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)