I discovered Roxy Music as a teenager while working in a record shop.
One of my co-workers continually raved about the band so I picked up a copy of their latest album (and to date the band’s last studio effort) ‘Avalon’. I must admit, the music did not immediately capture me but with repeated listens, it grew on me until I became hooked – big time.
I was already a Brian Eno fan and the ‘Avalon’ instrumentals ‘India’ and ‘Tara’ shared a certain moody likeness with one of my favourite Eno albums, ‘Another Green World’. At the time, I was unaware of Eno’s presence in the early years of the band and this nugget of knowledge was a welcome discovery when I began buying the entire Roxy catalogue.
Although I am equally a fan of Roxy’s early art-rock years (with a predilection for ‘For Your Pleasure’), ‘Avalon’ remains my favourite album from their latter stage. I spent countless hours in my bedroom listening to the lush arrangements and the subtle funk of the instrumentation accompanied by the beguiling, sultry sounds of Bryan Ferry’s voice (okay, I developed a massive crush on Ferry and soon had a huge promo poster of ‘Boys and Girls’ hanging on the ceiling over my bed). ‘Avalon’ made me long for a life that I did not have, one that was far away, European, and much removed from my American small-town suburban teenage life (‘More Than This’?).
Well, now I do reside in Europe and in my adult life have found that like all the Roxy albums, ‘Avalon’ gets better with age. I have been repeatedly playing the original Japanese pressing I recently purchased (sealed!) in my music room and I’m still not sick of it and much to my delight, am even more immersed in the impeccable production through listening on a fabulous hi-fi.
This album is sexy-as-hell and I have nearly always listened to it beginning to end as it flows as one piece. However, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be ‘The Main Thing’ as it is one of the finest examples of their swansong studio album sound: sophisticated, brilliantly recorded, sparsely arranged cinematic dance music.
On ‘The Main Thing’ one can hear the improvisational approach that was employed throughout the entire album. At the suggestion of producer Rhett Davies who was inspired by his work with Eno, Roxy did not use the traditional songwriting method but instead built up the songs with Bryan laying down an idea on the keys and then backing it with the Linn drum machine. The musicians then jammed over this atmospheric groove with Bryan writing and laying down his vocals as the finishing touch.
‘The Main Thing’ is a fine example of this technique as a third of the song is instrumental and the lyrics almost sound like an afterthought, conjuring mood and emotion rather than dictating a theme. Most of the song revolves around Bryan’s keyboards, bubbling and percolating on the bottom with eerie and understated lines embellishing the vocal breaks. Manzanera’s cutting guitar and Mackay’s sax are similarly held back, augmenting and creating texture in the lengthy, haunting instrumental break.
For myself, the defining feature of the song is the drums and percussion, starting with the marching, crunching clap of the intro. The percussion is glassy and crystalline, panning from left to right, and the snare sharp and reverberant. One can hear the space and the room sound as most of the drums and percussion were recorded in the 75-foot stairwell of the Power Station studios. The results are glorious.
Classic Album Sundays presents Roxy Music ‘Avalon’ on Bowers & Wilkins Diamond Series loudspeakers on Sunday, 1 December in London.
Check out the musical lead-up playlist for music that was contemporary and inspiration to the Roxy Music here: