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The Economist MARCH 19, 2019 - by Prospero
HOW ROXY MUSIC HELPED DEFINE GENERATIONS OF POP
The enduring influence of the best British art-rock band since The Beatles
MUCH IN life depends on timing. Imagine, for example, how many more Grand Slam titles a tennis player of Andy Murray's excellence might have accumulated in his prime, had he not had the misfortune to share it with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, three of the finest players the men's game has known.
The story of Roxy Music is a similar one. The principal reason they as a band, and particularly Bryan Ferry, their frontman and chief songwriter, do not occupy the exalted position in popular culture that David Bowie does is because, well, David Bowie does. Their heyday coincides almost exactly with his. Their sensibility - blending fine art, glamour, sensationalism, eccentricity and sex - runs parallel to his. Among English rock acts of that time, their spirit of adventure and their impact are surpassed only by his. Had Bowie's career, for some or other reason, not unfolded as it did, it is easy to see how Roxy Music could have seized that spotlight. Their belated induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame this March tells of a band who are far from unappreciated - their occasional reunion tours sell out arenas - but whose significance is much underestimated. They are, quite simply, the greatest art-rock group Britain has produced this side of The Beatles.
Roxy Music's history is interwoven with Bowie's in various ways. Their first, self-titled album was released on the same date - June 26, 1972 - as Bowie's breakthrough, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Brian Eno, who left the band after two albums, was a vital collaborator in Bowie's so-called "Berlin period". Bowie admired Mr Ferry, and championed him to an American audience that never really took to Roxy Music in a big way. Bowie drew with characteristic cheek upon Mr Ferry's distinctive croon in the mid-1970s, and affectionately teased him by casting a lookalike in the comic short film Jazzin' for Blue Jean (1984).
Yet Roxy Music had qualities of their own that Bowie could not emulate. This art-school band was a miscellany: its members ranged across social classes (Mr Ferry's father was a Durham farmhand and tended to pit ponies), origins (Phil Manzanera, the guitarist, spent his childhood in Central and South America) and, above all, talents (Mr Eno, who has since become a pioneering solo artist and revered producer, did not consider himself a musician in any conventional sense, but an experimental technician). These disparate elements did not so much unite as collide in pursuit of a strange, exotic beauty. They filled the interregnum between psychedelia and glam rock with outrageous colour and style; there was a wonderful unwieldiness to them. Graham Lewis, the bassist in Wire, a post-punk band inspired by them, described the experience of watching Roxy Music perform in 1972. "Magic. Weird, wilful," he said. "They obviously didn't know quite what they were doing."
Mr Eno famously remarked that every one of the relatively few people who bought a copy of The Velvet Underground's first album started a band (Roxy Music being, by implication, one such). Roxy Music were always more popular than The Velvet Underground, but their strike rate in that regard cannot have been much lower, and their heirs are far more diverse. Without Roxy Music there would surely have been no ABC, no New Romantic movement, no Goldfrapp, no Pulp, no Human League, no Siouxsie & The Banshees - at least not as they are known now. The singing style of David Byrne from Talking Heads is indebted to Mr Ferry's. Their influence spread in less obvious directions, too. Nile Rodgers explicitly devised Chic as "our black version of Roxy Music" after seeing the band perform when he visited Britain, making them inadvertent godfathers of late-1970s disco culture.
Roxy Music's recording career lasted only eleven years, and if you listen to their first two albums, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, and the last two (thus far), Flesh + Blood and Avalon, you might take them for different bands. Many partisans of the early iteration certainly think so, and feel that when Mr Eno departed in 1973, leaving Mr Ferry effectively in sole charge, the group lost their way, drifting into middle-of-the-road pop. This is to misunderstand the nature of that later incarnation, which was no less bold and visionary. Mr Ferry devised a smooth, meticulous sound, both deep and lovely. Roxy Music never lost the vital parts of their character: an intense romanticism, a devotion to aesthetics, a willingness to confound expectation. They are trailblazers for every band which cherishes the same principles.