Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Immortals: #98 - Roxy Music

It would be a different story if they gave Brian Eno his due.

Standards like “Do the Strand” and “Ladytron” posit Roxy Music's first records as sort of art-rock’s answer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: campy, but endearing, and plenty enough fun on a Saturday night. But really, nobody’s naming a Tim Curry and Meat Loaf joint as world-realigning stuff (except, I guess, maybe Barry Bostwick.) Were we to evaluate Roxy’s output in the context of how Brian Eno twisted our conventions of pop music in the 1970s we could more readily forgive the missteps. But no, Roxy Music was always first and foremost Bryan Ferry’s band, and, divested of the awesome kinds of weirdness that Eno wrung from otherwise straightforward rockers like “Virginia Plain” there are simply too few glimpses of brilliance to justify the accolades that the post-Eno catalogue have accrued.

Case in point: The consensus pick for “Best” (TM) Roxy Music album, Country Life.

For being touted as a glam rock touchstone, there seems to be little here that isn’t a mere approximation of the hallowed heroes of Ferry’s time. The Eurotrash melodrama of “Bitter-Sweet” is better realized on Lou’s Berlin. The un-tethered guitar and sax soloing imitates the avant squall of Iggy’s Stooges. And let’s face it- just about everything else Ferry attempts are half-rate Bowie impersonations that find only varying levels of success. The halcyon days of the Big Three still dominate any conversation as to what this music was supposed to sound like in the early 70s.

...which is not all to say that Roxy Music is totally undeserving of a measure of their success. Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera are actually very decent sidekicks, and their contributions largely keep Country Life from slipping out of memory altogether. Ferry has his moments too. Standout “A Really Good Time” is carried by a tidy melody and features lyrical phrasing that recalls Blonde on Blonde era Dylan. And not even the extraneous production effects on “Prairie Rose” can conceal the very best of Ferry’s vocal hooks.

But I’ve always suspected that Roxy Music’s greatest achievement was, above all else, being a band elevated by a personal aesthetic of more enduring significance than anything found in their music. See, Roxy Music made for substandard glam because they actually never were glam in the first place. Glam found danger in subverting concepts of gender and expectation and flirting with marginalized sexualities associated with drug freaks and street people. The music made sense, all jagged and ripped and fucked up interpretations of these glitter and garbage people who populated the decaying urban centers of the cultural world. Bryan Ferry didn’t belong there. His penchant for mugging and proggy, soft rock tendencies instead prophesized New Romantic (even so long before Punk begat New Wave.) He predicted a sub-genre of a sub-genre that is only distinguishable from its antecedents by... uhm... face stripes? Johnny Rotten should have hated Roxy Music every bit as much as the “over-the-top grandiose” sound of every other band in that incestuous scene.

In fact, Roxy’s supposedly profound effect on the early punk rock remains sonically nonexistent, and is more than likely a reinterpretation of the long-held love kids like Lil’ Lydon had for an icon to adolescents in the Isles. That Ferry was once a role model for countless young English punks surely wasn’t because he was almost the singer for King Crimson, but because he literally played the role of a model. The tuxedo fetish, the recurring cover-supermodels, the arty edges smoothed out by an oil-slick croon- this was James Bond… in a band! I have to imagine that this is exactly what teenaged British boys considered the objective and penultimate definition of “cool.”

And why not? I mean, the man really does wear the fucking hell out of a suit (just ask a member of Duran Duran!) But the fact remains that Roxy Music is perhaps the ultimate case of image validating a legacy after the fact, and the notion of this version of the band having that much influence, even if argued sincerely, is still not accurate. Roxy Music were no more key to the advancement of rock and roll than Tim Curry was to the sexual revolution. That Bryan Ferry is celebrated by so many reveals how revisionist we are in our appraisals of the things we just kind of seem to like, even in spite of our claims to taste.

Country Life by Roxy Music

1 comment:

josh simpson said...

i don't think you're listening very closely enough to early post-Eno Roxy albums. songs - and performances - like Psalm, Mother of Pearl and Sunset from Stranded don't come around very often, and prove that at least for a time that the Ferry-Manzanera-McKay core was capable of creating totally original, consummately musical art. the lyrics are kindof cheesy, but the delivery is great.