Monday, November 07, 2011

Top 50 Albums, #38 - "Siren" and "Avalon," Roxy Music

There used to be this ad (in the Fifties, I suppose) for a cigarette: You're Never Alone with a Strand! A guy alone in the street; belted raincoat, turned down hat brim; fog, drizzle, blurred neon lighting; three in the morning and he'd just left a party or come to the end of an affair or arrived off a train; down but cool (cigarette cool) and romantic, weary — a private eye at the end of a case. I always thought it was Frank Sinatra.

That was one role Bryan Ferry had figured out for himself.

Something else there used to be was two artists called Gilbert and George whose work of art was themselves. They exhibited daily in a classy gallery. Elegant, suited, disdainful, they'd stand there all day while people paid to look. Later on a little song and dance act became part of the picture.

That was something else Bryan Ferry wanted to be — a work of art.

• Simon Frith, review of “Siren,” Rolling Stone, 1975

Prepare yourself, because there may be some who consider this a bit of a cheat. But hey, it’s my list, right?

There were three distinct periods in the career of Roxy Music. The first period, which I’ll call the Brian Eno period, encompassed their first two albums, “Roxy Music” and “For Your Pleasure.” The second, which I’ll call their middle period, began after Eno was replaced on keyboards by Eddie Jobson; this “era” included three great albums – “Stranded,” “Country Life,” and “Siren.” And then the last period began when the group reformed in 1979. This time around, the band was a band in the same sense that Steely Dan was a band in the latter parts of their career – in other words, you had Bryan Ferry, Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy MacKay, plus a cast of session players (although the great drummer Paul Thompson, an original member of the band, appeared on one album). This final period featured the albums “Manifesto,” “Flesh + Blood,” and “Avalon.”

The Eno period has its proponents, but I prefer the other two. I think that if you polled most Roxy fans, they would select without hesitation the middle period as being stronger than the other two; however, I think the last two periods were equally effective, albeit very different. Again, I’ll use the Steely Dan comparison. In much the same way that the only thing Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Pretzel Logic” had in common with “Aja” and “Gaucho” was the Steely Dan moniker, the only thing that “Country Life” and “Siren” have in common with “Flesh + Blood” and “Avalon” is that they all say “Roxy Music” on the cover.

“Siren” begins with what is possibly the greatest sound effects intro in the history of rock music. You hear a set of heels clicking, a car door opening, the car starting, and then a quick guitar chord and a deep bass line (along with MacKay’s sax, lurking in the shadows), and before you know it you’re into “Love is the Drug,” which is certainly among the best songs the band ever recorded. The song is a microcosm of everything the band was doing well at that time – Ferry’s lounge lizard lyrics, coupled with a sound that was as close to Earth Wind & Fire as it was to classic British art-pop. And the story it tells is a familiar one:

Late at night I park my car
Stake my place in the singles bar
Face to face, toe to toe
Heart to heart as we hit the floor
Lumbered up, limbo down
The locked embrace, the stumble round
I say go, she says yes
Dim the lights, you can guess the rest
Oh — catch that buzz
Love is the drug I'm thinking of.

“Dim the lights, you can guess the rest,” indeed. That is the mindset that powers “Siren” throughout, whether it’s fast songs (“Both Ends Burning,” and I bet you can figure out what that one is about), mid-tempo songs (“She Sells”) or ballads (“Just Another High”).

By the time of “Avalon,” seven years later, a lot had changed. I can understand why fans of the earlier work might think of it as being “slick.” Slick though it may be, it’s brilliantly so – put simply, it is one of the most perfect pop albums ever made. Again, the very first track, “More Than This,” is key to the album’s success – and this time, the lyrics matter less than the sound. On this album, Bryan Ferry achieved something that was as close to perfection as he’d ever get. He was the guy alone in the street, and a work of art, all at the same time.

For me, the best example of the album’s perfection is the penultimate song, “True to Life.” It is an absolutely exquisite song from start to finish, but never more so than when Phil Manzanera contributes the lightest of guitar tones – not really a solo – near the end of the second chorus. It’s a small note, but the kind of note that makes you wonder whether it was intended, or just an accident of recording. In any event, it’s beautiful, and though barely a second long, one of the greatest moments in the history of the band.

Two albums, the better part of a decade apart, with different sounds and different players – but linked by the great presence of Bryan Ferry.

Siren (1975) produced by Chris Thomas
Avalon (1982) produced by Rhett Davies and Roxy Music

Siren: Love is the Drug/End of the Line/Sentimental Fool/Whirlwind/She Sells/Could It Happen to Me?/Both Ends Burning/Nightingale/Just Another High

Avalon: More Than This/The Space Between/Avalon/India/While My Heart is Still Beating/The Main Thing/Take a Chance With Me/To Turn You On/True to Life/Tara

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