Sunday 10 April 2011

The Audience Comes First

"As an experiment in social history, it would be worth compiling a video of the 'Top of the Pops' audiences of that period, containing no shots of the bands. Here, in the nervous jigging-about of puppy fat, bum fluff, and denim waistcoats, you will see Ziggy's children, awkwardly trying to come to terms with a pop spirit that must have seemed audacious to the point of unbelievable."
- Michael Bracewell, When Surface Was Depth

"Here was a group who looked as though they came from not only another era -- the 1950s as they might be reconstructed in the twenty-first century -- but also from another planet. ... Brian Eno, had claimed with straight-faced passivity that he was a visitor from the planet Xenon. But having a bona fide alien in the band seemed almost less outrageous than the unholy barrage of nerve-jarring electronics squeals and furiously accelerated piano chords that the group were pumping out. [...]

And then there was Bryan Ferry's extraordinary vocal style, in which breathless staccato phrasing gave way to something between a fox's bark and the leering self-preening of a high-camp crooner in the throes of amphetamine psychosis. But by the time that he had reached the pivotal break in the song -- 'We are flying down to Ree-Ohh' -- the bewildered [TOTP] studio audience of youthfully plump young people had ceased their customary expressionless jigging up and down, and were trying to work out just what manner of adult pop freakishness had crash-landed into their hitherto teenage world of Marc Bolan's glam pout and Donny Osmond's puppy love.

'If Roxy Music had been like cooking,' says Andy MacKay,...'It would be like the dish in Marinetti's Futurist cookbook called Car Crash: an hemisphere of puréed dates and an hemisphere of puréed anchovies, which are then stuck together in a ball and served in a pool of raspberry juice. I mean -- it's virtually inedible, but it can be done.'"
- Ibid.
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A few random thoughts about the above...

  1. As far as that first bit is concerned, it's a great idea. But if anyone's ever compiled such a thing, I've yet to come across it. So this one'll have to do as a substitute.
  2. Hailing from the Stateside shores of the big water, there's a lot about the U.K. mediascape that I can't quite get my head around. Case in point: The institutional or integral importance that shows like TOTP or The Old Grey Whistle Test might (or might not have) had once upon a time. In the 1970s, there wasn't anything in the U.S. that served as any sort of equivalent. Sure, there were roughly similar things like American Bandstand and Soul Train and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert; which featured artists in varying degrees, but they were usually shuffled into odd and marginal time-slots. As far as primetime was concerned, it was mostly variety shows -- meaning that a guest slot by someone like The Bay City Rollers, Rod Stewart, or the Bee Gees was about as riotous as it was likely to get.
  3. As far as the second item is concerned: Yes, I guess there is no accounting for -- this many years after the fact -- just how strange and confusing this must've seemed in its original in situ context. Quite frankly, it took me a while (years, in fact) to process the early Roxy material -- to fully absorb and appreciate it for all its baffling incongruencies and eclecticism.
  4. And yes, Roxy's influence on later artists was immense and widely acknowledged; although it often seems like said influence was usually drawn from the most cosmetic elements of the group's music and image. But as far as "Virginia Plain" is concerned, I've always felt that it served as the one-shot stylistic template for the bulk of these guys' output. Remake/remodel, indeed.


David K Wayne said...

Despite my snark regarding Eno, the first free albums have been faves since my teens. They could really ROCK when they bothered too.

Also, didn't Saturday Night Live have a lot of rock/pop? Editions I've seen seem to. Although fashion and TV seem to have been bigger factors in British pop than in the US. But that may be different since MTV and Cowell.

Greyhoos said...

SNL would occasionally have the token marginal act (e.g.: Gil Scott-Heron) between the likes of Paul Simon or Janis Ian and chasing big-ticket items like the Stones or the Dead. It's short-lived, would-be competitor "Fridays" on ABC tried to be "edgier," more new-gen NYC by bringing in The Clash, Devo, et al. But here we're talking late 70s, shows not devoted to music, and off-hours.

But yeah, I followed your diatribe about Eno. Which is why I didn't add the readymade "Annoying Wayne" tag to that post.

Phil Knight said...

Personally I see Roxy as part of what was quite a common phenomenon of the '70's, which is of the quirky band - other obvious examples are Sparks, Van Der Graaf Generator, Be-Bop Deluxe, Doctors Of Madness, Sensational Alex Harvey Band etc.

I like Roxy, but their reputation seems to boil down to their being adopted as part of the alternative canon (along with the likes of Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Bowie) by the music press of the time, as part of a kind of snob-bohemian taste-making/fencing-off exercise.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, but over time this alternative canon has tended to become the only canon, with what were actually the really great bands of that era being marginalised.

It's kind of my purpose on this site to correct this, of course.

David K Wayne said...

Well, my teenage 'punk bigotry' was what led me to Roxy. Prog: bad. Glam: OK. Proggish glam: better. Hence Bowie, Bolan, Roxy etc. along with proto-punk like Stooges, MC5 etc. Grunge kind of added other 'officially' approved list of 70s acts like Sabbath and Neil Young.

You're right about it becoming a fixed canon, though. I sensed your 'canon corrections' agenda a while ago. Keep it up!

David K Wayne said...

Also, canons based on 'continuums' neglect the fact that popular music actually is dialectical:

Gospel vs. blues = Rhythm & blues.
Rhythm & blues vs. country = rock'n'roll.
..and practically all pop genres since have this pattern. The Beatles (tin pan alley pop vs. rock'n'roll) and Bob Dylan (folk vs. rock) were so successful or 'legendary' because they fused opposing forms. 'The enemy' doesn't last long as something to react against. It has to synthesise with it's opposite eventually.

Greyhoos said...

Point taken, Phil. However: A common perception from these shores is that certain U.K. acts (Roxy being chiefly among them) were all art-school types from the start. So some would claim that the alterno/snob-appeal aspect was a deliberate integral component. (But that's a stateside prejudice, cos the art-school thing here was a different and more marginal thing.)

As far as the corrective angle goes: Wasn't aware of that. I guess that means I can do that post about Cheap Trick that I'd been wanting to do w/ no worries about "breaking format."

Phil Knight said...

@Wayne - I think the blind allegiance to the alternative canon is the main reason why UK 80's indie was so crap - the fact that bands only did either third-Velvets-album jangle or Beefheart jerkiness.

Also, as Simon has repeatedly pointed out, the complete mediocrity of UK rhythm sections since post-punk. If bands listened to Humble Pie or Free instead of The Smiths THIS WOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED.


You MUST do that Cheap Trick post.

I dunno if Roxy were about snob appeal from the start. "Virginia Plain" is quite playful, and I think at the time there was an aesthetic in the UK which said it was OK if people did their arty or marginal stuff, but they had to be prepared to be viewed as arty or marginal.

Then, of course, certain people thought it would be a great wheeze to privilege the marginal, which is fine, but that set of values kind of got stuck in a new orthodoxy.

I think at the time Roxy would have been seen as an intriguing novelty, but most sensible people would have rightly gone back to listening to Deep Purple.

David K Wayne said...

Joe Carducci pointed out how terrible UK rhythm sections were in 'Rock and the Pop Narcotic' - which itself was a big argument against the 'alt' canon. The whole velvets/glam/post-punk/indie/electropop continuum comes is subject to a lot of (vaguely homophobic) ire. It seems the only UK band he rates past 1978 is The Fall.

Phil Knight said...

Well, Carducci's book is one that I can guarantee I am never going to read.

I actually think that "Rock" (as opposed to its constituent ingredients such as rock'n'roll, R&B, country etc.) is really a British invention, which obviously Carducci could never admit.

There's nothing wrong with the alternative canon - it's just a dead end if that's all there is.

David K Wayne said...

Agreed - 'rock' as its documented is the product of a certain generation and place. But it shifts in emphasis and influence and 'stance' as much as reggae or jazz. It's silly to apply strident manifestos to pop forms. It's just a pseud gloss on marketing really. Like that Amazon feature: "If you like that, then you should like this. Click here. Buy it!"

Martin Wisse said...

I think at the time Roxy would have been seen as an intriguing novelty, but most sensible people would have rightly gone back to listening to Deep Purple.

Secondhand anecdotal evidence only, but Roxy seemed to be big with the same sort of people who went for northern soul/funk more than they did for rock.

David K Wayne said...

That's an interesting point. Anecdotal again, but I recall Bowie generally appealed more to black listeners and soul/funk fans than other white rock stars. A lot of the 'new romantics' they influenced were very much into soul too.

Phil Knight said...

Well, my anecdotal about Roxy is that they tended to appeal to older listeners who were into 50's crooners. When I was a kid lots of parents had Bryan Ferry/Roxy albums alongside their Jim Reeves and Andy Williams records. And of course this was the market that Ferry deliberately moved towards.

Of course the magazine-style coffee-table friendly sleeves helped, and I think this aspect was a lot less subversive and more straightforwardly commercial than their apologists like to portray. But that's the advantage of being critics' pets - you can get away with anything.

I actually prefer late 70's Ferry (The Bride Stripped Bare etc.) to early 70's Roxy - a really strange mixture between the mature artist and the creepy lothario.