by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Though the band only ever had one American Top 40 hit, Roxy Music was one of the most wildly influential bands of the ‘70s. Though they experimented with different genres over the course of their career, from avant-garde art-rock and glam-pop to disco/dance music and even ambient pop, every single period in their career ended up inspiring a whole series of other acts, and it’s safe to say that ’80s pop in particular would have sounded a lot different had there never been a Roxy Music. While the band split in 1983, its members would go on to greater commercial success. Lead singer/songwriter Bryan Ferry would go on to a fairly successful solo career, even reaching the American Top 40 on his own with the dance-pop of 1988's “Kiss and Tell”; Brian Eno would become a producer for the likes of Talking Heads and U2; Andy Mackay would record with longtime fan Paul McCartney in the mid-‘80s; even drummer Paul Thompson would find further Top 40 success as the sticksman for alt-rock band Concrete Blonde. [Other famous musicians to pass through the band’s ever-changing lineup over the years also include John Wetton of Asia and King Crimson; Rick Wills of Foreigner; and even future solo star Paul Carrack, who’d also join the lineups of Squeeze and Mike + the Mechanics.] While they’re widely known amongst critics and hardcore music fans, Roxy Music remains a somewhat obscure band on this side of the Atlantic, but if you’ve yet to be exposed to them, this feature should help serve as a guide on which albums are the right ones for you …
Roxy Music (1972, Reprise)
If you’re only familiar with Roxy Music through their more disco-oriented material (“Love Is the Drug,” “Dance Away”) or the ambient mood-music of their final years (“More Than This”), you may be completely taken aback at just how thoroughly weird and uncommercial their debut album is. It’s not quite as thoroughly avant-garde and alien as, say, Captain Beefheart or even Frank Zappa, but it’s still very weird stuff. It’s also fairly amateur stuff, too, the band members not exactly the most technically gifted of musicians just yet. The result is that this disc feels somewhat like a spacey glam-rock version of the first Velvet Underground record, with some of the songs on here with the most potential being undercut by the band’s deliberate strangeness, like how the pretty piano ballad “Chance Meeting” lasts all of thirty seconds before wandering off into thoroughly atonal territory. This isn’t to say that the album is entirely avant-garde, and people with more mainstream tastes can still appreciate the likes of the Humphrey Bogart tribute “2HB” and the pounding rockers “Would You Believe?” and “Remake/Remodel.” American copies wisely tacked on the non-LP single “Virginia Plain,” which is the best and most fun track here; its lyrics are a bit incomprehensible (though it’s still got some great lines like “You’re so sheer, you’re so chic / Teenage rebel of the week”), but the music is hard to resist. It’s certainly a very groundbreaking album, but its tendency to embrace the abrasive makes it a very hard album for your average listener to warm up to very easily, and it’s only occasionally rewarding.
For Your Pleasure (1973, Warner Bros.)
The band’s final outing with Brian Eno in the lineup, this is still an awfully weird album, but they’re playing with considerably greater skill this time out and, unlike their debut, they’re not self-consciously sabotaging potentially great songs with extended atonal passages, and the album, even in its strangest and most avant-garde moments, is still significantly more listenable than its predecessor. It’d be a bit of a stretch to call anything on here “catchy” except for possibly the manic rocker “Editions of You” and the odd and downright unclassifiable “Do the Strand,” but it’s still a strangely fun disc, particularly on its jam-heavy second side, which boasts many fun moments of instrumental interplay between the band members on “The Bogus Man” and the piano-pounding rocker “Grey Lagoons.” There’s also a hint of Bryan Ferry, the smooth and romantic pop crooner of later years, on the appealing ballad “Beauty Queen.” It’s just a tad overrated by critics, but it’s still nonetheless the band’s first great album and a remarkable improvement on their debut.
Stranded (1973, Atco)
Brian Eno has left the group at this point, but time has proven that it proved to be the best thing that could happen to either Eno or the band, Eno going on to a wildly successful career as a producer (Talking Heads, U2) while also making several appealing art-rock and ambient-music solo albums, while Roxy Music wisely decided to take a modestly more commercial approach from here forward, scoring a long run of U.K. singles hits in the process. Stranded, their first post-Eno outing, nearly sounds like a whole new band, Ferry now having the freedom to pursue his own sounds and visions. That means that the band is noticeably less avant-garde than it was on its first two outings, but it also means that this album is far easier to warm up to than either of those discs while still being quite innovative and artistic. The groovy rocker “Amazona” is a real knockout (also boasting some intriguing instrumental work from guitarist Phil Manzanera), while “Mother of Pearl” is nothing short of an epic, its quirky and hard-driving opening minutes unexpectedly segueing into one of Ferry’s loveliest and catchiest ballads. The nearly E-Street Band-like “Serenade” is downright thunderous, drummer Paul Thompson nearly stealing the spotlight with his muscular fill work on the cut. Best of all, though, is the single “Street Life,” with Ferry speak-singing over Manzanera’s delicious recurring guitar lick to amazing results. Even Eno himself has admitted that this is his favorite Roxy Music album.
Country Life (1974, Atco)
This album was actually banned in several countries for its much-too-revealing album cover (the graphic included above is of the album’s censored and quickly-assembled second American pressing), this album was the band’s American breakthrough, becoming their first album to reach the Top 40 on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a tad overrated by critics and isn’t quite as deliriously fun – or as obviously commercial – as Stranded, but it also still ranks among the band’s very best work. Ferry also continues to grow by leaps and bounds as a singer here, too, and his performances here are a lot more confident and polished than those of the quirky version of Ferry that graces the band’s debut album. The shuffling boogie of “If It Takes All Night” and the country-tinged “Prairie Rose” are both quite fun listens, as is the appealingly slippery “Casanova.” “Out of the Blue,” driven by the violin playing of Eddie Jobson, is fairly alluring as well. The album’s true highlight is the pounding, symphonic opening cut “The Thrill of It All,” which is as good a summation of what the early Roxy Music sound was about as there is, and it packs more drama and passion into its six-and-a-half-minutes than most full albums do!
Siren (1976, Atco)
Some critics predictably cried “sellout,” but this disc was the one to yield the band’s first and only American Top 40 hit, the addictive art-disco of “Love Is the Drug,” which brilliantly managed to take all the trademarks of Roxy Music – Ferry’s smooth and seductive crooning and clever wordplay, Andy Mackay’s honking and haunting sax, Manzanera’s ever-versatile guitar work, and the band’s always-present desire to fuse art and pop – and fuse them into one irresistible slice of dancefloor-worthy material and one with an unexpectedly Beatlesque ending. And this is one heavily dance-oriented album, too, the band experimenting with disco but in a thoughtful and crafty way that never seems shameless or desperate. The album consequently inspired and influenced countless late ‘70s and early ‘80s new-wave outfits like Duran Duran and ABC that aimed to combine artistic pop with danceable rhythms. There’s still plenty of the dramatic ballads Roxy Music is known for, “Sentimental Fool” being the best in the lot, though “Just Another High” also leaves a great impression, in no small part due to Paul Thompson’s muscular drumming on the cut, but it’s the dance cuts here like “Love Is the Drug” that steal the show, and “Whirlwind,” “Both Ends Burning,” and “She Sells” are similarly likely to get you out of your seat and moving to their irresistible grooves. (Fun trivia: she’s not particularly recognizable here, but the model on the album cover is actually a pre-fame Jerry Hall!)
Manifesto (1979, Atco)
Most critics despise this album, but bear in mind that it’s also the most commercially-accessible disc the band had released to this point, so unless your tastes lean towards the avant-garde, you may very well find much more on here to like than you would on their far more critically-lauded self-titled debut. The band very nearly scored a second American Top 40 hit with the majestic, piano-driven light disco of “Dance Away,” one of the prettiest songs Ferry has ever written and boasting one great line after another (i.e. “You’re dressed to kill and guess who’s dying,” “Loneliness is a crowded room full of open hearts turned to stone,” “All the way is far enough,” etc.) The band still hasn’t lost its flair for hard-driving art-pop, as can be seen in the LP version of “Angel Eyes,” which was unfortunately given a radical disco makeover for single release. But they’ve also widened their musical palette, surrounding old-style Roxy Music numbers like the dramatic “Still Falls the Rain” with some interesting stylistic excursions, such as the aggressive new-wave of the hooky “Trash” (easily one of the band’s most underrated singles) and the soulful, funk-tinged “My Little Girl.”
Flesh & Blood (1980, Atco)
Yes, it’s true that this disc has got one of the most terrible covers of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” ever recorded, and the cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” is nearly just as bad. But too much attention is paid to that by critics (who likely were hoping for something far more avant-garde and of limited appeal, anyway), and too little attention paid to the fact that the remainder of the album is perfectly fine, and is occasionally even downright fantastic. The album’s three singles in particular are all truly prime stuff: the devastatingly pretty, yearning love song “Over You,” arguably the greatest single the band ever made (and the unexpected closing piano solo of which fits in surprisingly well juxtaposed next to Manzanera’s busy lead guitar lines and Mackay’s sax); the melodramatic “Oh Yeah (On the Radio),” which foreshadows the mellow atmospheric pop of their next and final album, Avalon; and the art-disco of “Same Old Scene,” which clearly had some major influence on the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. The album cuts are fairly good, too, particularly the haunting “Rain, Rain, Rain” and the title cut.
Avalon (1982, Warner Bros.)
It was sadly the last album the band would ever make together, but what an amazing way to go out! The band has completely abandoned its avant-garde-rock roots by this point, but even critics loved just how innovative this final outing was, the band creating a heavily-ambient-sounding brand of sophisticated, even sexy, pop perfect for late-night listening that would prove just as wildly influential as the glam-rock of its early years or their art-disco outings of the previous three albums. [R&B/jazz outfit Sade (“The Sweetest Taboo,” “Smooth Operator), for one, is just one of many acts who never could have existed if not for this album paving the way.] It sadly didn’t change the band’s chart fortunes in America much, but even if there are technically no Top 40 hits here, the hypnotic opening cut “More Than This” should still be recognizable to most ears, the song becoming something of a new-wave standard in later years. (It would be put to memorable use in the movie Lost in Translation and even landed in the Top 40 in the late ‘90s in the form of a cover by 10,000 Maniacs.) The rest of the album is just as hypnotic and appealing, highlighted by cuts like “Take a Chance with Me,” the seductive samba of the title cut, and the devastatingly pretty ballad “To Turn You On.” Bryan Ferry would model much of his later solo work (particularly Boys and Girls and its hit single “Slave to Love”) after this album, but he never quite topped this outing.
1977’s Greatest Hits arrived too early to include any of the group’s excellent late-career singles like “More Than This,” “Dance Away,” and “Over You,” but it’s a very well-done sampler of the group’s earliest years. Virgin’s 2001 hits package The Best of Roxy Music is the most thorough single-disc anthology of the band and comes highly recommended. The 1986 package Street Life: 20 Great Hits creatively incorporates six songs from Bryan Ferry’s solo albums, but Ferry’s earliest albums were so cover-heavy (highlighted by his hilarious art-rock makeover of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”) that the tracks don’t quite entirely fit comfortably alongside the Roxy Music songs, which can make for a slightly jarring listen, handy though the package is.
There really isn’t any thoroughly satisfying officially-released live album from Roxy Music, unfortunately. If only because it was released at the height of their popularity, 1976’s Viva! Roxy Music is the one that usually comes the most recommended, but it’s both too short and missing too many hits (“Love Is the Drug,” “Street Life,” and “Virginia Plain” would all have been especially welcome here) to feel all that representative of a typical live show from the band.