There wasn’t room for an act like Roxy Music when the band released its first, self-titled album in 1972, so it had to carve out a space to call its own. Ten years, eight studio albums, several bass players, and one three-year hiatus later, the group released a final album, Avalon, whose lush, romantic sound fit perfectly into a landscape dominated by ’80s bands that grew up looking to Roxy Music for inspiration. What else was there to do but fade away? And, apart from the now semi-regular concert reunions, that’s precisely what Roxy Music did, leaving behind a string of records characterized by restlessness and heartache at one end and glamorous, tortured languor at the other. The new box set The Complete Studio Recordings, as its title suggests, boxes the Roxy catalog together along with two discs of singles, B-sides, and remixes.
It works best grouped together, too. The sound of Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure is nothing less than that of art-school-trained musicians redefining what a rock group ought to be in the early ’70s. There was a lot of that going around at the time. The band’s early output regularly—and accurately—gets classified as glam rock, but it also has a prog-like affection for shifting time signatures (and, on the first album, enlisted King Crimson’s Peter Sinfield for production duties). Yet even with those identifiable elements, Roxy Music sounded gloriously difficult-to-categorize from the start. The front-and-center team of guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist/oboist Andrew Mackay was unusual in itself, never mind the presence of a young, balding, boa-favoring Brian Eno, who made his musical debut with the band manning a VCS 3, an early synthesizer that looked like something out of Quatermass And The Pit. And, at the fore, Bryan Ferry, the son of working-class Northerners who’d refashioned himself as a tortured, aristocratic leading man dragged to earth from an elegant black-and-white movie.
Ferry made himself look the part, too, but as important as fashion was to Roxy Music—from the debauched cover girls that made its albums pop from the racks to the hairstyling credits noted within—it was Ferry’s ability to perform the part to perfection that made the band gel, from first album to last. At once arch and affecting, Ferry’s voice makes it impossible to sift camp from sincerity. Unlike Bowie, Ferry had only one persona—yearning, heartbroken, but seldom hopeless—but he locked onto it so tightly that he seemed to become the character he created. When, as part of a string of promises to an elusive lover on the debut’s “If There Is Something,” he pledges to “sit in the garden / growing potatoes by the score” it might sound like a joke if Ferry didn’t stretch the last syllable out like a man who means every word.
Roxy Music’s first two albums gave the eccentric sentimentality of Ferry’s lyrics an even odder musical backdrop in part because of the experimental pull of Eno, who introduced sounds that, by any traditional standard, had no place on the pop charts. To watch the band perform the single “Virginia Plain” on Top Of The Pops, with its skittering woodwinds and line about a “teenage rebel of the week” is to see a band figuring out just how far it could push the limits of pop stardom. Stranger pleasures awaited those who picked up the LPs: tributes to Humphrey Bogart, a stirring love song set against the backdrop of the Battle Of Britain (complete with sound effects), and an ode to a blow-up doll.
By the third album, however, Eno was gone, and while the band could have easily collapsed with his departure, it instead narrowed its focus and entered a new phase. Stranded finds Ferry adrift, searching for love, God, and meaning against the backdrop of a crumbling Europe. It sands down the rough edges of the earlier albums, but what it loses in experimental force, it gains in sheer beauty. (Eno also called it his favorite Roxy Music album.) Its sequels—Country Life and Siren—are of a piece and just as good. The latter gave the band its biggest U.S. hit, “Love Is The Drug,” but left the band fractured. Some were unsatisfied with the album (hard now to believe, as it’s one of their best) and with Ferry’s solo career, which had been running in sometimes-confusing tandem with the band’s.
When Roxy regrouped for the 1979 album Manifesto, it sounded different, offering songs for the dance floor and the bedroom suitable for an audience that had put its glam clothes away years earlier and didn’t have much use for punk. Both Manifesto and its 1980 follow-up, Flesh + Blood, find the group struggling to squeeze into its new identity, while still producing an enviable number of transcendent tracks. Then, in 1982, one last masterpiece: Avalon, a keyboard-drenched sigh of an album that bands trafficking in what was then being called “soft rock” spent the decade trying to top. (So, for that matter, did Ferry, whose solo career since then has mostly offered pleasing, minor variations on Avalon.)
The Complete Studio Recordings’ heft and price tag make it seem like an item for longtime fans, but it works just as well as an introduction. There’s not a bad phase in the group’s history, and no real duds in the catalog. And, after years of repackaging, the box set finally gets it right: Restoring the original track listings and full art to the albums and collecting the singles, B-sides, and remixes in one place. It’s the whole story of a group that arrived with the shock of the new then left with a genteel bow, and there’s not another story quite like it.