Last Friday Jon, Dave, Tony and I indulged our tendency to nostalgia and went to see Roxy Music at the O2 Arena in the Dome. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Roxy’s self-titled debut album. Fifty years of Roxy Music, and they’ve been on tour to celebrate the fact. They are getting on – aren’t we all? – with Bryan Ferry just turned 77, guitarist Phil Manzanera 71, saxophonist Andy Mackay 76, and drummer Phil Thompson 71. All featured on that first album. The missing member, of course, was Brian Eno (74). He left after the first two albums, but is still indelibly associated with Roxy Music, for those who were with them from the start, notwithstanding his remarkable achievements since, as a solo artist, a thinker, and producer with the likes of David Bowie and U2.
I was a bit slow on the uptake with Roxy Music in the early 70s. I liked their weirdness when I saw them on TV, but only really connected to the singles at first, Virginia Plain and Pyjamarama being the first two. The first album I heard all the way through was the third, Stranded, which had the single Street Life on it; but I didn’t buy a Roxy album until their first Greatest Hits album in 1977. That was brilliant, but it didn’t have anything from the first album on it. I made up for it later, when I was earning money – Roxy were one of the bands I splashed the cash on to get up to speed with their full majesty.
What was clear before that was that Roxy were hugely influential on punk – their style rather than the music itself – and the New Romantics. By the time of the latter, in the early 80s, Roxy, now dominated by Bryan Ferry, had moved on – or more accurately, had joined the mainstream, playing a mellow, almost jazzy music that earned the legend of coffee table. They were one of the best, of course, with the album Avalon a classic of the genre. But just a little off-kilter, with Ferry’s distinctive warble setting them apart from the pack. And the style: no-one had a better haircut, and no-one could wear a suit like Bryan Ferry.
The first three albums – Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure and Stranded – are absolute classics. An artful mish mash of rock, soul, jazz, psychedelia and, by the time of Stranded, grandiose balladry that sounded like nothing else before it, or since. Number four, Country Life, was pretty good too, and has grown on me over the years. The fifth, Siren, repeated old tricks for the most part, but did have Love is the Drug, that rhythmic ode to empty romance. Actually, a lot of Roxy Music songs were odes to empty romance – Bryan may have been trying to tell us something!
Those first five albums came out between 1972 and 1975. Roxy went quiet for a while after that, through Bryan released three solo albums, mostly his distinctive takes on old hits from the 60s and earlier. The band came back for a dance-orientated album, Manifesto, in 1979, before they hit full coffee-mode in 1980 with Flesh and Blood, and then the ultimate, Avalon in 1982. That was the last album badged as Roxy Music, though Ferry has regularly released solo albums since then, and Mackay and Manzanera have often featured. Since the early 2000s, the band has played a number of tours, while Ferry’s solo performances have usually been based on Roxy classics. An exception was in 2007, when he made an album of Bob Dylan covers, and toured those. It was pretty good – we saw him play at Hampton Court Palace on that tour. We saw Roxy at the O2 in 2010, while Ferry played the Roxy catalogue at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2011 and again at Hampton Court in 2017. Each time we loved the early songs most, while large parts of the audience came mainly for the 80s songs. Both groups went home happy. Each time we’d remark how dapper Bryan still looked as he advanced in years – an example to us all.
And so to the O2 this time around. Anticipation was high – might this be the last time we would see Roxy Music play together? Well, if it was, we’ll have a great night to remember. The band were superb – and by band I mean the whole troupe, which included instrumental back up for all the original members and the three backing singers. The sound was excellent, at least where we were sitting, and the multiple screens added some arresting imagery as well as giving those far back in the arena a chance to see the band close up.
They came racing out of the traps with an urgent rendition of Re-make Re-model, the first track on the first album, and from there you knew it was going to be good. The early part of the show was a real treat for us oldies, with Out of the Blue, The Bogus Man, Ladytron, If There is Something and In Every Dream Home a Heartache featuring in the opening eight songs. So many highs there: that eerie opening to Ladytron, with Andy Mackay on oboe; Phil Manzanera really rocking out in the second half of If There Is Something; and Bryan Ferry imperious as he warbled his way through Dream Home, swathed in green light. Still able to sing about inflatable dolls with a straight face! Dave thought his voice was a bit weak; I didn’t really notice that. I guess I was just too engaged in the whole sound and vision to care.
The middle part of the show catered for that ten years younger generation. We’d had While my Heart is Still Beating and Oh Yeah (aka On the Radio) earlier; but things really got going with the instrumental Tara, which is the closing piece on Avalon. Played beautifully by Andy Mackay on that oboe. The highlight, obviously, was More Than This – it’s a great song. The focus was on the Avalon album, though Dance Away made it in there. I like this side of Roxy – my attention didn’t waver – but when the opening bars of Love is the Drug kicked in, it was celebration time. That song unites both camps like no other. And then things got even better, a sensational version of Editions of You, with Eno’s synth madness executed perfectly by the keyboard player, and Manzanera letting rip on guitar. That segue between the synth and guitar solos is one of the great Roxy Music moments in my view. And that was followed by Virginia Plain – glory be!
That was the end of the main set, though most of the band remained on stage and Ferry was soon back for Jealous Guy, the band’s only No 1 single, and a cover at that. A John Lennon song, you may recall. The crowd loved that one, and I imagine many would have gone home happy if that had been the end. But there was one more tune: an electrifying Do the Strand. Strident and weird as ever: rhododendron is a nice flower! One of our favourites – the opening track on For Your Pleasure. The perfect end to a wonderful show.
I hope this isn’t the last time we see Roxy Music, or Bryan Ferry, perform live. There are some rumours that they might play Glastonbury next year. That would be a good way to bow out. But if we don’t see them again, then this show will be a fitting end. And we will always have their weird and wonderful music on record. For your pleasure, indeed!
(The full set list, courtesy of Setlist FM, is here. Dave grumbled that there were six songs from Avalon and NONE from the classic third album Stranded. That was a shame, but you can’t have everything – there are those two audiences to satisfy.)
Stranded was Eno’s favourite Roxy album even though he wasn’t on it. He’s a good judge. Odd that they totally neglected it and that Avalon was favoured so much. Overall though it was a good selection of the early stage classics and an enjoyable show. Nice review too 👍
Really excellent review, John, and I think I agree with just about all that you say.
I’m also a massive fan of Stranded – it always vies with For Your Pleasure as my favourite, and it’s intriguing that it’s so neglected. Street Life is a glorious popular stomper, Amazona a cult wonder, and the great ballads Mother of Pearl and Song for Europe timeless classics. I wondered if Ferry might slightly fear the vocal range that they require, but this is also the case with many of the songs that featured in the show.
As a gig, I thought it was quite superb – and as you say, if this brings the curtain down after fifty years, it was a great way to go.