New York Times MAY 7, 2008 - by Ira Robbins


Ideally, a musical biography will send you back to familiar recordings, to rehear them with fresh knowledge and insight. The more likely result of reading Re-make/Re-model, a prehistory of Roxy Music by the English novelist and cultural critic Michael Bracewell, will be a visit to the Museum of Modern Art.

Rejecting the standard album-tour-drugs-sex hagiography, Bracewell focuses on British art, fashion and academia in the 1950s and '60s, and on how the cultural scene inspired several brilliant products of that milieu to create Roxy Music. So what might have been a few lines of background in a magazine article - the future band members went to provincial art schools and universities, where they painted, made music, wore cool clothes, rebelled against the past and befriended other talented dreamers - turns into a far-flung work of precise, pedantic scholarship about their formative years.

Part oral history, part academic thesis, Re-make/Re-model essentially deconstructs the cast and credits of Roxy Music's wildly inventive 1972 debut album. The stylist of the cover model's hair merits five pages, while a whole chapter is largely given over to the couturier who designed her clothes, Antony Price, and much is also made of the art director Nicholas de Ville, a classmate and friend of the singer Bryan Ferry. (The only relevant survivor not interviewed for the book seems to be the model herself, Kari-Ann.) But the story's real hero is the Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton, who taught a course Ferry took at Newcastle University and is the fount from which much of this history proceeds. It's not entirely clear why. Hamilton's Duchamp-fueled impact on Ferry is manifest in album artwork and titles, but Bracewell's claim that Hamilton was somehow responsible for the birth of Roxy Music is unproven. Ferry acknowledges that some of his early songs were assembled like Hamilton's collages, but speaking of the band's first stirrings, he says: "I didn't know exactly what I wanted, at all. It was just a case of having a vague vision - which I couldn't define, obviously, until the music was made."

Creative connections to Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, David Hockney and others make this tale engaging, but Bracewell doesn't know when to stop. In the dogged pursuit of associations, no thread of history is too small to tug at. Michael X, a dubious black power figure whom the Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay met in 1967, gets a page of background and a page of testimony detailing a connection that Mackay summarizes as "having had tea with someone who was later hanged for murder." If this book included a pea soup recipe, it might well begin with a biography of Gregor Mendel.

Re-make/Re-model leaves one wanting less but needing more - like a proper appreciation of the band's groundbreaking music. Bracewell repeatedly asserts its stylistic diversity and leaves it at that. Anyone willing to trudge through four-hundred-plus dense pages about abstruse concepts like "the taut, almost erotic relationship between product design and human physicality" might also hope to learn something about Roxy Music's career, if not the group's rock-star lives. Forget it: once the curtain is raised, the show is over. With no suggestion of a sequel, the story ends with the release of the band's first album.

When all the parts were finally in place for what is preposterously billed as Ferry's transformation into a work of art rather than a mere artist, the big bang turned out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, with dismaying familiarity, the original lineup was assembled through chance, circumstance and the prosaic need for a tape recorder. (Brian Eno owned one, and his arrival completed the band's fertilization process.) As Mackay says of the early days, "We all thought that we were doing something different to the end result." For self-declared "inspired amateurs," whose genius and influence arose from the pairing of limited ability and boundless ambition, that may be the wisest observation here.