Roxy Music invented rock’s future. Now they’re taking a bow

Phil Manzanera, the 71-year-old guitarist for art rock pioneers Roxy Music, leans into a computer camera in front of a nondescript hotel room. The band have gathered in Toronto, where they are rehearsing for their first US tour in two decades, and Manzanera is relearning their repertoire after a long hiatus. “I haven’t actually played those songs in 10 years,” he says with a note of concern. “And so it’s like coming back fresh.”

Roxy Music have come together for the first time in a string of shows in the UK and Australia in 2011. (The band will perform at the Kia Forum on September 28.) They venture back to the States to celebrate being a band for 50 years, with big breaths and pauses and solo adventures peppered throughout.

“We never wanted to be the Beatles, like a bunch of brothers,” says Manzanera. “Fortunately, we’ve formed this entity that you could call a band, but it’s not that simple. Now it’s all about the joy of rediscovering these songs and playing them live. If we don’t play them, who will?”

Roxy’s enduring presence in music culture – they were inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame in 2019 – belies the decades during which the band’s reputation, mainly among musical adventurers and high-cheeked jet-setters, far outstripped their popularity.

By the autumn of 1970, Bryan Ferry had lost his job as a ceramics teacher at a girls’ school near London, in part because he was a frequent listener to records while at school. After faltering a bit after graduating from art school a few years earlier, Ferry placed an ad in the newspaper looking for bandmates to work with him and an old art school classmate, bassist Graham Simpson. Saxophonist Andy Mackay responded to the ad, bringing along his college friend Brian Eno, who could use a synthesizer and owned a tape recorder. Rounding out the group’s original iteration were guitarist Roger Bunn and drummer Dexter Lloyd. Looking for a name that means ‘faded glamour’, Ferry settled on Roxy Music.

By 1972 Manzanera was the group’s guitarist, Paul Thompson had replaced Lloyd as drummer, and Roxy Music was up and running, releasing five albums between 1972 and 1975 alone, all of which were critically acclaimed and had modest commercial success. (In the US, their chart hit was the tight and funky “Love Is the Drug,” which peaked at number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.) Their albums have been praised for their ingenuity, and the band has been credited with pioneering new music art-rock wave, in which the visuals and styling on stage were as carefully considered as the lush production and the songs’ incisive lyrical wit.

A man in the 1970s stares at a typewriter

Bryan Ferry working at a typewriter in 1974.

(Eric Bomann)

Ferry, now 76, acts as a kind of emotional conductor for the band. His voice is malleable – sometimes a distinctive and melodic drone, something you might hear in a smoky jazz lounge, sometimes soaring to beautiful highs. But his writing is what catches the eye most often. Ferry is one of the great architects of the love song, a lyricist who approaches the concept of love from all angles: the dawn of romance, the timid and uncertain bridges between affection and greater affection, longing and heartbreak, and the preparation for the inevitability of Loss. For all the artistic flair that surrounds Roxy Music, at their core, under Ferry’s tutelage, they were a band constantly striving for love.

But there was also artistic flair. Their album covers were striking and sometimes controversial (the cover of 1974’s “Country Life,” featuring two scantily clad models, was censored in the US upon its release), and the music itself was undeniable. Until 1982 “Avalon, The band’s permanent members were Ferry, Mackay, Thompson and Manzanera (these four are now touring; Eno is not taking part). They took a break after 1982 despite Avalon. to be the group’s most commercially successful record.

In her absence there was a renewed interest and excitement in Roxy Music. “Avalon’s” swelling “More Than This” was karaoked by Bill Murray in the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation.” The somber “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” from 1973’s For Your Pleasure sparked renewed interest after being featured in a pivotal scene in the series Minhunter. The group’s enduring presence in the cultural atmosphere has a lot to do with the fact that they were ahead of their time in terms of vision and influence. But it’s also credited to the fact that even though they haven’t released an album in 40 years, their songs still sound fresh. Manzanera’s logic on this is simple.

“We’ve always recorded analog and actually played together in the studio,” he says. “This sound seems to have a pretty long lifespan. They listen to all the great 70’s songs that are still so popular and they were beautifully constructed; they sound like they were recorded yesterday.”

Not only their influence on the music, but also on the performance, on how bands present themselves and use the stage as a screen, all of that endures. That influence spans decades, from peers like David Bowie in their early ’70s heyday to new wave founders like Devo, Talking Heads and Blondie. Once they retired, acts from Cars to Pulp to TV on the Radio stormed a new rock landscape with the style, impact and sound once pioneered by Roxy Music.

The guitarist and the singer of a rock band perform on stage.

Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and vocalist Bryan Ferry perform in September.

(Matthew Becker)

Both Manzanera and Ferry, who I spoke to from his London home in early August, don’t explicitly focus on the band’s legacy and say they don’t think about it until someone mentions it to them. But there is the reality of time, and what time offers to a group of people who have created it over a sufficiently long period of time. There are also literal monuments to this kind of introspection, even if it’s not named by the band members.

This year Ferry released a book of his lyrics, covering both Roxy and all of his solo albums. It’s a massive but joyful book to traverse, as Ferry’s poetry on the page feels like reading small, delightful short stories. Love stories or the agony of love. Songs that unravel intimacy, that sometimes find unraveling unsatisfying but know that it needs to be taken care of. There’s an ever-present longing in the songs, but also a space to prepare for the effects of self-abandonment. “Prepare for the worst,” says Ferry, shrugging and smiling. Forward-looking as ever, Ferry admits that organizing the book itself and sitting with the wide range of writing he’s written over the years has left him with minor regrets and sentimentality.

“As you get older, life gets more complicated and writing time becomes, I think, precious and limited. For some of the songs, as I put the lyrics together, I thought, oh, I wish I’d had another week to do it. Or I wish I had edited that out. But maybe it’s just as well that they had something immediate. Being on the wall in time can be a good thing for artists. For writers.”

Whether they feel like concrete attempts to solidify and uphold the legacy, both the book and tour look fondly at the group’s past greats and their most important figure. The setlist of the Roxy tour consists of almost 20 tracks, which only last about two hours of performance. Anchored in their cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”, most of the tunes hop through Roxy’s sprint of stunning ’70s albums.

“It was all such a time-lapse,” says Ferry of that time. “We found this derelict house in Notting Hill and it was quite quaint, freezing as we tried to put this work program together. When we went into the studio we did it very quickly and then everything accelerated. That was when it got really difficult and I learned to write really quickly, but it was really exciting because suddenly I felt like, wow, we have an audience.”

This audience stretched across the states and across generations. Roxy Music became notorious for its romance, the panache of its performances, the eccentricity of future superstar producer Eno bucking Ferry’s brilliantly calculated charisma. Even today, their performances tap into an elsewhere, a place to escape to that seems fabulous to a spectator’s eye. The only party you ever want to be at.

Bryan Ferry

Bryan Ferry in 2014.

(Simon Emmet)

The band is still dressed as smartly as ever. (Ferry, who attributes an adoration to jazz artists, shrugs and smiles slyly when I ask about his touring wardrobe plans. “I could try a little.”) The tour set begins with Ferry at the piano, racing through a rendition of 1972’s “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the opening song on their debut album, meanders tightly until it splinteres, the band’s sounds tumbling over each other to achieve some sort of harmony.

About this freshness and the ability to still map tonally, Manzanera says after 50 years with interruptions: “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we call ourselves inspired amateurs and our sound consisted of a combination of one group of people and their shortcomings. But all of them complemented each other and created something unique.”

This is undoubtedly a celebration of nostalgia, of a work that – it seems – will remain as it is with no new recordings in sight. Ferry is shooting down the prospect of the new Roxy album, which was rumored to have been around when the group last reunited to do the European shows, saying the record didn’t feel right and needed to stay on the shelves.

But also, while neither Ferry nor Manzanera have specifically said so, this is likely to be the last time Roxy Music will tour in such a robust capacity. The band members are still active in various other projects. Thompson has drummed with a number of other bands over the years including Concrete Blonde and Angelic Upstarts. Ferry has spent his time pursuing his solo career, performing both original songs and covers with his own orchestra (“I live in the studio,” he says.) Mackay and Manzanera are both busy not only with solo careers, but also also as a sought-after accompanist.

This tour feels celebratory, not only for the audience that gets to see it, but for the band members themselves. Fifty years as performers, permanently woven into each other’s lives, is a test of sometimes joyous perseverance. When asked if there had been any celebration in this run, in such a long existence, Ferry and Manzanera offered two different approaches.

Manzanera, always excited and seemingly nervous, follows the stage performance. “There are always dangers with live performances. And I mean, that makes it vital. That is why we are still doing our best to improve our craftsmanship.”

Ferry takes a simpler approach. He grins and shrugs slightly before offering:

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is A Little Devil in America. Roxy Music invented rock’s future. Now they’re taking a bow

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