There’s a fleeting glimpse of something delectable at the start of Roxy Music’s first album, and yet just out of reach.
“I tried but I could not find a way,” Bryan Ferry sings as he gazes longingly at what-might-have-been disappearing in his rear-view mirror. The chorus, such as it is, is a recurring chant: “CPL593H” — a car registration number, intoned with deadpan cool by guitarist Phil Manzanera and tape manipulator Brian Eno.
The song hurtles ahead, Ferry rattling on — “I could talk, talk, talk myself to death” — at the futility of it all, while Eno’s synthesizer splatters mud on his windshield. A series of brief tongue-in-cheek solos quotes the Beatles, “Peter Gunn” and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” while Paul Thompson’s drums and Graham Simpson’s bass turn the arrangement into an exuberant rush. It is a song of longing and frustration dolled up in blue eye shadow and tiger-skin vests. The title couldn’t be more droll: “Re-Make/Re-Model.” It’s a love song, but to what exactly? The car? The girl? The illusion of the girl? The idea of the girl driving off in a machine that may be even more desirable than she is?
Here was a postmodern love song dished out with attitude and verve by a band that seemed to come out of nowhere. Indeed, Roxy Music had played only a handful of gigs before this unlikely collection of former art-school students (Ferry, Eno, Simpson), a classically trained woodwind player (Andy Mackay), a roadie-turned-guitarist (Manzanera) and a veteran rock drummer (Thompson) began recording its first album in London in March 1972.
When they were done, the U.K. sextet created one of the signature debuts in rock history, at once postmodern, strange, sensual and thrilling. In 1972 it mapped out a new frontier, even as bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin dominated the rock landscape. Now, 45 years later and newly reissued as a four-disc box set with demos, outtakes, live performances and videos, it still sounds remarkably fresh. Its mix of art-rock ambition and glam flamboyance left its mark on artists across generations: Grace Jones, Morrissey, Duran Duran, the Pixies, Chic, Eurythmics, Pulp, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and countless others.
“Roxy Music 45th Anniversary Edition” (Virgin) documents the start of a brief but brilliant 10-year career that produced a half-dozen good to great albums. Roxy Music even managed to generate one genuine best-seller, “Avalon” in 1982, with a silkier sound than its predecessors. Yet the band will once again be on the outside looking in when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame holds its annual induction ceremony in April. It would seem to be an inexplicable oversight given that the Cars, a band that liberally borrowed from Roxy’s stylistic innovations, will be among this year’s inductees. But the Cars had more hits, whereas Roxy Music’s legacy continues to be viewed with skepticism if not disdain by the guardians of rock purity. Ferry and his bandmates were cast as dilettantes rather than dues-paying musicians, who conflated songs with showmanship, art with artifice. Which was exactly the point.
Even the debut album’s cover image made waves. Rather than representing the band as virile rock gods, it featured what looked like a cheesecake pin-up from a glamor magazine. Yet the model, Kari-Ann Muller, is less a pouting ingenue than a knowing predator, teeth bared, who is laying a trap, a gold record peeking out from behind her wrap. Some even speculated (wrongly) that she was a drag queen, which only added to the allure: What exactly was going on here?
Though Roxy drew on various hallowed rock touchstones — blues, rockabilly, doo-wop — they also reached far outside its traditional margins. “Re-Make/Re-Model” wasn’t just the first song on the first Roxy album, it was a manifesto, a musical blueprint of what was to come — subverting the love song (fetishizing a machine’s license plate) and pop-song structure itself (where’s the chorus?), while winking at their musical influences (classical to rock to you-name-it). Then there was the idea of juxtaposing noise and melody, of trying to pull a musical arrangement out of the chaotic soup that was Eno’s synthesizer and tape treatments, Manzanera’s scorched-earth guitar, Mackay’s array of treated woodwinds.
Visually, the band was a show in itself. A DVD included in the box set captures a range of performances in which the band’s outlandish gear (glitter, animal-print designs, gloves, leather, stack-heel shoes) is every bit as pushy as its music.
Ferry was the pushiest of them of all. He casually dropped high- and pop-art references into his lyrics, and crooned with an exaggerated vibrato that made him sound like a decadent lounge singer, unlike most of his British peers who slavishly imitated American blues and soul vocalists. When he did channel the torn-and-frayed emoting of the R&B greats, he made it indelibly his own. As “If There is Something” shifts from country twang into desperate pleading more akin to Otis Redding, Ferry mines wicked humor: “I would put roses round our door, sit in the garden, growing potatoes by the score.”
Roxy Music tried to couple rock’s serious ambitions (the band members were big fans of arty predecessors such as the Velvet Underground and King Crimson, for whom Ferry once auditioned) with pop’s fizziness. Ferry, by nature shy and self-effacing, reinvented himself as a fop with issues. He saw infinite possibility in the music, and while the Beatles and David Bowie got there before him in terms of layering rock with irony, ambiguity, theatricality and alter-egos, he brought a formidable intellect and subversive sensibility that stamped Roxy Music as innovators. For all his movie-star handsomeness and outwardly stylish presentation, Ferry also projected a creepiness that would never allow him to become the corporate pop idol he sometimes resembled.
Like Ferry, Eno wasn’t a musician so much as an artist who painted with sound, and found the perfect tools in reel-to-reel tape recorders and the VCS3 synthesizer. His manipulations continually explode the arrangements. On “Ladytron,” Eno’s sci-fi transmissions merge with Mackay’s melancholy oboe as though bringing down an alien invasion, and in the live performances documented on the BBC Sessions, his synth swings like a wrecking ball through “Chance Meeting” and “The Bob (Medley).”