Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #37: Roxy Music

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: An English art-pop band formed in 1970 by singer-songwriter-keyboardist Bryan Ferry, running as a recording concern (bar one late-’70s hiatus) through the early ’80s, with occasional live reunions since that time. The original version of the group included synth player Brian Eno, while Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, reeds/keys-man Andy Mackay, and drummer Paul Thompson provided the core of the group throughout its studio and live career, with support from a variety of bass players and keyboardists along the way. Roxy Music were big, important, and influential in the UK in their early years (aligning with the peak of the glam period), but didn’t score a (mild) crossover hit in the United States until “Love Is The Drug” (barely) broke into the American Top 40 in 1975. The group went into hibernation for a few years after that breakthrough, then re-emerged in 1979 for a three-record run that culminated with 1982’s Avalon, their biggest seller in the States, and the source of their most widely played and popular single, “More Than This,” which featured notably in the 2003 hit film Lost in Translation. Bryan Ferry has maintained a solid solo career during and since Roxy’s heyday, while Phil Manzanera has long been a go-to session guitarist and support player, atop his own interestingly eclectic solo career, including his stint (with Eno) in the group 801, which issued one of the finest in-concert albums (801 Live) ever recorded in 1976.

When I First Heard Them: When “Love Is The Drug” was a demi-hit on pop radio in the mid-’70s. To be honest and frank, it didn’t do anything for me, and still mostly doesn’t. Given the group’s name and cheesecake album cover art, I sort of mentally lumped them with the likes of, say, The Average White Band, or The Ohio Players, or Ace, or The Climax Blues Band, or the Atlanta Rhythm Section, all of them pleasant enough one-or-two-hit wonders, but not of a variety that seemed to be of any particular interest to me. But over the next few years, as I got deeply into Eno and King Crimson, and discovered that the former had been a founding member of Roxy, that the latter’s (then)-final bass player depped in Roxy for their last pre-hiatus tour, and that Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield had produced Roxy’s debut album, my curiosity was duly piqued. My first Roxy purchase was their 1977 Greatest Hits collection, and I must say that my mind was well and fully blown by what its grooves contained, requiring me to go back and nab their original five albums, the first four of which are still, to my mind, stone-cold masterpieces, the fifth of which (Siren, of “Love Is The Drug” fame) left me a bit cold. My experience with the three post-hiatus albums was similar: I enjoyed the first two (Manifesto from 1979 and Flesh And Blood from 1980), but their final studio album, Avalon, seemed way too slick and dull to me. That said, it was immensely popular among my peer group at the time, so it is definitely a key sonic piece of its era in my life, and I’d wager that for most Americans my age, if they know anything by or about Roxy Music, it’s based on that album and its singles. Sigh.

Why I Love Them: Nobody has ever merged experimental art noise, iconic visuals, and pop music as thoroughly and effectively as Roxy Music did at the peak of their powers, and my favorite songs of theirs are all pretty much culled from their potent collection of weird wonders. Eno’s synthesizers were most extraordinary on their first two albums, and his replacement, Eddie Jobson, did a fine job of integrating strings and orchestral touches into the group’s dynamic to replace his predecessor’s bleeps and bloops and whooshes. Ferry was also, at his best, a deeply unique songwriter, with profound and clever lyrics and curious song structures and chord charts that rarely hewed to standard pop-rock verse-chorus-bridge structures. But I’ve always felt that somewhere around the time of Avalon, somebody pointed out to him that his songwriting was wrong, somehow, and that he’d be better off positioning himself as a crooning song-stylist of the Frank Sinatra variety, rather than as a truly exotic musical beast of his own insular and inimitable style. And, sadly, Ferry seemed to accept that advice. (Most of his earlier solo albums were largely or wholly composed of covers; they’re not bad, but it’s as if David Bowie chose and replicated Pin-Ups as his defining album of the early ’70s, in lieu of Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust). So while there’s a fair volume in the Roxy catalog that I’m not particularly wild about (and in the case of their cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” I actively, positively loathe it), I remain a fond and fervent fan of the group on a macro basis, and still spin their best bits regularly, experiencing them just as enthusiastically and with as much wonder as I did in the late ’70s.

#10. “Flesh and Blood,” from Flesh and Blood (1980)

#9. “Editions of You,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#8. “Virginia Plain,” from “Virginia Plain”/”The Numberer” single (1972)

#7. “Do The Strand,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#6. “Manifesto,” from Manifesto (1979)

#5. “The Thrill Of It All,” from Country Life (1974)

#4. “Beauty Queen,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#3. “Casanova,” from Country Life (1974)

#2. “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” from For Your Pleasure (1973)

#1. “Mother of Pearl,” from Stranded (1973)

Best Albums of 2021 (First Half)

It’s been six-plus months since I posted my Best Albums of 2020 list here, so the time seems right to offer a first-half albums report for 2021. I’ve found and heard some amazing things this year, though I will note that the Anno Virum has certainly impacted the music world, as I’ve found fewer brilliant albums thus far in 2021 than is typical for this time of the year. That said, it seems that things have been picking up over the past couple of months, so here’s hoping that there’s a tremendous backlog of brilliant new music out there awaiting release, as artists are able to collaborate in person and/or tour their latest creations after long periods of creative isolation.

As is my typical practice for these sorts of lists, I restrict my recommendations to full-length albums, though I do want to call out and celebrate Jed Davis’ series of EPs as 2021 highlights, as discussed in depth here. I suspect he’ll issue them in album form at some point, and the songs contained therein are all winning regular and enthusiastic spins hereabouts, so they merit your consideration, even if they don’t technically qualify as long-players on their own. For each of the albums below, I provide a link for further exploration, and the albums are listed in the order that I acquired them this year. Happy listening! And let me know what I’ve missed and need to hear in the comment section, please and thanks!

The Body: I’ve Seen All I Need to See

Black Country, New Road: For the first time

Alice Cooper: Detroit Stories

Arab Strap: As Days Get Dark

Paul Leary: Born Stupid

Mexican Institute of Sound: Distrito Federal

The Heartwood Institute: Witchcraft Murders

Xiu Xiu: OH NO

Intercourse: Rule 36

Les Conches Velasques: Celebración Del Trance Profano

Genghis Tron: Dream Weapon

Kasai Allstars: Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound

Buggy Jive: You Won’t Like the Answer

Micky Dolenz: Dolenz Sings Nesmith

Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg

Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend

Billy F. Gibbons: Hardware

If 2021 ended today, this one would be my Album of the Year. We’ll see if it holds its spot for another six months.

With Which I Am Well Pleased X (Years Gone)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILM

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #36: Swans

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: An intense experimental ensemble formed in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1982 by stalwart member and visionary Michael Gira, following the demise of his former band, Circus Mort. The group’s early music was grinding, brutal, and violent, with some truly horrific and debased lyrics adding to the transcendent discomfort of their work. In the mid-’80s, Gira’s creative and personal partner Jarboe joined the group as a second vocalist, songwriter, arranger and keyboard player, and the pair slowly moved the group toward more traditional song-based structures, though the darkness of the words and music remained potent, even in more acoustic or melodic settings with Swans and/or their side project of the era, Skin. Swans dissolved in 1997, with Jarboe and Gira embarking on satisfying solo careers, and Gira launching the influential Young God Records. While the group’s following in its initial run was fervent, if small, by 2010, their legend and influence had grown to a point where Gira’s announcement of their re-activation (without Jarboe) was warmly covered by the likes of such “respected” outlets as National Public Radio and The New York Times. Swans have issued five studio albums since their reformation to critical acclaim, and their epic live shows have come to carry legendary status as thrilling, exhausting, exhilarating exercises in creating other-worldly experiences for audiences through battering repetition, volume, and intensity. A 2019 documentary called Where Does A Body End? provides an absolutely stellar overview of their career, catalog, and creative processes, and I highly recommend it. Here’s the trailer:

When I First Heard Them: 1984-ish, around the time of their second long-player, Cop, and the game-changing Young God EP. While the value and impact of album cover art has been dramatically diminished in these our sad streaming days, I often bought records way back when based solely on imagery and close reading of liner notes on exterior covers, without having any idea of what the grooves inside the record sleeve actually contained. Swans’ cover iconography grabbed me immediately; it was stark, scary, and striking, and the presence of early song titles like “Big Strong Boss” and “Weakling” and “Butcher” and “Thug” and “I Crawled” and “Raping A Slave” gave a dark preview into what one was going to experience within those records’ tracks. The first record of theirs I actually purchased was Filth (1983), and, Holy Moly, was that dark preview sense borne out in garish, painful audio-technicolor when that and subsequent records were actually acquired and consumed. The group went into a highly prolific period over the next few years as they stabilized around what I consider to be their greatest line-up: Gira, Jarboe, guitarist Norman Westberg (the only close-to-permanent member of the band throughout its history, other than Gira), bassist Algis Kizys and drummer Ted Parsons. After their sole flirtation with a major label on 1989’s atypical, Bill Laswell-produced The Burning World, Swans went on to issue a steady series of stellar releases that balanced the beautiful and the debased throughout the remainder of their original run, with a variety of rhythm sections working around the Gira-Jarboe-Westberg core (except for a brief period when Clinton Steele served as the featured guitarist in Norman’s place).  The post-2010 group has featured Gira and Westberg with a mostly-stable collection of superior collaborators and colleagues, and it’s been pleasing to see Gira earning so many well-deserved plaudits from “reputable” media outlets after decades of personal and creative struggle in the dark spaces of the musical underground. Best of all, while the structures and sounds of his songs have evolved over the years, their intensity (lyrically and musically) has not faded, and that’s an accomplishment truly worthy of respect and honor and admiration.

Why I Love Them: Just before I discovered Swans, I had written and recorded a song called “Meat,” (I’m dismayed to discover today that I do not have a digital copy of that song to share), which featured these words as its final verse:

Meat, soul. Soul, meat.
All we are is where they meet.
God can satisfy the spirit.
Hear His message? Hear it? Hear it!
Meat is happy stimulated.
Through sex and pain the meat is sated.

Without delving too deeply into the dark spaces of my personal psychology, then or now, I’ll note that explorations into extreme physical vs spiritual dynamics were deeply important to me at that time, and highly relevant to how I viewed and experienced the world around me. So it was an utter thrill to discover Swans, who took such explorations to the deepest, hardest, darkest places, where bodies and souls were punished, or pleasured, or processed in ways that combined those two states, blurring the distinctions between them. Gira’s early lyrics were often truly horrifying, and his musical settings were sublimely suited to framing them, punching their impact and their meaning into your body with sledgehammer power and dental drill precision. When Gira and Jarboe (a fellow native Southerner, which I always appreciate) began to openly blend the language and culture of my own strict and strange Christian upbringing into Swans’ music with 1987’s Children of God, it raised the impact of their work and music to fever-state levels for me, speaking to and through me in ways that few other artists ever have. And saying that, I also have to note that early Swans were possibly the one and only group that nobody in my personal circle of music nerds could stomach or tolerate, so they never played on any communal stereos anyplace that I lived through the ’80s, further cementing their status as a deeply personal obsession and inspiration for me. On a slightly lighter note, while there were few things to be tickled about during the Anno Virum, I did very much appreciate the fact that Michael Gira produced protective face masks inspired by the cover of my very first Swans album, Filth, all those years earlier. My favorite mask, without question.

While I’ve diligently followed Swans’, Gira’s and Jarboe’s careers and catalogs over the years, the profoundly personal impact of their early albums and songs means that my personal top ten list below certainly skews harder in that direction than toward their more contemporary releases. But sometimes that’s how music works, speaking to us just where we are, profoundly, in specific moments, ages, and places in our lives. It remains deeply cathartic and satisfying to occasionally pummel myself with these great Swans songs (and many others), uplifting in their debasement, righteous in their wrongness, and healing in their hurt, then, now, always.

#10. “The Great Annihilator,” from The Great Annihilator (1995)

#9. “Failure,” from White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

#8. “Time Is Money (Bastard),” from Time Is Money (Bastard) EP (1986)

#7. “A Screw (Holy Money),” from Holy Money (1986)

#6. “Stupid Child,” from Greed (1986)

#5. “Weakling,” from Filth (1983)

#4. “The Other Side of the World,” from Love of Life (1992)

#3. “Your Game,” from Body to Body, Job to Job (1991)

#2. “Thank You,” from Filth (1983)

#1. “A Hanging,” from Holy Money (1986)

10,000 Words On A Chair (Sedona #8)

(Note: Click on any image for full-size view)

PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

The Night Has 10,000 Words (Sedona #7)

10,000 Words From The Exit Wound (Sedona #6)

What Are 10,000 Words For? (Sedona #5)

10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box (Sedona #4)

10,000 Words (Bless The Lord) (Sedona #3)

Brighter Than 10,000 Words (Sedona #2)

10,000 Words (Sedona #1)

Storm Force 10,000 Words (Chicago #10)

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #35: Pere Ubu

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Cleveland’s great Pere Ubu were the first, and are still the finest, purveyors of what they’ve dubbed “Avant Garage” music, situated at the sweet spot where four-on-the-floor rock, highly-literate lyrical narratives, and experimental electronic music clash, collide, and combine into something greater than the sum of its constituent parts. Formed in 1975 from the wreckage of the influential-after-the-fact Rocket From The Tombs, and named after the vile protagonist of Alfred Jarry’s surrealist/absurdist play Ubu Roi (1896), Pere Ubu issued five landmark albums and half-a-dozen superb singles in their original 1975-1982 run, then have been a going concern since front/main-man David Thomas reconvened the group in 1987. Membership has been fluid over the years, with Mr Thomas as the sole constant; he has also maintained a vibrant solo career with a variety of collaborators, some of them also Ubus. The singularity of their creative approach, and their unparalleled success in merging outré and popular musical forms, have both stood as consistent baseline parameters over their long and rich creative run. Pere Ubu have also always rightly recognized the importance of what most groups would deem “supporting” roles in a group’s narrative, with graphic artist/designer John Thompson (a.k.a. Johnny Dromette) and the late producer/engineer Paul Hamann (1955-2017) of Cleveland’s Suma Recording Studio standing as particularly important “non-playing” members of the Pere Ubu creative core, along with various others over the years. At bottom line, Pere Ubu are a group who can rock you hard, while making you think about what you’re listening to, lyrically, conceptually, and musically. They’re good tasting, and they’re good for you. And that’s a perfectly blended recipe for long-term creative success, even if the “Grocery Police” of the world may choose to under-stock Pere Ubu, as a less-demanded source of cultural nutrition than some of their (far) less-accomplished peers.

When I First Heard Them: During the early part of their hiatus period (1982-1987). For the younger readers: I repeatedly stress in this series how different the musical world was in those pre-Internet days, when you could read about exciting groups in various musical press instruments, but could then spend months or years searching record stores for samples of what you’d read about. At some point in late 1983, I think, I finally found the final two albums of their initial run, The Art of Walking (1980) and Song of the Bailing Man (1982) in a single shopping trip at a warehouse style record store in Maryland, and they both blew my mind just as well as I’d hoped and expected from what I’d read months or years earlier. I acquired the three earlier Ubu albums over the next year or so, along with some of the solo albums that Mr Thomas was issuing in real time through the early-to-mid ’80s, which also moved me deeply (my fave is 1986’s Monster Walks The Winter Lake); I was most tickled to discover that he was working with such favorite musicians as Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson and Henry Cow’s Lindsay Cooper and Chris Cutler. Come 1988, the then-current version of Mr Thomas’ solo band looked, sounded, walked, and burbled like Pere Ubu, so he restored the group name for 1988’s The Tenement Year, and they’ve been going steady and hard ever since, just as I’ve been going steady and hard as a stalwart fan and supporter. In 1996, the group issued a stellar career retrospective box set, Datapanik in the Year Zero, that also documented a variety of obscure-to-influential Cleveland-area bands with family tree ties to their Pere. I was a working music critic at the time, and I was most happy to be able to work on a feature piece based on a group interview with Mr Thomas and the late Ubu guitarist Jim Jones (1950-2008). The print-edition synopsis of those paired interviews is available here. The more in-depth elements of my online conversation with Jim Jones continue to reside at the official Ubu Projex website, here. I’ve seen Pere Ubu live multiple times, including one of the very best shows from our four years living in Chicago, documented here. Mr Thomas experienced a serious health scare soon after that show, and it appeared that Pere Ubu might have finally run its course on this coil, but he thankfully seems to have recovered well, and the group’s Datapanik TV has emerged as one of the finest virtual responses to the Anno Virum that I’ve encountered or experienced.

Why I Love Them: Honestly, they had me at “avant garage.” That philosophical and creative merger of nominally high-brow and low-brow forms was just perfect for my personal aesthetic at the time I discovered them, and it works brilliantly for me to this day. (My own creative group of the early ’80s offered what I had dubbed “industrial folk” music, similarly trying to link and merge literate, lyrical song-based elements with noisy overtones and experimental structures; Pere Ubu were much better at it than we were!) A key to the Ubu sound over the years has been their prominent deployment of synthesizers, not as cheap substitutes for string or horn sections, nor as sequenced rhythm engines to hold their bassists and drummers in line, but rather as fully formed instruments in their own rights, percolating beneath the surface of some tunes, rising above the horizon in others to frame whole songs (or even albums) in deeply and truly unique fashion. Beyond the synths (offered most regularly by Allen Ravenstine in the early years, and Robert Wheeler since the early ’90s), Mr Thomas provides the most obvious sound of Pere Ubu as its vocalist, declaiming his literate lyrics in a warbling tenor, his distinctive voice the one constant in the group’s long run. I’ve often compared Mr Thomas to the likes of Captain Beefheart (The Magic Band), George Clinton (P-Funk) and Mark E. Smith (The Fall) as group leaders who may not ever win academic or pop culture awards for the strictly dry and technical element of their individual performances, but who stand unparalleled as distinctive singers and brilliant conceptualists, arrangers, and group directors. All of them have managed ever-evolving casts of players over long careers to create truly unique works, with their groups’ members typically offering the very best efforts of their often long and varied careers under their respective singers’ unique guidance and ministrations. I’ve also frequently cited Mr Thomas alongside King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp as the two very finest thinkers and writers when it comes to examining and explaining just what it means to be a working musician within the rock idiom. Mr Thomas has published several book-length treatises on the subject, and the Ubu Projex website is chockablock with fascinating short pieces about the group’s protocols, policies, and philosophies. I’ve fallen into and been unable to extract myself from its holds many times over the years, entertained, amused, and provoked in equal measure by what I’ve found there. I wholeheartedly endorse a trawl through its back pages if you want to read some truly smart and always well-written explorations into the state, form, and meaning of modern rock culture. It will be time well spent, I promise.

#10. “Dark,” from St. Arkansas (2002)

#9. “A Day Such As This,” from Song of the Bailing Man (1982)

#8. “Come Home,” from Story of My Life (1993)

#7. “Misery Goats,” from The Art of Walking (1980)

#6. “The Modern Dance,” from The Modern Dance (1978)

#5. “Final Solution,” from “Final Solution”/”Cloud 149” single (1976)

#4. “Wasted,” from Story of My Life (1993)

#3. “Street Waves,” from “Street Waves”/”My Dark Ages” single (1976)

#2. “Woolie Bully,” from Pennsylvania (1998)

#1. “Golden Surf II,” from Carnival of Souls (2014)