I saw her heading to the table
Well, a tall walking big black cat
– The Hollies, ‘Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress‘ (1972).
In Ferry’s vision – and as brought to a pinnacle of achievement on ‘For Your Pleasure’ – the entire repertoire of artistic influence and inspiration was there to be referenced in the creation of a new musical and stylistic form, as vivacious as it was sophisticated.
– Michael Bracewell, bryanferry.com (2010).
The Bracewell quote is hyperbole (perhaps), but there is little doubt that Ferry was on to something new and exciting in early 1973, both visually and lyrically, with the music of Roxy Music the critical and essential reason for getting involved in the first place. It is a given that Ferry had conceived Roxy Music as an escapist vehicle for himself – Northern small town kid trapped in working-class constraints of environment and thought (“My parents are the nicest people you could possibly meet, but they’re not in the least bit intellectual”) and in doing so released a younger generation of boys and girls who were stuck in exactly the same rut: a revolution was afoot, if only for weekend living.
As a vehicle of escape Roxy Music were successful on both fronts – for Ferry personally, the band’s success meant he could enjoy and explore new possibilities in the arts, travel, relationships, and pour that experience into his writing, which was developing at a rapid pace. Favoring a form of meta-analysis that internalized external experience through the prism of film, fashion, and painting, Roxy were not only conceived an Art Project, their composition strategy was to produce each song as an art work, that “vivacious” and “sophisticated” new stylistic musical form that Michael Bracewell speaks of in his gushing analysis above. And for the audience there was gold aplenty – that we were able to find our own way through the vehicle of Roxy Music was a key component of the band’s success: marking your own time travel while listening to classics such as ‘Beauty Queen‘ or ‘Dance Away‘ is time well spent (in our humble opinion).
Pop music is all about the sound – good music comes at you physically, you feel it most keenly in the body. When Etta James sings the first line of ‘At Last‘ the sound is heard by the ears and brain but felt by the heart. ‘Great Balls of Fire‘ is so aptly named it must must have been titled on purpose. (“Ass! It’s about GOD.” – Jerry Lee). You crave to hear the sound again and so you put on the record and start a conversation with yourself. You are all chatter, thoughts rolling above the surface – this artist is so good; that bass line incredible; I wish I could be him; is it Saturday yet? And you move toward the voice, and you want to know more about that person. Why are they singing? What are they singing? I like the sound of that voice. Did he just say zzzzzzzubb. Maybe. The cover is brilliant! And then you are hooked, and you want to know more about this world.
And then you are into the story, the Rock n’ Roll story, the Roxy Music story, composed and constructed, the telling of narratives past and future, and in the case of Roxy – the narrative of fantasy and style, quality and extravagant tastes. “Or, if you like, the lifestyles of the very rich,” as writer Richard Williams succinctly put it in the Roxy Music Story. Roxy appeal to youth in the same way that an early James Bond movie, say, Goldfinger, does, where the men are as suave with the ladies as the cut of their tux is immaculate, and the women are glamorous, all-powerful, mysterious and, unfailingly, deadly. Roxy create a narrative of escapist glamour that serves as subject and form and in doing so appeal to the snob in all of us. Yet this modis operandi would be tedious (as the Bond films become) if it weren’t for the incredible tension in the music and presentation, the abject weirdness of the pop sound that Mackay, Eno, Manzanera and Ferry create.
What captivates the body and mind with Roxy is the visceral impact and the tension inherent in the tunes – ‘Beauty Queen’, for example, is awash in layered synth that draws the listener in, but is cold to the touch – and Paul Thompson’s drumming is the bedrock that pulls the sound back into the body, supporting the instrumentation as it changes key, tempo, mood. “I found that interesting,” Bryan Ferry said of the abrupt changes and surprises in Roxy’s playing, “the band was perfect for that; they were game for anything” (BF, 2018). There’s more credit now given by the leader to the classic Roxy Music sound of ’72-’79. The narrative is being re-told and you and I are here to give it credence, to give it the gravitas needed as we continue to absorb its sound and power.
I. The Performance of Style
Between 8 February – 12 May 2013, the Tate Gallery Liverpool hosted an exhibition celebrating Glam, the visually extravagant pop style that exploded across Britain during the years 1971–5. High glam artists – Roxy, Bowie – were represented extensively and dominated such events as ‘Glamology‘, ‘Glamorama!’ ‘Glam Time‘ (for the toddlers) ‘Glam! 21st Century Factory‘ and even ‘Glam! 21st Century Factory – THE PREQUEL‘. Needless to say I would have given my right eye to have seen it, The Tate being a watermark of quality control and content. The title of the book published to support the three month exhibition was called The Performance of Style, and in this title is perhaps the best description of the Roxy Music approach ever put down on paper. The performance of style is a perfect description of the band’s art-rock manifesto for it covers the stylistic triad the band became famous for: i) Recorded music; ii) Live Performances; and iii) Stylistic Packaging. Few recording artists embody the fusion between music and art as completely and comfortably as Roxy Music, and Ferry in particular continues to describe himself as a “successful artist” rather than as a conventional rock star.
It is interesting to note that in America “Glam” was called “Glitter” and this difference points to the reason why it took Roxy until at least 1975 (‘Love is the Drug‘) to gain a following in the US. “Glitter rock” merely identifies one aspect of the Glam universe – the dressing up part – and neglects the notion of “glamour”, that self-conscious construction of lighting, mood, make-up, historical awareness of style in order to achieve impact and affect. Roxy started selling records in America when the band had smoothed out the edges, reduced the masks and uniforms to (albeit brilliant) dancable disco. The same was true of David Bowie, his first American hit (same year as ‘Love is the Drug’, 1975) required a new look/character in the form of the white soul boy of Young Americans. No androgyny, no space cowboys, no knowing winks at the camera. With an audience keen to experience something new, Glam in the UK was able to represent a wider range of artists, including those termed “Low Glam” – Sweet, Slade, the Glitter Band – and those termed “High Glam” – Roxy, Bowie, and (perhaps) Marc Bolan. The difference was contained in the variance between the “simple rock and roll revivalism of figures like Alvin Stardust and the complex art rock of Roxy Music” (Wiki).
Yet Roxy were even miles ahead even in this category, for not even Bowie himself can lay claim to the High Glam Crown: think for a moment of the Bowie album covers of early 70s – Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs – all representations of a personality (“character”) at a moment in time. Brilliant. Groundbreaking. But not a consistent representation of the Glam ideals, not in the same way that Roxy Music wrote and designed it. The influence, mechanics, and effect of Glamour and style was Roxy’s subject, whereas Bowie’s subject was himself, resulting in fractured expressions of personality (characters) that pushed fashion and sexual boundaries. Yes, Ziggy Stardust was a self-aware, even mocking tribute to musical and performance history, but compare the album covers of Ziggy with Roxy Music and you’ll spot the difference: Bowie’s Ziggy is a starman rent boy, slightly unkempt and dangerous, ready to rock, whereas Roxy’s take is all encoded style, a glamour doll caught by the flash of the camera mid-pose, purposely architected by referencing (and modernizing) 40s and 50s magazine cover styles. Both teasing, escapist fair of course – Bowie’s pose says you can rent me but you can’t buy me, while Roxy’s pose says you want me but you can’t have me – fantasies for young men and women, ready to take home, should you wish to buy the album for the pricely sum of £1.99.
The three-pronged approach to the performance of style was primarily felt at the musical level – Eno, Manzanera, Mackay, Ferry and Paul Thompson were writing and performing beyond standard rock, creating past/future/present postmodern epics in the form of Roxy Music/’Virginia Plain’/’Pyjamarama’, and the masterpiece being recorded, For Your Pleasure. The artistic branch of the strategy was delivered with a keen art-school avant-garde sensibility, executed to the highest standard by three of the band’s prime movers, Eno, Mackay, and Ferry (Ambient/No Pussyfooting/Oblique Strategies/Peter Schmidt/ ‘Electronic Music’/Dada-like disorganization/The White Album/Warhol/Richard Hamilton). And if this wasn’t enough, the final leg of this three-legged stool was defined by the work conceived and executed by the four members that sat outside of the band, a group of hungry young designers and artists who collaborated with Bryan Ferry to devise and deliver an enduring creative legacy and a new form of audience engagement that executed under the auspices of what came to be known as “the Roxy Machine”: fashion designer and image maker Antony Price; photographer Karl Stoecker; art director Nicholas Deville; and public relations literary libertine Simon Puxley.
The ‘Roxy Machine’ – from left, Price, Deville, Ferry, Stoecker, Puxley, (1973).
II. Antony Price: ‘One thing we share is an ideal of beauty’
I was inspired of course by Hollywood, as was Anthony, but we always like to think we were making something new out of it
– Bryan Ferry & Antony Price interview, 2013
When Gianni Versace was murdered outside his Miami mansion in July 1997, it was Roxy Music’s image maker and fashion designer Antony Price that was tipped to take over the billion dollar business (the job eventually went to Versace’s sister Donatella). The two fashion designers had much in common – successful artists with a craftsman’s eye and talent to mold fabric into something wearable and exciting, embodying the artisan’s ability to work with the tools of their trade – pencil, thimble, pin, machine and thread. Fashion artists like Versace and Antony Price make people feel good in their skin, fashioning and engineering clothes that contour and support the human body, while emphasizing the dramatic nature of their creations, mingling street style and high fashion with a heavy sexual element, reflecting what Stephen Gundle called in his book Glamour: A History “the mysterious and magical arts of glamorous transformation”. Versace though, emphasized a cheap sleaziness in the clothes (at a cost few could afford) and lived in almost obscene Roman opulence, setting a new bar for grotesque displays of wealth and celebrity (it’s no coincidence prima donna pal Elton John was a bud). In contrast, with classic British reserve, Price “shied away from the public stage” preferring to let his clothes speak for himself – when visiting his studio in 1994, the writer Chrissy Lley observed Price’s gentleness and love of nature –
Antony Price likes birds…his studio resounds to their high-pitched shrieks and swooping cries. On the first floor he works at his drawing board, flanked by papier-mache torsos and fabric samples, overlooking a central showroom with aviaries at each end. Inside the cages brilliantly coloured birds flicker to and fro, while at ground level two hulking cats prowl and lash their tails with desire and frustration. It would be an oversimplification to liken the birds to his glamorous clients and the cats to predatory males, but the image undeniably springs to mind.
And Bryan Ferry’s opinion of the man is the sort of tribute anyone would be proud to have as a legacy:
He is one of the most remarkably gifted people I have ever met, and an authority on a bewildering range of subjects. He is a master craftsman – quite rare in this day and age – and has quietly exerted an enormous influence on so many people. Although most of his work has been associated with urban nightlife, he is surprisingly a man of nature, an expert on exotic plants and rare birds and the niceties of human behaviour. To those who know him he is a constant source of amusement. In times of adversity, an incredibly loyal friend. (2008).
The biography reads that Antony Price studied at Bradford School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art, graduating with a distinction in 1968 and was immediately employed as menswear designer for a fashion cult label – The Rolling Stones were his first customers, with Jagger wearing his button trousers on the infamous ‘Gimme Shelter’ tour. The scene that Price had plugged into and was a deep part of, was loosely referred to as the ‘Notting Hill crowd’, David Hockney, Ossie Clark, Brian Morris. Price admits that he was a rising star behind Ossie Clark (the fashion hero of the swinging sixties), and he met future Roxy Music models Kari-Ann Mueller and Amanda Lear and future Roxy Machine photographer Karl Stoecker through the Notting Hill connection. The scene was bustling and inter-connected. The mood of the designers and artists was open and flamboyant, and crucially, they did not carry with them the hangover of the 60s into the 1970s the way other art forms did (such as rock music). This new generation of fashion aesthetes, Michael Bracewell points out, would be defined by the “strength of their work ethic as much as the flamboyance of their somewhat camp, almost quaintly English hedonism” (279).
I thought, and still think, that pop music isn’t primarily about making music in any traditional sense of the word. It’s about creating new, imaginary worlds and inviting people to try them out
– Brian Eno, interview, 2007
Where I came from, Newcastle, is a rough part of the world with no possibility for anything but escape
– Bryan Ferry, interview, 1982
The critical concept to which Roxy Music subscribed was that they were to be styled and presented “above all, as a state of mind.” This quote from Ferry in 1975 accurately describes the group’s surround sound approach to pop presentation, consumer marketing and a new kind of conceptual imagination at work. The kicker was that the invitation was extended to the audience – you too could partake in this “imaginary world” if you worked to aspire to the codes of conduct. Good taste was paramount, as was intelligence and elegance. If you read or listen to interviews with fans of the band – Steve Jones, John Taylor, Siouxsie Sue – the common theme is that Roxy were a “cut-above”, infinitely more stylish and clever than their counter-parts. “The world we are talking about was a world obsessed with things clever,” noted Anthony Price, “and with spotting things clever.” Intelligence mixed with elegance, the appeal of engaging with the Roxy universe and in exchange being offered a role yourself, the paradoxical appeal of being a part of the in-crowd, of being in a club that, for once, would actually have you as a member.
Audience engagement and participation was essential to the Roxy Music aesthetic as it was to Glam in general. As the young fan Ruth says to her partner during a Roxy Music dance session “Think Roxy girl… I’m gonna be Bryan!” (Flashbacks). This identification was in part due to the invitation to dress up and follow the codes and performance of style so carefully laid out by their heroes. Gimme your hands! Glam idol Bowie spouts to his audience during ‘Rock N’ Roll Suicide’ (I’ll help you with the pain/You’re not alone/Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone/Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful). And as Roxy became the 1973 rock icons of note (“Roxy Mania!”) with Bryan Ferry‘s tuxedo becoming a signifier of intelligence, grace, and exclusivity, and it was in this regard that Antony Price‘s image and fashion design input was critical to the band’s success and the imaginary world that was being created, for he had his finger on the impulse of the band’s appeal: “Women are not aware of Roxy Music in the way that men are. It’s a man’s band. It’s always been a man’s band. And he (Ferry) is a man’s idol; the young men have always admired him, he’s what they aspire to, to have taste like that, to be in the rock business but still have taste and credibility, which is very thin on the ground in the rock business, darling, let’s face it.”
The extent to which the listener is drawn to the Roxy “state of mind” is dependent on his or her musical interest and tolerance for Aspiration and Drive as a key Roxy Music sub-text. Speaking very plainly and bluntly to Michael Bracewell in 2007, Ferry gave an honest precis of the Roxy state of mind, the aspiration and search for perfection that successfully merged the desires of the singer/writer with those of his fans/collaborators:
When you got old enough to have a girlfriend, or to go on a date, the only thing you did was take her to the pictures. But that was in the high street of Washington, where there were two cinemas – which were bigger, and had proper velveteen seats rather than benches. One was called the Regal, and the other the Ritz. None of them are there now. When I went to university I would go to the cinema club, which is where I became aware of cinema classics and film-as-art – all that kind of thing. Up until then it was film-as-entertainment. That was all you did – you didn’t have television. We were very poor, you see… So I think it’s fair to say that Roxy Music, from my point of view, would be the reverse of this background.
Greil Marcus in his book on Elvis Presley summarized this as the drive to “to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty… the strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too.” Roxy’s primary subject is the effect and impact of glamour, but it is equally keen to interrogate the need for glamour and transformation. The need for escapist glamour was particularly pronounced in the UK Northern towns in the 70s, the same towns that Ferry had been raised in, and therefore understood intuitively the needs and aspirations of the listeners and fan base. Having myself been partly raised in the coal mining areas of Kirkcaldy & Glenrothes (Fife, Scotland), the following observation by music critic Simon Reynolds rings true:
There’s a reason why Roxy Music’s most fervent fan bases were in industrial cities in the North of England – Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle itself. Especially in the seventies, when industry was still relatively strong but brutalist housing estates and shopping schemes had replaced the old terraced communities and corner shops, these cities were the parts of the UK where the hunger for [a] ‘splash of light’ arched fiercest – Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy (341).
In the same year 1973, Bryan Ferry would release a solo album the cover of which had a static beef-cake shot that advertised clearly and succinctly this is a solo record, and he is the sole star of the show. The Roxy Music covers on the other hand were conceived on a grander scale, intended to represent a lifestyle, a zeitgeist, a state of mind: architected as escapist cinema, directed, scripted, set-designed, and costumed to be full of life, stylized, pulled from the front page of a movie magazine. There is movement in all the shots, intrusion, discovery, even judgement and morality. Consider Kari-Ann Muller on the cover of Roxy Music, extravagantly posed, caught by the flash of camera bulb and looking straight at you – you, taking the picture, interrupting the scene, voyeuristically gazing at all that accentuated, off-centered, cheesy glamour. Stranded – come rescue, if you dare, the damsel in distress (post-plane crash, this vamp will eat you alive). Or stumble down the back lanes of Country Life, the women once again caught in your headlights, blinded, taken off-guard, lack of clothing necessitating – dependent on your instincts – interrogation or rescue. And Siren – unable to resist the song of the sirens, you have purchased The Fifth Roxy Music Album, and now you have stumbled upon a new narrative, as the Siren sets you in her sights and snakes across the rocks towards you.
All of these subjects look directly at you dear reader, they stare into your eyes as you take the picture, rescue the damsel, stumble into dodgy goings-on in the countryside, or quake in fear before the siren ensnares you. In each of these short-stories the viewer inhabits the role of the protagonist, photographer, intruder, historian, and, quite possibly, victim. 19th century English poet and writer Walter Copland Perry had this to say about the song of the Siren, the temptress:
Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.
– Bryan Ferry, interview, 2013