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The greatest music debuts of all time #4: Roxy Music

So, at long last, the much-anticipated and unbelievably expensive box set edition of Roxy Music’s dazzling, dizzying debut album has finally beamed down to planet Earth. 

At the heart of the band’s innovative approach was the notion of music as futuristic luxury goods: glitzy, glossy, glamorous… and meticulously art directed. So it’s entirely fitting that their eponymous 1972 opus receives the sumptuous Super Deluxe treatment: four discs stuffed with BBC radio sessions, unreleased demos and a DVD featuring the only extant live footage of their 1972 lineup and an alluring 5.1 Surround Sound version of the original album by mix magnus Steven Wilson. Oh, there’s also a lavish hardback book, painstakingly curated by Bryan Ferry himself.

Supposedly the reason this premium rate bells-and-whistles set was a) delayed by over five years and b) is so highly priced is largely down to Ferry and the book. Known for contributing heavily to the carefully crafted designs of his record sleeves, the singer insisted on using his own design team, who elected to make the booklet much more of a high-end coffee table art book. Even the thickness of the paper (and thick it certainly is) is something you just know he would have agonised over. Consequently, the project’s budget exploded. 

33 at 45-ish: Multiple Kari-Anns for you to salivate over

Aesthetically, this handsome 136-pager, 12 x 12″ in size, is most certainly a beautiful piece of product in its own right. In addition to a thoroughly evocative new essay by the band’s earliest champion, journalist Richard Williams, there’s a plethora of fascinating rehearsal snapshots, studio sessions and sumptuous synth porn. And if you’re not as fond of the album’s cover photo as me then you soon will be, as there are about a zillion variations of it. It reeks of extravagance but the whole package does an impeccable job in capturing the joie-de-vivre of the time, easily befitting the most stylish and sophisticated band of the 1970s. But the greatest accolade of all is that almost five decades later Roxy Music still sounds like nothing else before or since. Exotic, strange and other-worldly. Though the band’s humble beginnings started in the rather more mundane setting of a cold and grey London in the winter of 1970/71.

Ferry had left his native County Durham with a degree in Fine Art, and had recently been relieved of his job as a ceramics teacher at Holland Park School in West London when he appeared more interested in broadening his pupils’ musical minds than expounding on the finer points of pottery. Jobless but not quite penniless, he advertised for a keyboard player to join him and Graham Simpson, a bassist he knew from his ragbag Newcastle college band, The Gas Board. Andy Mackay replied, though not as a keyboard player but as a saxophonist and oboist. However, he did possess a VCS3 synthesiser, which a certain Brian Eno was rather taken with.

Demo recording, 1971: (L-R) Mackay, Eno, Simpson

Mackay had become acquainted with Eno during his university days, as both were interested in avant-garde and electronic music. As Brian knew how to operate a synthesiser and owned a Revox reel to reel tape machine, Andy co-opted him to join the fledgling band, initially as a technical advisor. Dexter Lloyd, a classically trained timpanist, joined the group on percussion. 

The band were initially known as Roxy as a nod to Bryan’s passion for going to movie houses. He clearly wanted to instil a sense of drama and theatre into music from day one. With the addition of guitarist Roger Bunn, Roxy cut their first demo tape in the spring of 1971, some of which has now been made public for the first time. Long considered the Holy Grail of Roxy Music afficionados, these tentative takes offer an intriguing insight into the embryonic stages of Ferry’s unorthodox compositions. 

As some founder members exited, the arrival of Phil Manzanera (guitar) and Paul Thompson (drums) represented a tremendous leap forward musically. The album outtakes from early 1972 are similarly fascinating, revealing how tracks were fleshed out in the studio. In some instances, Eno’s sonic treatments seem more pronounced on the alternate versions than what ended up on the record, such as a buzzing synth vignette that opens the always seductive Ladytron.

Chance Meeting is presented as a mostly piano-and-bass showcase, devoid of the Brief Encounter-referencing lyrics but no less haunting. There’s also a very brief but intriguing untitled instrumental piece, and the band breaks out into a spontaneous 1920s jazz-inspired improvisational jam during the recording of The Bob (Medley), Ferry’s conceptual song suite about the Second World War. It inexplicably manages to stitch together heavy metal thud, Roaring Forties party rave-up, piccolo solo, quiet piano poetry interlude, and back to metal thud again.

If the tracks sound like work in progress, that’s because they are. Often it’s the between-song chatter that really puts you there, in that celebrated moment of creation. A sense of crystallising promise shines through these performances, much like the record itself, but it’s the rough edges that make the album what it is. The band announce that the future is now! and the future is Casablanca. Literally, in 2HB (To Humphrey Bogart – see, Prince didn’t quite invent that form of spelling after all). A nervously tinkling piano, an impatient synth grunt, and they’re off at the gate.

At this point in the Roxy timeline they’re are an appealingly ramshackle unit, with instruments crashing into each other in a real to unreal cacophony of textures; the end of Re-make/Re-model, with each player blurting a five-second instant improvisation on top of a Weimar glitter stomp, is probably the most obvious example. Sea Breezes, with its washes of abstract guitar static is achingly mournful, Bitters End’s evocation of a past-their-best barbershop quartet, moping over their martinis in some last-chance saloon. Above all, If There Is Something perches on an evolutionary branch of its own, metamorphosing from anomalous country-rock into a quasi-symphonic glühwein as Ferry lets rip with that unsettling nanny-goat vibrato that forbids ambivalence.

This was a daring new hybridity in music, unafraid to fail, thrillingly weird, thrillingly new. Roxy Music is the band’s most experimental and arguably influential album, if only because originals are most original the first time around, and that anarchic quality might be hard to take for those used to their later sleekness and restraint.

Announcing the start of an impressive recording career that was to last a decade, the debut album was released in Britain on 16th June 1972, the same day as their spiritual brother-in-creative-arms, David Bowie, unleashed The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. While both acts spearheaded the art-rock scene from that day on, what’s immediately striking is how conventional Ziggy seems in terms of sound, structure and arrangements compared to the Roxy album.

You can’t deny the quality of Bowie’s songwriting, or the musicianship of Mick Ronson and the Spiders, but whereas the Starman wrote about coming from outer space Roxy’s record actually sounded like it had been transported in from another planet.

Aided by The Dame’s penchant for headline-grabbing quotes from favourable journalists and a growing buzz on the live circuit, Ziggy shot into the Top 20 immediately, giving Bowie his first hit album after four previous attempts in five years. Roxy, on the other hand, were viewed upon with utter disdain by sections of the music establishment. The BBC’s Bob Harris thought they were pretentious dilettantes in ridiculous clobber, relying on inauthentic and overly-computerised music to make any impact. At the time of the band’s all-important television debut on the Old Grey Whistle Test (above) the presenter churlishly announced to the world that he’d been totally against them appearing on the show. It sounded like more of a scream than a whisper, but as far as he was concerned Roxy Music were little more than an unimpressive hype.

With that in mind, the band had to wait until September before their LP started a slow and unsteady ascent up the Twenty, and even then the belated chart performance was largely down to a non-album single being rushed out.

Unlike Bowie, who quickly dashed off Starman when his record label informed him they couldn’t hear any singles on Ziggy, Bryan was adamant Roxy records would echo those of bygone acts like Frank Sinatra in keeping material for 33s and 45s totally separate thematic entities*. A while ago I wrote how Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights ranks as one of the most astounding, audacious debut singles ever made. Well, before that there was a thing called Virginia Plain.

Released in August 1972, VP is a mad glam gallop of a song that isn’t interested in trifling pop conventions like a chorus. Heaven forbid! Oh no, it’s the aural equivalent of a three-minute supersonic airplane ride, zooming off the runway, cramming in a ramshackle travelogue that takes you to Acapulco, lover’s leap, and midnight blue casinos where you dance the cha-cha thru ’til sunrise. It has flamingoes, too, and stop-starts-stop-starts-stop-starts-stop-starts-ends with a gurgling three-note Moog line and the memorable self-answered question that acts as its fabulous finale, “What’s her name? Virginia Plain!”

Virginia Plain announced its own unerring existence in an elegant galaxy all its own, and amazingly, went on to reach No 4 in the UK. The band’s appearance on Top of the Pops – just weeks after Bowie’s similarly epochal performance of Starman there had propelled him to No.10 – was a lightning bolt. Ferry, recalling the single’s success, has often stated that Roxy were flabbergasted by it. They had no great expectation of significant sales. The public, clearly, felt differently. So, too, did a whole host of musicians who would follow in their footsteps, forever in their debt.

Viva Roxy Music.

Steve Pafford

*Ironically, the song would be included on the later US pressing of the album, which I’m sure displeased the exacting Ferry no end. However, most subsequent editions of the debut follow that augmented track listing, including this 2018 repackage. My reviews of the Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music catalogue from 1973 – 1994 are here

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