…a record shop fifty years ago, you have arrived there to buy your copy of the newly released fifth album by David Bowie (it’s called ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and it’s going to be huge). Whilst there you see the displays and front sleeves for all the chart hugging acts: Marc Bolan is next to David Cassidy, Elton John is alongside Neil Diamond. You then spot something; you see someone staring at you from the front sleeve of a record. It is a woman wearing an expensive silk pink negligee, she has a lot of blue eye shadow, the picture is meant to look like a 1940s - 50s glamour shoot and it looks ridiculously out of place in an early 1970s record shop.
Out of curiosity, you inspect the record closer, you open the gatefold sleeve to the shock of six photographs of peculiarly clad men. It’s hard to discern who looks the oddest out of this bunch. It may be the guitarist in the utterly impractical ‘bug’ shades (Phil Manzanera), or the bequiffed and big collared and heavily made-up singer (Bryan Ferry), but I’m going to opt for one in the leopard print jacket with receding but shoulder-length hair…who answers simple to name of Eno.
You check the front sleeve to double-check what this curious project is called and there are just two words there: Roxy Music.
'Roxy Music' by Roxy Music is fifty years old. It landed without any fanfare (the single ‘Virginia Plain’ arrived a few months later and was not included on the album) to surprise, shock, amuse and delight all those that would fall for all its gaudy, disorientating pop-art collage charms. Like a fabulous film, there was a hint of all that you would encounter throughout its duration in the first few minutes: Eno’s synths and sonic twiddling, Manzanera’s squalling guitar sparring with Andy Mackay’s sax, Paul Thompson’s vigorous punkish drumming, a brief bass solo from Graham Simpson and then Bryan Ferry's piano, otherworldly (pre-crooning), vocals and lyrics, they are all there in opener ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’. As introductions go (to a band, to an album, to an idea….) it is still one of the most astonishing in popular music.
Even better is ‘Ladytron’ a love song that sounds like it could soundtrack a futuristic drama, a place where Mackay’s oboe and Manzanera’s guitar are fed through Eno’s tape machines and, as Ferry instructed him: ‘…making the damn thing sound like we’re on the moon’ (if so, it sounds like a far more unsettling environment than Eno would later soundtrack on his own ‘Apollo’). Ferry’s lyrics are sinister (‘I’ll find you, make my connection/concealing my intention’ and ‘I’ll use you and confuse you’), come from a character with a disturbed mind, maybe the one that felt such elation with a blow-up doll on ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ (‘For Your Pleasure’ 1973).
Although Ferry would later bemoan the cut-up style of several of the songs on the first album (even re-recording them on his solo albums and sundry B-sides), it’s on ‘If There Is Something’ where the band's ability to morph from one mood to another excels. A quaint country-rock number that moves into an increasingly odd list of romantic imaginings (‘I would put roses round our door/sit in the garden/growing potatoes by the score), before Mackay’s haunted saxophone solo leads the song to a conclusion that hints at the remorse at the passing of time. Ferry’s filmic fascination informs the Bogart homage ‘2HB’ and also ‘Chance Meeting’ - inspired by David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’, the latter also showing his penchant for fatalistic romantic lyrics (you can trace those through to the band’s swansong ‘Avalon’). There’s a hint at some of the ambient textures that Eno would explore on the intoxicating ‘Sea Breezes’ and there is a war taking place in the background of ‘The Bob (Medley)’.
Such a coming together of disparate talents and wild ideas could not last for long. Although Graham Simpson would soon leave Roxy Music for personal reasons it would be Eno’s departure after making their second album (‘For Your Pleasure’ 1973), that would be the greatest shock. The band that would go on to make ‘Street Life’, ‘The Thrill of It All’ and ‘All I Want is You’ (all ‘73-‘74), were a dazzling but more conventional offering. By the time of the rather too predictable ‘Love is the Drug’ in 1975), it was clear that they needed a break. The reformed and streamlined version of Roxy Music that would be so radio-friendly in the late seventies and early nineties may have been a more elegant and sophisticated affair (there is much to applaud in that late era) but for the vivid and audacious imaginings, pop art aspirations and the utterly unconventional songcraft, nothing comes close to their magnificent debut.