Roxy Music: the band that broke the sound barrier

From The Guardian:

Roxy Music
Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982
Virgin Catalogue
2012

There’s a certain sort of glam-rock fan who never ceases to be blown away by the fact that Bowie played a character, the imaginary rock star Ziggy Stardust. That same certain sort of glam fan never stops being thrilled by the nerve and verve of Roxy Music giving a credit on their debut LP to the person who did their clothes, hair and makeup. Supposedly this was a dissident blow against rock’s anti-fashion stance. Cutting through the stale dope-smoke fug of the hippie hangover, Roxy were “the first true band of the 70s”. But they also prophesied the 80s, their celebration of posing and artifice anticipating postmodernism, the new romantics, the Face, pop video and self-reinventing superstars like Madonna.

Which isn’t untrue, but isn’t the whole truth either. It’s hardly the case that Roxy or Bowie invented the idea of image or were the first rockers to have close relationships with designers and stylists. Most 1960s British bands took an interest in clothes and hair. Nor were Bowie or Roxy’s Brian Eno the first flamboyantly androgynous figures in rock. On the record sleeve and in the promo film for Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?, the Stones wore women’s clothing four years before Bowie put on a frock for the cover of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World.

Still, it is true that around 1970-71, rock got awfully drab looking, with countless denim-clad blues-bore and boogie bands, dressed-down singer-songwriters and country-rock outfits, and virtuoso players too wrapped up in their endless soloing to bother with stagecraft. “Everything went flat,” recalls Phil Manzanera, the guitarist who responded to Ferry’s “avant rock” ad and eventually got the job. “A lot of musicians were getting strung out on heavy drugs,” he tells me. “They were out of it, so they weren’t even bothering to wear kaftans or other hippie stuff, which had been stylish in their own way.” Then, with the emergence of Roxy Music and Bowie in 1972, “suddenly there was colour and exoticism and the spirit of rock’n’roll again. We supported Bowie at the Greyhound in Croydon in June 1972: Bowie in his full Ziggy Stardust gear and us in all our regalia, performing to just 150 people in this little upstairs room. It was a tiny stage but it had theatrical lighting, so you had to wear make-up because that’s what theatre people do, otherwise you look washed-out.”

John Lennon once quipped that glam was just rock’n’roll with lipstick. Glam historians tend to emphasise the lipstick at the expense of the rock’n’roll; they focus overly on the gender-bending rather than the genre-bending. In Roxy’s case, the attention paid to the group’s fashion world connections, pop art allegiances and other extra-musical credentials threatens to overshadow their achievements as a rock band. In truth, Eno’s feather boas, Bryan Ferry’s gaucho look of 1974… they haven’t aged that well. It’s hard to believe that wearing a white dinner jacket was ever a big deal. Even the celebrated covers of the first five albums, with their lingerie-clad models, look cheesy and chauvinist these days (apart from the still-edgy sleeve of For Your Pleasure, a perversely stylised shot of Amanda Lear walking a panther). The music, though, remains timeless in its weirdness and wildness.

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