It was 1974 and Roxy Music was playing in Birmingham, England, supporting their third album, Country Life, when a 14-year-old John Taylor, along with his schoolmate (and later Duran Duran bandmate) Nick Rhodes, remembers watching the band do their soundcheck before they were whisked away in a black car. Describing the delirium and flash of that moment, as Taylor along with Duran Duran bandmate, singer Simon Le Bon, were inducting the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, Taylor said that when he returned home that night and listened to the cassette recording of their show he taped, he knew what he wanted to be. “I knew my destiny,” said the Duran Duran bassist, who added, “Without Roxy Music, there would be no Duran Duran,” a sentiment that would repeat among numerous other artists throughout the decades.
Le Bon called Roxy Music a “shock to the system,” recounting the first time he saw the motley crew of artsy musicians performing their debut single “Virginia Plane” on Top of the Pops in 1972. “A psychedelic Sinatra crooning, pop art poetry over driving drums, over saxophones, and oboes, heavily treated electric guitars and the most out-there synthesizer parts you’d ever heard—the musicians themselves were dressed outrageously, each one with an individual well-defined look,” added Le Bon. “Put it all together and what you got was pulp science fiction.”
Just as The Velvet Underground had disintegrated and David Bowie was rocketing off with the Spiders From Mars, there was Roxy Music. A collective of mostly art-school dropouts alchemizing their artistry as musicians, crossing a musical scope of disco and rock, punk, electronica, jazz, pop, and the cusp of late ’70s new wave, all curated by their individual style, bespoke enough to leave their influence on music, art, and fashion and transform the concept and style of what a band should look and sound like with their art-rock.
Led by the debonair croons of singer and chief songwriter Bryan Ferry, who Taylor compared to screen legend Cary Grant for his “effortless, aspirational” grace, and the wizardry of Brian Eno’s synthesizer and keyboards, Roxy Music was perfectly rounded out by their former roadie, guitarist Phil Manzanera, late bassist Graham Simpson (1943-2012), who only remained with the band for their debut—the band continued without ever having a permanent bassist—saxophonist, oboist, and classically trained woodwind instrumentalist Andy Mackay, former violinist Eddie Jobson, and drummer Paul Thompson, who would later play with Concrete Blonde and continue to work with his Roxy bandmates on their solo projects.
Formed in 1970, Roxy Music would release eight albums together within their 12-year lifespan. Now, five decades since Roxy Music debuted, and 40 years since the band parted ways following the final album Avalon, Ferry, Manzanera, Mackay, and Thompson (Eno left the band after their second album For Your Pleasure) are reissuing all eight of their original albums, each given a half-speed cut remastering at Abbey Road Studios by Miles Showell. The band will also be embarking on an international arena tour—the first since their 2011 For Your Pleasure shows, and 20 years since they’ve played in the U.S.—to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Roxy Music influenced an intersection of artists across mixed mediums, including music with everyone from Talking Heads, Nile Rodgers and Chic, the Sex Pistols, Def Leppard, Depeche Mode, and the forthcoming new romantics of the 1980s.
Manzanera, who has toured with David Gilmour and co-produced the Pink Floyd guitarist’s 2006 album On an Island, said the idea for the 50th anniversary tour was sparked following their Hall of Fame stint, as he and Ferry discussed playing some new Roxy Music show together over tea. “Rehearsing for the Hall of Fame, it was fun playing those songs again,” shares Manzanera, who adds that if the induction hadn’t happened, forcing all band members to perform together again, which they did, playing six of their songs, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” “Out of the Blue,” “Love Is the Drug,” “More Than This,” “Avalon,” and “Editions of You”—he doubts there would have been talk of the current tour.
“We haven’t done a tour in America for 20 years, though Bryan has been doing solo tours, and I’ve been there with David Gilmour, but not as Roxy and not playing our body of songs, so I’m having to relearn some of the songs, but relearn them properly,” laughs Manzanera, who says they’ll whittle down their catalog of more than 80 tracks to a set list of 30 for the tour. “I thought I could play them, but I’ve gone back to the multi-tracks and listened to them in detail, and what I thought I was playing isn’t exactly right.”
Ferry also acknowledges the nudge the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction gave the band in getting back together. “We go back a long way, so it was nice to be with them again,” says Ferry of their 2019 performance. “To celebrate 50 years, it’s quite a milestone for us. I don’t think about it much, but it’s a big number.”
Unlike Manzanera, Ferry says he knows all of the songs and has no problem tapping into old Roxy music since he’s continued to perform many of the songs on his solo tours over the years. Ferry, who released his first album, These Foolish Things, while he was in the band in 1973 through his most recent 16th album Bitter-Sweet, recently released a comprehensive collection of all the songs he’s written. The book, titled Lyrics features Ferry’s lyrics to 17 albums, including Roxy Music albums as well as his solo material through his 2014 release Avonmore.
“The show will represent all the periods—the early, middle, and late—and all the albums of Roxy Music,” says Ferry. “I look forward to getting a good mix of stuff in. These songs have held up over time for me.”
Roxy Music’s catalog was written almost entirely by Ferry before Manzanera and Mackay began co-writing a handful of songs from the band’s third album Stranded on through Avalon. “There’s quite a lot of diversity, from the beginning to the end,” says Ferry. “In America, the audience knows that later period best since it took a while to get established there, but it’s nice to throw in some of the early stuff because that’s important to the picture.”
He hopes to capture the “fantastic, authentic” sound of Roxy Music in the new shows. “There’s a lot of emotion in those songs,” adds Ferry. “The beats aren’t too out of fashion, and the melodies and all the players are interesting. Phil and Andy are outstanding soloists—and they all have character. I think that’s something that you don’t see every day. And they play as if they mean it, and I’ll do my best to make it all work, too.”
There was never any one Roxy Music album or song alike, from the glamorized punk charge of “Re-Make/Re-Model” (Roxy Music) and the disco-dipped funk of the Siren track “Love Is the Drug” to the more powered-up pop of the Avalon opus, “More Than This.” That was part of the magic of their artsier brew, says Manzanera.
“It was an evolution,” says Manzanera. “We knew we had to try and do something different and we wanted to do something different with every album. We couldn’t just repeat what we were doing before.”
For Roxy Music, most of the songs were written over a nearly two-year period before they were recorded, whereas For Your Pleasure—which features one of the first songs Ferry ever wrote for Roxy Music, “Grey Lagoons”—was all new material from that point on.
“After For Your Pleasure, we expanded the musical palette, with me and Andy putting in some of our kind of musical backdrops for Bryan,” says Manzanera of the period when Eno parted ways with the band. “I’d offer him whatever we had and see if he liked it or if he thought he could write something on top of it, and that’s how it gradually went on until the end of Siren with ‘Love is the Drug’ and then there was a break for a few years.”
Manzanera says it was during a nearly four-year hiatus after Siren to focus on solo and outside projects when everything started to shift again. Those shifts were ultimately reflected in the music before the band reconvened for their sixth album, Manifesto, released in 1978. “We were all changed, so the music changed with us,” says Manzanera. “It’s a reflection of what we are into, who we had been playing with at the time, and trying to bring some of that knowledge into the band situation. It wasn’t in a conscious way. It was just by osmosis because there was never a master plan with Roxy Music. It was just like, ‘What you got? OK. That’s it.’”
Like a new exhibit about to open, 50 years later, the magic of Roxy Music is still palpable. “It’s the different personalities and the different styles of music that we played around with and experimented with from the very first record,” says Ferry, who recently released a new EP, Love Letters, in 2022. “We were trying out different things on each track and sometimes within a song, there would be two or three different feels, like a collage of ideas and moods. I think as the band developed, each album seemed to take on a mood of its own, especially towards the end. Avalon has a very kind of all-embracing mood about it, as well as For Your Pleasure. Of all our albums, those are my two favorites.”
Being in Roxy Music was one of the most formative periods of Ferry’s life, and one he still holds fondly. “I found it so exciting, making records and I still do. I love making stuff and just being creative in music,” shares Ferry. “Sometimes it’s maddening because it’s not physical. You’re sort of trying to make something that’s not a physical entity. You’re trying to make beautiful things … out of thin air, just trying to spit it out. There’s no such thing as a perfect record, of course, but I do try.”
Roxy Music is like the “summation of a whole bunch of deficiencies,” says Manzanera, who recently released his second collaborative album, The Ghost Of Santiago, with Crowded House frontman Tim Finn. “When we started, we thought of ourselves as ‘inspired amateurs,’” says Manzanera. “We must do better in what we do, and when all the little bits come together, they add up to something. It was lots of simple bits, but this particular combination of people makes it sound like Roxy. I think it must have to do with our faults because if it was all technically perfect, it probably would have no resonance, no bite.”
He adds, “None of us have gone down the route of becoming technical wizards. It’s all about atmosphere and about resonance and about feeling, a bit like the blues really, and we all keep doing music with other people and bringing that to the party. So that is what Roxy Music really is.”
Courtesy High Rise PR