For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s

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Virginia Plain – Part 1

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Virginia Plain (1972)
Virginia Plain (Peel Session, July, 1972)
Virginia Plain (Top of the Pops, August 1972)

When David Bowie held a Ziggy Stardust press conference at the Dorchester Hotel late summer 1972, the only record he allowed to be played other than his own was Virginia Plain. While this may be urban myth – Bowie was notoriously competitive – it does signal the weight the new Roxy Machine was harnessing after the release of Roxy Music in June 1972. NME raved: “Altogether this is the finest album I’ve heard this year, and the best first I can EVER remember”. “Roxy Music are destined to save the world,” said Melody Maker‘s Richard Williams with only little understatement;  “This band will be a monster,” said Disc, and so it goes. The band performed over 70 concerts in the second half of 1972 – and this pace only accelerated with the release of the single ‘Virginia Plain’ and the band’s first appearance on Top of the Pops in August.


The previous two years hard work had handsomely paid off: the album was an instant hit and the band were looking to extend their success with accelerated touring. In the interim, Roxy Music co-founder and bass player Graham Simpson had become withdrawn and difficult to work with, and at an important Sounds of the Seventies show (a “big deal” for the band) Graham would not, or could not, play a note. He departed Roxy after recording the album, and was replaced by Rik Kenton who picked up the 4-string, toured with the band and recorded ‘Virginia Plain’ at Command studios several months later. Another early Roxy casualty was Brian Eno: although a committed group member, he developed a dislike for touring and the rock routine, for poor sound environments and questionable blunders by management (trying to crack the US market). Though still enjoying the attention (and girls), Eno would leave Roxy less than a year later and never tour with a band (or virtually anyone else) again for the rest of his career.

Yet during the Glam Summer of 1972 (Bolan, Bowie, and Roxy), with new bass player Rik Kenton on-board, the creative and artistic opportunities for delivering exciting pop-art product were there for the taking. The trendsetting Roxy Music had made its point about glam, style, kitsch, art and pop culture (and saving the world) and now was the time to capitalize on those wins with a cross-over into a truly massive pop art audience  – the Great British Public, a good quarter of the population, 15 million viewers, of whom watched Top of the Pops each week.

We had just released the first Roxy Music album and the record company (Island Records) seemed as surprised as we were by its amazing instant success.

Their only problem was that there was no single there – so they asked me if I had any other songs knocking about. I did have an unfinished song lying around called Virginia Plain, which we quickly recorded at command studios in Piccadilly and this seemed to do the trick. I vividly remember our roadie driving up and down Piccadilly outside the studio as we tried to record the sound of his motorbike.

The song itself was based on a painting I had done a few years before while I was an art student at Newcastle University. I was interested in stream of consciousness writing, and since the songs on the first album hadn’t been very wordy, I felt it was time for a bit of verbal dexterity.

I suppose nowadays any song with this title would be banned.

-BF, commentary, 2009

In the modernist, Joycean sense, what Ferry created wasn’t stream-of-consciousness, but a structured and punning coherence aimed at the gut and the head. The story he tells (sells) us is a picture of his pre-fame self, alone in his room,  imagining a life beyond Newcastle, a life of American cars and girls, travel and sex, stardom and glamour: So me and you, just we two/Got to reach for something new..
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The Roxy Music invitation is a invitation to enjoy the good life, to inherit (hopefully without too much effort) the gift of youth and good art and great conversation with everyone who inhabits this interesting and exciting club. Pretty exclusive, true, but if you play your cards right (and buy the album) the group promise to take you with them for the ride. That is one of the best invitations going in rock music: better than a coked-up weekend with Oasis, better than a front row seat at a private Radiohead concert. With ‘Virginia Plain’, the band kick in with energy and service the lyrical dexterity with spirited musical performances that are both catchy and unique: whispering intro; sand-blast opening (Make me a deal); sans chorus, sans hook; a parakeet pretending to be an oboe; ray-guns; motorcycles. Just kidding about the ray-guns.screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-12-18-02-pmCatchy yes, and stylish as hell. The performance on Top of the Pops is career-defining, as was Bowie’s a month before with ‘Starman’ and his boys keep swinging moment. Both appearances coming so close together it was like a coordinated art happening, and it worked, launching the thinking man’s Glam, leaving Mud, Sweet, Slade, and the rest of the Nicky Chinn/Mike Chapman stable looking for new sound gimmicks. (The Glitter Band’s zoot suit sax was pretty nifty tho). Considering the nerves and inexperience of the band, Ferry’s performance is absolutely masterful, steering the group with his stilted sneer and his pop-art poem, he rips into the first verse without flinching and delivers a Glam Manifesto.

Was there ever a hit single with an oboe in it? I don’t know. But I think the feeling was there should be. No other band at the time seemed to have one.

-Phil Manzanera, to Mick Wall, 2014

Part 2 Next Week

Credits: “Baby” Jane Holzer photographed by David Bailey, capture Alfredo Garcia; breaking Roxy in America poster, Reprise Records; Virginia Plain single cover, Netherlands; clockwise, BF TOTP, Command Studios building exterior (today), Virginia Plain single cover, UK; inspirational cigarette package, Virginia Plains; Bryan Ferry original painting, capture Brian Eno twitter; clockwise, Richard Hamilton, Fashion Plate, The Tate Gallery, 69-70; Brian Eno mask; Phil Manzanera mask; below – Bowie, Diamond Dogs; photo Jimmy King.

Titbits

Bowie’s all over this one as it’s more or less the one year anniversary of his death. The Bowie and Roxy story are inexorably linked; in style, approach, mannerisms, background, ambition. You feel him right at the beginning, at The Dorchester Hotel with the press allowing only ‘Virginia Plain’ to interrupt his looping Ziggy Stardust. Fat chance. He actually also puts on the newly recorded Mott the Hoople album for Charles Shaar Murray, and Lou Reed comes over as Mott’s version of ‘Sweet Jane’ wraps (“the best Mott I’ve heard” says Murray). This is the afternoon of Bowie’s three costume changes (he’s meeting the press silly); of tough-nut Lou Reed straight in from the streets of New York, recording Transformer with Bowie; of little mad-dog Iggy Pop swinging between them both, wearing a T-Rex tee-shirt and grinning as Mick Rock takes the snaps. There he is again, a mirror reflection, back at you and upside down, for as Ferry reaches upwards, So me and you, just we two/Got to reach for something new,  Bowie does the opposite  –  We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands. Both are images of city love, Romantic love, hopeful yet corrupt.

And there he is again, final photographs taken by a friend, looking snappy and free, and happy.  RIP DB.

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Bitters End

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The hybrid of styles and musical backgrounds of the band members created a blend of music that was like nothing that had gone before in music. This made a huge impact on the music scene in 1972 and is seen as one of the most exciting and innovative debut albums ever.
– John O’Brien, archivist/author (vivaroxymusic)

Roxy Music was recorded at Command Studios, a refurbished studio formerly owned by the BBC (Piccadilly 1) in central London. Command lasted for only a few years and was beset by management rows and technical troubles (the train noise from the Piccadilly tube would spill into recordings). Nevertheless even though the studio didn’t last long, in its short span it was responsible for capturing some killer sessions: Brian Eno’s  No Pussyfooting; King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongue in Aspic; and Slade Alive! (don’t laugh, Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler set up a Slade fan club concert in Command’s large studio that by all accounts was riotous.  The subsequent album launched Slade’s commercial career – three singles went straight in at No 1, one of them selling half-a-million copies in its first week). Command Studios also gave us, of course, the debut Roxy Music album.

Roxy Music was recorded and mixed in less than a month for a modest sum (£5,000). Peter Sinfield’s production of the album has been criticized over the years, and while there is no doubt that the thin sound and high-pitch tremolo of Bryan Ferry’s vocals do take some getting used to, it is the context and circumstance that serves to define the sound of the first album. The producer and the studio were not a fault – Sinfield did record Virginia Plain a few months later at Command Studios, and no way can anyone say that classic single does not jump out of the speakers! The issue, if any, is the fact that the mandate for the first Roxy Music album was to be different, to try different styles and moods, to upset or stretch expectations about what pop could do. And this meant sounding different, and getting under the skin with something we hadn’t heard before.screen-shot-2016-05-08-at-7-39-02-pm
The first record was really exciting to make, because it had so many different flavours.
– Bryan Ferry, interview, Bracewell

Bitters End is the last cut on a musically diverse album. The lyrics are largely throwaway, though of course Pale fountains fizzing forth pink gin is a direct sign-post to the pink colour-assortment of the (soon-to-be) famous album cover. The image of decadent luxury, and old Brit cultural snobbery is embedded in the song, rife with doo-wop singers, a quivering Noel Coward vocal delivery, and some nifty sax. It’s a tuneful song, highly listenable with a subject matter and lightness close to The Beatles ‘Savoy Truffle (Creme tangerine and montelimar/A ginger sling with a pineapple heart). The party laughter and clinking of drink glasses that opens the album has its closer here, and with a wink and a nod Ferry summarizes the completion of the album – a celebration for the band – and its delivery, perhaps, to the unsuspecting record company:

Give now the host his claret cup
(the host of this party, Island Records owner Chris Blackwell)

And watch madeira’s farewell drink
(British cocktail: In a 2-oz. sherry glass, stir madeira with bitters and Campari. Serve)

Note his reaction acid sharp
(host’s unfavourable reaction to the album’s diverse contents)

Should make the cognoscenti think
(the intelligensia or ‘smart’ people to whom the record’s stylistic and lyrical pastiches and irony was aimed).

The record did appeal to the cognoscenti, and many more listeners besides: an immediate critical and commercial hit (16 weeks in the UK charts, with a high of #10). Roxy Music launched the careers of the band and its members, and influenced countless others, divided critics created who debated whether Roxy were a “real” band or just a bunch of art students taking the piss. The first single Virginia Plain would cement the band’s success and demonstrate that the group were more than just a gimmick. The following album, For Your Pleasure would deliver the first masterpiece.

Much happiness and health to you and yours – see you again in 2017!

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Recorded: Command Studios, London, March 1972
Pics: Roxy Music album art, John O’Brien (http://www.vivaroxymusic.com/albums_1.php); Roxy Music publicity shot (www.bryanferry.com/roxy-music-history-tab/#history); Command studios (www.gearslutz.com/board/so-much-gear-so-little-time/346235-1972-command-studios-piccadilly-england-what-gear.html); David Enthoven (www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/12/david-enthoven-obituary)

In Memory

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David Enthoven (1944 – 2016), former co-manager, Roxy Music

Roxy Music were not to everybody’s taste…they were taking good, straight forward songs and treating them, and doing something quite madly avant-garde with them…It was “fun” music…so fresh and new.

David, interview, Bracewell

Graham Simpson (1943-2012), Roxy Music co-founder and bass player

Roxy Music were not so much a hybrid of musicians with different influences but were independent musicians with their own individual voice that work well together

Graham, interview, bryanferry.com

Graham Simpson was a founding member of Roxy Music with Bryan Ferry, and was an excellent bass player and contributed much to the first Roxy album (listen particularly to the amazing bass work in Sea Breezes). In 1972, Graham lost his mother to cancer and he was depressed. The life-style and pressure of being a member of an up-and-coming band did not alleviate his increasing mental health problems, and unfortunately, Graham had to leave the band in April 1972, after the first album and his wonderful contributions were recorded.

The Bryan Ferry website has an excellent page dedicated to Graham. (http://www.bryanferry.com/graham-simpson-1943-2012).  Please visit as often as you can, and be sure to check out the excellent short film called Nothing But The Magnificent which explored the disappearance, re-emergence and ultimate path to redemption of Graham Simpson.

 

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Sea Breezes – Part 2

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so help me, so many questions? & are the answers naked to the eye – or ear? or are they undercover?
Simon Puxley, Roxy Music inner sleeve notes (72)

The first Roxy album asks questions, and offers answers grudgingly, undercover often, and for the ear mostly. The 2nd half of Sea Breezes makes an abrupt break with the tone and mood of the music that came before it. What is cool and interesting is that the objectivity of the piece shifts to a mind mediating on what that experience is. Breaking down the track we can read it as follows:

Waves (0.1-0.37)
Eno sets the scene with a mellotron seascape (It’s the first thing anyone does when they get a synthesizer, makes the sound of waves with it – BE). For him, the instrument is a pun, a fake form of emotional rendering. This is our first entry into the song.

Been Thinking (0.38-2.07)
We’ve been running round in our present state
Hoping help would come from above
But even angels there
Made the same mistakes in love
In love, in love, in love

The young Romantic poet takes to the beaches to console himself, offering up his suffering (his sensitivity) as a work of art in its own right. The North East England coast has never been so rain swept beautiful and, lest we forget, alone. This loss and loneliness is augmented by a stunning oboe accompaniment by Andy Mackay that later bleeds cross-purpose into Phil Manzanera’s guitar. Musically, the first verses are in the key of B minor, with shifts to A, G, and Em throughout. The harmonic characteristic of Bm is often expressed as one of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation. There can be hardly a more accurate summary of the narrator’s stance in the first verses: terribly affected, awaiting divine judgement, the distant speaker eventually drifting away, drowned in love in love in love. 

Echoes (2.05 – 3.32)
A tiny chime bell at 2.05 signals the start of an understated instrumental section, the kind of unfolding that, like the Pink Floyd at their best (Meddle, 1971) allows the music to grow from minimal information, taking the time to explore little sonic clusters and ideas. Andy Mackay plays the verse melody with a gentle line as Bryan Ferry’s electric piano carefully plucks the verse notes. Phil Manzanera’s guitar lines provide a mournful counterpoint, a sadness washed up on the tide of Eno’s mellotron seascape. This is a Roxy moment of extreme beauty and sublime interaction between the musicians that, for many fans, has never been bettered. The instrumental dissolves at 2.49, and then re-starts, mocking the anticipation of an ending. This time Mackay contributes more complex and uplifting lines. Manzanera says goodbye on a sustained root note, and then there is an abrupt change – like a windy slap in the face.

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Sea Breezes (3.33-6.12)
With as little as a few piano notes to warn us, we are thrown into a very discordant, abrupt rhythm. In come two key musicians that have been waiting on the sidelines: drummer Paul Thompson and bassist Graham Simpson. Paul’s drumming is avant garde jazz splutter, and Graham’s hesitant halting bass is as discordant as Bryan Ferry’s choke-on-an-apple vocal delivery. What happened to the lush musical landscape? Now that we are lonely/Life seems to get hard. Indeed, the life message here is delivered like a bracing wind and, just as a sea breeze brings in cold air from the ocean, the impact on the music is unequivocal, like a Samuel Beckett play where language, pace, rhythm, and delivery turn into something colder and self-analyzing:

Thought-train set in motion
Wheels in and around
Express our emotion
Tracks up then it cracks down, down, down, down, down

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The internalization of thought is explicitly summoned here, tongue in cheek perhaps (motion is the key to this stanza: train/wheels/express/tracks) yet serious about what the experience of thought or thinking feels like. If the process of thought is captured as the movement of (fake) seashore waves, then a burst of cold insight comes like a punch to the gut: the narrator recognizes that to express our emotion with sensitivity and feeling is poetically admirable (Tracks up) but the down side is vulnerability and, in this case, depression or melancholia (Then it cracks down, down, down, down, down). The whole temper of the track shifts, and a gnarly solo from Phil confirms the bad tempered nature of this cold wind. We have moved, musically, from the divine calm waiting in the key of B minor to the sudden shift coming ashore in the form of D flat major. As musicologist Christian Schubart points out: [Db is] a leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying. Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.

Help from Above (6.13-7.05)
This view offers up our narrator’s fate: from a patient, calm poet awaiting divine judgement (along with the angels, presumably), to a leering breakdown of a man degenerating into grief and rapture, marveling at his cleverness and way with language, exposed and raw, the endless torment of the suffering creative artist. Bryan Ferry and the band have fun with this one and the outcome is as hollow as Eno’s counterfeit mellotron waves: the singer re-states the original verses and theme (Hoping help would come from above), but no knowledge has been gained. This sea breeze has passed.

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Recorded: Command Studios, London, March 1972
Pics: Sea Breeze pinball,
homemade; Roxy Music (72)http://www.bryanferry.com/roxy-music-history-tab/#history; First Edition Waiting for Godot, Samuel Becket; all aboard for Whitley Bay, British Railways.

Titbits

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Susan Janet Ballion (ne. Siouxsie Sioux) was such a fan of Roxy Music that she named her band Siouxsie and the Banshees after Bryan Ferry’s formative pre-Roxy group the Banshees. Siouxsie has always worn her influences on her sleeve and in 1987 recorded an album of covers that included the Roxy Music track Sea Breezes. Though the Looking Glass tackles an excellent set of artists (John Cale, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, the Beatles) with exciting and mixed results in equal measure (though a UK top 3 hit was enjoyed with “Dear Prudence”). Looking Glass came at the tail end of a remarkable set of post-punk albums (Juju in particular still sounding fresh and accomplished), and Siouxsie herself can be seen on the Roxy Music documentary More Than This espousing her hatred of the suburbs and her love of the glamour of Roxy. Yeah!

Her Dark Materials: great interview with Siouxsie chatting with Roxy Music biographer Michael Bracewell.

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Meddle, Pink Floyd (1971). While worlds apart, both Roxy Music and Pink Floyd were similar in that they never threw away a single idea, squeezing a piece of music until it spilled its truths and thrills. The instrumental at the heart of Sea Breezes has its antecedents in King Crimson and pre-Dark Side Floyd. Noticeably, Phil Manzanera and David Gilmour share common styles (clean tone and precise, bluesy lines). Manzanera has of course played a significant role in the latter day Floyd canon – co-producing several David Gilmour solo albums, and having significant input into the last (dreadful) Floyd album Endless River. Friends since pre-Roxy days, the pair have contributed some of the most tasteful guitar playing in rock. Echoes is essential, and never mind the stuff about the albatross.

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Sea Breezes – Part 1

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Sea Breezes
Sea Breezes (John Peel Session)

Coming quickly after the Rock n’ Roll genre piece Would You Believe? Roxy Music deliver one of the album’s stand-out tracks, Sea Breezes. Recorded mid-way through the 2nd and final week of recording at Command Studios, the track delivers as a real group effort, highlighting not only Bryan Ferry’s exquisite melody and lyrics, but also the genuine musical sophistication and interplay of Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera as they shine in solo instrumentation passages, adding much-needed emotional texture to this unique and satisfying song.

I’ve been thinking now for a long time
How to go my own separate way
It’s a shame to think about yesterday
It’s a shame
A shame, a shame, a shame

We’ve been running round in our present state
Hoping help would come from above
But even angels there
Made the same mistakes in love
In love, in love, in love

Thematically, ‘Sea Breezes’ finds us on familiar ground as the narrator ponders the difficulties of love. The tone is lofty and elevated, the words used to express love are not spoken in a manner that would suggest maturity or emotional availability: for this chap, the end of love’s promise is merely a shame. In Roxy Music, love is always spelled with a capital L and is never mocked or undercut, unless purposely so (Would You Believe?). In this game the stakes are high, as love takes on a religious or artistic idealism which forms viewpoints, morals, and spiritual destinies. But what happens when love is not seen as a force of nature, a deep and lasting kinship with another person, but rather as a solipsistic way to marvel at your facility for cleverness and moral detachment? In lighter moments you might say, fine, I’ll take it, but in all likelihood that path is lonely and unsatisfying:

Now that we are lonely
Life seems to get hard
Alone what a word lonely
Alone it makes me cry

The focus on alone is so acute that the mere utterance of the word “lonely” wracks the narrator: Alone what a word lonely/Alone it makes me cry. What makes the narrator cry is not the prospect of lost love or companionship, but word choice. We’ve been here before on the album – the love object in Re-Make/Re-Model is a (witty) recollection of the license plate CPL593H, not the woman herself Throughout the ages it has been the job of the poet to discuss love, loss and loneliness with words that convey significant meaning, but that effort has meant different things over time, from Classicist ideals, to Romantic, Modernist, and Post-Modernist (and many more besides). In ‘Sea Breezes’ Bryan Ferry assumes the cloak of narratorial disguise enjoyed by the Romantic poets, in this case most associated with Lord Byron (George ‘Goodtime’ Gordon), a man who, in the words of one biographer, created an immensely popular Romantic hero — defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt — for which, to many, he seemed the model. This is the narrator hero of ‘Sea Breezes’- defiant, melancholy, and guilty enough to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. This is Love as solipsistic self-analysis, and Ferry is fully aware of this narrative angle and, thankfully, plays it to the hilt.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know
Lady Caroline Lamb on Romantic poet Lord Byron

We’d often go to the seaside when I was a child…Whitley Bay or Marsden.
Bryan Ferry, before a 2016 festival gig in his hometown

Born in Washington, County Durham, England, Bryan Ferry knew the Tynemouth coastline and its windswept landscapes well. Schooled at Washington Grammar school and Newcastle University, the young man was rarely less than 25 minutes away from coastal shores and beaches. The landscape of his youth was the North England coast and weather-beaten seascapes, 7th Century monasteries, and fortified castles.

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This is Romantic territory, in landscape if not in social graces. Clearly the sea-swept ocean imagery was fertile ground for Ferry’s imagination (see the beached damsels of Stranded; the blue-stained mermaids of Siren). In lyric and in tone, ‘Sea Breezes’ revels in the Romance poet’s suffering as the heightened emotion crashes against the cold sandy Tynemouth surf. Alone! he cries – what a word lonely/ Alone it makes me cry/I’ll cry, I’ll cry, I’ll cry. The Smiths later adopted this pose too, as Morrissey held his weary hand to brow and begged to Please please please let me get what I want…/this time. Ferry is the early master of the idiom of self-obsessed or narcissistic narrator, and the real love-object of the first Roxy Music album is the self-love of the narrator as he marvels at his ability to, at any given time, associate himself with the love trials of the Epic Hero Odysseus (Ladytron);  or align himself with the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley by melancholic over-emoting (If There is Something); and even takes sides with a dangerous sociopath, seeing love first as possession and ownership (Chance Meeting).

Hardly about love at all, and ‘Sea Breezes’ is no different: if you look closely you notice that for a song that calls itself ‘Sea Breezes’ there is actually no water or sea imagery used in the lyric and certainly nothing even loosely resembling a beach, wind, salt, storm – not a word. Then there is the amazingly abrupt and odd-metered musical interruption half-way through the song. Out of nowhere the meter changes, and Ferry sounds like he has been kicked in the knees and told to keep singing  – gone is the gentle appeal to the angels, Romantic or otherwise. Why the change? Because the poet cannot help but present his greatest love: his genius. In keeping with first album’s gleeful subversion of expectation, the lyric and singer becomes increasingly self-absorbed,to the point where what we are seeing and hearing is the sound of meditation and composition, of a brain working, of the poem being written: a thought-train set in motion – words in fog being prepared for paper, hard and alone, before the crack down.

Sea Breezes – Part 2, next week.

Pics
The Rex Hotel where BF visited sea swept Whitley Bay with his parents; Lord Byron has his eye on a charming lady on beach, grabbed here; when you’re obsessed with music you Google Map your hero and the route he would have taken to the seaside as a boy  (Nabokov: be obsessed with scientific yet artistic appreciation of detail); before selfies you had to stare into the abyss for days to know your true self,  Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818.

Titbits

The Smiths, bringing literary irony and anti-glamour to the 80s.

I can only think of one truly great British album: Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure.
Morrissey

From left, clockwise:
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now: Viv Nicholson, found fame in 1961 when she won £152,319 (roughly £3m/$6M today). She famously said she was going to “spend spend spend!” And she did, squandered it all and battled with alcoholism and 4 husbands. On the bright side, she is still with us today, 79 years old. Great Beehive Viv!

This Charming Man: Swashbuckling actor Jean-Alfred Villain-Marais, in a still from Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (lovers in real life, Jean Marais also starred in the Cocteau masterpiece Beauty and the Beast). Easily a contender for a never-produced picture cover of ‘Sea Breezes’.

The Queen Is Dead: Of course he isn’t – Morrissey lives on as petulant and litigious as ever. Here is another French actor, Alain Delon, taken from the 1964 noir film The Unvanquished on the cover of The Smiths masterpiece album.

It is true, Morrissey told The Observer that he could “only think of one truly great British album” and that was For Your Pleasure. He later took it back because he was pissed off at one of Bryan Ferry’s sons support fox-hunting, but nevertheless the reference does confirm Morrissey as serious contender as England’s hand-me-down rock poet laureate: ‘Cemetry Gates‘ is a re-take of Ferry’s ‘Sea Breezes’, portraying as it does the artist as young man, the self-absorbed aesthete impressed by his talent and lecturing on his art (If you must write poems/the words you use should be your own/There’s always someone, somewhere/With a big nose, who knows) and greeting the horrors of a rare sunny day in Manchester:  A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetery gates/Keats and Yeats are on your side/While Wilde is on mine. There are no apologies for high-brow literary references or taking sides in this scenario: Keats the Romantic & Yeats the Modernist take on Morrissey & Oscar Wilde, the Comic Realists. May the best man(ic) poet win!

The record covers were stunning; this was anti-glamour. As much as Roxy Music had aimed glamour towards the seedy, The Smiths sold the forgotten sex objects of British tabloid and European film as presented them as projections of Morrissey’s fantasies. In the UK you spend a lot of time In Your Room with your posters, wet dreams and soundtracks. (Years before fame, Steven Morrissey stayed in His Room writing letters to the New Musical Express – and they got published). In the 70s Bryan Ferry projected male dissonance and sexuality with Humphrey Bogart. In the 80s Morrissey projected the same with gay French stars and kitchen sink drama queens. As in Roxy as is in The Smiths – who you watch, read and listen to is who you are.

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Listen Now (2): Rhythm of the Heat//Peter Gabriel

Coming out of the ground-swell of late 60s English schools and colleges were the future masters of English art-rock: Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie et al, defined their artistry in the early-to-late 70s, by striking bold and thrilling musical paths, often in group contexts. Global acceptance and commercial success followed in the 80s with admirable, but safer musical mandates: David Bowie said let’s dance; Bryan Ferry asked we not stop the dance; and Peter Gabriel and his sledgehammer promised that he was ready to come dancin’ in. All fine and well, with no harm done. Peter Gabriel may well still tour with Sting (to good reviews), but it is interesting to note of a resurgence of interest in the darker, more sonically challenging works of these artists: David Bowie’s Low was voted as his number one record by readers of the influential Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog (a month before his death); and members of Peter Gabriel’s original band have re-grouped with with ex-Shriekback and King Crimson members to form the Security Project, a live recording unit originally started in 2012 in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the release of Peter Gabriel 4 (US: Security). screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-2-34-35-pmThe Security Project has released two live albums this year (May and October) and the intensity of the output demonstrates the considerable staying power of this period, the Golden Age of Gabriel’s solo career.

Peter Gabriel 3 and 4 may well be two of the most adventurous sonic masterpieces ever recorded – rhythmically constructed, percussive but disallowing cymbals, and adventurous enough to use one of the first Fairlight CMI‘s in Britain (John Paul Jones purchased the first). In both albums the subject matter is forbidding, an examination of lack of self control, with intruders and assassins conducting their deeds in real time, analysed by the penetrating moral acuity that Peter Gabriel famously possesses. Indeed, the power of music as a moral force is a common theme in Gabriel’s work (Biko being the most obvious example), but just so is the idea as music as possession, a surrender to that that cannot be seen, such as the process of internal thought (Here Comes the Flood) or radio waves that grow stronger in the night (On the Air/Solsbury Hill), or the strength and vulnerability of putting trust in strangers (Lay Your Hands On Me), and even communion with those no longer with us, the spirits of the dead (Rhythm of the Heat).

Peter Gabriel based Rhythm of the Heat on psychologist C.G. Jung’s autobiographical description of a nocturnal ritual dance (the n’goma) among villagers in the Sudan, Africa. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung outlines his own fears of the local villagers in a particular area of the Sudan. Sixty men, along with women and children, gathered together and lit fires before the “savage singing, drumming, and trumpeting” (p. 271). Jung joined in the dancing, became intoxicated with the dance, as the “the rhythm of the dance and the drumming accelerated” (p. 271). Here Jung begins to reveal his fears: “the natives easily fall into a virtual state of possession. screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-6-06-03-pmAs eleven o’clock approached, their excitement began to get out of bounds. . . The dancers were being transformed into a wild horde, and I became worried about how it would end” (p. 271). Jung becomes at one with the music and the tribe, and in letting go of rational thought and responding to the physical experience and wholly uncaring for the outcome, both tribe and scientist merge concerns and energies and the tribe begins to accept him.

Rhythm of the Heat opens with Gabriel’s incantation for the listener to lose themselves in a new listening experience. Recreated is the sense of menace and foreboding at having to face the alien and the unknown. As one of the first albums committed directly to digital tape (for the early CD age) the clarity of the deep chill atmospherics propel the track onward (Smash the radio. . . smash the watch. . . smash the camera (cannot steal away the spirits!), before Jung’s great dance begins and we experience the intense and exhilarating African multi-tracked Ghanaian drumming performed by the Ekome Dance Company. There is little as rewarding in recorded music as the final minute of dance, drums, and communion on this record.

Give it a spin, and, you know, PLAY IT LOUD.

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Would You Believe?

Little Richard

When Roxy Music recorded their first album during 14th -29th March 1972, London and much of the world’s radio-listening public was in the grip of a Rock n’ Roll revival. The Beatles and pop/rock had kicked be-bop and jazz off the world’s charts during the mid-sixties, and as beards grew longer and more unruly there was a contrarian interest in dressing up and looking smart (a trend that Roxy/Bowie/Glam capitalized on). Nowhere was the signifier of fashion more clearly felt than in the drapes n’ duds of what was to become known as the Teddy Boy style, a play on the “Edwardian” style enjoyed years before by the wealthy young men of the Brit establishment.  The younger generations of the 50s adopted the Edwardian long jackets, but added the striking tapered trousers and fancy waist coats. By the early 70s a Rock n’ Roll revival was in full swing and the Teds kept upping the ante by wearing more outlandish versions of the old idea, culminating perhaps with the addition of the most extreme shoes anyone could ever be expected to wear outside of a fancy dress ball.

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A month or so after Roxy released their first album in June 1972, The London Rock and Roll Show was held at Wembley Stadium on August 5. Bo DiddleyJerry Lee LewisLittle RichardBill Haley and His CometsChuck Berry, and others were flown in to perform an exelerating show in front of the Greasers, Teds and future punks of Londo5108g7n7k0ln. (Malcolm McLaren is shown in the concert film selling t-shirts and ‘Let it Rock’ gear five years before his own fifteen minutes of fame). Excellent performances are given, particularly by Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry, with Jerry hammering his piano keys with drop kicks and heel jabs. Watching the film gives the viewer a keen sense of London’s grit and style in the early 70’s, and reminds us of the impact Glam must have had on the collective psyche: stealing the best moves from its Rock n’ Roll masters, Glam (just rock n’ roll with lipstick! said John Lennon) was colourful, exciting, danceable and great back-drop for drinking, fighting and sex. (One supposes).

For Roxy, recording the rock n’ roll pastiche Would You Believe? and including it on the first album was just another one of their “12 different possibilities” of musical adventure. Unfortunately, doo-wop as a form is slight and repetitive and can be bit tedious after a few listens, and this track is no exception. Bryan Ferry himself did not find the rock n’ roll or vaudville styles the band were offering had much sticking power beyond the flash modernism of the first album: “What we’ll probably do is start making the changes fewer, because some people in the audience can’t really take sudden changes every 30 seconds or so. I quite like confusing people, but there are limits I suppose.”(Sounds,  July 1, 1972).

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Shackled by the form, the lyrics in Would You Believe? were intentionally written tongue-in-cheek, the rhyming scheme the poetic outcome of twelve year old girls in love:

Would you believe in what I do
When the things that I make are all for you?
Oh honey say you do
And in a while I’ll come to you
Showing showing why
What I think will all come true

And so on. Ferry is on the joke, of course, but it is clear why he and his listeners opted for the lyrical and musical possibilities of the more interesting album cuts  (Ladytron/If There is Something/Chance Meeting) to go on their journey further into the seventies. Would You Believe? was scrapped as a live staple, not performed by the band after early 1973.

Pics: Little Richard at Wembley Stadium, The London Rock and Roll Show, August 1972;  a Teddy Boy creeper shoe, courtesy EBay; film poster London and Rock and Roll Show; Andy Mackay, geezer style, cover of Best magazine, issue #65.

Titbits

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Live Peace in Toronto, Plastic Ono Band. A few years before the London Rock and Roll Show, a hastily assembled Plastic Ono band (John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Yoko Ono, and Alan White) played at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in September 1969. 50s standards were played (nervous, drug-fuelled and scrappy), and the subsequent live album sold well, ensuring the street cred of the rock n’ roll revival into the early 70s.

Never Mind the Bollocks: Malcolm McLaren poses outside his shop on the King’s Road early 70s; by chance, London and Rock and Roll Show film still captures Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood selling Let it Rock gear at the Wembley Show August 1972; five years later Mr. J Rotten (John Lydon) proves that good duds never go out of style.

 

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Listen Now (1): Wire Shock//Brian Eno

Wire Shock 

The first in a series of weekly posts dedicated to music launched, influenced or absorbed into the Roxy Music universe. It was a strange week – shock, to be sure. And the question: “What Actually Happened?”

Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno  was coming to the end of a creative roll in the early 90s, having recently released Wrong Way Up with John Cale (91), both The Shutov Assembly and Nerve Net in 1992, and Bowie’s Berlin re-visited with U2’s Achtung Baby. His work at the time was antagonistic, highly fraught (things didn’t go well with Cale) and above all, exhaustively post-modern. Heidegger, Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault had seeped into mainstream art-rock dialog and Eno was espousing Richard Rorty and his philosophies of  Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Eno was attracted to the postmodern belief that there is no worthwhile theory of truth: a single known or objectively factual narrative is seen as a construct of human intellectual and sensory experience; truth is an outcome dependent on the many possible interpretative communities that any single person can belong to. Consider the different experience of a teenager hearing the first Roxy Music album growing up in London vs. say, Nebraska.  

That Eno has been a contradictory thinker throughout his career is a given, and for Nerve Net he gleeful played with expectation and roughing things up: this was hybrid funk-punk, proto-industrial, jazzy-juice music. With no objective truth to hscreen-shot-2016-11-12-at-7-26-32-amold the center, the record refuses to play the game of Album Expectation and places everything under erasure: tracks are paranoid “What Actually Happened?” and lyrics are filled with events that may/may not have taken place (Somebody’s listening..?/Nobody near this house/Something is nothing); topics are often distasteful (a vocally distorted discussion of a rape) and the music can be downright odd and scary.

Even the album itself underwent erasure: Eno’s new record My Squelchy Life was set for release in September 1991,  but as it got postponed to February 1992, Eno decided to re-edit and re-create the album into something more “cutting edge.” The result was Nerve Net.

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-7-38-02-amWire Shock is a great introduction to the album: overloaded, percussive, kicks off like concussion headache before Robert Fripp lays down one of his greatest ever solos. It’s like everything Eno and Fripp did for Bowie, but double-it. Or erase it. But don’t ignore it: Nerve Net (“Never Ten”) was years ahead of its time.

Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, Westside Studios, London April 1992 during the Nerve Net Recording Session.