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The Thrill of It All: Rediscovering Roxy Music

30 years after disbanding, a protean art-rock band invites fresh listening

By Glenn Kenny
Special to MSN Music

Roxy Music / ©Mick Rock
Roxy Music

[Editor's note: For most rock and pop fans, Roxy Music's final and most successful album, "Avalon," remains as a sonic epitaph, by turns romantic, seductive, melancholy and lushly inviting. Yet before the U.K. group and its lead singer, Bryan Ferry, signed off with those after-hour reveries, Roxy Music traced a singular arc as a truly experimental proposition. Veteran critic Glenn Kenny explores the newly reissued Roxy catalog to explain that evolution.]

The only thing rabid fans of rock 'n' roll groups love more than a band reunion is a band reunion featuring all the original members, or at least all the original members still living. (The popularity of band reunions featuring zombies is a question perhaps best not answered.) So in the latter part of the first decade of the aughts, when Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, who parted ways (contentiously, some say) in the pioneering glam/art-rock group Roxy Music in the early '70s, not only deigned to be photographed together but collaborated on a Ferry solo album, eyebrows were raised. Eyebrows were re-raised when Ferry reconvened Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and reed man Andy Mackay for what was to be the band's first studio album since 1982's "Avalon," the band's only platinum album in the U.S., and Eno also was seen at the sessions.

While the Ferry-Manzanera-Mackay-and-sidemen lineup (drummer Paul Thompson appears to have retired from music entirely) toured as recently as 2011, the aforementioned sessions never yielded a proper Roxy Music album. Instead, Ferry, a noted studio obsessive who's been known to agonize over every detail on a given recording, put several tracks featuring his ex-bandmates on his 2010 solo album, "Olympia." Said album is one of the more energetic and engaging of Ferry's latter-day solo efforts, but it still isn't a Roxy Music record. And whatever went on that compelled Ferry to throw out the idea of a new Roxy Music record (scholarly fans may recall that he himself has said that he hid "himself" behind the band name: "I changed my name to Roxy Music," a statement that has an unpleasant whiff of credit-hogging to it but certainly provides a window into Ferry's larger ambivalence), the final word from the man himself was that, live reunions or no, there wasn't going to be another one.

Which means that the permanent record, such as it is, will likely be the new box set "Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings," which collects all the albums, from 1972's "Roxy Music" to 1982's "Avalon" and six in between, and two CDs' worth of singles and remixes. Eight albums in 10 years seemed Spartan by the standards of the era in which Roxy were at their most active, but it looks practically epic by those of today. In any event, aside from offering a bushel of great music, the set tells a narrative that I wasn't quite expecting: that of an art-rock band that managed to achieve a measure of commercial success without really selling out any of its core principles.

True, the Roxy Music that scored a hit single in the mid-'70s with the quasi-disco tune "Love Is the Drug" is a substantially slicker, more polite, and polished unit than the feather-boa-wearing, quasi-retro/outrageously avant wackos behind the self-titled '72 debut. But the core continuity that plays out over the course of the band's entire output sounds stronger, to these ears, than the gradual smoothing out of the surfaces. Which were verbal as well as musical: Ferry's lyrics, dense and allusive at the outset, grew more terse and epigrammatic as the years went on.

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The first two albums, the only ones featuring Eno, still pack a lot of outré charm. The newly remastered debut shocks the ears with a sonic richness that seemed tamped down in the vinyl release edition, which was produced by King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield. Examining the knotty compositions ("If There Is Something," "The Bob") that alternate with elemental stop-start rave-ups like "Re-Make/Re-Model," critic Simon Reynolds has noted that Roxy Music was, in a sense, a prog-rock band. That's true up to a point: Roxy's often been tagged with the "art-rock" label (a categorization that's broad enough to legitimately include Led Zeppelin), which is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for escaping the still-scarlet letter of prog. But one ought not forget that Ferry once auditioned to be Crimson's lead singer!

But if early Roxy were prog, they were prog in a way that, for one thing, they didn't know what they were doing. That's not meant as an insult. While bands such as Yes tried to apply classical-music compositional facility to rock 'n' roll in the most psychedelically highfalutin manner possible, Roxy's "serious music" affinities were more contemporary, their sensibility more pop, their compositional methods more throw-anything-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks. That is to say, it's likely that "If There Is Something" sounds like three fragmented songs strung together because it IS three fragmented songs strung together. As adept as instrumentalists Manzanera, Mackay, and Thompson were, in Ferry and Eno the band had two inspired amateurs: Ferry the wannabe R&B crooner whose postmodern pose masked his insecurities, and Eno the non-musician noisemaker.

But the happy accidents spawned by the exuberantly creative, anything-goes approach remained signposts of the Roxy sensibility for the entirety of the band's career. "The Bogus Man," a signature piece from sophomore album "For Your Pleasure," is one of the group's more "out" pieces, a minimal tune with a snapping-finger pulse and a lot of oddly structured sonics surrounding a larger blankness. A pretty spacey piece of music, never entirely reproduced in the band's work. But listeners can hear hints of what was going on there in the oblique "Sentimental Fool," on the band's commercial breakthrough in the U.S., "Siren" (which also yielded the hit "Love Is the Drug"). And while songs like "Same Old Scene" from the late Roxy album "Flesh and Blood" moved some doctrinaire critics of the time to accuse the band of "going disco," such tunes heard now, along with much of the band's initially misunderstood post-punk statement "Manifesto," seem an ideal manipulation of dance music tropes for spacey, almost ambient-music ends. Same goes for the oblique, terse instrumentals "India" and "Tara" on "Avalon," an album dismissed by some as an all-out "smooth rock" or "adult contemporary" move on Roxy's part.

Sure, the records get less loud after "Country Life," which is one of the band's most in-your-face records, from their then-controversial German-chicks-in-their-underwear front cover to the near-Teutonic marching beat of their early single "All I Want Is You." That fourth album seemed to be a massive purging of all of Roxy's excesses, including a weltschmerz-laden lugubriousness in some of Ferry's songwriting ("Triptych" and "Bitter Sweet" are among his most confounding songs).

"Siren" is an altogether more streamlined machine, and while Ferry has stated that it was during the making of "Manifesto," the first Roxy record to feature significant contributions from session musicians, that he felt like he was holding his own as a player, it's on "Siren" that Ferry the fully "competent" songwriter really comes through. But while the songs do get more conventional from that point on, they're by no means uninformed by the experimentation that came before it. At least that's how it sounds when you listen to all eight albums end to end. There are longueurs, of course, but the sense that one is going on an unusual sonic adventure remains constant throughout. This is, of course, helped immensely by the contributions of the players.

There never was a way to reproduce the mischievous anarchy of Eno's synth soloing (on the newly remastered first album, he's plainly audible as a background vocalist as well), but his replacement, multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson, brought a huge amount of color with his keyboard and violin stylings. Manzanera, aside from a masterful deployer of six-string sound effects, is also one of the most economic and cogent rock guitar soloists of this or any other era, always hitting the spot. Mackay's sax and oboe can evoke Boots Randolph one minute and Debussy the next. And Paul Thompson's a sui generis drummer, a pummeler with an ever-surprising sense of nuance. (The band never had a permanent/official bassist after Graham Simpson left after the first album, but John Gustafson, an excellent player, is featured on most of the records.) Ferry can say that he changed his own name to Roxy Music, but as excellent as his solo records can be, only Roxy Music sound like & this. Whether art rock or progressive rock, they've definitely earned the designation "classic."

Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.

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