Stylus APRIL 12, 2005 - by Todd Burns


The radical break Roxy Music represented from the past was as much centered upon its musical output as it was on its visual style. The group took the elements of rock as its basis for sound and merged them with pop, allowing them to walk a careful line between art and commerce that had been tread previously only by some of the greatest bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. Along with David Bowie, Roxy Music represented a new brand of rock that privileged costume and artifice as much as the music included in the sleeve.

The emergence of the group, however, was based as much on its unique sound: the braying saxophone of Andy Mackay and the tape manipulations of Brian Eno; as it was on the visual art of their cover sleeves.

The covers of each of their albums follow a specific format, one that had been done many times before, but not in the context of a Serious Rock Band. The group copied the same sort of cover that was commonplace in the arena of jazz standards and easy listening. Despite the seemingly bland music that was contained within, it was these records that attempted to trade on the sex appeal of a scantily clad woman, as opposed to the more often criticized rawk.

Much like Bryan Ferry, the lead singer of Roxy Music, who said in a Mojo interview in 1995: "pictures of pretty girls had been used to sell everything else... why not rock music?" And as Paul Stump, the author of Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural Biography of Roxy Music puts it, "sleeve designers were fixated on maintaining the fiction of rock as art, diminishing the product's 'productness'". Here we can see the essential break between Ferry and the rest of Roxy Music and the rock community. Focusing their attention upon the art world, Ferry was an adherent to the Pop Art philosophy of Richard Hamilton (who taught Ferry at art school) and Andy Warhol. Accentuate the product, embrace the product, and maybe, just maybe, make the audience react to the product.

The outcome, on their debut record at least, is one of the signature rock cover sleeves in history. Kari-Ann Moller is the model who subtly echoes a Busby Berkely pin-up girl, much like the aforementioned jazz albums. There are some key differences in the portrayals, however, that bear mentioning.

Her facial features reveal bared teeth - a traditional come hither type look - but are offset by the concealment of the thighs by her knees. Additionally, the gold disc and rose that she holds are mere effects, denoting the materialism of the bachelor atmosphere (Playboy, for example, was just beginning to gain prominence) that ruled amid the 1950s that Moller clearly evokes.

There is an obvious change between this and the second album cover, which is a bit more obvious in its images and signifiers. The bared teeth are still there, but this time they're on a dog. Once again, materialism is signified by the glitzy backdrop and glittering bracelet that the cover model Amanda Lear wears. And, as if this wasn't enough, on the other side of the gatefold, there awaits a man in a car, watching the proceedings warily from a distance, waiting for Lear to make her way over to the car. This time it's definitely look, but don't touch - and even has a mildly aggressive feel to it. With regards to the music, it seems to be a perfect fit: Eno's contributions were much more prominent, giving the album a more atmospheric feel, coloring the music in an amount of mystery.

All of the mystery and mystique is excised from the cover to the group's next album, Stranded, which makes the female form a bit more available for viewing. She lies prone, wiping her forehead, legs wide open upon the ground with flower in hand, the album title implying that's she merely waiting for someone to come save her. Her midriff is also noticeably torn.

It's hard to find the same sort of joy in the mixed messages in this shoot with Marilyn Cole. But unsurprisingly, the album was the group's first to make #1 in the album charts. With the departure of Brian Eno, the sometimes awful, but always interesting sound of the band is smoothed out. More adventurous than almost any other group out there at the time in the pop charts? Certainly. But the cracks in the façade are beginning to show here.

These come to the fore on the band's fourth album, Country Life. A decadent affair during which Ferry retired to Portugal to write lyrics, no less. The cover is taken from a picture of two models that he met there: Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald. Ferry's idea here was to contrast with the British magazine Country Life's pictures of "characters shooting ducks or jumping over fences in top hats."

The risqué end product ended up as far more controversial. The cover was banned or changed in a number of countries and served as the finest example of the band's intended idea of making the product of sexuality an artistic statement.