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.
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:-