Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings
Is there another band whose total album output holds up as strongly as Roxy Music's? There aren't many, and certainly any doubts in that regard are laid soundly to rest by a newly issued ten-CD collection that features digitally remastered updates of the band's eight studio albums and two discs containing non-album singles, B-sides, and remixes. The band's retro-futuristic sound, born in 1971, was like nothing heard before, and its impact was bolstered by a disarming visual presentation and lyric writing that was urbane, wry, and witty. Bryan Ferry and company distilled a number of influences—fashion, movies, and ‘50s rock'n'roll, to name a few—into an art-rock style that rightfully came to be known as nothing else but Roxy Music. The box set allows one to step back and view the group's output from a more objective perspective in order to trace its career arc—the high points (Stranded, Avalon) and the low (Flesh + Blood)—and its stylistic evolution.
Less debut than detonation, the group's self-titled first album still stands as one of the most impressive coming-outs ever. From the dynamic “Re-Make/Re-Model” on, the collection serves up one stunning piece after another, with all concerned asserting their individual selves powerfully—guitarist Phil Manzanera, sax-oboe player Andy Mackay, and drummer Paul Thompson in full roar and Ferry in full croon, and Eno strafing the music with all manner of squeals and squiggles. Arresting Roxy touches—castanets and Mackay's oboe in “Ladytron,” for instance—abound, and the group shows itself amazingly adept at tackling any number of styles, whether it be art-school collage (“The Bob (Medley)”), torch song balladry (“Chance Meeting”), or ‘50s rock'n'roll (“Would You Believe?”). Hear how deftly, for example, the band segues from the country-styled intro in “If There Is Something” to the epic drama of what follows, and smoothly executes the dreamy Bogart homage “2HB.” One of the recording's major pleasures is hearing how plentiful the contributions of Manzanera and Mackay are, especially when their playing on later Roxy albums is at times meager by comparison. Filled with lyrical bon mots and clever turns of phrase, Roxy Music captures the band at a stage where its music not only bursts with ideas and imagination but is also fun, a quality that would gradually disappear from the group's music.
It's easy to understand why For Your Pleasure is for many the favourite of the studio albums; after all, Eno's dada-like contributions are still present (his influence is perhaps most audible on the title track, whose liquidy electronic textures call to mind Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy), and the rawness of the debut (its raucous style revisited most conspicuously in “Editions of You”) is now balanced by a slightly more refined if still ultra-stylized sound. It's also helped along considerably by the irresistible raver “Do the Strand” and its fabulous lyrics (“Tired of the tango? / Fed up with fandango?... Bored of the beguine? / The samba isn't your scene?”) and the cryptic dirge “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” with its memorable punch-line (“I blew up your body / But you blew my mind”) and schizoid aftermath. Manzanera, Mackay, and Thompson are in top form, too, and the songs reflect an increasing level of sophistication—even if they are about inflatable dolls and bogus men.
1973's Stranded represents a key moment in the group's history with keyboardist-violinist Eddie Jobson joining in the wake of Eno's departure. As a result, the band's madcap tendencies fall by the wayside and a more polished sound develops, the band gradually turning into a sleek and professional unit. Even so, the album's a stunning collection with every song an unqualified marvel. Any worry that the personnel change might bring about a drop in energy is immediately laid to rest by the anthemic opener “Street Life,” notable for how viciously Ferry tears into the vocal as well as the band's ferocity, and equally epic “Serenade.” The album also sees the group perfecting its romantic ballad side (“Just Like You”) and indulging its art-song tendencies (“A Song for Europe”). “Mother of Pearl” is as jaw-dropping today as it was when it first appeared, and Ferry's lyric-writing is still at a high level, as lines like “Through silken waters my gondola glides” and “Thus even Zarathustra / Another time loser / Could believe in you” attest.
Arguably as strong as Stranded, Country Life roars from the gate with the joyful noise of “The Thrill of It All,” which serves up one searing Manzanera riff after another. Hearing the guitarist kick out the jams with such lethal fury on the opener and in “All I Want Is You” and the closer “Prairie Rose” is a highlight, but it's only one of many. Jobson's violin playing (in particular his soaring solo at the end of “Out of the Blue”) and Thompson's always superb drumming are others, while certain songs stand out as some of the best in the band's catalogue (the dramatic “Out of the Blue,” hypnotic “Triptych,” funky “Casanova,” and strings-heavy “A Really Good Time”). A richly varied and consistently rewarding collection.
As generally strong as 1975's Siren is, there are hints that the band's collective sense of purpose is starting to fray. Its playing at times starts to sound a bit over-controlled—hardly a criticism one could have applied to earlier Roxy albums; playfulness and irony are now largely things of the past, too. The lyric writing is still at a high level, though (“Lumber up, limbo down / The locked embrace, stumble ‘round / I say ‘Go,' she say ‘Yes' / Dim the lights, you can guess the rest”), and the playing is tighter than ever, as evidenced by the clubby “Love Is the Drug,” country-tinged “End of the Line,” and “Sentimental Fool,” which Manzanera introduces with a beautiful fuzz-toned solo that recalls the For Your Pleasure days. There's still ample fuel in the tank, the punchy “She Sells” packs more ideas into four minutes than some bands do an entire album, and even in those moments when the band feels like its going through the motions, Thompson's wondrous thunder is always there to lift the music up.
With ex-Vibrators bassist Gary Tibbs and keyboardist Paul Carrack (known for his lead vocals on Ace's “How Long?” and Squeeze's “Tempted”) added to the line-up, 1979's Manifesto finds the band persona significantly altered. It doesn't surprise that it sounds unlike the Roxy of old—a four-year gap between albums will do that. Dance music has seeped into the group's sound, most obviously in the wistful disco reverie “Dance Away,” and, though Manifesto is never less than a satisfying listen, the songwriting isn't at quite the same level as before. “Trash” feels like the band straining to recapture the unhinged spirit of its earlier self, “Stronger Through the Years” meanders a tad aimlessly, and “My Little Girl” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” are minor-league Roxy at best. That said, melodic gems like “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” help redeem the recording, at least in part.
Arguably the band's weakest collection, 1980's Flesh + Blood sometimes plays more like a Ferry solo album, given the inclusion of covers and the relative anonymity of much of the playing—Thompson is absent and the diminished presence of Mackay and Manzanera is regrettable, too. As a lyricist, Ferry is at his least distinguished, with the inspired wordplay of the first Roxy albums a distant memory. Oh, sure, songs like “Same Old Scene” and “Over You” are decent enough and executed with the group's usual panache, but padding the recording with merely passable covers of The Byrds'“Eight Miles High” and Wilson Pickett's “In the Midnight Hour” hardly enhances one's impression of this inferior outing.
How unfortunate it would have been had Flesh + Blood been the band's swan song; how wonderful it is that 1982's Avalon is the one we look back on as Roxy's exeunt. To the surprise of many, the creatively reinvigorated outfit came together a final time (Thompson the exception) to create the most sonically ravishing album in its catalogue. Ferry's croon is in especially fine form, and the others rise to the occasion also. The exquisite opener “More Than This” and intoxicatingly languorous title track are the most familiar of the set's ten songs, but “The Space Between,” “To Turn You On,” and “True to Life” are hardly secondary.
While there's an excess of duplicate versions on the ninth and tenth discs— “Pyjamarama,” “The Thrill of It All,” “Dance Away,” “Angel Eyes,” “Take a Chance With Me,” and “The Main Thing” all appear twice, sometimes in marginally different form—, there're also indispensable tracks, including the rousing “Virginia Plain” (“You're so sheer, you're so chic / Teenage rebel of the week”) and “Pyjamarama,” which distills everything fabulous about Roxy Music into three minutes. Roxy's heartfelt cover of “Jealous Guy” has come to be heard as a definitive version of the song, one rivaling if not supplanting Lennon's own, and the Manzanera and Mackay solos are models of tasteful restraint. Though designed with the completist in mind, the chronologically sequenced final discs will likely be ones of prime interest to Roxy devotees, given that they've probably had the eight formal releases in their collections for decades. Lesser-known cuts like the instrumental romp “The Numberer” and mournful set-piece “The Pride and the Pain” (its earnest tone undercut by Eno's interventions) reward one's attention, while some play more like in-studio experiments not strong enough to make the album cut, the Hawaiian-flavoured curio “Hula Kula” a case in point.Though the set is exclusively studio recordings-based, it's a shame room couldn't be made for Viva! Roxy Music, given how superior a live album it is by normal standards and by how powerfully it re-imagines some of Roxy's catalogue (“If There is Something,” for example, which is elevated to an epic level that surpasses the already powerful original). Even with the undeniable low points accounted for, the Roxy catalogue holds up magnificently, and hearing it in its entirety reminds one of how ahead of its time this stunning band was, especially during its early years. Calling the box set a treasure trove is no exaggeration.