Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
Viva! Roxy Music

I am writing these lines in my own blood on a sheet of homemade papyrus, which I will then shove into a bottle and toss into the sea. Why? Because this review is about Roxy Music, and Roxy Music fans are a deranged and dangerous lot, known for issuing fatwahs against people who disagree with their fiercely held opinions—that or just plain fopping them to death.

So coward that I am, I took the precaution of relocating to a deserted archipelago in the remote vastness of the South Pacific—you know, to lie low until the spear-shaking dies down. Unfortunately, I now find myself a castaway (can’t believe I forgot to book that return trip) and have been reduced to a diet of stump-toed gecko and fermented 190-proof coconut hooch, a volleyball with a face painted on it for company.

Because what I’m about to say is sure to cause every Roxy fan on earth to howl and then hunt me down. To wit, Roxy Music’s best album is NOT one of the fetishized Eno-era LPs, or the critically acclaimed 1973-75 albums that followed, or even the much-beloved late-period Avalon. No, Roxy Music’s best LP is—prepare to go apoplectic, Roxy lovers—1976’s live Viva! Roxy Music.

There, I said it. And I can hear the howls of outrage way out here in the middle of nowhere. Thank God for good old Wilson—at least I know he agrees with me.

What’s that Wilson? You think I’m full of shit? That we’re not talking about Phish, but Roxy Music? A band whose studio LPs were not only brilliant, but every bit as elegant, sophisticated, and impeccably groomed—with every hair in its proper place—as Roxy’s impossibly suave dandy of a front man, the tuxedo-wearing Brian Ferry? And only a complete moron would pass over such studio bliss for a LIVE album, that lowest form of rock life, where mistakes are inevitable and the band’s hair gets all mussed up and—what kind of buffoon are you, anyway?

Wilson, I hope you get lost at sea. And I won’t blubber about it afterwards like Tom Hanks either.

Besides, that’s where you’re wrong. Roxy Music made no attempt to replicate its carefully crafted and tightly reined-in avant rock sound in the live environment. Roxy Music went wild. And by wild, I mean flaming batshit crazy. And the proof lies in Viva! Roxy Music, one raucous and tremendous live album that I love as much as any other live LP ever made, excepting of course Loggins and Messina’s On Stage, with its 21-minute version of “Vahevala.”

A little spotted dick of background: Art/Glam rock band Roxy Music was formed in London in 1970-71 by vocalist Bryan Ferry—a former girl’s school ceramics teacher who had recently unsuccessfully auditioned for King Crimson—and grew to include saxophonist/oboist Andy Mackay, guitarist David O’List (who was soon replaced by Phil Manzanera), drummer Paul Thompson, bassist Graham Simpson, and last but not least synthesizer savant Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, or Bucky as he’s known to his friends.

Roxy Music’s first two LPs (1972’s Roxy Music and 1973’s For Your Pleasure) were brilliant but flawed affairs, and remain fetish objects to Roxy fans who believe Eno who was brains behind the band. But the three LPs that followed Eno’s departure (1973’s Stranded, 1974’s Country Life, and 1975’s Siren) are sublime as well, because Roxy Music wisely chose to hand over synth and keyboard duties to Curved Air alumni Eddie Jobson, who also happened to be one incredible electric violinist.

Me, I love all of those LPs. That said, it’s Viva! Roxy Music I turn to most often when I find myself in Roxy mode. This is in part an accident of fate—Viva! was the only Roxy Music album I knew during my teen years, and like any album you listen to repeatedly at that age it indelibly imprinted itself onto my brain in a way that no album heard later ever could. I have a very distinct memory of listening to Viva! In my brother’s VW in the alley behind my grandfather’s antique shop, from which we “borrowed” such nifty curios as an ancient hookah, a sword cane, and a cane that had secreted within it a corked glass vial, perfect for hiding your bootleg liquor.

But back to Viva! Roxy Music, which features the personnel listed above with the exception of The Sirens (aka Doreen Chanter and Jacqui Sullivan), who provide backing vocals on “Both Ends Burning,” and bassist John Gustafson, who replaced Simpson as Roxy Music’s official bass player but oddly enough appears on only one track. The rest feature John Wetton—who was between bands following the collapse of King Crimson—and Sal Maida.

Viva! Roxy Music opens with a very revved-up “Out of The Blue,” which features lots of maniacal drum crash, a haunting oboe riff by Mackay, and Ferry crooning in that upper-crust voice of his. Had Lord Byron been a rocker, this is what he would have sounded like. And so it goes until the three-quarter mark, when Jobson launches into a fantastic electric violin solo, Thompson pummeling the skins behind him, that brings the song to an abrupt close. Next up is the equally hard-driving “Pyjamarama,” with its throbbing and majestic intro and fabulous solos by Mackay on oboe and Manzanera on guitar. This is the real reason I love Viva! Roxy Music so much; the musicians get to stretch out and really show off their chops in a way they never could in the studio. Meanwhile Ferry coos and bills seductively, somehow managing to make such lines as “just boogaloo a rhapsody divine” sound smart.

“The Bogus Man” is a funky, big-bottomed number, with Wetton playing a gigantic bass line at song’s opening before being joined by Jobson on keyboards and Mackay playing one very weird oboe. Then Ferry comes in all deep and throaty, singing, “The bogus man is on his way/As fast as he can run/He’s tired but he’ll get to you/And shoot you with his gun” before stretching out some notes and singing the second stanza in a strange droning drawl as the beat goes on and on. Meanwhile Manzanera fires off guitar riffs, Ferry repeats the sound of a gun being cocked, and this is one very strange song indeed, from its booming beginning to the whistling teapot synthesizer at its end.

The short slow-cooker “Chance Meeting” opens with Ferry singing to the accompaniment of electric piano and McKay’s Middle Eastern-flavored oboe. It’s one very moody and atmospheric piece, with Ferry’s sultry vocals holding center stage until Jobson’s synthesizer commences to throb and drone and make outer space noises before exploding into the ecstatic yawp of “Both Ends Burning,” Roxy’s frenzied and Dionysian masterpiece. “Both Ends Burning” isn’t a song; it’s a case of demonic possession, from the insane wail of Mackay’s saxophone to Ferry’s bewitched vocals about the strange desire “that feeds the fire in my soul tonight.” But nothing tops the choruses, on which Mackay’s sax blows great holes in space and time as Ferry and the Siren Singers cry, “Both ends burning/Burning/Burn!” Why it’s downright unbecoming of an Englishman, to go totally native the way Ferry does—it’s as if he abandoned the khaki jungle shirt he’s wearing on the album cover and proceeded to paint his body, then did a savage dance to the sound of the molten Manzanera guitar solo that brings the song to an end.

“If There Is Something” is one long and winding road that opens in a relaxed mood, with Ferry sounding so chill he might as well be in a hammock. Then Manzanera plays a long, laid-back solo, with Jobson riding atop on violin, after which the song takes a sudden louie into Middle Eastern territory, with Mackay playing one wigged-out oboe solo and Ferry singing about all the things he’d do to prove his love, ending with the wonderful, “I would put roses round our door/Sit in the garden/Growing potatoes by the score.” (It’s worth the price of the album just to hear Ferry pronounce “potatoes.”) Mackay and Manzanera then take back-and-forth solo turns, after which Ferry sings a divine little coda that begins, “Shake your hair girl with your ponytail/Takes me right back/When you were young.” And only grows more divine as some backing vocals come in and the song reaches its orgiastic climax.

The eerie “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” features Ferry singing atop a haunting organ drone and lots of random synth blips in a voice filled with dread about a fellow’s romance with a love doll, which goes bad when the doll develops a hole… er, perhaps I should say puncture wound. The occasional pound of drums and Manzanera’s big guitar fills all lead up to Ferry’s despairing and demented, “Inflatable doll/Lover ungrateful/I blew up your body…/But you blew my mind,” at which point the song explodes and Ferry repeats, “Oh those heartaches/Dreamhome heartaches” and Manzanera launches into one helluva extended guitar solo.

Roxy then closes the album with the fantastically catchy “Do The Strand,” a V2-fast rocker that opens with Ferry singing, “There’s a new solution/A fabulous creation/A danceable solution/To teenage revolution” before inviting us all to “Do the strand love/When you feel love” while Mackay plays lots of cool sax blurt and Manzanera tosses in a most excellent solo. I don’t have the faintest idea why the crowd roars after Ferry sings, “Eskimos and Chinese/If you feel blue,” but I love the resounding echo that follows Ferry’s song closing, “The sphinx and Mona Lisa/Lolita and Guernica/Did the strand.”

And there you have. As for me, I may be marooned on a remote atoll with a volleyball for a pal, but it’s okay. Really. We’ve got my perfect desert island disc, Viva! Roxy Music, to listen to on my primitive home-made record player with its lizard tooth stylus and stump-toed gecko charging along on the king-sized hamster wheel I built using the rubber from a tire off of Amelia Earhart’s long-lost Lockheed Electra to keep the vinyl spinning. How do I get to gecko to do that? Easy. He loves Roxy Music.

We spend our days in our grey lagoon, Wilson and I, high as kites on our coconut hooch and the pink hallucinogenic berries that turn the sunset a lovely molten gold, arguing about ways to improve Viva! Roxy Music (he would replace “Chance Meeting” with “Street Life,” while I would swap “If There Is Something” with “Re-Make/Re-Model” and “Editions of You”). And as the sun drops below the horizon we dance, Wilson and I, yes we dance. We don’t do the Swim or the Samba or even the Strand. We do the Stranded.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • abeach

    The crowd roars because Ferry changes the line to “Eskimos and Geordies,” Geordies being those from Newcastle, where Ferry grew up (and where the track was recorded).

  • Dave Poole

    The crowd go mad after he sings Eskimos and “geordies” instead of Chinese, as that song was recorded in Newcastle and that is the term for people from there. Ferry was also a “geordie”.

  • http://www.myspace.com/willdockery Will Dockery

    Amzing… you have made the case for a Roxy Music album I was completely non-plussed about until now. 😀

  • Dr Benway

    You make a very good case for the album, which is of course three concerts edited to give us what we all know as Viva!

    Interestingly there is a fine lossy long version of the main Newcastle show available at “Reliquary.blogspot”….

    Maybe we’ll get an official lossless deluxe, (if not delightful,) version of it down the line…..

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