Monday, August 6, 2012


I may be opening myself up to serious sanctions from the Rock Critic Guild, but I don't buy into the usual line on Roxy Music.  It goes like this:  A bright and shocking debut, as the band fuses progressive and funk sounds, adds one part style and one of glam, and cynically rips into comfortable old England.  Then they do it even better on the second album.  But visionary Eno drops out after that, and slowly the group moves into comfortable and sleek Euro pop, as Brian Ferry takes control and makes the band radio friendly.  Style wins out over substance.

Okay, I'll accept most of that argument, except the, umm, music part.  Yes, the albums became progressively mainstream, culminating in the huge success of Avalon and the More Than This, but I'll take that over either of the first two albums, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure.  The wild abandon they put into numbers Re-make/Re-Model and Do The Strand shook things up, and they looked a fright on Top Of The Pops, with dapper Ferry in front of spandex spacemen, and whatever Eno was supposed to be.  But over the course of these albums, there was a lot of humming and hawing over synth burbles, squalling sax, and guitar noise, with sound experimentation going really nowhere.  The influence was in its very existence, and certainly New Wave, Bowie, synth-pop and tons more took it and ran, but I can't really listen with pleasure these days.

This major box includes all eight of the group's studio albums, plus another two discs of non-album tracks, including b-sides, one-off singles, radio edits and remixes.  I devoted a day to it, chronologically, and the further I got, the more I liked it.  Post Eno, for Stranded and Country Life, the group seemed lost, as a transition was happening.  The songs were becoming more structured, and the willful perversity was lessoning, but the material was spotty.  By the fifth album, 1975's Siren (with Jerry Hall as a mermaid or something on the cover), a funny thing happened.  Ferry discovered his icy and ironic lyrics, if coupled with a tight sound, could be catchy.  Love Is The Drug was the result, a hit, and something respectable for the art crowd too.  Both Ends Burning showed the intensity could come along for the ride too, as the group moved into epic territory.

Manifesto is where the English critics accused the group of selling out, as the material moved more into pop fields, including the swaying Dance Away.  Harmonies and bright melodies were all over the disc.  This was far away from the first edition of the group, and its sophisticated groove polarized their audience, the old fans giving up, and a new batch joining in.  Flesh + Blood from 1980 took it even further, with the hit Over You.  At this point, the difference between Ferry's solo albums and group efforts was almost none, as for the first time Roxy was doing classic covers, here tackling The Midnight Hour and Eight Miles High.  Some predicted imminent death for the band, given Ferry's own hit-making solo career.

Turns out they had one last one in them, and for North America, the group's biggest.  Avalon in '82 was more than just tight hits, as the group brought back some length to the songs.  Now though, they were dealing in atmosphere rather than edge, as sweeping keyboards created lush dreamscapes.  It was smooth as all get out, catchy and sounded absolutely nothing like the same band ten years before.  Roxy Music's career was full of contradictions and controversy, and ended up polarizing opinions.  Usually you either like or hate a band; I don't know many that you can like and hate at the same time.

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