With the exception of its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction performance in 2019, British art-rockers Roxy Music haven’t played in America since 2003. But the iconic band’s 13-date arena tour will not only return it to U.S. shores on Sept. 7 — it will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Roxy Music’s eponymous debut, which took the music world by storm in 1972, with its eclectic mashup of musical styles and the band’s flamboyant costumes.
Given that the group released eight studio albums between 1972 and 1982 — genre-bending adventures that spanned from rambunctious rock and ethereal elegance to quirky cacophony and smooth balladry — it’s certainly challenging for the core membership of singer-principal composer Bryan Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera and sax-oboe player Andy Mackay to pick what to play. Beyond fan favorites like “More Than This,” “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and their popular cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” one can hope that lesser-played tracks like the rollicking “Whirlwind,” the medieval-sounding “Triptych” and the ballad “Chance Meeting” (with its eerie guitar ambiance) might sneak their way into the shows.
“I’m still looking at the ideas for the set,” Ferry tells Billboard. “I’ve got lots of songs that you feel you have to do. It would be lovely to do a show of the more obscure or deeper cuts, as you say, but I think the audience would feel disappointed if they didn’t hear the familiar ones as well.” (Both Ferry and Manzanera concur with this writer that, among other things, “Manifesto” is an underrated track.)
“We’ve got a list of like 30 songs we’ve whittled it down to,” says Manzanera. “We’re going to try them all and see what sounds good and then pop on different ones. Maybe substitutes at different venues. What I realized, and I think we all realize it, is that we need to play some of the [other] stuff because it’ll never get heard live otherwise.”
Ferry hopes that all three phases of the band will be represented. There are the more raucous first two albums (Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure) with influential keyboardist Brian Eno; the equally eclectic but slightly smoother triumvirate of Stranded, Country Life and Siren with keyboardist-electric violinist Eddie Jobson; and, after the group’s late-’70s hiatus, the final trio (Manifesto, Flesh and Blood and the dreamy Avalon) with the core members of Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay. That last three albums featured various guests and session musicians such as pianist Richard Tee, bassists Alan Spenner and Neil Jason, drummer Simon Phillips and singer Melissa Manchester. Drummer Paul Thompson played on the band’s first six albums as well as for its 2001 reunion tour (and will join the upcoming one), while Andy Newmark performed on much of the final two studio releases.
Although Roxy Music and both Ferry and Manzanera solo have toured with larger bands (as will be the case this time), they want to be careful not to overdo anything, such as extending any songs too much. Latter albums, especially like Avalon, were carefully sculpted to fit with Ferry’s vocal stylings and his bandmates coalescing around them. Manzanera says he has been reviewing the multitrack recordings and studying his own parts to be as faithful to the originals as possible.
When Duran Duran paid homage to the group while inducting it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bassist John Taylor declared that without Roxy, there would be no Duran. As singer Simon Le Bon noted about the honorees’ TV debut during the ceremony, “The sound was a shock to the system — a psychedelic Sinatra crooning pop-art poetry over driving drums, over saxophones and oboes. Heavily treated electric guitars and the most out-there synthesizer parts you’d ever heard.”
The music world had been unprepared for Roxy Music’s arrival. “We used to call ourselves ‘inspired amateurs’ when we started,” recalls Manzanera. “People looked down on us to a certain extent because we hadn’t paid our dues. [David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars] and Roxy Music’s first album were released on the same day in June 1972. For Bowie, it was his fifth album, and we appeared out of nowhere, fully formed.” He wonders what the glam pioneer must have thought of the young upstarts. When they met him, “He was so nice and sweet, but it was quite a shock.”
Over the course of its recording career, Roxy Music maintained its quirky vibe but gradually evolved into a more polished entity, and not in a blatant pop way. It just kept exploring new vistas and avoided sticking to a formula. In America, this translated into such chart achievements as logging 11 albums on the Billboard 200, with three of them reaching the top 40.
Photography and graphic design were also very important to the band, from the gorgeous models gracing its album covers to the gatefold vinyl of 1973’s For Your Pleasure with the band dressed in outrageous garb.
“It used to be so interesting in the old days where you waited for the film in your camera to be developed, to see if you had anything,” reminisces Ferry. “I remember when we did the first Roxy cover and the shoot, and we had to wait a couple of days for the film to be processed, then looking at it on a projector and thinking we’ve got something. I miss that excitement of when we would paste things together when we were doing the album covers and everything was done physically. There was a tactile thing about it, which I liked.”
Technological changes have not only eliminated that element, but also a sense of mystery. “I used to like how things were a bit private as well,” he says. “Everything is shared now. People film everything, and if you do a show, people are looking at it through their phones. That’s kind of weird. I like it when there’s a sense of occasion, and you’re there for the evening and it’s a special moment.”
Although Roxy’s catalog spans a broad range of styles, Avalon remains the band’s most enigmatic album — very atmospheric, not very riff-based, ethereal and romantic. “It is an unusual record,” concurs Manzanera, “and I don’t think I really appreciated it at the time because I was wanting to rock at that moment. My antidote was [1982 solo album Primitive Guitars]. Ironically, it was reviewed in the same edition of Rolling Stone magazine, one after the other. I couldn’t believe it. I was slightly embarrassed. I found it at Sydney Airport when we were on tour, and I didn’t show it to the others. Then we didn’t work together for 18 years in terms of live. We seem to be able to come back together and play these songs live, and it unifies us because they’re fun to play.”
“[There are] a lot of love songs in there,” Ferry observes about Roxy’s output and his solo work. “Some of those songs are quite sad. A lot of the music I’ve liked by other people over the years, growing up, the sounds that drew me in, are the more melancholy things. I tend to like dark, sad songs. It’s very nice when you look through the repertoire and see the one or two songs that stand out as being different, like ‘Manifesto,’ ‘Do the Strand’ and ‘Editions of You,’ which take you into a different place. I wish there were a few more of them, but it’s nice to have that contrast in the material. Hopefully, the [shows] will represent that — light and shade.”
While the band hasn’t released an album in 40 years, its oeuvre has consistently resonated with subsequent generations. Wolf Alice, 10,000 Maniacs and the Charlie Hunter Quartet featuring Norah Jones are among the many acts who have covered “More Than This.” Ferry even sang the tune when he portrayed a nightclub singer in the 1929 Weimar Republic for the German TV series Babylon Berlin in 2017.
Following its 2001 reunion, Roxy Music toured America again in 2003, as well as overseas in 2005 and 2010. It also did international tours in 2005-06 and 2010-11. In between, Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay have been prolific solo artists. Ferry has a busy career — 16 studio albums, the recent EP Love Letters and regular tours since 2001. The singer’s love for Bob Dylan manifested in some of his early solo efforts and culminated in the 2007 covers album Dylanesque. Manzanera has done a lot of production work, including on Pink Floyd’s The Endless River, and he and Mackay have recorded a few albums together. A second collaboration between Manzanera and Tim Finn, The Ghost of Santiago, will arrive July 29. Many fans may not know that the title track to Manzanera’s 1978 solo album, K-Scope, was sampled for the Jay-Z/Kanye West song “No Church in the Wild” from their 2011 collaboration Watch the Throne. Manzanera’s riff was slowed down for that tune, and he approved of the final result.
Despite Manzanera telling Rolling Stone in 2014 that Roxy would likely never tour again, the core trio clearly found themselves drawn back to each other. “It’s almost like a dysfunctional family,” muses Manzanera. “You get together and have an enjoyable time. Then real life comes in, and you have wives and girlfriends and family. You’re off busy doing other things. Suddenly, it’s 10 years of working for David [Gilmour], and then you have a cup of tea with Bryan. ‘Oh, that would be nice to actually work together. Did we have an argument 20 years ago? I cannot remember why.’ So we’re back to square one . . . there is just no escape,” he finishes with a laugh.
“I guess there must be a lot of mutual respect,” offers Ferry, laughing as well. “They’re both characters and have strong musical personalities, and I guess they put up with me as well for quite a few years. I don’t see a great deal of them now, but it’s always very nice when I do. I think a sense of humor always binds people together, and from those early days, it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of hard work, touring and always rushing to complete albums. Sometimes you didn’t feel you had got the album quite there. You had really strong deadlines in those days because you’re on tour next week. But [I have] very good memories, very positive memories of working together.”
“Music can bring you together,” adds Manzanera. “It is a kind of therapy for your brain and foot, and when you’re playing, it’s like meditating. If I’m onstage and I’m playing now with the other guys, I’m concentrating and drifting off. I want to learn how to play it so I don’t have to think too much. I’m just playing and enjoying that moment.”