Viva Roxy Music!

I
am experiencing a really peculiar art/book/music mash up at the moment. Over the weekend,
I saw the Turner show at the DMA . Meanwhile, I also finished DH Lawrence’s The
Rainbow
, arguably his greatest novel. And as if to complete a centuries-spanning, Anglophilic
hat-trick, I’ve been in a big Roxy Music kick lately, and I just watched volume
one of “
Roxy Music: The Thrill of It All – A Visual History (1972-1982)”, which covers
their TV appearances from 1972-75. It’s all kind of messing with my mind.

country_life.jpg

In
the mid ‘80’s, I was just another alienated kid in the suburban American west.
Days were spent trapped in a high school that looked the part of the prison it felt
like, and nights meant returning home only to witness an alcoholic father and a
withdrawn, depressive mother go through the final empty motions of a failing
marriage. Team sports were losing their escapist allure (dudes were getting
freaking wrecked on the football field, and I sure wasn’t aiming for the NFL), and I
hadn’t yet accepted art school as my eventual redemptive destination. I still
held out some notion that a life in medicine was a possibility, though my
grades would soon disabuse anyone of that idea.

My
cooler friends were forming punk bands. I learned to play some bar chords fast,
and shouted into a mike or two, but I just couldn’t really get into it. Punk,
well, it just wasn’t very…stylish. It already seemed passe. And I just didn’t feel that demonstrably angry.
Kept secret from my be-spiked and be-studded pals, I secretly wanted to be…Bryan Ferry.
ferry.jpg Toward that end, I grew my
bangs long, and through them I’d gaze soulfully at the cheerleader across from me
in AP English. It didn’t lead to a homecoming date,
but then, I
was probably more interested in the longing anyway.

I had a cassette tape of Avalon, Roxy’s
1981 swan song which, I happily discovered, happened in practice to be the greatest
make-out record of all time. In off hours, it also acted as Calgon for my burgeoning (neo-)romantic soul, taking me away from my mundane travails as I drove around the surrounding
teenage wasteland in my shit-brown, two-tone V8 Ford Maverick, transported to an atmospheric, hazy
realm of tuxedoed, passionate love lost, with big haired, super model-y babes,
on a tide of cascading horns and cooing back-up singers.

avalon.jpg

From there, I soon worked backward through
the entire Roxy catalog, as they devolved from slick spacious art crooning (
that through no fault of their own paved the way for schlock-meisters
Spandau Ballet and their pathetic ilk,) to configurations much stranger. In that
golden age of vinyl (golden mostly because used records were so cheap),
roxy_cover.jpgbig
cardboard fold-out Roxy Music album covers sold my testosterone-compromised
aesthetic with almost naked women (one a Playmate of the Year; most were Ferry’s lovers)
on their fronts; once
inside, one found pictures of an alien race of interstellar, gender-bending
hipcats, in boas, sequins, matador jackets, platform shoes, and jeweled bug
glasses.

Bowie of course stole a significant amount of his shtick from Ferry, early
and later, and really, I like early Roxy records now much more than Bowie’s of the same era.
Ferry’s output may seem more stylistically limited than Bowie’s, but that’s partly because he was
less apt to shamelessly ape whatever trend was appearing on the horizon. Ferry
was Ferry, from the get go.

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Art
school-degreed, he studied with Richard Hamilton at the University of Newcastle Upon
Tyne
. This Brit pop art savvy, sharper edged, more style- and fun-loving than its American equivalent, informed everything they did. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and be; namely, to cast themselves as a radical, bright plastic and neon antidote to the drippy, shaggy, denimed "authentics" of the post-hippie scene, a stifling force they detonated in a blast of oboe and synthesizers. On the “…History” disc, you see Roxy’s first
filmed performance, at the Royal College of Art in London.
They spring up fully realized, an absurd  cabaret of the fabulous.

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Fellow art school grad Brian Eno had joined, eno.jpgand before moving on to invent ambient music and make U2 pop lords of the universe, he spent two years fiddling
with knobs, cranking the feedback loops, and keeping the feathered shoulder-pad/glittery
eye-shadow quotient up while Ferry graduated into tuxes and vintage British
military uniforms. Their early sound? Marlene Dietrich meets Parliament meets Edith
Piaf meets Stockhausen on an episode of Dr Who. Ferry’s admitted musical
influences tended more toward great soul and blues shouters of the 50’s and
60’s, but he filtered them through this fixation on an arch English, pre-war
Martini swilling demi-monde, that was finding a certain analog in the 70’s Roxy would
prophetically help define.

Roxy
Music may seem like footnote in the US, but in England they had #1 record after #1
record, and if you look at the timeline, I’d argue that they invented glam rock, and
shaped its early form more than any other single act. Their musicianship,
erudition, and the singularity of their vision distinguished them from the unlistenable
dredge that comprises much of what was later called Glam; usually, that was
just barely tolerable pub-rock by guys who donned striped flairs, top hats, and metallic fabric
capes in hopes of capitalizing on a fad. I’m talking Slade and Gary Glitter here. Kiss would be your ultimate
stateside equivalent.

The
records now are still full of surprises. Seeing them in these live performances can
help to convince the unbelievers, because when they aren’t lip-synching like
every one else on Top of the Pops, they were (and reformed, are) phenomenal live. They aren’t
everyone’s bag, no doubt, but I just keep falling in love with them over and
over. Ro-xy! Ro-xy! Ro-xy!

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also by Titus OBrien

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