Thursday, 19 December 2019

Roxy Music - Phase One



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Included here are the first five Roxy Music albums, plus the live album, Viva!:-

Roxy Music (1972)
For Your Pleasure (1973)
Stranded (1973)
Country Life (1974)
Siren (1975)
and Viva! (1976)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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ROXY MUSIC (1972)

1. Re-Make Re-Model
2. Ladytron
3. If There Is Something
4. 2HB
5. The BOB (Medley)
6. Chance Meeting
7. Would You Believe?
8. Sea Breezes
9. Bitter's End      
                        
In 1972, Roxy Music came from, well, nowhere, seemingly. Who were Roxy Music? No-one really knew. They looked like Teddy Boys, 50s revivalist members of Sha Na Na, and dressed in bacofoil suits like Dr. Who extras. They were both retrospective and futuristic both visually and musically. Rock and roll saxophone mixed with tape loops and weird synthesiser noises. Powerhouse drumming behind Bryan Ferry's bizarre voice, the like of which had not been heard before. Take their non-album first single, Virginia Plain and its strange lyrics too -

"Far beyond the pale horizon
Some place near the desert strand
Where my Studebaker takes me
That's where I'll make my stand, but wait
Can't you see that Holzer mane?
What's her name?
Virginia Plain...."

Exactly. What was that all about. I bought that single in 1972 and was hooked. I remain so.

  

Back to the album. The opening track, Re-Make Re-Model was a fantastic start, with all the individual Roxy members taking solos in Bryan Ferry’s ode to a car number plate (CPL 593H). This track just sort of summed up what early Roxy were all about - exciting, individualistic, innovative, futuristic, revivalist. All those things rolled into one intoxicating whole.

Ladytron features the “sound like the moon” that Ferry had asked Brian Eno to create, with its insistent, exciting synthesiser climax. If There Is Something is a mini Roxy classic. Again, all the instrumentalists feature heavily over Ferry’s “acquired taste” unique voice, and romantic lyrics.

2 H.B. is a tribute to screen legend Humphrey Bogart, and The Bob (Medley) is, apparently, about the Battle Of Britain. Only the machine gun and siren sound affect noises hold a clue to that one. To be honest, the track is a little bit messy. It is a bit odd, to be honest, very incongruous alongside the rest of the album's generally avant-garde ambience. The Battle Of Britain was an heroic affair but did it need commemorating on this album by a strange bunch of seventies ex-students? Probably not. 

 

Chance Meeting and Sea Breezes are more convincingly evocative and atmospheric numbers, particularly the latter, with its extended, slow, drum and vocal last part. 

Would You Believe? is an upbeat, rock n roll song that features Andy Mackay’s superb saxophone and Bitters End an odd, slightly unfinished lounge bar-ish two minute track to finish what was, all things considered, a quite remarkable debut album. This was their first outing, remember, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, 1972’s two other great innovators, had been putting out albums for several years by then.

 

** Worth mentioning too is the 'b' side to Virginia Plain:-

The Numberer was an odd 'b' side in that, rather than showcasing Roxy's burgeoning new talent, it sounded like a new band's initial clumsy demo. It is an instrumental. Its sound is very rudimentary, particularly Paul Thompson's usually impressive drums, which sound very amateur, and the general sound overall is somewhat tinny and lo-fi. This is quite noticeable in comparison with the excellent sound on Virginia Plain and on the album. The plus points are the weird keyboard sounds, Andy Mackay's crazy saxophone and the break in the middle when the band launch into some late fifties-style rock'n'roll guitar. That seemed to fit in with the whole futuristic/retro vibe expressed in the band's costumes and hairstyles on the album's cover. Maybe I have been a bit harsh, because, several listens later, I am finding it more and more strangely enjoyable. Its problem is that, for such a polished group, it sounds too raw and rough-edged. 



Regarding the BBC cuts on Disc Two of the “deluxe edition”. Fantastic. You get the entire album (apart from the relatively inconsequential "Bitters End") played live in the BBC studio, not sequentially though. They are excellent in sound quality and interesting versions, proof that Roxy could really play. If There Is Something is outstanding. Re-Make Re-Model and Would You Believe? are both just a sheer pleasure to experience. Just listen to Andy Mackay's saxophone on the latter. Roxy Heaven. The fade out to Ladytron is nailed on as well. I was thinking they might have made a bit of a mess of The Bob (Medley) but they pull it off, somehow creating a few synthesised background noises to accompany what always was a most quirky, somewhat bizarre song. They do it again on the Paris Theatre live performance too, with some additional wailing noises too and parping sax. Chance Meeting has a great extended ending on the live takes.

The sound quality on the live cuts is not quite as good as on the BBC sessions but it isn't bad, some nice stereo separation. Considering it was from a smallish venue in 1972 it is probably as good as could be expected.

This CD is worth it for the wonderful BBC Sessions alone, add to that the Paris Theatre tracks and I am more than happy to shell out for what is the only official live representation of this truly ground-breaking band from 1972 when they were really cooking.

 

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FOR YOUR PLEASURE (1973)

1. Do The Strand
2. Beauty Queen
3. Strictly Confidential
4. Editions Of You
5. In Every Dream Home A Heartache
6. The Bogus Man
7. Grey Lagoons
8. For Your Pleasure  

Roxy Music's second album, released in early 1973, ironed out just a few of the rough edges of their otherwise stunning debut album with this, another offering of experimental, innovative "art rock" meets fifties rock'n'roll meets glam. It was the last to feature synthesiser and sound specialist Brian Eno. There were increasing tensions in the studio between the innovative Eno and the more poppier instincts of Bryan Ferry and this is clear in the contracting material the album. It led to the departure of Eno four months after the album's release.
                                                                                  
There are three great "glam", typically Ferry upbeat tracks to be found in the thumping, lyrically oddball Do The Strand, the frantic, swirling Editions Of You and the Andy Mackay (saxophone) dominated Grey Lagoons. The first two appeared as a US double "A" side single. Surely it would have been a huge hit if released in the UK. Instead, we had the quirky, somewhat short Pyjamarama* which charted but not as high as I am sure Do The Strand or Editions Of You would have. All these tracks follow in the footsteps of Roxy’s first, ground- breaking huge hit, Virginia Plain - they are lively, catchy, lyrically bewildering and fully representative of the glammy art rock that Roxy burst upon the scene with in 1972-73. There had certainly been nothing like this before.

Beauty Queen and Strictly Confidential are quintessential Ferry slow, intoxicating numbers that eat into your consciousness, as indeed does the extended, insistent and at times almost funky The Bogus Man. Apparently about a sexual stalker, Eno has since said he was influenced on this track’s creation by the krautrock” band, Can. The song's lengthy, minimalist sound was very representative of the sort of material that Eno was coming up with at the time.

For Your Pleasure is also in the same vein - a somewhat bizarre lengthy fade out to the album which has served well as a live show closer, with band members departing one by one. It is dominated by Eno’s messing around with tape loops which, on this track, goes on a few minutes too long, to be honest. It is probably here that the differences between Ferry and Eno occurred because Roxy certainly didn't subsequently record anything like these two tracks. 

Then there is the monumental, now iconic In Every Dream Home A Heartache, Ferry's love song to an inflatable sex toy. How did he get away with that in those days? “I blew up your body - but you blew my mind”. The track is also notable for Phil Manzanera's blistering guitar solo at the song's climax, having built up to it with Ferry's slow, evocative and insistent verses. The track is chock full of mystery and atmosphere. 

Personally, I prefer Stranded, but this is right up there as a example of Roxy Music's best work. It was a perplexing, beguiling and challenging album in all ways - musically, lyrically and stylistically. Indeed, at the time, American rock critic Paul Gambaccini stated that that "the bulk of “For Your Pleasure”  is either above us, beneath us, or on another plane altogether." Quite. Roxy Music at this time really were quite unique. 

** The non-album single from this period and its 'b' side were:-

Pyjamarama was a most quirky and oddball follow-up to the hugely successful debut single, Virginia Plain. It has no obvious verse/chorus structure, just a few lines of lyrics in between some typically adventurous saxophone/guitar/drum instrumental passages. The song's title is not mentioned in the song, neither does it have any relevance. It was a strange single, totally uncommercial, but it made the top twenty. It has become somewhat forgotten in the Roxy canon. 

There were two versions - one on Island Records and one on Polydor. There are said to be differences but I have never been particularly successful in noticing them. The Polydor one seems to have a slightly clearer sound quality to it and the guitar bit at the end has a few different notes.

  

The Pride And The Pain. Roxy Music seemed to be building up a tradition of putting out instrumental 'b' sides that underplayed their abilities, in many ways. Many people find their 'b' sides interesting in a "cultish" sort of way, unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I just find them not very good! Oddly, on all these 'b' sides, the sound quality is far inferior to that of the albums. Anyway, this track is pretty unremarkable, punctuated at the beginning by some off-putting whiplash noises, presumably put in there to give some vague hint of sado-masochism. To be fair, the track does carry a certain amount of mysterious atmosphere with it. After a few listens, I find myself getting into it. There is something of the ambience David Bowie created on Low, the common denominator, of course, being Brian Eno

Photo by Karl Stoecker. The model is Bryan Ferry's girlfriend at the time, model Amanda Lear. The drawing of the initial idea for the cover was by Antony Price

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STRANDED (1973)

1. Street Life
2. Just Like You
3. Amazona
4. Psalm
5. Serenade
6. A Song For Europe
7. Mother Of Pearl
8. Sunset    

Roxy Music's third album, and the first since the departure of electronic muse Brian Eno, saw a slight streamlining of their sound - less synthesisers and tape loops, a heavier guitar sound, a greater emphasis on more melodic piano sound. The employment of multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson in Eno's place certainly helped in this. There are many who think that the only credible Roxy Music albums were the first two, the Eno ones, but this is really up there with them. Indeed, in many ways it could be considered superior. Listen to it as a whole, it gets better and better. The vaguely unsettling, difficult to categorise nature of their music is still clearly in evidence. This is still very much a "Roxy Music Phase One" (1972-1975) album. Notably, though, Bryan Ferry, in the autumn of 1973, began to adopt the tuxedo-clad lounge bar look and the group were becoming more of a vehicle for his aspirational chic than a bizarre, disparate melting pot of characters/images.

 
                                              
Street Life was a wonderful, upbeat opener, from the opening "fade in" of that strange jangling sound to its intriguing Virginia Plain-style lyrics ("continental-style Strasse girls might..."), this was, not unsurprisingly, a huge hit single. Slotting in easily to the late 1973 glam zeitgeist, the frantic, shimmering pace never lets up, Bryan Ferry's quavering voice and Paul Thompson's drums are on top form throughout. One of Roxy's finest singles. Perfect in so many ways.

As for Just Like You, initially, one felt this quiet, tender ballad was a bit of a lightweight track. Dig deeper though and it has hidden qualities - an impressive Phil Manzanera guitar solo mid-way through and some throbbing, melodic bass from John Gustafson provides a foundation to a most underrated Roxy song. Amazona was sampled by rapper Ice-T on That's How I'm Living It, this could have been on either of the first two albums. It is very much an "early Roxy" style track. Fast paced, lots of weird noises as if Eno was back with the band, some very affected Ferry vocals, searing Manzanera guitar, great drums and some bizarre, completely irrelevant lyrics about an area of Brazil. It is a beguiling, mysterious and typically impossible to categorise piece of work.

For many, Psalm was the album's low point - a eight minute, slow burning dirge full of quasi-religious lyrics and none of that madcap Roxy creativity, such as on Street Life and Amazona. That is to do the song a disservice though. It is packed full of atmosphere and lyrical power. It builds up beautifully - fugue-like piano and organ, a lovely, warm vocal from Ferry, insistent thumping drums from Thompson, Manzanera's guitar chopping in and out behind the vocal and Andy Mackay's saxophone getting increasingly involved as the verses progress. Then, about four and a half minutes in, a Welsh male voice choir joins in on massed backing vocals, Ferry picks up his harmonica, Manzanera turns up the guitar licks and what you get is something rather special. Ferry returns with an ever-strengthening vocal to lift the song to to its climax and Mackay helps him with some wailing saxophone. Do not underestimate the sheer beauty of this track. Musically and lyrically, it stands apart from anything else the band did, although its brooding insistence matches the second half of Mother Of Pearl. I loved it back in 1973 and still do today. Those who skip it are missing out in the same way as those who did the same to Bob Dylan's Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts.

Serenade was another "fade in" song that quickly launches into a quintessential Roxy mid-70s rocker, as was Whirlwind on 1975's Siren. The usual ingredients of a vibrating Ferry vocal and some killer Manzanera guitar. There is a nice, slower, piano-based "bridge" before the drums kick back in as the song reaches its climax.

Song For Europe is a true Roxy classic. Atmospheric, evocative, beautiful, dramatic. All of those and more. Every member doing what they do best to the max. A lovely tinkling piano introduction sonically reflects the waters of Venice's canals before Ferry croons his way in to sing the slow, seductive verses. Thompson's drums and Mackay's soaring saxophone come in for each "chorus" part (although there is no obvious chorus, as such, just the louder bits). A beautiful piano and bass passage build up to the song's tumultuous climax as Ferry starts singing firstly in Latin and then in French, finishing it off with one of his affecting whistling passages. Just what other band, in 1973, could come up with something like this? Simply magnificent. The bit where Ferry first sings "tous ces moments" still gets my spine tingling.



With the sumptuous Mother Of Pearl Roxy heaven continues - first with with the frenetic first one and a half minutes of breakneck guitar driven rock, before the tempo instantly drops to a slow, plaintive drum beat and high-pitched background guitar interventions as the tension builds up again, rather like it did in Psalm and, bit by bit we slowly reach a climax again. The pace gets just a bit faster, Ferry's delivery gets more urgent, the bass becomes more obvious, the drums more insistent, the guitar parts more intricate. Why, its just bloody wonderful. It is here that I realise that, for me, this is the best Roxy Music album of all. No question.

The last unaccompanied fade-out lines of Mother Of Pearl segue into the beautiful, melodic piano intro to the lovely, low-key send off for this great album - Sunset. Ferry croons in classic style over a piano and deep, vibrating string bass backing (that sounds just like a cello). Just approaching the three minute mark, Ferry is gone for a while and a simply mesmeric piano and drum passage builds up to the song's closing movements with one more extended verse from Ferry before an intoxicating instrumental fade out.

** With regard to non-album rarities, the 'b' side of the single Street Life was:-

Hula Kula, which dates from the 1973 sessions for this album and is another inconsequential instrumental 'b' side. It features guitarist Phil Manzanera playing Hawaiian-style guitar while Andy Mackay plays sax and Paul Thompson percussion. It lasts a couple of minutes and, er, that's about it....



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COUNTRY LIFE (1974)

1. The Thrill Of It All
2. Three And Nine
3. All I Want Is You
4. Out Of The Blue
5. If It Takes All Night
6. Bitter-Sweet
7. Triptych
8. Casanova
9. A Really Good Time
10. Prairie Rose             

Not quite as seminal as the first three Roxy Music albums, Country Life was released in 1974 and fascinated me as a 15 year old schoolboy. I wonder why! Women were women in those days. Indeed. Funny how some albums in those days were inextricably linked to their covers, this is one of those. Brian Eno was long gone now, and, just as on its predecessor, Stranded, I am not sure his tape loops and so on were particularly missed. Many will disagree with that, of course, but it is indisputable that this album still showcases mid 70s Roxy Music at their very best - alternating between majestic, unsettling art rock and glamorous, elegant pop/rock. 

  
                     
The Thrill Of It All is a somewhat bloated, but still exciting opener, instantly recognisable as Roxy Music. It has an impressive, slow build up intro. 

Three And Nine is an appealing, melodic whimsical Bryan Ferry tune and the accompanying single All I Want Is You, with its storming opening guitar riff, is the most underrated of Roxy's excellent singles. Then there is the stunning Out Of The Blue with its great bass line and stunning Phil Manzanera guitar, augmented by Eddie Jobson’s electric violin. If It Takes All Night is a jazzy, boogie-blues singalong number, with an excellent, upbeat, Andy Mackay saxophone solo in the middle.

Bitter Sweet is more than a little clunky, with its "sturm und drang" Teutonic chorus (the German lyrics for which Ferry was assisted on by the two German models who appeared on the cover), while Triptych is quasi-religious and more than a little odd. Some Elizabethan-style keyboards are an innovative presence. Despite its somewhat clumsy chorus part, it is appealing, in an inexplicable sort of way.

 

The urgent, slightly mysterious rock of Casanova sees a return to the Roxy of old, sniping at the contemporary “jet set” that Ferry so wanted to belong to (although I prefer the more mellow, funkier version that appeared on Ferry's Let's Stick Together album in 1976).

A Really Good Time is classic laid-back Roxy rock with Ferry's voice to the fore, with a great bass line, and Prairie Rose signs off in true Roxy overblown rock style. Again, Phil Manzanera’s guitar on this is spectacular.



This was not a bad album at all, but at the time I was a tiny bit underwhelmed, which is a little bit unfair. For many, this is seen as the most artistically complete Roxy Music album. I can understand why they may think that, but I prefer the previous three outings overall.

** The non-album 'b' side from the recording sessions for this album was:-

Your Application's Failed1974's 'b' side, from the All I Want Is You single was yet another instrumental. It was slightly longer than the previous ones, clocking in at over four minutes. It is a saxophone and guitar-driven number and is probably my favourite of the ''b' sides (not that any of them were up to much). It was a shame, though, that Roxy's 'b' sides did not reflect the top quality of their albums. The track is notable for drummer Paul Thompson's only vocal contribution to Roxy's songs - he says the title once, half way through, in his Geordie accent. 

The track has the feeling of being an instrumental written for lyrics that never arrived, with a definite verse/chorus structure. 



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SIREN (1975)

1. Love Is The Drug
2. The End Of The Line
3. Sentimental Fool
4. Whirlwind
5. She Sells
6. Could It Happen To Me?
7. Both Ends Burning
8. Nightingale
9. Just Another High   

By 1975, the cracks were appearing in the hull of the good ship Roxy Music. Bryan Ferry had already begun his successful solo career. The time was probably right for a break. 1974's Country Life had certainly not been a bad album, indeed many thought it was their best, but in many ways it was no innovative classic either. It seemed, even then, that this was to be something of a transitional album, in terms of sound, style and approach. Like The Faces and Rod Stewart, Roxy Music were starting to look a bit more like a vehicle for Bryan Ferry.

Siren trod water, quite well, as it happened, and flirted with the burgeoning disco genre too. Ferry's imagery is focused, and there's less synthesized clutter, fewer sound effects, more straight, almost Ferry solo material.

  

There is certainly weight to the argument that claims that, starting in parts of Country Life and certainly continuing throughout nearly all of Siren (apart from the opening to Sentimental Fool) the actual fabric of Roxy's sound gets steadily more conventional and tame. Anyway, on to the songs -
                 
The opener and big hit single Love Is The Drug with its "footsteps on gravel" intro sounded great then and over forty years later it still does. It never sounds out of date.

End Of The Line is an appealing Ferry piano-driven ballad and Sentimental Fool's extended intro seems to want to hark back to the old "experimental" days of Brian Eno and 1973's For Your Pleasure before ending up as a drawn out Ferry ballad. 1973 certainly seemed along time ago, now

Whirlwind is typical Stranded-era Roxy, rather like that album's Serenade, full of crashing, swirling guitar. She Sells is catchy, but ultimately inconsequential and Could It Happen To Me pleasant enough, but neither really pull up any trees.

Both Ends Burning is five minutes or so of percussive disco influenced funky rock and excellent it is too, although many fans from the 1972-73 days hated it. Nightingale is back to Whirlwind territory", while Just Another High is an extended, rather sad farewell to Roxy Music Part One. The great innovators had become balladeers. Good ones, mind. The tone was set here for the type of material that Roxy Music Part Two would release.

See you again in 1979.



** The 'b' sides from the era were:-

Sultanesque. Continuing the tradition of instrumental 'b' sides, 1975's Love Is The Drug was paired with this sparse, Eno-eque instrumental that appears to feature a didgeridoo, deep and reverberating over a rhythm box automated beat, with a bit of guitar swirling around and some ambient keyboards. It is far more atmospheric than the tracks on the album and definitely harks back to Roxy's early days. 

For Your Pleasure (Live)Both Ends Burning was backed by a live recording of For Your Pleasure. It is less than five minutes long, so I imagine it has been edited. Phil Manzanera's guitar part is excellent as is Paul Thompson's drumming, particularly at the end. It is a powerful rendition of what is a slightly less dramatic track in its studio incarnation.

Below is Jerry Hall and Ferry on the shoot for the cover. 



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VIVA! (1976)

1. Out Of The Blue
2. Pyjamarama
3. The Bogus Man
4. Chance Meeting
5. Both Ends Burning
6. If There Is Something
7. In Every Dream Home A Heartache
8. Do The Strand                                                

Released after Roxy Music's first incarnation had taken their four year sojourn, in 1976, this is a good, but a little frustrating live album, in that it only contains eight songs, one of which is the extended mono-paced The Bogus Man. I do feel more tracks should have been included, to be honest. 1979's Showing Out is a much better live album, however, this is the only official release from this period.

Out Of The Blue is a killing opener, with Phil Manzanera's brilliant guitar solo, then we get a slow-paced, atmospheric Pyjamarama before the afore-mentioned Bogus Man. Chance Meeting is beautiful and Both Ends Burning a frantic, disco-influenced groove.

 

If There Is Something from the band's debut album is one of this album's highspots, along with the old blow-up doll song In Every Dream Home A Heartache, again, complete with a Manzanera killer guitar solo. Do The Strand is a pumped-up, madcap closer with it's "Eskimos and Geordies" line for Ferry's home-town Newcastle audience and also the appropriate instrumental additions to the "fandango" and "tango" references.

The sound quality is excellent on this 1999 remaster.

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