n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
The plumber arrived halfway through my second (loud) listen to “Prairie Rose.” I was abashed, as if I had answered the door in my underwear. Perhaps it was the naked chicks on the cover. Or possibly that one of the women in question, as in a couple of Roxy covers, exudes a certain mannishness despite the naughty-naughty boobies. After the plumber had left, I put the song back on and, momentarily at a loss for something to do, polished my twice-used silver hip flask. I claim no direct association between any of these events.
It could have all been so different for me, given a few years' latitude. I grew up a U2 kid: The Joshua Tree was perhaps the last contemporary rock album obtained by my parents before we moved beyond the reaches of retail music. Thus, my secondhand influences—bad haircuts worn with heart on sleeve, artsy aspirations lacquered in high gloss—were all gleaned from Eno’s second band, and it took twenty years for a revisitation.
The first real treat for the Roxy novice is the album covers, whose designer lewdness betokens either ironic camp or lecherous imperative. If there is a Roxy/U2 succession—from one doubtfully coiffed anthemic narcissist in the service of Brian Eno’s closeted rock star animus to the next—the essential differences may all be divined by a thoughtful compare-and-contrast between, say, Jerry Hall on Stranded and the boy on the cover of War. Both were perfective third album revisitations of an iconic theme (and notice the nipple-teasing clothing shortage throughout), but oh what a difference.
A naive delve into a band has the privilege and peril of inventing chronology. Without any particular direction or ideological stick, I began in the middle, with Stranded and Country Life, before attending to the later and earlier material. Cheek by jowl—and one can hear the beginnings of jowls on, say, Avalon’s sticky-pillow keyboards—the contrast between the opening salvo and the elegantly effete decline-and-fall is pointed: the smug art-house wit turns from spangled confrontation to florid prettiness before the eyes. Let us work backwards.
Had the Roxy-naif-that-was been asked, he might have posited a band too effete to hold an edge, or his attention. In his ignorance, quite likely he would have used the word frippery, possibly even kitsch and most certainly the term camp (in its pejorative incarnation).
He would not have been wrong, not entirely, not if one considers the dyad of Avalon and Heart Still Beating (the latter the only album I managed trade for, which should have told me everything I needed to know, even before it arrived with an NRA sticker affixed—advertisement or warning, one wonders). These two are the only albums to be released in my lifetime and if justification was needed for neglecting a seminal but defunct band, Heart’s inside joke will more than suffice: a hater’s knee-jerk caricature of a band enamored of its own louche sex appeal.
Every bit as dire and desperate as its title, Heart Still Beating is unimproved by an eight-year gestation between recording and release (what exactly were they waiting for? The fall of the Berlin wall?). The guitar-and-bass streak circa the title track is admirable, but that is as good as it gets. “Like a Hurricane” is putrid: excising the electrifying “Getting blown away” melodic fraction, and substituting a rump-Pink Floyd-y chorus line reveal just how low Ferry’s sights had fallen.
Duff albums are a hazard of a deliberately naive embrace of a liberal catalogue, but for the novice the real peril is killing the buzz that, absent the fanfare and momentum of new releases, is all that makes an old catalogue vital. And so to the overwhelming, overweaning early albums.
There may be no album as self-consciously and successfully kitchen-sink omnivorous as Roxy Music. The cover looks like Ferry’s oxymoronic fantasy of 1950s porn, setting an agenda of psychoanalytic muck-grubbing as scintillating as it is sordid. “Virginia Plain” sounds as slight and revealing as a lost Queen B-side with Freddy’s mother at the mic. “Re-make/Re-model” feels compelled to reveal the Beatle at the heart of Wagner, and the converse; unearthing the “Daytripper” snippet is like losing sight of your only ally at an unsupportably cool house party.
And how is one supposed to respond to “If There Is Something,” which sounds above all like an elegently extended middle finger: for the first couple of minutes so knowing as to be hopelesslly dull; then an oboe ostinato, followed by Ferry at his most feral and a choir of cursorily English accented Eno's. Speaking of whom, I do love how “2 H.B.” is so abundantly Eno-esque, like an Edge riff scoring a 1970s dream sequence. “Sea Breezes,” like much of the debut, I find discomfiting in a way that almost certainly indicates quality, but will take far longer acquaintance to confirm. Or it may be forgotten, avoided in company, neglected. Such is the risk of difficulty.
To my relief, For Your Pleasure is altogether more potent, or at least coherent, and marks the true unveiling of Ferry’s gift for melismatic melodies of mincing marvel, via that goddam vibrato, as artful, pointed and shivering as a fencing foil.
I like a lot of the first albums—most especially the Cure-ative “In Every Dream Home A Heartbreak” (for the title not least)—but both albums feel like the work of a different band from the one I now think of as “Roxy Music.” The bat-shit dub on “The Bogus Man” is genius—I’d take it over much of Sandinista!—but it is not (yet) the work of a band for which I would have suffered exigetic rigors of evangelism. Imprinting has done its work: for me, it seems, the real Roxy are, and may forever be, Stranded and Country Life, the sweet spot between the burned-out glam that manned the barricades of punk, and the oily, opalescent eighties-begging sheen that only Brian Eno knew how to enliven.
Here is the trouble: by the time I have reverted to the Eno-era Roxy, all I want, impossibly, is another pass at “Psalm.”
If Manifesto is closest to what I had (anxiously, gloomily) expected—Zooropa sung by David Byrne, pancake makeup with Eno’s fingerprints all over it, declining toward the turgid overwrought/undertoothed gumph of Heart Still Beating —and Roxy Music is what I had feared—cerebral, confrontational, self-referential art-house—then Stranded is what I had (secretly, unwittingly) hoped for.
Where Country Life is overstuffed and breathless, a torrid rant posing as love affair, Stranded has the grace of an affair run its course, the eye wandering, every pang a joy. Ferry’s odd instrument is whittled thin as a clarinet reed, a denotation of incipient panic narrowly kept at bay. His twitching is a completely different beast from the classic operatic demonstration of vigor, this perpetual fluttering of heart, indecision of note and melody, bespeaking a greater spiritual misgiving. In its inadvertent, oblique melodies it reminds me of Jerry DeCicca’s work with the Black Swans, another onanist’s band.
Unlike the later albums, the middle period is also much less camp than I expected; Ferry is positively butch on “Casanova”—from whence my belief to the contrary? Well, possibly “Prairie Rose” (and what an odd note to end on!) or the conjuring of Courtney Love, no less fey than the factually accurate (and equally coy) “courtly love.”
But the real killer—the song that will stay with me, that will show up on mixes for friends months from now, is “Psalm.” It is perhaps inevitable that it be Ferry’s tongue in cheek turn to God that distils the crucial essence of Roxy’s overdetermined jambalaya of influential kitsch. Ferry yields to transports of irony so profound that the distinction between the dispiriting and ecstasy vanishes, collapsing spoof into sublime, parody into credo. It is damn near divine.