Rock n’ roll was real. Everything else was unreal.
Roxy and Glam – 1: Sign of the Times
When Todd Haynes tried to capture the characters and music of the UK Glam scene in 1973 with his film Velvet Goldmine, he failed, according to the film’s un-cooperative subject David Bowie, because Haynes missed entirely the innocence of the times, underplaying the fun, silliness, and fantastic “shopping” the period offered. Though Glam may have been a youthful response to a good number of serious societal issues – “Glam was finally some kind of free expression of male homosexuality in popular culture” (Jon Savage) – it was silliness and frivolity that defined the movement, and, like many good-time relationships, it started to peter and die when it became formulaic, losing its zest and sparkle and sense of fun, say, around mid-1974 (about the time Bowie flashed his man-mutant genitalia to the world).
Known to the band as “Song 1” during recording sessions for the new Roxy Music album Stranded – indeed all the tracks had numbers – “Song 2”, “Song 3” (can you imagine a time when ‘Song for Europe‘ was known as “Song 6”?..) – ‘Street Life’ was always seen as a forerunner for the singles charts (“I do remember approaching it very much as a potential single” recalls Manzanera), having arrived with all ingredients intact: robust and insolent energy; dense, hard-rocking instrumentation; camp delivery; and, just to be sure, white-knuckled finger-clicking. In discussing ‘Street Life‘ for an article in Uncut (2012) Bryan Ferry observed: “I wanted it to be a high-energy, fun song – buzzy and vibrant”. Indeed, ‘Street Life’ is the track you hold up to Roxy nay-sayers as evidence that the band possessed a formidable muscular sound that went beyond the hype of fashion models and white tuxedos. (If you still find yourself arguing the point, put on ‘Editions of You‘ and demand the foe get the next round of drinks in).
Born in the pressure-cooker of the new – new album, new single, new band member (on salary, mind), new golden age (ah hem), and absolutely no new demos or written songs before entering the studio – ‘Street Life’ succeeds in spite of its hasty creation, with band members Thompson, Manzanera, Mackay and Jobson laying down their claim as vital and equal creators of the Roxy sound. With its camp dramatic lyric and vocal delivery a career win for Ferry, ‘Street Life’ is nevertheless a noticeably coherent group recording that lays down Roxy’s musical template for the rest of the 70s. At this juncture, each member, previously side-lined by the hoopla of the Ferry/Eno axis, gains considerable strength and confidence as solo musicians and as members of the insuppressible Roxy machine. From here on, the story is less about Bryan Ferry as Gatsby, and more about Roxy Music as a band.
Written and performed in the key of Eb Major, ‘Street Life’ epitomizes the associated Eb musical characteristic of Cruelty and Harshness (wish everybody would leave me alone), Yet Full of Devotion (loving you is all I can do). It’s a neat trick, this tension between opposites, and explains why critics often use contrasts in describing the band’s music (my own favourite is Gary Sperrazza‘s description of ‘Street Life’ as “punk-rock in space”). Yet musically it feels like there is little musical ambiguity in the song at all. In fact, it’s pure punk, right from the start, with its highway-star drum intro courtesy of Paul Thompson, and grinding over-dubbed guitars and killer 6-note hook by Phil Manzanera.
‘Street Life’ bleeds intensity, honesty and wit. For Ferry, the single was another stunner in a line of exciting, dramatic productions. In the same stylized manner of ‘If There is Something’ and ‘Strictly Confidential’, the song delivers a swinging performance, the singer acting out – petulant, inflated – the life of a put-upon rock star. Wish everybody would leave me alone, yeah. It’s a good gag – Ferry was white hot during this period, so why not write a tantrum overture composed entirely of talent, nerves and self-doubt:
Wish everybody would leave me alone, yeah
They’re always calling on my telephone
When I pick it up there’s no one there
So I walk outside just to take the air
With new-found fame came troubles, and Ferry was in fact getting harassed during this period: two teenage fans, Denise and Jackie, would camp outside the singer’s Redcliffe Square apartment, and make calls from a red telephone-box across the road, and watch intently as “Ferry would move past the window to answer the phone, and then would hang up” (Buckley, 152). Ferry’s solution to these intrusions on his privacy was to escape, and escape is exactly what we come to Roxy Music for. When Bowie decides to get some action he self-consciously “yawns” as he breaks up his room and “runs to the centre of things” (‘Sweet Thing’). Ferry on the other hand neither breaks up his room nor yawns: he hits the street with all the pent up desire of a druggie on the prowl for an eagerly anticipated dose of sex and drugs (and we all know where that leads – another top 10 hit single!). Stuck in the house, pacing back and forth, genuinely hemmed in, Ferry declares it’s time to get out, find a party, spend some cash, and if you, dear and loyal listener, want to come along for the ride, then all the better. Come on with me cruising down the street, we’re told and so we join the superstar on an updated version of the ‘Virginia Plain‘ rollercoaster ride. “I like tacky things and low life as much as high life” Ferry confessed in 1973 and, just like the black panther that susses our lurid intent on the cover of For Your Pleasure, we are caught staring with Eveline and Constanze into the blaring headlights:
Come on with me cruising down the street
Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet
This brave new world’s not like yesterday
It can take you higher than the milky way
There’s genuine excitement here, not a yawn or histrionic gesture to be seen or heard. If part of the Roxy promise is to take us closer to the thrill of it all, this is Ferry’s first opportunity to dance the cha-cha from a position of real advantage and knowledge. The British Roxy Music Winter tour of 1973 – rolled out after the recording of Stranded, but before the album’s release – was so successful it had proceeded around the country like a “tremendous triumphal march” (Balfour). Ferry was white hot both as solo artist and Roxy front-man. Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure had been big sellers, and the solo release These Foolish Things was extremely profitable – staying in the charts long enough to still be selling when his second solo album Another Time, Another Place placed in the charts. The clarity of celebrity experience is made manifest by the time ‘Street Life’ is recorded and released: we are invited to taste and experience the flavours of the mountain streamline for ourselves with the added bonus that our the Implied Bryan Ferry is acting as tour guide. The listener is summoned: Come on with me cruising down the street, and we do not hesitate. This brave new world’s not like yesterday we are told. We are all stars now. Take my hand: Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet. And we’re off, the boys and girls of the suburbs fleeing the hum-drum days of school or the Industrial revolution, like some re-enactment of a Joycean epiphany, on a mad journey heading for Nighttown in Ulysses.
If ‘Stranded’ was Roxy Music’s Goldfinger moment – a critical and popular work that influenced culture, shifted taste and fuelled high sales of future releases – then ‘Street Life‘ was the blockbuster teaser trailer for the film, cut to reflect the sign of the times as they appeared in the grey and drab early 70s. By the winter of 1973, Ferry delivered what he had prophesied a year previously in ‘Virginia Plain‘: a new movie for new times, a cinematic art-project that brought together sex, glamour, luxury and irony as a stylistic device, authenticity through the pursuance of sex and glamour. “From one hotspot to another,” noted Simon Puxley, ghost-writing Ferry’s biography in 1976, “til dawn if need be, to locate the true experience.” Oh, that sounds like fun, and at the time of ‘Street Life’s release, the county needed it. Movie critic Tim Blanks describes the landscape of the times:
One of the things that struck me most about the 2011 movie version of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was how dismal its depiction of early-70s London looked. But it was set just when Bowie was unleashing Ziggy Stardust, and Ferry was launching Roxy Music. Somewhere other than MI5’s grey, grim world, a new breed of glamorous young nightcrawlers was exploding into life.
Roxy and Glam – 2: The Strange Case of Adrian Street
The groundswell of circumstances that created Glam and its glamorous young nightcrawlers have been well documented (Reynolds/Savage), yet, for our money, the most interesting sign of the times is the example of the coal-miner-turned-professional wrestler Adrian Street, the man who, in the laddish days of 1973, was one of the first fighters to put on make-up, boa-feathers, platforms and glitter – and bring it all into the bloke-culture of British wrestling. The son of a Welsh miner, Street went down the coal-pit at 15, following in the footsteps of his Dad and his brother. A year later – as they say in the movies – “Adrian decided that this was not the life for him” (ProWrestlingStories). He came back to the surface, shed his filthy clothes and made for London, emboldened with velvet goldmine self-belief – he came back to Wales a known commodity: a TV star (the b/w photos above and below is Street visiting his Dad at the pits after his success). “There’s nothing I like more than somebody telling me I can’t do something,” said Adrian of the photo, “I was saying, ‘F-U, bastards!’ It was very, very satisfying.”
Street’s influence on musicians in the early 70s was duly noted by the press. Marc Bolan of T-Rex was asked where he got his ideas for his makeup and his costumes, and he said “from watching Adrian Street on television.” Street sold himself as a brand, and understood the music business and professional wrestling had a lot in common:
Interviewers would ask if I invented glam rock. I’d always say, ‘I didn’t invent it, though we sure borrowed a lot from each other.’ But I often wonder if Ziggy Stardust wasn’t a direct copy of what I was doing at the time.
Whether by accident or gleeful intent, Ferry conjures up Adrian Street‘s zeitgeist in ‘Street Life’ if not by name (though I reserve judgment) then by Roxy Music’s association with a movement in full swing, at that time influencing every corner of British life. This brave new world’s not like yesterday, Ferry tells us, as if speaking to Street and the other thousands of kids looking to escape their “no future” fate. By referencing Aldous Huxley‘s famous novel of down-trodden dystopia, Brave New World, Ferry sets the scene for a guided tour through the new reality, authentic and gritty, yet blessed with a touch of magic.
I was really trying to give you a shot of the street.
I like tacky things and low life as much as high life.
Street life, Street life, Street life, What a life
Street life, Street life, Street life, That’s the life
Roxy and Glam – 3: Walk on the Wild Side
The idea of portraying a ‘street life’ in all its gritty filth and colour can be seen as products mostly of America – or, at least, the America that had the greatest impact on Brits musicians such as David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. For many, The Velvet Underground (1964-73) were the pioneers of what The Guardian called the ability to put “drugs, fetishism, infidelity and heartbreak into song.” As we know, by 1967 the musical landscape was defined largely by the escapism offered by the The Beatles and Procol Harum singles, positing that drugs, sex and transcendence were a path to the doors of perception. Formed in the same milieu that created the Jefferson Airplane, the scruffy Velvets (they “looked like the Addams family”, noted Iggy Pop), didn’t buy into this message – “I fucking hated hippies” said drummer Maureen Tucker – while Reed later observed that “flower-power … was a nice idea but not a very realistic one.” For the Velvets, and Lou in particular, the strength of the new openness provided the opportunity to write about REALITY, no matter how sordid: “The ability to shock with taboo subjects such as buying drugs has waned today, but until 1967’s I’m Waiting for the Man, music was devoid of an overtly decadent tale such as this”. (Guardian).
The Brits had plugged into the idea of American street-wise authenticity and coupled it with the emerald Isle’s natural tendency for camp, wit, play-acting, and a piss-take culture that did not allow to take yourself too seriously (they frequently turned on their heroes. See: Bryan Ferry solo career 1975-1979). American rockers generally liked their realism straight-up, as in Iggy Pop‘s ‘Down on the Street’ (floatin’ around/I’m a real low mind), to the spectacle of Lou Reed and John Cale busking in 1965, offending New York’s lunch crowd with:
It’s my life
And it’s my wife
‘Heroin’, (quoted in Wyman).
And, let’s not forget one of the more subversive yet popular street-wise rock songs: Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, a perfect encapsulation of where the artistic sentiment was on other side of the Atlantic:
Candy came from out on the Island
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “hey baby, take a walk on the wild side”
Said, “hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
And the colored girls go …
In stark contrast to America in the early 70s, the Brits were living in the Dark Ages – a three-day work-week was imposed by the Government to save on electricity due to an angry and heart-breaking miners strike; a rapid crippling of the economy was brought on by rampant inflation and the slow but inevitable closure of the once-glorious smokestak industries. There was, it could be said, a self-consciousness built into the times: a sense that lives and times were changing. Sexual identity rights were, albeit haphazardly and with a hint of ridicule, at the forefront of what ordinary people were talking about, expressing at least a fascination or repulsion for the difference and change that was taking place around them. David Bowie was wearing a dress. Freaky Brian Eno was getting all the girls. The yobs and cavemen were still out there, but now they were dressing like Kubrick‘s Clockwork Droogies – and in between the violence and mayhem the Droogies were watching television, and had opinions too.
Britain in 1973 had three TV channels (BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV). The population of the country was 54 million, and 93% of which were able to watch programmes (BBC). One episode of Coronation Street – where Valerie was electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer (!) – had over 18 million people watch her death and subsequent funeral. Top of the Pops had 15 million viewers on a typical Thursday night – that’s 15 million people watching Roxy’s “hyper-intense” performance of ‘Street Life’ and the latest glam sensations and outfits. The same massive audience gave Sweet three hit singles in 1973 – Blockbuster (Jan); Hell Raiser (April); Ballroom Blitz (Sept) – and it wasn’t just the kids buying the records. Many of us have memories of mums dancing in diminutive living rooms to Cum on Feel the Noize by Slade (“We get wild, wild, wild!”). Jon Savage confirms this sense of national pride in the art of silliness (The Goodies, Monty Python), as glam was about getting out there and having fun: “I think it’s been undervalued critically because it didn’t appear to take itself too seriously. It had that horror of pomposity. But it wasn’t like some little ghetto. It was full of vigour and full of life, and it bossed English pop music for two or three years” (Savage).
The Manhattan sleaze of Lou Reed and Iggy and the Stooges, dressed itself up in glitter, but only after it had visited and recorded in Britain. Contrasting sharply with Iggy Pop’s Detroit blitzkrieg approach (We are the street-walking cheetahs with hearts full of napalm), David Bowie sold back to the Brits their fondness for tacky street sex and faded glamour when he materialized from another planet (courtesy of Doctor Who’s Tardis) in the shape of Ziggy Stardust. Yet Ziggy himself struck a pose that was pure street-level rent-boy availability, mixing Bowie’s love of street-smart Velvet Underground with a sci-fi rock ‘n roll sensibility that gleefully drew attention to itself in a self-mocking and ironically distant manner. My set is amazing, Bowie told the faithful, It even smells like a street. And who were we to argue?
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
Bowie, ‘Queen Bitch’
Roxy Music were having none of it though. By the time the band released ‘Street Life‘ in December 1973 they were onto something entirely different, a twisted yet utterly convincing commitment to change…
I hope you are all keeping well, are safe, and are being kind to yourself and others. We have lost so many friends and loved ones in the past months, and we continue to struggle across our world to recognize the strength of compassion and the senselessness and waste of poverty and violence.
Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth. William Faulkner
To glam star Steve Priest of the Sweet, Rest in Peace (23 February 1948 – 4 June 2020). Thanks for the memories.