❉ Roxy Music 1972-1976: A Fanboy’s Confession.
Summer, 1971: Eddie and I are 10 years old and have been friends since school began; we have recently bonded over broken legs – in separate incidents – and I have taken to visiting him on Saturdays. We live in Kingston and he is very close to the town centre. I have four sisters, two of whom are older and to whose music we listen: a mod/skinhead mixture of Ska, Bluebeat, Atlantic soul, Motown, Trojan reggae and the pop-reggae tunes of the late ’60s/early ’70s. We spend our days in town – a town filled with record shops – and we also discover the NME and Melody Maker. Marc Bolan is a big cover star at the time – Eddie is fonder than I am – and we start to learn the lexicon of the music magazines. At this time they would print the top 30 albums and singles in both the UK and the US and we notice how few records we have in common with America. We start to buy what records we can afford and start our collections.
Summer, 1972: an ad appears for Roxy Music’s first album. It is the cover shot of Kari-Ann – in my mind the band members appear in stars dotted along her body, but this may be a false memory. These are interspersed with blurbs about the music. One quote is from Robin Denselow of The Guardian, something along the lines of “Brings pictures to your head like nobody else”. I’m intrigued: is Denselow actually a name? What is The Guardian? Mostly though, it is the imagery which fascinates. The ‘cheesecake’ pose is not mysterious to us; in 1972 it wasn’t unusual for a film from the ’50s to be shown at prime-time, with weekend TV peppered with black and white classics. So, whilst the iconography is familiar, it is the context which jars, and the name. It isn’t a proper name for a band; it suggests a genre, but what is the genre? Has it been invented by these exotic creatures? Is the cover-girl somehow the queen of them all? I look at the album sleeve in the record shops and puzzle over the pictures, the titles, the strange stream-of-consciousness prose by someone not pictured. Why would the length of the songs be featured (at first, I think these numbers must be part of the song titles)?
Then Virginia Plain is released. It isn’t quite what I expected but we are all fascinated. The girl who lives at No. 21 has a little portable record-player and slightly more money than the rest of us and we sit watching it as she plays Virginia Plain (I have never seen the Island Records label and am struck by its relative playfulness); Starman; All The Young Dudes; How Can I Be Sure; Metal Guru (he’s got his picture on the LABEL!); Got To Be There. The Osmonds/Jackson 5 media war is on and we are all on the side of The Jacksons. I buy Virginia Plain and feel slightly uncomfortable about its incongruity next to my Motown singles and my sisters’ records, but I have to own it. Boots sells ex-display album covers and I buy the sleeve of “Roxy Music” by paying 10p into the ‘Help Spastics’ collection tin (larger versions of these stand forlornly outside newsagents and sweetshops, a boy or girl in callipers; a memory of Polio, or Palsy perhaps?). I am a step closer to hearing it but, for now, I become frighteningly familiar with the sleeve (printed by Tinsley Robor; why would they tell us that?) and spend hours wondering what it might sound like.
That Christmas I receive a longed-for cassette-player. As I tear off the Christmas wrapping Dad says, “Oh, you should leave that on because the box isn’t very nice.” I open it and notice a small but visible dent on the recorder’s metal control panel and in that instant realise that it is secondhand. Somehow, I manage to incorporate the dent into the ‘design’ and override my sense of disappointment that it isn’t new. I rush out as soon as possible after Christmas with my postal orders, cash and record tokens and buy cassettes of the precious Roxy album, ‘School’s Out’, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (cheaper than ‘Ziggy Stardust’, both of which I have also never heard) and Cat Stevens’ ‘Catch Bull At Four’.
Although I have seen Roxy on Top of the Pops and been astonished by their appearance and by Bryan Ferry’s slightly uncomfortable – unfathomable, really – presence and performance, I have somehow assumed that his voice will be more ‘normal’ over the course of an album, but it isn’t. It must be so strange to want to become a singer, then to find out that THAT is your voice. He didn’t sound like anybody else and neither did the music; my 11-year-old mind caught some references vaguely, others more specifically; I played it repeatedly and I realise retrospectively that it was the combination of the audacity of the voice, the newness of the sound, those songs, the sense of nostalgia and the unhidden, almost hysterical, emotional directness which thrilled me. There isn’t a lot to be said about this record which hasn’t already been said, but the absolute attention to detail and the trail of clues it teased us with, led to the beginnings of a fetishisation for their work – a fetish which, for all his seeming vagueness, was clearly shared by Bryan Ferry. In terms of reinvention, no artist did it so completely and determinedly as him; he willed Bryan Ferry to become “Bryan Ferry”.
‘For Your Pleasure’ followed; once again begging for in-depth examination (Morrissey once claimed that his copy smelled of bananas); the extraordinary sleeve in dark contrast to the pastels of the first album, the songs within once again unique, the sounds unimaginable previously. Then later that same year ‘Stranded’, with the sleeve format intact but entirely different in presentation (I didn’t realise the ‘multiple’ band pictures were an intentionally obvious reference/homage to Warhol until much later). Once again the lyrical imagery rose to the challenge of the cover art and surpassed it. Mother of Pearl remains probably the best hymn to a Goddess in modern songwriting and, again, nobody else could have written these unusual songs and produced such music.
The naive me is astonished when, around the release of each album, comes a flurry of interviews and news of a tour. I have no idea about marketing campaigns or PR, even as I enjoy the gifts they deliver!
Some snippets of memory whilst the obsession endured:
My new friend at my new school shares my enthusiasm and follows up on the news that Ferry’s phone number and address remain in the London telephone directory, so we dutifully go now and then to sit in the Square where he lives. On one occasion, the day after his solo concert which Rob has attended but I haven’t, and from which he has brought me the programme, we peer into the rear of the flat as a photo session takes place. The police arrive and question us, a neighbour has called and the policeman laughingly tells us that the neighbour suspected us of IRA activity (we are 13 years old!); when we tell him why we are there he goes to check and comes back with Bryan Ferry. He is gracious enough. “I suppose you’d like autographs?” I hand him my programme. “Did you enjoy the show?” I confess that I didn’t go. “Oh…” It was an unexpected realisation that this wasn’t what I wanted at all; I preferred the “finished” version available on vinyl, in magazines, on TV to this human before me. I preferred the fetish to the reality.
At the Rainbow on the Country Life tour, a pre-punk Johnny Rotten sneers at all the Tuxedo-wearing fans: “Oh looook, it’s Bryyyyyan Ferry.”
At the Wembley Empire Pool a year later for the Siren tour, an attention-grabbing Siouxsie Sioux and friends cause a big fuss at the front of the auditorium as the Banshees ‘form’ (so pop mythology has it).
Then Roxy are silent for a few years, returning in the more familiar, stream-lined version that had all the hits and sold many more records, but the obsession is over now, the fetish “known” and only half-heartedly tweaked by these new releases.
Everybody should hear that first album though, if they haven’t already. It’s now available, with live recordings, outtakes and a book.
❉ On Feb. 2, 2018, Roxy Music will release a deluxe expanded edition of their self-titled first album. The new collection will be comprised of three CDs, a DVD and a 136-page book.