Understanding Roxy Music

I should perhaps translate my Swedish post on Bryan Ferry. Most books about Roxy Music are stuck in the general understanding I there questioned. The most extreme is the British novelist Michael Bracewell’s Re-make/Re-model: Art, Pop, Fashion and the Making of Roxy Music, 1953-1972 (2007), published, like several similar books in recent decades (as I remember it), by Faber & Faber; but the general interpretation is not very different from Paul Stump’s in Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural History of Roxy Music (1998). Bracewell is also the author of Roxyism (2004).
Bracewell1972 was the year of Roxy’s debut album, so what the Bracewell’s 2007 book deals with is their prehistory only. “Re-make/Re-model“, Amazon advertises, “tells the extraordinary and largely unknown story of the individuals and circumstances that would lead over a period of almost twenty years to the formation of Roxy Music – a group in which art, fashion and music would combine to create in the words of its inventor, Bryan Ferry, ‘above all, a state of mind’…Written with the assistance, for the first time, of all of those involved, including Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera; the fashion designer Antony Price, the founding guru of Pop art, and Bryan Ferry’s tutor, Richard Hamilton, and many more, Re-make/Re-model is also the account of how Pop art, the avant garde underground of the 1960s, and the heady slipstream of London in the Sixties was transformed into the fashion cults of revivalism, nostalgia and pop futurism in the early 1970s.”

StumpAlthough the author exaggerates, it is true of course that Roxy did develop to some extent out of the currents and the general milieu he describes. It is also true that they themselves still sometimes reconnect to them for various reasons. And I am not saying that murk is unimportant or insignificant in this context. But as all those defending the Bracewellian image of Roxy are well aware, this is not the whole story. Although there remains much that I disapprove of, there is also an alternative, immanent telos present in their – and particularly Ferry’s – development, a different side clearly discernible as a potentiality even on the fist, 1972 album, and pointing in a different direction. My argument (the post dealt with both Ferry and Roxy) was that this other side, even if imperfectly fruitioned, is misunderstood and wrongly dismissed, and that in reality it accounts for the strength also of the earliest Roxy albums.

The transformation into “the fashion cults of revivalism, nostalgia and pop futurism in the early 1970s” which Bracewell speaks about is at least one key to understanding this. Revivalism, nostalgia and pop futurism is not a full and adequate description of the alternative telos, but the progression towards the latter, or the continued realization of the alternative potentialitity, the next major step (after the eponymous debut album) in which was taken with the Stranded album (1973), could be conceived as a further development of what began as this transformation. The studied tastelessness of the early albums, and not least the album covers, gradually gives way to something that at least to some extent aspires to be taste (to what extent it succeeds is, admittedly, an open question).

I have several times explained that I find a more proper kind of criticism of these genres of music important, criticism with some other perspectives and with different criteria from the ones this far dominant. But it could certainly be argued that the subject is not important enough to devote time to a translation of the Ferry post, which was written in response to some critical comments on the presence of YouTube-clips with Ferry in this blog. And keeping things in perspective, with a proper sense of the relative weight of what we are dealing with here, it might be considered enough, at least for now, to simply signal that there is a critical rationale of this relatively complex kind behind my continuing to post Roxy and Ferry posts now and then. The rationale is complex relative to the ones behind my posting of music in other genres – like progressive rock, or opera – which are not such as to require the complexity. If Roxy’s genre should be represented here at all, they should be represented.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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