Thursday, August 20, 2009

Roxy Music: Where Are You When We Need You?

Oh man! Is the new Roxy Music album ever going to happen? If I do the Strand while standing on my head will Ferry, MacKay and Manzanera finally get it together for a new CD? I know we were promised this bad boy about 5 years ago, and while part of me is overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of new Roxy Music songs, there's a part of me that says they should just leave history alone. Inevitably, the former part of me always wins out. After all, a good Roxy album (I doubt they would release it if it wasn't at least good) is better than no Roxy album at all. But what's that you say? You don't know who Roxy Music are and couldn't care less? Well, turn off the Rob Thomas and let me bend your ear for a moment so I can tell you why you should care…

I live in the U.S. and in my experience most people here either know very little about Roxy Music (and its lead singer/chief songwriter Bryan Ferry) or nothing at all. Sadly, many people only regard them as "that poofy band that sang that poofy 'Avalon' song." Only the last part of that assessment is true; they did sing "Avalon," but, to paraphrase one of their better-known numbers, they were much more than that.

In its infancy, Roxy Music was one of the most important rock/pop bands on earth, creating and/or pioneering all sorts of trends and sensibilities, while simultaneously drawing upon the previously-established conventions of Western popular music. Here is a partial list of the reasons why Roxy Music mattered so much then and continues to influence and inspire so many people today. This is true even if you've never heard them, other than "that poofy 'Avalon' song."

(I'd like to stress here that I owe an enormous debt to Paul Stump. Many of the ideas presented here are distilled versions of arguments he makes in his extensive book about the band, "Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural Biography of Roxy Music". I'd also like to point out that some of these arguments for the band's importance are closely related, but I feel they are worth itemizing separately.)

1) Roxy Music was the first band to successfully use a "pop art" approach to rock/popular music.

Obviously rock and pop music are forms of popular entertainment. However, what Roxy Music did is actually bring the "pop art" sensibility (pioneered by people like Richard Hamilton) to rock music, applying an almost collage-like approach to their early music and lyrics. In fact, the use of the word "pastiche" probably shot up 100 percent after the debut album came out in 1972. Roxy used elements of 50's rock here, a snatch of classical music there, and "futuristic" tape effects (provided by Brian Eno) elsewhere. Beyond that, they also took their cues from the world of fashion and cinema, which, at the time, was anathema to all "serious rock fans." On the first few albums, these various sounds and visions were all woven together into a unique and completely new kind of rock tapestry.

2) Roxy Music was the first rock/pop band to successfully use irony on an ongoing basis, and anticipated the overall tenor of pop culture heading into the 21st century. (Yup!)

It was not unheard of for a rock band to evoke other genres or quote other styles (sometimes quite ironically) before Roxy Music. However, what Roxy Music did was really elevate irony to a new high. On the early records, you were never quite sure how much of the heartbreak, for example, was earnest and how much of it was a big campy put-on. The truth seemed to lie somewhere in the middle, and that was almost definitely the point; Roxy Music blended the romantic sincerity of a bygone era with the knowing self-awareness of the post-modern era. Elements of irony, tribute, reverence, camp and parody were all being seamlessly juxtaposed in a way that had never been done before. And it's never been done quite as well since.

3) Roxy Music was the first band to successfully combine "high art" with "low art" while deliberately blurring those distinctions.

Reflective of an increasingly ambiguous consumer-driven culture, Roxy created music that drew upon "high art" influences while clearly designed to be "poppy" and accessible at the same time. The lines were never clearly delineated, and this free-floating blend of high and low culture seems deliberate. This, along with their pop-art approach in general, made Roxy Music the first rock band to tap into the "post-modern" attitude as it is commonly understood (i.e., the deeper meaning of symbols and signifiers like music and language are not inherent or set; they are culturally relative and in flux). This mixing of high and low gave Roxy a populist appeal that still exuded a high-class air: anyone could enjoy Roxy Music, while fans got to feel like members of an exclusive club. (See also #5 and #7.)

4) Roxy introduced the world to Brian Eno.

While I will always be a bigger fan of Bryan Ferry than Brian Eno, I'm sure there are people who could stuff a couple of books writing about the importance of Brian Eno. For now, suffice it to say that Eno was a key player on the first two Roxy albums. He later went on to pioneer "ambient" music; release a boat load of experimental solo works; collaborate with David Bowie on the legendary "Low" album; and produce a bunch of famous artists, including U2, Talking Heads and Devo. Roxy Music is where it all began for Eno.

5) Roxy Music immeasurably influenced punk and new wave (and probably a lot of goth and alternative bands as well).

Roxy Music may have had a classically trained musician in Andy Mackay, but they were by no means prog-rock. In fact, their approach was decidedly NON-musical, with more of an art school background. They weren't interested in wanking or being virtuosos, they wanted to make clever noise. In this sense, they were really an "art band" with pop ambitions (and some glam rock trappings). This potent blend of dark cacophony and intellectual, artsy leanings helped lead the way for many and created a template which later bands, both amateur and pro, strove to emulate. For example, ask trail-blazers like Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, producer Nile Rodgers of Chic, or Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols who their biggest influences are, and Roxy Music always comes up. Roxy's influence stretched right into the 80's, (often unseen, and often poorly imitated) and it continues to this day, with artists like Moby, Scissor Sisters and Franz Ferdinand still citing the band as an important spiritual forerunner.

6) Roxy Music was the first band to run with the concept of "band as brand."

There is a big difference between marketing yourself successfully and knowingly turning yourself into a brand. Lots of bands have marketed themselves by promoting their albums and selling tons of merchandise. Similarly, there have always been "pre-fabricated" bands that are ruthlessly marketed by shrewd business people. However, I maintain that before Roxy Music, there was always a clear separation, even if it was only conceptual, between the band and the marketing of the band. What Roxy (and specifically Ferry) did flawlessly was MERGE the concept of band WITH brand, by which the name comes to represent a specific product that resonates with a certain type of consumer. This is not to say that Roxy Music flooded the market with Brian Eno buttons or Bryan Ferry hair mousse. What I am getting at is the band's ability to tap into the psychology of branding; they employed a flurry of symbols culled from Hollywood and Madison Avenue (as well as art and literature) and then created an inexorable link between the band and the abstract concepts these symbols represent. We now know that successful branding can actually trigger the same parts of the brain used for fervent religious belief; I would argue that Roxy expertly exploited this fact. As Bryan Ferry said, "Roxy Music was, above all, a state of mind."

7) Roxy Music bridged the gap between the romantic worldview and the emerging post-modern one.

While Ferry was continuously obsessed with creating the Roxy Music "brand" (thereby raising the ire of earnest, dyed-in-the-wool, rocker purists everywhere), he was also interested in repositioning the attendant cultural symbols in new and bizarre ways. As a result, Roxy's albums served, by virtue of their existence, as meditations on the nature of artifice, surface, meaning and depth. Their songs forced us to question what role, if any, Romanticism has in a world that was becoming too smart for its own good. They created a kind of reflexive rock and roll which commented on the history of pop music as well as the various signifiers employed. This might seem commonplace today, but it was quite revolutionary back in the early 70's. In this respect, Roxy Music was arguably the first rock band to successfully anticipate the savvy attitude which has practically become de rigueur for the intelligent, 21st century individual: self-aware, detached skepticism with a loose commitment to relative "truths." (It is worth noting that Bryan Ferry is still ahead of the curve, having already returned to the more "timeless" and "honest" expression of decades like the 30's, for example. His album of standards by people like Cole Porter pre-dated Rod Stewart's hokey hack job on the same concept by a solid three years.)

8) Roxy Music rocked balls.

Many people dispute this, especially after hearing a track like "Avalon," but the record is clear: when they wanted to, Roxy could rock like possessed lunatics on acid. For proof, check out songs like "Remake/Remodel," "Editions of You"(especially the solo), "The Thrill of It All," or the first two minutes of "Mother of Pearl." Plus, it should be noted that even the mellower songs (e.g., "Stronger through the Years") never lapse into pina-colada-ish yacht rock territory; Roxy was usually too creepy, sinister or just plain weird to fully go that route, even when they wanted to. From my perspective, that's a good thing.

Ok, now you have eight dyn-o-mite reasons why Roxy Music is one of the most important rock bands to leap out of the 20th century (as dubious as that honor might be) and we've only just scratched the surface - no pun intended. However, some of you may be a bit apprehensive; perhaps all this talk of post-modernism has you thinking that Roxy Music made impenetrable math rock for PhD's, or even worse, sprawling, over-ambitious concept albums drawn from Celtic mythology.

Well, breathe easy my friends, because nothing could be further from the truth. As I already discussed, Roxy Music was nothing if not accessible, and Bryan Ferry's limited musical training prevented him from writing anything TOO complex. As a result, most of the songs are pretty straightforward with five or six chords tops; the listener doesn't have to wend around for hours trying to "appreciate" intricate melodic lines set to 11/4 time signatures. It's all four on the floor and hooks out the ass, baby!!! Well, usually.

Still, the question lingers like a haunting refrain: will any of us live long enough to see a new Roxy Music album? I certainly hope so. Promisingly, there is some evidence that Ferry is burrowed away right now working on new material. Of course, it must be daunting to have to compete with your own legacy, and I'm sure the band members realize this. My personal feeling is the boys should forget about living up to their glorious past and just focus on making solid, well-written songs. Most likely, they aren't going to come up with something revolutionary at this stage of the game (although I wouldn't rule it out), so their best bet is to create an album that alludes to various moments in their career while simultaneously demonstrating the sophistication of their craft. In other words, they may have lost some of the creative spark that drove the early years, but they've surely gained something in terms of expertise, so let's see more of that. *

And, if for some reason a new album doesn't materialize, I will still be content with what we have: five legendary albums (and three pretty damn good ones) from a seminal band who heralded a new age in popular music and society at large, even if most people still don't realize it.

*For the record, Ferry seems to vacillate between extremes: he either takes eons (or would that bed "Eno's"?) refining and perfecting his albums, or he bangs them out quickly to preserve the loose, spontaneous feel. He says he prefers the latter method, but tends to fall back into the former when left to his own devices. Perhaps the new Roxy album could be a mix of both? They could record a couple of tracks like lightning, and then let Ferry agonize for a few months over the next one. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Remake, Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music, by Michael Bracewell, 2008.
Roxy Music: Both Ends Burning, by Jonathon Rigby, 2008
The Thrill of It All: The Story of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music by David Buckley, 2005.
Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural Biography of Roxy Music, by Paul Stump. 1999.
Roxy Music, by Johnny Rogan, 1982.