The early 70s were a golden age for prog, pop, glam, proto-metal and art rock, and Roxy Music somehow fitted in all of those categories. Or rather they didn’t actually fit in any.
Considering their original guitarist, Davy O’List, was in The Nice, frontman Bryan Ferry had auditioned for King Crimson, they shared management and Crimson’s lyricist Pete Sinfield was their producer, you would imagine Roxy had most in common with the prog fraternity, and indeed there are examples of sectional songwriting – notably the six-part The Bob (Medley) – and far-out spacey noodling on their self-titled debut that are very prog indeed. Then again, their first single, Virginia Plain, was a succinct concoction that reached No.4 in the UK, placing them immediately in a pop context. They certainly dressed glam, but theirs was a cooler, more fashion-forward image than the bacofoil yobbery of The Sweet et al. They could do Sabbath-heavy bombast, yet they could contrive a memorable melody and were made for Top Of The Pops.
If anything they belonged with those other artful outfits that didn’t belong: 10cc and Sparks, who like Roxy were also busy in 1972 formulating a new kind of patchwork pop out of the remnants of not just rock’s recent past but almost all of 20th-century music.
There was obviously something in the air. David Bowie released Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars in June 1972, just two weeks before Roxy’s debut. Now here was a visitation from an unheralded future by another bunch of alien insect-humans in gaudy, shiny finery.
Roxy Music’s debut appearance on TOTP performing Virginia Plain was as abrasively, thrillingly strange as Bowie doing Starman. That was where the great British public got their first glimpse of the heavy-lidded Ferry, Brian Eno grinning impishly behind his synth, sax-mad Andy Mackay in sparkly yellow and green, louche, long-limbed bassist Rik Kenton, guitarist Phil Manzanera, all beard and outsize shades, and drummer Paul Thompson, his leopardskin off-the-shoulder number notwithstanding, the sole concession to normal blokedom. Individually odd, they just about cohered as a unit.
Their self-titled debut album was an equally gobsmacking clash of styles and sonics. Track one Re-Make/Re-Model – the greatest song ever to have a chorus based on a car number plate – opens with the hubbub of guests mingling at an art gallery, Roxy’s natural milieu. Thereafter it is barely controlled chaos, all sax squawks, honky-tonk piano, snarling guitar and Eno’s synth disturbance: where 50s rock’n’roll meets avant-garde sound collage. Or, considering its arch provocation, think punk five years ahead of schedule. ‘I can talk, talk, talk, talk, talk myself to death,’ Ferry sneers. Ladytron finds the singer revisiting pop-romance tropes (‘You’ve got me girl on the runaround, runaround’), but the sci-fi/tomorrow’s world title evinces the distance travelled since The Beatles’ Love Me Do.
For all Eno’s live-in-the-studio mangling of Manzanera’s guitar and Mackay’s sax sound, the vocals are the most tampered-with, but it’s Ferry himself doing the ‘treating’. On the first half of If There Is Something, over weirdly basic country boogie, he affects a hick yodel, only to shift, in the second half, to a strangulated yelp, his shrieked plaints over sorrowful oboe (‘I would do anything for you, I would climb mountains!’) a grotesque parody of a paramour. 2HB, with its wafts of smarmy sax, anticipates the ‘perfume sigh’ of later, Avalon-period Roxy, but Ferry’s sulphurous tone injects a healthy dose of toxicity. On Chance Meeting he’s eternally trapped in a 40s Brief Encounter as Eno-inflected guitar smears colour across the black-and-white canvas. But it’s on Sea Breezes that Ferry is at his most extreme and stylised, the anguished lothario adrift in a cruel present: Manzanera’s amazing, crazed scribbles are like Hendrix travelling back in time to interrupt a recording by Rudy Vallée.
On Roxy Music there is a consistent merging of – or frictional collision between – different eras, right up to (the) Bitters End, which closes the album with Ferry playing Noël Coward against snazzy doo-wop harmonies. However, on one occasion, Would You Believe?, they sound banally retro, like glam greasers Mud. Not a mutant Mud, literally just like Mud. It’s difficult to believe it’s the same band moving methodically from the sound of battle-fire to pastoral interlude to campfire singalong to the black-hole sun-sucking vortex of a riff to climactic timpani on The Bob (Medley).
That aberration aside, Roxy Music is an immaculate conception. And now, in this Super Deluxe Edition, even more so. Bumper new sleeve-notes from Richard Williams, who first wrote about the band for Melody Maker in 1971, plus previously unreleased demos, out-takes, radio sessions, and a 5.1 remix of the album by Steven Wilson shed further light on the record. But in a way it’s best not to focus on the messy act of creation, just the finished product, from the chic sleeve art to the still-jarring sonics of this postmodern pop that continues to intrigue 46 years on.