If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me if I liked Roxy Music I would immediately respond in the affirmative; unless you were a hunt saboteur that is in which case a would deny any association with class traitor and hunt supporter Bryan Ferry.
But, as usual it’s more complicated than simple yes and no answers. As far as I am concerned the band made some of the best singles ever to come out of the glam period but I have never owned a Roxy album or harboured a desire to go to one of their gigs. For a brief period in early adolescent I found the mere sight of the glam rock Eno disturbing. There was also the time when the band perfectly anticipated the 80’s by wearing suits and making smooth but rather enjoyable music.
And then there’s the question of Ferry.
As usual the most interesting period for me was the early days when there was a semblance of a band, it’s always that way, read any band auto/biography and if you can name one where the second half is anywhere near as riveting as the first half and I will award you reader of the week.
It took a while for a career to form from 1970 when Ferry actually auditioned to be the vocalist for King Crimson. That wasn’t going to work out clearly but Robert Fripp was intrigued and was instrumental in getting others to take notice. It took a while for the classic Roxy to gel, Phil Manzanera was actually the third and final guitarist in the band likewise Paul Thompson was not the initial drummer of choice.
But throughout the 70’s the bass player’s shoes never remained on the same feet for long.
Ironically the first player Graham Simpson actually formed the band with Ferry. Simpson was a member of Ferry’s art school band with the inspirational name the Gas Board. Simpson appeared to be a fully fledged member appearing in an early Old Grey Whistle Test appearance and posing in publicity photos. Simpson always looked like a hippie bloke who had been told to dress up a bit and in reality he was an introspective Jazz lover. He soon tired of leopardskin and disappeared after recording the first album.
The next bass player was Rik Kenton who occupied the position for a brief but glamorous period around the time of Virginia Plain although whether he actually played on the track is in dispute. Hot on his heals was an American Sal Maida who looked like a cross between Sylvester Stallone and Johnny Thunders.. Maida played live shows but never made it as far as a studio recording. He was later to resurface in power pop group Milk’n’Cookies who were the next big thing for 10 seconds.
The band had still only recorded one album and a couple of singles and were now looking for bass player number 4. John Porter has also been in the Gas Board, a guitarist who also played bass, he was invited along to play on For Your Pleasure and played a couple of live gigs. Porter had many strings to his bow. He went on to produce both Ferry and Roxy as well as Billy Bragg, the Smiths and even Buddy Guy. As this weeks bit of trivia he married Linda Keith socialite, model and the subject of the Ruby Tuesday by the Stones.
Porter was a rootsy Little Feat loving guy who wasnt going to fit in on a long term basis. His replacement, of sorts, was John Gustafson. Gustafson was one of the few really good musicians to come out of the Liverpool beat scene. His band the Big Three were one of the few local groups that the Beatles didn’t like to go head to head with. Gustafson was a heavy player, that’s his bass on ‘Love is the Drug’. Although he was player of choice on the next three studio albums the band did not want him to get to comfortable and would tour with others. At some point the bassist was John Wetton, ironically a member of King Crimson and a bassist and singer who couldn’t be held for long in the position of gun for hire. Matters were further complicated by Ferry’s parallel solo career but at some point Rick Wills was also a regular bass player. Wills was another musician’s musician having been in Dave Gilmour’s first band and bass player with Peter Frampton. He was also involved in the ill fated and ill advised small faces reunion (replacing Ronnie Lane) post Roxy.
With seven bass players in as many years Roxy took a break. When they started to reconvene the absence of Eddie Jobson (Eno’s replacement) signalled a real change in direction. At one point a press release came out that Ferry himself was playing bass at rehearsals of the new material. Luckily common sense prevailed and no less than two bass players were recruited. Gary Tibbs was the first band member no to have musical roots in the 60’s. He had first come to notice as the pogoing bass player with the Vibrators but he was obviously an ambitions young chap and post Roxy went on to Adam and the Ants, just another day at the office. The other player Alan Spenner was a more obvious choice, he was a class player who had played with everyone from Joe Cocker to, inevitably, Peter Frampton. He favoured a fretless bass which really shaped the sound of Roxy round the time of Flesh and Blood and Avalon.
And so the 70’s came to an end and the band became less and less creative and needed less and less bass players. For most of this period Roxy was effectively a trio.
That can be part of the problem, Pete Townsend became frustrated writing for the Who and having to consider Daltrey’s vocal stylings or Entwistle’s bass lines every time he wanted to produce a song. The issue was that without the other group members and their individual sounds Townsend, like Ferry, could sound just a bit dull. In the internet age it’s not unusual for artists to swap musical partners however briefly, it’s not even necessary to be in the same studio at the same time anymore. Often though you have to commit to the idiosyncrasies of other musicians to produce something worth listening to.
For anyone wanting to appreciate the band sound of Roxy the live album Viva Roxy Music is worth a listen featuring (I think) three of the bass players mentioned above. What you will hear the sound of an innovative rock band and just like the Beatles or the E street Band or the Clash or the Band producing something that is bigger the sum of it’s parts