The boys are back
July 27, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Roxy Music burst onto a stagnant rock scene in 1972 with the impact of a hurricane, and
it was just as effective in shaking the music out of its post-hippie malaise.
"Fantasizing: phantomising: echoes of magic-golden moments become real presences .
. . dreamworld & realworld loaded with images," the group boasted on the
Beat-poetic liner notes of its self-titled debut. It proceeded to deliver on that promise,
from the brilliant genre-hopping glam pastiches of the first two albums with synthesizer
player Brian Eno, through the pseudo-disco and proto-New Age lounge music of latter
efforts such as "Flesh + Blood" and "Avalon."
Now, 19 years after their last tour, vocalist Bryan Ferry has reunited with guitarist
Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay and original drummer Paul Thompson to celebrate
the influential sounds recorded during the band's fertile decade-long career. I spoke with
Manzanera by phone shortly before the reunited Roxy arrived in the States.
Q.Hi, Phil. How are you?
A. Fine, thanks. I'm sitting in a 17th-century cottage. It couldn't be more
Q. That's ridiculously Roxy Music! Come on, tell the truth: You're sitting at
home in your underwear.
A. No, I'm actually in a kimono-type dressing gown looking out on an idyllic
English countryside in West Sussex.
Q. I'm curious about the logistics of how an entity like Roxy reconvenes.
Were you just sitting around one day when Ferry called and said, "Hey Phil, you wanna
A. [Laughs] Yes--like the Grateful Dead or something! Actually, it was sort
of a bit like that. I seem to remember ringing Bryan and saying, "Do you fancy
playing? Getting back together to do some concerts or whatever?" And then a
particular promoter came and said, "Here's a definite offer. You don't have to
organize it--here's 50 dates. Starts here; ends here, here's the money. Do you want to do
it?" And I guess we thought, "We can't think of a reason not to, really."
We had been talking about it, and I don't know if we were sort of trying to convince
ourselves or what, but we realized that there was a whole body of songs there that would
never be heard again unless we played them. I thought we'd have to be our own tribute band
to celebrate these songs. You get fed up with listening to two or three of the same tracks
that radio plays all the time. So it was very nice and neat, if you like, that the music
was really the thing that inspired us.
Q. I've seen some of the set lists, and it's encouraging that you're digging
deep and not just doing the predictable songs.
A. No, not at all. In fact, that has gone down extremely well. There was a
concern that a lot of people would not know the songs from the first two albums. There
were quite a few different Roxys, and people who came to Roxy with "Avalon"
might not know the earlier songs. So even though there is no new material, it has been in
places a bit like playing new material.
Q. Whenever groups reconvene, there's the question of how to avoid nostalgia,
which is the kiss of death for great rock 'n' roll. But Roxy Music never played music
about the joys of being young; it was always sophisticated and multileveled.
A. Well, that's the interesting point: The difference is it's about resonance,
it's not about nostalgia. The textures, the atmospheres, the moods, the subject matters
are quite grown-up. It was a sort of ready-made adult band, if you like, and it appears
that that resonance still carries through, even from the early albums. We're seeing it on
stage now, and it's sort of baffling to a certain extent. But it just seems to have a
certain climate and a mood that it creates which still has the same effect.
Q. So you're transported back to 1972 when you play "Virginia
A. Absolutely, and you think, "This is weird!" I'm now 50, I was 21 at
the time, yet the people out there are aged between 18 and 50, and they all seem to be
enjoying it. What does it all mean? I don't know. But we were going to do it any way,
we're just lucky that people seem to like it and we can all win.
It's actually more enjoyable now because there's no pressure. This isn't about
career-building; it's about having an enjoyable experience and having the people who come
and pay money to see us enjoy it. And technology has come on incredibly! The sort of
discreet technology that's on stage is awesome--all the computers and sampling stuff. What
it means is we can have the sounds we had on the albums on stage, which we couldn't at the
time. So it sounds the best it's ever sounded live.
Q. Let me put a twist on the obligatory Eno question: Is there still that
wonderful element of random absurdity that he added? That sort of chaos, where he was
feeding your guitar through tape loops and synthesizers and you had no idea what was going
to come out the other end?
A. We have a girl who combines the roles of Eno and Eddie Jobson, who plays the
electric violin and the VCS3 synthesizer. And I must say, she's a lot more pretty to look
at than those chaps.
Q. I don't know; Eno looked pretty good in those ostrich-feather boas. But
what I'm asking is: Do you let her screw things up the way he did?
A. [Laughs] Not really, no. I'm doing that myself now; it's my specialty!
Q. You've played some of my favorite guitar parts ever, on those Eno solo
albums and on your own records, as well as on the Roxy discs. Entire careers of young
bands are built on some of those ideas. Was it as much fun making those records as it
A. Oh, it was great fun. On "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)," we
were just doing anything we felt like doing at the time. The funny thing is that the
engineer who we used, Rhett Davies, he's involved on this Roxy tour. He also did
"Diamond Head" and "801 Live" and "Quiet Sun," so
it's like a family. There was a lot of experimenting and a lot of hours spent with Brian
Eno, me and Rhett in the control room doing all the things that eventually evolved into
those cards, the "Oblique Strategies," and it was a lot of fun. But then, after
"801 Live," Eno went off to work with [David] Bowie, and we virtually never saw
him again. He was just too busy working with all those other people.
Q. I've always contended that Roxy Music came out of psychedelia in that it
approached the recording studio as a place to transport listeners somewhere that only
existed in the imagination.
A. I think it was this desire by all of us to do something different, something
new, and to push the boundaries. If you heard something that you thought you'd heard
before, well, that was rejected. You're out there in the same way as free-form jazz and
all the psychedelic experiments. The idea of being free to do what you want . . . that's
one of the problems now with the control of groups by record companies. They don't have
enough opportunities just to be free and to go way out there, unless they do it
themselves. Which is why all the independent labels are potentially great, because it's a
liberating factor if you can sort of exist and do what you do and make a living out of it.
It's important to maintain one's freedom as a musician.