Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
In my previous post, I asserted that 1979’s Manifesto was more of a transitional album for Roxy Music than an essential one. This was confirmed after listening to the two albums that followed (which also happen to be their final two studio albums) numerous times this week. Manifesto still showed a lot of their earlier art-rock tendencies, but also introduced some simpler song structures and a dance-pop sheen (especially on the hit single, “Dance Away”) that was mostly absent on earlier recordings. As they entered the ‘80s, their sound would become more refined & sophisticated, and I believe that Manifesto bridged the gap between the two eras of the group.
Before revisiting Flesh + Blood (1980), I believed it was a minor album in their catalog. Of the ten songs included, two were covers of songs from the ‘60s: Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” This gave the impression that they didn’t have many original ideas, and in looking at the track listing, I only recalled hearing “In The Midnight Hour.” To be fair, it was a very good version that I had forgotten was played on the radio in the early ‘80s. It may not have the grit & soul of the original, but it has its own slick charm. The Byrds cover was less successful, although they did put their own spin on it. It just didn’t do much for me.
One of the pleasant surprises was “Oh Yeah,” which grew on me with each successive listen. I never would’ve remembered it based on the song title, since the catchy lyrical refrain is “there’s a band playing on the radio.” Here they finally have a song with verses & choruses. I heard a clear influence on bands like Duran Duran and ABC on the synth-pop of “Same Old Scene.” They introduce a funky synth-dance groove, reminiscent of Ultravox and Gary Numan, on “Flesh And Blood.”
[Roxy Music – “Oh Yeah”]
Two other songs also made an impression on me: “My Only Love” and “Rain Rain Rain.” On the former, I love the sparse piano & drums intro followed by another funky synth-based groove, as well as Phil Manzanera’s very David Gilmour-esque guitar solo. The latter is closest to their art-rock past. The production may be more muted, but I really enjoyed the syncopated drum pattern and synth-bass, and the way the song title remained etched in my brain long after it ended. I don’t consider this a great album since it has a little too much filler, but it’s a lot stronger than I originally thought.
They closed out their recording career with their biggest commercial success, Avalon (1982). Anyone who’s familiar with Bryan Ferry’s solo work from the ‘80s (most notably the song “Slave To Love”) will hear that sound on this record. More than any other Roxy Music album, this one sounds closest to a Ferry solo release. That’s not a criticism, but since the band was now a trio (Ferry, Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay) supported by session musicians, and Manzanera’s contribution was more subtle, Ferry’s vocals & keyboards really took center stage. The airtight production also makes this clearly the work of studio craftsmen rather than a living, breathing rock band.
The album opens with “More Than This.” The musical backdrop recalls the subdued side of Dire Straits, especially Manzanera’s guitar playing, but Ferry’s romantic croon and the beautiful arrangement make this one of the best songs they ever recorded. Many people might know this song from the movie “Lost In Translation,” where Bill Murray sings it at a karaoke bar in Japan. A similar song is the title track, “Avalon,” which couldn’t be further removed from their original sound, yet is every bit as effective as their best early songs. These two bookend “The Space Between,” which is driven along by a sparse, reggae-inspired bass line, and features horns that remind me of The Police circa Ghost In The Machine (which was released a year earlier). That’s a great trifecta to open the album. The brief, moody instrumental “India” follows (with the synth sounding like an ebow), and leads into the slow, languid pace of “While My Heart Is Still Beating.” These two didn’t initially make much of an impression, but they slowly grew on me. In the era of the LP, this was quite an album side.
The second half of the album isn’t quite as memorable, but there are some solid tracks. “Take A Chance With Me” comes across as a jangly pop song slightly hidden under the modern synth & drum sounds, and “To Turn You On” has a slinky groove & pleading vocals that make it a perfect fit for the “quiet storm” radio format. There’s also the moody, atmospheric “True To Life.” This would’ve been the ideal album closer but is followed by the brief instrumental, “Tara,” which has a pleasant sax melody on top of a wash of keyboard & bass. This is the only Roxy Music album that went Platinum in the US and UK, and it has a reputation of being their best album. While I don’t agree with that assessment, it does include some essential songs and has an overall pleasant mood, and is a strong way to close out their recording career. I can also imagine fans of this album and Ferry’s later solo work being confused by their earlier recordings, which probably sound like they’re from another planet.
I own one other Roxy Music CD, Heart Still Beating (1990), which was recorded live in Europe during their final tour in 1982. It’s not as vital as their previous live album, Viva!, but it’s still surprisingly potent considering there were 8 musicians and 3 backing vocalists on stage, who could’ve turned this into the “Roxy Music Revue.” In addition to excellent versions of some older songs, they include two covers: Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” There’s also “Impossible Guitar,” an instrumental song from a Manzanera solo album. Live albums are rarely essential purchases, and this is no exception, but it’s quite enjoyable and served as a fitting epilogue to my Roxy Music collection.
I don’t think I had as many revelations with Roxy Music as I did with Talking Heads and The Band (who I revisited in previous posts), although I am now much more familiar with numerous songs that had previously gone unnoticed. I also have a lot more respect for the guitar playing of Phil Manzanera. I always knew he was a great player, but I don’t think I realized how amazing his contributions were until spending so much time listening to these albums. I think they recorded the perfect number of albums together, since I’m not sure where they could’ve gone after Avalon. I hope you enjoyed reading my re-appraisals of their catalog. I’ll be back soon with initial thoughts on my next artist, and then I’ll be asking my readers to help me choose a large catalog to revisit, via my second poll. Stay tuned.