The Guide to Getting into Roxy Music
Brian Cooke/Redferns

The Guide to Getting into Roxy Music

Featuring Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, Roxy Music’s melodramatic yet undersung art rock paved the way for punk, new wave, and decades of music to come.
May 17, 2018, 4:30pm

You don’t simply listen to Roxy Music—English art-rock favorites of David Bowie, ground zero of Brian Eno, namesake of the Sex Pistols’ first incarnation and Ladytron—you enter it. Founded by Bryan Ferry, Roxy is collage art alchemized into music, a cinematic experience of styles and sounds born from (sometimes ironic) nostalgia for the past and an imagined camp future. Roxy’s eight albums from 1972 to 1982 play out like lavish parties, a clink of glasses, shuffle of feet, or downtown roar inviting you into the night. In their core lineup, there’s the otherworldly energy of Eno’s synth and tape work, the come-hither allure of Andy Mackay’s oboe and sax, the midnight howl of Phil Manzanera’s guitar, and the primal urgency of Paul Thompson’s drums, all destined to collide into that moment of complete chaos in the room. At the center of the fête, Ferry plays both host and wallflower, his melodramatic vibrato alternating between visions of grandeur and intense longing for a love that hasn’t arrived.

So too has the rock canon left Roxy in the wings, especially in North America. Considering the glam, punk, and new wave eras that Roxy Music ushered in, they’re criminally underrated, glitter and animal print-adorned outcasts from a canon that circle jerks to ideas of masculinity, authenticity, and Led Zeppelin cover bands. Disciples of The Velvet Underground that they are, however, Roxy’s influence on five decades of music is their ultimate reward. You can hear Roxy Music in the rhythm of Nile Rodgers and Chic, the distorted energy of Sex Pistols, the syncopated delivery of Talking Heads, the showman and soundscape sides of U2, the eye makeup of Siouxie Sioux and the Banshees, the lavish videos of Duran Duran, the aggressive melodies of The Smiths, the mesmerizing atmospheres of Radiohead, the glamour of Scissor Sisters, the strut of Franz Ferdinand, the lushness of Todd Terje.

Roxy Music’s pervasiveness continues in a series of pop culture cameos. Thom Yorke does his best Ferry warble on Roxy covers for the glam flick Velvet Goldmine. Bill Murray croons one of their final singles, “More Than This,” in Lost in Translation. Tiga’s debut album artwork pays homage to Bryan Ferry’s 1977 solo record In Your Mind, bisexual lightning 40 years ahead of the curve. The Daniel Craig drama Flashbacks of a Fool features Roxy as a plot point and motif. Sci-fi series Westworld features the lo-fi craze of “Do the Strand.” Nine Inch Nails side project How to Destroy Angels covers Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” for the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It goes on. Whether you’re already fan of Eno or any of the artists above, there’s a Roxy Music side for you. Collage artists that Roxy are, multiple songs definitely fit more than one category here. Take this as a liberal guide to their dream home heartache.

So you wanna get into: Glam and Gritty Roxy Music?

Roxy Music’s breakout 70s sound is that of “inspired amateurs” as Phil Manzanera often says, chaotic futurists figuratively and literally winking to rock’s history. It’s evident from the get-go of their self-titled debut in 1972, “Remake/Remodel,” a party scene with jaunty piano that violently shifts into synth, guitar, and sax screeching. Bryan Ferry’s voice bends and breaks against it all, a rhythmic instrument of its own as he talk-talk-talk-talk-talks himself to death. To hell with polish, this is power. Jazz-style solo breaks, referencing everything from Richard Wagner’s opera The Valkyrie to The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” reveal the method to their madness: Roxy is ever-evolving pastiche, sincere on one beat and camp on the next.

Art school shaped Ferry’s very approach to music. Beyond having costumes as loud as their sound—a subversion of Summer of Love bands with no visual character—Roxy Music embodies the idea of a collage, visceral and lyrical homage to their influences and contemporaries. “Virginia Plain,” their debut single, name checks both Ferry’s watercolor of a cigarette packet pin-up girl and Andy Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer in a piano and oboe-led romp without a chorus. Yes, this was Roxy’s response to label pressure for a hit. The glam oddity worked, earning Roxy a performance on Top of the Pops and feeding their first wave of critical adoration.

Roxy’s stop-start aggression on their 1972 debut and intense 1973 follow-up For Your Pleasure went on to shape punk, particularly the Sex Pistols whose nascent lineup christened themselves The Strand after For Your Pleasure’s opener. “Do the Strand,” a rip-roaring homage to dance crazes where barroom piano and careening guitar collide, is a metaphor for achieving greatness along the likes of endless references: the Sphinx, the Mona Lisa, Lolita, Picasso's Guernica… Roxy Music became masters of DIY grandeur, but not without examining its pitfalls. Their discography halfway point Country Life in 1974 contains their sharpest criticism of well-to-dos in “Casanova”: “Now you’re flirting with heroin / Or is it cocaine?” Ferry snaps over funk cacophony, wary of nightlife sins as much as splendors.

Playlist: “Re-Make/Re-Model” / “Virginia Plain” / “Pyjamarama” / “Do the Strand” / “Editions of You” / “Street Life” / “The Thrill of It All” / “Casanova” / “All I Want Is You” / “Whirlwind” / “Angel Eyes”

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So you wanna get into: Entrancing Soundscapes Roxy Music?

If Bryan Ferry is style, Brian Eno is substance, two warring elements doomed to implode no matter how brilliant their supernova. John Doran summarized their clash well in a 2012 conversation with Ferry for Noisey, two egos visually separated by tiger and leopard print getups like opposing big cats. Years later, claws retracted, Ferry himself openly recognizes that Eno is essential to the Roxy Music sound—not just in Eno’s entrancing synth, but in treating the sound of Roxy’s instruments to bring them to an otherworldly plane. Though Eno’s tenure in Roxy would be limited to their self-titled debut and For Your Pleasure, it’s noteworthy as the proving ground for his ambient legacy to come.

“Ladytron” is the sound of soaring before Music for Airports, Eno’s layered synth drone and Andy Mackay’s oboe weaving in and out across a pink sky. Eno’s visceral work was a perfect match for Ferry’s love of cinema, and it shows across their debut. The warm keyboard and brass tones of “2HB,” short for “To Humphrey Bogart,” lends further sincerity to the Casablanca star’s tribute. Siren-like synths and the thunderous fog of bombs echo during “The Bob,” a series of vignettes reimagining the 1969 war film Battle of Britain. Manzanera’s guitar furiously transforms and lingers across “Chance Meeting,” a piano ballad inspired by the 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter.

For Your Pleasure is full of even darker sonic experiments, instrumental collisions analogous to Ferry and Eno’s deteriorating relationship. Both the press and Roxy fans took to Eno’s charisma, challenging Ferry’s status as a frontman. “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” is one of their final moments of synergy, Ferry’s lamentations over a blow-up doll soundtracked by an atmosphere of silver-screen monster movie fare. “I blew up your body / But you blew my mind,” Ferry wordplays as lust, shame, and anger manifest themselves as a furious jam from hell. Eno would lose this war of egos, leaving Roxy Music just months after For Your Pleasure was released.

Eno’s aptitude for soundscapes and pushing instruments beyond their limitations continued to influence Roxy Music, especially Manzanera, after his departure. Manzanera and Ferry’s co-write “Out of the Blue” is a standout on Country Life, tape phasing, oboe, and Mellotron seduction pulling you into a lovers drama with a disorienting violin solo by Eddie Jobson, Eno’s multi-instrumentalist replacement. Even as Ferry led Roxy into new wave, his debt to Eno’s atmospherics remains in moments from the empty ballroom ending of 1979’s Manifesto to the golden-hour instrumentals on 1982’s Avalon.

Playlist: “Ladytron” / “2HB” / “The Bob (Medley)” / “Chance Meeting” / “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” / “The Bogus Man” / “For Your Pleasure” / “Out of the Blue” / “Sentimental Fool” / “Spin Me Round” / “India” / “Tara”

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So you wanna get into: Theatrical Schmaltz Roxy Music?

Ferry is a parody of the crooner, having everything and nothing at the same time, suave in song yet repeatedly described as shy in reality, vanity a hollow replacement for confidence. “If you’re looking for love / In a looking-glass world / It’s very hard to find” he sighs on “Mother of Pearl,” a piano-driven slow burn of a monologue on the love of his life that he’s yet to meet. It’s an absolute highlight of Stranded, Roxy Music’s 1973 album that marked the end of the Eno era and the start of the white tuxedo-wearing, castanet-clicking, unironic hawk-rearing era of theatrical Roxy. In recruiting Jobson as Eno’s successor, Ferry gained a gifted pianist for an increasing repertoire of Jay Gatsby ballads and the freedom to leave behind his own keyboard for centre stage—and take centre stage he did.

Ferry’s caricature of the lover who’d grow potatoes by the score (How’s that for mashed-potato schmaltz?) on Roxy Music’s stunning three-act drama “If There Is Something” soon became an earnest vehicle for his own quest for the Holy Grail of love. To Ferry, love is the point of man, a taste from the nectar of the gods, the very reason for wearing skinny ties at fat parties, and yes, the drug. Before Ferry, “Love Is the Drug” was purely a Mackay instrumental that seemed no more than b-side fare for their 1975 masterwork Siren. With Ferry’s savoir-faire, wordplay, and desire—not to mention a formidable performance by John Gustafson, one of Roxy’s many bassists—“Love Is the Drug” became a glamorous nightlife adventure and their biggest hit in North America.

The bump of chart success heightened Ferry’s hit-making desire. Following a hiatus, Roxy Music returned to the dancefloor with the seedy nightclub scene of Manifesto in 1979. With disco’s mirror ball shining in their eyes, Roxy completely revamped the punk pomp of “Angel Eyes” into the most ridiculous yet fantastic disco single complete with harps that could only be rented from heaven. While “Angel Eyes” was a club favorite, Roxy ultimately achieved their first and only number one in the UK with a heart-on-designer-suit-sleeve cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” in 1981. Mackay’s sax and Manzanera’s guitar solo complete the moving Beatle tribute, so it’s a shame that Ferry reduced their roles in Roxy to bit players by their final album.

Roxy fully embraced the vanity of music videos from “Angel Eyes” onwards, parade after parade of models, cocktails, and suits all centered on Ferry. “More Than This” is the epitome of what Roxy Music became under Ferry’s increasingly singular focus on torch songs, Ferry swaying in the spotlight surrounded by fire as his bandmates remain in the dark. With a guitar intro like a soft bell beckoning the night’s final slow dance, the well-crafted lead single from Avalon in 1982 reads like a swan song: “It was fun for a while / There was no way of knowing / Like dream in the night / Who can say where we're going” Ferry swoons over gentle synths. “More Than This” is a favorite title of Roxy Music docs and comps as if to say Roxy are more than their aesthetic on the surface, more than their lack of chart domination or North American adoration, yearning to have something greater.

Playlist: “If There Is Something” / “Bitters End” / “Beauty Queen” / “Mother of Pearl” / “A Really Good Time” / “Love Is the Drug” / “End of the Line” / ”Angel Eyes (7” Single)” / “Still Falls the Rain” / “Oh Yeah!” / “Jealous Guy” / “More Than This”

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So you wanna get into: New Wave Roxy Music?

As much as the opening synth wash of “Both Ends Burning” on Siren is the dawn of new wave Roxy Music, the song also reveals the exhaustion that spelled the beginning of their end. Still longing for commercial adoration upon their fifth album, Roxy set off on an international tour schedule in 1975 that Ferry recalls as “punishing.” With little air to breathe, Roxy went on hiatus until 1978, regrouping under the weight of pressure to break in North America that coloured the sound of their final three albums. The kooky stop-start rhythm of Manifesto’s lead single “Trash” in 1979 may not have yielded a hit, but as journalist Tim de Lisle notes in More Than This: The Story of Roxy Music, something greater happened: it became an anthem at the London club Blitz, the centre of the New Romantic movement where Roxy fans from Duran Duran to The Human League turned into lipstick stars in their own right.

Flesh and Blood in 1980 allowed Roxy Music to successfully cross over from 70s glam into 80s opulence. Hints of new wave on Manifesto tracks like “Trash” bled into full-blown synth magnum opuses from the urgent thrill of “Same Old Scene” to the comedown of its title track. Rather than homage, the sound of “Same Old Scene” is haunting, cold drum machine and unrelenting synthesizer beating as Ferry struggles to escape the memories of his once-romanticized past. Built up with a rhythm box, “Over You” continues his lament on a troubled relationship—perhaps with the band as much as women. Ferry’s hard pivot to sophisti-pop alienated longtime drummer Paul Thompson, leaving the band at the turn of the decade.

The first line on Avalon’s title track is telling: “Now the party’s over / I’m so tired.” More than an exhausted band’s final record, however, Avalon is a cohesive triumph, new wave’s Mona Lisa, a decadent yet intimate soundscape that advanced the art of album production. Avalon is the legendary island where King Arthur is sent to recover from his battle wounds and the 1982 album sharing its name will heal and transport you as well, a world with an enduring soft glow painted by a cast of session players in addition to Ferry, Mackay, and Manzanera. Haitian singer Yanick Etienne delivers its holiest moment, calling over the island like a siren. You can feel Avalon’s warmth with every synth swell, every guitar lick, every sax luring you to the beach, every chime in the breeze. Bathe in its light.

Playlist: “Both Ends Burning” / “Trash” / “Ain’t That So” / “My Little Girl” / “Same Old Scene” / “Flesh and Blood” / “Over You” / “The Space Between” / “Avalon” / “True to Life”

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Jill Krajewski loves all Bryans/Brians equally. Follow her on Twitter.