"We could have been bigger had we had an amazing manager. We’re our own worst enemies": How Roxy Music got it together despite themselves

Roxy Music
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Roxy Music’s impact was swift and powerful when their self-titled debut album arrived in 1972, following the success of first single Virginia Plain (which wasn’t originally on the LP). In 2018 members of the band looked back on the pros and cons of their arrival.

Bryan [Ferry] has been doing it for bloody years,” says Phil Manzanera of the long-awaited, super deluxe edition of Roxy Music’s 1972 debut album, which includes a 5.1 mix of the record by Steven Wilson. “We’ve been going bonkers: ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake. Get it out!’ But Bryan’s done a brilliant job: the sleevenotes, the [fashion designer] Antony Price sketches. We’ve been talking about it for eight years. But that’s Roxy for you: the career strategy is non-existent.”

The Roxy guitarist might be right when he says, “We could have been bigger had we had an amazing manager. We’re our own worst enemies.” Certainly they could have been more successful in America, had they been prepared to put in the necessary “graft” (Manzanera’s word) and do the requisite hefty long tours.

Still, they didn’t do badly. They dominated Britain’s glam-era pop scene in the first half of the 70s, despite having next to nothing in common with Slade, Sweet et al and not being a pop group, or even a rock group. Indeed, they shared as much ground with the prog fraternity: Ferry had auditioned to be lead singer of King Crimson following the departure of Greg Lake, Roxy were looked after by EG, the management team behind Crimson and ELP, their original guitarist was Davy O’List of The Nice and that 1972 debut album happened to be produced by King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield. The fact that the music comprised as many multi-part mini-suites as it did actual neat songs increased its prog quotient.

Manzanera had been in a prog/jazz fusion outfit called Quiet Sun with Bill MacCormick (later of Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole) when he chanced upon an advert in Melody Maker seeking “the perfect guitarist for avant rock group.” “That’s how they saw themselves: an avant-garde rock group, not glam like their peers,” says Manzanera, who still has the Melody Maker clipping. He recalls the ad’s series of demands, and his confident ability to meet them. “‘Original’? Yeah. ‘Creative’? Tick. ‘Adaptable’? Yep. ‘Melodic’? Yup. ‘Fast’? Yes. ‘Slow’? Yup. ‘Elegant’? Yep. ‘Witty’? Yes. ‘Scary’? Oh yeah, I can do scary. ‘Stable’? Yes. ‘Tricky’? Yes, I could be very tricky.”

The ad for the drummer was similar (“Wanted: Wonder drummer for avant rock team”). Paul Thompson was intrigued by the word “avant.” “I’d never seen it used in a rock band setting before – it was more commonly used in jazz,” he says, his accent none- more-Geordie (like Ferry, he’s from the north-east). “I was hoping they’d sound a bit like King Crimson, but really, I didn’t have a clue what the music would be like.”

Thompson has been credited with tethering the rest of the band and giving them a solid base. “That’s what people have said, but I don’t like to blow me own trumpet,” he says modestly. “But Eno has said Roxy would have been an ordinary student art rock band if I hadn’t joined.” A fan of John Bonham, Ringo Starr and Family, Thompson detected “elements of prog” in tracks such as The Bob (Medley) but adapted well to the assorted “stops and changes.” 

Manzanera had been used to playing “ridiculous prog rock stuff in funny time signatures like 7/15” with Quiet Sun when, in late 1971, he turned up for the Roxy audition with his “unfashionable” Gibson ES-325 at the tiny workingman’s cottage in Battersea that Ferry shared with Andy Mackay when the louche crooner and the handsome saxophonist were both still schoolteachers.

There, too, that day were Thompson, experimental sonic FX man Brian Eno, and the band’s original bassist Graham Simpson. Five years their junior, the 21-year-old Manzanera was amazed at “how grown-up these guys seemed: they had jobs, cars, bank accounts...” He was equally impressed by their less- is-more approach. “They said, ‘Let’s have a jam,’ and it was just two chords. It was such a relief not having to play ‘tricky-dicky’ stuff.”

Mantric drones with Eno’s VCS3 synth treatments on top, the racket couldn’t help reminding Manzanera of The Velvet Underground. “If there was a little [speech] bubble above my head it would have said, ‘You’re in the nearest equivalent of The Velvet Underground.’ Those Velvets albums were so important to me.”

Unlike so many of his guitarist peers, Manzanera – who was brought up in Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia – wasn’t steeped in the blues, gravitating instead towards free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock and, inevitably, Jimi Hendrix. “Seeing Hendrix on Top Of The Pops and live at the Albert Hall changed everything,” he recalls. “It was jaw-dropping.”

Roxy Music suited Manzanera and his own experimental tendencies. “I thought there was one song [from the debut] that smacked a little of prog and that was The Bob (Medley), which was almost like Genesis without the funny time signatures,” he says. “It had lots of different parts: the heavy bit, the quiet bit... Whereas others like Re-Make/Re-Model were anarchic, with all these weird bits of Eno on.”

Meanwhile, for Ladytron, Ferry asked Eno to approximate a lunar landscape. If There Is Something went from jaunty country hoedown to the sax-smeared heart of darkness. Chance Meeting was like a miniature David Lean movie, only with a backdrop of tortured muzak. 2HB was a queasy listening torch ballad. Bitters End was like Noël Coward doing a doo wop duet with The Ink Spots. Would You Believe? reimagined Showaddywaddy on Saturn.

On the first album, Roxy Music were purveying postmodernism and retro- futurism years before those terms became pop currency. “I could see this was rock,” Manzanera notes, “but it was avant-garde. The music was often simple but based on ideas to do with systems music. There was improvisation, which was good for me because I’d been brought up listening to freeform jazz. The idea of having sections: there was an affinity there in a bizarre way. There were different sound textures and colours, combined with a rock beat.”

Was it important that Roxy weren’t all virtuosos? “Crucial,” he says. He paints a picture of a band who were like punks five years ahead of schedule. “I didn’t want to be a technique player. It was more about atmospheres and moods than learning scales or playing fast. We were inspired amateurs. You didn’t need to have studied at Berklee for years. You just needed one or two chords, enthusiasm and a good idea.”

Roxy Music was created in a matter of weeks in a quaint, old basement studio – Command – on London’s Piccadilly. It was largely recorded live, with the four players performing together in the studio, Ferry laying down guide vocals and Eno adding effects and live- treating the guitar and sax in a series of oblique strategies.

Thompson recalls the sessions being “quite chaotic”, but it was a controlled kind of anarchy. “It was fantastic,” he says, “especially Eno’s left field approach and the strength of Bryan’s material.” For Thompson, Roxy was always “Bryan’s baby. ”Manzanera jokes that “you should never have a band with two Brians,” but he essentially agrees. “We created a musical context for Bryan Ferry’s unusual character voice, and for his lyrics, to fit in,” he sums up. “We created a musical world that, combined with the imagery, people could look into and see some depth. We created this Roxy World.”

By “we,” Manzanera means Antony Price and the cast of, well, several, who together comprised Roxy’s extended operation. If George Martin was the fifth Beatle, Price, PR consultant-cum- Minister-of-Information Simon Puxley and the rest were the sixth, seventh and so on of Roxy Music.

“We were totally art directed by Antony Price,” says the guitarist, recalling the iconic six individual images of the band smothered in leopard skin and alien allure that appeared on the inner sleeve.

“I remember still living with my mum and getting on the bus in Clapham, going to the photo shoot, wondering, ‘What am I going to wear?’ I got my mum to sew some diamanté glittery stuff onto a white shirt. I got to the photo shoot and Antony took one look at me and said, ‘No, no, no – put this on.’ He gave me a black leather jacket and some sunglasses – job done.”

Thompson was still working on a building site even as Roxy were recording their debut album and doing John Peel sessions. “I remember turning up at the BBC in Shepherd’s Bush covered in brick dust and my hair all matted,” the drummer laughs. He might have baulked at some of fashion maven Price’s wilder excesses, but he could see the point of a glamorous image.

“It was very strange,” Thompson says of the chance release, within two weeks of each other, of Roxy Music and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. “It was a zeitgeist thing. Music needed a change from denims and baseball boots. We wanted to bring a bit of glamour back, rather than look like everybody else.”

Hardly surprisingly, Roxy’s ostentatious stage wear wound up the neanderthal types then at large in the UK and US. Manzanera has vivid memories of being attacked onstage here and in the States. “I remember supporting Rory Gallagher in Liverpool. Now, I loved Taste and the check shirts and everything, but his audience were not going to have this bunch of so-called ‘faggots’ playing weird music, so we got water-bombed. We got water-bombed all over the world. In Bakersfield in California, supporting Santana, people shouted, ‘Get off!’” He laughs at Roxy’s brittle determination beneath the outré garb. “We said, ‘No, we won’t.’”

Roxy also antagonised the authentic music brigade, who didn’t like the way they seemed to appear, as though from nowhere, in the charts: the debut album at No 10 and non-album debut single, Virginia Plain, at No 4.

“People were disparaging,” Manzanera says. “‘Oh, they haven’t paid their dues or slogged around.’” Nevertheless, the prevailing view was that Roxy, along with Bowie – who they supported twice in 1972, in front of 50 people at the Greyhound in Fulham and at the more capacious Rainbow – were a Good Thing, together offering the sense that the 60s were over and the 70s started here.

“People were looking for something more colourful, particularly in that little period between 1969 and 1971 when most of the great 60s artists were either dead or close to death because of heroin and the drugs were keeping everybody down,” Manzanera elaborates. “Then Bowie and us appear and we’re all colourful and theatrical and showbizzy, and people go, ‘Phew!’ Suddenly, people were free to be flamboyant or gay.

“I remember watching Jimi Hendrix on Top Of The Pops and thinking, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I can imagine somebody doing the same with our first appearance. There’s all these people in the audience in jumpers and flares, and suddenly we come on as though from the Planet Zog! You can imagine their parents going, ‘What the bally hell?’”

Manzanera is proud of Roxy’s debut, while Thompson is especially fond of Virginia Plain and its irresistible demonic electronic supersonic mo-mo-momentum, to coin a phrase (“When the keyboards and drums come in, it’s like, ‘Woof!’ Being hit by a tidal wave”). Truth be told, the drummer hasn’t heard the album since the day it came out. But, 46 years on, he can still appreciate its impact.

“It was pretty groundbreaking,” he says. “Something new. A different approach to music. I think the second album [For Your Pleasure, 1973] was better – we had more input – but that first album was a breakthrough, and very influential: I’ve heard everyone from the Sex Pistols to Duran Duran citing it as an inspiration.”

Roxy’s stylised glamour was catnip to the new romantics, its sense of provocation a beacon to the punks. According to Thompson, who takes immense pride in this, that debut album annoyed as many as it appeased.

“A lot of musicians didn’t like it cos it was kind of rough,” he says of the often angular, staccato, abrasive sonics. “I won’t say who.” Because it was led more by ideas than it was technical prowess? “Probably,” Thompson laughs. “Well, that and the fact that we were a bunch of poofs all dressed up.”

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.