Roxy Music: The Sound Of Surprise
PAUL THOMPSON's tom-toms ground slowly to a shuddering halt as Eno's synthesiser simulated the sound of Firestone Wide Ovals being pushed past their limit around a fast curve. The short final chord was almost obscured by the cheers and clapping. This was last Sunday night at the Greyhound in Croydon, South London's answer to Manhattan and Spaghetti Junction rolled into one.
But it could have been several places over the past few weeks, because almost everywhere they've been, Roxy Music have been greeted with the kind of warmth that all new bands crave, but few ever achieve. To those who've watched the band's progress closely in recent months, it comes as no surprise that audiences are taking to them without being told to. Roxy's brand of skiffle is altogether too good for anyone to miss – a lovely blend of surprise and satisfaction. They seem to combine so many good things into one tightly compressed package: good writing and playing, humour, dazzling visuals, and shocks galore. Anyone who puts them in a rock revivalist bag is missing the whole point.
Bryan Ferry, writer and singer and pianist and embryonic cultural superstar, explains: "Only two songs on the album – 'Would You Believe' and 'Bitter's End' – really use elements of Fifties and Sixties music. And 'Bitters End' is quite serious – there's the ambiguity of the doo-wopping singers in the background, which gives people a certain image, against the words, which are strange and not at all the kind of thing you'd usually find in that musical context.
"Actually, 'Would You Believe' is the most restricting thing we do – far less satisfying than the rest – because it's a very set thing, a little cameo with no room for improvement or interesting improvising. It's very much something that we have to act through, and if we're not in the mood there's not much we can do."
But the rest of the songs abound with references back to earlier pop music – like the "quotes" on 'Re-Make/Re-Model' or the Joe Meek-style production touches on 'Ladytron'. Ferry says: "It seems to be nice to have something which is rich in variety, and so many things from the past have been totally forgotten. It would be terrific, for instance, to have real violins on stage playing like the strings on 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow'.
"We're eclectic, certainly, but it's not so much cribbing – these elements are used with a point, and that's the strength of the group." What's really surprised him is the way these back-references are going down with an audience which is presumably too young to have heard them the first time around. "At some places they've been very young indeed but the reaction has been amazingly good. We want to get through to different people on different levels, so that whereas one person, maybe a Hampstead intellectual, would say: 'How camp!'. A kid would respond by saying 'That's weird!' The kid would probably get the bigger kick."
Obviously, it's all been happening very fast for the band. Only four months ago, they had no manager or agent, and had played only a tiny handful of generally abortive gigs. Now, with a brand new bassist (Rik Kenton), and a brilliant debut album behind them, they're playing Wembley's Empire Pool tomorrow night (Friday), as the sole support to Alice Cooper. "So far, everything we've tried has been fairly successful," Bryan says.
It's particularly enjoyable for the three members who haven't been on the road before: reedman Andy Mackay, electronics manipulator Eno, and Ferry himself. Ferry's responses are coloured by his experience as a painter and sculptor. "It's strange to do something and be cheered for it, when you're used to a cool reaction to anything that, you've ever done before. It's much nicer this way, and the audiences really do seem to appreciate the fact that we perform, rather than just play."
The songs in their current repertoire come almost exclusively from the period between September '70 and May '71; when Bryan wrote a great deal. But now he's having trouble finding the time and space to write. "I can't work while we're on the road, and I can't write at home because I work best late at night and the neighbours go spare. What I need is a semi-detached bungalow in Esher and a few weeks off to absorb some information from outside." Bryan recognises that life on the road can lead to the kind of introspection which manifests itself in so many supremely boring songs.
His official biography states: "He names Duchamp and Warhol as two significant musical influences. Bryan thinks that it's too bald and sounds pseud and elaborates: "Someone like Picasso develops a style and then flogs it to death. Marcel Duchamp was a kind of will o' the wisp of art, lending his hand to all kinds of activity – which one would wish to emulate. Warhol's idea is to make art with as little effort as possible – he's an ideas man, really. And if you have faith in an idea, it is easy to make it happen. The main thing about our music is still its surprise. It would be terrific to have the second album sound nothing like the first. We're not the kind of band to find a formula and then stick to it. That's deathly!'"
Future plans include their first single, a Ferry song called 'Virginia Plain', to be produced (like the album) by Pete Sinfield, sometime this month. The song's based on one of Bryan's old paintings, in turn inspired by the cigarettes of the same name and by former Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer. What about success then, Bryan?
"There are so many unknown and uncontrollable factors. Most of the band have this approach of inspired amateurism, and as long as we can retain that we'll be all right. The Rock Machine is quite a tough beast and very conventional. We've got to keep up the energy to question the way things are and shift them around to how we feel they should be into our overall scheme. But at, the moment, I just going up and down the M1 for the first time is very enjoyable."
© Richard Williams, 1972