IT WAS A CRACKING DEBUT SINGLE (6)

I’d have been just nine years old when today’s featured debut 45 stormed into the UK charts all the way up to #4. I do vaguely recall hearing it on the radio at the time but then again that might be my memory playing tricks on me and in fact I only became hugely familiar with it in the ensuing years.

By any account, this is a remarkable debut single. For one, it wasn’t the song that introduced Roxy Music to the general public as the debut album had already been in the shops for two months, an indication that the band and their record label were content to concentrate on that market and not worry about appearances on Top of the Pops.

For two, it’s a single that broke so many rules, particularly back in 1972. There’s a fade-in and gradual intro that would have confused DJs and there’s a dead-stop ending that would catch so many of them out. But most noticeably, there’s no chorus. Oh and the title of the song is only uttered once – and that’s with its closing two words.

mp3 : Roxy Music – Virginia Plain

Phil Manzanera provided a fascinating explanation in an interview many years later in that the debut album, which had sold I more than decent numbers, was full of songs that had no chorus and rarely referenced their titles, so when it was suggested that Roxy Music should cut a new song as a single nobody in the band knew how to write or record any differently.

The song developed from what was essentially a series of jamming sessions after Bryan Ferry had played three simple chords on the piano. The fact that the band were prepared to go a bit bonkers and throw in a studio effect of a motorbike revving as well as ask Andy McKay to go with an oboe solo rather than a sax solo merely made what would become Virginia Plain all the more unique and memorable.

It was also helped by a memorable and seemingly oblique opening verse:-

Make me a deal, and make it straight, all signed and sealed, I’ll take it
To Robert E. Lee I’ll show it, I hope and pray he don’t blow it ’cos
We’ve been around a long time
Tryin’, just tryin’, just tryin’, to make the big time!’

Why did the band namecheck the (in)famous Confederate general from the American Civil War? Turns out they didn’t….this particular Robert E Lee was the name of the band’s lawyer, so the lyric was in fact very literal.

One final thing worth mentioning. Virginia Plain was not some glamourous or alluring female with who the band had a connection. It was simply the title of a pop-art painting that Bryan Ferry had produced a few years earlier when he was an art student; Virginia Plain was a cigarette packet……….

But is it Roxy’s finest ever 45? There will be some who will say Oh Yeah to that question (but only to confirm Virginia Plain and not to make a case for a 1980 single); I’d personally have to toss a coin between Do The Strand and Love Is The Drug.

The b-side was an instrumental in which Eno and McKay feature prominently:-

mp3 : Roxy Music – The Numberer

JC

15 thoughts on “IT WAS A CRACKING DEBUT SINGLE (6)

  1. Once again a great post Jim. I didn’t know the Background of Robert E. Lee, so thanks for it. You’re right about the radicalness of this song and if I have to decide I would be tosse to Love Is The Drug

  2. Pyjamarama ! Again, no chorus and not even a title reference. A deliciously erratic instru-mental break in it. The intro an irresistible summoning..
    Streetlife great too and also love Both Ends Burning..

  3. The perfect debut single in many ways. A totally original sound, thrilling, catchy but experimental and from an act with such a strong image. When was the last time any debut record struck you over the head like Virginia Plain?

  4. Virginia Plain is certainly top 3 for me, but the two above it are Love Is The Drug at # 2 and In Every Dream Home A Heartache is the song that still stirs something in me EVERY time I hear it.

  5. Now you’re talking! What a magnificent debut. It’s tough to choose a favourite early Roxy single, as they rarely put a foot wrong for the first 3 or 4 years, but from their later ‘smooth’ period I’d have to go for ‘More Than This’.

  6. Every song mentioned in the post and in the comments is a keeper. If I had to pick one from the early days, I would go with Pyjamarama as well.

  7. All the best bands and singers go through stages of evolution, not afraid to change, not afraid to challenge, Roxy Music embody this. Hard to believe only 7 years divide the artsy quirkiness of Virginia Plain, and the cool sophistication of Dance Away, but that’s the 70s for you, a decade where every year saw music visibly evolving, yes even you 1975!

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