Roxy Music: A Look Back

Roxy Music, the glam, art-rock band from the 1970s, is very much an acquired taste. The band was a trendsetter fashion-wise as much as musical stylists. The early 1970s was a kaleidoscope of gender blurring, retro fashions, gloss, glam and kitschy art. It was an interesting and creative stew, blending elements of past cultures with bold new style resulting in a new cacophony of clashing art forms.

Your favorite glam artists included David Bowie, New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges, Mark Bolan, Queen, Alice Cooper, Sweet, Mott the Hoople and others.

A few glam rockers. Now, that was style!

Roxy Music hammered together the classic tuxedo coolness and soulful pop with hippy fashions, jagged guitars and loopy synthesizer atmospherics. This tug of war between old school cool and the pulsating rhythms of contemporary artistic expression would define their style and consume leader Bryan Ferry’s solo career.

Roxy Music began about 1970 in England and would release there first album in 1972, on the Island Records. For the first years, the lineup changed a bit, but Ferry was definitely the lead vocalist and would write the bulk of there songs. The core of the band came from university art programs, a familiar pipeline for British rock. One of the things that made Roxy standout was their mix of influences and styles. As punk would be in the later 1970s, glam and avant-garde influenced the early part of the decade. Music keeps evolving and re-inventing itself.

Always a blend of different musical and fashion styles.

The Early Years

Roxy Music (1972)

The eponymous debut from Roxy Music was quite an interesting mashup of musical stylings. The version of the band that launched this record included the future avant garde music producer Brian Eno who contributed tape loops and synthesizer sounds. Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson and Graham Simpson were also there.

Pete Sinfield (King Crimson) produced the album, but it was essentially the band playing the songs from their live show. Going forward, the band would find success with producers Chris Thomas (Beatles, The Pretenders, Elton John) and Rhett Davies (The B-52s, Dire Straits, Aimee Mann).

Side one features an assortment of art-rock, pre-punk, energetic but raw songs. This is “normal” group of songs, if you can call them that. Think of early Blondie, Talking Heads or Bowie. There are the seeds of something grand here. “Re-Make/Re-Model,” “Ladytron,” “Virginia Plain” have definite musical riffs, although the musicianship is a bit rough, the band has a tight vibe.

Side two are soundscapes and textures, less fully developed songs, rather ideas and interesting experiments by the band. It’s hit and miss. There are inklings of the future Roxy Music style, Ferry’s interest in musical styles from the past. “The Bob (Medley)” has an interesting mix of sound effects and musical bombast. It’s a song about the Battle of Britain if that helps.

The cover features a glamour shot of model Kari-Ann Moller, who went on to marry Chris Jagger and live happily ever after.

For Your Pleasure (1973)

Roxy was still fairly unknown in the U.S., just another weird British group with silly sounds punctuating their strange songs. The tension between the really avant-garde and contemporary pop were straining the band’s sound and members. More Eno is not really better. He left after this album to work on his own ambient music. “The Bogus Man” is nine minutes of Eno.

“Do the Strand” is upbeat and noisy, like a freeway of sound. “Beauty Queen” is strangely interesting musically; Ferry’s vocal is the weak part of the song. “Strictly Confidential” is a hip, cool song. Mackay’s sax is cool kat. “Editions of You” is a squealing, high-pitched, driving rocker. Once you get used to it, it’s very likable. “Grey Lagoons” has some great action by Manzanera and Mackay. Dig it. The title song closes the album, it has a lot of Eno’s textures and echoes, which condensed would have been more effective. More is not better.

This album was an improvement over the first one. The production techniques and sound processing cover up some uneven songwriting. Critics rank this album high, which is interesting, but I don’t think so. Good, but not great.

The cover photo features Amanda Lear, another of Ferry’s girlfriends to adorn a Roxy Music album.

Stranded (1973)

I’ve never owned this album, but I rather like it. It’s not too avant-garde, just enough, and Ferry does not overpower it with his achy-romanticism.

The album cover features Marilyn Cole, Playmate of the Year, perhaps portraying every man’s fantasy. Certainly a theme for Roxy Music covers. The album was produced by Chris Thomas, who channels the various artistic elements into something that resembles a band. Someone used the term “sonic rock” to describe this band, whatever that means. Even without Eno, this is still an art-rock band of kaleidoscopic musical strands.

“Street Life” and “Amazona” are standout tracks, although there are no weak songs. The same players are back, with the exception of Brian Eno, who left to pursue other ambitions. He left with his ambient synthesizers layers, but Manzanera and Eddie Jobson pick up the slack. Jobson would go on to be part of the prog-rock group, U.K., and later, Jethro Tull, before striking out on his own. A keyboard player and electric violinist, he adds a rich flavor to whatever he plays.

Country Life (1974)

All songs written by Ferry. “The Thrill of it All” is a fast, loud, swirling mix of pounding and dreamy music. This song is illustrative of the uptempo Roxy, a storm of sound; layers of guitars, horns, acoustic and electric keyboards and supplemental vocals. It reminds me of loud party, different styles represented, wanting to be heard. Somehow it all fits together, puzzle pieces of sound: avant garde, funk, ambient, punk, jazz, Euro-rock.

“All I Want Is You” is rollicking and in your face, followed by the explosive “Out of the Blue” which gives Manzanera an opportunity to cut loose on his guitar on this pounding, distorted piece of squealing rock. “Camera” is a funky, trippy blend of clavinet and distorted guitar.

Roxy is also known for theatrical and mixing early twentieth century music into a modern format, satisfying Ferry’s duo role as tuxedo nightclub or cabaret entertainer delivering a torch ballad. That is a strange mix with the avant garde, art-rock carnival of sound.

Country Life sounds a lot like Bowie in the late 1970s, during his Berlin period, a bit raw for many. “Prairie Rose” is a good example.

The cover features Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald, two young women wearing almost nothing. Roxy was known for featuring women on their album covers in revealing dress or actions. I never quite understood the need to do that. Some retailers refused to display their albums, which required substitute covers minus the women. I suppose it can be defended in artistic terms, but it stands out even more today as a sexist and misogynistic gesture.

Siren (1975)

Album number five, if you are counting. The striking cover art features model Jerry Hall, then Ferry’s girlfriend and later longtime partner of Mick Jagger.

Once again produced by Chris Thomas, the album features the band’s signature song, “Love is the Drug,” a hit around the world. Roxy was a slow success story in the U.S., but they definitely had arrived. Thomas continued to fine-tune the sound, eliminating much of the band’s earlier strangeness. The avant-garde, quirkiness was almost gone, replaced by a Euro-pop glossy groove that made it okay to dance. The band lineup is the same as the last album, with Jobson much more ingrained into the musical structure of the band’s sound.

On “End of the Line,” the band sounds a lot like something Elton John would record. An early, funky rocker. If you think the band lost it’s tougher side, think again. “Whirlwind” is blistering rock. Jobson co-writes “She Sells” and it’s another bright, jaunty Elton John-type mid-tempo affair. “Both Ends Burning” is an upbeat track that is Duran Duran before Duran Duran. “Nightingale” was co-written by Manzanera and features some really great guitar work. The album ends with “Just Another High,” one of the best songs in the album. Roxy sounds like Bowie or Mott the Hoople or Bandfinger with the layered guitar. For a short period, Roxy was one of the best sounding British rock bands.

The Commercial Period

Manifesto (1979)

After a four year hiatus, the “band” returned with Manifesto. Ferry was essentially in control as the main songwriter and stylist, some reviews stated this was Ferry and a backup band. Thompson was noted to only play on half of the songs, while Mackay and Manzanera are there, but less prominent. “Angel Eyes,” “Ain’t That So,” “Spin Me Round”and “Dance Away” are the key tracks on the album.

Even though the band had been around for a decade, the hip, Euro-beats and synthy grooves were a preview of the coming invasion of New Wave. In the 1980s, the decade was known for nouveau-glam fashions, catchy synth grooves and dreamy textures created attitudes of plastic and pretentiousness. Art-rock and the playful experimental music that Roxy Music helped usher in no longer fit the band by the time the band re-emerged in 1979 for a final three albums.

Flesh+Blood (1980) and Avalon (1982) and parts of Manifesto bear little resemblance to the cutting-edge looseness and raw sound of their early albums.

I have a great affinity for Flesh+Blood. Clearly, not their best work, I found the album very accessible, although short on originality. Manzanera contributed more as a co-writer, but the band records two covers: “In the Midnight Hour” and “Eight Miles High.” I like the arrangements, but I’d rather have had original songs.

The band plays it safe on this record, more formulaic than Manifesto, and less daring. Ferry must have enjoyed the success of “Dance Away” and wanted more of it. Nothing wrong with that, but he had a successful solo career where he could have done more of his suave, lounge-crooner material. Roxy was no longer pushing boundaries, they were staying comfortably in their lane. Flesh+Blood is an enjoyable album and it’s the Roxy disc I play most often.

Avalon ended up being the last studio album released by the group. Looking back 41 years, it’s a very fine accomplishment, although at the time, I was a bit disappointed. It’s silky smooth, even when it rocks. I suppose it had to be this way, there were expectations for sales and continued popularity as they were navigated into the fashionable pop harbor. Speaking of which, it was recorded at Compass Point, in the Bahamas.

“True to Life,” “The Space Between Us” and “The Main Thing” have energy and swagger. Most of the other songs are mid-tempo, and have that familiar, Roxy groove. They are exquisitely produced, just too squeaky clean for my appetite. Avalon is a fine album, nice rhythms and beats, shimmering synth layers and the occasional guitar and sax fills.

Avalon’s cover once again features one of Ferry’s girlfriends, although from the back and wearing a helmet, it’s impossible to tell that’s Lucy Helmore.

Later Years

Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay went on to their own projects. Ferry enjoyed the most commercial success, fitting comfortably into his evening jacket and coiffed hair, much like singer Robert Palmer (“Addicted to Love” “Simply Irresistible”), and swooning for the video camera.

Incidentally, the best Roxy Music album that wasn’t a Roxy Music album was Bryan Ferry’s 1985 released, Boys and Girls.

Ferry, also like Rod Stewart, visited days of songs past, interpreting a variety of pop, soul and standards, beginning with his early 1970s solo albums. Taxi (1993), was an album of covers, except for one Ferry-penned song, which was generally well-received. Mamouna (1994), was a return to original songs, and more in the Roxy vibe. There is even a Ferry/Eno collaboration. As Time Goes By (1999) is as the title suggests, 1930s songbook standards. Ferry has a love for songs that embraced their era and respectfully interprets them, savoring their uniqueness, but adding his own affection.

Frantic (2002) is an odd collaborative effect with Dave Stewart (Eurythmics), Brian Eno, Robin Trower and Colin Good. Half covers, half originals, it’s best described as Ferry revisiting Roxy and his own earlier styles. Dylanesque (2007) is a collection of Dylan songs, while Olympia (2010) contains mostly Ferry songs, in collaboration with members of Roxy and a wide assortment of friends. I guess it could be described as mellow Roxy, or glam rock in the slow lane. An interesting step back into the past. The Jazz Age (2012) is Ferry covering himself, jazz musicians recording instrumentals of his earlier recordings. Ferry keeps it interesting. Avonmore (2014) returns to mostly originals, using his smooth, pasteurized-Roxy sound, that old Ferry magic. Bitter-Sweet (2018) takes the same approach as The Jazz Age, jazz versions of his and Roxy’s older songs.

Andy Mackay solo career began while still a member of Roxy. He has a handful of solo albums, composed and recorded soundtrack material for television and films, collaborated with Manzanera on several projects, and enjoyed a steady diet of studio session work.

Mackay has also written books and taught music. He studied theology, and returned to music, adapting Roxy songs for symphony as Roxymphony.

Phil Manzanera has lived the most diverse musical odyssey of the group. He’s participated in various Roxy reunion projects, partnered with Mackay, and collaborated with folks like John Wetton, David Gilmour (co-producing On an Island, touring with Gilmour), and Tim Finn (Split Enz). His group, 801, existed in various forms with a changing lineup.

Manzanera’s mother was Colombian so he spent much of his youth in South America. His love for music of South and Central America runs through his musical career. He’s worked with musicians from all over the world. Manzanera has enjoyed a busy solo career during and away from Roxy.

His solo albums are mostly instrumentals, ranging from rock to traditional Latin to experimental. The first Manzanera album I purchased was Primitive Guitars (1982), an eclectic collection of instrumentals reflecting his varied style of music. He plays all the music with the exception of John Wetton’s bass on one track, and a drum machine.

As recently as 2022, Roxy Music reunited for a series of concerts.

3 thoughts on “Roxy Music: A Look Back

  1. My knowledge of Roxy Music essentially is limited to their bigger hits like “Love Is the Drug”, “Dance Away”, “Over You”, “Jealous Guy” and “Avalon.” As they sang in “Oh Yeah,” to me, they were a band playing on the radio.

    Liked by 1 person

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