#4 – Roxy Music / Brian Eno

It may be appropriate for a last few days filled with ridiculous amounts of insanity for me that I am now writing about Roxy Music – a band filled to the brim with over-the-top emotions and gleeful absurdity. They’re not a band that I knew much about when starting this project, being American and all, but they are truly the gold standard for 70s British rock-pop and determined the direction of British pop for at least a decade and a half after their debut album.

Pairing them with Brian Eno may be a bit cheap, since Eno was only a member during the first two Roxy albums, but suck it up. I had a lot of artists to fit in here. Eno’s legacy I think is even greater than Roxy Music’s, as Eno essentially invented ambient music as we know it and was consistently interested with pushing the boundaries of what pop music could do, or be about during his career. He has produced genre-defining albums for Talking Heads, U2 and Devo, and has also worked with Coldplay, Genesis, David Bowie, Robert Fripp, John Cale, Ultravox, James, Sinead O’Connor, Laurie Anderson, Toto and Grace Jones throughout his lengthy career. It’s safe to say that the concept of music as we know it would be very different if not for Brian Eno.

Roxy Music: Rocking with style.

But we’ll start with Roxy Music – the far more commercially successful of these two. Each of their 8 albums were Top 10 hits in the UK, though none ever cracked the Top 20 in the US. Their biggest initial UK hit, “Virginia Plain,” wasn’t included on their debut (and yes that is Brian Eno looking like Riff Raff in the video), but made a massive impact on the music scene there. From it, you can see their combination of glam rock and psychedelia with the swagger of signer Bryan Ferry. Eno’s influence is massive as well, considering he’s already putting into effect his philosophy that synthesizers shouldn’t try to replicate the sounds of other instruments but instead should sound like something entirely new, and kudos to Ferry for giving him the space to experiment with these styles.

Over the first couple of albums, they continued pushing the envelope. “Remake/Remodel” the lead track off their self-titled 1972 debut, is a stunning example of postmodern pastiche, as it references numerous other pieces throughout but couches it all in the energy of proto-punk like the Stooges. Their second album, 1973’s For Your Pleasure, is typically regarded as one of Britain’s classic 70s albums, with Morrissey famously calling it the only true British rock record. It kicks off with minor hit “Do the Strand,” which satirizes dance crazes (and check out this clip for a nice minute-long interview with an old producer from The Old Grey Whistle Test, a British show they played, that precedes their performance from that show). My favorite album track from this one is “Grey Lagoons” which is filled with whimsical lyrics backed by a solid bluesy groove.

At that point, Eno left the group, but under Ferry’s direction, they continued to put out some of the most challenging pop music of the 1970s. Their biggest hit was 1975’s “Love is the Drug” which starts incorporating some disco-type rhythms. But their albums went deeper with killer cuts like “Nightingale” (from 1975’s Siren) which has a stunning final minute or so and “Casanova” (from 1974’s Country Life), here in a great full orchestral version from 2000. Their final album was 1982’s Avalon, which has been described as “yuppie make out music.” The lugubrious “More Than This” and “Avalon” sound like they could be coming from a 1980s cruise ship, but were tremendous hits and elegantly crafted pop.

Eno was clearly a product of the glam movement.

Eno, on the other hand, broke violently from Roxy Music in 1973 with Here Come the Warm Jets, often read as a euphemism for pissing all over Bryan Ferry and his pop-oriented ambitions. It kicked off with “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” an energetic rocker, and cycled through semi-accessible songs like “Baby’s On Fire” and “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” before introducing the “warm jets” sound on the closer title track

The real breakthrough was 1975’s Another Green World. Though it had conventional songs like “St. Elmo’s Fire” there were also pieces like “Little Fishes” which meander around like nothing conceived of in the pop world before. The album has accomplished what few ever have, or ever will, in that it showed us things that we had not ever imagined possible before. Eno’s obsession with tinkering with new sounds led to an incredibly fresh, original work that really must be taken in as a whole to be appreciated. He took this even further on his series of ambient works, like 1978’s Ambient 1 – Music for Airports (perhaps best summed up by the leadoff track, “1-1“), which examines the role that music plays in our lives through formless, shifting musical explorations.

An older, more subdued Eno at home in his studio.

But he never gave up on the pop form entirely, either. Aside from his frequent production gigs, he still released classics like Before And After Science from 1977, which had the semi-single “Backwater” which explored absurdist lyrics behind a rollicking rhythm section. He also has released two direct collaborations with David Byrne: the first in 1981 called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (which combined live funk music with samples from all over the world, like on “The Jezebel Spirit“) and the second being 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, filled with more conventional pop songs that are still expertly done, like “Strange Overtones” – one of my favorites from that year.

Roxy Music’s impact was what Lester Bangs called “the triumph of artifice.” They put on a show and tried to be the opposite of the confessional singer-songwriter being championed at the time. Their iconoclasm was influential to numerous future British artists including The Smiths, Eurythmics, Sex Pistols, Depeche Mode, Adam Ant, Madness, Pulp, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, Grace Jones, and Duran Duran – all of whom have cited Roxy Music as a direct influence.

And it’s hard to imagine, but Eno’s influence extends even further. As Allmusic.com explains, Eno has “forever altered the ways in which music is approached, composed, performed, and perceived, and everything from punk to techno to new age bears his unmistakable influence.” He helped turn the studio itself into an instrument and to expand the possibilities of the synthesizer, which has altered our musical landscape. He even wrote the Microsoft start up theme – the most frequently heard song in the world – which led him into a phase of writing “micro-compositions.” The man is a genius and the fact that he and his former compatriots in Roxy Music have not been recognized by the American-heavy Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame after over a dozen years of eligibility is a disgrace. Please check out some of their stuff if you haven’t before. Volumes have been devoted to these musicians; my blog can only palely convey their impact. And of course, let me know what you think.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mickey on June 4, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Nice article; and the disgrace of the rockhall continues.

    Did you see the Guardian’s article on Roxy’s influence?

    Reply

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