AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #250 : BRYAN FERRY & ROXY MUSIC

I’ve mentioned before that not having an older sibling meant that, outside of what I heard on the radio, there was a reliance on my cousins and the older brothers of friends to assist with my musical education.  I can’t actually remember anyone who fits into either the cousins/friends’ big brothers categories ever having any great love for Roxy Music and so it was something I developed myself from the radio.

And let’s face it, when you’re hearing stuff when you’re not quite a teenager, it has to contain something very special to lodge itself in your brain that it sticks with you for the rest of your life, and I’ll say here and now that it was very much the voice of Bryan Ferry that did it for me….and maybe that’s why throughout my formative and later years that I’ve always had a thing for those who crooned with a difference – and in particular why I fell for the charms of Billy Mackenzie and Paul Quinn.

As I was starting to form a few thoughts about what songs to include in the ICA, which I had intended to solely focus on Roxy Music, it came to me that much of my exposure to the songs came from hearing them played at fairgrounds.  Yup, more than 40 years later and the thought has just struck me that the fairground hustlers would have been happy to blare out the songs of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry on the basis that:-

(a) they were familiar from being chart hits
(b) teenage girls liked the songs as some of the band were heartthrobs
(c) teenage boys would like the songs as some of the band were cool
(d) if you can teenagers of both sexes to come together at the fairground, you’re going to make money

To all of that can be added that while I can’t recall any mates older brothers liking them, there were a couple of older sisters of mates who adored Roxy Music as I recalled when I wrote previously about the band in the short-lived and not terribly popular ‘Had It, Lost It Series’ back in September 2017. Click here for more of the back story to my thoughts on vintage and not so vintage Roxy Music.

That particular piece concluded with the following words:-

“…I won’t argue that you can date Roxy Music losing it to when they reformed in 1979 as I was a huge fan for a while thereafter. But what I will say is, that if I was to piece together an ICA all these years later, it would almost certainly be made up of music that was recorded and released in the period 72-75.”

Which would have been the case except I’ve decided to include some top-notch solo singles and taken in a couple of songs from the later period – it did after all coincide with the one and only time I saw the band live – Glasgow Apollo, July 1980, when they toured the Flesh and Blood album and the support was Martha & The Muffins. All in all, it makes for an unusual beast from me, and that’s a 12-song ICA. But a fitting selection for #250 in this long-running and incredibly popular series.

Side A

1. Virginia Plain (single, 1972, reached #4)

As I’ve said before, one of THE greatest of all debut 45s. There’s no better way to open up the ICA…

2. Pyjamarama (single 1973, reached #10)

Many folk who left behind a comment when I wrote about Virginia Plain, suggested that this was the band’s finest ever 45. They could well be right, but it is a hard one to call.

3. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (single 1973, reached #10)

The ten-year-old me had no idea who Bob Dylan was. This just sounded like a Roxy Music single with additional backing vocals. At the time, because it was even more catchy than anything I had ever heard him sing previously, this was my favourite Bryan Ferry vocal of them all, where it stayed until……………….

4. Love Is The Drug (single 1975, reached #2)

This 45 cannot, surely, be 45 years of age? The crazy intro with the car revving up is memorable…but, it is the bass line that really makes this so special – it’s a killer and it set the scene for what would be laid down on disco records in the coming years.

5. Over You (single 1980, reached #5)

ICAs don’t work on the basis of them being the best 10 (or in this case, 12) songs by a band or artist. Over You is a decent record – of its time – but it has aged in much the same way as the rest of Flesh and Blood. It is unmistakenly the sound of the early 80s, unlike the classic Roxy era which just feels timeless. It also set out the template for many other pop/synth acts whenever they were looking for a song that was a bit removed from being full tilt but wasn’t quite a ballad. The bittersweet love songs that have become the staple of smooth-listening radio stations the world over. But it fits in well at this juncture on the ICA.

6. In Every Dream Home, A Heartache (album track, 1973)

The ten-year-old me didn’t know this song when it was released on the album For Your Pleasure. In fact, as it wasn’t included on the Roxy Music Greatest Hits compilation that I got as a Christmas present in 1977, I didn’t even hear of it until the late 70s when the music chat in the school common room turned to sex dolls, on the basis of many of us liking The Police and talking about the track Sally/Be My Girl. We all thought it was daring and really funny to have a song about a sex doll on a new wave LP, till someone piped up that Roxy Music had done it years previously. A cassette was brought in the next day and the song was played. It’s fair to say it divided opinion. I thought it was stunning. Still do.

Side B

1. Manifesto (album track, 1979)

Manifesto was the first Roxy Music album that I bought at the actual time of release and while it might not be their best ever effort, there was something quite special about doing so. The opening track is the title track and it contains a really long and drawn out intro which has a feel of late 70s era Bowie and the then-emerging Simple Minds which I kept returning to again and again. In my mind, it makes perfect sense to have it open the flip side of the ICA.

2. The ‘In’ Crowd (single 1974, reached #13)

Again, I had no idea that this was a cover, nor that Ferry had his tongue firmly in his cheek by recording and releasing a track that was having a go at his detractors calling him an art school poseur. It just sounded great coming out of the radio.

3. Do The Strand (album track 1973)

I would have first heard this when I got my hands on the Greatest Hits compilation in 1977. I know now that it is one of the band’s most legendary, popular, and well-known compositions, and in subsequent years at ‘alt’ discos at uni and other locations, I’d find myself dancing to it. Hugely unusual in that it goes straight into the vocal and over the subsequent four minutes there’s a fair cacophony of noise including a decent sax solo, a sound that I’m normally immune to. Ferry’s vocal is just magnificent – all-knowing, almost arrogant, and defying critics to have a go again at his nonsensical lyric. A song about a dance that doesn’t exist…that’s post-modern before anyone ever came up with the phrase.

4. This Is Tomorrow (single 1977, reached #9)
5. Let’s Stick Together (single 1976, reached #4)

Two singles that prompted my memory recall of funfairs. Particularly the latter which must have been omnipresent in Blackpool the summer of 1976 as that was the location of the family holiday that year during which we would have spent time at the famous Pleasure Beach as well as strolling in and out of various amusement arcades. Listening to these now, it really does feel that Ferry had a great time recording his solo material and while the 13/14-year-old me thought they were no different from the Roxy songs (on account of THAT voice), I know can appreciate that is very much not the case. But, and the reason why there are four solo singles on this ICA, they have very much stood the test of time….unlike much of the 80s and later output.

6. Street Life (single 1973, reached #9)

I didn’t recall this from the time of its original release, indicating that it’s not as immediately and catchy as the other early 70s singles that I featured on Side 1 of the ICA. This would be another that I ‘discovered’ via the Greatest Hits album – it actually closed that album and so again makes perfect sense for it to close the ICA. In 1977, I didn’t know the Eno back story and wasn’t aware of how important he had been to the early sound, nor that this was the first single he hadn’t been part of. It’s a more bombastic sound than many of the other Roxy songs and it was one that took a bit of getting used to. As my tastes evolved and developed, so did my affection for Street Life.

So, there you have it. ICA #250. One that breaks a few rules and one that makes no apologies for leaning heavily on hit singles.

I do wonder if there’s life in this series for another 250 efforts…if so, it’ll take around another six years to compile as ICA #1 dates back to June 2014. There’s been a few amazing efforts in that time, particularly those offered up as guest contributions. Feel free to keep them coming…(there’s a couple currently in the pipeline)

Oh, and yes, I am of a mind to have another sports-style ICA knockout competition, probably next year…..

JC

HAD IT. LOST IT. (Part 7)

The debut pioneering single, as featured yesterday, was August 1972. Ten years later, Roxy Music released the utterly unlistenable AOR album Avalon. It’s another great demonstration of having it and losing it, but depending on your viewpoint, the band had perhaps long passed their sell-by date sometime previously.

For all that there was a run of classic singles in the early-mid 70s, Roxy Music were always judged on the contents of their albums. The self-titled debut was followed quickly by two albums in 1973 – For Your Pleasure and Stranded, and Country Life (1974) and Siren (1975). It really is astonishing to look back and see that five full studio albums were issued in a period of just forty months, all of which went Top 10 in the UK. The other thing to factor into this achievement is that, as a consequence of him being unhappy with the media focus seemingly all being on the frontman, Brian Eno left the band shortly after the release of the sophomore album. Any concerns that Eno’s departure would see Roxy Music’s popularity plummet were soon put to be bed; indeed Stranded, the first post-Eno LP became the band’s first ever #1 LP.

It wasn’t as if the band were wedded to the studio as each release was accompanied by live tours. A little bit of research reveals that Roxy Music played the major Glasgow venue (Green’s Playhouse/Apollo) in April 1973, November 1973, October 1974 (three nights) and October 1975 (three nights) which indicates this was a band that worked incredibly hard at all aspects of their trade.

They broke up in 1976, essentially as Bryan Ferry wanted to pursue a solo career. I was only 12/13 years old at that time and to be honest, was aware of the band less from their music (outside of their singles) and more from their evocative record sleeves in which you got to look at beautiful and scantily clad women in full colour at a time when such images were found only on top-shelf magazines. But this coincided with a time when I made new friends at secondary school, one of whom, Tam, was a huge Roxy Music fan as a result of his older twin sisters liking the band and playing their music non-stop, and through visits to his house I got to know the songs beyond the hit singles.

Fast forward to 1979. It’s Tam’s last year at school as he has already decided he’s going determined to leave as early as possible to get a job while I was set on staying on to University. We hear that Roxy Music have reformed and we both rush out and buy the comeback single Trash and later on the comeback LP Manifesto. We like what we hear but are shocked at the vitriol poured on the records by his older sisters. It’s the first time I can ever recall anyone who was such a huge and devoted fan of someone really being savage about their music – at that stage I’m in my musical development I was sure that once you were a fan, that was you for life.

Maybe what myself and Tam liked most about this era Roxy Music was that the new singles were being remixed and re-recorded for the disco markets and we were weekly regulars at a few church halls where you would turn up to receive your weekly humiliation at the hands of more confident, street-wise and sassy members of the opposite sex at the end of the night when the slow songs came on. But prior to that, you spent time in their company, not necessarily talking to them, but making awkward an unusual shapes with your body to the likes of Angel Eyes and Dance Away.

To those who were in their 20s and older, Roxy Music had already lost it. To us teens, they still had it in spades and more so in 1980 when Flesh + Blood spawned not only more dance singles but allowed Tam and myself to go see them at the Glasgow Apollo in July 1980 – the tickets given to us by his twin sisters for whom the latest LP was a step too far.

Not long after, Roxy Music enjoyed their biggest selling hit in the UK when their cover of Jealous Guy, released in the wake of the murder of John Lennon, went to #1. I didn’t like the single – I thought it bland, dull and unlistenable. In April 1982, Roxy Music released More Than This, another Top 10 hit single that I thought was appalling. By now, I cared little for the band and could finally understand why Tam’s sisters had disowned them three years previous when they too had left their teenage years.

So, I won’t argue that you can date Roxy Music losing it to when they reformed in 1979 as I was a huge fan for a while thereafter. But what I will say is, that if I was to piece together an ICA all these years later, it would almost certainly be made up of music that was recorded and released in the period 72-75.

I think we can all agree these demonstrate they had it:-

mp3 : Roxy Music – Pyjamarama
mp3 : Roxy Music – Out Of The Blue

These will satisfy fans of a certain age:-

mp3 : Roxy Music – Dance Away (12” version)
mp3 : Roxy Music – Over You

These, however, are shockers:-

JC

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

ARE YOU CUSTOMISED OR READY-MADE?

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At the age of 15, going on 16, one of the things that attracted me to Roxy Music were the LP covers as they featured stunning looking ladies in various states of undress.  You have to remember folks that semi-nude women were a real rarity in those days outwith pornographic mags or X-rated movies, and having a bit of a baby face and being a bit of a short-arse, I could neither buy such mags nor get into such movies.

The music however proved to be pften be rather good, but then again by this stage in my life they were a band who had come and gone, leaving behind a lead singer with a solo career that had sometimes caught my attention but at other times left me stone cold, although there was no denying he had a distinctive and alluring vocal delivery.

The thing is, in the late 70s I just didn’t ‘do’ old bands……but then it turned out that after after a four-year hiatus Roxy Music announced they were going to reform.  I found myself attracted to their slightly strange-sounding and incredibly short comeback single which I heard getting played on Radio 1 a few times. I bought it on its release, and was disgusted to find just a few weeks later that it was in countless bargain bins as it had been a flop, peaking at just #40 in the charts. Records were relatively expensive in those days and given I was reliant completely on the proceeds of a paper round to pay for them, it didn’t do to find you could have bought something for less than half the price if you had shown some patience.

mp3 : Roxy Music – Trash
mp3 : Roxy Music – Trash 2

It’s a single that has been largely forgotten about as the two follow-ups, Dance Away and Angel Eyes were given the disco treatment, including extended mixes, which helped make them Top 5 hits and at the same time change the way that Roxy Music went about their business, with every release thereafter aimed very much at the pop rather than art end of the market, culminating with a rather appalling #1 in 1981, the cover of Jealous Guy, released in tribute to the recently murdered John Lennon.

In other words, for me, Trash was their last great and essential bit of plastic in the 45 form.

All of which is a precursor to say that I recently picked up some original Bryan Ferry solo LPs from the 70s and may well burn some tracks and feature them here in the coming weeks and months.  Or is he too much of a twat nowadays to give time to?**

Enjoy.

** I know…..the irony of me asking that question when this blog has and will no doubt continue to rely on the work of Morrissey for postings……