Michael Bracewell’s timely, extended examination of the genesis of Roxy Music’s first and best album opens with a florid description of the Penshaw Monument, a neglected temple in the Greek tradition set in Ferry’s Tyneside. Here is the epitome of stylish grandeur and something to aspire to, even before Ferry fled to seek out Newcastle’s bright lights, where the art, pop and fashion of the book’s sub-title rush together to become one exhilarating whole.
As Bracewell makes explicit via a series of extended interviews with the key players of Roxy Music’s extended entourage, Richard Hamilton’s influence at Newcastle University in the 1960s whilst teaching Ferry—the young art student, would-be soul singer, socialite and Saturday afternoon menswear assistant—was crucial. Gift-wrapping Hamilton’s hand-me-downs, he lists ‘a connoisseur’s appreciation of the rhetoric, signage and allure of popular culture; a particular interest in the conflation of warm, erotically romantic, often feminised imagery, and a colder, mechanistically, meticulously designed artistic representation… an exploration of recreating and replicating existing works by either other artists or oneself’.
Few were more finely tuned, more early, as Peter York might have it, at this revolt into style, than early Roxy. But Ferry’s affected art deco crooning, offset by Eno’s audacious science-fiction synth burblings, with Manzanera’s guitar, Mackay’s zooming oboe and Paul Thomson’s drumming, sandwiched, fighting for their lives, between the two, didn’t come from nowhere. As Roxy’s 1972 Top Of The Pops performance of debut single ‘Virginia Plain’ would make eye-poppingly, ear-assaultingly clear, Roxy Music weren’t just a product of their own times. They were past, present and future rolled into one lush, magnificent package made in their own carefully calculated image.
By examining in an exhaustively forensic manner just the cover of the first Roxy album, interviewing hairdressers, costumiers, designers and other mavericks from the band’s extended social set, Bracewell gives us a pungent and sticky flavour of the 1970s before the world turned day-glo. Thigh high boots, fright-wig perms and thick slabs of sky-blue eye-shadow are all in the mix. Exactly how Howard Schuman’s shiny TV pop dream fantasy, Rock Follies would turn out. Fantastic! Yet, like Roxy, Rock Follies would also mark the end of a faux-golden era of such glorious glad-rag anthems, while at the same time ushering in a new wave, and, eventually, the New Wave.
Asked to play some rock and roll in 1971, Ferry replied ‘We are rock and roll’. A mere five years later though, Vic Godard’s dressed down but equally articulate Subway Sect would speak for a new generation by insisting, ‘We oppose all rock and roll’. So what do we learn from Bracewell’s rip-roaringly detailed autopsy of early glam and its glories? Just like the song says, it’s a shame to think about yesterday. A shame.
John Quin is a writer based in London and Berlin