Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Early Years (EG box set)
The Later Years (EG box set)
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Roxy Music
For Your Pleasure
Country Life

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.


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."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

albums round-up / genre overview
Details, January 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Alternative Press, 1996

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, September 11th 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, May 28th 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Monday, September 8, 2008

Do It Yourself
(Stiff, 1979; Demon CD reissue, 1990?)
Melody Maker, 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

Uncut, June 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Ten More Turnips From the Tip
Uncut, April 2002

by Simon Reynolds

Skep, New York
Melody Maker, May 22nd 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Spin, spring 1995

by Simon Reynolds

With its jungle rhythms and uncouth passion, rock'n'roll used to be the
enemy of civilisation and refinement. So I'm amused that it's rock fans who are now the reactionaries, erecting barricades to defend 'songcraft' and 'poetic depth'
from techno's barbaric assault. I'd always figured Luke Haines, prissy wordsmith of The Auteurs, to be one of those fogies who recoil from rave music 'cos it's all rhythm and no 'soul'. This is the fellow, after all, who models himself on Ray Davies' "wryness and dryness". So I'm impressed that he's submitted his songbook to the unforgiving maw of tekno whizzkid Michael Paradinas. a.k.a µ-ziq.

Like his pal Aphex Twin (via whose RePhlex label µ-ziq product is
released in Britain), Paradinas' idea of remixology is obliterative. So the po-mo
ramifications of this mini-LP are pretty piquant: rock's notion of the
singer-songwriter, the auteur, pulverised by the technology-driven pressures of the fin de siecle mediascape. Sometimes the effect is as thrillingly sacrilegious as
building a pyre of the Western Canon. "Lenny Valentino 3", for instance,
leaves only shards of Haines vocal to bob amidst the red-zone distorto-bass and sombre synth-refrains. Other treatments are more reciprocal, like "Daughter Of A
Child", which loops billowing "Astral Weeks" strings into a
locked-groove of poignancy, incongruously framed in factory-gone-mad clamour.

All in all, nuff respect to Haines for taking the punishment,
and to Paradinas for dealing it.

Totentanz and other electronic works 1958-1973
(Melon Expander)
director's cut, The Wire, September 2008

by Simon Reynolds

Music obsession is a bottomless pit: the deeper you climb in, the more you lose perspective. The genre might be Sixties garage punk or Seventies Afro-pop, peak-era dub & roots or cassette only second-wave industrial, but the syndrome is the same: a mania for completism takes over. Like the prisoner in solitary confinement entranced by the differing grain of bricks in the cell wall, you start to perceive and cherish minute differences between iterations that seem utterly generic to the non-enthusiast's ear. All this is a preamble to an admission: I don't honestly know how crucial Warner Jepson's work is in "the grand scheme of things". All I can say is that it rocks my world, a world bent out of shape by an ever-expanding passion for post-WW2 musique concrete/analog electronic , further slanted towards the maverick, marginal, and minor.

It's tempting to file Jepson under "Outsider Electronics". But he wasn't a lone nutjob cobbling together edition-of-one sound-contraptions in an Iowa basement. For much of the period covered by this double-CD, Jepson was attached to various institutions, namely the San Francisco Tape Center (both before and after its move to Mills College, Oakland) and a short-lived American body called the National Center for Experiments in Television. Through these organizations, Jepson had almost unlimited access to formidable state-of-the-art synthesizers. Yet it's also true that, despite a prodigious work-rate, Jepson only ever got to release one record, Totentanz. And that was a private press run of approximately 300, mostly sold at performances of the ballet it was written to score. So Jepson falls somewhere between more established Mills peers with extensive discographies such as Pauline Oliveros and lone rangers like Tod Dockstader, never part of the academic music culture and only able to release music sporadically.

Like Dockstader, Jepson was as interested in the visual arts (specifically painting and photography, examples of which decorate the CD booklet) as music. Some of the pieces he made using the Tape Center's Buchla 100 series synth were commissioned for openings at the SF Art Institute and the city's Museum of Modern Art. All through the Sixties, Jepson was in demand to provide background sounds for parties and fashion shows, and to score environmental sculptures like David William's Tulium and experimental movies like James Broughton's The Bed. But his biggest "hit" was the score for Carlos Carvajal's dance piece Totentanz ('Dance of Death'), first performed by the San Francisco Ballet Company in 1967, subsequently taken on a national tour, and then revived in the early Seventies by Carvajal's new dance troupe Dance Spectrum, with performances at Frisco's Grace Cathedral. Drawing on musique concrete techniques as well as the Buchla's hair-raisingly alien timbres and capacity for "incredible syncopations," this 35 minute score is brilliant, if surprisingly non-kinesthetic (indeed, in his engaging sleevenotes Jepson notes that some patrons walked out of the premiere during the "not very rhythmic", sine-wave oriented third section). Totentanz starts with tubular sound-smears twining around each other like Pompidou Center pipework, passes through eldritch groves of mangled high-pitch voices and upper-treble tinglings, enters a phase where chirruping meander-melody alternates with low-end frequencies like the earth's crust fissuring, and climaxes with see-sawing hypno-patterns not far off Terry Riley. There's a fair few generic Sixties electronic noises (eruptions of computer-gone-mad gabble) of the kind that us hardcore fans can never get enough of, but plenty more that feel jamais rather than déjà entendu.

Totentanz was rereleased unofficially a few years ago by Creel Pone, a CD-R label that reissues out-of-print electronic music lovingly packaged with miniaturized versions of the original LP cover, inserts, etc. Permission is not exactly sought, but the item is withdrawn if the composer objects or an official reissue is announced, and this is exactly what happened with Totentanz. As Jepson's most well-known work, it remains the centerpiece of this anthology, but 1968's The Awakening, Jepson's second score for Carvajal , is even better. The original piece, as heard at performances, was quadraphonic, a Herculean undertaking on Jepson's part given that Tape Center only had two-tape decks; here it's been adapted for stereo. The initial impression is of a supremely inclement environment--a planet whose atmosphere blends methane and cyanide and 200 m.p.h. sandstorms whittle mountains into grotesquely deformed shapes. This audio-hell gives way to a quirky section that suggests a squaddy regiment who've been ordered to beat down a field of bracken armed only with egg whisks. Another near-comical sequence--the dawn chorus of cyborg tree frogs?--accumulates gradually into a propulsive mesh of harsh, angular riffs that, boosted by 80 beats-per-minute, would be freakily close to the more abstract kinds of gabber techno. Suddenly we've drifted to a different corner of the late Nineties, the dark minimal pulsations of Panasonic. The music then comes to a kind of frigid boil, a dense lattice of high, whinnying arpeggios that ascends to audible-only-by-dogs pitches, before dropping down to gnarly low end frequencies with what sounds like the gnashing and gnawing of close-miked termites. This hitherto unreleased 20 minute piece surpasses in invention and entertainment value quite a few late Sixties works by American composers that did get put out by labels like Nonesuch and, while doubtless more conceptually grounded than The Awakening, are frankly dreary listening experiences in comparison.

The anthology's third substantial piece comes from Jepson's early Seventies tenure as composer-in-residence at the National Center for Experiments In Television (that name alone ought to trigger a massive boner for everyone from hauntologists like Mordant Music and Ghost Box to avant-garde archivists UbuWeb). Jepson's job was to soundtrack strange little programmes like the murkily abstract "See Is Never All the Way Up" by the artist William Roarty. Here the composer spends 25 minutes in pursuit of "a sound that shimmered and barely moved," beginning with hissy crinkles like ice cracking on a frozen lake, then settling into a placid yet ominous thrum, like stoned and slightly paranoid bees whose hives are next door to a field of top-grade marijuana that the DEA has set fire to.

Of course, if you're a true nutter for post-WW2 mavericktronics,you prize the fragmentary as much as the fully-realised: the kind of shards, sketches and stumbles that made up last year's marvellous Oramics anthology, and that often have more of the electric thrill of discovery and the joy of messing about than the would-be Grand Opuses. This collection's goodly portion of jottings and jingles includes early stabs at concrete (1958's "Jail Gate Crazy" sounds like a typist, rolling down an endless flight of stairs while still pounding away at her machine) and short electronic studies like 1967's "Good Humor Man" (a losing-my-wits synth sequence underpinned by a creepy bass pulse that seeps and sag with every lurching forward step) and "Splace" (a threnody from the coldest, remotest region of interstellar space, solar wind whistling through the cosmic string, you know the score). Less impressive are "Rirlwa" and "The Dog", stumpy little items from 1970 made using prepared piano and a Farfisa borrowed from underground film-maker Bruce Conner.

This double-CD constitutes just a tiny fraction of the 100 hours of music Jepson laid down during his time with the Tape Center. Like the larger genre to which he made a small but significant contribution, Jepson's oeuvre is clearly a bottomless pit in its own right. If they keep on digging it up, I'll keep on digging it.