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 In the interim, Roxy Music co-founder and bass player Graham Simpson had become withdrawn and difficult to work with, and at an important Sounds of the Seventies show (a “big deal” for the band) Graham would not, or could not, play a note.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.
Bryan Ferry, 2009
The outcome was less a Modernist stream-of-consciousness, but more a structured punning coherence aimed at the gut and the head. The story Ferry tells (sells) us is a snap-shot 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..
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).
Catchy yes, and stylish as hell. The performance on Top of the Pops is career-defining, as was Bowie’s a month before with ‘Starman’. 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
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