Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start.
Geek obsession: Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry
Why it’s daunting: Roxy Music has never been an easy band to classify. If you know the group only from the 1982 album Avalon, its much-imitated swan song and greatest commercial success, you probably associate Roxy Music with soft, seductive ’80s pop. If you’ve heard only the band’s early ’70s work, you probably think of sounds from the knob-twiddling, genre-mashing experimental end of the British glam scene. For those seeking a point of entry, little would seem to unite the two extremes of the band’s output.
Possible gateway: Stranded (1973)
Why: Stranded is the first album made after the departure of Brian Eno, whose sonic experimentation heavily shaped the group’s self-titled 1972 debut and its 1973 successor, For Your Pleasure (not to mention the group’s image, thanks to his alien-in-drag stage presence). Both are essential albums—more on those in a bit—but Eno’s departure allowed founder Bryan Ferry to stretch out and fill in the empty spaces, turning the lush, jaded romanticism always present in his vocals into an all-encompassing worldview. Alternately seductive and melancholy, heartbroken and hopeful, Stranded finds Ferry waxing romantic about God, European cities and, as always, the elusiveness of love, aided by the game musicianship of guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay. Sometimes they work in concert with Ferry’s vocals; at other moments they work against them, letting the yearning pop songs verge into chaos before pulling them back from the brink. Stranded kicked off Roxy Music’s fruitful middle years, aptly summarizes of what the band was all about, and provides a compact introduction to Ferry’s singular persona—part debonair put-on, part aspirational role-playing from the son of a miner with less-than-glamorous beginnings.
Next steps: Roxy Music released eight proper albums, all worth hearing and many of them classics. From Stranded, you can move forward or back. The latter leads to the stunning 1972 debut Roxy Music, a mix of theatrical camp, real hurt, and odd sonic textures that still sound revolutionary. The last element comes from Eno, who joined the band as a non-musician who liked to tinker with electronics and left it after the almost-as-strong For Your Pleasure to start a brilliant career as a solo artist and producer.
Moving forward brings you to Stranded’s near-sequels, dispatches from a world-weary romantic expressed in the form of unclassifiable pop: Country Life (1974) and Siren (1975). The latter gave Roxy Music its biggest hit, “Love Is The Drug,” and though the album sounds as strong as anything else in the Roxy Music catalog, it left Ferry unsatisfied. He broke up the act after the accompanying tour in 1976.
When the group reconvened at the end of the decade, it sounded almost like a different band. (Apart from Ferry, Manzanera, Mackay, and, for most of the run, drummer Paul Thompson, the lineup has shifted quite a bit over the years.) With Manifesto (1979) and Flesh & Blood (1980), Ferry opted for a smoother sound, laying the groundwork for ’80s soft rock and Roxy-worshipping new romantics like Duran Duran. Underappreciated at the time, both have aged well, particularly the transcendent singles “Dance Away” and “Oh Yeah.” That sound reaches its apotheosis with Avalon, a seductive dream of an album that provided the soundtrack to a whole generation of make-out sessions.
Where not to start: At this point Ferry has released more albums as a solo artist than with Roxy Music, many of them quite good and well worth investigating, but all best saved until after you’ve exhausted the Roxy Music catalog. In the ’70s, Ferry’s solo career at first ran parallel to his band’s, and he often called on his bandmates to support for albums dominated by odd covers of everything from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” both hits in the U.K. During the group’s first hiatus, Ferry started to emphasize original compositions, though he scored his biggest solo hit with a cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together.”
Since Avalon, Ferry’s solo work has mostly been variations on the same themes. Most have sounded quite respectable, including this year’s Olympia, which reunited him with Roxy Music bandmates, including Eno, for a few tracks. The only dud: the go-nowhere 2007 Dylan tribute Dylanesque. The overlooked gem: 1999’s As Time Goes By, a collection of 20th-century standards beautifully rendered by one of the greatest voices that century produced.