"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut JULY 2001 - by Chris Roberts
After eighteen years, Roxy Music - along with David Bowie the most influential act of the early '70s - have reformed for a series of live performances. Chris Roberts finds out why.
"People always apply the word 'cool' to me, and I'm far from it, really," says Bryan Ferry. "I'm very hot-blooded. It's strange. But then there's a certain reserve to how I behave as well, so there are contrasts."
Then he asks me what the final score was bin the football last night. He'd committed to a prior engagement which meant he had to miss the climax, and, using a different analogy to that which most soccer fans might select, likens this to something from Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet. "On Christ, what a shame. It was like: you've swallowed the poison, but no! Wait! Ah, too late." When I suggest Beckham is overrated, he muses, "Hmmm, he has an aura about him, though."
"Sometimes," he says, imperiously running a hand through his lustrous black hair, "you find an outlet in your work, you know."
Ferry's enjoyment of his solo world tour last year is one contributing factor to the comeback many of us had topping the fantasy comeback league for nearly two decades. Roxy Music - the very name has an aura about it - have reformed, and tour an undeserving planet this year, beginning with British dates throughout June. Original members Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay will play their first live shows since 1983.
They aren't planning new records (save a possible live album), but will remake and remodel one of the most unique and inspirational back catalogues in rock history. "It does still surprise me," offers Manzanera. "I can see now, in retrospect, that at the time it was Bryan's journey word-wise, lyric-wise, and our journey contextually and atmospherically. The marrying-up of those seeds created something more than you usually get in rock, which is a limited format. It's fascinating."
In an era where every indie band that shifts units with a mildly left-of-centre album is hailed as changing the face and figure of rock and pop, it's easy to undervalue the seismic shift Roxy Music caused in the '70s and '80s. Their '72 debut album is habitually hailed - along with the Velvets' - as the best first work ever. Their garish, then super-sleek image, fronted by Ferry's languidly suave personae, enabled them to rack up a stream of intoxicating hit singles, from Virginia Plain to Avalon. The albums were a yet-to-be-surpassed fusion of style and substance. Their creators see them as falling loosely into three phases. Ferry suggests there was "the first phase, with Brian Eno" of Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure. Challenging, experimental, a collision of pop-art and sci-fi with an intangible whiff of nostalgia, this generally remains the critics' favourite Roxy period.
After Eno's departure, Ferry's soulful, goddess-worshipping romanticism came to the fore. Through Stranded (magnanimously, Eno's favourite), Country Life and Siren. Swooning, grand, cinematic, this is the Roxy of choice for those who hit teenhood in the wake of Glam Rock. After a break between '76 and '78, Roxy returned (like punk never happened) with the coo,l clear balm of Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon, where funk was distilled till it floated. In this era they went platinum in the States and sold lorry-loads. The they quit at the top.
Their legacy has pervaded - and hugely improved - countless genres since, from electronica to art rock, from New Romantic to Prog, from Suede and Pulp to Radiohead and Moby. Beyond that, the élan they exuded redefined the very notion of "attitude". You didn't have to spit in the gutter, you could sup with the gods. Ferry's sense of classicism brought a lick of Gatsby to pop's gateau. Undoubtedly, Roxy were truly great. And more than this.
Class being permanent, it's not as much of a risk for Roxy to return as it might be for lesser legends. Still, many will wonder: why here? Why now? After all these years?
Bryan Ferry, sitting in his Kensington studio, is anything but melodramatic about it. "Well, I'd done a lot of shows after the As Time Goes By album, and they went with a swing. People kept asking if there'd ever be a Roxy tour again, and I suppose now it seemed the right time, if there ever was one," he murmurs, sucking a cough sweet. "Irritatingly, I'm about two tracks away from finishing the album I'm working on, which will come out late this year or early next, but I'd been introducing more and more Roxy songs into the shows, and enjoyed doing them so much. Like Out Of The Blue, Virginia Plain, Do The Strand - all those chestnuts! So, yeah, it's nostalgia, but the songs sound really good today. I don't feel embarrassed by them!"
Phil Manzanera is equally laid-back, putting his kettle on in his slightly Dali-esque London pad. "We've sort of spoken about it on and off for years. Also, I was thinking - nobody is playing those songs. What a terrible waste! They're just gonna be stuck there, we'll all die, and that'll be it! We spent so much time working on those tracks - now all you hear on the radio is Avalon and a couple of singles. Was it all a waste of time? Then I played with Bryan on Millennium Eve, and it was really good, and his voice sounds great. I think he's still got a lot to do on his own journey, but we thought why don't we try it?"
Manzanera (who spent much of his childhood in South America) is now one of the most successful producers in Spanish and Latin music, routinely helming triple-platinum chart-toppers there. "You do get sucked into that! It's great. I've sometimes thought, yes, Roxy would be exciting too, but this is just incredible. You know, I'll be flown two hundred miles north of Buenos Aires to record the Frank Zappa of South America where he used to rehearse when he was fifteen. Then he wants to do his vocals facing the Mediterranean in Capri as the sun goes down every night. Then I'll do trad boleros with a Peruvian lady in Mexico City. It's fun!"
"So people'd say what about Roxy? I'd say: great, and why are we doing it again? All those songs! Oh, right! And I woke up! It's all very positive. Now I'm going to have to re-learn them all, in details. And I'll have an interesting new perspective.
"It'll help me to make sense of what happened before. When you start out, you're on this pop star trip - you're a teenager, then you have hits, and you're away. Twelve years later, you get on with your life! You get to a certain age where you look back on it all and say: where did Roxy fit into this? I mean, I answered an ad in Melody Maker for a guitarist, and happened to meet up with these extraordinary people. Talk about fate."
For Andy Mackay, the reasons for the long pause were initially "a disinclination to do it, because we all needed a break. Then we all got involved with other projects, and personal circumstances intervened. Then there was the difficulty of organising it. But this is a set number of dates, and will allow us to carry on our normal lives and our individual musical lives. So we're all happy about it. I enjoyed all the different Roxy phases, and had reservations about each, for different reason. The Avalon tour was enjoyable, and we were doing well, in big venues, but the early tours were great because they were totally chaotic and unpredictable. Some gigs were disasters and some were triumphs, and it all lay before us."
Ferry vaguely remembers those first Roxy gigs. "There was one in the upstairs room of a pub near here - I remember that vividly. There was real energy, from the audience as well as from us. It felt really new, in a way that it doesn't now when you go and see a band. I guess part of it was the interesting line-up of sounds. Even though Bowie was around at the time, doing very good things, his was basically a guitar band, Mick Ronson being a wonderful guitarist. But with Roxy there was oboe, sax, all the synthesizer sounds, all the treated instruments. It was a lot to take in. People went: Woah! Ha, I enjoyed that!"
Was your aim at the time to stretch the boundaries?
"To be different. Even though the first album doesn't 'sound' great now, there were so many possibilities touched on there. From doo-wop to the grandiose, we could go that way, or this way, or another way. It reflects a number of inspirations. I found Sinatra, Piaf, Elvis, the blues. All worlds to explore, all equally fascinating - you could take it here, there and everywhere. The eclecticism was very important."
Does it annoy you that critics tend to lazily claim that you never matched that early blaze?
"It was my favourite phase, I think, and the most prolific for me. Bit there's a certain quality to the later work, as well - Avalon still sounds really good, really smooth. There's beauty there. More accessible, less angular. And we had to change, otherwise it'd have been a one-dimensional career. The middle period had some nice colours too, Eddie Jobson's violin, for example. I was still trying to write crafter songs then, whereas later it was more about moods and textures.
So much of it depends on which musicians are around. Some albums are earthy, others ethereal. I always admired Duke Ellington for using the players around him to the best advantage. But it's not always about the best instrumentalists - sometimes you get great things from people who are struggling. Which is what works about some of the early things, when we were all struggling!"
As the Roxy albums cruised by, Ferry metamorphosed from an effusive, bitter-sweet lyricist to a seemingly reluctant, coy one. Was there a point where he decided less is more, or did he lose confidence?
"I used to enjoy writing lyrics, but found it difficult later to say what I wanted to say. You get super-critical as you get older. That's one of the worst things in life. And it's why I've always enjoyed doing other people's songs - then I can just lose myself in the performance, and not be constantly worrying, oh, should I rewrite that? Having said that, there's some good lyrics on my next album. And Eno's on it."
Do you ever regret your strict quality control? Your post-Roxy career has had several mysterious silences.
"Yes, looking back, it's a drag. Probably, in some cases, I wasn't working with the right people. That's always been a problem with me. Sometimes a producer's worse than no producer at all, but you need someone to egg you on, push you on. I drove poor Rhett Davies to semi-retirement, but he's back with us now. Anyway, I feel freer to do this tour now. I'm more mature! Ha!"
Did it ever gall you that Jealous Guy was your only Number One single, when you wrote so many brilliant songs yourself?
"Not at all, no. It's a very good song. And Love Is The Drug got to Number Two."
So did Dance Away.
"No, it didn't. Did it?"
"Oh. I don't know. Perhaps it did."
After Roxy, Phil Manzanera worked with everyone from John Cale to Pink Floyd to Godley and Creme, while Mackay's written music for films and plays, studied theology, and of course played on the soundtrack to Velvet Goldmine, which reinvented several old Roxy tracks, with Tom Yorke. "It was funny," he recalls. "I hadn't played Ladytron for twenty years, but it came back remarkably easy. Other stuff I'd completely forgotten." Asked if Roxy will remain the perfect blend of substance and style, he responds, "It's not something you think about. You look as good as you can and play as well as you can."
"The dressing up was always part of the fun of Roxy," smiles Manzanera. "People tend to overlook the humour that was there. At first, it was just us and Bowie doing it, in a context of everybody else not doing it. The more extreme we got, the bigger the reaction. It was a bit of theatre. And it sounds crazy, but hardly anyone was using proper lighting before then. It was a big deal, as were synths. It also gave us something to do to conquer the nerves and feelings of amateurishness before we went on. It'd be: yes, more make-up, more outrageous costumes! We had lots of friends in fashion. It was never pre-arranged, we never saw each other's stuff until five minutes before the set. By the '80s it was all designed.
Asked if the chemistry between the three will remain, Ferry, as he does after most questions, pauses and thinks awhile. "It might be worse, ha! No, it'll just be better organised. You have to remember we've spent more time apart than together. Sometimes you don't fall out as such with people, you just sort of drift away."
So when Roxy ended in '83, was that a decision or just a drift?
"There was no real dispute. After Avalon, which was a tough act to follow, I wanted to do an album of my own songs, and I thought I'd done enough group albums. Now, I wish I had done that - Boys And Girls - with the group. It was a very painful record to make. I was very tired, but also a glutton for punishment. I worked with far too many musicians and in the end it was a very expensive piece of tapestry, really."
"We were all so busy," remembers Manzanera. "Going for it on all fronts. And I guess we needed some space. But there is definitely some magic that happens with Roxy. We're old enough to recognise that now! It doesn't mean we have to do it all the time, or that it's the main thing, but if it's a good thing, why not do it? Even though we're going 'back there', it's a brave move. We have to project it, make it come to life again. There's this thing called Roxy Music which is bigger than all of us individually. You say 'Roxy Music' and your mind is free to wander into all sorts of areas and fantasies. When all these bands say they're influenced by Roxy, maybe they mean the idea of Roxy as well."
Andy Mackay hears their influence around. "I think Bryan influenced a whole generation of British singers. Bryan, and Bowie to an extent, didn't sing in an American accent, and that liberated just about every British band since. I think our use of synthesizers was creative and exciting. And we certainly didn't invent eclecticism, but we did say and prove that rock'n'roll could accommodate - well, anything, really."
So is this tour pure nostalgia? Or will you be playing around with that inevitability, subverting it?
People have been questioning this," says Mackay, "as if somehow, unlike any other art form - I hesitate to call rock'n'roll an art form, let's say quasi-art form - you shouldn't revive things. No one ever says that about a Noel Coward or Shakespeare play or Beethoven's Third Symphony. You don't say, oh but Ludwig's done nine, you can only play the Ninth now. In Handel's day, he had to have a new opera every year - and it ruined all the theatres. This seems to me totally right. We're the people who perform those numbers best, and we hope to make them every bit as fresh and important as ever. You hope that every time a piece of music is performed it lives again."
Poring over the artwork to yet another Roxy "Best Of" album, Bryan Ferry laughs, "Look at the number of times they repackaged Sinatra songs! The record company's argument is it's ten years since the last compilation, so I'd rather get involved a little than fight it. The audience at these shows will probably want some kind of souvenir."
There's something very civilised about Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay. Charming, modest company, they've long since stopped worrying about "rock" posing and posturing, and this, by accident or design, preserves the timeless Roxy cool under amber. They stress that the shows will include as much material from the early days as from the crossover coda.
"Different people are of different sensibilities," says Ferry, correctly. "Some people prefer The Bogus Man, some prefer Oh Yeah. Hopefully, we'll do both. I say 'hopefully' because we're rehearsing around forty songs from around a hundred possibilities."
Are you content that Roxy's active life-span covered the years it did? Or would you rather you were a new band emerging now?
"It's a shame our early years didn't have any video life as such. I was always very taken by movies, by visuals. It's annoying that those tours have disappeared into the ether, with no film record. But you can't turn the clock back. Maybe it'd've got in the way of the music. And it was all less about corporate marketing then. You presented them with the records, and the covers, and they said great!"
And before video ruled, perhaps more imagery and imagination was crammed...
"...Into the songs! Yes, you're right. Y'know it always felt like nobody else was doing anything like what we were doing.
The Thrill Of It All: Roxy In The Studio
Roxy Music  Produced by Peter Sinfield - UK chart position: 10
Roxy reinvented rock's dreams and rhythms on an extraordinarily ambitious, radical debut. It still startles today, from the romantic 2 H.B. to the plaintive Ladytron to the crazed cocktail cyber-party of Re-Make/Re-Model, inspired by Derek Boshier's pop-art painting Re-think, Re-entry. That chorus of "CPL 593H"? A car registration number.
For Your Pleasure  Produced by Chris Thomas - UK chart position: 10
Still the band's favourite, this dove-tailed the sinister with the lush, embracing a warped psychedelia and moving from the tart Do The Strand to the trance-like title song. Eno's ideas and Ferry's idealism fused; In Every Dream Home A Heartache was a somehow ironic, absurd and moving homage to an inflatable doll.
Stranded  produced by Chris Thomas - UK chart position: 1
"Wish everybody would leave me alone," sang Ferry on the first line of Street Life - Eno, for one, did, but has since cited this as the best Roxy album. "Psalm was actually the first song I ever wrote," recalls Ferry now, "and I'm very fond of Just Like You. In some ways it would've been nice if Brian had been on it, too. The masterpiece Mother Of Pearl was sung in one take.
Country Life  Produced by John Punter & Roxy Music - UK chart position: 3
As Ferry's solo stock rose, he intended this title (and the cover, banned in America) as a subversion of the English establishment. Yet it reeks of class, from the poignant A Really Good Time to the thundering The Thrill Of It All. The Brechtian Bitter-Sweet seemed to describe a wrestling with darker demons.
Siren  Produced by Chris Thomas - UK chart position: 6
On the back of the consummate hit Love Is The Drug, the band began to infiltrate the States. (Cover girl Jerry Hall is actually freezing on a rock in Anglesey.) Sparser, tidier, more crafted, this is the album Enophiles love to hate, but Ferry's flawless lyrics keep both ends burning. A three-year break followed, handily saving Roxy from being bile-targets for punk rock.
Manifesto  Produced by Roxy Music - UK chart position: 7
They returned, suited-up, a super-slick nouveau disco project led by the chart-friendly Dance Away and Angel Eyes. The late Alan Spenner's bass on the extended intro, Ferry points out, is astonishing. Originally divided into East Side and West Side, to separate "European and American flavours".
Flesh + Blood  Produced by Rhett Davies & Roxy Music - UK chart position: 1
"Graceful and infuriating - an environment not an album," wrote Paul Morley in NME. Increasingly, Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay were interested in layers, colours, textures, nuances. The songs suffered, although Same Old Scene, Over You and Oh Yeah kept them commercial. Covers of Midnight Hour and Eight Miles High were cheap shots.
Avalon  Produced by Rhett Davies & Roxy Music - UK chart position: 1
Perhaps the final word in velvet-smooth, sensuous suggestion, this is utterly ageless. The title song has become am improbably ethereal radio classic. More Than This is yearning incarnate. Cover girl (back of head) is Ferry's wife, Lucy Helmore. "Now the party's over", he sang. At least till 2001.