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This career-spanning box set to mark Roxy Music's 40th anniversary is often startling, usually wonderful, and more affecting than expected. It's also fascinating as the story of a gradual hardening of an elegant, enigmatic persona, of Bryan Ferry's transformation from art-school pop star to self-made sphinx.
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In their 1970s heyday, Roxy Music enjoyed enormous critical and commercial success, but even so, they and their art-school rock were admired more than trusted. American critics snipped at leader Bryan Ferry's arch romanticism, while the Brit press considered the models Ferry squired and the suits he doffed and dubbed him 'Byron Ferrari'. Almost everyone affirmed that the band were great, while disagreeing as to when, exactly. For some, the great achievement was 1982's farewell, Avalon-- impeccably designed pop for weary grown-ups. Others went a decade further back, to the early, playfully experimental albums Roxy released when Brian Eno was in the band, playing androgyne peacock to Ferry's tailored lothario. Whether you see their development between those points as progress or cautionary tale, it's easy to let this contrast define the band.
This box set of remasters to celebrate the band's 40th anniversary-- not lavish, but thorough and reasonably priced-- is an opportunity to break free of narrative and see what sets every phase of Roxy Music apart. The answer is Bryan Ferry, one of rock's great, sustained acts of self-definition. In classic 70s style, like Bowie or Bolan, Ferry invented a pop star. A sybarite with a plummy, awkward croon, gliding through his own songs like they were parties he'd forgotten arriving at. A flying Dutchman of the jet set, doomed to find love but never satisfaction. Having worked his way into character over an album or two, he simply never left it, becoming more Bryan Ferry with every record and every year, whether performing or not.
Which might have been insufferable, except Ferry's performances could hit an emotional core nobody else in rock was getting near. He made enervation his own-- a real, neglected feeling, if a hard one to sympathise with. On Avalon's title track he puts it plainly: 'Now the party's over/ I'm so tired'. Roxy were never drained by hangovers or comedowns, more by moments of rueful self-knowledge. But you hardly needed lyrics to spot it: from first to last, Roxy Music scattered moments of exquisite exhaustion through their songs. The hanging chords on the intro to early single 'Pyjamarama', as if the song can't decide whether to get out of bed. The smothering synthesised pall of 'In Every Dream Home a Heartache', from their masterpiece, 1973's For Your Pleasure. The hilariously overwrought dolour of 'A Song For Europe'. Or the band rousing themselves on 'Just Another High' for a quixotic chase after one last thrill, futility nipping at their heels.
That song, closing out 1975's Siren, was one of the great career-ending statements. Except Roxy reformed and returned-- a three year break counted as a split in the frenzied 70s-- for a trio of albums that explored ennui in ever smoother, prettier, and more laconic ways. They restarted well. The glowering, compelling title track from 1979's Manifesto promises a meaner and darker band than we ever quite got. But the later material isn't always worthwhile. There are moments on 1980's Flesh and Blood, in particular, where the band stop sounding tired and start sounding bored, a fatal difference. There are also moments, like Avalon's 'More Than This' and 'To Turn You On', where the entropic gloss is a feint to let heartbreaking loneliness get in close and floor you. The ultimate late Roxy Music song, oddly, might be their cover of 'Jealous Guy', released after John Lennon's murder. Here genuine loss is paid tribute by studied melancholy, soul-baring replaced by poised regret, and in the greatest tribute a narcissist could pay the song stands revealed as a Roxy tune all along.
Exhaustion was Roxy Music's speciality, but if it was all they could do they'd be a footnote. The band earn their ennui by convincing us how hard they can party. The superb mid-70s albums in particular-- For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life and Siren-- are giddy, muscular displays, and vicious when they need to be. They're also Ferry's peak as a vocalist: by Stranded (also from '73) he'd found his voice but hadn't settled into the lounge lizard comfort zone, and was confident playing things staccato, mocking or sentimental. More importantly, his band had the same freedom to roam. If they lack the impertinent invention of the Eno years, these records are generous with opportunities for Roxy Music's lynchpins-- Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Eddie Jobson-- to shine and stretch. When they reach full steam behind an inspired Ferry, on 'The Thrill of It All', 'Street Life' or 'Mother of Pearl', it's the best, most exciting music the band created.
Eno's departure, as he himself admitted, helped Roxy become that more focused, energized band. But his contributions had been colossal. Eno helped Ferry mutate his songs into referential collages and eerie synthscapes, and that experimentation gave the early Roxy their identity. He's easier to spot on their flashy, daring self-titled 1972 debut, the inventiveness of songs like 'Ladytron' and 'The Bob (Medley)' helping cover up rattly production. But For Your Pleasure is a greater testament to Eno's importance: it's hard to imagine an album that better exploits the tension between two fast-diverging creativities. Its best tracks play games with sincerity and emotional tone: the preposterous schmaltz of 'Beauty Queen' resolving into real anguish, while 'In Every Dream Home an Heartache' lurches from creepiness to hilarity. Speculating on what would have happened if Eno had stayed with Roxy Music past two albums is wistful fun. But once you've squeezed nine-minute krautrock jam 'The Bogus Man' and light-footed pop manifesto 'Do the Strand' into the same space, and made it work so magnificently, where do you go? Besides, Ferry needed room to obsessively refine himself.
What they lost, over time, wasn't so much inventiveness as playfulness. Country Life (1974), in particular, is an album of delightful variety-- the genre pastiche of 'Prairie Rose', the gothic folly of 'Tryptych', the gentle reflection of 'Three and Nine'. None of these survived the three-year gap. The box set has two discs of non-album material-- singles, mixes and edits-- including all the instrumentals they put on B-Sides. Relaxed studio goof-offs ('Hula Kula', 'Your Application's Failed') give way to portentousness ('South Downs') as Ferry, or the group, evolve, and it's a shame. There were trade-offs, of course. The final records may not be so much fun but Ferry had found an occasional knack of crafting brilliant, swooning radio choruses-- 'Dance Away', 'Oh Yeah', and 'More Than This' fully deserve their thrones in AOR Valhalla.
Direct Roxy Music copyists are few, but their themes-- romantic gloom, and the weariness of hedonism-- will be pop-relevant as long as self-conscious twentysomethings get famous, or want to. The music on this box set is often startling, usually wonderful and more affecting that you might have expected. But it's also fascinating as the story of a gradual hardening of an elegant, enigmatic persona, Bryan Ferry's transformation from art-school pop star to self-made sphinx.Back to home