The Student Playlist

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“Out Of The Blue” – A Beginner’s Guide to Roxy Music

Roxy Music (1972)

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Roxy Music in the context of the wider evolution of British pop and rock music. A thrilling push-and-pull between organic and synthetic elements, manipulated by the pioneering wizardry of Brian Eno, it sounded like absolutely nothing else around in 1972. Released on the same day as Bowie’s …Ziggy Stardust album, it helped ignite a small but significant revolution in British pop.

Everything to know about Roxy Music is established with the opener ‘Re-make / Re-model’: part avant-garde hoedown, part psych-rock freakout, completely thrilling in every way. Sonically, it’s very characteristic of the early Roxy Music sound, with no instrument particularly taking the lead and the prominence of bright, innocent melodies, something inspired by the Reed/Cale iteration of The Velvet Underground. Andy Mackay’s oboe and Eno’s tape manipulations on ‘Ladytron’ make it a truly extraordinary career highlight, while the multi-sectioned, musique concrete-influenced ‘The Bob (Medley)’ and live set mainstay ‘If There Is Something’ also sound alien and beguiling. Elsewhere, there are (slightly) more conventional moments with the beautiful melody and lounge feel of ‘2HB’ and the incendiary ‘Would You Believe?’, the latter showing off Phil Manzanera’s idiosyncratic and untutored guitar style. Ferry’s songs, while structurally quite simple, were bedecked with incredibly busy instrumental passages.

While it wasn’t perfect – a couple of moments in the second half arguably feel a bit too forced and underworked – that simply didn’t matter. It was the sheer impact that Roxy Music had when it landed, changing the face of British pop forever and kicking off the Seventies properly. It got bracketed along with glam-rock by a bemused and enthralled public, but Roxy Music was far more evolved and intelligent than that. (9/10) (LISTEN)

For Your Pleasure (1973)

Roxy Music For Your Pleasure

Creative tension in songwriting partnerships is rarely a long-term phenomenon, sooner or later leading to collapse or estrangement, but not before some serious musical fireworks. Roxy Music’s second album For Your Pleasure, forged between Bryan Ferry’s obsession with style and image and Brian Eno’s desire for musical experimentation and wildness, is the greatest illustration of this. It would be the last Roxy album they worked on together, but what an album it was. Pulling in separate directions, the progressive Eno and the nostalgia-obsessed Ferry sparked off each other to create one of the most enduring artistic statements of the Seventies. Bringing in Chris Thomas as producer, commencing a long-term creative relationship in the band’s career, the flaws (endearing as they were) in Roxy’s sound were ironed out and their artistry soared to even greater heights.

Kicking off with the giddy, uproariously decadent ‘Do The Strand’, always seemingly threatening to stutter or collapse entirely, it’s a story of diverging talents forging greatness. Underscored with Mackay’s squealing sax solos, ‘Editions Of You’ crackles with invention, the raw energy crashing against the jarring melodic structures. The krautrock-channeling centrepiece ‘The Bogus Man’ is split between the traditional and the new, while the suave, alluring ‘Beauty Queen’ finds a more comfortable way to resolve those tensions, sounding like it was recorded on the moon. The psychodrama of sex, status and power that was the brilliant ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’, Ferry’s croon so deadpan as to be creepy, is a discography highlight. It all ends with the breathtaking title track, which ends with a sound like the world being sucked down into a black hole. Listening back nearly five decades later, it’s easy to forget that the textures and tones were completely unprecedented in pop music at the time.

In contrast to their debut, which contained charming flaws that bestowed it with its slightly ramshackle personality, For Your Pleasure is perfection throughout, groundbreakingly ambitious in its reach and calculated in its execution, showing how the avant-garde can not only exist within pop, but flourish. Simply, it is one of the greatest art-rock albums of all time. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Stranded (1973)

Roxy Music Stranded

With the impasse in the Bryan/Brian creative axis leading to Eno’s sudden departure in the middle of 1973, Roxy Music didn’t fall apart – rather, they rounded out the year with an eloquent and stylish third studio album, and their first to reach the top of the UK Albums Chart. With Eno replaced with the much more technically accomplished Eddie Jobson (in conventional terms), there was a newfound musicality to Roxy’s output that commenced with Stranded, the beginning of what many fans regard as a golden period where the artiness of their early output was perfectly balanced with the stylised cool of their post-reformation material. Although it’s usually considered that Ferry began increasingly dominating the creative process within Roxy Music from this point onwards, here he sought out the input of Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera on a handful of tracks.

The strutting hit single ‘Street Life’ opens the album with something of a red herring, a kind of goodbye to glam-rock, as most of the rest of Stranded proceeds with mid-paced, detached sophistication. Some of Roxy Music’s finest compositions are housed within: the stately and reflective ‘A Song For Europe’, boasting a luxuriant piano figure and co-written with Manzanera, for instance, is one of the best slow numbers they ever made. That mood is maintained with the melancholy sweep of ‘Psalm’ and the delicate execution of closing track ‘Sunset’. Special mention must go to ‘Mother Of Pearl’, a multi-segmented and immensely clever masterpiece that begins with an adrenaline rush of energy before settling into a mournful semi-funk, as if the partygoer is an experiencing an existential hangover the morning after.

Jobson’s technical skill blended incredibly well with Manzanera and Mackay’s unique approaches to creation and performance, placing less pressure on Paul Thompson’s ever-reliable drumming. It speaks volumes that, despite the bitter nature of their falling-out, Brian Eno regards Stranded as Roxy Music’s finest album. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Country Life (1974)

Roxy Music Country Life

Often tending to go under the radar in discussions of Roxy Music’s career, Country Life saw the group continuing to evolve at an impressive rate. More immediate and less reflective than its predecessor Stranded, Ferry and his bandmates experimented with an astonishing range of tempos, moods and textures, carrying almost everything off with a panache that was light years ahead of virtually every other artist in British pop in the mid-Seventies. From the lavish, divine decadence of mid-album highlight ‘Casanova’ to the Elizabethan-esque ‘Triptych’, built around a harpsichord melody, it’s another record of diverse sonic riches that rewards multiple listens.

‘Three And Nine’, referencing the pre-decimalisation price of a ticket at a local cinema Ferry frequented as a teenager, is a masterful exercise in nostalgia whose appeal is impossible to put into words. Closing track ‘Prairie Rose’ is a majestic exercise in grandiose rock-riffage. ‘Out Of The Blue’, a swirling collage of sax and electric violin propelled on a memorable bassline and accompanied by one of Ferry’s very best vocal performances, is an all-time art-rock great. The only blot is the honkingly awful country-rock dud ‘If It Takes All Night’.

At its best, Country Life showcases Bryan Ferry operating basically at the peak of his songwriting powers, more economical and taut than before and growing in confidence all the time, delivering detached dispatches from the centre of a meaninglessly hedonistic mid-Seventies party scene. Moreover, there’s a versatility on display, a literate pan-European lyricism that it’s difficult to imagine anybody else doing even half as convincingly. Check out the Brecht/Weill-influenced ‘Bitter Sweet’ or the flourishes of French on hit single ‘All I Want Is You’ for evidence of this sophistication.

While it slightly underperformed commercially, reaching no.3 in the UK Albums Chart and marking the start of a critical backlash against Roxy (certainly the borderline-sexist album artwork and concurrent unwise toying with fascistic imagery on the accompanying tour did them no favours) many fans find Country Life to be perfectly balanced between two distinct eras of Roxy Music, admiring it for its full-on wall of sound aesthetic. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Siren (1975)

Roxy Music Siren

Their fifth full-length album in around four years, on top of two solo records for Bryan Ferry and a handful of side-projects for his bandmates, it’s not surprising that Siren saw Roxy Music starting to flag slightly in the creative stakes. Ferry’s world-weary, lounge-lizard ennui is pushed right to the fore in terms of delivery and presentation, and some of that occasionally bleeds into the overall sound of the album. Some claimed, by this point, that he was becoming rather too wrapped up in the high-society, jet-setting scene he had originally set out to critique from within, his voice co-opted.

That said, what Siren lacks in terms of the raw creativity of old, however, it more than makes up for in its panache and the very high quality of its execution in general. Here, Roxy Music adopted a sparser, more focussed R&B sound, and it pays off handsomely more often than not. Perhaps there aren’t the dizzying highs of previous Roxy albums, but there’s no clunkers either, making Siren a remarkably consistent and listenable effort. Kicking off with ‘Love Is The Drug’, a UK no.2 hit and one of Roxy Music’s finest singles, it’s a display of consummate musicianship from Mackay and Manzanera in particular, and it threw up a lot of excellent deep cuts like ‘Sentimental Fool’ and the record’s second single, ‘Both Ends Burning’, to snappier tracks like ‘Whirlwind’.

A blend of tasteful esoterica and lovelorn romanticism, Siren served as a fitting swansong for the first iteration of Roxy Music. Ferry continued to pursue his solo career and had domesticity on his mind, having met Texan model Jerry Hall (who graced the cover of Siren) while the rest of his bandmates got involved with more side-projects and session work. A great, but short, career arc can be seen in the band’s first five albums, but the Roxy story would not yet be finished. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Manifesto (1979)

Roxy Music Manifesto

Having split from fiancée Jerry Hall – who ran off with Mick Jagger – and seen his personal artistic stock nosedive with the advent of punk, perhaps Ferry’s decision to reunite Roxy Music was one borne of a need for security. The band, particularly the original Brian Eno-featuring version, was one of the few outfits that punk fans excepted from the movement’s general ‘year zero’ attitude when it came to established rock artists. Released in early 1979, Manifesto was an imperfect yet graceful and understated reminder of Roxy Music’s importance, and well-timed as the post-punk and new wave aftershocks of the punk explosion were at their most amplified. The cringeworthy soft-porn images of female models in various states of undress were also gone.

A very strong first half of soulful, tasteful pop is unbalanced by a rather indifferent second in which Ferry sounds like he’s largely on autopilot. The scintillating opening title track ‘Manifesto’ scans as an update on the angular, ironic art-pop of their earliest work, followed by more strong content with the glamorous single ‘Trash’ and the straightforward pop of ‘Angel Eyes’, remixed for a dancefloor-friendly version that became the album’s second UK Top Five hit. The languid yet moody ‘Stronger Through The Years’ and the energetic ‘Still Falls The Rain’ round out a fantastic opening salvo, the instrumental interludes stripped out in favour of concision, ushering in a more commercially successful vision of the Roxy sound that would still keep their fans onside.

On the second side, however, only the smooth, heartbroken ‘Dance Away’, the band’s second UK no.2 hit, really stands out. On tracks like ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ and ‘My Little Girl’, Roxy Music tend to sound like they’re merely acting as Ferry’s backing band, rather than creatively interacting with and sparking off him. It’s a disappointing way to end, because while Manifesto gives the impression of being quite innocuous on first listen, repeated exposure throws up some real delights. Legendary American critic Robert Christgau perhaps summed Manifesto up best: “[not] Roxy at its most innovative, just its most listenable”. (7/10) (LISTEN)

Flesh And Blood (1980)

Roxy Music Flesh And Blood

By the time of their seventh studio album, the rhythmic rock that was percussionist Paul Thompson had quit Roxy Music, leaving the core trio of Ferry, Mackay and Manzanera surrounded by hired hands. New drummer Andy Newmark, along with an ever-changing cast of session musicians on bass, represented a very different kind of rhythmical engine room, fundamentally transforming Roxy from a rock act (albeit an avant-garde one) to a pop outfit, with power and dependency sacrificed for intricacy and flair.

Too much of Flesh And Blood feels contrived, and there’s an alarming sense, particularly as the second half proceeds, that Ferry and Roxy Music are beginning to run out of ideas and are simply treading water. ‘Rain Rain Rain’ is uninspired, and the closing track ‘Running Wild’ is practically asleep. Two fairly perfunctory cover versions are included – Wilson Pickett’s soulful ‘In The Midnight Hour’ and a smoothed-out take on The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ – for no apparent reason other than an attempt to appease American radio.

There were a handful of moments of genuine quality, obviously, which make Flesh And Blood merely disappointing instead of outright bad. The ‘50s-inflected pop of ‘Over You’, the widescreen drama of ‘Same Old Scene’ and the brilliant romantic sweeps of lead single ‘Oh Yeah’ were the kind of things that Ferry and co. were getting pretty effortless at knocking out by now, and kept the album in the Top Ten for most of six months. The Peter Saville-designed artwork was neat, too.

Although it’s commonly regarded as Roxy Music’s weakest album by fans,at the time Flesh And Blood became the group’s best-selling album by quite some margin, yielding three substantial hit singles and keeping them very much in the public eye as the New Romantic movement began to take off, featuring a number of artists who owed Roxy Music a significant debt in both sound and image. But the key difference between this and previous Roxy Music albums was that Flesh And Blood was making no demands on the listener at all. (6/10) (LISTEN)

Avalon (1982)

Roxy Music Avalon

Listened to directly alongside their debut, you’d be forgiven for concluding that Avalon was the work of an entirely different band. The lush soundscapes here are about as far removed from the edgy avant-pop of their early Seventies work as its possible to get. And yet, there’s something curiously magical about the sound of Avalon, a graceful swansong that was significantly better than its predecessor Flesh And Blood, which had suggested that Roxy were beginning to run out of puff.

Avalon was pretty much the singular vision of Bryan Ferry. Written on the west coast of Ireland with his future wife Lucy Helmore, a period of long sought-after contentment in his personal life seemed to trigger some kind of romantic, dreamlike reverie in his songwriting perspective. The entire thing takes place in a suspended moment, that golden hour around the time when the sun is setting.

Amid the warm, rich tone clusters, synthesised chords and soft-touch rhythms, Ferry’s voice is a minor marvel. He makes his natural vocal shortcomings work in his favour, developing them into a seductive, elegant croon that’s so difficult to precisely make out that it borders on glossolalia, meaning the listener can project their own meaning onto the half-finished word enunciations. There are also some immaculately crafted pop diamonds in the shape of ‘More Than This’, ‘Take A Chance With Me’, ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and the title track, while some of the shorter mood meditations like ‘India’ and ‘Tara’, the latter featuring Mackay’s beautiful oboe playing.

It’s quite unbelievable to listen to, purely as a sonic experience, but what it meant for wider pop music in general – technical beauty at the expense of heart and soul, you could argue – perhaps tarnishes it for some listeners. There’s a case for Avalon being as influential as For Your Pleasure, although without any of the groundbreaking vision. Popularising a new aesthetic for easy-listening music that would last for the duration of the Eighties and then live on as ‘yacht rock’, and one of the first albums ever to be released on CD, Avalon sold by the bucketload, becoming Roxy Music’s most commercially successful album by some considerable distance. It even made significant inroads into America, something which had eluded Roxy Music since their formation over a decade before. However, its success eventually become a creative prison for Bryan Ferry, ever the perfectionist, who struggled to emulate its curious magic for decades afterwards. (8/10) (LISTEN)

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