Bryan Ferry’s “soul boy” persona was matched only by Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie in subcultural influence.
Roxy Music were never as popular here in the States as in their native England, where frontman Bryan Ferry’s “soul boy” persona was matched only by Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie in subcultural influence. But for connoisseurs of “alternative” music (always something of an Anglophilic pursuit), it would be difficult to imagine the last four decades without them. On their first two albums in particular, Roxy made art rock impossibly cool: eschewing the baroque leanings of groups like King Crimson, for whom Ferry famously auditioned in 1970, in favor of a hip aloofness borrowed from the Velvet Underground and repackaged for maximum postmodern alienation. The result effectively set the stage for a whole post-punk lineage, from late-‘70s New Wave to ‘80s New Romanticism all the way to 21st-century electropop.
More to the point, Roxy’s self-titled debut is simply a great album. Few other groups have arrived on the scene with such a distinctive, fully-formed aesthetic: the ever-so-slightly queered glamour of cover model Kari-Ann Muller; the stilted, quavering vibrato of Ferry’s vocals and the art-damaged analogue synth noise of resident conceptualist Brian Eno. The album’s first half, in particular, is virtually without fault. Opening track “Re-Make/Re-Model” and lead single “Virginia Plain” are impeccable art-school proto-punk, the former exploding into a collage of two-bar instrumental quotes from the likes of “Day Tripper” and “Ride of the Valkyries.” “If There is Something” opens with a camp take on country-pop before mutating into an extended guitar and saxophone workout. “Ladytron” and “2HB,” meanwhile, concisely encapsulate Roxy’s prog-glam paradox: the former with its multiple movements, swathes of ponderous mellotron and Andy MacKay’s plaintive oboe solo (!); the latter with MacKay’s glossy saxophone and Ferry’s affected, Warholian tribute to Old Hollywood masculinity.
That paradox is what largely defines Roxy Music’s less iconic, albeit no less rewarding, second half. In a time when progressive rock was rapidly sinking into self-parody, Roxy presented a way forward, replacing earnest muso-isms with a deliberately plastic presentation and a healthy thirst for noise. On “The Bob (Medley),” they compress the sprawling, Roman-numeraled suites of the day into a comparatively tight six minutes of musique concréte collage-rock. On “Would You Believe?” and “Bitters End,” they pilfer ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and English music hall, turning these well-worn populist styles into arch objets d’art. Not every art-rock pitfall is avoided: at a glacial seven minutes in length, “Sea Breezes” is a bit of a snooze. But the stark, alien ballad “Chance Meeting” is a glimpse into avant-pop’s future, its slowly spiraling piano and vocal melody thrown off-kilter by the shrieking feedback of Phil Manzanera’s guitar.
Upon its release in 1972, Roxy Music offered a ready-made foundation for a new phase of British art-rock. It’s thus fascinating to hear the added disc of demos and outtakes on this year’s “Super Deluxe” edition, which pull back the curtain and allow a peek at the monolith in the making. A batch of previously-unheard 1971 demo recordings reveals an early Roxy stripped almost entirely of their glam gloss, leaving the weedy woodwind-playing prog-rockers exposed in full view. The more conventional session outtakes—one for each track on the album, plus an untitled instrumental piece—are closer to the final product, but with rough edges that underscore the group’s avant-garde proclivities. Finally, a third disc compiling Roxy’s 1972 BBC sessions has the opposite effect, capturing the slick, musically-sophisticated glam outfit with less emphasis on Eno’s electronic “treatments.”
The tensions embodied in Roxy Music and foregrounded in the bonus material would ultimately prove unsustainable. Eno left soon after 1973’s For Your Pleasure, carrying the early Roxy’s experimental bent into his own solo albums, while Ferry took the remaining group in an ever-more stylized direction, ultimately out-glamouring glam rock itself. While the influence of Roxy’s first album extends far and wide, its precise ratio of cutting-edge pop and progressive rock bombast has never quite been replicated: it remains, in its way, one of a kind. All the more reason to rediscover it—or, for the truly lucky, discover it for the first time—now.