Roxy Music have been called “the greatest art rock group Britain has produced this side of The Beatles,” and “the most influential British group after The Beatles.” Formed in 1971, Roxy Music reached its musical high point in 1982 with its eighth album, Avalon.
Released forty years ago, the album is widely regarded as one of the best albums of all time. Avalon also was arguably the first fully ‘modern-sounding’ recording, particularly in terms of the intricate use of delays and reverbs. It laid the blueprint for the way records are mixed from the eighties onwards.
The album was mixed by the legendary Bob Clearmountain. He said in 2020, “people have talked about Avalon more than about anything else I have done, calling it some sort of breakthrough. It was an amazing record.”
Avalon remains a milestone in recorded music. In this blog, we’ll look at how Roxy Music distilled everything it learned over the course of seven albums into a final landmark statement, and how Bob Clearmountain and producer, Rhett Davies, came up with groundbreaking sonics and production.
The first and perhaps most important thing to understand about Roxy Music is that it is an amalgam of many, very disparate influences, with members from very different backgrounds.
The band was founded by Bryan Ferry, who grew up in northeast England to poor, working-class parents. He listened to a wide variety of artists, including Charlie Parker, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Kurt Weil, and Richard Strauss. In London, in 1971, Ferry and bassist Graham Simpson decided to form a band.
Andy Mackay was invited because of his interest in electronic music and ownership of a synth. The fact that he was a classically-trained woodwind player was a bonus. Brian Eno joined next. He was into sound recording and avant-garde music, and called himself a ‘non-musician.’ He played synthesizers, initially an EMS VCS3, and tapes.
By April, 1971, Ferry, Simpson Mackay and Eno had taken on the name Roxy Music. Top drummer Paul Thompson, who was influenced by the Velvet Underground, joined the band by the end of the year. Guitarist Phil Manzanera became a band member in February 1972. He was deeply steeped in Latin rhythms, courtesy of his Columbian mother.
Roxy Music recorded its self-titled debut album in just two weeks, from 14th to 29th March 1972, at Command Studios, on Piccadilly, London, for £5000. The producer was King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield, and the album has been called “a triumph of will and dilettantism.”
Island Records released Roxy Music’s debut album in June 1972. The music had overtones from anything from Velvet Underground to prog rock. Despite flattering critical reactions, the album barely charted. Aiming for more impact, Roxy Music recorded a single, “Virginia Plain” in July 1972. The band’s now iconic performance of the song on the BBC’s flagship TV show Top Of The Pops on August 24 th , 1972, pushed “Virginia Plain” to number four in the UK, and the album to number 10.
Roxy Music’s music was wild, inventive, eccentric, and laced with electronic weirdness. The band, and Ferry’s voice, sounded like nothing else at the time. The band combined this with a carefully crafted image that threw the gauntlet to the T-shirts and jeans anti-fashion stance of rock music at the time. In so doing, Roxy Music became one of the trailblazers of glam rock, alongside David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, and others.
Roxy Music recorded its second album at Air Studios in central London in February 1973. For Your Pleasure, was released in March 1973, and was a continuation of the band’s debut album, with again strong elements of avant-garde, psychedelic and prog rock, but it also sounded more accomplished. It featured one of Roxy Music’s most famous tracks, “Do The Strand,” and went to number four in the UK.
Brian Eno left the band in the summer of 1973, and was replaced by keyboardist and violinist Eddie Jobson. The band’s third album was also released in 1973. Like its predecessor produced by Chris Thomas, Stranded became the band’s first UK number one.
Roxy Music’s fourth album, Country Life, produced by John Punter and released in November 1974, continued in a similar musical vein, with similar commercial results. It also signified the band’s breakthrough in the US, where it reached number 37.
The same was the case with the next album, Siren, once more produced by Chris Thomas, and released in October 1975. It contained the disco-influenced single “Love Is The Drug,” which can be seen as an early precursor of the band’s musical direction in the late seventies. The final album by Roxy Music Mk 1, the live album Viva!, was released in August 1976, and featured bassist John Wetton, known for his work with King Crimson.
A month before the live album’s release, the band announced that it would go on hiatus. The break ended up lasting almost two-and-a-half years. During this time the punk wave engulfed the UK, and Roxy Music became a strong influence on both the punk movement and the new wave movement that followed.
The Sex Pistols, The Fall, Public Image Ltd, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, Cabaret Voltaire, Blondie, Television, and the Talking Heads were all influenced by the first incarnation of Roxy Music. In addition, Eno went on to produce several Talking Heads and U2 albums, providing another link.
The hiatus came to an end in November 1978, when the principal members of Roxy Music, Ferry, Manzanera, Mackay, and drummer Paul Thompson, started work on a new album. The second incarnation of the band pursued a different, slicker and more commercial musical direction that was influenced by disco.
Manifesto was released in March 1979, and turned out be as successful as previous albums, while “Dance Away” became the band’s most commercially successful single until that point, However, critical reaction was mostly lukewarm. Some people accused the band of making ‘hair salon music,’ and Allmusic summed the general feeling up like this: “trading sonic adventure for lush, accessible disco-pop isn’t entirely satisfactory, even if it is momentarily seductive.”
Undeterred, Roxy Music worked on its seventh album for most of 1979, at Basing Street in central London and at Manzanera’s Gallery studio outside London. Rhett Davies was now co-producer, with the band, and like with Manifesto, Bob Clearmountain was at the mix controls.
The band had whittled down to a trio of just Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay, who used top session musicians to help them realize their vision. As a co-producer, Davies was in a position to suggest new working methods, inspired by his recent work with Brian Eno.
Roxy Music was used to recording songs live in the studio. Instead, Davies suggested that they write songs in the studio by starting with a groove, in the case of the new album using a Roland CR78 drum machine, and then improvise songs on top of that. It was based on Eno’s concept of using the recording studio as an instrument.
The resulting album, Flesh + Blood, was released in May 1980. Critical reactions again ranged from lukewarm to negative. The album nonetheless became the band’s best-selling record to date, going to number one in the UK. By now the music was a million miles away from the wild, often chaotic avant-garde art rock of the band’s early days. Instead, the album further developed the disco-pop of Manifesto, making it yet more atmospheric, sophisticated, and elegant.
Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay knew they were on to a good thing, and they were determined to take their musical direction to an entirely new level. Towards the end of 1981, the band started work on what would become its magnum opus, Avalon.
The recordings for Avalon took place at Manzanera’s Gallery studio, Compass Point in Nassau in the Bahamas, and The Power Station in New York. Rhett Davies was an engineer, and again, co-producing with the band. Most tracks were started at Gallery studios, following a similar writing-in-the-studio process as with Flesh + Blood, but using a Linn drum machine instead of the CR78.
In January 1982, the company moved to Compass Point to further develop the existing material, and for more writing and recording sessions. In February, everyone decamped again, to the Power Station in New York to finish the album, with Bob Clearmountain engineering and mixing.
For the first time in Roxy Music’s history, Avalon contained instrumentals, “India” and “Tara.” In many ways they were a logical outcome of the band’s backing-tracks first working method, but also of the fact that Ferry had achieved mastery of the synthesizer. The synths Ferry played around this time included an Oberheim OB-X, a Roland Jupiter 8, and a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. The lush synth textures on Avalon, and the dreamy mood of the instrumentals, also have clear echoes of Eno’s ambient music.
Clearmountain mixed the entire album at the Power Station. Despite the widespread acclaim he has received for the sound of the album, he minimizes his role, and points to the arrangements and recordings as the key to the album’s sound. They offered a lot of space for Clearmountain’s trademark use of delays and reverbs.
Phil Manzanera’s majestic instrumental intro to the song “Take A Chance With Me,” features arguably one of the most dramatic and influential uses of delays and reverbs on the album. One of the reverbs is unique, because it is the sound of the huge 75-feet stairwell the Power Station had at the time.
Clearmountain explained in Sound On Sound magazine, “It was a magnificent-sounding long reverb. It was about four seconds. We had a couple of AKG 451s in an X-Y pattern in the middle of that space on a tall mic stand. It was very stereo. The speakers were two flights down pointing downwards, so there was no direct sound at all. It was an interesting sound, because the top end would gradually roll off before the middle. I’ve studied it quite a bit, because I used it so much in the ‘80s. That made it easier to duplicate, because I knew that if I put a mid-rangey reverb at four seconds and then a brighter reverb at two seconds I could make it work.”
Avalon was released on May 28 th , 1982, and immediately recognized as a masterpiece by critics and fans alike. It topped the charts in several countries, including the UK and Australia, where it went platinum. Although it only reached number 53 in the US, it eventually went platinum there as well. The album also contained three hit singles, “More Than This,” “Avalon,” and “Take A Chance With Me.”
Roxy Music toured extensively for most of 1982, but broke up in 1983. It left behind a monumental legacy. Just like Roxy Music Mk1 influenced the punk and new wave movements that followed it, Roxy Music Mk2 became a huge influence on the contemporary New Romantic and synth pop movements in the UK, including on acts like Duran Duran, Japan, Visage, Spandau Ballet, Japan, Ultravox, ABC, Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, Simple Minds, and so on.
In the four decades since Roxy Music’s last studio album, Bryan Ferry and Phil Manzanera have each continued with successful solo careers, with Ferry in particular keeping the musical direction and spirit of Avalon alive.
In 2001, Roxy Music went on a 30 th year anniversary tour, resulting in a live album called Live, released in 2003. Since 2001, Roxy Music has conducted a number of tours and one-off live performances, the most recent in 2019, when they performed at their induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
Rolling Stone magazine has included Roxy Music in its list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, which it called The Immortals. It’s an apt name. Regardless of whether there will be yet another chapter to the Roxy Music story, the legacy of the band, its music, its sound, and its concepts, will continue to be extremely influential for a long time to come. © 2022 Paul Tingen. .