their contemporaries, only Kraftwerk have this peculiar quality.) They are in this sense the perfect subject for Bracewell, whose essays, fiction and art criticism have long been concerned with the still resonant, utopian potential of the cultural artefacts of the recent past. Re-Make/Re-Model is certainly a marvellous book about art, music, ideas and Englishness. But Bracewell's particular, uncanny achievement is to have brought his subjects to the brink of a future that, however familiar, seems suddenly unpredictable once more. As Simon Puxley's sleeve note asked in 1972: what's the date again?