Sunday, September 28, 2008
The Early Years (EG box set)
The Later Years (EG box set)
Melody Maker, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
For Your Pleasure
director's cut, Uncut, 1999
by Simon Reynolds
In 1969's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, Nik Cohn simultaneously celebrated and
mourned the mythic era of "Superpop, the noise machine, and the image, hype, and
beautiful flash of rock'n'roll music." Provoked by the post-Sgt. Pepper's boom of self-consciously mature, album-oriented artistry, Cohn's eve-of-the-1970s nostalgia for the recent past was queerly prescient, anticipating glam rock's retro-futurist resurrection of the three minute single, visual dazzle, the whole teen-scream-dream.
What makes Roxy's music on these ultra-vivid sounding remastered reissues so endlessly listenable and so different from the rest of the glitter gang is that they had a foot in both the art rock and Pop Art camps. If the band's pop sensibility was informed by Warhol, Fifties rock'n'roll, and classic Hollywood ("2 H.B" payed tribute to Bogart's poise), Roxy's vision of rock was large enough to encompass Velvet Underground, Steve Reich,Ornette Coleman, Brecht-Weil, and Pierre Henry. The result of such incongruous inputs and clashing sensibilities was, as ex-member Brian Eno noted later, "a terrific tension in the music," which came from "juxtaposing things that didn't naturally sit together". But then success placed Roxy in a position where that "element of clumsiness and grotesqueness" had to go, in favour of an ever more sleek and well-proportioned pop classicism.
Roxy's first album buzzes with the "insanity" and "idiot energy" that Eno valorized
and Bryan Ferry gradually eliminated. Kickstarting the debut, "Re-Make/Re-Model" is a pub rock brawl that's a notch above Wizzard's crude rock'n'roll revivalism thanks only to the alien qualities of Ferry's Devo-esque whinny, Eno's synth-bleats and Andy Mackay's freeform sax squall. A Number Four smash in late '72, "Virginia Plain" is a glorious Velvets-meets-Neu! surge, with ugly blurts of synth that'd warm the valves of Add N To (X)'s mechanical heart, and that fabulous bit where the song halts then revs up again for its final stampede.
Both songs show how glam's back-to-basics manoeuvre anticipated punk's. Other tracks on the debut, though, are basically progressive rock, closer to King Crimson-style maximalism than Velvets/Krautrock minimalism. The multi-segmented "If There Is Something" starts weirdly like The Band in faux-Southern boogie mode (e.g. "Up On Cripple Creek''), before morphing into Euro neuromanticism (Ferry's pledges of amorous fealty climax with the bizarre promise to "grow potatoes by the score"!). After a third section (a keening, ruminative sax soliloquy over weary piano chords), the song glides into a plastic soul coda, complete with Ferry's most bloodcurdling vocal theatrics ever--stricken histrionics wrenched from deep within, at once harrowingly visceral yet somehow utterly un-human. Like some monstrously unwholesome caricature of the love song, "If There Is Something" makes no sense structurally or emotionally, yet it's shatteringly moving. On a similarly non-coherent tip, "The Bob Medley" is approximately six songs in one: Sabbath-meets-Crimson bombast; a Spinal Tap/"Stonehenge" interlude of dancing-dwarf pan-pipes; a musique concrete simulated battlefield; a West Coast hippy-rock sing-a-long; an oboe-accompanied poem, etc.
You could write a book on the tangled themes of aristocracy, decadence, artifice, irony,fetishism, and male desire that make up For Your Pleasure, Roxy's peerless peak. Space permits only a selective/subjective inventory of the album's most intense pleasures."Do The Strand": Ferry's wickedly witty lyrics and archly mannered diction, the "European Son"-style harmelodics. "Beauty Queen": the deadly shimmer of keyboards at the start, the tremulous quaver of Ferry's voice when he sings "you make my starry eyes shiver", the absurd grandeur of the final verse's image of "soul-ships" that pass in the night "plying very strange cargo". "In Every Dream Home A Heartache": Manzanera's gaseous solo and Paul Thompson's phased, stereopanning drums. "The Bogus Man": the wheezing, dub-chambered, Sly-circa-Riot/Can-circa-Tago-Mago groove. "Grey Lagoons": just the mind's
eye tickling title.
"For Your Pleasure" the song warrants its own paragraph, though--I can think of
nothing in rock like it, before or after, except perhaps Nico's The Marble Index and Joy Division's "Atmosphere". Like the latter, "F.Y.P" is rock purged of Americana and re-rooted in Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Lotte Lenya, and Last Year in Marienbad. Ferry's hieroglyph words and stilted, stately phrasing (a frieze of emotion), the reverb-hazed piano, the stop-start rhythm, all conjure a Gothic tableau of macabre elegance: a Bavarian mansion's frozen lawns, animals strike curious poses, heraldic and eldritch. Halting for the impossible gravitas of Ferry's adieu ("Old man/Through e-ver-y step I change/You watch me walk away/Ta-ra"), the song then mutates into a mindblowing extended coda, with multilayered piano (Terry Riley/Steve Reich-style one-note riffs and
upper octave trills) pointillistically painting a Milky Way skyscape mad with stars. Finally the song expires like a galaxy swirling down a black hole's funnel. Steeped in Eno's studio-as-instrument sorcery but charged with a cryptic passion he's never mustered solo, "For Your Pleasure" is one of the most psychedelic records ever, easily rivalling Barrett-era Floyd, Hendrix, and Tim Buckley.
The song was simultaneously pinnacle and death-knell for the Eno-era Roxy. On
1973's Stranded, Roxy's jutting angularity and experimental excresences have largely been bevelled away. Still, the album is intermittedly exhilirating: the carillion-guitared swagger of "Street Life", the gloss-funk sashay of "Amazona" (cracked apart by an astounding liquid-lightning solo from Manzanera), and "Mother of Pearl", Roxy's last blast in full-on Velvets-mode. The song uses imagery of the gem trade to describe the romantic arc of idolisation and disillusionment; Ferry's character shifts from courtly lover worshipping a "lustrous lady" to jaded misogynist who's discovered that his blue-blooded belle dame is really just a "so-so semi-precious" social climber with a rough-cut past, just like himself.
Americans, bless 'em, think Roxy only got great with Country Life and the universally five-star Siren. Wrong! While Ferry's songcraft and personae twists still offer compelling drama on top tunes like "Love Is The Drug", "Both Sides Burning" and "Just Another High", the actual fabric of Roxy's sound gets steadily more conventional and tame. Sonically, Country Life's saving graces are the thrilling blaze of "All I Want Is You" and the Weimar-flavored "Bitter Sweet"; Siren's are excitingly shrill, proto-New Wave tunes like "Whirlwind" (reminiscent of early Psychedelic Furs) and "Both Sides Burning" (Japan). But mostly Ferry is honing his metamorphosis from glamdroid with the Dalek-like metallic vibrato to sad-eyed, fop-fringed crooner. To be sure, it's still a long way from the blandly attractive art-disco and bruised romantic ennui of the late Seventies Manifesto-era Roxy. But it's remoter still from the hair-raising strangeness of For Your Pleasure.
SIDE BAR: INTERVIEW WITH PHIL MANZANERA
From the music's clashing colours to the outlandish clothes, Roxy was a revolt into style. Was glam rock a reaction against the drab rump of hippiedom in the early Seventies, all the folk-rockers, blues bores and boogie bands?
"Well, we weren't really anti-hippie--I had loved the psychedelic bands, and so did
the others. It was more a reaction to what came after hippy, this grey doldrum period with bands all wearing denim and making no effort to entertain the audience."
Talking of psychedelia, I was surprised by how tripped-out some of the early Roxy stuff was.
"Psychedelia--especially early Soft Machine and Pink Floyd--was a big influence
on me and Eno. If you use echo units, you start to head off into dreamland, and that's what's happening on "For Your Pleasure". We did a lot of stuff using echo, early synths,Revox, treatments, effects. Messing around with sound in a sort of Heath Robinson, mad inventor way!"
Bryan Ferry has said sniffy things about Eno, stressing the fact that he's "not really a musician". What was Eno's role, and what changed when he left?
"Brian's role was conceptual--he was involved as a non-musician, on purpose. He wouldn't be insulted by that description, he'd love it! He was just an extra colour in the Roxy palette. The chemistry of any unit depends on the individuals involved, and obviously it sounded different after he left. But Roxy had to change anyway, we couldn't have repeated 'F.Y.P'".
Alongside the psychedelic edge, it's startling how punky and noisy much of the first two albums were.
"Well, the first album was bashed out in just three weeks, and it was basically
how we sounded when we played live . FYP and Stranded were produced by Chris Thomas, who'd worked with the Beatles from the White Album onwards, so they had a better mixture of styles."
Is Roxy's legacy audible anywhere in the Nineties soundscape?
"Pulp used Chris Thomas as producer on their last two albums, and they have
songs that sound a bit like, say, "Do The Strand". But Jarvis Cocker is a unique talent and such a strong personality that ultimately Pulp has a totally different flavour to Roxy."