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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Postmodern Rock

Roxy Music’s serious fun

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  Roxy Music was too slippery and evasive to comfortably fit into any of the usual niches of their time or ours. They flirted with glam and skirted art rock without fully committing themselves to the conventions of either. They were avant-garde and pop. The voice of Bryan Ferry was at once ironic and romantic. American audiences were baffled, at least until a touch of Roxy seeped into the mainstream through their influence on The Cars and other new wave acts.

  Roxy Music was at least five years ahead of their time when their debut LP appeared in 1972. They remain one of the most interesting, intriguing rock groups ever.

  At least one superb book has already been written on Roxy Music, British critic Paul Stump’s Unknown Pleasures, which submits their music to cogent analysis. A newer book, Michael Bracewell’s Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music (Da Capo), presents the origin story. Bracewell, an accomplished English novelist and essayist, focuses primarily on the formative experience of Ferry, whose vision for the band set the tone for the collaborations to follow. Re-Model ends its chronicle with Roxy’s first album, as the group’s retro-futurist image coalesced on concert tour.

  Much of Bracewell’s account is derived from original interviews with band members and their associates. Re-Model’s overarching theme is the influence of art school on Ferry, a farmer’s son who dreamed of rising above the pinched circumstances of his childhood through a sharpened sense of style. Bracewell identifies the primary influence of one art instructor, Richard Hamilton, whose Pop Art ideas seemed to permeate the University of Newcastle’s art program in the 1960s.

  What Ferry and his cohort derived from Hamilton was “a connoisseur’s appreciation of the rhetoric of signage and the allure of popular culture,” a blending of the sensual and the mechanical, a blurring of high and low culture, of the esoteric and exoteric, a refusal to dismiss any creative strategy out of hand. It was the stew-pot of ideas that gave rise to postmodernism.

  Roxy Music could lay claim to the distinction of being rock’s first postmodern band. What lifts them well above any latter day, irony-laden, arty alternative act was the grandeur of Ferry’s vision. His songs and staging evoked a glamorous world at once unknown and familiar, an Art Deco cabaret infused with rock ’n’ roll urgency. It was serious fun.