Album Analysis | Roxy Music - Roxy Music
Eccentric, unpredictable, futuristic, and outrageously fun, Roxy Music's self-titled debut album is one of the most innovative debut albums of all time, fusing artsy and flamboyant pop with heavy, reverb-drenched synthesizers to create a once-in-a-lifetime product.
Experimental enough to satisfy the art rock scene. Conventional and accessible enough to make Top of the Pops. Sensible enough to dance too, but drenched enough in the avant-garde sounds of the early '70s to fire up the brain. Most of all, eclectic enough that it's impossible to narrow their music down into one or two genres. Released on the same day as Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in 1972, Roxy Music's debut album shook the world with its stunning innovation and wild approach to pop music.
Roxy Music came out of England's art rock scene in 1970 through vocalist and songwriter Bryan Ferry and bassist Graham Simpson. Ferry had been trained as an art student, but lost his job teaching pottery at a girl's school and was rejected as King Crimson's vocalist (replacing Greg Lake). In 1970, he asked for musicians to practice with him and Simpson, a friend of his from art school. After numerous lineup changes, the sextet's formation during their debut's recording would include guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson on the drums, and Brian Eno on synthesizers and "treatments".
Roxy Music were a melting pot of different concepts and backgrounds. Ferry and Eno were the primary creative minds behind their first two albums. Ferry was educated in fine art and grew up on American jazz and doo-wop, and was well-versed in pop culture. As the lead vocalist, he drove the band's flamboyant image and used his romantic and almost-operatic vocals to create anxious, urgent, and unique rock music. Eno, a friend of Mackay, was deeply interested in innovation and experimentation. He wasn't technically a musician before Roxy Music, but he studied art and knew how to operate tape loops and synthesizers, and innovated his "treatments" to distort the sound of an instrument. The contrast between their styles and backgrounds drove the band's eccentric and experimental style of pop, and set themselves apart from their art rock contemporaries (Bowie, T. Rex, Sparks, etc.). Manzanera's Latin heritage and experience in progressive rock influenced his unpredictable and fluid guitar playing, and Paul Thompson's pounding drums were influenced by the proto-punk rhythms heard in The Velvet Underground's music. Mackay was classically-trained and helped define the band's eccentric rock n' roll with his vibrant saxophone and oboe playing.
The biggest problem with the band's debut is that they had to cram in too many ideas into a single album. Recorded in a mere two weeks with King Crimson co-founder Peter Sinfield, Roxy Music is a raw fusion between the sex-obsessed and campy glam rock taking over the U.K. and that nerdy, self-absorbed and pioneering art rock. Their ability to write songs with extravagant hooks and frantic energy is evident on songs like "Virginia Plain" and "Re-Make/Re-Model", and they were accessible enough to appeal to critics and fans alike, but still far removed from the rest of Britain's music scene. Eno's synth work and his treatments of Manzanera's guitar helped set the band apart from their contemporaries and distinguish themselves as a forward-thinking artsy pop band.
"Ladytron" is one of the best examples of the band's futuristic and progressive style. Described by Eno as a "conjuring of a lunar landscape" and designed as a structurally complex pop song that keeps building, "Ladytron" heavily relies on Eno's VCS3 synthesizer to create abstract and futuristic soundscapes, and his treatment of Manzanera's fiery guitar solo reinforces that avant-garde sound and makes the song more intense and dreary. But even with that work, this is still foremost a pop song; Ferry's vocals are deep and soothing, and he sounds smooth and quirky during the verses, in sharp contrast to the instrumental chaos that looms as a replacement to any chorus. On "If There Is Something", his synth work creates a dreary and emotional atmosphere that blends in perfectly with Ferry's raw vocals and use of the Mellotron and the storm of Mackay's sax and Manzanera's guitar.
The A-side isn't the most conventional thing in the world, but at least it sounds down-to-earth for the most part, bar the spacey ballad of "2HB". The B-side sounds like the band went out to space and came back to Earth only for recording purposes. The band incorporated their backgrounds in progressive rock and worked with Eno's confusing but necessary urge to experiment to create one of the most baffling sides in music history. It's a bit of a mess, sacking some of the more conventional songs like "Would You Believe?" in between haunting and experimental songs, as well as closing the album off with a strong prog flavor in "Bitters End". Too fine-crafted to be improvisational, the B-side is messy and imperfect, but still highly interesting. "The Bob (Medley)" is one of their most progressive songs, alternating between periods of crunching hard rock, as gloomy and anxious as ever, with quaint throwbacks to classical and the sound of machine guns over tape loops and heavy synths, and that feint return to normalcy with Ferry proclaiming, "Too many times beautiful" with a rich melody. "Chance Meeting" starts off as a desperate piano ballad, only to be overtaken by Eno's high-pitched and otherworldly synths and piano playing that grows more intense each motif. "Sea Breezes" is an atmospheric and progressively-structured piece with slightly more normalcy than "The Bob...", but not necessarily justifying its place as the album's longest piece.
The album's experimental side isn't important just because it influenced other important bands and artists that helped shape music. It's important because it showed that pop music could be so much more than just pop. As Mackay put it, "we certainly didn't invent eclecticism but we did say and prove that rock 'n' roll could accommodate – well, anything really". The album's A-side stretched out glam rock and pop into something more artsy, flamboyant, and dangerous, while the B-side showed the value of synthesizers and that good, substantial and interesting pop music often relies on thinking outside the box. Whether it's expanding the sound in the studio, adding unforeseen instruments like the VCS3, or abandoning the traditional intro-verse-chorus structure, numerous musical innovation in rock and pop came out of this messy, flawed, but necessary side of the album. The Beatles, Bowie, and others had set some of the precedents for artsy and progressive pop, but this album stretched those ideas for miles, giving a hint at the band's incredible accomplishments on future releases (more specifically For Your Pleasure) as well as giving those campy art rockers a new home in art pop. The contrast between Ferry's romantic and pop-oriented sound of rock and Eno's DIY-ethos was responsible for this album's main strengths.
Roxy Music would boast greater accomplishments a year later and reach more horizons, and there would be better artsy glam rock further down the line (in Eno's solo career, Sparks' Kimono My House, and John Cale's Paris 1919, to name a few), but Roxy Music is an excellent debut album that showed a band who knew what they were doing, but mainly focused on being forward-thinking and limitless. Between the swirls of Eno's synths, the strength of Manzanera and Mackay on the guitar and sax, and Ferry's romantic and manic vocals, this album is consistently entertaining and thrilling, even in its spottiest moments.
Listen to Roxy Music on Spotify here.