The Best of Roxy Music Shows Ferry’s Talent for Exploring Pop While Creating It

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Best of Roxy Music
Roxy Music (Virgin)

from Roxy’s latest-to-earliest history, this new collection’s revealing
spin starts with still-chic cover art. Who, besides Ferry, would think of featuring
an emerald crystal ball to look back into the past? Perhaps to make us green
with envy of old glories, wishing to relive them. Every track remains exquisite–whether
exquisitely smooth ("Angel Eyes") or exquisitely intense ("Virginia
Plain"). The furious invention of the final track, 1972’s "Re-make/Re-model,"
reveals the secret to "Avalon." Telling the story backwards has the
effect of deconstructing Roxy’s perfect late recordings. You realize the
musicianship buried deep in Avalon’s glib artifice and the years
of experimentation that went into producing its pop elegance.

Hear the
change as 1979’s "Dance Away" gives way to 1975’s "Both
Ends Burning." The latter was never a single, but in FM radio’s heyday
it overtook "Love Is the Drug" (the group’s first U.S. chart-marker)
and became the favorite Roxy track for American rock-and-soul palates. "Dance
Away"’s suave romanticism is the intoxicating smoke ring floating
up from "Both Ends Burning"’s postcoital ashes ("Who can
sleep/In this heat/This night," reasoned loverman Ferry). Roxy had achieved
Motown’s rock-steady majesty in "Both Ends Burning," keeping
pace with disco’s beginnings. But once the late-70s world awakened to disco,
Roxy–inventive pop esthetes including guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist
Andy Mackay–knew to step lightly. From then on, their previous pop and
sex theorizing became cannily modern nostalgia. Burning out segued into dancing
away. Romantic expectation transformed into the memory of romantic experience.
(That’s why the aftertaste of moviegoing and radio-listening trigger magnificent
regret in "Oh Yeah," from 1980’s Flesh + Blood.)

Ferry was no more self-aware than any other glam rock star, but he made better
use of pop self-consciousness. The British music press’ recent preference
for early Roxy over late Roxy undervalues Ferry’s constant artistic and
spiritual push. He kept exploring the legacy of pop music even while still creating
it. (Catch that mini-riff of "Daytripper" in the first Roxy single
"Virginia Plain.") Ferry is committed to the idea that what makes
art pop is the need to always invent terms, imagery, process, affection, music.
Roxy’s albums elevated record production and last year’s remastered
editions confirm the high standard. This absolute note-to-note engagement with
the making of pop art showed that pop’s surface frivolity and deep pleasure
were legitimate and commanding pursuits. "Avalon," an ode to lovemaking,
is as much a view of life as the dance styles catalogued in "Do the Strand."
One is always a code for the other.

Great as
the CD begins, Roxy’s stature grows as it plays. Two tracks from Country
–"Out of the Blue" and "All I Want is You"–only
hint at that album’s being the group’s most exultant moment (its true
epiphanies, "The Thrill of It All" with its sensational charge-and-retreat
and the roiling "Prairie Rose" remain to be savored in the full album
context). "Mother of Pearl" from Stranded is back after being
excluded from previous Roxy compilations (It last appeared on 1977’s vinyl-only
Greatest Hits), making this one a more satisfying representation of how
the group mixed eclectic music styles with diverse strains of philosophical
inquiry (alas, the essential "Editions of You" is excluded). "Mother
of Pearl" was (like the dark, celebrated "In Every Dream Home a Heartache")
a deliberate bid for greatness–a forgotten but remarkable ambition. It’s
art rock but dexterous and witty. Ferry sings, "Serpentine sleekness/Was
always my weakness/Like a simple tune," then plays gentle piano notes that
remain throughout the song’s melody. For six minutes, it’s what the
best pop records ought to be: an adventure.

As the vintage
"Re-make/Re-model" ended this CD’s journey, I smiled at the apparent
lesson. Hearing how Roxy’s early fertile chaos matches its later potent
lyricism proves we can indeed have both.