Saturday, 14 April 2012

Soundtrack to the Sublime Aesthetic

It's forty (Gosh! Yes!) years since Roxy Music recorded their first, eponymously named album, (March-April 1972). The effect this piece of music – and indeed their second album, For Your Pleasure – had on shaping my formative artistic sensibilities was immense. Listening to these two albums again, though now with a much-enhanced critical faculty that comes with the decades, I can confirm that my original reactions were correct.

These are the roots of my pursuit of the sublime aesthetic.By this I define as art which can bring about that mood one has at sunset, that magic-hour transcendent feeling, raising one's consciousness above day-to-day reality, towards the eternal, the galactic, the ethereal, the numinous, the universal. Scenes like these from my dreams, atmospheres, sunsets, dense, lush, exotic, saturated colours - as a teenager listening to Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure, I was spellbound. This was like nothing I'd ever heard before and yet it was so familiar; part rock'n'roll, nods to Duane Eddy and Chuck Berry, doo-wop choruses, country-style slide guitar, jet-propelled saxophones wailing – though with synthesisers taking this all into the future – the deep future meets the 1950s Sci-fi, and the proto-past; lobefins clambering up Carboniferous beaches at twilight, huge palm trees, giant horsehair ferns jungles inhabited by prowling animals and brightly plumaged birds of paradise...

How did I first come across Roxy Music? Their first single, Virginia Plain, not on the album, was a song that received significant airplay on national Radio 1 during the late summer of 1972. A song more sophisticated than the standard pop fare being aired concurrently. Chock-full of references: Robert E. Lee, Flying Down To Rio, Studebaker, Last Picture Show, this single was intelligently glamorous. I was on holiday with my parents and brother, in Pembrokeshire; here was a song like no other. “You're so sheer/You're so chic/Teenage Rebel of the Week” “What's her name?/Virgina Plain” - End. Virginia Plain, the taster... But seeing Roxy Music on Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2 showed depth, range and vision beyond a one-hit wonder.

And in the playground at school the next day... "Did you see..." And a handful of artistically-sensitive souls, profoundly moved by what had been witnessed, stepped forth to admit to communion with Roxy Music's performance.

So then; an appreciation of the albums. Most accessible are the out-and-out rockers Re-make/Re-model, from the first album, Editions Of You and the quintessential Do The Strand from the second are irresistible. The mood takes a wistful turn on Roxy Music – 2HB (To Humphrey Bogart), referencing Casablanca, "Words don't express my meaning/ Notes could not spell out the score", while Chance Meetings reflects upon lost love – and its outro – the last minute and half – is the epitome of the sublime aesthetic; piano, bass and synthesised sax, pared-down sophistication, the elegance of loss.

If you share my artistic sensibility, the three tracks on the second side of For Your Pleasure, The Bogus Man, Grey Lagoons and For Your Pleasure, listened to around sunset on a clear spring evening, will propel you into an inner wonderland of the richest imaginings. The Bogus Man gets straight into the groove; loping along at an insistent beat, surrounded by bizarre calls of wildlife echoing from a jungle crowding in upon the long, straight blacktop that ends up, out of breath in the doo-wop lounge intro of Grey Lagoons; where rock'n'roll sax, piano and guitar takes us to a sophisticated, alienated world, crowded yet lonely. And for the finale, For Your Pleasure ("Part true, part false, like anything") asks us to question the very essence of our existence – well, how, well... how, what is it all about? You don't ask – you don't ask why... waves lapping on some far away beach; wailing synthesised oboe reverbed into heartbeat and heavenly choir taking the listener's souls to another quarter of our infinite universe for boundless rebirth.

And then the dreams - falling asleep with the notes of the three songs swirling round your head - will generate dream images of memorable magnificence.

Back in the early '70s, before digital, I'd listen to the album on a bootleg C90 cassette, Roxy Music on one side, For Your Pleasure on the other. Home-recorded in mono, played back in mono, one channel only. When my budget stretched to owning my own copies of the albums on vinyl, I was amazed to hear an entirely new audio channel! It was like discovering a treasured piece of music all over again. And in mono, some lyrics were less than clear:
Catch yourself a quadrant
Emancipel and Cheesewell
Poor little Lebenine,
Josantha and Jocine
Or so I imagined the fourth verse of Do The Strand, until the internet came along and song lyrics became instantly accessible online.

Over the past four decades, I've owned these two albums on vinyl, on music cassette and on CD, at least two copies of both in all three physical formats. So much for the record industry's lame assertions that home taping or music piracy is killing music. If the music is timeless, the artefact will be paid for, owned and cherished, repeatedly.

After just two albums, Brian Eno left Roxy Music; what was left was pleasant enough (Bryan Ferry crafted wonderfully emotive songs) but lacking in edge, in sonic experiment, in unease, in atmosphere. Subsequent Roxy Music albums were collections of songs, some stronger, some weaker, but none ever achieved the status of a stand-alone album. Together, Ferry and Eno, clashing egos, with the band (notably Phil Manzanera's guitar and Andy McKay's sax and oboe) managed to conjure up music of such otherworldly atmosphere that nothing has done for me since.

This time two years ago:
Twenty years, ten months, six days

This time four years ago:
Swans still in Jeziorki


AndrzejK said...

Were you at the Roxy Music concert where Leo Sayer was the supporting act? Organised as a Trojka outing by Marek Krason into what seemed then to be the dephts of the East End at the Rainbow venue.

Michael Dembinski said...

Andrzej - I must certainly was! The Rainbow... Finchley Road from memory; this was around the time that Stranded (Roxy Music's third album) had just come out. Indeed, the concert was recorded; a bootleg is out there, somewhere...