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More Than This

Michael Bracewell Overlooks The Subversive and The Sublime in His Meticulously Researched Roxy Music Examination

Alex Fine

By Ian Grey | Posted 5/28/2008

With the release of its eponymous 1972 debut classic, Roxy Music became nothing less than the glittery, chart-topping exclamation mark at the end of a decade-long, culture-warping discourse. Marked by an absolute rejection of the slovenly egalitarianism of the hippie 1960s, the artifice-obsessed band of smartly dandified aesthetes--led by the then-camp/suave Bryan Ferry--embraced and mutated newly fluid notions of gender and identity politics, art theory and fashion, high-toned "seriousness" and giddy fun.

For Roxy and its often coincidental co-conspirators in the post-war U.K. art world, everything was game for a postmodern giggle and transmutation. Elements of classic Hollywood cinema, art deco, drag, Duchamp, R&B, Dada, and sci-fi B-movies were mixed and matched to create a sound and vision collage, a simultaneously cool-toned and sizzling new Now. The mission was pure Warhol: to create a new elite defined entirely by its own in-perpetual-process aesthetic--not just to create art, but to actually be art.

Although this intrinsically unstable version of Roxy only lasted two albums, it signaled the first time "rock"--as verb, noun, or assumed aesthetic--was placed in critical quotations, becoming a component of no more or less value than "hard bop" or "excellent haircut." Its first single, "Re-make/Re-model," was so dizzyingly rich in meaning, references, juxtapositions, and crazy-raw newness that it demands not a description bit a full-blown synopsis before getting to Michael Bracewell's exquisitely written, exhaustingly researched, and sometimes just plain exhausting, account of the band, Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music (Da Capo Press).

Released in the midst of that blah denim period in pop when "authenticity" was a guarantor of critical and mass acceptance, "Re-make/Re-model" opens with a soundscape of glamorous artifice. There's a tinkling fine crystal, the muted fine chat of some distant elite, and then a plink of processed piano sure to make Yes fans shudder at its studied amateurism. Then the track goes smartly batshit.

Atop drummer Paul Thompson's primitivist thudding, Ferry, resplendent in Lurex tiger-print motorcycle jacket, croon-yelps, like Bela Lugosi playing an echolalic lounge singer, "I tried but I could not find a way," when it's obvious he has. Sax/oboe player Andy Mackay, dressed in Forbidden Planet chic, channels Ornette Coleman with free-jazz bleats; guitarist Phil Manzanera, in faceted bug-eyed-monster-flick-inspired sunglasses, blasts back with searing Jefferson Airplane-esque psychedelia. And the chorus of this love song to either a female android, a fetching serial number, or mass production itself? A tuneful group shout of "CPL593H," closely followed by a flurry of pointed two-bar solo goofs: Bassist Graham Simpson tosses off a snippet of "Day Tripper," and so much for that Brit Invasion; Mackay declares the classics Roxy readymades with a "Ride of the Valkyries" snippet; Ferry homages Cage with atonal piano battering; and nonmusician Brian Eno, looking like a Venusian drag queen, proves the atonal catchy with squawks from his battery of primitive electronics.

Even 30 years on, the song astonishes--especially when juxtaposed against other songs on Roxy Music, such as the luxuriously painful strains of "Sea Breezes" and "Chance Meeting," both uncannily tuneful and discomfiting in their raw, unposed passion. And so Bracewell's book is predicated on the understandably bewildered question: How the fuck did this happen?

With his elegantly maximalist prose and new interviews with band members, art stars, models, cosmetologists, and designers (Roxy's first album was the first to equal-bill its design team with its musicians), Bracewell starts his tale with what we'll later recognize as one of a very few attempts at humanizing his principals--in this case, a mess of predetermination for Ferry, who, pace Bracewell, pretty much is Roxy Music.

As a young lad growing up in the 1950s in a small town a few miles from Newcastle, England, Ferry starts collecting his influences. From three local movie houses he laps up the old Hollywood glamour that would infuse his entire career. A nearby park's ancient Greek ruin inspires Ferry's lifelong Weltschmerz-y inclination toward the poetically achy antediluvian.

Then comes music. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and, later, the Stax, Motown, and Bill Haley oeuvres. The work of doomed lunatic producer Joe Meek, best known to Americans for his kitsch futurist treatment of the Tornadoes' "Telstar," teaches Ferry the way pop junk can accidentally morph into otherworldly transcendence.

Studying fine art at Newcastle University, the already natty dresser becomes, according to Bracewell, "absorbed . . . by the transformative qualities of fashion and style: how image becomes an agency of social mobility." He studies with future pop-art star/professor Richard Hamilton (he of the funny/disturbing 1956 pop iconography collage "Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home so Different, so Appealing?", which Ferry would reference/recast in the Roxy song "In Every Dream Home a Heartache"). He's especially fascinated with Hamilton's interest in advertising, popular art, and resultant "conflation of warm, erotically romantic, often feminized imagery and a colder, mechanistic" method where high and low, intellectual and mass cultural, popular and esoteric forms bleed into one another.

Ferry attends many university parties occasioned by fledgling art star Tim Head, future Warhol compatriot Mark Lancaster, and other folks whose ideas he'll later nick whilst becoming Roxy Music. It's fascinating history for a while--until you realize, on page 173, that all we needed to know was already established 40 pages in. But what's really off-putting is Bracewell's stringent insistence on maintaining a Warholian distance from anything having to do with the reasons why. And so people, nightclubs, clothing styles, and ideas are endlessly reduced to flip judgments of being "cool" or "interesting"--or not--with Bracewell refusing to share why this may have been so. Ferry is repeatedly thumbnailed as "handsome" and "painfully shy," and so much for that.

With each Roxy character drawn in only the most glancing strokes, and with so little shared about them beyond their relationships to their manifestos, it becomes increasingly difficult to care much about their subsequent adventures, a problem exacerbated by the author's obsessive display of his research's labor--a shop's postal code, the lists of a minor character's fave songs, the names and dates of sundry periodicals and lectures, and what feels like every digressive word of his interviewees' palaver.

For a book so taken with Ferry, it's ironic that Re-Make only comes to life when the singer meets Eno, easily the most witty, playful, fascinating presence here. Eno inspires Bracewell's most vivid prose: "Finely and sensually featured," he writes of the soon-to-be-solo glam genius, "his look is less loner than other-worldly . . . bringing to mind the pitiless sangfroid of a cruel yet highly cultured dauphin."

With the shift to a subculturally sizzling London, Re-make/Re-model finally sparks. Like star-crossed members of the same tribe, Ferry, Mackay, Eno, Thompson, and, later, Manzanera meet, strategize, and rehearse. Early gigs amusingly prove that fancy airs don't protect a band from hilarious Spinal Tap-ish rock-show gaffes.

Along the way, we delight in Bracewell rescuing from pop's dustbin the goofball, mainly female proto-Rocky Horror trash-glam performance group the Moodies, revel in Roxy couture kingpin Antony Price's chatty cattiness, and are disarmed by Ferry's relationship with tragic confidante/media relations person Simon Puxley. Ferry's repeated attempts to wean Puxley off the drugs that would eventually kill him constitute pretty much the only time anyone in the book comes across as sympathetically human.

As the band gels, it becomes harder to buy into Bracewell's positioning of Ferry as Roxy's auteur instead of a more nuanced view of him as initial spark and project overseer/idea appropriator/entrepreneur. Just a listen to Ferry's enjoyable lark of a debut solo record, 1973's These Foolish Things, reinforces the fact of just how limited his sound and vision would be minus the Eno influence.

Other iffy choices manifest. Eno's elaborate theories about injecting planned randomness into musical composition are presented, but there's nothing of how this jibed with Ferry's famously OCD methods. And meting out a measly three pages to Manzanera, whose proto-shoegazing guitar was essential to Roxy's sound and who co-wrote a goodly portion of Ferry's catalog, feels like intellectual elitism: Manzanera didn't come from academia, so apparently he just isn't interesting.

Bracewell also isolates Roxy from the greater glam movement, curtly relegating David Bowie to the status of a skilled bit of old Mod news and presenting T. Rex as the largely feckless creation of its management. You also get the sense that Bracewell is using the Roxy milieu as a readymade for the collage art that is this book, the ultimate point of which is both elusive and just one layer of meta too much.

Despite all these gripes, Re-Make/Re-Model is still an essential read for those seeking a really comprehensive history of the U.K. pop-art movement, for those who only know Roxy from "Love Is the Drug," or for young folks unaware that Ladytron not only nicked its name from an early Roxy classic but also a good deal of its aesthetic.

But essence and poetic meaning? Not this author's beat, even if the concern is more about "becoming" than being Roxy Music. By neglecting the band's human side, Bracewell misses big-picture achievements. Such as Ferry's savvy--or perhaps just desperate--use of style, theory, and attitude as a protective drag that, with the intuitive support of Eno's lush atonalities and Manzanera's uncanny guitar, allowed this incredibly shy, handsome lover of Otis Redding to safely bare his soul on those Roxy Music slow aches. And how for two glorious records, supersmart and crazy-passionate co-occupied the same band and moment with such seemingly effortless, perhaps ultimately inexplicable, grace.

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