The Times - Sat 12th Jul

The Times
12 July 2003

The art of pop

They were amazing, preposterous, glam-rock artists who invented the pop future. For your pleasure ladies and gentlemen, Stephen Dalton welcomes back Roxy Music

Roxy Music reigned supreme over their drab Britrock peers 30 years ago. Fusing fast-forward futurist flash with retro rocker cool, Roxy alchemised plain old pop into ultra-stylised Pop Art. Brian Ferry was their pin-up frontman, a self-styled “orchid born on a coal tip” from a Newcastle council house, obsessed with the airbrushed glamour fantasies of a bygone age.
But “non musician” Brian Eno was their avant-garde engine room, a kohl-eyed dandy from Suffolk with artistic ambitions far too big for one band. Even a group as thrilling and majestically bizarre as Roxy. Nobody preened and pranced through Top of the Pops like these alien androgynous peacocks. Eyes half closed in romantic intoxication, fringe roguishly tousled, Ferry delivered his louche bulletins from bohemia in the edgy, dissonant bark of a man with ice cubes down his underpants. Initially standing at the edge of the stage out of shyness, the singer belted out half-sneered, half-crooned hymns to imaginary dance crazes and impossibly glamorous parties. Meanwhile, Eno burbled and tinkered subversively beneath feather boas and glitter make-up. They were amazing. They were preposterous. They could not possibly last.

The first three Roxy albums were rule-breaking classics, marking an evolutionary shift in pop’s vocabulary and scope. Crucially, Roxy highlighted the art school tendency that has long been a crucial component of British pop, but never more so than in the early Seventies heyday of glam rock. Like David Bowie, their chief rival among clued-in sixth-form tribes of the time, Roxy hijacked ideas from painting, cinema, literature and theatre. But unlike Bowie, Ferry actually studied art at Newcastle University under the Pop Art guru Richard Hamilton. Roxy’s supercharged glam anthems, like their creators, were pure Pop Art.

After a power struggle with Ferry, Eno left Roxy in 1973 for a long and fruitful career as a producer, composer and semi-detached ideas-man to supergroups such as U2. Ferry was free to move centre stage, literally and metaphorically. His voice softened, his manner mellowed, his bespoke Anthony Price suits became more conservative. He began wearing tuxedos, the last refuge of the sartorial scoundrel. Freed from Eno’s experimental agenda, Roxy Music became the haute couture band of the late Seventies, even down to Ferry’s serial relationships with catwalk models. But he was devastated when Jerry Hall, the teenage cover star of Roxy’s 1975 album Siren, left him for Mick Jagger while Roxy were away on tour. Hall later compared the singer, unflatteringly, to a lampshade. Then again, maybe she couldn’t face life as Jerry Ferry.

As the Eighties dawned, Roxy passed the torch to second-generation imitators such as Human League, Japan and Duran Duran. By the time he made Avalon in 1982, Ferry was surrounded by slick session players. The arty, angular avant-pop of Roxy’s explosive early years was reborn as smooth, supple, impeccably groomed MOR that sat all too neatly alongside Simply Red and Spandau Ballet. The shock of the new gave way to stifling good taste, the enemy of all great art. Even so, Avalon became Roxy’s biggest commercial success and, for all its dampened spark, it remains something of a lounge-soul classic. On the eve of its 21st anniversary reissue, the album’s manicured melancholy and fin-de-siècle ennui still sounds quietly devastating after a cocktail or two. Avalon also proved to be Roxy’s swansong. They disbanded soon afterwards as Ferry devoted himself to family life with his new wife, Lucy Helmore. No longer an ironic pose or arty affectation, his transformation into the Jay Gatsby of rock was finally complete.

And there the story stood until two years ago, when a surprise Roxy Music reunion filled halls across the country. Eno declined to take part, but he and Ferry have finally become reconciled and even collaborated again on the singer’s 2002 solo album Frantic.

In 2003 Ferry remains rock’s ageless lounge lizard, a prisoner of his immaculately tailored image and pleasantly forgettable solo albums. But the velvet goldmine of their legacy lives on — in the supercharged grandeur of Suede, in the sci-fi lullabies of vintage Blur, and in the art-school archness of Pulp. It is there, too, in the aching nostalgia for the future of Ladytron, named after an early Roxy tune, and the sleek mirrorball shimmer of Moloko, who replicated a classic Roxy TV appearance for the video to their Pure Pleasure Seeker single. Roxy Music invented the pop future, grew jaded with their own polished narcissism, and moved on. As we loosen our bow ties and dance away the heartache, respect is due. Avalon is available to buy on EMI now

CV: Roxy Music

Who Bryan Ferry (vocals), Brian Eno (synthesizers and conceptual gubbins), Phil Manzanera (guitars), Andy Mackay (saxophone and oboe), Paul Thompson (drums)

When Formed at the dawn of the Seventies, dissolved in 1982. Currently enjoying an on-off, Eno-free reunion

Best Their first three albums, Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, and the post-Eno Street Life, still sound shockingly good. But Avalon sounds smoother than a silk Savile Row suit

Turning point Eno leaving in 1973, claiming that he found himself “thinking about laundry” on stage

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