Roxy Music defined the tone of 1970s art rock by coupling Bryan Ferry's elegant, wistful romantic irony with initially anarchic and later subdued, lush rock. The band was never as popular in America as it was in Europe, perhaps because its detachment and understatement baffled American tastes. But Ferry's witty hoping-against-hopelessness persona and Brian Eno's happy amateurism filtered into the late-1970s new wave while Roxy Music itself was in suspension.
Ferry and bassist Graham Simpson began searching for band mates around November 1970. Ferry, who would write almost all of Roxy's songs, is the son of a coal miner. He attended the University of Newcastle, where he studied art for three years with pop-conceptual artist Richard Hamilton. At school he sang in a more rock-oriented band, the Banshees, before joining an R&B band called the Gas Board with Simpson. He also taught art.
In January 1971 Andy Mackay joined the fledgling band; he had played oboe as a teenager with the London Symphony Orchestra and saxophone at Reading University. Mackay brought Eno with him. The earliest lineup also included classical percussionist Dexter Lloyd, who left by June, and guitarist Roger Bunn, who soon returned to session work. Drummer Paul Thompson had played with a local band, Smokestack, and guitarist Davy O'List had been with the Nice. O'List left after five months and was replaced by Phil Manzanera from the experimental band Quiet Sun.
Then Simpson decided to give up music, and Roxy Music recorded its debut album with Rik Kenton. They would never have a full member on bass. The group's debut album, produced by King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield, went Top 10 in England in 1972, and "Virginia Plain" went to #4 in Britain, where Roxy Music's 1950s-style retro-chic costumes fir in with the glam-rock fad, although its music was far more sophisticatedly primitive. In addition, Ferry's lyrics ranged from deliriously campy to acutely sensitive, and his 1950s-greaser-cum-suave-matinee-idol good looks seemed incongruous at the time. This was most apparent when Roxy Music served as opening act for Jethro Tull on a December 1972 U.S. arena tour.
The second Roxy Music album, For Your Pleasure, met with a similar reaction; its strangeness was popular in Britain and ignored in America. In July 1973 Eno [see entry] left for a solo career – perhaps inevitably, since he was a songwriter himself, and Roxy Music was Ferry's outlet. Ferry cut his first solo album in 1973, These Foolish Things. While treating Lesley Gore and Bob Dylan songs with equal camp disengagement, Ferry also showed a deep affection for pop tradition, which would continue throughout his solo career.
Teenage multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson, formerly with Curved Air, replaced Eno for Stranded, which also included writing credits for Manzanera and Mackay. With Eno gone, the music now focused on Ferry's singing rather than the band's counterpoint. Country Life also released in 1974, was Roxy's first U.S. success; it went to #37, although its cover, with a glimpse of pubic hair through panties, was banned in some record stores, covered with an opaque wrapper elsewhere, and finally replaced with an inoffensive forest photo.
Roxy toured the U.S. in 1975 with bassist John Wetton, formerly of King Crimson and Family, and later with Uriah Heep, U.K., and Asia. After its most single-mindedly danceable record, Siren – which included Roxy's first U.S. hit single, "Love Is The Drug" (#30, 1976) —the group took what it described as an indefinite "rest," leaving the life LP Viva! and Greatest Hits in its wake.
Ferry's fourth solo album, In Your Mind (1977), was the occasion for a world tour with Roxy's Manzanera, Wetton, and Thompson providing backup. For 1978's The Bride Stripped Bare, Ferry recorded with L.A. session men and several Roxy regulars. Mackay released solo albums and wrote music for the British TV series Rock Follies, while Manzanera recorded and toured briefly with a band called 801, featuring Eno; he also re-formed Quiet Sun for a short time and played sessions for John Cale, Eno, Nico, and others.
In 1978 Roxy Music reunited for Manifesto, minus Jobson, who had joined U.K.; the keyboardist later recorded with Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull. Manifesto (#23, 1979) (which includes "Dance Away" and "Angel Eyes") became Roxy's highest-charting U.S. album ever. The group embarked on a world tour with guest keyboardist, Paul Carrack (formerly of Ace, and later with Squeeze, Nick Lowe, and Mike + the Mechanics) and two bassists, including Gary Tibbs, formerly of the Vibrators and later of Adam and the Ants. Just prior to that tour, Thompson broke his thumb in a motorcycle accident and left the band.
For 1980's Flesh + Blood Roxy Music was down to a threesome —Ferry, Manzanera, and Mackay —plus session-men. Though their most subdued album, it set Ferry's new (seemingly) heartfelt romantic longing against simpler but richer melodies and signaled a new direction. Fresh + Blood became the group's second #1 album in England (after Stranded) and went to #35 in the U.S. Avalon (#53, 1982) continued in the same vein and yielded the Top 10 British hit "More Than This." It was the group's only LP to sell a million copies in America. The next year Roxy Music toured the U.S. as an eight-piece band plus three backup singers, concurrent with a life EP called The High Road (which includes a version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," a #1 U.K. shortly after the ex-Beatle's murder). Heart Still Beating documents a 1982 French concert.
Given the '80s popularity of such clearly Roxy-influenced acts as the Cars, ABC, and Duran Duran, Ferry and the band's mix of outrageous humor ("In Every Dream Home a Heartache," a love song to an inflatable doll; "Do the Strand"), a tounge-in-cheek cool, and exceptional musicianship, their lack of a wider U.S. audience is baffling. Roxy's early music videos, rarely seen in this country outside new-wave rock clubs, were as stylish as its album covers, and as artists' visual presentations became increasingly important, it would seem that Roxy's chance had come.
Since the breakup, Ferry's sporadic recorded output has maintained the sleek, meticulously produced sound of Avalon. Boys and Girls eventually went gold. "Kiss and Tell," a track off 1987's Bete Noir, became his only Top 40 U.S. hit after it was featured in the movie Bright Lights, Big City, starring Michael J. Fox. In 1976 Ferry had been romantically involved with Siren's cover girl, model Jerry Hall; she left him for Mick Jagger. In 1982 he married socialite Lucy Helmore, who'd recently graced the picture sleeve of the Avalon 45, a #13 U.K. hit. At the time of 1993's Taxi, another interpretive album (produced by, of all people, Robin Trower), Ferry hinted that a Roxy Music reunion might happen. Eight years later, in spring 2001, Ferry, Manzanera, and Mackay, along with Paul Thompson, Chris Spedding, and others, launched an international 30th anniversary tour.
Mackay and Manzanera's first post-Roxy venture was a group called the Explorers; they've also recorded as a duo and, separately, with others, such as John Wetton (Manzanera) and with an instrumental band called the Players (Mackay).
Ferry's 1994 solo album, Mamouna, marked a reunion of sorts, with Manzanera, Mackay, and Eno all contributing to the project. The record didn't fair well commercially, although that wasn't the case with "Dance With Life (Brilliant Light)," Ferry's cut on the soundtrack to the movie Phenomenon; the single received airplay on a number of Adult Contemporary radio stations. The Grammy-nominated As Time Goes By (1999) was a mostly acoustic affair consisting of faithful, reverent covers of prewar pop standards, including songs by George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Cole Porter.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).