We’ve talked about them before but there is much left to be said.
Roxy Music is right up there among the greatest bands of all time. I’ll put their first five albums up against anybody’s five albums, and you will be forced to admit it’s close. But unlike every other band I’ve ever loved, I didn’t love them at first. Or rather, I loved the music but couldn’t stand Brian Ferry’s voice. Then my friend Dee talked me into seeing them at the Academy of Music. Later known as The Palladium, it was the successor to the Fillmore East in New York and a great place to see a show.
Dee worked with a coke dealer named Jimmy Digs, an extraordinary character. First of all, the guy worked as a meat cutter in the old Brook Ave. meat market deep in the South Bronx, roughly four square blocks with decades of animal fat ground into the sidewalks and streets.One of the harder and nastier jobs on the planet. And yet he was a weight dealer who made a lot of money. I know because I saw his apartment. Sure, it was in the Bruckner projects, but it was huge and lavishly decorated in the Afro style of the 1970’s. Second, he was a great guy, at least as I knew him. He liked us and gave us great deals. Jimmy (he was late-30’s, maybe 40) introduced us to his wife, got us some drinks, and led us to his getting high room, containing two sofas, a coffee table, and state of the art stereo and TV. He smiles and slaps a 3-finger bag of coke on the table. “You sniff?” he asks, and I say yes, I sniff. We sniffed a lot for about an hour, talking mostly about music and grooving to, as I recall, Bohanon. When we left someone was trying to break into D’s car. We yelled and started running to the car and the guy took off. He had done no damage. “When they see a white face the first thing they think is ‘cop’,” said D.
But that was another night. This night, on our way to the show, we were supposed to meet Jimmy at a bar on Lenox Ave and 146th St. Dee parks the car and we walk in and I swear at that second the song on the jukebox stops and every eye in the jam-packed joint is fixed on us. I was shitting bricks trying to act blasé. Dee just asks the guy next to him “Where’s Jimmy Digs?” “In the back,” he replies and we walk through into a back room where Jimmy was. “You should have come in the back door” he says. I was like, how silly of me. How could I fail to grasp the adventure potential in exploring a Harlem back alley on Friday night? So I took my chances with the front door. We did our business and left, got into the car and Dee says: “We were lucky.”
One more thing about Jimmy Digs: he had four thumbs. True. A second thumb grew from each of his regular thumbs.
So we arrive at the Academy in fine shape and we see Roxy. This was the Stranded tour, post-Eno with Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards and (I think) John Wetton on bass. They were spectacular. I had to see Ferry live to understand his singing, which come to think of it is a strange thing. I can only say that what sounded mannered and overly stylized on vinyl sounded natural and highly emotional live. I understood: while so many singers pretend to care and they don’t, Ferry pretends not to care and he does. Nothing new really, it goes back equally to the blues and the sophisticates of the jazz era, and probably a thousand years before. Ferry gave the stance new context in the 70s. The context of their music. Seeing them opened up the whole to me, and I have loved them ever since.
Roxy Music is far, far more than Brian Ferry and the Roxies. Every musician who was ever in the band added heaps to the whole, including every single one of their endless parade of bass players. Which is amazing but I’m about to prove it to you. It’s one proof of their greatness: the least important member was always fantastic. I only say “least important” in band personnel terms, certainly not musically.
So here we go with five different bass players from each of their first five albums. The original bassist, Graham Simpson, was also with Ferry a co-founder of the band. Ferry (and anyone in his right mind) wanted him to stay, but Simpson didn’t like the Roxy image manipulation. A no-fun guy, but he sure could play. In demonstrating, I think it’s important to stray from the best-known Roxy tunes, because there are so many great songs that are lesser-known. “Ladytron” from the first album:
So Simpson leaves and in comes Rik Kenton or else John Porter, nobody seems to know, and I ask you: can you tell the difference? If I told you this was Simpson you wouldn’t think twice:
Great amateur video too.
I have to laugh when people say that Roxy became less experimental when Eno left. It shows that these people are not listening. Again I’m not sure if the bass player is John Wetton or Jon Gustafson but who cares, this guy plays his ass off too, and this one song has more cool sonic/musical experimentation than all of Pink Floyd combined:
Picking a tune from Country Life is tough because the bass is largely passed over in the high-end mix that Chris Thomas and Ferry imposed on that album. Maybe it was the right decision, for many people like Country Life above all others (Lawr is one as I recall). It is a dense album that must have been a bitch to mix. But the bass punches through on “Out of the Blue”
Ferry and others have pointed to Jon Gustafson’s bass on “Love Is The Drug” as the key to its hit status, so it must be true. But I wouldn’t say it was Gustafson’s best work on the Siren album. “Just Another High” and “Both Ends Burning” equally display his killer timing, and so does “Could It Happen To Me?”
See what I mean? Most of the time the bass is pure groundwork – there is so much else going on in every song – and yet it never fails to propel and fill and create space as needed, as the best bass players always do. And Roxy had like eight of them.