Saturday, 3 October 2020

Roxy Music - Stronger Through The Years (1979-1983)



Manifesto (1979)


  
Manifesto/Trash/Angel Eyes/Still Falls The Rain/Stronger Through The Years/Ain't That So/My Little Girl/Dance Away/Cry, Cry, Cry/Spin Me Round  

"Perhaps greater familiarity with 'Manifesto' will reveal hidden magic" - Max Bell - NME

For many people, this is Roxy Music's worst album, many finding it introspective and possibly, at times, a bit more like a Bryan Ferry solo album. In some respects I agree, but there are also good points to be found on this album and some surprisingly retrospective and also contemporary sounds floating around. It is an album that quite successfully merges Roxy's past with its future and perhaps deserves a bit more warmth than it has garnered over subsequent years. It is in characteristics like this that it loses its Bryan Ferry solo album qualities and becomes very much a Roxy Music album, albeit one for 1979. 
                                     
When Roxy Music reconvened after a four-year hiatus, it still must be stressed that Roxy Music "Phase Two" were a radically different beast to the avant-garde art-rock experimentalists of 1972 and 1973. The emphasis was far more on a polished, adult-oriented rock sound. Certainly tracks like Ain't That So and Still Falls The Rain can be viewed as fitting that particular bill. 

At the outset of the album, however, things are quite markedly different - Manifesto, the opener, is impossible to categorise, a mysterious slow burner that is all the better for it. Starting with a brooding bass line and plenty of Eno-like deep synthesiser noises, it sounds like it is 1972 again and tracks like Ladytron for a few minutes. Indeed it is two minutes and thirty seconds before Ferry sings telling us all what he stands for, in his manifesto. It ends, abruptly with some very 1972-style feedback noises before launching into the very 1973 frantic, Andy Mackay-driven upbeat groove of Trash. Mackay's parping saxophone sounds just as it did on For Your Pleasure as the beat gets more frantic, with some madcap synthesiser runs, a breathless Ferry vocal and more than a hint of cool, post-punk industrial murk to it. More than any track on the album, this brief little beauty links 1972-73 with 1979 perfectly. 

The next track, Angel Eyes, was, in its single release format, a smooth piece of typically late seventies/early eighties Roxy/Ferry disco/radio rock fare but here, in its album format, it is a dense, grungy and edgy workout that, although retaining the same basic rhythm and lyrics, is almost like a different creation.

Post-punk was starting to make its presence felt and there are definitely hints of it here in tracks like Trash (even more so in the non-album 'b' side version - see at the end of this album's review). In many ways, this was an album very suited to the zeitgeist. Punk's anger was fading and arty post punkers were having their moments in the sun. Many of those people were actually quite amenable to this album at the time and it was not considered old hat. I have to admit I was/am of the same mind. It is always worth a listen, even now.





Still Falls The Rain sees the first sign of the lush, smooth, polished sound that Ferry would come to market for many a year after this, but, despite that, Mackay's saxophone is still shrill and vaguely discordant in true early seventies fashion, Paul Thompson's drumming is muscular and staccato, while Gary Tibbs' bass is rumbling and chunky. The "woo-woo" backing vocals sound as if they could have come from David Bowie's Diamond Dogs leading into Young Americans 1974-75 period. It still could have come from a few years earlier.

Stronger Through The Years is another stark, bassy but mysteriously intriguing number that possibly could have fitted on to Country Life or, more probably, Siren, with its mid-song Sentimental Fool echoes. 

If any of the songs on here exemplify Roxy Music Phase Two, it is the sumptuous quasi-dance rhythmic grooves of Ain't That So, a track that easily gets confused with Bryan Ferry solo ones, such as Can't Let Go. Ferry's vocals are now less quirky, less early Roxy and more 'lounge lizard', a style he had been using since 1976 on his solo work and, to a certain extent on some of Roxy's Siren. The song is an entrancing, seductive shimmy through Paris (or anywhere glamorous and European) late at night, for me, and would have suited the later Avalon album well.

The laid-back evocative Euro feel is present again on the beguiling, effortless tones of My Little Girl, a track that sees Mackay's saxophone getting more melodic, but still retaining that trademark 1975 sound. It is a bit of an overlooked song that demands a bit more of your attention. 

Then we get the album's really big hit single, Dance Away, which is also presented here in a format different to the one used on the radio. Like Angel Eyes, its is murkier and considerably darker but the contrast is not quite as great with its single version as it is on the earlier track. It sounds simplistic to say, but this version is less radio friendly. 

 

The final two tracks are the lively, new wavey shuffle of Cry, Cry, Cry that has echoes of The Velvet Underground's Rock And Roll in its vocal in places and Spin Me Round, a slow burner of a number that ends the album with Ferry in melancholy mode. Once more it is an undervalued song that gets into your system eventually. Ferry's vocal is heartbreakingly emotional on it. 

So there you go, certainly not the wine bar sound that many have dismissed it as being, it is, as far as I'm concerned a 1979 album that could fit in to any time slot. I guess it goes down as Roxy's post punk/new wave album and, thinking about, I guess it was. It still sounds great today, though. I urge you to rediscover its understated, hard to get charms.

** The non-album 'b' side was Trash 2This version of Trash was the 'b' side to the original, punky version. This one is considerably different - full of melodious, deep bass lines, post-punk synthesisers and a cool, bassy dance floor sound to it. I prefer it to the 'a' side.



Flesh And Blood (1980)


In The Midnight Hour/Oh Yeah!/The Same Old Scene/Flesh And Blood/My Only Love/Over You/Eight Miles High/Rain, Rain, Rain/No Strange Delight/Running Wild 

"There are moments on 1980's 'Flesh + Blood', in particular, where the band stop sounding tired and start sounding bored, a fatal difference" - Pitchfork

After the under-rated post punk/new wave offering that was 1979's Manifesto, 1980's generally more popular Flesh And Blood is actually my least favourite Roxy Music album, despite there still being some good material on it. It seems very much a "treading water", "good in parts" piece of work. It contains typically immaculate sound, of course, but it is not an album I come back to very often. It was this one, as opposed to Manifesto, that rally launched the now somewhat critically-clichéd Roxy Music Phase Two sound.
                                   
Anyway, to the good points - the singles Over You and the irresistible, radio friendly Oh Yeah! or "there's a band playing on the radio" as most people know it. Both were excellent singles and deserved hits. The first is a lively, catchy, handclappy pop song, while the second has a grandiose stateliness about it and an absolute killer of a chorus refrain. The drums, percussion and synthesisers, together with Ferry's classic vocal are pretty much perfection.

The slow, stately and gorgeous, typically Ferry My Only Love and the equally delicious groove of The Same Old Scene are almost classic Bryan Ferry solo numbers - same groove, same sound as was to be found on his mid-80s albums like Boys And Girls and Bete Noire. In so many was this is like a Bryan Ferry solo album. As I said, it is sonically perfect and washes over you like a warm bath, it doesn't ask anything of you as a listener, like, say, For Your Pleasure did, but it can give you a perfect background soundscape, should that be what you want. Indeed, the first seven tracks are a pretty rewarding listen. Oh Yeah! is superb, I have to re-state. Whenever I hear it, it takes me right back to the summer of 1980. 

   

The covers of Wilson Pickett’s The Midnight Hour and The ByrdsEight Miles High are both acceptable (The Byrds one nowhere near as bad as many say it is, for me, anyway), but not a patch on the originals, of course. If either had appeared on Ferry solo albums they wouldn't have received anything like the opprobrium they seemed to for being on a Roxy Music album. I guess I can sort of see why - Roxy weren't a covers band, after all. 

Flesh And Blood is an underrated, beautifully bassy grinder of a track with nice string orchestration, some gritty riffs, a convincingly haunting Ferry vocal and a simply delectable bass. The last three on the album are debatably three of the band's most underwhelming numbers. Even now, they still don't stick in my mind at all. I struggle to write too much about them. Compare that the amount written about the songs from 1972-74. 

For the record, they are the slowly soulful and enigmatic Rain Rain Rain (that reaches an abrupt end, rather like a demo version); the very Ferry-esque, late-nighter No Strange Delight and the maudlin-sounding Ferry ballad Running Wild, a song that doesn't quite reach its full potential. Look, none of them are that bad but they aren't that good either, definitely not up to the quality of the material on the previous album. The first of the three is probably the best.

There you have it. Solid, slick, polished, professional and all that but ultimately unspectacular - Roxy Phase Two by numbers in many ways. 

** There were two non-album 'b' sides from this album's sessions. South Downs was the 'b' side to Oh Yeah!. It is a David Bowie Low style instrumental full of reverberating, dense, ambient synthesisers. It could have come off side two of either Low or "Heroes". It probably will not have impressed the casual pop fans who bought Oh Yeah!. While the Low"/"Heroes" music had a part to play on their respective albums, this is actually a pretty pointless creation.

Lover was the 'b' side to The Same Old Scene and is notable as Roxy's first 'b' side to be a proper song with full vocals. It is a very smooth, laid-back Bryan Ferry solo groove of a song, that would have suited either the Avalon album, or Boys And Girls.



Avalon (1982)


More Than This/The Space Between/Avalon/India/While My Heart Is Still Beating/The Main Thing/Take A Chance With Me/To Turn You On/True To Life/Tara 

"Bryan and I popped out for a coffee, and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went 'What a fantastic voice!' That turned out to be Yanick Etienne, who sang all the high stuff on 'Avalon'. She didn't speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band's manager, came in and translated. And then the next day we mixed it" - Phil Manzanera      

This, Roxy Music's valedictory 1982 album, is, to be honest, probably as much a Bryan Ferry solo album with Roxy members guesting on it as it is a Roxy Music one - far more so than either of the other Roxy Phase Two offerings. It is, however, a masterpiece of easy listening - full of immaculately recorded laid-back lounge bar rock of the highest order. 

The sound quality is truly excellent, setting standards at the time. Unlike many, though, I (perhaps unusually) much prefer the deeper, bassier 1999 remaster to the tinnier, flatter 2012 one - by far. Some of the album's intrinsic bass lines are just superbly defined on the 1999 remaster. 

For many people, this is the only Roxy Music album they own. It is strange how the band's last album of a ten year career proved to be the one that really crossed boundaries and was bought by a wide spectrum of people. It is a fine album, and is certainly their most sonically perfect, but if you are looking for the true essence of Roxy Music it sure won't be found here. That said, for Roxy Music Phase Two it certainly is their pinnacle. 

 
         
There are two great, well-known singles here in the catchy pop of More Than This (similar to Over You from the previous album) and the simply sumptuous bossa nova vibe of Avalon with its unforgettable siren-like backing vocal from Yannick Etienne and wonderfully melodic Andy Mackay saxophone.

Then there are a run of tracks which are so typically 'Bryan Ferry' - the delectable swish of The Space Between, the completely intoxicating groove of To Turn You OnTake A Chance With Me, the similarly entrancing While My Heart Is Still Beating and the delicious, sensual The Main Thing - you know what I am talking about - that insistent, shuffling groove, expert backing and Ferry's easily delivered soothing vocal. Much of this material is extremely similar to that which would be found on Ferry's 1985 big-selling album Boys And Girls. The foundations for the rest of Ferry's solo career were solidly laid down here, there is no doubt about that.



True To Life has a huge drum sound and an absolutely delicious rhythm to it. As with all the material on here, Ferry's vocals wash over you gently. Its mysterious backing vocals float in and out of the song, captivatingly. There's not actually a huge amount to be said about many of the songs, as with much of Ferry's solo work it functions as one actual whole. 

Both India and the closer, Tara, are short instrumental mood pieces.

This is nothing like For Your Pleasure or Roxy's ground-breaking debut album and they definitely lost quite a few fans along the way, but they also gained thousands more. My wife, for example, wouldn't know The Bogus Man from Bitters End, but she knows this album back to front. She considers herself a Roxy Music fan. She has seen them live. Maybe she is. I shouldn't be such a pompous purist. This is definitely a good album, quality and polish oozes from its every pore. After all, a good album is a good album, isn't it?

** The non-album 'b' side was Always Unknowing, which was the 'b' side to Avalon, and is a slow, brooding and atmospheric ballad with a deep Ferry vocal and some similarly deep Andy Mackay saxophone. It gets into its gentle groove and stays there. Had it been included on the album it would have fitted in perfectly.




Heart Still Beating (1982)


India/Can’t Let Go/While My Heart Is Still Beating/Out Of The Blue/Dance Away/Impossible Guitar/A Song For Europe/Love Is The Drug/Like A Hurricane/My Only Love/Both Ends Burning/Avalon/Editions Of You/Jealous Guy

This was recorded live in Fréjus in the south of France in 1982 and captures Roxy Music in their coolly efficient polished, latter era incarnation. Along with Viva! it is the only official live material available from the period before Roxy went their separate ways (yes, I know there is a 2001 reunion live album too).

The sound and the performance on here is as perfectly professional as you would imagine, but something is slightly. missing by not having Paul Thompson on drums, but the much-travelled Andy Newmark. Only Bryan FerryAndy Mackay and Phil Manzanera remain from all previous Roxy alumni.

It is, to an extent, a more satisfying live album than Viva! due to the simple fact that you more music - fourteen tracks (thirteen if you don’t count the short intro of India) as opposed to eight. Only A Song For Europe, a lively, slightly faster Out Of The Blue, the disco-flavoured favourites Both Ends Burning and Love Is The Drug plus a frantic encore in Editions Of You are included from Roxy Phase One. There are a few other interesting additions, nevertheless - the solid Manzanera guitar instrumental of Impossible Guitar, a storming, rocking cover of Neil Young’s Like A Hurricane and the upbeat Can’t Let Go, from Ferry’s solo 1978 album The Bride Stripped Bare.

Highlights for me are Mackay’s sensational saxophone on A Song For Europe, a beautifully bassy Love Is The Drug and the cool élan of While My Heart Is Still BeatingMy Only Love and, of course, the sublimely sumptuous syncopations of Avalon.

The high standards set here were continued on the many Bryan Ferry tours over the years. I have been lucky enough to catch him live five times and the ambience at the gig has always been like it is on this album. I only saw Roxy the once, by the way, in 2011.

Incidentally, there are a few other ‘official bootlegs’ of live material available on streaming services or to buy - 1979’s excellent Showing Out (CD), the same year’s equally impressive Live In Denver (streaming) and 1982’s Avalon Radio Broadcast (streaming). The sound is not as good on these as it is on the official albums, but they are listenable.

 

Finally, you may be interested in checking out this superb Roxy/Bryan Ferry blog as well as mine. It is highly recommended by me and indeed many others:-

https://roxymusicsongs.com

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