It’s amazing how much we are influenced for the rest of our lives by the things we were exposed to at an early age.
For 10-year-old Bryan Ferry, a product of the remote towns of 1950s northeast England, he found himself irresistibly drawn to American music, particularly the improvisational jazz sax of Charlie Parker, vocal acts like The Inkspots, crooners like Nat King Cole, and the songs of Cole Porter as interpreted by the voice of Billie Holiday.
As a paperboy delivering newspapers and weekly music magazines, he read about some of the new musical genres coming from the U.S. “I was fortunate that there was a music store in Newcastle where you could go into a booth and listen to all kinds of stuff,” Ferry recalled. “I lived in there.”
He enjoyed early rockers like Little Richard and Fats Domino, “but when I heard Charlie Parker for the first time, this was something I really loved, and nobody else who I knew knew anything about him. It’s good to have your private obsessions.”
So, when Ferry first moved to London in 1968 and entertained the idea of forming a rock band, these were the musicians and genres that had inspired him, along with the vibrant American R&B sounds of Motown and the Stax/Volt artists.
The other young British musicians who came to join forces with Ferry brought their own spheres of influence: Guitarist Phil Manzanera had South American roots and Latin heroes; saxophone/oboe master Andy Mackay was trained on traditional classical music; and the enigmatic Brian Eno was immersed in ambient music and soundscapes that emerged from manipulating the new VCS3 synthesizer.
These were strange bedfellows, but the resulting mix was Roxy Music, a band of pioneers that itself proved hugely influential among the coming New Wave artists who dominated the charts in England and America in the late 1970s, 1980s and beyond.
From its strangely thrilling 1972 debut album to its sophisticated swan song “Avalon” in 1982, Roxy Music continually broke new ground, erasing boundaries between edgy and pop, bringing experimental and traditional influences into the same room.
And now, this March, Roxy Music will at last be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their belated inclusion puts an official stamp on a worthy legacy that has been too often overlooked and underappreciated. For crying out loud, the band has been eligible for induction since 1997, and yet this was the first year they were even nominated!
Let’s put aside the puzzling criteria and biases that the Hall of Fame nominating and selection committees evidently bring to their mission. Instead, let’s just look at the remarkable body of original work that Roxy Music laid down on its eight studio albums, and their altogether unique amalgam of fashion, style and presentation.
As the fledgling group assembled to make their eponymous debut (“Roxy Music”) in early 1972, the music scene in Britain was keen on experimentation. Says Ferry, “We were very inexperienced, but so full of enthusiasm and ideas, and exploring different musical styles. That first album turned out to be very different from any of the others we did. We were still dabbling in the various possibilities, and considering the futures we could have as a band. It’s interesting how it ended up being a very influential record for a lot of different bands who picked up on a lot of different aspects of the sound.”
“A lot of the first album is first or second take,” Ferry remembers. “Some of them, like ‘Bob (The Medley)’ or ‘Sea Breezes,’ are collage-like, with different sounds and moods within them – they’ll change abruptly into something else. For instance, ‘Sea Breezes’ is a slow song, and suddenly moves into this angular, quite opposite mood. I found that interesting, and this band was perfect for that; they were game for anything. We were constantly fiddling around, changing things, and I was still trying to find my voice.”
From my own point of view, I have to say it was Ferry’s weirdly affected voice that initially turned me off from Roxy Music. The fluttering, often atonal vocals were an acquired taste, to say the least, and I simply couldn’t get past them to discover the fascinating sounds coming from Mackay, Eno and Manzanera.
But Kid Leo, the visionary DJ on Cleveland’s WMMS, was a big devotee, and I generally trusted his taste in music. Throughout the mid-1970s, he would air liberal helpings of great songs from Roxy’s first several albums — tracks like “Street Life,” “Editions of You,” “Out of the Blue,” “Both Ends Burning.” Slowly, by osmosis, I absorbed the creepy beauty and exhilarating energy that Roxy Music had to offer.
As it turned out, Eno was more of a sonic engineer than a musician, and he and the band parted ways after the second LP (1973’s “For Your Pleasure”). Ferry recalls that Eno would sometimes be working the soundboard from the audience at Roxy concerts rather than join the band on stage. “That’s where he felt most comfortable, I think,” said Ferry, “and as everyone knows, he went on to become one of the most respected record producers of our time.” Artists like David Bowie, Devo, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, U2 and even Paul Simon have allowed Eno to put his mark on their recordings over the years since.
His replacement, if you can call it that, was Eddie Jobson, who did exemplary work on “Stranded,” “Country Life” and “Siren,” all solid LPs in the Roxy tradition. His warm, textural synthesizer and violin passages recalled the sounds Eno had come up with while moving the band forward into a more accessible, listenable oeuvre.
Another important facet of Roxy Music was their look. Just as Bowie and others were pioneering the glam-rock movement with the Ziggy Stardust-type attire, the members of Roxy also pushed the envelope with spacey, other-worldly clothes and makeup. Ferry, on the other hand, was partial to sartorial splendor, wearing white dinner jackets and adopting an ultra-cool persona. “It was very much an art-school crowd who were coming to our early shows,” recalls Ferry, “and some of those wildly talented art students and fashion students helped us sort of put together the first few album covers, and the stage look of the band in general.”
Throughout the band’s 10-year run, British music fans were far more receptive to Roxy Music than their Yankee counterparts, perhaps because they were just a little too extreme for mainstream American tastes. Every Roxy LP reached Top Ten on the UK album charts, including three #1 postings, and the band scored more than a dozen high-charting singles as well. In the US, the best they could manage was a #23 ranking for the 1979 album “Manifesto,” and only one Top 40 single, 1975’s “Love is the Drug” (#30).
Retrospectively, it’s interesting to note how the band’s sound evolved as Ferry matured and encouraged a less dissident, more cosmopolitan and melodic sense to their music. Roxy had taken a brief sabbatical in 1977 while Ferry continued a concurrent solo recording career. When they resumed working together, beginning with the “Manifesto” LP and its two excellent singles, “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away,” Roxy Music were making tracks that folks in the dance clubs found more engaging. As Rolling Stone put it, “It seems as if the rest did the regrouped Roxy a world of good: deftly blending fresh rhythms into its signature sound, shortening the musical passages and concentrating more on song craft.”
When they released the equally radio-friendly “Flesh + Blood” the following year, Roxy was faced with reviews like this one by the respected David Hepworth: “Original followers will likely find this album low on character and surprise, while those who love the mighty ‘Over You’ single will no doubt be suckers for the album’s mature, silky charms.” To which Ferry replied, “Older fans want us to stay stuck in time, but that’s not reasonable.”
Due mostly to Ferry’s influence, the band began including spirited covers of great oldies like The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” That trend reached its commercial zenith when they covered John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” on a single released in the wake of Lennon’s 1980 death.
Ferry had shown a fondness for interpreting older material as far back as his 1973 solo debut, attempting chestnuts like “It’s My Party” and “Baby I Don’t Care.” In 1978, his “The Bride Stripped Bare” LP includes covers of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and “Hold On I’m Comin’.”
“Avalon,” which turned out to be Roxy Music’s final LP, is also their most reachable, as Ferry’s voice, songs and keyboard playing adopt a softer, dreamier approach. Critic Kurt Loder raved about it: “The album takes a long time to kick in, but when it finally does, it shows a band at its peak. Ferry’s familiar vocal mannerisms are subsumed in a rich, benevolent self-assurance, and reed man Andy Mackay shines in a series of impressive solos. Roxy Music may be less dramatic now, but the songs have seldom seemed stronger.”
Ferry has continued to write and record plenty of amazing music in the 30-plus years since the band’s dissolving. His 1985 LP “Boys and Girls,” which features virtuosos like David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler and Nile Rodgers, ranks right up there with “Avalon,” in my opinion. Tracks like “Slave to Love” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” are positively hypnotic. So, too, is his riveting version of “I Put a Spell on You,” which appears on his 1993 collection “Taxi.”
The band attempted a reunion in 2007 when Ferry, Mackay, Manzanera and even Eno reassembled in the studio to cut a few tracks, but they ultimately didn’t feel it was up to standards and shelved it. Some of that material was reworked and rearranged for Ferry’s 2010 “Olympia” LP.
Roxy (without Eno) has made a few concert appearances in less traveled cities of Europe in the past decade, but there has never been any talk of US shows. We may see the core members on stage together at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in New York next month…but will they perform? “Doubtful,” says Mackay, “but you never know.”
Ferry continues to woo American audiences with his solo band, and I’m personally looking forward to seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl in August.
When asked to discuss his long-ago days with Roxy Music, he sighs and reflects matter-of-factly, “I really love what I do, and I’ve been fortunate. The only part I don’t like is all this overanalyzing. Art and music are here to be enjoyed and absorbed. I’m not sure they need to be talked about so much. I do sometimes envy the people who never have to describe what they’re doing.”
I hope you enjoy the Spotify playlist below of my essential Roxy Music tracks, which also includes a few of Ferry’s best solo moments.