Roxy Music: Making “Fun” of Fun
March 3, 1975
“You sound like Gerald Ford,” an acquaintance of mine said recently when I complained that I could not converse with Deep Purple playing in the background. I should tell you immediately that I have a singular inability to distinguish between Canned Heat and Jethro Tull, a fact which both amuses and distresses my friends. This inability was further compounded by recent acquaintance with Roxy Music, the British group currently touring the United States and Canada.
Of course it is easy to be perplexed by Roxy Music, even after one has listened to their albums frequently. Attempts by critics to classify the group, attempts Roxy Music does not appreciate, have usually ended with a reference to Roxy’s “Fifties-Futura” sound and an admission of confusion. “I don’t quite know what to make of Bryan Ferry” said Loraine Alterman of the New York Times about Roxy Music’s leader. “Kind of a strange group,” said N.C. in Stereo Review. The name “Roxy Music” is a play on the word “rock” and a reference to ’30s cinema (both the style of movie palace and the starlet’s name). Dr. Simon Puxley, a London academician who writes Roxy’s press material, remarks further that “the word ‘Music’ was added to differentiate the group from a mediocre American act called Roxy and also because it suggested not merely a group of people but a whole kind of music.”
This “whole kind of music” happens to be, at the moment, one of the most popular groups in Europe and Canada. Why it has not reached that level of popularity in the United States might best be illustrated by the controversy engendered over the cover of the group’s latest LP, ”Country Life.” This album was forced to be wrapped in a green opaque Baggie because it was felt that the picture of pantie-clad Playmate of the Year Marilyn Cole on the cover might hurt sales in the Midwest market.
It is exactly this sort of controversy which makes me feel that Roxy Music will, in two years, three years, whatever, be to American music what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were at one time. As such, it is important to understand them. Even though they were dropped by Warner Brothers, their first American label, and even though their first U.S. tours were poorly received, Roxy’s current record company, Atlantic, has a faith in them usually reserved for only the most commercially successful groups.
This faith is predicated upon a belief that the American audience, while slower to accept what Roxy Music has to offer than its European counterpart, will come to appreciate the group, buy the records, and then create a new aural aesthetic which will profitably influence not only other rock groups (the sort of domino theory one often finds in television production) but put music to an entirely new use.
Which is to say the tradition of rock, i.e., having fun, has been replaced by having “fun.” Boogie bands have fun, in fact they are the professionalization of fun. What Roxy Music has done is create an aesthetic of “fun.” We have “fun” all the time. We go to the movies for “fun,” bake cookies for “fun,” even have sex for “fun.” “Let’s have fun,” someone who looks like Shelley Winters or Paul Lynde will almost certainly wail at a party, and then, in the most heartfelt collusion, we all get up, talk louder, drink more, and search for the amusing premise which will lend some “correct” posture to our most foolish selves.
It is a concept and type of behavior one inevitably associates with Los Angeles. As it happens, Los Angeles is the favorite city of Roxy Music for all the “fun” reasons; the topiary gardens, the kidney-shaped swimming pools, the French chateaux on Mulholland Drive. This appreciation is disarming because the actual concept of “fun” has become so centrally American that when the English actively appreciate it and, even further, have “fun” with it, it provokes confusion.
This confusion is all in the game. The trick of the concept of “fun” is to never run out of amusing premises and frolicsome ironies. It means being able to view life in “quotation marks.” Roxy Music has mastered this trick, even on the most elementary level. It toys with everything: with being danceable, with sentimentality, with art. Especially with art. Because it refuses to take itself seriously as art, while at the same time using all the formal principles of art (structured composition, formal lyrics), Roxy Music has beaten groups like Jethro Tull and Soft Machine and Yes at their own game: “Doctor of Rock.” The game of “Doctor of Rock” has certain irrevocable rules: one must always write lyrics which demonstrate quid pro quo that one graduated from college (listen to Jethro Tull’s “Wondering Aloud” if you don’t believe me); one must list on record jackets instruments like the balalaika after individuals’ names to demonstrate that one is a genuine musician; one must demonstrate, at some point on the album, that one can fiddle endlessly with electronics, thus earning the label “experimental” or, better yet, “weird.”
The winner of the “Doctor of Rock” game produces music which has nothing to do with melody; it could just as easily come from an electric range or a water faucet. This music cannot be participated in; it must be considered. It is, therefore, “funless” sound. Not so with Roxy. “Our music has gotten more and more musical,” Bryan Ferry told me after their concert in Philadelphia. “And I think my solo career has had some effect on it. On our first album. I was much more interested in making an art, capital A, statement. In the last two albums I’ve been more interested in using conventional instruments. Our last album is, I’m told, the most commercially acceptable, and that sounds nice to me.”
He went on to reassure me that there was no “compromise made to get the sound.” Bryan Ferry makes no concessions to the audience, and does what he does to please himself. “I think people are just beginning to like our music more,” he said simply.
The content of “our music” had a lot to do with “fun,” especially Bryan Ferry’s voice itself, a second tenor which lacks vocal antecedent. His voice operates on the same principle as hotel room service. Studied effects appear with hazy origins, use themselves up, and are removed without explanation. Much has been written about the “condescension” in Bryan Ferry’s voice and his solo-album reinterpretations of American AM hits like “I Love How You Love Me” and “It’s My Party.” Critics mistrust his intentions. What Bryan Ferry does is simply sing American songs like an Englishman should, but with the American concept of “fun.” He does not do to “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” what Paul McCartney did to “Long Tall Sally,” aping Little Richard’s mannerisms. He has “fun” with the songs, which is not to say that he makes fun of them. He enjoys them and treats them with the love that you reserve for people with whom you can have “fun.”
As such, the Roxy Music stage show is the precise intersection of nothing. Using a “cross-faded” lighting system (colors come and go and blend into each other without apparent reason), the group appears on stage wearing “fun” costumes which address no period, honor no style. Bryan Ferry wears black tie or his “Cunard Cruise style of stage dress,” which consists of knee-length black-boots, a gray jodhpurs, an officer’s white mess shirt with braided epaulets, and a leather strap for ornamentation. (It is rumored that Bryan Ferry has a valet, a fact which disturbs certain people I know because it implies he owns a slave. For Roxy Music, it is those same people who are essentially “funless,” who are fond of “clarifying the basic issues” at Community Planning Board meetings.) Phil Manzanera, one of the nicest guitarists I have met, wears black satin pants, and violinist/synthesizer maestro Eddie Jobson wears a black velvet cutaway. Andy Mackay is in a kelly green space-age jump suit, and John Wetton sticks to dungarees, both on and offstage.
Since Bryan Ferry’s lyrics toy with sentimentality and his voice toys with it even more, John Wetton’s bass and Paul Thompson’s drums must provide a strange and wonderful “white man’s rhythm.” These two players give Roxy Music its capacity for rock, however unphysical that rock may be. “Go get ’em, Bryan,” a fan in front of me kept shouting at the Academy of Music during their concert — and in “Mother of Pearl,” Bryan did. With hard support from John and Paul and Eddie and Phil, he slid his voice up and down and around his own lyrics. “If you’re looking for love in a looking-glass world, it’s pretty hard to find,” he sang and the audience knew exactly how seriously to take him.
Of course the method by which Bryan Ferry composes his songs does not sound “fun” at all. It sounds “serious.”
“I often see a song in the same kind of structure that one sees a drawing,” Mr. Ferry said. “In fact when I’m trying to explain what I want a player to do I often say to him, ‘Can you make it go like this?’ ”
He describes shapes in the air.
“Our first single, ‘Virginia Plain,’ was based on a watercolor I once did. Ideas for songs come very quickly to me, very easily. The thing that takes all the time is refining the idea. It’s really like finishing an essay.”
But if the method is not “fun,” the product is. In “Virginia Plain,” one hears the Bach-like motival composition, listens to Phil Manzanera’s technical prowess, and then watches each member of the band throw himself at the nearest microphone in unisoned rhythm while Bryan shouts, “What’s the name? Virginia Plain!” as though doing the soundtrack for a radio commercial. “Fun” keeps undercutting art, with just the right amount of disrespect.
It is the same kind of “fun” Bach had with his audience. He composed in the same concerto grosso style and would insert quirky key changes or unexpected rhythmic patterns or instrumentation whenever his mood changed. He even changed songs to fit the people with whom he was playing. Of course Bach did not have Bryan Ferry’s lyrics to contend with. When I saw the group in Philadelphia, I was standing behind the McCune sound board when Ferry announced that “this is the point in the show when we all go mad,” and Roxy Music began “If It Takes All Night.” Paul Thompson took off with a cold 4/4 beat, and Phil Manzanera built upon that beat with an even cooler guitar motif and Andy Mackay added a brilliant saxophone interlude. On top of this music Bryan Ferry sang his lyrics:
Ah — more champagne
To lose this pain
Would be very nice
So I’l help myself to one more drink
And I’ll find myself
If it takes all night
At the finish the audience was on its feet, where it stayed through the encore of “Do the Strand.” Bryan posed, caught a flower, and threw it back. He flicked his cigarette to the beat of the drum. It was nothing. It was “fun.” Everyone bravoed.
Of course the fact that Roxy’s stage show is the precise intersection of nothing is disturbing to some, seems too cerebral and disaffected and non sequitured. So why are American audiences learning to love this cool attitude based on English adolescence? Because they are realizing something that English children deduced from a national history of atomization: nothing applies. That nothing applies is not a surprising conceit to a child growing up in Newcastle, England, as Bryan Ferry did, but to Maggie May it seems very refreshing after all the doctrinaire advice and ethics which deceive. The medium of Roxy Music has much to do with the amusing premise that there is indeed nothing called “real life,” nothing to which we can attach ourselves when the fuses blow and the parents die and all the standards props like “love” and “success” prove hollow. It is to this detached reality which Roxy Music speaks, with words that most of us have yet to understand.