Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
Siren

I wish I was as suave as Bryan Ferry, the tuxedo-clad Euro-sophisticate whose jaded crooning about love has made him the most elegant lounge lizard in rock history. Not a bad act of sartorial re-creation for the son of a miner from Northern England, not bad at all. I wish I could pull it off. God, do I wish. But what can I say? When I was at the age he formed Roxy Music I was still wearing bib overalls. And guys in bib overalls have zilch odds of being mistaken for dapper Euro-seducers, which never occurred to me at the time—I simply thought of myself as a ladies’ man in the midst of a long, lonely run of shitty luck.

Formed at the dawn of the seventies, Roxy Music featured a core band that included Ferry on vocals, Phil Manzanera on guitar, Andy Mackay on saxophone and oboe, Paul Thompson on drums, a seemingly endless succession of guys on bass, and Brian Eno, who initially joined as a technical adviser, on synthesizers. Eno played a profound role in the band’s sound but left after two LPs due to creative differences with Ferry, and was replaced by keyboardist and electric violinist Eddie Jobson, formerly of Curved Air. You’ll run across gads of avant gardists who think Eno’s departure marked the end of Roxy Music as a great band, but I’m not one of them.

Me, I love all of their albums, but know I’m in the minority for believing 1977’s live Viva! Roxy Music is the best of them. But I’ve reviewed that LP already, which leaves me with my second favorite LP, 1975’s Siren. I’m not going to lie to you; I wish it had “Do the Strand,” “Virginia Plain,” “Street Life,” and “Pyjamarama” on it, but it doesn’t. Which is why the smart bet is to buy one of their “best of” compilations and be done with it. But then you’d be without “Just Another High” and “End of the Line” and all the other cool songs on Siren that you won’t find on any greatest hits package, and won’t you be sorry then? Eh?

Siren is book-ended with songs that compare love to an illicit narcotic. On the classic opener “Love Is the Drug”—which boasts a throbbing bass and lots of great percussion, and is as funky as Roxy Music ever got—Ferry is looking to score, at the disco bar, in the red light district, he’s not picky. He’s hooked on amore, as his similarly dapper compatriot, the late Robert Palmer, sang in “Addicted to Love.” Mackay plays a great sax, the chorus is contagious, and Ferry’s doing the limbo, without a single strand of hair falling out of place. As for the excellent “Just Another High,” it boasts a lovely melody, and kicks into gear with a vengeance. Ferry plays the unsuccessful romance addict, for whom love is “just another high/Such a crazy high.” Manzanera plays a nice solo, while Ferry, who talks in circles about the subject of love—even marriage comes up—ultimately admits he’s “just another crazy guy.”

Ferry also gets the short end of the romantic stick on the fine and oh so sublime “End of the Line.” Jobson’s violin work is stellar, the melody is fetching, and the jilted Ferry, accompanied by piano and a kick-ass rhythm section, complains that he stands alone, “mystified and blue,” but reminds his love he’ll be waiting for her at the end of the line. “Sentimental Fool” opens on a long experimental note, with Jobson’s synthesizer (and piano) producing a vaguely sinister atonal din, before the band and Ferry come in, Ferry singing in falsetto. Then the chorus saunters along, and it reminds me of something Eno might have produced. Mackay plays some funky sax, the vocals are great, and then the song twists itself into a cool drone. Nicely done, lads!

“Whirlwind” comes at you like, well, a whirlwind, and opens with Ferry singing “Mayday” like a sinking ocean liner. It includes a great keyboard solo. Which is followed by a great and frantic solo by Manzanera, one that climbs and climbs until Ferry returns to sing, “There she blows,” and then, “Beware!/Whirlwind!” “She Sells” is piano-based and chipper, and sounds lightweight in comparison to your average Roxy Music song. There’s some Wunderbar oboe, the rhythm section kicks up a funky storm, but Ferry doesn’t lay the vocals on as heavily as he usually does until the song abruptly slows down and Ferry and Company are back, sounding like the Roxy we all know and love. The lovely “Could It Happen to Me?” opens with a regal flourish, then Ferry retreats to his usual stance as a lounge lizard who would love to fall in love. Meanwhile the tune goes from baroque to speedy on a dime, with Ferry singing—and can he really be serious?—“Take me as I am/An average man.” Sure, if James Bond is an average man.

Next up is my all-time favorite Roxy Music song, “Both Ends Burning.” A frenetic and fiery number, it boasts lots of great sax and keyboards by Jobson, while Ferry ignites the damn song with his vocals about a fire burning deep down in his soul. Meanwhile Manzanera comes in on guitar, and his vicious solo accompanies Ferry “to the end.” I don’t think the Siren version is as good as the live one on Viva! Roxy Music, which boasts an even more robust tempo and some really cool female backing singers, but it’s a great, great song nonetheless. As for “Nightingale,” it opens with some sweet acoustic guitar before transitioning into a fast-paced and big-bottomed rocker that slows down periodically so you can catch your breath. Very considerate, don’t you think? There’s a friendly oboe solo that might as well come from a Carpenters’ song, Jobson saws away at his violin, and the whole thing builds to a wonderful climax, just like the ones I used to have staring at Roxy’s 1974 Country Life LP.

Bryan Ferry, both with Roxy Music and as a solo act, has perfected the pose of the disaffected dandy, the lover in extremis, the seducer-in-chief of rock’n’roll. His songs never stray far from the subject of amour, and regardless of whether he looks at love as a game or as a deadly serious drug transaction, he has established himself as rock’s greatest romantic, cynical or otherwise. As he sings, “Sentimental fool, who broke the golden rule/You couldn’t resist it, though it’s all in vain/I’d do it all again, just to relive one minute.” In short love may be even more short-lived than crack but he’s just another junkie, callow or not, addicted to the most dangerous narcotic in the world—love.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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