Rock Of Ages By Michael Dwyer - Fri 10th Aug

Rock Of Ages By Michael Dwyer
10 August 2001

Roxy of ages

Friday 10 August 2001
It was mid-1977, Bryan Ferry remembers, when he met John Lennon for the first and last time. The moonlighting Roxy Music singer was in Tokyo on his way home from Australia, one of many countries where Let's Stick Together had made him a solo star. The hit song, album and trail-blazing video were made during one of Ferry's frequent sabbaticals from his six-year-old band. That year, the year punk broke, he feared they may have done their dash. He would be proved wrong soon enough.
"This guy came bounding across the lobby to say hello," Ferry recalls of the chance meeting. "I thought it was a fan, you know, and it was John Lennon. He was very pleasant, and it was a shame we didn't spend any more time together. I've always been very fond of his music, and I think he might have liked the version we did."
He would certainly have liked the royalties. Four years later, Lennon would be dead and Roxy Music, on the verge of vast international success with their final LP, Avalon, would have their biggest hit with a song inspired by his passing.
Their cover of Jealous Guy remains the tune by which Roxy Music are most readily identified: a lush, sophisticated, synthesiser-drenched MOR ballad with all the edginess and innovation of an FM radio playlist - where it resides in good health to this day.
But the London group's lounge-suit and schmaltz era tells only a fraction of one of rock's most extraordinary tales. Remaining for the 2001 world tour is the core trio of Ferry, saxophonist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera. But if there's a musical thread between their silky swan-song and their origins at the glittering frontline of glam rock in 1971, it's the aforementioned synthesiser.
"It was a very strange instrument, the VCS3," Mackay remembers, 30 years after he dragged the primitive gadget into the mainstream. Like German contemporaries Can and Kraftwerk, Mackay was intrigued by the possibilities of placing the avant garde experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage into a rock context.
"The only previous (electronic) stuff had been done mostly in university physics and music departments, with synthesisers the size of rooms," he says. "Then came this little device that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used. It was a sort of putting together of all these noise-making twiddly things. And you could treat things through it, which we liked. You could treat the voice or the sax or the oboe.
"It was called the Putney after the place in England where it was made. It was expensive. I think it was about £350, but I thought it would be my passport to something. It worked out rather well," he adds in the understated manner peculiar to terribly English people.
Mackay introduced his friend Brian Eno to the instrument, and to Bryan Ferry. With his attention-grabbing peacock feathers and tight silver trousers, the long-haired synth player would come to an impasse with the singer after two extraordinary albums, although he would find appreciation elsewhere. Eno would go on to invent "ambient" music, pioneer the art of sampling, produce landmark collaborations with David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, and become one of the godfathers of '90s electronica.
The clash between Ferry's art-school retro style and Eno's and Mackay's futuristic streak is all over Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973). Even at the bilious height of punk, iconoclastic commentators Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill described them as "the only truly timeless rock'n'roll records ever made".
"At the time," Ferry says, "I didn't think Eno was as important as Mackay and Manzanera, but I think, looking back now, he definitely was. I do have a soft spot for those albums, and they're quite heavily featured in the show we're doing now.
"After I started with my solo career some time in '73, doing classic songs written by other people, I think that had a bit of an influence on my work. I became more interested in songwriting as opposed to record-making.
"After a while I seemed to get into a world of trying to write more conventional songs, which is why when I look back at the work of Roxy, the earlier period I'm slightly more fond of myself. Even though albums like Avalon had a certain atmospheric mood that was rather interesting, they weren't as groundbreaking."
Mackay and Manzanera continued collaborating on Eno's remarkable solo records of the 1970s, but Ferry's parallel solo career soon transcended the arty underground. Inspired covers of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes established him as one of pop's outstanding interpretive singers, more suited to white tuxedos than Ziggy Stardust hand-me-downs.
Hence Roxy's mutation, over three post-Eno albums, from glitter-eyeshadow and synth freakouts to pencil moustaches and Love is the Drug. The transition didn't come without a fight.
"I suppose the fact that I wrote the songs, or 90 per cent of them, gave me a proprietorial interest in everything," Ferry reflects. "I suppose as the other guys got older they didn't want to be bossed around too much. That's how it works, really, in groups."
"There were plenty of tensions," Mackay agrees, "but they were much more to do with how we perceived building our individual careers. They were more to do with showbiz matters like billing and who did the most interviews.
"Musically, we didn't agree all the time, but I understood that what we'd gone into was popular music. We wanted to have hit records and we wanted to combine that with as much as we could possibly cram in of our own passions and interests, and we seemed to get away with quite a lot, really."
As Ferry's solo profile and his leadership of Roxy Music blurred into one tres chic whole, the singer appeared to get away with a lot more than his partners. But while he was shaking John Lennon's hand in Tokyo, the art-rock revolution continued in London.
Phil Manzanera formed his own progressive supergroup, 801, and kept busy producing Eno, Velvet Underground alumni Nico and John Cale, and new Kiwi outfit Split Enz. Andy Mackay made solo records, had great success with his score for the TV musical Rock Follies, and wrote a book about electronic music, published in 1981.
By that time Roxy Music were well into their final studio phase, which comprised the sophisticated romanticism of Manifesto, Flesh+Blood and Avalon. The band last toured Australia early in '81, Jealous Guy now jostling for space with the vintage glam of Do the Strand and Virginia Plain. The tour continued through '83, the last the world heard from Roxy until this year's surprise reunion.
"We didn't necessarily intend to call it quits," Mackay says. "At that time I wanted to make another Roxy album, even though the touring was tough and we all had young children at the time.
"I thought we should have had one more shot at an album that would have pushed us into a different position, particularly in America. But Bryan particularly wanted to do another solo album, and I wasn't too sorry to take some time off. Then we got involved in other projects."
While Ferry continued playing the lovelorn gentleman-crooner with The Right Stuff and Slave To Love, Mackay and Manzanera made a couple of albums together in the mid-1980s. The half-Colombian guitarist wrote a single for Pink Floyd, One Slip, before settling into a prolific production career, mainly with Spanish-speaking artists.
A valued link to the glam experience, Andy Mackay was hired by the Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran spin-off Arcadia, as well as working with Japanese star Hotei and Italian singer Enrico Ruggieri. In 1988 he gave up music to study for a three-year bachelor of divinity course at King's College in London. As you do.
But the seeds of those first two Roxy albums remained good. You could hear them sprouting in the new British frontline of Suede, Pulp and Radiohead. Ferry bumping into Eno while on holiday in the Caribbean was another curious coincidence. They'd spoken only once since 1974.
"I saw him once in San Francisco," Ferry recalls. "We had a sandwich together, which I paid for, of course. Very mean, Brian. One of the richest men in show business now." The pair ended up working together on Ferry's Mamouna LP of 1994, an ultra-smooth labor of love that failed to make a great impression.
The pair were side by side again in 1998, special guests at the Cannes screening of Velvet Goldmine, US film maker Todd Haynes' homage to the enigma of glam rock. Widely misread as a biopic about David Bowie and Iggy Pop, the film drew a suitably dreamlike and decadent picture of the era that Roxy's early albums helped to define.
"Certain parts of the movie felt very authentic to me," Ferry says. "Even though I thought it was a bit of a meandering kind of film, it had some very good moments where I felt it really caught the feeling of the early '70s very well."
With REM's Michael Stipe in the producer's chair, the movie's soundtrack was an event in itself. Several original Eno and Roxy Music tunes featured, most performed by mythical house band the Venus in Furs: Suede's Bernard Butler, Grant Lee Buffalo's Paul Kimble, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, and some old guy called Andy Mackay.
"I thought it was a great thing to work on," the sax player says. "I jumped at the chance, because it seemed fun, and also the other people were a different generation of musicians, like Thom Yorke and Bernard Butler and so on. I think the album is great. Much better than the film, really."
Despite its lukewarm response, Ferry saw Velvet Goldmine as an indication of a "growing goodwill" towards his old band's back catalogue. He was further heartened by the warm response to As Time Goes By, his affectionate collection of 1930s jazz standards that was nominated for a Grammy this year after a well-received tour.
"As that tour progressed I started adding more and more Roxy songs to the show," he says. "I realised how popular these songs were with the audience, and how much I like singing my early songs as well. That's when I started thinking about another Roxy tour. I'd said no on many occasions before. It just seemed like the right time."
Not everybody's watch was synchronised. A few years back, Brian Eno admitted to Bob Geldof on London radio that his ejection from Roxy had been partly based on his success with the ladies. Indeed, rock legend has it that Eno once suffered a collapsed lung after a marathon romp with several of them. The sexual athletics caper is over, one suspects, but Eno was not invited to this party.
"Not for this tour, no, but I have been working with him fairly recently," Ferry says. "There's a song we did together for my next solo album, which is just about completed. I really like working with him, but it wouldn't have been right to have him on this tour, really. That isn't what he does any more.
"But we do have a great girl in the band called Lucy Wilkins. She was lead violin in my band last year, and she does the Brian Eno synthesiser parts and also the Eddie Jobson (from the band's 1973-76 period) violin stuff as well. She's turned into a bit of a star on the tour so far."
The 10-piece band also includes keyboard player Colin Good, former Aretha Franklin bassist Kev Katz, singer Sarah Brown and suitably glamorous young percussionist Julia Thornton. A second guitar is in the capable hands of Chris Spedding, whose uncredited role on the Sex Pistols' album has long been the source of music-biz conspiracy theories.
A bonus for Roxy purists is the return of original drummer Paul Thompson, who left the group before Avalon and has cropped up only briefly since, with US rock band Concrete Blonde.
"Paul adds a real kind of rock'n'roll heart," Mackay enthuses. "He's such a strong player and he's playing better than ever now. He's physically very strong, he's very loud; he's just a powerhouse of a drummer. So there's four of the original band members playing out of six, which is not bad going."
"The interesting thing about this tour," Ferry says, "is the technology is so much better now, so we can recreate the sound of those earlier albums much more easily than in the early days, when a lot of it was hit-and-miss.
"The buzz has been incredible each night we go on stage. It's quite something, even the festival we did in Belgium (in July). It was a predominantly young audience - 60,000 of them. That was really interesting, to see a young audience getting into the show.
"And I've never had better reviews in my life. We're still waiting for the first bad one. Everybody's been very positive towards it rather than the usual thing of, 'Oh God, why are they getting together again?'. It's been fantastic."
Asked how touring has changed since their previous visit to Australia 20 years ago, Mackay responds dryly: "We go to bed much earlier." Owing to the finite nature of the reunion, long-simmering tensions between the core members have also been avoided, the pair agree, although some wrangling over the set list was inevitable.
"I made a shortlist from all of the albums," Ferry says. "I think we've got it down to a reasonable balance between the various periods, but I'd say with an emphasis on the earlier stuff, which I really enjoy doing, because it's, I suppose, more unique.
"But so far, no blows," he says, "and let's hope it stays that way. It's always good to have a little bit of conflict - but not too much."

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