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.
great write-up Rich! “Country Life” is my favorite Roxy album but by a very narrow margin. “For Your Pleasure” and “Siren” are close behind. I believe you totally nailed the essence of Roxy’s greatness with this line-
‘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.’
Their marriage of art rock, prog rock, glam rock & pop melody without traditional pop structures made them one of a kind.
Alright Brian, I love when we agree on a favorite. For newcomers I would always recommend a good compilation, but when they’re ready to explore the catalog, “Country Life” is the place to start. I like your phrase “without traditional pop structures.” It took several albums for me to put that together, and it definitely makes them unique. How they had hits with that approach is a mystery to me.
Regarding the album covers, there was a censored version of Country Life that removed the ladies completely and just featured the plant life behind them. I never understood why they moved away from the female model theme on their later releases. As Spinal Tap said, what’s wrong with being sexy?
Hi Glenn. When I saw that censored cover, I thought, “really???” Why didn’t they just cover up the offending body parts? Wasn’t there another shot from the photo session they could’ve used? Going with the plant life seemed like a really lame compromise. At least there wasn’t a man’s hand pushing a glove in their faces, a la “Smell The Glove.” Sex-ist (still funny all these years later).
As usual, interesting overview. I did a Roxy Music overview on me and my friends’ reviewing blog (you can find the link on my name), but unfortunately it’s just in Italian. Anyway it was a delightful reading!
By the way, I’m curious: have you heard any Roxy b-side? And which version of “Angel Eyes” do you have? The rock or the disco one?
Hi Jacopo. Your blog looks excellent, but unfortunately I don’t speak or read Italian, and I couldn’t find a way to translate your site. Let me know if it’s ever available in English, as you’re obviously doing a thorough overview of the artists you’re covering.
I don’t think I’ve heard any Roxy b-sides. I just own the original albums and the Ferry/Roxy “Street Life” compilation. I don’t recall which version of Angel Eyes I have. It’s on one of the early CD pressings of “Manifesto.” I need to compare that version to the one on “Street Life” to see if they’re different. Thanks for pointing this out to me.
Once again, I really appreciate you visiting the site & sharing your thoughts.
The first LP version of “Manifesto” had an hard rock version of “Angel Eyes” (3:36″) and “Dance Away” (4:20″).
When the two songs were released as two singles “Angel Eyes” was later completely re-recorded in a new arrangment (2:53″) and “Dance Away” was remixed and re-edited (but it was the same version) (3:46″). Apparently the two singles became big hits and they started to appear on “Manifesto” ‘s later pressings instead of the original album version.
When “Manifesto” was remastered in 1999, the hard rock version of “Angel Eyes” was brought back, but not “Dance Away”. The original version of “Dance Away”, however, can be found on CD on “The Thrill of it All” boxset, along on the b-side, on which I’ll talk about later.
The disco version of “Angel Eyes” sounds out of place on the album, in my opinion: it has the “Flesh + Blood” sonorities, while the original rock version was clearly intended for that album. As for the reconstructed “Dance Away”… well, I guess my opinion is influenced by the fact that I first heard the original version on an LP rip of “Manifesto”, but to me sounds like a complete hack job. Anyway it probably makes perfect sense if you have never heard the other. But now that I have bought the 1999 remastered CD I still feel a bit weird when that track comes.
Here’s a youtube link to the original version of “Angel Eyes”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oueX4maRvQk
Unfortunately I couldn’t find on youtube a video of the original “Dance Away”: even the video that claims it was ripped from the original vinyl has the 3:46″ version, meaning that it was ripped from a later pressing. Bummer!
As for the B-sides… well, they really are Roxy Music’s b-side: they sound unlike anything they ever did. Until 1976 they are all instrumentals and weird sounding (sometimes even disturbing, for example the “Love is the Drug” b-side called “Sultanesque”). From “Manifesto” to “Avalon” they are mostly normal with just one exception (“Oh Yeah”‘s flip “South Downs”, which was accidentally released backwards on “The Thrill of It All” boxset and never corrected! How could this happen? 🙂 ). Let me handle you a few:
“Your Application’s Failed” (flip side to “All I Want is You” and Paul Thompson’s only composed song): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9w4XBPwsmM
“Sultanesque” (flip side to “Love is the Drug”): http://www.mojvideo.com/video-roxy-music-sultanesque-1975/2a2ae28156b9fe44a7c4
“Trash 2” (flip side to “Trash” and “Dance Away”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XmVsgA0w_g
“Always Unknowing” (flip side to “Avalon): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPegZQo5dnc
All the B-sides (save for “Both Ends Burning”‘s one which was a good live version of “For Your Pleasure”) are available on CD, but only on the aftermentioned “Thrill of it All” boxset which is out of print and apart from the B-sides and the original versions of “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” doesn’t have anything that can’t be found on the original albums. A wasted opportunity, indeed! I think Roxy Music needs something like The Police’s boxset “Message in a Box” which included the complete discography with all the non-LP tracks. Of course I wouldn’t buy it, because I have the complete discography on splendid remastered CDs, but it would be a great boxset 🙂
Or at least, I hope they will release the B-sides on a separate CD. I would certainly buy that!
Hi Jacopo. I’m very impressed with how thorough you are, and I really appreciate you sharing those links with me & my readers. I had never heard the rock version of “Angel Eyes” before, and it’s a revelation. I don’t have a problem with the disco version, since that’s the only one I ever knew, but the album would be much stronger with the rock version in its place.
As for the b-sides, I like “Trash 2” although it doesn’t work any better than the album version. “Always Unknowing” sounds like some of their moody earlier material. I can’t see it fitting on the “Avalon” album, but as a b-side it’s interesting. I would classify the other two b-sides as curiosities more than essential artefacts.
When it comes to my favorite artists, I like to hear everything they’ve recorded, from albums & singles to b-sides, live versions, studio outtakes, etc. The artists I’m covering here, though, are the ones I don’t know as well as my favorites, so I’ve just been focusing on the albums I already own. However, it was a pleasure hearing this alternate history of Roxy Music a couple of months after revisiting their catalog.
Thanks for taking the time to share your insight. It’s been truly enlightening. I hope I can read your blog one of these days, either via translation or (less likely) me learning Italian. We seem to have some similar tastes, especially when it comes to progressive rock. I’d love to know what you think of the new Dream Theater, which I listened to a couple of times this week.
I’m sure that when I’ll have more time I could translate for you my Roxy Music essay and maybe some other atricle, thanks for requesting it! 😉
As for Dream Theater: that review was made by a friend of mine. I’m not really competent on the band, I just like “Images and Words” and “A Change of Seasions”. I prefer 70s prog rock compared to the one that gets played nowadays!
Jacopo, I’m also a huge fan of 70s prog, from the big names (Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull) to the often-overlooked (Gentle Giant, Caravan, Camel, National Health). I look forward to reading some of your essays whenever you have the chance to translate. It’s been a pleasure corresponding with you.
Hey, Rich! Finally someone has uploaded the original vinyl version of “Dance Away”
Let me know what you think
Thanks for sharing that version of “Dance Away,” Jacopo. It really is different than the version I’ve known all these years, and other than the sparse disco section near the end, I prefer this version. It’s not necessarily more “rock” version of the song, but it’s definitely not as slickly produced, and I like how the vocals seem more prominent.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the upcoming Roxy Music “Complete Studio Albums” box set, right? From what I understand, not only will it have remastered versions of all the studio albums (along with high-res stereo for each on DVD), but most or all of the extra songs on the “Thrill Of It All” box set will be included as well. I still don’t know what the price will be, but if it’s reasonable I will definitely buy it, since I’d like to give my Roxy Music CD collection a sonic upgrade.
It’s always great to hear from you. I hope 2012 has been treating you well.
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You caught me by surprise, actually, I didn’t know that thing was coming out! Nostradamus, anyone?
I’m glad they will finally release something like this, but I still wish they would release the B-sides on a separate CD, as I won’t buy the boxset (I have all of their albums in the 1999 remastered edition, so I don’t need it). I hope they will include as well “For Your Pleasure (live)”, the only B-side to date not available on Compact Disc and I also hope they will correct some mistakes (“South Downs” released backwards… how this could happen? “The Numberer” (“Virginia Plain”‘s b-side released with only one of the stereo channels mixed into mono)
2012 hasn’t treated me greatly so far, but there are still 10 months left!
Sorry to hear that 2012 hasn’t gotten off to a great start for you, but there’s plenty of time to turn that around. I hope that happens soon.
Regarding the Roxy box set, if I had gotten the 1999 remasters I wouldn’t consider spending the money on the box, but since all of my CDs are the original ’80s pressings, this should be a great way to get better sound quality as well as all of those b-sides & rarities. What do you mean by “South Downs” released backwards? I wonder how they can fix it.
Exactly what I mean: the CD version of “South Downs” (b-side to “Oh Yeah”) has the tape running backwards. It’s a synth only instrumental but it’s pretty obvious it’s backwards if you listen to it and I can’t understand how this could have happened! The “forward” version has been included only a CD single, pretty rare and out of print
Wow, that is major mistake, and I certainly hope they’ve corrected it for the upcoming box set. Thanks for letting me know about this.
Seems like they will doing it the right way. Oh joy!!
Thanks for that link. I’m really looking forward to this box set. If it’s done well, it should be the last word Roxy’s studio albums. I just hope it’s priced fairly.
Where is the original video of “Dance Away” ?
I remember a couple of dancing girls, one with a big star on the ass of her party dress. Very seductive or maybe just a too little debauched !
I don’t remember seeing that video, but I’m sure it’s posted somewhere on the internet. I’m not surprised that Roxy Music would’ve produced a debauched video. That was in the pre-MTV era, so I wonder where it would’ve been broadcast.
Here it is. It was oddly not included in The Thrill of It All DVD or the Total Recall VHS. Lost master tapes or were they simply ashamed? 😛
Thanks for sharing that video, Jacopo, even though there’s nothing special about it. You are the master of all things related to Roxy Music. Always good to hear this song.
Hi Rich, great review. A particular mention for goes to the title track of Manifesto. An underrated song and certainly album.
Manifesto isn’t among my favorite Roxy albums but it is very good and I agree about the title track.
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