Monday, September 22, 2008

Would You Believe?


Faced with the prospect of moving from the home where I've lived for the entirety of my life, and beginning a course of study for which I feel monumentally unprepared, I've been somewhat too alternately numb and over-voluble (the latter state coinciding with being mildly sozzled at the aforementioned gig in my last post) to pay much attention to the sound of an economy apparently creaking ominously of collapse, like a house in a Buster Keaton movie. My intake of media in the past 2 weeks has consisted solely of the Albert Ayler Holy Ghost box set, the new Hair Police album, and, miraculously, a spate of decent programming on BBC Four. The latter - Philip Hoare's badly-timed (10.45?! What time do you call that?!) but fascinating documentary In Search Of Moby Dick notwithstanding - consisted of the lovely combination of The Roxy Music Story and a Roxy gig from Frejus, France, in 1982. I was especially impressed by the former, which was, in all truth, entirely the documentary Roxy deserved. Even the usual oversights peculiar to BBC music documentaries at least were signposted for the likes of saddoes like me to fill in the theoretical details: the gender ambivalence and alien energy of those early manifestations; the connections, partly unintended, with disco (and full credit to them for giving equal weight to 1979's Manifesto, complete with the warped Moroder-isms of 'Angel Eyes'; the legacy to New Romanticism and British electro; and, most gratifyingly, their intellectual background.

The latter can be put down to the issue of Remake/Remodel, Michael Bracewell's brilliant pre-history of Roxy (he was among the documentary's interviewees). Jumping back briefly from the formation of the band, the documentary mentioned the coming-together of its members through academia: Andy Mackay, then reading English and Music at Reading University, falling in with Brian Eno, a student at Ipswich Civic College and later the Winchester School of Art; Bryan Ferry's training in the Newcastle University Fine Art Department under Richard Hamilton - and, partially through him, contacts in the new London pop aristocracy that later led the band to the heart of the pop establishment. What is interesting is the extent to which this intellectualism is casualised, hidden beneath the surfaces of slick pop - manifested itself, indeed, as surface. It remains difficult to swear any fealty to Pop Art - although I admit I was a Warhol devotee a few years back, his work holds little significance for me now (probably something he'd enjoy) - because of the continuing ambivalence about its relationship with pop per se. Was the appropriation of consumer culture ironic, celebratory, somewhere in between, or none of the above? (Aside from the void-staring-back effect of Warhol's 'death series' of paintings, and Peter Blake's early '60s mixed-media works, much of it seems far too much of its time now, tied to signs and an energy that is long since gone, its deliberate emptiness and lack of affect its only remaining trait.) Perhaps it was the transposition from one medium to another that sucked the life from the pop in Pop Art - and why, perhaps, it could be said that its methodologies worked best on pop itself (beginning, of course, with the Velvets' first two albums, when they still had the backing of the Warhol circle.) Ferry understood the importance of the industrial processes in the production of pop, the powers of replication: that the proliferation of albums did not, as rockist ideology dictated, dilute the 'authentic' experience, but potentially multiplied its impact. Richard Hamilton's reconstruction of Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass, which occurred during Ferry's tenure at Newcastle, is a central event in Remake/Remodel: the infinite mechanical reproductibility of the cultural artefact becomes, in Roxy, a liberatory proposition. If Roxy proved anything, it was, as Mark Sinker put it, that "The channelisation of desire doesn’t neutralise or negate desire, any more than the channelisation of electricity neutralises or negates electricity. As libraries with books and records, batteries store power. Repetition is what delivers this kind of battery of its powers, like a genie rubbing a lamp." The adoption by Roxy-ites of the band's fashion sense, styles of coiffure, and, even, choice of cigarette (Anthony Price, photographer of Roxy Music's sleeve, is shown in one photo, complete with Inca pompadour and gold-banded Saint Moritz fag) showed Deleuze/Guattari-like positive network spread of Roxy.

I say 'positive', because, to a massive extent, this kind of tribalism was, oddly, liberatory for kids. In England Is Mine, Bracewell chronicled the colossal impact rock 'n' roll had on British youth culture: suddenly 'the kids' had something, after years of frustration, that was their own (complete with its own spaces - coffee bars, dance halls - with altered social expectations), something to which they belonged, and a new artificial energy to feed off of. Roxy re-exemplified this perfectly: paradoxically, it was precisely by taking kids out of themselves, into a wider network of people and images, that they broke up individual conformism to the early-70s flares-and-grease look. Roxy fans were initiates to an exclusive 'thing', taken regardless of class, as long as they were part of the style. Coming from the background of Newcastle's soul and mod scene (he performed in a band called The Gas Board, of all things, looking extremely dapper in the documentary), Ferry was determined that the band should always look the part onstage - as Eno comments, "you didn't go on stage looking sloppy. That was really a rock-n-roll idea, and none of us had that rock-n-roll idea." The occasional accusation that Roxy were 'all surface' was a mere statement of the bloody obvious: where most bands were "all about the music, man', Roxy were, in effect, a kind of total artwork, from the bizarre unifying logic by which their disparate msucial parts came together, to their sleeve art, their intellectual vanguardists (Simon Puxley's sublimely ridiculous sleevenotes), their publicity and stage presentation. Ferry understood, implicitly, the value of surface - in their diversity of strangeness, they created a kind of impersonal front (think of the matching uniforms Devo would wear 4 years later), that was charged with more energy than any rag-tag example of individualistic rock 'n' roll chic. As Siouxsie Sioux comments in the doc: "They all looked like they belonged together, from this special planet that they'd beamed down from." This wasn't merely a vacation of depth for surface: surface was, here, the enaction of depth, the concretisation of intellectual concepts. Subscription to the codes of glamour was the only means of emptying out the past - Eno and Ferry (sons of a postman from a tiny Suffolk village, and a County Durham miner, respectively) could cease to be working-class low-lifes and ascend to the secular pantheon of 'icons' (the white Humphrey Bogart tux Ferry took to wearing after For Your Pleasure was a kind of holy robe, in this respect.) It's entirely appropriate that Steve Jones, in the documentary, says he "always imagined [Ferry] living in a gaff in Knightsbridge, a penthouse... I wanted that." Ferry replaced himself with a new edition, one with a beautifully designed cover and thin back-story.

Given this context, their conduct was doubly audacious: not merely was this a band arriving with a fully-formed aesthetic disgusting to contemporary rock 'n' roll (complete with an album sleeve that "smacked of intolerable arrogance"(Richard Williams)), without caring a whit for dues-paying, but most of them were mere peasants! How dare they get above their station! Glam's 'brickies in drag', or the bootboy antics of Slade and Mott The Hoople were tolerated, but this? Their appropriation of the glamour that belonged properly to the dying pop aristocracy created by the Sixties was not aspirational, in the proper sense - "this is what I will one day have" - so much as usurpationary - "this is mine, now" - a stance that disrupted a pop industry still heavily stratified by class (it makes sense that, in footage from a 2005 show at the end of the doc, Ferry is seen wearing the same style of gold lamé suit as Billy Fury, the archetypal transformed working-class boy.) Hearing 'Love Is The Drug', or 'Angel Eyes' I keep thinking forward to the tracks chronicled on John Savage's Dreams Come True comp (my review of which is in next month's Plan B): disco and electro were founded in milieus where identity was scrambled, alienised, where the glamour of surface could come to entirely replace depth, where black, white, gay, straight, male, female, became liberated, interchangeable; Bernie Edwards attests that the concept for Chic came from hearing Roxy; The Human League's presentation around Dare seems to have come straight out the video for 'Love Is The Drug', down to the asymmetric fringe and backing dancer/singers; Ferry, in a 1974 interview, attested that "I found them [gay males] more sympatico. A year ahead of everybody else. Being so close for so long to the art world, my friends have nearly always been gay." Of course, these tactics bit Ferry in the arse, in the end: upon achieving his aims, he found them to be hollow. 'In Every Dream Home A Heartache' seems to provide a foretaste of the desolation of wealth to come; by the time of 'More Than This' and 'Avalon', his persona is one of Huysmans-esque exhaustion with pleasure: "Now the party's over/I'm so tired..." The vacation of depth for surface must have caught up with him, as it caught up with his successors, the New Romantics: from the ironic-aspirational appropriation of Thatcherite imagery by Heaven 17, to the real Thatcherism of Duran Duran. One can argue that the increasing slickness of the band after Eno left was symptomatic of these tendencies, and that, after the New Wave pandering of Manifesto and Flesh + Blood (whose sleeve intriguingly prefigures the crypto-fascist body fetishism of early Spandau Ballet), they only really came back with the unspeakable loveliness of Avalon.

I've asked before the question: "Where did the future Roxy promised go?" Theirs is a world I could imagine living in, but one that remains painfully inaccessible. As someone who can't even aspire to the trappings of the middle-class art students who seem to populate the same gigs as myself, let alone the haute-bourgeoisie, Roxy remain an intriguing political-aesthetic proposition, a different way of life - but just that, nothing more. Perhaps it was the years ravaged by depression, spent beneath a trenchcoat and untamed mop of hair, subsequently making even the smallest advance towards membership of the human race seem a giant leap, that did the damage. Perhaps the aesthetic parameters of everyday life have so changed as to make something like Roxy unimaginable today. Roxy remain a compelling and empowering alternative history, but not one that can be reconstructed.

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January 22, 2013 at 7:18 PM  

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