It's time for Roxy Music's debonair art-glam to get its due

With Def Leppard also getting a Rock Hall nomination, glam is having a long-overdue moment

Published October 13, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Roxy Music (Wikimedia)
Roxy Music (Wikimedia)

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2019 nominees were announced this week and, once again, this year's race will no doubt be competitive. This ballot includes electronic pioneers (Kraftwerk, Devo); soul/R&B innovators (Janet Jackson, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan); and genre-blending U.K. bands (The Cure, Radiohead). Although a few acts are repeat nominees — including The Zombies, MC5 and LL Cool J — this year's crop includes a few first-timers, including John Prine, Stevie Nicks and Todd Rundgren.

One of the most deserving acts also making their first ballot appearance is Roxy Music, the U.K. sonic aesthetes whose five-album run in the early '70s was an astonishing display of audacious creativity. The band was led by songwriter/vocalist Bryan Ferry, a self-taught pianist who grew up loving jazz and musicals, and absorbed new sounds like a sponge: He namechecked Fats Domino, Leadbelly and Little Richard as formative influences in an early 2018 interview.

With this grounding in a mélange of vocal drama, musical rigor and freewheeling composition, he crafted songs that redrew new district lines around genres. Roxy Music certainly put the glamour in glam rock — but the band's sound was art school vaudeville, proto-synth-rock experimentation, and prog's instrumental excess whittled down to streamlined basics. Throw in Ferry's love of jazz, R&B and early rock 'n' roll, and Roxy Music's music assimilated eras and sounds in ways no other band had before.

Take the band's first U.K. hit, their debut single, "Virginia Plain." The song starts by fading in, as if the volume knob's being twisted, to reveal jaunty piano and laser-cut electric guitar. Throughout the tune, various parts jostle for space in the arrangement — Phil Manzanera's creased, greased-lightning guitar, Andy Mackay's pied-piper saxophone and oboe, oscillating synths conjured by Brian Eno — as Ferry vocally orchestrates it all, like a wily magician.

Roxy Music's 1972 self-titled debut album — which received a lavish anniversary reissue earlier this year that was more like a coffee table book, full of vintage photographs and an illuminating essay about the band's origins and early music — also boasts many approaches. "Re-Make/Re-Model" exudes proto-punk energy: It's vibrating with gang vocals, gleeful musical improvisation and Ferry working himself into a vocal lather. In contrast, "2 HB" is one of the band's first fine, lush ballads. No wonder that around this time, the band landed coveted opening slots for both David Bowie & The Spiders From Mars and Alice Cooper.

From there, Roxy Music continued rolling forward, defying trends and embracing futuristic approaches. The band's sophomore effort, 1973's "For Your Pleasure," captured a variety of mood swings — from the wailing saxophone and squealing keyboard manipulation on "Editions of You" to the creepy, unsettling "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" — which led to three more albums that rearranged rock 'n' roll's DNA. Accordingly, Ferry became a more confident vocalist, embracing his talent for interpretation. He enunciates like a dressed-up Dylan on "Mother of Pearl," and cranks up the exaggeration on the Brechtian, funk-smeared proto-post-punk of "She Sells."

After a two-year breakup in the late '70s, Roxy Music returned as a different-sounding band, smoothing out their rougher edges and youthful character studies into something more mannered and introspective. (Call it sophisticated disco-soul, or a modern update of laid-back lounge-jazz, or even plush proto-new wave.) Ferry's parallel solo career, comprising covers-heavy albums, certainly had an impact: Roxy Music's melancholy, plush 1981 take on John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," released as a tribute after the Beatle's death, became the definitive version of the song. But certain moments — such as the organ- and handclap-heavy "Over You," or the percolating beat shuffles driving "Same Old Scene" — even hewed close to contemporary, pop-leaning AOR.

Still, this too felt like a case of subversion from the inside. "We never really felt accepted," Ferry is quoted as saying in the liner notes essay for this year's "Roxy Music" reissue. "I can see how the old guard would have felt threatened by it, because it was so jammed full of ideas and a massive amount of energy. But we hadn't paid our dues, not in the same way. And we're still not a part of it, not really, even to this day. That's been very hard over the years, to try and make it work without being one of them, whether it was the Eagles or Take That or nowadays 'X Factor.' The 'them' is always different, but we're not part of it.

"It's been one of the triumphs, that we've managed to stay sane," he added. "Or sane-ish. We're a part of it all, somehow, but still on the outside."

Roxy Music embraced this outsider status, however. A 1972 appearance on "The Old Grey Whistle Test," also featured on the super deluxe "Roxy Music" reissue (along with BBC sessions and demos), feels like the band commuted from another planet for the occasion. The performance of "Ladytron" starts with ominous oboe — played by Mackay, who's sporting an iridescent green suit jacket with an inverted collar — and somber keyboard drone teased out by a leopard print-clad Brian Eno. The camera then focuses on Ferry himself — pin-up-handsome with long hair and a shiny zebra-print jacket, playing piano and singing the song with heady passion and gusto, as if his life depended on it. It's not as flashy as another culture-rumbling 1972 TV appearance — Bowie and Mick Ronson singing "Starman" together on "Top of the Pops" — but it reveals the innate, preternatural confidence that buoyed the group.

Unsurprisingly, in the U.K., Roxy Music were enormously influential, most notably on Duran Duran — who took the band's art-glam blueprint and ran with it — and the other swooning-and-crooning New Romantics. Madness has cited the band an influence—and, pre-Sex Pistols, Steve Jones and Paul Cook formed the Strand, a band named after Roxy Music's "Do The Strand." In more modern times, the wry emoting of Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos is decidedly Roxy Music-esque, while Jarvis Cocker's rakish aesthetic certainly winks to Ferry's presence.

The band's American imprint was less definite, although they had fierce pockets of support. (Roxy Music famously broke in the U.S. due to the support of Cleveland radio station WMMS, who also helped David Bowie and Rush find a foothold; to this day, Ferry remains a beloved figure in the city.) Yet the group's chart presence was scarce: The ecstatic, sax-driven "Love Is the Drug" was their lone Top 40 hit — although the romantic, piano-twinkled "Dance Away" peaked at No. 44 — and only the "Avalon" LP shipped platinum. Still, their sound filtered through to others: Sparks certainly is a spiritual descendent, while both Shearwater's intricate, orchestrated indie rock, and Anohni's gorgeous instrumentation are Roxy Music-reminiscent.

Coincidentally, Roxy Music's first Rock Hall nomination comes the same year that one of the band's ardent supporters, Joe Elliott, also earned his long-overdue first nod, with Def Leppard. Over the years, Elliott has advocated for Roxy Music across multiple mediums: choosing "Siren" as one of his crucial albums at The Quietus; playing tunes by the band on his radio show; and helming Def Leppard's swaggering, playful take on "Street Life" on the 2006 covers album, "Yeah!" Earlier this week, Elliott even told an interviewer he'd like to see Roxy Music and MC5 be inducted into the Rock Hall too.

Def Leppard's sound itself owes a debt to Roxy Music and the denizens of the glam scene, notably Bowie, Mott the Hoople and the late guitarist Mick Ronson. And, like Roxy Music, their sound draws on other, disparate influences — New Wave of British Heavy Metal, for example, and the unabashed power-pop of the late '70s. Def Leppard certainly had far more mainstream success (and sales) than most of their inspirations, but the band's sonic ethos and approach is very much in the mold of these progenitors.

Ideally, both Def Leppard and Roxy Music would be inducted as part of this year's class. Does either band have a shot? That's more complicated. Def Leppard seems like more of a sure bet: With Bon Jovi's 2018 induction, they're now arguably the biggest rock band of the '80s absent from the Rock Hall, and they've been having a resurgence of their own recently thanks to extensive touring. Roxy Music is more of a question mark. In recent years, the Rock Hall has opened its doors to Yes and the Moody Blues, two other U.K. groups that are more popular and known than Roxy Music, but are no less adventurous. However, Ferry and co.'s relative cult status may be held against them.

Still, the timing might be right for both, simply because in recent years, glam rock's sound and veneer have bubbled up into the cultural consciousness. It's not hard to see that Bowie's 2016 death is at least partly responsible for this. Nearly three years later, the tribute shows, DJ nights, and concert tours celebrating his life and music continue to happen on a regular basis. (Plus, you can even buy a whole line of Bowie-themed merchandise at Target these days.)

Yet there are also plenty of living artists keeping glam's spirit alive. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" has emerged as an incredibly enduring, potent anthem — thanks to covers from Panic! At the Disco and others — while the biopic of the same name is earning massive buzz. Queen itself is earning generations of new fans by touring with Adam Lambert — and new, young bands such as the Struts, Lemon Twigs, Palaye Royale, and Starcrawler are carrying on the glittery torch. Forty-plus years after Roxy Music emerged, the fuse they lit with their musical experiments certainly burns bright.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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