Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
The Collection

When it comes to who can lay claim to being rock’s most dapper dandy and consummate lounge lizard, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry simply has no competition. A jaded Casanova who still harbors a torn shred of belief in true love in his cynical heart, Ferry has been crooning about finding something beyond sex in the discos and singles bars of his decidedly unsentimental imagination since the early seventies. With Ferry, the tension has always been between disco Lothario and true love seeker, and the game for the listener has always been to parse out exactly which Ferry is singing at the time.

Clear-eyed as only a realist can be, Ferry was declaring love a dangerous and addictive drug long before his doppelganger, Robert Palmer, came along to tell us the same thing. It’s something to be sought in the dark, in the red light districts and discos of our soul-weary cities, where everyone is lonely, desperate, and on the prowl. But as I’ve mentioned, there was also a believer in true love in Ferry somewhere, and the only problem I ever had with Roxy’s conflicted take on sex and romance was the fact that they spread all their best songs amongst nine LPs, one of them a great live album, naturally leading one to hanker for the very best in one bite-sized form. One of the compilations available to do just that is 2004’s The Collection, which includes most of the songs I really crave, but also includes some late period songs I could do without. Its chief advantage is its brevity; 12 tracks, no fooling around, and no “Jealous Guy,” which I never liked and don’t want on no compilation in my house.

You could say The Collection gives short shrift to the early Eno-era Roxy, and you’d be right; besides the great “Virginia Plain” and the even better “Do the Strand,” there’s nothing else from 1972’s Roxy Music or 1973’s For Your Pleasure. The lack of the brilliant “Re-Make/Re-Model” is particularly galling. As for “Virginia Plain,” it swings, plain and simple, although not as hard as “Do the Strand,” a great song about a new dance that you’ll surely want to do if you are, as Ferry is, “tired of the tango.” The tune boasts lots of great saxophone by way of Andy Mackay, some extraordinary forward momentum thanks to Phil Manzanera on lead guitar, and never slows down long enough to let you sit down, sip your Cosmopolitan, and stare surreptitiously at the beautiful woman at the next table, who could very well be a man. “The samba isn’t your scene?” asks Ferry. So “do the strandsky” instead!

“Street Life” is mesmerizing and kicks into gear in a major way, with Ferry cruising down the street while proffering advice to all and sundry. Life on the street isn’t about academic credentials: “Education is an important key – yes/But the good life’s never won by degrees – no/Pointless passing through Harvard or Yale/Only window shopping – it’s strictly no sale.” Hey, I made it through a Pennsylvania state school wasted nearly every day, and I can attest to the truth of Ferry’s observations. I mean look at me now. I’m 57, twice divorced, living in a one-room apartment, and driving a 20-year-old car with expired plates. I’m a success story!

Meanwhile, “The Thrill of It All” is a hard-rocking romp, opening with some melodic keyboards by Eddie Jobson, followed by a mean guitar riff by Manzanera and a big chorus of voices, after which Ferry jumps in with both feet. This one is larger than life, and almost boasts as much kick as “Both Ends Burning,” my favorite Roxy tune, which I’m sorry to report is inexplicably missing from not only this best of, but most best of Roxy Music compilations.

“All I Want Is You” comes charging out of the starting gate with a great chiming guitar, after which Ferry, the jaded dandy in the overworld, throws up his hands, defeated by love, and declares, “Don’t want to know about one night stands/Cut price souvenirs/All I want is the real thing/And a night that lasts for years.” As for the great “Love Is the Drug,” it’s the same deal, maybe; “Love is the drug, got a hook on me,” sings Ferry, and the only question is who’s singing: Ferry the lewd seducer, out for a quick fix, or the true romantic of “The Thrill of It All,” looking for a “night that lasts for years.”

The LP includes the live version of “Out of the Blue” from the great Viva! Roxy Music, and it hits hard. On this one love is a form of salvation, not a narcotic; “Then out of the blue,” sings Ferry to a “broken and bruised” lover, “Love came rushing in/Out of the sky/Came the sun/Out of left field/Came a lucky day/Out of the blue/No more pain.” Meanwhile the tune hurtles along, Eddie Jobson plays a long and ecstatic solo on the electric violin, and I could listen to this song forever. The same doesn’t go, unfortunately, for the funky and atmospheric “Ain’t That So,” a Manifesto-era midtempo number that boasts one busy saxophone, a big bunch of backing vocalists, and a melody that doesn’t move me an iota.

“Dance Away” (also off 1979’s middling Manifesto) is too easy listening for my tastes, although I do love the melody; it’s all about dancing away the heartache, and how sometimes loneliness is a crowded room, because you’re not dancing with the person you want to be dancing with. On this one the broken-hearted Ferry is at the fore; if love is a drug, he’s most definitely gone cold turkey. “Same Old Scene” (from 1980’s disappointing Flesh and Blood) sounds almost like synthpop to me, and that’s not good; the melody is sufficiently captivating, but the general feel of the song is early MTV, always a frightening prospect. “The Main Thing” is a funky thang that reminds me of The Talking Heads; I don’t particularly like it, but it has an interesting feel, what with its chilly beats and slow and frigid tempo. No one, of course, can resist closer “More Than This,” which is as lovely as song as you’re ever likely to hear; the only question is why the moody but scrumptious title track of 1982’s Avalon isn’t included, while the decidedly inferior “The Main Thing” is.

So what do we have? A middling compilation, is my expert diagnosis. But that’s mainly because I stopped loving Roxy Music after 1977’s Viva! Roxy Music, on the grounds that their sound grew increasingly homogenized, although there are a few tracks on 1979’s Manifesto that have tons of personality. Unfortunately they just aren’t included on this LP. MY ideal compilation would include, in addition to “Both Ends Burning” (the live version) and “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the live take of “Pyjamarama,” as well as “Whirlwind” and “Nightingale” from 1975’s Siren. 2011’s Essential fills in some of the gaps, as does 2001’s The Best of Roxy Music, but both are heavy on the later Roxy I don’t much like. No, the compilers have yet to get it right, at least in my book. So I guess I’ll have to continue to cherry pick my favorite tracks from the individual albums until the day I die. See you at the singles bar.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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