The combination of art rock and experimentation that characterizes Roxy Music’s self-titled debut makes it a tough album to review. It’s difficult to write about rock and roll record with an oboe, regardless of how great or brilliant you think it is. It shifts and shakes, throwing out love songs to ladies with license plates and “thank yous” to Bogie; changing from trash glam to pure eclecticism, possessing moments of prog-rock while other times possessing elements of punk and new wave. Roxy Music is a daring, challenging release thanks in large part to Brian Eno. It’s one of those albums that pushes the boundaries of the medium, mutating the flesh and bones of rock and roll. It is a mish-mash, an artsy hobo’s slumgullion, a wicked little animal made of familiar parts yet not wholly resembling anything its ancestry might suggest. It is the okapi of the great albums of the 1970s.
Roxy Music was born when London pottery teacher Brian Ferry put out an ad looking for a keyboardist to collaborate with him and Graham Simpson, the bassist from his previous band The Gas Board. Saxophonist and oboist Andy Mackay answered the ad, eventually bringing friend Eno into the mix. The line-up shifted percussionists and guitarists for a year or two before finally settling on wonder drummer Paul Thompson and guitarist Phil Manzanera. Prior to recording their debut, Simpson left the band, his role to be filled by a slew of bassists on subsequent records and tours. Donning chic, stylish, old-fashioned wardrobe, Roxy Music attempted to evoke the style and glamour of an era past while pushing ever-forward into the possibilities of the future; the classic combination of sophistication, nostalgia, an intrepid spirit, and love of kitsch.
Produced by King Crimson’s Peter Sinfield, the eponymous album opens with the shuffle of a bustling bar before blasting off with “Re-Make/Re-Model.” Ushered in by an unsuspecting piano, the band suddenly comes in full force. Manzanera provides a wailing, wall-to-wall solo, Thompson pounds and pounds away at his drum kit, Mackay saxes the song up, Eno adds anarchic noise to compliment the relentless guitar work, and Ferry rat-tat-tats the lyrics and talk-talk-talks himself to death about the prettiest queen he’s ever seen. In the final anarchic moments of “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the song boasts a bass fill reminiscent of “Day Tripper,” sonic noises and a delirious six-string, a dissonant bash of piano keys, and a fittingly fatigued winding down.
The exhausting opener is followed by the oddity “Ladytron.” Strolling in through a desolate landscape of synth sound and oboe, Ferry’s warbled crooning is complimented by Manzaneara’s underwater guitar. Proclamations of being a loverman are soon followed by admissions of not-so-romantic intentions, the song then erupting into a toppling tower of synth and distortion.
“If There is Something” is a mad masterpiece of quirky romantic sentiment, a love song that starts with a pseudo-country feel until Manzanara’s guitar solo and Mackay’s sax bring the song somewhere shadowy, almost desperate sounding. It’s in this next section of the song that Ferry’s wonky vibrato proclamations of devotion are matched by thrilling oboe trills. Ferry proclaims “I would do anything for you / I would climb mountains / I would swim all the oceans blue / I would walk a thousand miles,” later adding the bizarre lines, “Sit in the garden / Growing potatoes by the score.” The song metamorphoses yet again, this time featuring a brighter sounding piano arrangement, soothing synth strings, and conciliatory backing vocals, soaring until it fades and concludes.
The album’s big single, “Virginia Plain,” peaked at #4 on the UK charts and was included on the United States and Canadian releases of Roxy Music. Inspired by Ferry’s art education and the band’s love of glam and the glamorous, “Virginia Plain” sounds like an ancestor to The Cars and other forthcoming new wave outfits. Ferry’s lyrics are, as they are throughout the album, as quotable as they are playfully bizarre. Mentions of Robert E. Lee, Rio, and Havana give way to an instantly loveable line like, “You’re so sheer you’re so chic / Teenage rebel of the week.” The song birthed from art school is followed by a swooning ode to Humphrey Bogart titled “2 H. B.” The lyrics feature references to Casablanca, mentioning Rick’s relationship with Ilsa as well as that iconic Bogart line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It’s a celluloid dream of a song, one that Jean-Paul Belmondo would have had playing in his head in Breathless while caressing his lips just like his dark, hard-boiled hero.
The second half of the album, which grows on the listener on subsequent listens, is not as immediately likeable as the songs that came before, occupying moodier and often more experimental territory. On “The Bob (medley),” the song makes changes from drawn-out chords and drum-fills to static-saturated warfare to bounding, raucous, happy-go-lucky rock then back to its opening form. The lonely “Chance Meeting” feels as if it could be a sequel —albeit a frightening one — to “Ladytron” or “If There is Something.” As Ferry sings an awkward, “Well how are you? How have you been?” the song’s instrumentation is overpoweringly nightmarish and neurotic. Squeals and screeches like the suicide songs of falsetto whales overtake the vocals and piano, suggesting a sordid past, a love gone wrong, or unresolved emotional turmoil between the narrator and the subject of the chance meeting. It’s followed by the moving “Would You Believe?” whose midsection is a throwback to blissful ’50s guitar rock. The lyrics even have that familiar, earnest feel, Ferry asking “Would you believe in what I do / When the things that I make are all for you?”
“Sea Breezes,” the least accessible song on the album, initially presents a sparsely arranged solitude in which Ferry sounds less the vibrato crooner of a love-machine and more a depressed choir boy. The crooner returns soon returns accompanied by Rik Kenton’s odd bassline and Manzanara’s anarchic punctuations of distortion before reverting once again to the lonely lad who opened the song.
The adorably kitschy closer, “Bitters End,” is a giddy, delicate doo-wop finale whose lyrics suggest a love unrequited. Among the most evocative of Ferry’s oblique lyrics are the lines, “You were the raven of October / I knew the sign you flew around / Up in the air so high above me / Never needed to look down.” Similar crowd sounds that opened the album reappear as “Bitters End” draws the debut to its odd farewell, likely leaving those first listeners, those adventurous souls who rode with Roxy the first time around, to wonder what strange pleasures Ferry, Eno, and the remainder of the five-piece could provide in their next outing.