There are plenty of Roxy Music fans out there who think phase three/eighties Roxy has nothing to do with phases one and two, just as there are Roxy Music fans (not as many, though they do exist) who think they never made it out alive after phase one. With all its ups and downs, lineup changes, shifting musical emphases, and detours in mind, I hear the Roxy Music story as continuous. The three phases, while certainly distinct, are in no way separate. The principal aesthetic or impulse behind “Beauty Queen” (1973) is the same impulse or aesthetic behind “Over You” (1980) which is the same impulse or aesthetic behind “Nightingale” (1975), etc.
Compiling this worst to best of Roxy Music list—all 77 songs from their eight albums, plus two officially released singles (no live cuts or b-sides)—I knew what my prejudices were going in, and the same prejudices exist coming out, but thinking about their career, song by song rather than album by album or phase by phase, casts light as much on the continuities as it does on the differences (at least that’s the idea). Yes, the scales on the best-of Roxy are unevenly tipped towards phase two, while the worst-of is dominated by phase three, but those are results-based personal value judgments, not statements about their approach. And anyway, Avalon, the grand summit of phase three, as well as of their career, is my third or fourth favourite Roxy album–so, again, evaluations of the different phases are in no way predetermined.
Thanks to music critic Bill Wyman, soon to be featured on this site, for inspiring this worst to best concept in the first place (see his Beatles and Rock Hall of Fame lists). I have talked about Roxy Music as much as I’ve talked about anything in my life (especially with Paul Woods and Alfred Soto), and I pull from such conversations frequently here, as well as from a couple good though seriously flawed Roxy books (one by Paul Stump, the other by David Buckley), and a binder (literally) full of essays, interviews, and reviews.
But enough about life’s inner meaning and my latest fling—let us begin the beguine.
77. “The Bob/Medley” (Roxy Music)
My 77th favourite Roxy Music song. You’ll be forgiven for asking what “The Bob” is (is it a dance? can one just “do the Bob”?), and with music this unfocused and borderline hostile, it’s not likely to make a difference anyway. Bryan Ferry pushes his warble to places it can’t get to yet, while clanging power chords, badly mixed, serve as a centerpiece to a bunch of vaguely connected parts (hence the medley). I like Eno’s cannily-placed musique concrete explosions, and in many ways appreciate the Crimson-coloured overreach here, but I’ve never once enjoyed it.
76. “Eight Miles High” (Flesh and Blood)
Dispiriting Byrds cover, especially when measured against Ferry’s impeccable track record as a solo artist interpreting (breathing) other people’s songs. Part of the problem is the song selection itself. Whereas many of Ferry’s covers work as a sort of uncovering—beneath-the-surface illuminations of his own persona—there’s no connecting tissue that I can detect between “Eight Miles High” and Roxy Music c. 1980. It’s as hard to discern a reason for this cover as it is a compelling musical flourish (and the quasi-psychedelic vocal effect as the song draws to a close wreaks of desperation). Too bad they didn’t take on the Byrds’ radiant “Here Without You” instead.
75. “Cry, Cry, Cry” (Manifesto)
A bar band stomp that wouldn’t cut it as a b-side on Ferry’s solid 1976 solo cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame.” There’s a lot of soul-inspired huffing and puffing from the singer (the nadir: “If you’re ready for HOT STUFF/Be prepared”), while the band, not lacking for energy, communicate indifference to every staccato outburst.
74. “Rain, Rain, Rain” (Flesh and Blood)
Mid-tempo funk-lite with a dash of impressive/expensive studio ambience, the kind of mildly seductive atmospheria Ferry dined on throughout the eighties. Not exactly miserable—the song itself isn’t irredeemable, the rhythm track isn’t completely inert—just a yawn.
73. “Running Wild” (Flesh and Blood)
Inaptly-titled (at least Flesh and Blood is a funny double entendre), with a beat that is inert, though the song itself is prettier than “Rain, Rain, Rain,” and you take your wins where you can. Wallows in its own hackery, though, from the punched-in organ roll at the end of each chorus, to words like “Running wild, like we do/If only dreams came true.” Bad lyrics are catnip for lazy critics, sure, but for a group who once crafted poetry out of the mashed potato schmaltz, this is a crime of the imagination (and unfortunately all too typical of this period).
72. “Grey Lagoons” (For Your Pleasure)
Too much cheesecake too soon. Ideas proliferate, some good (Andy Mackay’s sleazy sax), some not so much (the bluesy-blazing harmonica solo). Ferry auditions rather than sings in a faraway tale about lagoons on honeymoons and…oh fuck, don’t even bother.
71. “Sea Breezes” (Roxy Music)
There aren’t as many sections here as there are in “The Bob,” I don’t think, but it’s easy to lose count. In any case, lack of direction prevails. (Fans of the song—and there are many—would call it an inspired experiment, and I don’t entirely disagree. They are clearly up to something.)
70. “Trash” (Manifesto)
Perching their collective ear towards the then-happening sound of skinny-tie new wave, this is a genre exercise which never gels into Roxy music. Trash has been a key sub-text all along, and here they make it explicit, referencing Duchamp’s readymades and (weirdly) heavy metal. But it’s 1979 Roxy playing catch-up not just with 1973 Roxy, but with 1978 everyone else, cheesy Farfisa organ and all. It does trail off with Andy Mackay going snakecharmer-wild on his oboe, but it’s not enough.
69. “While My Heart is Still Beating” (Avalon)
In his review of the Rolling Stones’s Love You Live, Robert Christgau notes that Jagger’s singing “convey[s] bored, arrogant laziness, as if he can’t be bothered hoisting his tongue to the roof of his mouth.” Ferry isn’t bored or lazy here—merely lost in a reverie, floating away from the rest of humanity, free from the constraints of consonants. But his unwillingness to hoist his tongue to the roof of his mouth is his mien: not a bug but a feature.
68. “No Strange Delight” (Flesh and Blood)
Achieving a kind of oblivion is not an unworthy musical goal; it requires an extremely deft touch to do it well. They catch a strong emotion here that I’m as unable to dismiss as I am to describe—a sort of dreamy, deadpan grayness. Minor-key chord progressions, glistening synthesizer, heavily reverberated piano, and a subtle vocal curl on the word de-e-light” (the Pet Shop Boys were taking notes) are all things to recommend. That stupid diminishing bass line they keep reverting to is not.
67. “Bitter Sweet” (Country Life)
Country Life has risen considerably in my estimation as a result of this survey. Sandwiched between two perfect albums, its inconsistency always prompted me to move the needle around. But mea culpa: its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses (and in some respects, it’s the greatest sound they ever achieved). “Bitter Sweet” is a scar, though—to quote Paul, “a clumsy attempt to rewrite ‘A Song For Europe’,” with an effect that is (to quote Jim Miller in Rolling Stone) “merely gauche.”
66. “Bitters End” (Roxy Music)
The closing track on the debut clocks in at just over two minutes, and is a better Brian than Bryan record. Eno’s voice is evident throughout, even when he’s not singing doo-wop background vocals (and doing a pretty good job at it), and it’s a decent blueprint of some of the loopier moments that characterize his first solo album, Here Come the Warm Jets.
65. “Jealous Guy” (single/1981)
Nearly four decades after John Lennon’s assassination, this Roxy-Music-in-name-only tribute leaves a slightly unpleasant taste. The whistling at the end, a nice touch for its first 17 minutes, wanders aimlessly. If you want to hear Ferry whistle, and whistle with wit, imagination, and horror, check out the closing few seconds of “A Song for Europe.”
64. “If It Takes All Night” (<Country Life)
Another Country Life so-what. A lively romp, but also very workday. In arrangement and feel, it’s a kindred spirit to Ferry’s uneven second solo LP, Another Time, Another Place.
63. “True to Life” (Avalon)
Avalon is the Roxy Music album most resistant to a song by song breakdown. It’s an album best experienced in whole. Not because the songs are all “of a piece” (what great LP is that not true of?), but because many of the album’s individual tracks—particularly those buoyed more by texture than by song craft—suffer when removed from that context. “True to Life” has a pleasant lilt, but it benefits hugely from its natural environment. The words “I really need to hear ‘True to Life’ right now” have yet to cross my lips.
62. “My Only Love” (Flesh and Blood)
I recently conducted an informal Facebook poll, asking some friends to list their favourite and least favourite Roxy Music songs. “My Only Love” garnered a couple nays, and some ensuing discussion about its apparent badness. It’s more of the usual 1980: “an abstraction,” to quote Alfred Soto, “too remote to quantify, removed from mortal thought.” Has a sweetness to it, though, and a reach (now within the singer’s grasp); even if a little blasé, I don’t find it unlikable.
61. “My Little Girl” (Manifesto)
My-little-girl songs are never a good idea (though cf. “Amazona,” not to mention at least a couple Bruce Springsteen songs), but Ferry achieves new levels of condescension by assuring the listener that his “little girl” is in fact “a woman of the world.” The scariest thing about this is how completely sincere he is. The second scariest thing about it is that the song is actually pretty good. Certainly one of Manifesto‘s best: exuberantly performed, light on its feet, melodically rich. What to do?
60. “Ain’t That So” (Manifesto)
With its chukka-chukka 4/4, this is Manifesto‘s most obvious step towards the post-disco dance floors of NY-Paris-et al., a move they never ended up pursuing with all that much vigour (“Same Old Scene” being their most successful nod in that direction). It’s not without its minimalist charms, though there’s a bit of restless flailing about towards the end. For the most part, though, the single-mindedness required of dance music holds steady.
59. “The Main Thing” (Avalon)
From Avalon, and a parallel to “Ain’t That So”—a repetitive rhythm exercise that repeats it title over and over. (Technically speaking, there is additional content in both songs, but who can remember any of it?) “The Main Thing” is the lesser performance, but it builds off a stronger template (Avalon being the honed-down masterwork of phase three). “Ain’t That So” has a little more flavouring but builds off a weaker template. From whatever angle you choose to look at it, #59 and #60 are interchangeable.
58. “Dance Away” (Manifesto)
It is with Manifesto‘s most popular song that Roxy’s transition to the ’80s is solidified. Ferry’s potpourri of ’70s outfits—the tuxedos, the gauchos, the button down military shirts—personal armour for a man not comfortable in his own skin—are replaced by impeccably-tailored designer suits. The visual and the music merge as one.
57. “The Bogus Man” (For Your Pleasure)
After 40 years of trying to tap into what it is that captivates so many (mostly British) fans of this 9:20 noirfest, I don’t know if I’ll get any further with it. There’s a spaciousness within Paul Thompson’s stutter-beat (funk-by-way-of-Krautrock, or so I’m told), and the rama-lama sax moves on top are nice. (And among the comments received in my Facebook poll, I love Mongolfier’s suggestion that there’s some Threepenny Opera lurking in all this as well.) Missing: fun.
56. “Pyjamarama” (single/1973)
This early single (it’s also on the UK version of For Your Pleasure) has one of their more suggestive titles, and I imagine if I’d been closer to its context (if it reached me earlier than 25 years after the fact), I might be more persuaded or amused, but like so much early RM, it’s parts in need of glue. Second-tier Roxy, fourth-tier glam.
55. “In the Midnight Hour” (Flesh and Blood)
Somewhat to my surprise, the Facebook contingent gave a big, collective thumbs down to this. Wilson Pickett it isn’t, and that’s the point. Like Ferry’s covers of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “It’s My Party,” “What a Wonderful World,” and scads more, “Midnight Hour” is impossible to imagine it until it happens, at which point it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. I’m not suggesting this is genius on the level of any of those, and the soul horns are an unwanted embellishment, but one elongated vowel puts it over, into the realm of lump-in-the-throat affection: “That’s when my loooooove comes tumbling down.”
54. “Angel Eyes” (Manifesto)
A better absorption of new wave into the Roxy program than “Trash.” Catchy enough that it might have been a near-classic, save for the misguided decision by whoever arranged it to jump from hopped-up verse to downbeat bridge before the momentum of the former has even been established. Like a wedding DJ who hasn’t figured out that you don’t segue from “Holiday” into “Fly Me to the Moon” (the other way around is fine), the shift in intensity is a buzz killer.
53. “Same Old Scene” (Flesh and Blood)
I know at least two Roxy fans who rank this Eurodance very high, and I admire the formal details—the gloss, the falsetto, “nothing lasts forever,” the puffed-up Blitz Kids hair—but it’s never swept me off my feet and transported me to the dance floor, virtual or otherwise.
52. “Chance Meeting” (Roxy Music)
A pretty damn good sound effects record—not much more—with Manzanera and MacKay laying down rudimentary riffs which are then treated by the balding guy in feathers, to the point where you can’t differentiate one from the other. Such trickery becomes one of the great Roxy tropes, even post-Eno. The cacophony that emerges here is almost enough to distract you from its ponderous schlock-decadence. (Along with some other early Roxy songs, this was re-recorded by Bryan Ferry on Let’s Stick Together, in a version which is superior; the noise is decently replicated but the fidelity tramples the original.)
51. “Three and Nine” (Country Life)
Folky. Crooning a false advertisement with “no cheap nostalgia” while appealing to cheap nostalgists everywhere with its paean to “decimal romance,” there’s an appealing lightness of step here that’s rare in early Roxy.
50. “The Space Between” (Avalon)
Mountainous disco that I’ve warmed up to a lot over the years. Probably a bit clever to call it engineer Bob Clearmountain’s record, or drummer Andy Newmark’s, or bassist Neil Jason’s (or do I mean Alan Spenner’s?), but it wouldn’t be wrong. Exuberant ambient that feasts on the contradiction inherent.
49. “Casanova” (Country Life)
Mid-seventies must-be-the-sad-effects-of-the-cocaine rock. As with all of Country Life‘s heavier moments, the band is unassailable, but Ferry’s hectoring tone, punctuated by some of his wildest ululations (“is that your name”—five syllables in “name” by my count), is a bit much, even if his scolding finger is aimed directly at himself. You can’t write off this song’s power and venom, but it has never been a go-to for me.
48. “Love is the Drug” (Siren)
The band’s only American Top 40 hit is punctured by its own reductive Roxyisms, from singles bars to boy-meets-girl to dim the lights to the smug ellipses which follows. Still, the music here delivers, and brilliantly. Paul Thompson and John Gustafson come up with an all-time bust-a-move which still crackles today. And still I recall the thrill of hearing Roxy Music on the radio in 1975, stumbling about as I tried to explain to a friend who they were and why he should care, and not getting anywhere.
47. “Flesh and Blood” (Flesh and Blood)
Hard power chords (I’m not suggesting it’s the Clash or Van Halen) take this… somewhere. The beat is pedestrian and the tune nothing special, but they effectively exploit the song’s bigness, a wallop of sound that must’ve rang true in the turn-of-the-decade nightclubs in New Romantic Britain.
46. “Still Falls the Rain” (Manifesto)
The closest link on Manifesto to the Roxy of Siren. Phil Manzanera’s opening descension is a tearjerker. Tasty still trumps tasteful, but it’s close.
45. “Would You Believe” (Roxy Music)
Ferry has been quoted as saying, “most groups want to trash their hotel rooms; we’re more likely to redecorate them.” The second section of “Would You Believe” is the one time they get out the crowbars and a bottle of Jack and have at it. This is manic greaseball stuff, with MacKay blowing holes through the roof and Ferry Pinky-Tuscaderoing it with a ridiculous sore-throated register (touching notes he never hits again, even on the sockhop-friendly These Foolish Things). I know this is a flimsy excuse for a song, and that it veers dangerously close to Sha-Na-Na (phase one Bryan always did have a bit of Bowser in him), but it never doesn’t make me giggle, at least just a little.
44. “Triptych” (Country Life)
Further proof that, two albums after his departure, Roxy hadn’t entirely shaken Eno out of their system. The choirboy section, initially tough going, over time unravels its peculiar, whimsical beauty. In short: Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. And from the verses sprung the quieter, prettier side of Wire.
43. “Stronger Through the Years” (Manifesto)
Ponderous, funereal beauty, anticipates Joy Division (especially the Joy Division of Closer) possibly before anyone in Roxy had even heard of them. Alan Spenner’s intrusive, showoffy fretless bass that takes over as the song heads towards the finish line messes a little with the comparison, and a lot with the song.
42. “To Turn You On” (Avalon)
Fans of this song on YouTube frequently refer to the lyrics (one commenter calls it “The nearest one could get, with words, to express the feeling of being in love”), but aside from the seductive imagery of rain on Fifth Avenue I’ve never had a clue what it’s about beyond the fact that Ferry would love to turn you on, and in an uncharacteristically less syllabic way than John Lennon once promised the same.
41. “Strictly Confidential” (For Your Pleasure)
A favourite of Paul’s—I heard it often as a kid—and in the relative sparseness of its soundscape it has a definite spookiness about it (a spookiness, that is, without the scare quotes required of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” which, nevertheless, I rate a little higher, and “The Bogus Man,” which I don’t). The break—the respite? the “rolling and turning” part—is a weak interjection, somewhat atoned for in the final act as the singer heads further into a hollowness of sound (of being?), while the voices in his head taunt: “tell us what are you thinking now.”
40. “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” (For Your Pleasure)
A litmus test for early Roxy Music listeners, as evidenced from period reviews, where critics go to great pains to explain, exonerate, mock, or obliterate what is at root a pop art-inspired “blow-up doll devotional,” to cite Andy Gill.
39. “Could It Happen To Me” (Siren)
How great is Roxy Music? Great enough that it is roughly from this point forward that any song listed could make its way into the Top 10. “Could It Happen To Me” is one of the lesser songs on Siren, but what does that even mean?
38. “Tara” (Avalon)
As the final song on Avalon, this brief Andy Mackay oboe swirl would not be out of place in the Hills of Windham. A perfect goodbye kiss, to everything. Elliptical, cryptic, lush, green. Also, a canny bit of typical Roxy self-referencing, the title “Tara” being a nod to the stream of vocal “Ta-ra”s that eerily close out “For Your Pleasure.”
37. “End of the Line” (Siren)
Have any other pop stars taken as many walks in the rain as Bryan Ferry? Not that I’m aware of, though you have to wonder if many of those walks are really just an excuse to put on a double-breasted London Fog trench coat. Not here. This particular walk in the rain is the most miserable walk he’ll ever take, a lonely stroll to the end of the line, the point of no return, and, in desperation, a magic carpet ride which doesn’t end so well (“everything is wrong”). As extreme in its remorse as anything else from Siren, the singer knows the game’s up—no more party time wasting, no more dabbling with fate, no more dream homes or even heartaches to rhapsodize about—he’s through.
36. “India” (Manifesto)
Another Roxy instrumental, also from Avalon, also brief. A simple 6-note, ascending-descending synthesizer figure is looped over a vaguely Eastern groove, with echoed-into-the-ether Manzanera doodles on top. The one time I saw RM, on the Avalon tour, stranded with my girlfriend in the upper echelon of the nosebleeds, a recording of “India” opened the show as the lights went down and the band slowly made its way to the stage. An awe-inspiring introduction; whatever else happened on the stage that night hardly mattered.
35. “Ladytron” (Roxy Music)
Nineteen-seventy-two and already showing their mastery with atmospherics, which no one else in the realm of pop comes close to touching (mid-80s Prince, maybe, but that was short-lived). If “Ladytron” ended 75 seconds in, before a single word was sung, it would still be here.
34. “Whirlwind” (Siren)
The bogus man is still on the run, though now at sea instead of shore, and not devoid of cringe-inducing metaphors (“Thar she blows”?). Still, anything one can nitpick at here is blown to bits by the immediacy of the performance, the Motown-in-overdrive rhythm section especially. And forget Ferry the aesthete, this is Ferry the synaesthete: you can hear his bodily contortions and the tightening of his shoulders.
33. “If There is Something” (Roxy Music)
Roxy’s debut didn’t reach me until I was already familiar with the next three LPs, and I’ll never forget the bizarre shock of first hearing “If There is Something.” Here’s this most English and fey of the glitterati scratching out a country tune, steel guitar and all. (I would have been familiar with the steel guitar used in 1974’s “Prairie Rose,” but by that point the group had integrated their sources so well it was not any kind of sore thumb; nothing they threw at you was italicized.) Certainly, there was no danger of Ferry replacing Ferlin Husky, but true to the early Roxy ethos of sewing different songs into parts, “Something” quickly exits the twang and evolves into a beautifully molded mood piece, keyed by an oboe soliloquy and Ferry swimming the ocean blue so as to assist his latest muse in her potato garden. It’s too weird to explain.
32. “For Your Pleasure” (For Your Pleasure)
A warped classic—Eno’s last stand, with Duane Eddy guitar slabs and a “hallucinatory extended coda of pointillistic pop trills” (Simon Reynolds), held in check by Paul Thompson’s inventive drum fills, as he locates a space somewhere between Keith Moon and Al Jackson.
31. “A Really Good Time” (Country Life)
“You’ve heard enough of the blues and stuff” is their “All the Young Dudes,” the opening salvo from their we-accept-you-one-of-us manifesto. (Early Roxy “rescued us all from years of generic Brit blues solo,” wrote former Ultravoxer John Foxx.) It’s also about a woman, of course, “well educated” with “a heart of gold.” Okay, so maybe “All the Young Dudes” is wishful thinking. “Angie”?
30. “Do the Strand” (For Your Pleasure)
The kick-off from For Your Pleasure, an instantaneous leap in confidence from the debut. With Chris Thomas co-producing, you can begin to hear what they’re after. Inarguably, it’s an all-time fan favourite, a concert staple at least until the year 2036 when they perform it at their long-awaited induction into the Rock Hall of Fame. And yet, I confess that it’s dropped a few notches for me over the years, and it always did pale in comparison to the much swervier “Editions of You.” Key moment: Andy Mackay heading over a very steep cliff with the wildest bit of squawking this side of Albert Ayler.
29. “Beauty Queen” (For Your Pleasure)
An early example of what Rob Sheffield may have had in mind when he noted that Bryan Ferry, “at a tender age… suffered a vision of beauty too intense for mortal eye.” Valerie, the beauty rhapsodized in a song that could almost pass for singer-songwriter-sensitive—if not exactly James Taylor, then “Lady Stardust”—makes the singer’s “starry eyes shiver,” with a face “the winds could not erase,” and looks that are “too much for one day.” Ferry’s gifts as a first-rate melodist are on full display, but he’s also smart enough to get out of the way to let Manzanera and the others swoop in to make lots of noise.
28. “Oh Yeah” (Flesh and Blood)
“Driving alone to a movie show/So I turn to the sound in my car.” Perfect. To flip the script on the standard critical Roxy line (’70s good/’80s bad), it’s hard to imagine the younger Ferry singing so openly about a pleasure so seemingly simple.
27. “Amazona” (Stranded)
“From A-ri-zo-naaahhh / to El-doe-ra-dooohhh…” Paul Thompson and John Gustafson put things over with a fractured hard funk beat that wouldn’t be out of place on Houses of the Holy, but as anyone who knows the song knows, this is Phil Manzanera’s moment of moments: an inferno of sound and sound effects, from some netherworld the song’s theme only hints at. (And as if this didn’t cement Manzanera’s reputation in the mind of every Roxy fan as one of the most exciting instrumentalists of the seventies, he went and blew the world to pieces all over again just a year later on John Cale’s astonishing “The Gun”).
26. “Sunset” (Stranded)
As a kid in love with Stranded, I don’t think I ever made it all the way through the side closers, “Psalm” and “Sunset”: both were slow, long, and quiet, and one seemed to be about Jesus, and didn’t I have enough of that already in Catholic school? Eventually, years later, disinterest gave way to curiosity which begat enthrallment, and I can’t imagine Stranded without either of them. “Sunset” never breaks a sweat and doesn’t need to.
25. “Spin Me Round” (Manifesto)
Like a record baby, right ’round, ’round ’round… With its gospel chord progression and peaceful, hushed tone—RM at their most graceful—it’s a shame Aretha Franklin never got her hands on this (maybe we can start a petition for Al Green to give it a go?).
24. “Out of the Blue” (Country Life)
And into the black. A black hole of sound, as Eddie Jobson and John Gustafso create a soundscape that conjures up visions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Decent Into the Maelstrom, the title if not the story itself.
23. “2HB” (Roxy Music)
This tribute to Bogart is pure corn (“Here’s looking at you, kid”), poorly recorded (another one glossed up on Let’s Stick Together), and with another strained vocal performance, unique in its cognitive dissonance as Ferry comes within a few thousand miles of achieving the smoky-air cool of Rick Blaine. (Not that he got much closer when he donned the tuxedo for the cover of Another Time, Another Place; suave wasn’t Ferry’s persona, it was his fantasy.) The melody sticks hard, though, and Eno filtering Mackay’s pining sax solo through an echo chamber lifts the song into another stratosphere, capturing the essence of doo-wop better than any of their more deliberate attempts at the same.
22. “A Song For Europe” (Stranded)
Ferry drowns his sorrows in drink, sputters on the word “ob-se-e-e-ssionnnn,” and lands face-first on the table. Andy MacKay’s dramatic return out of the bridge (which sighs) is designed to blow everyone’s head off, and does.
21. “Virginia Plain” (Roxy Music)
Strip away the dressing and you have a 3-chord proto-punk tune, Manzanera at his wham-bam best. I wish Joey Ramone had lived long enough to tackle it, if only to hear what he could do with the word “Rio.” Following the precedent set, it’s no sure thing he’d have made it.
20. “Psalm” (Stranded)
No clue what they are getting at here anymore than I have a clue what the Velvets are getting at on their self-titled LP with “Jesus,” but it’s the centerpiece on an album infused with religion, and they go all out, neither shirking from the subject or winking at the audience (well, who knows; if they are, I don’t hear it, and truthfully I don’t care either way). In his Rolling Stone review, Paul Gambaccini likens its buildup to Ravel’s “Bolero,” but make no mistake, this is rock and roll for the same reason Ferry’s version of “These Foolish Things” is rock and roll: Paul Thompson.
19. “More Than This” (Avalon)
Yes, Ferry and Manzanera are perfect, Bill Murray’s great too, but at this point I’d prefer an extended loop starting just at the point where the aching vocal line is mimicked by the synthesizer. Not an actual North American hit in 1982, it has become their signature song, the song that even people unfamiliar with Roxy Music could identify. (For the record, it garnered six votes in my Facebook poll, propelling it to #1.)
18. “Serenade” (Stranded)
The idea of the throwaway is too cute a concept when discussing Roxy Music; it was part of the ethos from the get-go (an ethos which stumbles over an obvious paradox: if everything is a throwaway…). “Serenade,” if not exactly a throwaway, does have a slapdashness about it which is supremely satisfying. By not jumping through hoops of fire to dazzle you, it bowls you over with warmth, speed, and wit.
17. “Take a Chance With Me” (Avalon)
Forget “Eight Miles High,” this beautiful construction of a song has some of the Byrdsness the band was aiming for. An all-time melody, but what to make of a lyric—the strangest if not the most fascistic in the entire Ferry canon—like “All the world, even you/Should learn to love the way I do”?
16. “Over You” (Flesh and Blood)
More Byrdsness. Another all-time melody. And a couple cover versions I’ve heard are good also: the Soft Boys and Sloan, each suggesting how weepy and power-poppy this really is.
15. “Manifesto” (Manifesto)
The opening four or five seconds of the phase three kick-off—a restless when-do-we-begin bass, a guitar trying to latch onto a rhythm, a couple extraneous snare hits—is a fitting intro to a bumpy ride ahead, less a clean break from Roxy Mk II than an uncertain transitional one. Lots of teeth gritting and vocal-range-swooping (“his po-wer drill/shocks a-mill”), but with an uptick in finesse and comfort too. Unsettled, always climbing, climbing, every chord change a step up an Escher-like ladder to who knows where.
14. “Just Another High” (Siren)
The end of the line that comes after “The End of the Line” (the void?), and a screenwriter couldn’t have written a better ending to the second phase of the story. As Alfred Soto put it in an extended conversation we had about Roxy Music several years ago: “If you think of [Siren] as a concept, it begins with ‘Love is the Drug,’ which is literally set in a singles bar, and then you have the final song, ‘Just Another High.’ It’s almost as if [Ferry’s] been in the same singles bar for far too long, had too many drinks, smoked too many cigarettes, the suit is looking a little wrinkled, the hair gel has just evaporated, and he just—he looks like a sad sack. He’s just sitting there contemplating where he’s gone wrong; he had all the moves, and he still failed.”
13. “Avalon” (Avalon)
“Sexual Healing” via Mark Knopfler. A misty locale where mere gesture preempts content: “Much communication/in a motion.” Prior to this, women in the Roxy universe played three roles: muses, cover girls, live backup singers. So it’s always a mild shock to hear Yanick Étienne (from Haiti, heard by Ferry while working in an adjacent studio) step into the spotlight here and take over—as galvanic a moment as Lisa Coleman emerging from the shadows in “Little Red Corvette,” Maggie Bell pushing her way to the mic in “Every Picture Tells a Story,” Merry Clayton shattering the glass walls in the Studio B control booth in “Gimme Shelter.”
12. “Just Like You” (Stranded)
Stranded was released one month after Ferry’s debut solo LP, These Foolish Things, so it’s tempting to assume that the title tune of the latter (a standard written by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, and recorded by dozens of popular vocalists, from Billie Holiday to James Brown) rubbed off on his own songwriting, in which case “Just Like You” is an immediate payoff. If the chronology I’m suggesting is not precise, and I’ve no idea if it is or isn’t, there is a cohesive voice and vision between the two performances regardless. I love the double-tracking of his falsetto and baritone here.
11. “She Sells” (Siren)
Ferry’s unschooled piano takes center stage through a song propulsive and poppy enough to pass for mid-70s Elton. The proletarian subtext here feels a little telegraphed if not disingenuous—“9 to 5, the daily grind… Same ma-chine, consu-ming me, consu-ming you”—but who cares when it erupts into such a terrific finale.
10. “All I Want is You” (Country Life)
“Don’t want to learn about etiquette from glossy magazines”—he’ll say anything, won’t he? Note for note their catchiest rocker, with Manzanera’s opening riff—Buddy Holly splattered across a Jackson Pollock canvas—giving way to some irresistible Da-Doo Ron-Ronning by Mackay. How is it even possible that this was not all over the radio in the summer of ’74?
9. “Re-Make/Re-Model” (Roxy Music)
Album 1, cut 1, and a startling inauguration. As the needle drops, a crowd comes into focus, possibly the same crowd assembled to see Sergeant Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band, but this is not your older brother’s Beatle records. (Roxy never did get it off on that revolution stuff. What revolution was ever smart enough to encompass silver platform shoes and bucketfuls of Brylcreem?) The song never doesn’t feel like it could fall to tatters, especially Manzanera’s off-the-chart radar guitar, less an accompaniment than a separate track of its own. It’s Roxy Music in split screen: Phil going one way, the band going the other. Somehow it coheres. Call it good luck, or Pete Sinfield. Long disparaged for his production on the debut (I obviously haven’t helped), here his instincts gel deliciously. A more experienced and temperate producer would have tamped down this anarchy from the get-go.
8. “Prairie Rose” (Country Life)
The music—big Texan sky, longing soul chords, longer legs, and wide-eyed steel guitars—sounds like, to quote Ned Raggett, “it’s coming out of an open-top convertible barreling down a freeway.”
7. “Both Ends Burning” (Siren)
Not disco per se, but kinetic. There’s a fire raging in Bryan’s so-o-o-o-uuullll tonight, though no actual soul singer would ever go to such lengths to prove it.
6. “Mother of Pearl” (Stranded)
Is there a heaven? I’d like to think so. For all the Dylan cover versions recorded by Ferry (20 is my guess), this might be the most Dylanesque thing he’s ever done. I don’t mean to suggest that it sounds like Dylan, or even follows a lyrical pattern modeled on Dylan, I mean to say that it’s one of those songs (I can’t think of any others in the RM catalog) which takes great advantage of the space, or the canvas, opened up by Dylan, with its hypnotic, cryptic, mischievous string of images, a sort of faux-poetry on the page but galvanic in the context of (in this case) the swirling instrumental backdrop. The difference, however, is telling: whereas many of Dylan’s ’60s epics draw up tangible images from all walks of life—street urchins, poets, fortune tellers, biblical characters—“Mother” rhapsodizes over unattainable (and in truth—and I think Ferry knows this—ultimately indefinable) beauty, the attempted depiction of which becomes a sacramental experience: “I am not worthy to caress your flesh.” Structurally, “Mother of Pearl” is nightmare-turned-dream: following a punked-up prelude with Manzanera and the others raising a god almighty ruckus, the song finds peace in a gospel-inspired three-chord progression that never wavers but is humorously embellished with exclamation marks (mirroring Ferry’s version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”): the “my fav-uh-Rita” castanets (visions of Gilda?), the sighing “holy grail” guitar note, the stage-left entrance of a marimba to remind you you’re listening to nothing more than “a simple tune.” Everyone present here is losing their shit in the reverie of the moment, and no one overplays their hand. It’s the coda for “Layla,” it’s The Earrings of Madame De, it’s refuge in pleasure, just give it your future, you’ll forget your past.
5. “Editions of You” (For Your Pleasure)
Where the story begins for me and where it never ends. A singed-hair crash course for the ravers, and the missing link between Johnny & the Hurricane’s “Red River Rock” and X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours.” Frantic romantic/drastic plastic.
4. “Nightingale” (Siren)
If Siren is Roxy Music’s Rubber Soul, as Greil Marcus has suggested, call this their “Norwegian Wood,” an aching paean to a girl Ferry once had—or should I say, she once had him?—in a night he wishes would last for years. (Squint your ears just a little and you can even transpose George Harrison’s sitar refrain over Manzanera’s phased guitar.) “Should I stay here or should I go”: with Eddie Jobson’s manically sawed violin lending widescreen drama to Ferry’s worst fears, 20 of the most astonishingly emotional seconds in all of pop.
3. The Thrill of it All” (Country Life)
Produced by future fifth Sex Pistol, Chris Thomas, and performed with the brute force of “Holidays in the Sun.” Ferry’s insistent piano alarm constructs a frame for Manzanera and Thompson to wreak all sorts of havoc in, but its deepest moment is the slow inhale the singer takes in the final verse (following the line “I couldn’t take more than another week without you—“). Among my small collection of Roxy-related books is a half-decent one by Rex Balfour called The Bryan Ferry Story, but the truth is, the story’s already there, in the inhale.
2. “Sentimental Fool” (Siren)
A windy synthesizer, some heavily treated guitar squalls, a wispy electric piano, and an elementary up-the-scale bass figure swirl around a universe coming to fruition in your head for two-and-a-half way-too-short minutes—an excursion that doesn’t so much end as it continues in a different guise a year later on “Station to Station,” the most epic and delirious of Bowie tunes—before a singer emerges from the spotlight, mimicking words in a voice best described as ghastly, until finally, a tune emerges from the wreckage, the bruised-by-love singer insisting he can handle one more kick at the can (the key word in the title is “fool”), even if just to relive one minute of ecstasy.
1. “Street Life” (Stranded)
Paul’s #1 (two weeks ago, anyway), mine too. Kicking off Stranded, the first Roxy Music record sans Eno, 18-year-old Eddie Jobson introduces himself to the throng with a jagged, sinister mellotron, but the critical component is Manzanera’s ringing five-note guitar phrase, which chases the singer around until it makes him feel like he’s losing his mind. I have nothing revelatory to say here. If you’ve never heard “Street Life” or if you’ve heard it a thousand times, do yourself a favour and listen to it right now. You may be stranded if you stick around.