Album Review

Roxy Music's Debut Reappears in a Lavish Box Set

Roxy Music - Roxy Music

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen said something in a recent interview about how one of the most important assets for a rock act is attitude. That’s true, and Roxy had that in spades from the get-go, along with a whole lot of musical smarts. Seemingly as obsessed with dress and style as with melodies and lyrics, the group—especially the nattily attired lead singer and songwriter Bryan Ferry—carved out a unique glam/art-rock space between cool jazz and hot passion. You might find it difficult to conjure up a blend of 50s rock, Miles Davis, the Velvet Underground, Humphrey Bogart, David Bowie, and art-rock purveyors like Genesis and Yes, but the job gets easier after you listen to Roxy’s eponymous June 1972 debut.

It took a while for some listeners to catch up with what the group were attempting. Roxy Music didn’t even crack the Top 200 in the U.S. (and the band’s next two LPs just barely made the list). The U.K., the outfit’s home base, proved more receptive, though: while a concert about six weeks after the LP’s release found them billed below Osibisa and the now-obscure Stone the Crows, the record did make it to the British Top 10 by fall.

It’s actually a bit surprising that Roxy achieved that much success with their first album. Not that the music isn’t good; on the contrary, it’s mostly terrific and overflowing with ideas. But this is not the radio-ready band that much later produced such ear candy as “Avalon” and “More Than This.” On their debut, Roxy’s members seem to be thumbing their noses at commerciality, preferring to experiment with jazz and electronics, taking sudden twists and turns mid-song, and daring listeners to keep up.

Though Ferry’s style and intense, instantly recognizable crooning have made his name synonymous with the group’s, this album offers early evidence throughout of the importance of his cohorts. Just listen to the jazzy opener, “Re-Make/Re-Model,” which begins with the cacophonous sounds of a cocktail party: all the players have memorable solos here—especially saxophonist Andy Mackay, guitarist Phil Manzanera, and synthesizer player Brian Eno (who quit the band after its first two albums but credits them for launching his career). Listen, too, to “If There Is Something”: Ferry sounds convincing when he passionately wails, “I would do anything for you / I would climb mountains / I would swim all the oceans blue,” but Mackay’s inventive and pervasive sax is at least as indelible as the vocal.

The concise and witty lyrics are as challengingly abstruse as the music is adventurous. As Ferry writes in the liner notes here, “…all sorts of images were springing up, juxtaposed. And so yes, the word ‘collage’ does spring to mind.” Indeed. It’s not difficult to figure out that “2 H.B.” is a tribute to Humphrey Bogart, but what about the repeated mentions of “CPL593H” in “Re-Make / Re-Model”? I thought for years that this referred to a computer or robot that the singer was in love with but it turns out to be the license-plate number on a car—“the only clue to the identity of the girl who inspired the song,” according to the liner notes. Scattered elsewhere are additional obscure references but also evocations of the sophistication and high life that Bryan Ferry exemplifies—things like Studebaker cars and pink gin, and places like Rio, Havana, Madeira, and Acapulco.

This three-CD-plus-DVD 45th anniversary “super deluxe” edition of Roxy Music is as lavish as the group’s outfits. The first CD delivers a remaster of the original release (the 10-track U.S. version, which added “Virginia Plain” to the U.K. program); a second offers demos of “Ladytron,” “2HB,” “Chance Meeting,” and the six-part “The Bob (Medley)” that were produced nearly a year earlier, as well as alternate versions of all the album’s songs that were recorded during its sessions. The third CD finds Roxy Music performing live in BBC studios for legendary DJ John Peel. There are five tracks from January 1972, before their first album was even recorded; and another nine culled from three appearances in the months after its release. The DVD, meanwhile, features videos of five 1972 performances from various locations plus a four-track concert film made for French TV. Also on the disc is a 5.1 DTS 96/24 audio mix of the original album.

Accompanying the music is a vinyl-LP-sized 136-page hardcover book in a sturdy slipcase. It includes an extensive essay by U.K. music journalist Richard Williams that incorporates material from new interviews with Ferry, Mackay, and Manzanera. Also in the book: the album’s original liner notes, cover art, and credits; complete lyrics, including original handwritten and typed drafts; an early record company bio sheet; concert posters; newspaper clips; and a ton of group photos.

There are no previously unheard compositions in this box—the original album is supplemented only by live and alternate studio versions of the same songs—but I believe that most if not all of the renditions on discs two, three, and four are previously unreleased. Some depart noticeably from the album renditions, and virtually all are worth hearing by fans. The live tracks are especially noteworthy: while the band on these selections isn’t yet the polished powerhouse that in 1976 delivered one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen (OK, not counting Springsteen), they were already damn good. The video material merits a look, too, because it gives a sense of what the band looked and sounded like on stage during this period; but the audio and image quality are predictably not up to today’s standards, and seeing the band is a reminder that their glam-rock outfits haven’t exactly aged well.

While not as polished as their later work, however, the music has aged well indeed—and it really shines on the DVD’s 5.1 audio mix here. Played via a good surround-sound system, it provides a dramatic sonic upgrade and allows you to hear the record in a whole new way. Vocals and instruments are more clearly defined than on the original album, and the frequently stunning result underscores just how large an achievement this record represents. This 45th anniversary box is not inexpensive but if you’re a serious fan, the surround-sound mix alone may be almost enough to justify the price of admission.

BRIEFLY NOTED

Gus Spenos, It’s Lovin’ I Guarantee. This terrific sophomore album from Spenos proves his debut was no fluke. Spenos’s vocals, which conjure up a perkier Mose Allison, are likable but what really gets the joint jumping here is the fantastic brass section, which includes four sax players (Spenos among them), two trombonists, and two trumpeters. There’s also a guitarist, an upright-bass player, a drummer, and a pianist. Spenos write four of the tracks; the rest come from such seminal jazz and blues artists as pianist Buddy Johnson and vocalists Jimmy Rushing and Titus Turner. This is high-energy jump, swing, and boogie, reminiscent of the best of the big-band era. Spenos is a neurologist by day but I doubt he prescribes any medicine more powerful than this CD.

Ben de la Cour, The High Cost of Living Strange. This self-assured fourth folk album from de la Cour runs short—only eight tracks and 31 minutes—but it’s long on memorable lyrics and well-honedlive-in-the-studio performances. High points on the all-originals program include “Uncle Boudreaux Went to Texas,” an astute accordion-spiced portrait of a relative who apparently never actually made it to the Lone Star State; “Guy Clark’s Fiddle,” about a broken instrument that folksinger Clark never discarded; and the up-tempo “Dixie Crystals,” about “doing 135 in the passing lane” while high on amphetamines. “Americanoir” is what de la Cour calls his music; I just call it excellent.

Birch Pereira & the Gin Joints, Western Soul. Describing the eclectic turf staked out by the music on Pereira’s second album isn’t easy, and I suppose “western soul” is as good as any two-word label for it. But it’s really inadequate. This band, which hails from the Pacific Northwest, favors a stripped-down sound—imagine a more versatile version of Cowboy Junkies—that incorporates everything from soul to surf, and from jazz to Latin to swing. To my ears, though, the biggest influence is 50s rock/pop, which comes across in the vocals and sax work. The CD mixes originals by lead vocalist and bassist Pereira with such diverse standards as Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and the Louis Armstrong-popularized “St. James Infirmary.” Somehow, not only does everything work but it all seems to belong together on one album.

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Jeff Burger's website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary. His latest book, Bob Dylan on Bob Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, is set for publication in May 2018. His earlier books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters