Roxy Music invented rock’s future. Now they’re taking a bow

Phil Manzanera, the 71-year-old guitarist for art-rock pioneers Roxy Music, is leaning into a computer camera backdropped by a nondescript hotel room. The band has assembled in Toronto, where they’re rehearsing for their first U.S. tour in two decades, and Manzanera is relearning their repertoire after a long spell away from it. “I haven’t really played those songs for 10 years,” he says with a trace of concern. “And so it’s all like coming back fresh.”

Roxy Music has come together for the first time since a run of shows across the U.K. and Australia in 2011. (The band will perform at the Kia Forum on Sept. 28.) They are venturing back to the States in celebration of being a band for 50 years, with large breaths and pauses and solo adventures peppered throughout.

“We were never going to be the Beatles, like a bunch of brothers,” Manzanera says. “Luckily we’ve come together as this unit, which you could call a band, but it is not as straightforward as that. Now it’s about the joy of rediscovering those songs and playing them live. If we don’t play them, who’s going to?”

Roxy’s permanence in music culture — they were inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame in 2019 — belies the decades in which the band’s cachet, mainly among musical adventurers and high-cheekboned jet-setters, far outstripped its popularity.

In the fall of 1970, Bryan Ferry had lost a job teaching ceramics at an all-girls school near London, in part due to his holding frequent record-listening sessions during school hours. Having floundered a bit after finishing art school a couple years prior, Ferry put an ad in the paper, looking for bandmates to collaborate with him and an old art-school classmate, bassist Graham Simpson. Saxophonist Andy Mackay replied to the ad, bringing along his university pal Brian Eno, who could work a synthesizer and owned a tape machine. The original iteration of the group was rounded out by guitarist Roger Bunn and drummer Dexter Lloyd. In search of a name that signified “faded glamour,” Ferry chose Roxy Music.

By 1972, Manzanera had come on as the group’s guitarist, Paul Thompson had replaced Lloyd as the drummer, and Roxy Music was off and running, releasing five albums between 1972 and 1975 alone, all of them critically acclaimed while finding modest commercial success. (In the U.S., their highest-charting hit was the taut and funky “Love Is the Drug,” which reached No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.) Their albums gained praise for their inventiveness, the band being credited with pioneering a new wave of art rock, wherein the visuals and onstage stylings were just as meticulously thought out as the lush production and incisive lyrical wit of the songs.

A man in the 1970s stares down at a typewriter

Bryan Ferry works at a typewriter in 1974.

(Eric Boman)

Ferry, now 76, acts as the band’s emotional conductor, of sorts. His voice is malleable — sometimes a distinctive and melodic drone, something one might hear in a smoky jazz lounge, sometimes soaring to beautiful highs. But his writing is what most commonly stands out. Ferry is one of the great architects of the love song, a lyricist who approaches the concept of love from all angles: the inception of romance, the tentative and uncertain bridges between affection and even greater affection, longing and heartbreak and bracing for the inevitability of loss. For all of the artistic flair surrounding Roxy Music, at the core, under the care of Ferry, they were a band in constant pursuit of considerations of love.

But there was also artistic flair. Their album covers were striking and sometimes controversial (the cover art for 1974’s “Country Life,” featuring two scantily clad models, was censored in the U.S. upon its release,) and the music itself was undeniable. By 1982’s “Avalon, the band’s consistent members were Ferry, Mackay, Thompson and Manzanera (those four are now on tour; Eno is not participating.) They took a hiatus after 1982, despite “Avalon” being the group’s most commercially successful record.

There has been a renewed interest and excitement in Roxy Music in their time away. “Avalon’s” swelling “More Than This” was memorably karaoke’d by Bill Murray in the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation.” The sinister “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” from 1973’s “For Your Pleasure,” gained renewed interest after being featured in a pivotal scene in the show “Mindhunter. The group’s consistent presence in the cultural atmosphere has a lot to do with the fact that they were, very much, ahead of their time, in terms of vision and influence. But it is also attributed to the fact that, despite not releasing an album in 40 years, their songs still sound fresh. Manzanera’s logic on this is simple.

“We always recorded on analog tape, and actually played together in a studio,” he says. “That sound seems to have quite a long life span. You listen to all the great songs that are still so popular from the ’70s, and they were beautifully constructed; they sound as if they could have been recorded yesterday.”

Not only their influence on music, but also on performance, on how bands present themselves and use the stage as a canvas, it has all endured. That influence spans decades, from peers like David Bowie in their early ’70s heydays to new wave founders like Devo, Talking Heads and Blondie. By the time they had stepped away, acts from the Cars to Pulp to TV on the Radio were charging through a new rock landscape with the style, affect and sound once pioneered by Roxy Music.

A rock band's guitarist and singer perform onstage.

Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and singer Bryan Ferry perform in September.

(Matthew Becker)

Both Manzanera and Ferry, with whom I spoke in early August from his home in London, are not explicitly focused on the band’s legacy, saying that it isn’t something they think about until someone mentions it to them. But there is the reality of time, and what time affords a band of people who have created over a long enough stretch of it. There are also, very literally, monuments to this kind of introspection, even if it is unnamed by the band members.

This year, Ferry has released a book of his lyrics, spanning both Roxy and all of his solo albums. It is a massive but joyful book to traverse, as Ferry’s lyricism comes across on the page like reading small, delightful short stories. Stories of love, or the anguish of love. Songs that unravel intimacy, sometimes finding the unraveling unsatisfying, but knowing it must be tended to. There’s an ever-present longing in the songs, but also a space where one is bracing for the impact of giving themselves over. “Preparing oneself for the worst,” Ferry says, shrugging and smiling. Forward-facing as ever, Ferry does admit that organizing the book itself, and sitting with the wide range of lyrics he’d penned over the years, did provide him with small regrets and sentimentalities.

“As you get older, life becomes more complicated and writing time becomes, I guess, precious and limited. Some of the songs, when I was compiling the lyric book, I thought, oh, I wish I’d had another week to spend on that. Or I wish I’d edited that out. But maybe it’s just as well that there was an immediacy about them. Being up against the wall time-wise can be a good thing for artists. For writers.”

Whether they feel like tangible attempts at solidifying and firmly upholding legacy, both the book and the tour gaze fondly upon the past greatnesses of the group and its most central figure. The Roxy tour setlist is a tight 20 tracks that spans just about two hours of performance. Anchored by their cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” the majority of tunes bounce through Roxy’s sprint of stunning ’70s albums.

“It was all such a rush of time,” Ferry says about that era. “We found this derelict house in Notting Hill and it was quite picturesque, freezing cold, just trying to get this program of work assembled. When we went into the studio, we did that really fast and then it all started to accelerate. That’s when it started getting really hard and I learned to write very quickly, but it was really exciting because I suddenly felt, wow, we have an audience.”

That audience extended to the States, and across generations. Roxy Music became notorious for their romanticism, the flourish in their performances, the eccentricities of future superstar producer Eno pushed up against the brilliantly calculated charisma of Ferry. Their performances, even now, unlock an elsewhere, a place to escape to that seems, to the eye of a spectator, to be fabulous. The only party you’d ever want to be at.

Bryan Ferry

Bryan Ferry in 2014.

(Simon Emmett)

The band is also still as sharply dressed as ever. (Ferry, crediting an adoration of jazz artists, shrugs and smiles slyly when I ask about his tour wardrobe plans. “I might make a bit of an effort.”) The tour set opens with Ferry at the piano, dashing through a rendition of 1972’s “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the opening song on their debut album, which winds along tightly until it comes apart at the seams, the sounds of the band tumbling atop each other to achieve a type of harmony.

Of this freshness, and ability to sonically map onto each other still, after 50 on-and-off years, Manzanera says: “I think it’s a lot to do with the fact that we call ourselves inspired amateurs and our sound was made up of a combination of a bunch of people and their inadequacies. But all together, they complimented each other and created something unique.”

This is, undoubtedly, a celebration of nostalgia, of a body of work that will — it seems — remain as is, with no new recordings on the horizon. Ferry shoots down the prospect of the new Roxy album that was rumored when the group last reunited to do the European shows, saying that the record didn’t feel right, and had to remain on the shelves.

But also, though neither Ferry nor Manzanera explicitly stated it, this projects to be the final time Roxy Music tours in such a robust capacity. The band members are still active in various other projects, as they have always been. Thompson has drummed with a series of other bands over the years, including Concrete Blonde and Angelic Upstarts. Ferry has filled his time in a continued pursuit of his solo career, performing both original songs and covers with his own orchestra (“I live in the studio,” he says.) Mackay and Manzanera are both occupied not only with solo careers, but also as in-demand supporting musicians.

This tour feels celebratory in nature, not just for the audiences of people who get to watch them, but also for the band members themselves. Fifty years as performers permanently woven into each other’s lives is a test of sometimes joyful endurance. When asked if there was any celebration in this run, in an existence that has sprawled this long, Ferry and Manzanera offered up two different approaches.

Manzanera, ever-excited and seemingly nervous, locks in on the stage performance. “There’s always jeopardy in live performance. And I mean, that’s what makes it vital. So we’re still, always, doing our best to hone our craftsmanship.”

Ferry takes a more simple approach. He grins and shrugs slightly before offering:

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is “A Little Devil in America.”

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