Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era by Michael Bracewell

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Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era by Michael Bracewell

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Despite what the title implies, this is not so much a biography of Roxy Music, more a look at the artistic, cultural and musical world which influened the concept of the group.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 448 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571229864

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First, I feel the title is rather misleading. I came to this book expecting a fully-fledged account of Roxy Music's history, imagining it would tell us about their career at least over the first four years of hits, namely 1972-76,to say nothing of their second coming from 1979 onwards. What I got was a lengthy account of the art world, cultural influences and student bonhomie which brought Bryan Ferry and the main group members together in the early 1970s. The story starts logically enough with Ferry's birth and upbringing in post-war Tyneside, but comes to a full stop with the release of their self-titled first album in June 1972.

Oh, and before you ask, the classic single 'Virginia Plain' (rarely off a radio near you) does get discussed – but not at the end of the book. Instead it comes less than halfway through, during a chapter on Ferry's time at Newcastle University in the mid-60s, the reason being that Virginia Plain was originally one of his paintings and only much later a song.

Having got that off my chest, the book is in effect an interesting and scrupulously researched survey of the founder members' formative influences. It was written with the full cooperation of the three main personalities, namely Ferry, saxophonist and oboe player Andy Mackay, and tape/synthesizer boffin Brian Eno (yes that is his real name), who left early on. Other individuals have also been interviewed at some length, including several of their student contemporaries, and guitarist Phil Manzanera (no that's not his real name – it's actually Philip Targett-Adams).

Roxy Music, it is evident, were the very antithesis of your average manufactured boy band, bunch of anonymous session musicians, or even bunch of pals who enjoyed playing guitar, met in the pub and decided to get together for fun, or so the usual story goes. Ferry, the man who nearly decided to become the next Richard Hamilton or Andy Warhol, was captivated first by the music of Humphrey Lyttelton and Leadbelly, later Motown and soul, in particular Otis Redding, and was inspired to create his own group with a difference.

It took a while to find the right mix of similarly-minded intellectuals with a common aim, all driven by a desire to play rock'n'roll, but rock'n'roll with style, flair and the right sartorial appearance. Just rehashing Elvis or the Beatles would not do. They were not just about music – they were about fine art as well. In 1970, almost anything was possible – and this was one group who were determined to prove it. The fact that one of them, namely Eno, never pretended to be a musician but was a man who loved doing imaginative and sonically unspeakable things with electronics, only added to the sense of adventure.

Like that first Roxy Music album, this book is a little bit of an acquired taste. If you're just after a music biog pure and simple, search elsewhere. But if you're interested in the general art world and experimentalism of the late 60s, you'll find it well worth your while. It should be noted too that Bracewell has this tendency to quote interviews verbatim and then tell the story in his own words afterwards, which makes it an unnecessarily long-winded read in places.

Just occasionally there is a whiff of the Emperor's new clothes. The debut album, we are told in the introduction, suggested a hitherto hidden and instantly desirable demi-monde – a place of declamatory style and sophistication, part cabaret, part carnival, simultaneously futuristic and archaic, but swaggeringly self-assured in its balancing of contradictions. Nevertheless it's relieved here and there by humour. I'm glad I wasn't the only one who wondered whether 2HB, a track on the debut album, might have been a paean to the humble pencil. It wasn't – HB is Humphrey Bogart, one of Ferry's heroes. And there's a gentle jibe from the Reading student world at the Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper': arguably the record which kick-started art rock, Would anybody who sees tangerine trees in Whiteknights please let us know.

This may not be the book we expected. But it is a rewarding read.

Our thanks to Faber & Faber for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For another interesting insight into the music world of the 60s, 70s and beyond, why not try The Autobiography by Johnnie Walker.

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