45 Years Ago: Roxy Music Takes Glam Rock to Art School on Their Self-Titled Debut
Looks can be deceiving. And with Roxy Music, that was the entire point.
Bred mostly of unenchanting working-class backgrounds from the industrial outskirts of mid-century London, the core personnel who founded Roxy Music did so as much out of artistic vocation as they did self-image reformation.
The otherworldly personae, the cobbled genre-mutations, the elegantly forged retro-futurism—the look and sound of Roxy Music are the visual and aural reflections of an inflated sense of grandeur cycling between fantastical and romantic. And while it was the unorthodoxy of art-school training that the band—especially frontman Bryan Ferry, saxophonist-oboist Andy Mackay and noise architect Brian Eno—wore on their sleeve, no environment could inspire such appetites for extravagance as the bleakness of rural England.
Ferry, the son of a County Durham coal miner, sought escape in the far-off glamour of Old Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley standards while Eno, brought up in agrarian Essex, was transfixed with the sonic control of tape manipulation; Mackay's activities were decidedly avant-garde, partaking in experimental sound performances and the radical Fluxus art movement. Guitarist Phil Manzanera, a virtuoso with particular hankerings for complex prog-rock and psychedelia, was the sole well-heeled Roxy youth, while drummer Paul Thompson the only whose blue-collar origins remained resolutely well-preserved in taste.
It's not uncommon to hear 1972's Roxy Music framed as the natural result of Ferry's elaborate aesthetic vision compounded by Eno's technical wizardry. Other less prominent, but equally wastebin-bound, interpretations attribute the LP's glow to either Eno or Ferry alone. Each of these theories, however, offer indefensibly lacking accounts of the gorgeous, alien glamour captured on Roxy Music's self-titled debut. These perceptions are as unsatisfactory as they are lazy—for one needs not look far to get the full story. There's hardly a more compact tutorial on the world of Roxy than the album's track-one, side-one.
The introduction to Roxy Music, "Re-Make/Re-Model," stirs gently before it rumbles. Entering with a musique concrète sound collage abruptly supplanted by a lone Ferry suggestively moving between a pair of two-note piano chords, the song then erupts with the band firing a volley of competing fragments that swell into a formidable art-rock clash. "I tried but I could not find a way," Ferry bellows through Manzanera's maniacal noodling and Thompson's percussive thunder; Mackay's tenor sax trades blows with Ferry's vocal intervals as Eno paints a squealing sonic backdrop. Building toward the song's close, the band repeats a series of breaks, granting a brief solo moment to each member—exploiting the prog-rock bravado of the era to assert their avant-garde idiosyncracies.
Not unlike the bulk of Roxy Music's early work, it's an example of a song that doesn't work on paper, yet thrives in practice. The band's biographer, David Buckley, has gone so far as to postulate a theory for why Roxy's moments of open-ended cacophony come off harmonious and appropriate. As retold in Simon Reynolds's comprehensive glam-rock text, Shock and Awe, Buckley mostly credits Ferry's primitive, two-note piano chords that omit a traditional triad's middle note. Buckley explains, "This third-finger middle note is what decides whether a song is in a minor or major key. [The] combination of melodies that hovered in a harmonic no-man's-land and Ferry corrugated vocal timbre and phrasing made for a quality of wrongness-become-rightness."
And despite the slightly laborious theorizing over the basis of Roxy Music's songcraft, the resultant "rightness" described by David Buckley was surprisingly as infectious and accessible as any of Roxy's less cerebral glam contemporaries. "Virginia Plain," the band's first single was, consequently, also their first big hit, reaching no. 4 on the U.K. charts. A daring choice for a single, the song spurns the mandatory inclusion of a chorus, coasting instead on a continuous verse, offering only seldom breaks in the dominant melodic motif.
"Looking back, all I did was look away," Ferry continues on "Re-Make/Re-Model." But in terms of Roxy Music's essence, nothing could be further from the truth. Ferry's longing admiration for the stilted glitz of Golden Age cinema is transparent all throughout the album, even amid the futuristic imagery and cacophonous experimental penchants.
The track "2HB" is the most glaring example. Discreetly abbreviated from "To Humphrey Bogart," the song is an unabashed tribute to Humphrey Bogart and his role in the celluloid classic Casablanca in particular. Lyrically, "2HB" incorporates dialogue from the film while the sax melody provided by Mackay is lifted from "As Time Goes By," a central musical piece in the film.
The band's appreciation for motion-picture memorabilia is felt where it isn't outrightly declared. "Chance Meeting" plays like a despairing solo scene following act one of a Depression-era musical, before Eno's sonic trickery intensifies the lament and drags it into the realm of feverish nightmare. The gang-vocal harmonizing and whimsical ratchet-and-clapper percussion on "Bitters End," which closes out the record, vaguely evoke a pre-war barbershop setting. The medley "The Bob" inspires a variety-show mood, with each section separated into differing segments, structured in the manner of an orchestral suite.
Roxy Music outlasted the fleeting mania of '70s glam rock by revising it to fit their image, rather than vice versa. And accordingly, their debut album is a triumph not just for how it shines amid the fad, but also in how it could just as easily be argued with that it belongs nowhere near such a thing.