At the end of 1971, an embryonic Roxy Music, comprising David O’List (guitar) Brian Eno (synths), Andy Mackay (sax/oboe), Graham Simpson (bass), Paul Thompson (drums) and ex-Newcastle Art School student and schoolteacher Bryan Ferry – who once auditioned as lead vocalist with King Crimson but did not get the gig – (vocals/keyboards) played two tiny gigs at Reading University, as well as the Friends of the Tate Gallery Christmas Party.
Eno had originally been the band’s sound engineer but soon found himself on stage with the group, playing synthesizer and creating various taped effects.
Their appearance at the Lincoln Festival in 1972 brought them instant fame for their brand of rock that owed little to the 1950s despite a consciously ‘glitter’ image.
They signed to Island records and amidst almost unprecedented critical acclaim they released their self-titled debut album – which was recorded in just 19 days for less than £5,000, yet entered the UK charts in 1972 at #10.
Not overtly commercial but strikingly eclectic and spontaneous, the album was a surprising success, consolidated by Top 10 single Virginia Plain.
Meanwhile, O’List had been replaced by Phil Manzanera and the group began its policy of ‘guest’ bass players when Simpson was sacked and replaced by Rik Kenton, then ex-Big Three member Johnny ‘Gus’ Gustafson.
In October the band embarked on a triumphant tour that shuddered to a halt when vocalist Bryan Ferry had to have his tonsils removed.
Their second album, For Your Pleasure (1973) – which began their long association with producer Chris Thomas – lived up to the expectations set by the first. It was to be Eno’s last album with the group.
Reports of personality clashes with Ferry were substantiated when Eno departed (enraged by Ferry’s reluctance to record his songs) and was replaced by ex-Curved Air violinist/keyboard player Eddie Jobson.
Jobson’s presence gave the group a more melodic air which seemed more appropriate to Ferry’s maturing writing. Manzanera and Mackay were also contributing more to the compositions and these three, with Paul Thompson, remained the core nucleus of the group.
Stranded (1973) reflected the group’s more refined, less avant-garde direction following Eno’s departure. Roxy were becoming more sophisticated – particularly Ferry, who began to develop a career outside the group, releasing his first solo album in 1973.
These Foolish Things was a collection of his favourite songs and included a cover of Bob Dylan‘s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
Despite the expected rumours of a split, Roxy Music continued to make group albums – Country Life (1974), Siren (1975) – while the individual members explored solo projects.
Ferry made a second LP, Another Time, Another Place (1974); Mackay released a quirky solo album, In Search Of Eddie Riff (1974) and collaborated in 1976 on the score of the hugely successful TV series, The Rock Follies; Manzanera explored both the darker and the more colourful sides of his musical personality on two albums, Mainstream (1976) with his former group, Quiet Sun, and Diamond Head (1975).
Roxy’s members needed these offshoots to try out the many diverse ideas that no longer fit into the context of the group.
Siren (1975), their least eclectic album to date, saw them finally break in America with the hit single Love Is The Drug. The freshness and inventiveness of the early Seventies had now largely been replaced by cool, polished professionalism.
Following Roxy’s 1976 split, Manzanera formed a new band (briefly featuring Eno) called 801. Roxy Music then reformed in 1979 for three new LPs before breaking up again in the early Eighties.
Manzanera and Mackay formed a new band (The Explorers) while Ferry continued as a solo artist.
The group regrouped again in 2001 for live work. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
Johnny ‘Gus’ Gustafson