TERRY GROSS, HOST:
One of the strangest groups of the 1970s was Britain's Roxy Music, whose scandalous album covers, odd sounds and well dressed lead singer Bryan Ferry set them apart from the other bands of the era. EMI recently reissued their eight studio albums and rock historian Ed Ward has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANCE MEETING")
BRYAN FERRY: (Singing) I never thought I'd see you again. Where have you been until now?
ED WARD, BYLINE: Roxy Music is the only band I can think of that had an oboe player in it, and that's because the oboe player, Andy MacKay, knew the manager of another band, King Crimson. An unemployed ceramics teacher, Bryan Ferry, had auditioned for lead vocalist with them, and although he hadn't been selected, the manager thought MacKay should meet him.
As it happened, Ferry had been fired from his teaching job for singing in the classroom - songs he'd written - and MacKay liked them enough to call his friend Brian Eno, who played keyboards and loved to mess around with electronic equipment. And they made a demo tape. This got them some gigs, and they added some more musicians, including guitarist Phil Manzanera.
In mid-1972, they signed with King Crimson's label, EG, and in August released their first, self-titled album. The British press went wild. They then put out a single that wasn't on the album. The British public went wild.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIRGINIA PLAIN")
FERRY: (Singing) Make me a deal and make it straight, all signed and sealed. I take it to Robert E. Lee I'll show it. I hope and pray he don't blow it. 'Cause we've been around a long time just try, to try, try, trying to make the big-time.
WARD: "Virginia Plain" was a brilliant single, three minutes of shifting textures and driving beat, with space for Eno's twiddling and Manzanera's avant-guitar playing. But although the band ended 1972 with an American tour, they were largely ignored there and came home to work on another album, "For Your Pleasure."
The cover photo showed a neon-lit urban landscape in front of which a woman in a tight black dress and spike heels walked a snarling black panther, while off to one side her limo waited, chauffeured by a grinning Bryan Ferry. It gave a hint of what was inside.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THE STRAND")
FERRY: (Singing) There's a new sensation. A fabulous creation. A danceable solution to teenage revolution. Do the Strand, love, when you feel love. It's the new way. That's why we say do the Strand. Do it on the tables...
WARD: Not only did the album have the hit "Do the Strand," it also had loads of mysterious lyrics against an increasingly confident backup. By this time, Brian Eno wanted out, and one day the band showed up for rehearsal and found out he'd hired violinist/keyboard player Eddie Jobson away from the band Curved Air to take his place.
As it turned out, Jobson was a brilliant choice, and he added significantly to the next album, "Stranded." The band was working hard to keep up its momentum, even though Ferry had released his first solo album, consisting of cover versions and a few originals, in 1973.
1974 saw two Roxy albums, "Stranded" and "Country Life," the latter of which had to be sold with opaque green shrink-wrap in the U.S. because of its cover photo, showing two women in revealing underwear standing in front of some bushes.
And in 1975, with Ferry's solo career still going strong, the band released "Siren," which featured his girlfriend, Texas model Jerry Hall, as a blue-tinted mermaid on the cover, and one of the band's most famous tracks as the lead-off.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS THE DRUG")
FERRY: (Singing) T'ain't no big thing to wait for the bell to ring. T'ain't no big thing, the toll of the bell. Aggravated, spent for days, I crawl downtown, the red light place. Jump up, bubble up, what's in store? Love is the drug and I need to score. Showing out, showing out, hit and run. Boy meets girl where the beat goes on. Stitched up tight, can't shake free. Love is the drug got a hook on me. Ooh...
WARD: At long last, Roxy Music had conquered the U.S. charts with a song, "Love is the Drug," but the band was exhausted, and in June 1976, they announced they were breaking up, at least for a while. It turned out to be quite a while, but in 1979, a new Roxy Music album appeared. "Manifesto" had a crowded disco scene on its cover, but the dancers seem to be mostly mannequins.
Undaunted, they were back a year later with "Flesh + Blood," whose austere cover showing three blonde girls clad in white togas tossing javelins was as much of a change as what was inside, which included two oldies and a lovely pop tune, "Oh, Yeah."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, YEAH")
FERRY: (Singing) How can we drive to the movie show when the music is here in my car. There's a band playing on the radio with a rhythm of rhyme and guitar. They're playing the hit on the radio. Oh...
WARD: But there was still stress. Ferry collapsed on tour and had to be hospitalized. Nothing more was heard from the band Music until the spring of 1981, when Ferry led the band in a moving tribute to John Lennon.
No album followed immediately, but a year later, the band called it a day with "Avalon" which led off with a lovely single, "More Than This," but was otherwise devoid of ideas. Ferry has continued to record as a solo, and many Roxy alumni - including, of course, Brian Eno - have gone on to make plenty of wonderful music.
GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed "Roxy Music: The Complete Studio Recordings."
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