Roxy Music, Reticulated

Art school. 60s rock and soul. Classic Hollywood films. Outrageous costumes leading to suave 30s styles. All this, plus an English post-war society theoretically committed, at least temporarily, to the idea that you could make the most of yourself by doing whatever the heck you wanted to as opposed to what society expected of you. Roxy Music arguably could have emerged only exactly when it did in the early 1970s, in a swirling ferment collectively termed glam rock that covered everything from Marc Bolan’s whimsical grooves to Slade’s shout-along stomps. Formed in London but with roots across the map, from guitarist Phil Manzanera’s upbringing throughout the Americas following his English dad’s work commitments and his Colombian mother’s musical leads to lead figure/keyboardist Bryan Ferry’s working class youth in northeast England and early synth player Brian Eno’s small town life in Suffolk, Roxy Music remains a shorthand for both chaotic experimentation and serene elegance in guise of a rock band. As of 2023, having completed a 50th anniversary celebration tour with Ferry and Manzanera joined by other core members sax/woodwind player Andy Mackay and drummer Paul Thompson, the band still exists as a well-loved touchstone, while Eno and Ferry in particular as well as Manzanera and Mackay have carved out lengthy solo careers both as central figures and as collaborators and producers.

Thompson built himself up from scratch, becoming a working drummer while still a teenager and eventually leaving behind a metalworking career to pursue those opportunities further. Meanwhile, all the other key members of the group had student backgrounds that shaped their approaches. Ferry studied fine art in Newcastle, at one point notably having pop art figure Richard Hamilton as an instructor. Eno was similarly involved in fine arts at Winchester, receiving much encouragement from visual artist Tom Phillips, while Mackay studied music and English literature at Reading. Besides the educational pursuits that fed into their future work, all three worked in a variety of bands during those years, while Manzanera worked in student bands at Dulwich College in London.

It was Ferry, who had worked in a student band at Newcastle with bassist Graham Simpson, who got the ball rolling in London in 1970, and following Ferry’s unsuccessful singing audition for King Crimson, that band’s leader Robert Fripp later recommended the formative group to his own label, EG Records. Over the next couple of years the band’s lineup evolved as various players were added or dropped, with Mackay joining first and then suggesting Eno, initially as a technical expert and then adding in a unique chaos factor with early synthesizers. Thompson followed via auditions later, with Manzanera joining first as a roadie to support a separate audition winner, the Nice veteran David O’List. When O’List abruptly quit in early 1972, Manzanera easily slotted in following his own informal audition. 

The band made its initial splash via its remarkable self-titled debut album, a kaleidoscopic and simultaneously bizarre and immediately memorable melange of pop styles that played out visually as much as musically, with Eno’s work in particular providing an experimental edge underpinning Ferry’s dramatic vocal approaches. In a sign of what would be permanent instability, Simpson departed soon thereafter, leading to a rotating series of bassists ever since, while the standalone single “Virginia Plain” became a top 5 hit, bringing the group a wider audience and leading to a regular appearances on the UK charts and then beyond. 

That said, a certain chronic instability at the heart of the band only increased in 1973. On the one hand, following the release of For Your Pleasure and its subsequent tour, Eno found his own artistic goals increasingly at odds with Ferry’s and left the group, initially releasing the first of various collaboration albums with Fripp, (No Pussyfooting), and then beginning a full solo career the following year, often working with Fripp and continuing to work with a variety of Roxy Music musicians as well – Ferry notably excepted. However, Ferry himself began his own solo career in 1973, though in slightly indirect fashion, with his debut These Foolish Things consisting solely of often heavily rearranged and rethought cover versions from a variety of artists stretching back to the Great American Songbook, all also while working with a variety of his Roxy bandmates in turn.

The next few years showed Roxy Music itself moving from strength to strength, with Eno’s replacement, violinist Eddie Jobson, bringing his own creative skills to create new arrangement approaches, with the Country Life album being a particular creative high point; while the subsequent album Siren wasn’t quite as strong, it did also led to an American breakthrough thanks to the crisp, suave funk of the hit single “Love Is The Drug.” Following a tour for that album, however, while Roxy went on hiatus, nearly everybody kept going on a variety of fronts, often interrelated. 

Accompanied by various Roxy compatriots like Manzanera, Thompson and Jobson, Mackay had released an initial instrumental solo debut in 1974, In Search of Eddie Riff, though it was the later soundtrack to the UK TV show Rock Follies, about a struggling vocal trio, that gave him a 1977 number one hit album in that country in collaboration with lyricist and series screenwriter Howard Schuman. Manzanera had pulled off a bit of a double side project debut in 1975 with both his own Roxy-performer-heavy solo debut Diamond Head and a self-titled album by Quiet Sun, reuniting members from a pre-Roxy band of his to record their old material. A subsequent project including Manzanera and one of his Quiet Sun bandmates Bill MacCormick, 801, made its debut via a live album drawing from 1976 concerts; another 801 member, who had also taken lead vocals on two of Diamond Head’s tracks, was Eno. The latter’s own solo career was not only thriving but was soon to lead into the first of many famed efforts as a producer for and collaborator with others such as David Bowie and Talking Heads; even more crucially, he’d begun to explore what he would soon be famed for: extensive, understated instrumental pieces he termed ‘ambient’ music, essentially founding a genre tag as a result.

Ferry, meanwhile, continued his own solo career both before and after the Roxy hiatus, continuing to cover various songs by others but shifting more towards original efforts. In 1978, he reactivated Roxy, rejoined by Manzanera, Mackay and Thompson as well as other new players. Thompson, however, would only briefly appear on the recordings for 1979’s Manifesto, working elsewhere during what proved to be the last run of Roxy studio albums, including 1980’s Flesh + Blood and 1982’s Avalon. The latter became a landmark of mood music for that decade and beyond, with the chaotic leanings of a decade prior now turned into heavily shaped but beautifully compelling songs for late evenings at nightclubs and lovenests. Along with a valedictory salute to the slain John Lennon via a cover of “Jealous Guy” that reached number one in the UK, that ended Roxy as a formal recording unit. 

Ferry worked off and on with many veterans from Roxy’s later incarnations in his revived solo career beginning with 1984’s Boys and Girls, essentially taking up where Avalon left off. Manzanera and Mackay’s own solo careers continued over the decades, both individually as well as a Roxy-ish collaboration in the 1980s as the Explorers as well as any number of collaborative and session player credits, particularly on Manzanera’s part; Thompson in turn has played with Mackay as well as a variety of other bands and efforts over the years, including Concrete Blonde and Lindisfarne. Eno, meantime, became a superstar producer in his own right, most famously thanks to his work with U2 in particular, while continuing to record both ambient and instrumental efforts as well as occasional vocal turns, particularly in more recent years. 

While Eno firmly sat out the irregular Roxy live reunions that began in 2001, he’s still contributed efforts to Ferry’s solo releases here and there over time, as have Manzanera, Mackay and Thompson. Roxy Music is very much a legacy now, but whether the obvious stylistic descendants like Chic and particularly Duran Duran or the more shaggily inclined or unexpected disciples like noted Ferry fanatic Robyn Hitchcock or the Welsh sonic wizards Super Furry Animals – and those all are just the 20th century examples – it’s a legacy that’s still reverberating.

Ned Raggett

Mamouna

Bryan Ferry
Mamouna cover

1982’s Avalon is and remains the last Roxy Music studio album as such, but Bryan Ferry’s 1993 album Mamouna, predating the first Roxy live reunion by some years, is likely as close as it will ever get to a further one. It’s still very much a sleek Ferry solo album first and foremost, with crisp arrangements, many session players, both upbeat and calmer grooves and his still suave vocals, but besides appearances by both Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay, Brian Eno notably contributed a variety of electronics, including a full songwriting collaboration, “Wildcat Days.”

Another Green World

Brian Eno
Another Green World cover

Eno’s third album, mixing numerous mainly fully solo tracks with an occasional larger ensemble including artists like Robert Fripp, John Cale and Phil Collins, emphasized shorter compositions and often minimal or stripped-down arrangements heavy on electronic instruments, as much a series of intriguing mood pieces like “Becalmed and “The Big Ship” and as formal vocal songs as such. Among the latter, “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “I’ll Come Running” are some of his most beautiful efforts, sung with winning wistfulness and feeling like pop from an unknown future.

Discreet Music

Brian Eno
Discreet Music cover

Eno’s identification with ambient music, however defined by himself or others, began to emerge with Discreet Music, his fourth solo album overall but his first to specifically eschew vocals in favor of lengthy, meditative tracks. The title track, at over half an hour long, grew out of reflections on unobtrusive sound and employed tape delay, early digital sequencing and more to create its overlapping, evolving collage of serene tones and silence. Three intriguing variations on Pachelbel’s famed “Canon in D Major,” co-arranged by Gavin Bryars, complete the album.

Country Life

Roxy Music
Country Life cover

Neither from the Eno-participating early chaos years nor the smoothly elegant universe of the later albums, Country Life almost seems a bit lost in the shuffle of Roxy Music’s history sometimes. But that’s a mistake and a half, because in ways this was the original run’s most consistently strong album, their genre experimentation in full flight, from medieval chanting to barrelhouse r’n’b to shimmering art rock and beyond, Bryan Ferry’s louche persona also its warmest and wittiest.

Bête Noire

Bryan Ferry
Bête Noire cover

Bryan Ferry’s followup to Boys and Girls was an intriguing surprise in some ways; while he very much continued in a smooth vein, there was a sharper energy at points throughout Bête Noire, possibly reflective of a recent interest in trying to crack America a little more thoroughly in his own right. Patrick Leonard, a regular Madonna collaborator, cowrote many of the songs — giving Ferry, among other things, his only solo US top 40 hit with “Kiss and Tell” — while Ferry himself showed he was keeping his ears open with “The Right Stuff,” a cowrite with Smiths veteran Johnny Marr.

Manifesto

Roxy Music
Manifesto cover

The first Roxy Music reunion was one of tentative readjustment among its core players — it was Paul Thompson’s last appearance with the band on drums, among other things — and there’s a conscious sense of showing a new cooler reserve mixed with tighter arrangements. But it’s not entirely that way — the title track opens Manifesto by literally living up to its name, a slow, tense groove that Bryan Ferry delivers a commanding vocal for, while the elegant pep of “Angel Eyes” and the tasteful melancholy of “Dance Away” were perfectly smooth singles.

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Brian Eno
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) cover

Working this time with a smaller core of musicians, including Robert Wyatt and former Roxy Music bandmate Phil Manzanera, as well as employing his famed ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards, Brian Eno’s second solo album of 1974 was the creative equal of Here Come the Warm Jets; if a hair less frenetic, it’s still a cavalcade of sonic delights, art/pop/rock that deserves the hybrid term. Sonic predecessors of any number of future bands and musicians can be heard through songs like the snaky roil of “Third Uncle” and the careful lope of “The Fat Lady of Limbourg.”

Siren

Roxy Music
Siren cover

Siren is almost a case of coasting just a little bit on afterburners after the group’s first four albums to this point. Yet with “Love Is the Drug” alone the group brilliantly presented a clipped, elegant dance and rock sensation that absolutely helped shape the feeling of disco to come, as superfan Nile Rodgers of Chic freely admitted. Beyond that, Roxy Music still delivered plenty of highs as it closed out its earliest run as a band, with songs like the sweeping “Both Ends Burning” and the album closing reminiscence “Just Another High” adding to their canon.

Avalon

Roxy Music
Avalon cover

The final studio album from Roxy Music was a remarkable bookend to its start, its crazed sprawl at birth turned into such a monument of taste, easy listening and late night listening for moodily romantic situations that Avalon pretty much became an instant classic in its own right. Little surprise given the honed precision of everyone’s playing throughout, Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and company delivering up a series of songs that bespeak an adult elegance without apology or irony, with singles like “More Than This” and the title track merely the most well known examples.

Diamond Head

Phil Manzanera
Diamond Head cover

Phil Manzanera’s debut solo album in 1975 is almost a Roxy Music album in essence – literally the only member from that band’s contemporary lineup who didn’t appear was Bryan Ferry. Split between vocal and instrumental numbers throughout – guest singers included another Roxy veteran and regular collaborator, Brian Eno, as well as Robert Wyatt, John Wetton and Quiet Sun bandmate Bill MacCormick – Diamond Head’s sleek, easy feeling readily showcases Manzanera’s stirring guitar on songs like the title track and the concluding “Alma.”

Roxy Music

Roxy Music
Roxy Music cover

One of rock music’s most complete and compelling debut albums, the aesthetic and artistic combinations on Roxy Music’s first release have an astonishing range, wit, wry emotion and creative edge. That impact only became even clearer with time but in the moment it was a hysterical UK glam rock masterpiece. From the careening opener “Re-Make Re-Model” to the twisted country lope shifting into hyperdramatic delivery on “If There Is Something” to the suave ballardry of “2 H.B.” and “Sea Breezes”’s fraught tension, it’s note perfect down the line.

Ambient 4: On Land

Brian Eno
Ambient 4: On Land cover

Officially Brian Eno’s last Ambient series entry, but hardly his last release in that general vein, 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land has since become one of the standard bearers of the genre as such, eight instrumental pieces of beautiful but ghostly, uneasy impact. While a variety of guest performers appeared throughout, including Bill Laswell, Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois, it’s mostly Eno reworking snippets of old sessions, field recordings of animals and other textures into remarkable compositions as “The Lost Day” and “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960.”

801 Live

801
801 Live cover

The original sextet that formed 801, more or less centered around former Roxy Music bandmates Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno, debuted not with a studio effort but an engaging 1976 live album, sampling the duo’s individual efforts plus Manzanera’s work in Quiet Sun. Along with two Eno-sung covers – an exultant take on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a reworked “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks – other highlights included an electric version of Manzanera’s solo piece “Lagrima” and a concluding blast through Eno’s “Third Uncle.”

For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music
For Your Pleasure cover

On their second album Roxy Music maybe started to settle a bit, but only by degrees. Brian Eno famously left soon after but there’s still enough chaotic edge from his synth work, while Bryan Ferry’s arch lounge-lizard persona still had enough of a wild side going on, all ably supported by the other key players like Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson. The result was yet more compelling variety, from the frenetic opener “Do the Strand” to the lengthy funk paranoia of “The Bogus Man,” the rampaging crunch of “Editions of You” and the spare mysteriousness of the title track.

Here Come the Warm Jets

Brian Eno
Here Come the Warm Jets cover

Brian Eno’s 1974 solo debut following his departure from Roxy Music simultaneously retained the often anarchic pop/rock energy of that band’s earliest days and explored new variations and possibilities in the form, a kaleidoscopic listen both instantly catchy and strikingly unusual. With a slew of guest performers, including former Roxy bandmates Robert Fripp and Chris Spedding, Here Come The Warm Jets ranged from cascading glam-rock anthems to tension-building grooves to serene ballads, tied together with Eno’s sometimes eerily calm, sometimes nervous vocals.

Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks

Roger Eno, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno
Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks cover

Commissioned as a soundtrack for Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary film on the Apollo space program For All Mankind but first released in 1983 as a standalone album due to Reinert’s continuing work, Apollo is an apex point of Brian Eno’s ambient work. Collaborating with his brother and longtime musical partner Lanois, Eno oversaw an exquisite series of pieces capturing a sense of deep, dreamy and mysterious space. “An Ending (Ascent)” is the album’s most famous composition, but the steel guitar of “Deep Blue Day” comes pretty darn close.

These Foolish Things

Bryan Ferry
These Foolish Things cover

Bryan Ferry taking an explicitly solo turn while Roxy Music was still very much in its first flush of existence was fairly notable in a business where that’s not the norm. However, Ferry helped make the distinction clear, at least at the start, by only delivering covers on his initial releases instead of original songs. As such, These Foolish Things is a remarkable statement of purpose, remaking a wide range of 1960s soul, folk and rock and roll classics for a new decade in his own vivid, sometimes distinctly different style.

In Search of Eddie Riff

Andy Mackay
In Search of Eddie Riff cover

A lot of UK glam rock was a celebration, however skew-whiff, of the early rock and roll that had inspired its creators. Roxy Music had plenty of that early on, and so little surprise that Andy Mackay’s solo debut was essentially a celebration of just that, along with his classical training in turn. Mackay, accompanied by Roxy compatriots like Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson among other players, does engaging sax and oboe-led covers of everyone from Skeeter Davis to the Beatles to Richard Wagner, plus a number of game originals in generally similar veins.

Before and After Science

Brian Eno
Before and After Science cover

Eno’s fifth solo album was also his last rock and/or vocal-performance album for many years, as the work he’d done with Discreet Music led him to concentrate more on instrumental and ambient releases. But it was a striking temporary farewell, clearly reflecting his love of crisp energy he’d bring to his collaborative work with David Bowie and Talking Heads (as openly showcased in the tribute “King’s Lead Hat”) among others. “Backwater”’s punchy kick and the reflective “By This River,” from his collaborations with the duo Cluster, are among his best work.

Boys and Girls

Bryan Ferry
Boys and Girls cover

Bryan Ferry’s first solo album after what proved to be the final Roxy Music studio release, Avalon, was pretty obviously an extension of that vibe and feeling, the two sides of his creative impulses finally sublimated into a relaxed continuum of perfect melancholic poise. With both Roxy veterans and any number of other players to draw on — Nile Rodgers, David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler all make appearances on guitar alone — Boys and Girls is a 1980s album to the truly tasteful extreme, with singles like “Slave to Love” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” as pinnacles.