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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.