the afterparty

Why 'Avalon' by Roxy Music Is the Best Afterparty Song Ever

Bryan Ferry's words speak of the mysteries and potential of a late night, and the music––spare and elegant; an immaculate, impenetrable surface––call to mind the frazzled sheen of those hours.
June 16, 2016, 4:00am

There's this idea that nothing good ever happens after 2 AM. It's an idea that has been turned into a "Keep Calm and Carry On"–style poster, so you know that a lot of pretty terrible people think it's both hilarious and true. If you believe it's true, perhaps you're a boring person. Or perhaps you've been there, done that, and have to get up when the party's just really getting started because somehow you've found yourself in possession of three young children.

The late night and early morning may lead us down the path to bad decisions and worse consequences, it may sometimes be the backdrop to the kind of anger and heartbreak that takes half a lifetime to mend, but it can also be where connections are made, where ideas are encountered, where life happens. You may find yourself in an alien city, the light rising at the gray distant horizon, with a feeling that whatever happens to you, you will be OK, and that life, however hard it becomes, will always have something in it to hold your interest.

The author, engaged in some "mad little event" at God know's what hour of the night

It is in these hours when mad little events happen, when we might learn something new by listening to someone we'd never bothered listening to before. Yes, it's also about sex and drugs and drinking; yes, it's a time more suited to the young and the single, but the hours in and around dawn can also just be when our yearning to live becomes most arresting.

The afterparty is the stage for this. You need songs that get people up on their feet and dancing, you need songs that energize people when the night is in danger of dying. But those songs are more the preserve of the party proper than what happens afterward. At some point, when the threat of the sun is too present to ignore, the mood of your afterparty will have changed, and you will need something that works for the people sitting down and lying back, the people chasing their own thoughts and crawling into conversational burrows.

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The Roxy Music song "Avalon"––from the band's eighth and final album of the same name––is the song for this moment. It skims along the surface, hums underneath the tension; it's sexy and louche, full of ambiguity and veiled promise. The music writer Simon Reynolds called Roxy's last album "immaculate background music," and while he meant it critically, as a way of noting the difference between this and the band's earlier, more engagingly experimental work, in the case of the afterparty, "immaculate background music" can become something of a compliment. There is both everything and nothing in this song, just as there can be everything and nothing in the afterparty.

There's something literal-minded in this choice. "Now the party's over," Bryan Ferry sings over a sparse, spacious musical background, "I'm so tired." You're feeling like this, flopped back into whatever you're sitting on, thoughts and substances buzzing through your synapses––thoughts like, Can a thought buzz through a synapse? But the party isn't over. The night promises more. The promise lies between the lines of conversation, in moments and movements. There's Bryan Ferry, in his white dinner jacket, crooning of possibilities:

"Then I see you coming, out of nowhere / Much communication, in a motion / Without conversation, or a notion"

Later, he will sing, "Yes, the picture's changing, every moment / And your destination, you don't know it," against the picked guitar lines and washes of synth. His words speak of the mysteries and potential of a late night and the music––spare and elegant; an immaculate, impenetrable surface––speaks of the frazzled sheen of those hours, the thrum of sex in the air. You and your fellow partygoers are sitting and lying down, but you will also dance––"out of nowhere," as Ferry puts it. The music will take you, and you will find yourself in the arms of someone you love or someone you could love, someone you know deeply or not at all.

Still from Roxy Music's 'Avalon'

In the video for the song, Ferry appears in his dinner jacket inside a grand 19th-century house. What story there is seems to concern the penetration of this world––the elite, remote, cold, and desperate world of the British upper classes, in which refinement at the surface masks cruelty and unhappiness. Ferry, the outsider, is drawn to it, needs to continue on further down the path of the night, to wherever the afterparty might lead. He both does and does not want to be part of something.

This mystery is present too in the song's title, its chorus ("Avalon," simply crooned), and the cover art to the album, which shows a woman in armor, a falcon on her helmet, sailing toward an isle. This isle is Avalon, a place in the legend of King Arthur. After being fatally wounded by his illegitimate son Mordred at the Battle of Camlann, it is said that Arthur was taken to Avalon to recover from his wounds, fatal though they were. It is on this island that his sword Excalibur was forged, and it is from this island that he will return to lead his people to victory.

There is mystery and mythology in the late hours of the night. There is a spiritual dimension that has been lost in the rest of our lives, a sense of communion, a reminder of being together in some distant Arthurian past, a fire burning on the banks of a river, the flames licking upward, lighting the faces of those you know and half-know, tomorrow something to be thought about and negotiated later, tension and togetherness, sex and subterfuge, surprise in a world stripped of surprises, the route unclear as you chart your boat toward what you hope is the isle of Avalon.

Previously - Why 'Suddenly' by Billy Ocean Is the Best Afterparty Song Ever

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