'The early Seventies,' said John Peel, 'were kind of boring apart from Roxy Music.' This piece tracks their influence from then to now, with help from Martin Fry, Butch Vig and Barry from Clor Feature, Friday Review, The Guardian, May 20 2005
Scissor Sisters don’t bear much resemblance to U2. Franz Ferdinand are not obviously related to Bill Murray. Radiohead have nothing in common with Spandau Ballet. ABC didn’t take their cue from Talking Heads. The original punks had no time for disco. Damon Albarn is not and has never been a Goth. Yet all of them share one piece of cultural DNA: Roxy Music.
Brian Eno famously said that only a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but they all formed a band of their own. The line almost applies to the band Eno himself made his name with. The difference is that Roxy Music were not just in with the in-crowd. Somehow, in a landscape dominated by Led Zeppelin at one end and the Osmonds at the other, they managed to reach the Top 10 with a heady mixture of futurism, retro rock’n’roll, camp, funny noises, silly outfits, art techniques, film references and oboe solos. And although their popularity has ebbed and flowed, their influence has been strikingly consistent.
Next month, Roxy go out on their second comeback tour, following a series of arena shows in 2001 which were highly praised considering how many people had groaned at the prospect. This time, Roxy are back in the studio too after a 23-year hiatus. Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay, who appeared on all eight Roxy albums, are all there, along with Paul Thompson, the original drummer. Some reports claimed that Eno was joining them, but he swiftly denied it. He has worked with all the others over the years, but the day he left the band in 1973, he danced for joy down the King’s Road, and he has never regretted it in a flourishing multiple career as a singer, video artist, cultural thinker, producer of U2 and father of ambient music. If all Roxy had done was launch Eno, they would still have changed the pop world.
Ferry, whose dithering is legendary, has chosen his moment well. The past year has been the best time for art-school rock since Roxy were last in the studio. Franz Ferdinand’s trajectory in 2004, going from the NME to the Top 40 in an exhilarating rush, was very like Roxy’s rise from the pages of the Melody Maker in 1972. Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand mentions their name, and so does Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters. But they could have come back at almost any time: there would always have been a new sensation, a fabulous creation, that owed them something.
The most influential of all British groups is clearly the Beatles. Who comes second is more debatable: the Stones, The Who, the Pistols, The Clash ... But have any of them had wider repercussions than this?
MID-SEVENTIES: DISCO, PUNK AND EARLY ELECTRONICA
“The early Seventies,” John Peel said, “were kind of boring apart from Roxy Music.” In 1972-73, if you weren’t in thrall to hard rock or bubblegum pop, you were left with glam: David Bowie, Roxy and T-Rex. Bowie, with his scintillating porousness, absorbed elements of both the others. He acknowledged his debt to Roxy in 1991 by covering one of their earliest songs, If There Is Something, although the compliment was somewhat backhanded: this was on the second Tin Machine album, Bowie’s most reviled work.
By 1975, Roxy’s influence was already fanning out. They inspired Nile Rodgers to form Chic and see if a disco group could be that urbane as well as avant-garde. Eno’s work with primitive synthesisers on the first two Roxy albums blazed a trail for Kraftwerk. And Roxy were one of the few acts of their generation not automatically scoffed at by the punks. When they played the Empire Pool, Wembley, in 1975, a fan called Susan Dallion met a guy called Steve Bailey. She changed her name to Siouxsie Sioux, he changed his to Steve Severin, and together they formed the Banshees.
LATE SEVENTIES: POST-PUNK
One of rock’s richest eras, post-punk has finally been recognised as such with the publication of Simon Reynolds’ hefty history, Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber, Ł16.99). Roxy’s first stint, 1971-75, was pre-punk, but they keep popping up in Reynolds’ narrative. After reuniting in 1978 and turning into another band, less experimental but more musical, they found their early work influencing a new wave of art-rockers – Magazine and Cabaret Voltaire in Britain, Devo and Talking Heads in America.
Richard H Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire tells Reynolds it was “1973, when Roxy were really at the cutting edge, that’s what got us going”. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, whose other-worldly voice drew comparisons to Ferry, says he was actually more interested in emulating Eno. “I loved his asymmetric, atonal synth solos in Roxy.”
Ferry and Eno could also be heard in the singing and thinking of the young David Byrne. In 1977, Eno was taken to see Talking Heads at the Rock Garden in London by John Cale of the Velvet Underground. They met Byrne afterwards, three generations of art-rock pooling their thoughts. Eno began a correspondence with Byrne and became Talking Heads’ George Martin, producing their next three albums and helping them grow from a clever but limited new-wave band to barnstorming art-funk innovators.
EARLY EIGHTIES: HUMAN LEAGUE & ABC
Bramhall, Greater Manchester, 1972. “I was 14, watching telly with my dad. Eating my baked beans on my knee, when Roxy Music came on Top of the Pops to do Virginia Plain. It was the road to Damascus. It was like a message from outer space. Pretty much all of my generation, we were sitting in the suburbs, waiting for something to happen. It was a lightning bolt. It all made sense. My dad was exploding at how camp it all was.”
The boy was Martin Fry, who became the frontman of ABC, the sharpest pop group of the Eighties. Now 47, he has just come off a long tour with Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, another of Ferry’s acolytes. “Roxy were a massive influence,” Fry says. “Very forward-thinking. And back at the same time, so they were post-modern before the word was invented. Bowie wasn’t quite in their orbit – he lifted a lot from them. Every single record they made was … defined.”
Over in Sheffield, it was a similar story. Phil Oakey tells Reynolds: “When you went to see them, you’d wait until you were on the bus before applying the glitter, so your mum and dad didn’t see.” At parties Oakey and his friend Martyn Ware were greeted with mutterings of “Oh, look, it’s Mackay and Eno.” Together, they formed the Human League, and then Ware left to start Heaven 17. Both bands drew not just on Roxy’s synthesisers, but their ability to synthesise, fusing disparate strands of pop and art.
EARLY EIGHTIES: THE NEW ROMANTICS
In London, young men in make-up gravitated to a club called Blitz and called themselves New Romantics. Roxy Music’s 1979 comeback single, Trash, was their first flop, but at Blitz it was played all the time and became a kind of set text. The scene produced Ultravox, Visage and Spandau Ballet, who all doffed a beret to Roxy.
In Birmingham, the club was the Rum Runner and the rising stars were Duran Duran. First an arty cult band, then a shamelessly mainstream pop group for young girls, Duran made videos that looked like Roxy’s LP sleeves, all models and aspiration. Last month Rolling Stone magazine named their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and Roxy crept in at no.98, with a citation from John Taylor: “Imagine it’s 1973, you’re looking for something to do, school isn’t really working for you, and a band like Roxy Music comes along. You’d say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ What else could compare to making that kind of noise, wearing those kinds of clothes?”
MID-EIGHTIES: THE SMITHS AND U2
Two Eighties bands, Icehouse and Japan, had singers who sang like Ferry. But Roxy’s impact was more interesting when it was less obvious. They had a formative effect on the Smiths, who never sounded like them but shared their rampant English individuality. Asked to name ten great British albums by The Observer last year, Morrissey said he could only think of one – For Your Pleasure by Roxy Music.
Their influence on U2 was even more indirect. U2 started off idolising John Lennon and Bob Marley, pop stars who made their views plain. But by 1984, Bono was on the phone to Eno, talking him into coming on board as producer. Eno has been part of Team U2 ever since, acting as a “catalyst and editor” in Bono’s words. His love of gospel music spurred them on in that direction, and they liked having someone with his intellect telling them to trust their instincts. “We didn’t go to art school, like so many bands,” Bono told me. “We went to Brian.”
When U2 wanted to get noisier for their latest album, they called in Chris Thomas, who produced the Sex Pistols – and some of the early Roxy albums, which, Bono said admiringly, “are really hard to get your head around”. In March, U2 were inducted into the Hall of Fame in New York. The drummer, Larry Mullen, said in his acceptance speech: “The Sex Pistols, Television, Roxy Music, Patti Smith – these people are in our rock’n’roll hall of fame. Thank you.”
NINETIES: ALTERNATIVE ROCK
Grunge wasn’t Roxy at all. But its creative peak, Nirvana’s Nevermind, was produced by a man who adored them. “I was, and am, a huge fan,” says Butch Vig, now drummer with Garbage. “I was president of the Roxy Music fan club at the University of Wisconsin. We used to hold Roxythons once a month where we would play their albums non-stops, live bootlegs, solo records.” How many people turned up? “Seven or eight. A small but loyal following.”
Roxy had only one hit in America, Love Is The Drug, and although Avalon went platinum there, it took 10 years. Liking them was an act of rebellion. Vig’s student band used to cover In Every Dreamhome A Heartache – “always guaranteed to freak out an audience when you’re playing a midwestern bar”.
He reels off the things he liked about them: “Paul Thompson’s drumming, really solid. Andy Mackay – cool for a rock band to use oboe and sax, the woodwind gave the music a different texture, and his sax riffs have a real haunting quality. Eno’s synths, of course. Ferry’s voice, so melodramatic. And I loved Manzanera’s guitar playing – riffs from left field, sometimes very jagged and out-of-control.”
Unlike some fans, Vig admired late Roxy just as much. “Avalon was a beautiful record. To me it was a natural progression, more mature, more sophisticated.” And he doesn’t groan at the prospect of a reunion. “You hope they’ll come up with something brilliant – they’re certainly capable of it. I can see where they could make a really interesting record.”
Britpop wasn’t very Roxy either: Oasis, with their clodhopping tribalism, were polar opposites of Ferry and Eno. But there were traces of them in Suede, Blur and Pulp, and more than that outside the Britpop tent, in the fearless experimenting of Radiohead. In 1998, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead joined Bernard Butler of Suede and Andy Mackay in a scratch group, the Venus in Furs, who recorded several Roxy songs for the glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine. It should have been the moment for Roxy’s resonance to ring out loud and clear. There was just one problem: the film bombed.
NOW: ART-ROCK RIDES AGAIN
Several of the best things of last year had a Roxy element, from Franz Ferdinand to Scissor Sisters (whose CD sleeve borrowed Ferry’s idea of a high-concept costumed portrait of each band member) and the film Lost In Translation, where Bill Murray did a drunken karaoke version of More Than This. The song was going to be What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love And Understanding, until Murray and the director, Sofia Coppola, found they shared a love of Avalon.
This year, you can hear Roxy in Arcade Fire, and a sprinkling of new bands are dropping their name in press releases. Among them are the hotly tipped Clor, whose singer, Barry Dobbin, DJs at the Windmill in Brixton and plays a 12-inch of Do The Strand and Editions Of You. “It always gets a great response.”
Dobbin, who is 29 and from Rochdale, got into Roxy through his older sisters. With Clor, he hasn’t tried to sound like them. “It’s more trying to invest it with some of their spirit. They were risk-takers, prepared to do anything, but intelligent. They were unique.”
Roxy Music play Koko, London NW1, June 8; Isle of Wight Festival, June 11; King’s Dock, Liverpool, July 11.