Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
One thing that’s become apparent as I’ve listened to Roxy Music the past few weeks is that they rarely, if ever, followed a standard verse-chorus-bridge structure, yet somehow managed to create some incredibly catchy songs amid their more avant-garde art-rock tunes. Occasionally a musical “chorus” might repeat a few times, but the lyrics and atmosphere continue to shift. These guys did not subscribe to the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” philosophy of pop songwriting. I thought this would only apply to their earliest work, which I covered in my previous post, but that’s not the case. Apparently that’s how they liked to write & arrange their music, because it continued into the middle portion of their career.
Country Life (1974) is definitely my favorite out of the batch of albums I’ve revisited for this post, and it’s not just because of that front cover. They reined in their quirkier tendencies just enough, and coupled that with a great collection of songs and some incredible musicianship, most notably Phil Manzanera on guitar. Who knew there was such a kick-ass rock band under that art-rock façade? Right from album opener “The Thrill Of It All,” I was hooked and never let go. There may not be a hit single here (although “All I Want Is You,” with its squealing guitar punctuating Bryan Ferry’s lyrics and the Bowie-esque backing vocals, was a minor hit in the UK), but top to bottom this might be the most consistently rewarding album in their catalog.
For me, the highlight of the album is the last song, “Prairie Rose.” A song about Ferry’s then-girlfriend, Texan model Jerry Hall (who would appear on the cover of their next album, and later became Mick Jagger’s common-law wife), I became aware of it through a cover version by one of my all-time favorite bands, Big Country. In 1984 they included a version of this song as a single b-side, and if I hadn’t seen the writing credit I would’ve assumed it was one of their own songs. I often wondered if they chose to record it because it included the words “big country” in the lyrics. Musically, Roxy Music’s original version is a little softer around the edges, but it still has the power of the Big Country version that I knew first. Ironically, it also brought to mind the Talking Heads song, “The Big Country,” which I discussed in an earlier post about that band. What a strange coincidence.
Here’s the original version:
[Roxy Music – “Prairie Rose”]
And here’s the Big Country version:
As for the rest of the album, there’s not a weak track here, but the songs that really stood out for me are “If It Takes All Night,” which has the feel of a country shuffle or bar-room blues, “Triptych,” with its melody driven by what sounds like a harpsichord, and the melancholy yet funky & syncopated “Out Of The Blue.”
That’s the aforementioned Jerry Hall on the cover of Siren (1975). Any album that has the ridiculously catchy “Love Is The Drug,” which was the first Roxy Music song I was aware of, as the opening song is off to a great start. It’s perfectly constructed, that cool bass/sax intro followed by the sound of a car engine revving and then that incredible groove, and one of Ferry’s most confident vocal performances. I love the way he sings “dim the lights, you can guess the rest.” This might be the start of the suave lover persona he would take to greater commercial heights, both with the band and as a solo artist, a few years later.
The rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its opening number, and it’s not on the same level as its predecessor, but there are several notable tracks. “She Sells” quickly became a new favorite. The piano-driven verses (if you can call them that) recall the poppier side of Queen, while the instrumental section (is that a clavinet?) made me think of “The Shape I’m In” by The Band.
“Both Ends Burning” has a consistent driving beat with synth washes throughout, and Ferry’s vocals are so powerful that you can tell this would be a great live song (which would be confirmed on their subsequent live album). “Just Another High” has a lot going for it, like that sitar effect on the guitar, and an actual repeated chorus for a change, but it goes on a little too long. I also enjoyed “Nightingale,” with Manzanera’s phased guitar strumming in the intro, and the way the steady beat of the verses gives way to the softer instrumental sections.
Their first live album, Viva! (1976), was actually recorded during three different tours (1973-1975), but the way the songs blend seamlessly you wouldn’t know it. Every song is given a killer live delivery, and they also included the single-only song “Pyjamarama.” Two of my favorite slower, brooding tracks (“The Bogus Man” and “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”) are even more powerful here, and “Both Ends Burning” showcases what an incredibly tight band they were. One of my prog-rock heroes, John Wetton, plays bass on more than half the tracks, although he never appeared on any of their studio albums. My only complaint is that it’s not longer. At 8 songs and just over 46 minutes, they left me wanting more.
Four years between albums is a long time now, but back in the ‘70s it seemed like a lifetime. By the time Roxy Music released Manifesto (1979), the musical landscape had significantly changed, and they changed with it. On the surface, it would seem like this was their “club” or “disco” record, since it contained the very danceable hit single, “Dance Away,” and the album cover showed dancing mannequins in a Club 54-like setting, but they had other tricks up their sleeves. “Trash” is a New Wave song, and the music could easily be mistaken for The Cars. “Angel Eyes” is a precursor to the “New Romantic” sound to be popularized a few years later by bands like ABC, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet. This was a big hit in the UK. Album closer “Spin Me Round” is brooding in a Roger Waters way, without the anger & sarcasm, but still tinged with a feeling of loneliness. “Manifesto” has a sinister bass line and sounds like the soundtrack to a low-budget ‘70s art house movie. Most significantly, “Ain’t That So” is a slow groover that turns into a syncopated dance number with smooth sax, and is a sign of things to come, especially from what I recall of the album Avalon (to be revisited here soon).
[Roxy Music – “Angel Eyes”]
The bass playing throughout this album, by new guy Alan Spenner, is superb, and deserves special mention. This seems like more of a transitional album than an essential one, which I hope to confirm when I spend some time with their next (and final) two albums, as well as one more live album. I’ll post about them, as well as my final thoughts on Roxy Music, sometime next week before moving on to my next artist. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section. I look forward to hearing from my fellow music lovers. Thanks.