Rock Scene MAY 1973 - by Lenny Kaye


Madison Square Garden is a vast soup bowl and on the night in question it was chock-full, right up to the brim, a regular bouillabaisse of squirming rock and roll fans. And all eighteen thousand of them had come to see Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson give his imitation of the boy who stood on the burning deck. But first the opening act, that promotional ceremony of all rock shows, had to make their appearance. So the audience sat patiently, waiting for Anderson to hop out, flute in hand after intermission. Most of them passed their time by smoking. Like the Flash of Instamatic cameras at an Osmond Brothers' concert, the flare of matches lighting hash pipes and rekindling joints lit the Garden. The opening act came sauntering out. Their name was Roxy Music. This was their first appearance in New York City, their second show in all of America. The crowd they faced bore no resemblance to them. For they are a '70s band and the audience was definitely '60s, right down to their frizzy hair, patched jeans, and carbon-copy rock fan attitudes. In direct contrast Roxy looked fabulous. Lead singer Bryan Ferry, his hair slicked back in a stylish DA, was dressed in a heady combination of black satin and gold brocade. Sound-warper Eno wore a jacket which featured curled feathers on each shoulder - much as if he had the blackest of ravens perched on him, one whispering into each ear. His long blond razor-cut hair was a combination of colours. His face pancake white. Saxophonist Andy Mackay wore an outfit of blue with yellow piping that Captain Video would have felt right at home in. Lead guitarist Phil Manzanera had just the lightest touch of blue in his beard, while Rik Kenton on bass and Paul Thompson on drums completed the striking combination.

They broke into their set with the ease of well-paced professionals. As Bryan's vibrato voice wavered through their rock and roll numbers, the audience was little less than dumbfounded. Two young men in the seventh row were the perfect example. They sat, one eye on their hash pipe as they passed it back and forth, the other on the stage. After about five songs by Roxy, one turned to the other and muttered, "Boy, are they weird!"

Well yes, by contemporary standards Roxy Music is weird. But they are also living proof of the golden rule of rock and roll: all things change. Something different, exciting, new. That the audience couldn't fathom that is proof of the second rock axiom: audiences who can't accept new things get replaced by audiences who can. Same thing goes for today's rock and roll bands. Which is why rock and roll is still alive - it is constantly changing. But at each moment in that change there are those who resist it, those who have gotten into rock, decided on their faves, and don't at all like the feeling of the rug being slowly pulled out from under them. Thus you get the same people who advocated long hair five years ago getting awfully silly when confronted by bands like Roxy.

Well, Jethro Tull's audience at Madison Square Garden didn't even do that. They just sat with that vacant dope look on their faces and didn't understand. They hadn't been told to like Roxy. Hadn't heard them on the radio. Didn't know how to react.

The scene switches and we take you to Guilford, about forty miles south of London. Again Roxy Music is on the stage, only this time they're headlining, fresh from a huge top ten hot on the British charts - a wonderful rock and roll song called Virginia Plain. The audience is up and dancing in aisles. Encores abound. Fans try to crash through the backstage doors to get to their favourite band. The music is the same, the costumes are similar, but obviously something is different. Sure enough, the programming is at a different stage. The Guilford audience isn't confronted with some new threat to their established sense of rock and roll order. They'd heard Roxy on the radio, read about them in the rock papers, are ready to listen to what Roxy has to say. And when they listen to the music their reaction is similar to the Tull audience listening to Tull - they shout and stomp and generally have a good time.

The same thing will happen in America, but it will take time. And when it happens Roxy Music will have arrived where they belong, for they are an exceptional band - that magic element of something new and unusual is there plus a promise of creative content and outrageous form, which is what rock and roll is all about.

"During the four years I was a student, I'd had a couple of bands but they were just sort of half-hearted things. They weren't art, it was totally separate from anything creative I was doing," explains Bryan Ferry. A soft-spoken, gentle person, Bryan is a combination of electric onstage personality and retiring offstage private person. A former art student who studied fine arts - especially sculpture and painting - at the university in Newcastle. Bryan eventually moved to London. Talking about his early bands, he explains some of the motivations that went into the formation of Roxy Music: "We did other people's music, a lot of soul, it was a sort of prototype of what we would do later, because we did things that I liked. I have a big collections of singles - early '60s and late '50s - and we would do things of Otis Redding and Bobby Bland. I started doing my sort of art things as well - teaching art - in a part-time way, and I started writing songs. I was basically a singer. I didn't play any instruments although I did play mad piano at home - sort of art piano. I didn't know any musicians to play with except Graham Simpson who was the bass player on the first album, who isn't with us anymore. So for a while it was just the two of us working together. Then after a month or so I met Andy Mackay, through an artist - we met through the art scene, basically. I was interested in rock and roll music... not just old rock and roll but I also wanted to incorporate as many different styles as possible. I had been thinking about investing in a synthesizer and synthesising my voice, when I met Andy who had a synthesizer and also played oboe. He didn't actually have a saxophone at the time. So the three of us wanted to do a demo take, and Andy knew Eno and he came along to record us and he's stayed on ever since."

Then came the need for a name. They had all the songs for a first album, but the band still had no name. "When we looked around for a name," recalls Bryan, "I wrote out a long list of cinema names - Roxy, Ritz, Granada, Odeon, Regal, Astoria - they all had a kind of nice flavour. I've always been star-struck, basically. Hollywood has always been Mecca."

Which it is.

"I hope so. I hope I'm not too late," says Bryan. "It just seemed like a nice area to draw a name from, and Roxy was by far the best. So there were four of us, then. At that time Eno was like the engineer-cum-musician and used to stand in the back of the hall."

It wasn't long before Eno (real name Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno) was on the stage, working the far-left end of the stage with Bryan at the far-right and the rest of the band in-between. The Mr. Spock of the band, Eno, even though he doesn't have pointed-ears, has a great deal of the Star Trek voyager about him. Maybe it's all the time he's spent talking to his tape recorders. "I went to art school," he says, "and then I got interested in phonetic poetry and discovered the use of the tape recorder. I started using tape recorders with my own voice - like just building up backing tracks with my own voice which I could then talk over, or use them as echo. And I continued doing that for a while, never really connecting what I was doing with music in any way." But before long, Eno had assembled an array of electronics through which he was producing, if not strictly music, then interesting sounds. "Before I knew it, I was using a lot of tape recorders and allied electronics - like amplifiers - and various kinds of simple electronics to produce music."

The opportunity to join Roxy gave Eno his first exposure to the electronic synthesizer. "They wanted someone to do electronic stuff," he recalls, "and they invited me to come along. They had a synthesizer there - which I had never seen or used before - and I started using it. I found it fairly pleasant to use. The first thing I found about it was that it wasn't a 'skill' instrument at all. It has to do completely with judgement - and it's always been one of my strong contentions that one of the directions on music now is to replace skill with judgement. So what the synthesizer does is that it gives you the option of a vast number of possible sounds and permutations and treatments of sounds which are all quite easily obtainable... they don't require manual dexterity or years of training to learn how to turn the knobs right."

Unlike many musicians who get glued to their synthesizer and begin to deal in freaky sounds, Eno uses his electronics as part of the band's total sound. Much of what you hear coming from the stage starts out being played by a member of the group, then goes through Eno's control panel, and finally heads out at the audience through the speakers. "Quite a lot of it goes through me," Eno explains. "I treat the saxophone, the piano, the guitar, and at one place the oboe, as well."

Besides their unique, pulsing rock sounds, Roxy Music is a great band to just sit and look at. Bryan explains, "I've always been disappointed going to see bands because there's nothing to see, really. All you do is listen, you don't look. I prefer for the stage to be a special arena for something to happen that couldn't happen in the audience. Most bands - if you took anybody in the audience and put them up on stage - they'd look exactly the same. I think it's naive to associate that kind of sincerity with looking drab, which is what a lot of people do. I just like things to look nice."

"Nice" isn't exactly the word that most folks would use to describe Roxy Music. In fact, in the best tradition of rock and roll as entertainment, Roxy Music is difficult to describe. But what they can do to an audience is a little easier to communicate. In Guilford they drove the audience right out of their seats and drew them towards the stage like so many iron filings rushing towards a magnet. Talking about his audience, Bryan sums it up: "Well, it's weird because we work on a lot of different levels and everybody gets something out of it. There's something for everybody, in a way. Like for the teenagers - even if it was the visual side of it that would be enough because their lives are so dull and dismal... one would like to think that they were enjoying what they saw even if they thought what they heard was weird. And I'd like to think that what we're doing are things that are further ahead and more advanced than the other English bands... which is possibly true... at the moment... but potentially we could freak out more people."