The Pains of Being in a Band After Age 30

Radical Dads jammin on some 'za down at the Y

Radical Dads jammin on some ‘za down at the Y

“You don’t really start a band in your 30s,” Radical Dads’ Robbie Guertin says. “Well, you do, but the motivations are different.” Guertin knows what he’s talking about. A veteran of mid ’00s powerhouse Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, he’s recently started focusing on his other project, Radical Dads. Guering and his bandmates Lindsay Baker and Chris Diken are all in their mid-30s, all married, all facing down life changes like children, home ownership, and big career moves. Somehow, they all find time to practice and play in one of Brooklyn’s most exciting rock bands. Why exactly is it worth all the trouble?

It’s Friday night, and Guertin is throwing together a little dinner at his rent-stabilized Williamsburg apartment. “Sorry, but I forgot to eat earlier,” he says, standing above a sizzling pan of chard, rice, and onions. “We found this new farmer’s market and got a bunch of food, but totally forgot that we’re going out of town this weekend. Do you want anything?”

NPR is playing in the background, his wife’s old marathon bib from Wisconsin is pinned to the fridge with a magnet, and his old artist lanyards from his time in Clap are stuck to the kitchen cabinets; it’s a textbook scene of early 30s bliss. Guertin was in that band–one of the first indie buzzbands, one of the first to release their record by themselves over the internet, and one of the first to generally point the way to today’s fractured music business landscape–from virtually the beginning until last year, when he quit. Now, he’s waiting for his wife to finish her PhD in Sociology before they probably-but-not-definitely move out of the city for her to start her career as a professor.

Clap released its self-titled first record when Guertin was 26, in 2005. They were a phenomenon, playing television, touring the world, selling their album on their own. David Bowie was reportedly a fan. Yet Guertin still looks back and wonders if they could have done more, become more successful. “It’s never really been about money,” he says. “It’s just fun to advance, to make more people psyched about it.” When you start out at the top, though, it’s hard to advance. According to Soundscan estimates, the band’s second record sold close to a third of as many copies as their debut. Their eventual follow-up, 2011’s Hysterical, did even worse. Some of that had to do with the bottom falling out of the industry, but that didn’t make the numbers go down any easier.

All the while, Guertin, Diken, and Baker were working on Radical Dads. “I was having more and more fun doing this than I was in Clap Your Hands,” says Diken. It shows in the music. While Clap seemed caught trying to catch up to its audience, trying on new sounds in attempt to recreate their early success, Radical Dads have an easy vibe. Guertin laughs when I describe Radical Dads’ as loud, guitary, melodic noise “90s-style college rock,” as he met his bandmates at college in the 1990s. “We’re just doing the same thing we were doing, I guess,” he says. Today, all the bandmates live in the same building. Diken and Baker are married to each other.

Their influences include Dinosaur, Jr. and Yo La Tengo, and you can feel the pull of the classical period of guitar noise in other ways when you listen to them. “I’ve named so many different songs ‘The Sonic Youth Song’ while I’m writing them that I lost count,” says Baker. Diken’s AOL screen name was Pixies1.

Radical Dads – Serious Business on BTR [ep129]

Its members obviously feel extremely comfortable with each other and the music they’re playing. They’re also lucky in that their audience has caught up to them, with their style of fuzzy, backwards-looking alternative rock recently back in style. Still, getting to the next step seems difficult to them.

Part of the problem is not having the great asset of a band in their early 20s: a large group of friends who will come to anything you do. “In the early days of Clap, all of our friends who lived here would come to every show. I wasn’t even in the band for the first few shows, and I went to every show. Any friend who was in a band, you’d go to their show, and you’d know half the people there.” This isn’t the case any more. Guertin can barely get his own wife to come out. She’s started getting up early to do school work, and “After lunch, basically, she’s done for the day,” he said. “She wants to take a nap.”

Schedules are a larger issue. Baker is a teacher, and Diken works at a tech company. They practice after work, and tour in the summer when Baker is off of school, but can’t do much touring otherwise. “Every year,” Guertin said, “Lindsay’s like ‘maybe I’ll take a year off next year, and really do it and Matador will sign us.’ Now it’s like, OK, that’s probably not going to happen.”

So, the inevitable question: is the band just a hobby?

“That’s kind of how we justify a lot of the money we spend on it,” Guerkin says. “It’s like, ‘If this was just our hobby,'” meaning something like gardening or restoring cars, “‘then it would be totally okay to spend this much money on it.'” The idea, though, is that it’s not a hobby. It’s better than a hobby. It’s their band.

“I don’t know what I want,” said Guertin. “I just sort of want people to realize how good it is.”

Radical Dads played October 2, at 285 Kent, NYC.

Pearl Jam: Lightning Bolt – review

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam. Photograph: Danny Clinch

Pearl Jam: Lightning Bolt – Album Review
By Dom Lawson

Still flying the flag for independence of thought and movement while stoically avoiding getting bogged down in the music-biz bullshit that so plainly jars with their earnest motives, Pearl Jam have always been admirable, even when their music has fallen some way short of exciting.

Pleasingly, Lightning Bolt finds the Seattle quintet in a more bullish and spiky mood than usual, as exemplified by the furious, spittle-spraying punk rush of Mind Your Manners. On the similarly urgent My Father’s Son, they pull off the neat trick of sounding like Fugazi and UFO at the same time, as Eddie Vedder delivers one of his most intense performances to date.

There are still gentle moments here, of course: the plaintive shuffle of Sirens and the wonderfully fragile Pendulum striking the sweetest chords. Elsewhere, the title track nimbly evokes the surging spirit of Pearl Jam’s mid-90s creative zenith, replete with a euphoric frisson of Springsteen-esque bombast, while Let the Records Play lives up to its name with an infectious, blues-flecked groove. A few ponderous moments aside, this is a sturdy return to great form.

Published on Jul 11, 2013
Pearl Jam is back with their tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt, out October 15th, 2013. Pre-order the album here: http://smarturl.it/PJLightningBolt

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The 10 Best Concerts in New York This Weekend, 9/6/13

Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode

Featuring The Gaslight Anthem, Passion Pit, Depeche Mode, Bat for Lashes, The Allman Brothers Band

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and many others

Friday, 9/6:

Depeche Mode + Bat for Lashes
Barclays Center
7:30pm, $49.50-$129.50
The unlikeliness of Depeche Mode’s continuous existence colors their every move. Arguments about how the new gloom moods hold up against the deified ones miss the point: After 33 years, these U.K. synth merchants continue to mine rich worlds of longing, lust, misery, and addiction to create dark, potent hits that probably cost more to produce each than what you paid in rent last year. Savor them.

Charlene Kaye + Emmy Wildwood + TalkFine
Cameo Gallery
8:30pm, $8-$10
From folky singer-songwriter to someone who embraced her inner glam rock goddess, Charlene Kaye is a surprising assortment of genres and styles who flows between them seamlessly. After an exciting year touring with Alexz Johnson and opening for Darren Criss at a few of his East Coast tour dates, Kaye is ready to debut a more electronic sound and bring herself into a new era. Joined by Tiger Blanket Records & Vintage Boutique owner and rising indie pop star Emmy Wildwood and synth-pop duo TalkFine, Kaye is not only delivering a proper debut for her new material but a veritable Williamsburg dance party.

Passion Pit + Best Coast
Pier 26
7pm, $40
Even though Manners once steamrolled every other dance-friendly indie-pop record on the market, moving to Columbia Records means that–strictly speaking–Passion Pit is now just pop. The wider exposure this brings is well deserved: Last year’s hazy Gossamer weaves its vocals and keyboards together so tenderly only to promptly squish them both with more aggressive percussion, and as such works as well for high-volume dancefloor applications as for intent headphone listening. Good luck doing both at the same time, though.

Frankie Knuckles
Cameo Gallery
11:59pm, $17-$20
One week after Electric Zoo brings the biggest names in contemporary house music–Avicii, Sebastian Ingrosso, Hardwell, etc.–to Randall’s Island, fans looking to dig deeper into the genre can pack into a much smaller venue, Williamsburg’s Cameo Gallery, hidden speakeasy-style on the other side of the Lovin’ Cup Café, to hear the genre’s godfather go to work. Long story short, after DJing around New York with his childhood friend Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles moved west to spin his take on disco and r&b at Chicago club the Warehouse, the venue from which the music takes its name. Tonight, he comes home to play alongside Chris Love & AB Logic of the Sullivan Room’s underground-leaning SOUP party.

Saturday, 9/7:

The Allman Brothers Band + Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Nikon at Jones Beach Theater
7pm, $25-$99.50
With guitars curling around the beat like whips around posts, the Allmans stitch musical textures that rival even Pink Floyd. Add to that a groove as hypnotic as early Santana and a bluesy home-cooked charm seasoned by over 40 years of tragedy and triumph, and you have a world-class live act. Greg Allman, Dickey Betts, and company have gone down into the realm of Hades more times than Odysseus–that original Ramblin’ Man–and they always return to the world with their undying songs that seem able to weave and unweave the very fabric of time.

Cher Lloyd
Best Buy Theater
7pm, $25
Not all reality show winners are created equal, and often, it’s the runners up who land on top. So was the case with the U.K.’s Cher Lloyd, she who finished fourth on the British version of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. Expect a colorful, swaggering pop show that breathes new life into mainstream pop with the help of a few hip-hop leaning collaborations.

Fall Out Boy
Barclays Center
7:30pm, $35-$45
Like so many other great acts who got their start entertaining kids too young to drive to the record store, Fall Out Boy was never expected to last. Here we are though: It’s 2013, 10 years after their pop-punk debut, and the Illinois foursome, reunited behind the second chart-topping album of their career, are about to headline the Barclays Center, the same arena where Justin Timberlake recently accepted his VMA lifetime achievement award. That chart-topper, meanwhile, sold all those records for a reason: “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” is a stomping rocker big enough to compete with festival-ready EDM and ambitious enough to beat Fun., another band on Fueled by Ramen, at their own game. 

Mohsen Namjoo
Asia Society
8pm, $35
In 2009, this important Iranian singer-songwriter was sentenced to a five-year jail term in absentia for allegedly ridiculing the Quran in his song “Shams.” Namjoo’s apology was not accepted, and he currently resides in California. His most recent album, 13/8, is a brilliant hybrid of classical improvisation, Sufi poetics, and surprisingly effective jazz-rock accompaniment. 

Sunday, 9/8:

The Gaslight Anthem
The Paramount
8pm, $25-$65
The Gaslight Anthem disproves the general maxim that consistent, dependable guys finish last. Since 2006 they’ve churned out album after album of heartland punk and classic rock, the kind where Springsteen-style lonely guitar and reverberating, charismatic vocals swell into larger-than-life choruses. Brian Fallon’s reportedly been scribbling new songs in the back of the tour bus, channeling some Neil Young and Led Zeppelin into the mix, so expect a solid show.

‘Spy Music Festival’
Spectrum
7pm, $10
The usually unusual lineups that have graced the annual Spy Music Festival often range from the discordant to the dysplastic. This year’s is no exception: Saturday night’s headliner, Charles Gayle, plays fluid and amorphous jazz sax pieces that can be both free and frightening. Sunday night will feature Aa (or “Big A, Little a,” if you must talk about them), who regularly construct fraught collages of yelps, keyboard beeps, and augmented beats. Joining them over two days are Mystical Weapons (Sean Lennon and Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier), sometime Thurston Moore collaborator Loren Connors, Suzanne Langile, and eight other sonic head-trips. 

Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner doesn’t miss a chance to mingle with the rich and famous…

Arctic Monkeys frontman joins Marilyn Manson and Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul at TV launch event in LA.

AlexTurnereventAlex Turner (worth $15 million) was in attendance at a star-studded launch for the new, and final, season of Breaking Bad in Los Angeles on Sunday (August 11). Turner attended the Bushmills-sponsored screening with his gorgeous nine-inch-nails girlfriend, “actress” Arielle Vandenberg, at a private space in Venice, Los Angeles. Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman on the cult show, was also at the event alongside a guest list which included Marilyn Manson, Dita Von Teese, Kellan Lutz, Kid Cudi, Sunny Mabrey, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and showrunner Vince Gilligan.

Breaking Bad returned to record ratings in the US on Sunday night. A massive 5.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the first instalment in the show’s eight-episode concluding run – nearly double Breaking Bad‘s previous best ever audience of three million, which it posted during the first half of its fifth and final season last August (2012).

Meanwhile, Arctic Monkeys recently unveiled the trippy video for new single ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’. The video, directed by Nabil, sees a drunk Turner leave the rest of the band behind in a bar to seek out a 4 am booty call. As he travels down the road towards the house of the girl he is texting, he is fraught with highly-sexual hallucinations and encounters unsavoury characters.

Blame gee-whiz the hormones!

Some Of The Best Artists and Bands Without a No. 1 Album

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The allure and mystique of a #1 album is something that most artists dream of when they get in the game. Many achieve that goal, but 100x as many don’t. Even some of the best bands never get to that point, including all the bands on this list. The research for this article was much harder than I anticipated because I wanted to make sure there were zero #1 albums on any chart in any country in any way. This eliminated a lot of acts that weren’t #1 in the US or UK, but were in, say, Norway or their home country (Tom Waits, Bjork, Sigur Rós, respectively). Eventually, I scrounged up 10 fantastic bands that never hit the top. Some make a little sense. Others blew my mind.

Pavement

In looking at bands for this list, the same trend kept popping up: the influential lose out to the influenced. It’s hard to find an act or artist more influential on rock music in the ’90s and beyond than Pavement. The California outfit only released five full-length albums in their 10 years of making music, but their sound can be heard all over rock music — even today. Without Pavement, there may not have been Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Kweller, or anything out of the Northwest indie scene in the last 15 years. There’s a reason Village Voice mastermind Robert Christgau called Pavement “the finest band of the 1990s” and never gave them a grade lower than a B+.

The band first hit moderate mainstream success in 1994 with their sophomore album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which broke the US charts at #121 and #15 in the UK, going on to be their highest-selling album. However, their highest-charting album in the US was 1997′s Brighten the Corners, which topped out at #70. When the band reissued their debut, Slanted and Enchanted, it managed to break the top five on the US Indie charts, but never reached #1. Odds are that won’t change anytime soon, as lead singer Stephen Malkmus has quashed any rumors of new music or new tours. Pavement remains the band who gave all the tools, but got no recognition for the machine.

Wilco

Wilco is a hard band to introduce to people. Each album has a different style, a different feel, hell, sometimes within the same record (remember “Less Than You Think”?). Whether you love a Wilco album right off the bat, or have to sit with it a while, you know the payoff is going to be great. Since they released their first album, A.M., in 1994, they’ve been extending the Alt. Country conventions beyond its borders, and gaining more and more fame. Their influence can be heard in rock heavy hitters like The National and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and their songs have been covered by Norah Jones, The Wallflowers, and Fleet Foxes.

Their 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is widely considered to be one of the best albums of the last 20 years and is also their highest-selling album, but not their highest charting, topping out at #13 on the US charts. The four albums that followed, all reached the top 10, with their highest — 2007′s Sky Blue Sky and 2009′s Wilco (The Album) – both peaking at #4 in the US. Here’s hoping their follow-up to 2011′s The Whole Love will change their fate.

The Flaming Lips

The pride of Oklahoma City and festival juggernauts The Flaming Lips have been releasing critical- and fan-favorite albums for years, but only one has even cracked the top 10 on the US charts. They’ve won three Grammy awards, been nominated for six total, and have three international gold albums. Their biggest radio hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly”, reached number one on the US Heatseeker charts, but that wasn’t enough to propel Transmissions from the Satellite Heart even into the top 100.

Since their resurgence with 1999′s The Soft Bulletin, every album they’ve released has charted, but only Embryonic in 2009 reached the top 10 in the US (At War with the Mystics hit #6 in the UK, but #11 in the US). After all the ass kicking onstage, and two of their albums being named on Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and NME’s Top Albums of the Decade lists, they still have yet to achieve the elusive #1 spot. Perhaps their announced collaboration with Ke$ha will fix their #1 drought for them?

 Fiona Apple

With only four full-length albums, Fiona Apple has firmly established herself as one of the great voices and songwriters of the last two decades. Her debut album, Tidal, went triple platinum, won her a Grammy, and landed on Rolling Stone‘s Top Albums of the 1990s. The next two follow-ups, 1999′s When the Pawn… and 2005′s underrated Extraordinary Machine, reached #13 and #7, respectively, on the US charts. Various personal problems delayed Apple’s return to the mainstream spotlight following Extraordinary Machine, but after seven years she released last year’s exceptional The Idler Wheel…, and it immediately shot up the charts, but only to #3 in the US.

She seems to always fall into an odd pocket of music. Her jazzy, whiskey-soaked piano tone could fit into the Norah Jones realm, but her personal lyrics tend to freak out the average suburbanites who view Jones as “quirky.” On the other end, she doesn’t dabble in drum machines and heavy orchestral anthems, so the Florence Welch crowd doesn’t latch on. Instead, Apple is similar to Daniel Day-Lewis: rare, divine, and not quite the populist.

Guided By Voices

Of all the bands on this list, Guided by Voices (GBV) is probably the one who gives the least amount of fucks for not having a #1 record. Not to say that they don’t want one and wouldn’t welcome the success that would entail, but for a band that has released approximately 19 albums in their roughly 26-year career—20 if you take out the six years they broke up—and drank most of the West out of beer and whiskey, the pressure to release a #1 record isn’t really a thing for them. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. Many of their albums have been released within months of the previous, and in between lead singer/songwriter Robert Pollard has released 19 albums of his own solo material!

Roughly 38 studio albums in 26 years? Let’s see these young kids do that.

Or be this impacting. Since their inception, they’ve influenced Eddie Vedder, The Strokes, even director Steven Soderbergh. They even have a #1 fan in the Obama White House; Press Secretary Jay Carney has dropped GBV references in many press briefings, just upping his cred even more. Charting-wise, only 2001′s Isolation Drills has come close to turning heads, hitting #6 on the US Indie charts (#168 on the Billboard 200). Regardless of the charts, GBV is going to keep chugging on, but damn it would be great to see them get the widespread credit they deserve.

The Roots

Not only are The Roots the Best Band in Late Night, but they also may be one of the most influential and hardest-working groups in hip-hop. Since Black Thought and ?uestlove started the band and then released their first album in 1993, The Roots have recorded 10 studio albums, received 12 Grammy nominations, and nabbed four Grammy wins. On top of that, members of the band have collaborated with everyone you can think of across all genres (Mos Def, Incubus, Dave Matthews Band), toured as the backing band for the likes of Jay Z, and recorded full albums with Betty Wright (Betty Wright: The Movie), John Legend (Wake Up!), and Elvis Costello (Wise Up Ghost).

One thing they don’t have is a #1 album. They’ve come close with multiple albums breaking the top 10, specifically Things Fall Apart and The Tipping Point both hitting #4. Despite all of this success and talent, however, they’ve never hit that milestone. They’ve got a shot with their upcoming & Then You Shoot Your Cousin, rumored for a late 2013 release, and the Elvis Costello record, so keep your eyes out.

The Replacements

Along with Pavement, The Replacements shaped a lot of what would become ’90s “alternative rock” and college radio rock. Turning heads for their notoriously drunken performances, Paul Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars spent roughly 14 years destroying stages and releasing some of the best, straight-forward rock music to date. The band’s second and third albums, Hootenanny and Let It Be, took them out of Minnesota and into the limelight of NYC’s CBGBs/Maxwell’s rock scene. However, the turbulent relationships within their band and with their fans caused them to fizzle out faster than they should have, and they ended things after seven albums. Not one even cracked the top 50 on the charts. (Though, Don’t Tell a Soul single “I’ll Be You” did manage to top the Billboard Modern Rock and Album Rock Tracks.) Still, their honest lyrics and loose garage sound gave them a lasting impression on rock music, and their forthcoming reunion at the upcoming Riot Fests give fans new hope for new music.

PJ Harvey

Here are some credentials for PJ Harvey: four-time Mercury Prize nominee, two-time Mercury Prize winner (only artist to ever do that, and first solo female artist to ever win), Rolling Stone‘s Best New Artist, Best Singer-Songwriter, and Artist of the Year, six-time Grammy nominee, and even an MBE for contribution to British music. All of her albums have reached the top-25 in the UK–half of which hit the top-11—but one never hit #1 anywhere (Rid of Me hit #3 in the UK, and only one, Uh-huh Her, made top-30 in the US). How can someone with so many accolades and so much support never reach that pedestal? She has two albums, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Let England Shake, that have been named essential albums and topped year-end lists, but neither reached higher than #25 and #8, respectively. These albums have completely different feelings, one a beautiful pop relationship album and the other a dark treatise on the horrors of war, but like Fiona Apple, Harvey has an endless font of talent from which to draw, and no matter what she’ll shake you.

The Ramones

If Pavement left their mark on the ’90s, then the ’80s and everything since has belonged to The Ramones. New York City’s finest showed every rebellious kid in the US that even if you didn’t have the musical knowledge or the rock star good looks, you could still rock. Yet, the only album of theirs to be certified any sort of precious metal distinction was a compilation collection called Ramones Mania. Let’s go over that once more: Even though they’ve been named by Spin as the second greatest band of all time (behind The Beatles), and if it weren’t for them, Billie Joe Armstrong and Greg Ginn would’ve never picked up guitars, they never reached the top-10 in any country on any chart. They’ll live on as an influence, as the closest thing you can get to The Ramones is former drummer Marky Ramone and Andrew WK touring as Blitzkrieg, or Tommy Ramone playing bluegrass with his wife. Pick your poison.

The Clash

For the most part, the bands on this list didn’t strike me as a huge surprise. They’re all praiseworthy, and they’ve all released some of the best albums to date, but some are a little under the radar, so it’s understandable that they never attained that coveted #1. When it comes to The Clash, however, I was absolutely dumbstruck.

The most pivotal punk band of all time, one of the most pivotal bands period. They released one of the most important albums of the last four decades (London Calling) and changed the musical landscape forever. They’re in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and if it weren’t for them, there would be no U2, no Billy Bragg, no Rancid, Bad Religion, Massive Attack, or even LCD Soundsystem. Hell, toss in M.I.A. or Diplo, too. Their political punk rock, their use/experimentation with dubstep (the real dubstep), and their various fusions with reggae were paramount to future groups.

On two different occasions, they almost had a #1 album: 1978′s Give Em Enough Rope and 1982′s twice-platinum Combat Rock, which both reached #2 on the UK charts. Stateside, the highest in the US was Combat Rock, and not even London Calling made it past #9. Unfortunately with Joe Strummer’s death, there won’t be any chances for that #1. However, The Clash is the perfect example of how flawed these charts are and how much they don’t necessarily dictate anything resembling taste. Bottom line: A world where Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have more #1 albums than The Clash, well, that’s a world seriously fucked.

Roxy Music: the band that broke the sound barrier

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This article is about the English art-rock band. For their self-titled debut album, see Roxy Music (album).

or Avant Rock Group

Original, creative, adaptable,

melodic, fast, slow, elegant, witty

scary, stable, tricky…

“Roxy” 223 0296

Musician wanted advert,

Melody Maker, 1971

There’s a certain sort of glam-rock fan who never ceases to be blown away by the fact that Bowie played a character, the imaginary rock star Ziggy Stardust. That same certain sort of glam fan never stops being thrilled by the nerve and verve of Roxy Music giving a credit on their debut LP to the person who did their clothes, hair and makeup. Supposedly this was a dissident blow against rock’s anti-fashion stance. Cutting through the stale dope-smoke fug of the hippie hangover, Roxy were “the first true band of the 70s”. But they also prophesied the 80s, their celebration of posing and artifice anticipating postmodernism, the new romantics, the Face, pop video and self-reinventing superstars like Madonna.

Which isn’t untrue, but isn’t the whole truth either. It’s hardly the case that Roxy or Bowie invented the idea of image or were the first rockers to have close relationships with designers and stylists. Most 1960s British bands took an interest in clothes and hair. Nor were Bowie or Roxy’s Brian Eno the first flamboyantly androgynous figures in rock. On the record sleeve and in the promo film for Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?, the Stones wore women’s clothing four years before Bowie put on a frock for the cover of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World.

Still, it is true that around 1970-71, rock got awfully drab looking, with countless denim-clad blues-bore and boogie bands, dressed-down singer-songwriters and country-rock outfits, and virtuoso players too wrapped up in their endless soloing to bother with stagecraft. “Everything went flat,” recalls Phil Manzanera, the guitarist who responded to Ferry’s “avant rock” ad and eventually got the job. “A lot of musicians were getting strung out on heavy drugs,” he tells me. “They were out of it, so they weren’t even bothering to wear kaftans or other hippie stuff, which had been stylish in their own way.” Then, with the emergence of Roxy Music and Bowie in 1972, “suddenly there was colour and exoticism and the spirit of rock’n’roll again. We supported Bowie at the Greyhound in Croydon in June 1972: Bowie in his full Ziggy Stardust gear and us in all our regalia, performing to just 150 people in this little upstairs room. It was a tiny stage but it had theatrical lighting, so you had to wear make-up because that’s what theatre people do, otherwise you look washed-out.”

John Lennon once quipped that glam was just rock’n’roll with lipstick. Glam historians tend to emphasise the lipstick at the expense of the rock’n’roll; they focus overly on the gender-bending rather than the genre-bending. In Roxy’s case, the attention paid to the group’s fashion world connections, pop art allegiances and other extra-musical credentials threatens to overshadow their achievements as a rock band. In truth, Eno’s feather boas, Bryan Ferry’s gaucho look of 1974… they haven’t aged that well. It’s hard to believe that wearing a white dinner jacket was ever a big deal. Even the celebrated covers of the first five albums, with their lingerie-clad models, look cheesy and chauvinist these days (apart from the still-edgy sleeve of For Your Pleasure, a perversely stylised shot of Amanda Lear walking a panther). The music, though, remains timeless in its weirdness and wildness.

What gets swept under the carpet by the “first true band of the 70s” argument is that the Roxy Music of the first three albums is a post-psychedelic outfit: as much progressive rock as glam rock. Manzanera recalls listening recently for the first time in ages to The Bob (Medley), the six-part song-suite on 1972’s Roxy Music, a sort of “mini-movie” concept piece about the second world war. “This guy is remixing our debut LP in 5.1 surround sound, so I was listening to The Bob and I was laughing. It’s pure prog. The whole of that first album sounds so weird. It’s such a mish-mash of stuff. Roxy just wouldn’t get signed today.”

Those who view Roxy as pioneers of surface-deep postmodern pop regard the band as radically opposed to the earthy earnestness of what was then known as the underground: long-haired, beardy bands like Soft Machine and Family who played the college gig circuit, recorded sessions for John Peel, appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test and got written up in Melody Maker. But Roxy’s earliest champions were, in fact, John Peel, who invited them to record a session for his show, Melody Maker‘s Richard Williams, who got the hype ball rolling, and management company EG, whose other clients included King Crimson and ELP, and who hitched Roxy up with Island Records, the leading progressive label of the era. At one point Ferry actually auditioned to be King Crimson’s singer. And before Manzanera got the gig, the group’s guitarist was David O’List, formerly of the Nice, the original prog band.

Early on, Ferry went along with the progressive scene’s disdain for chart pop, declaring: “We’re not a singles band, really. I certainly don’t want to find myself sliding down the Slade/T Rex corridor of horror.” Even in hindsight, he recalled that Roxy “didn’t think we were as commercial as what other people were doing… When we started, I think we thought we’d be a kind of art-student band, and that’s as far as it would go… King Crimson were one polar extreme, Bowie was the other and we were in the middle. I was astounded when we had a hit record.”

More than half the band – Manzanera, Eno, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson – came from experimental music, trippy-proggy or heavy rock backgrounds. “We had some weird things that other bands didn’t have, like someone playing oboe,” Manzanera says of Mackay, who was classically trained and whose interest in the avant garde later resulted in the fine book Electronic Music. Manzanera’s previous band were Quiet Sun, an outfit influenced by Zappa, Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, while drummer Thompson worshipped Led Zep’s John Bonham. A fan of minimalist composers like Steve Reich, Eno was a non-musician who supplied Roxy with irruptions of abstract synth and tape effects: things that were “part of experimental electronic music”, recalls Manzanera, “but we used them in the context of songs”.

The songs themselves weren’t exactly conventional either. Some, like The Bob or If There Is Something were more like several songs joined together. Others, like the first two singles, Virginia Plain and Pyjamarama, would be judged unfinished by the standards of hit factories like the Brill building or Motown. Neither has a chorus, just a single verse melody repeated.

This minimalist aspect to Roxy Music came from one of the motley crew’s few shared passions: the Velvet Underground. But there were also upsurges of maximalism, acid rock flashbacks like the second half of In Every Dream Home a Heartache, with its phased drumming and gaseously billowing guitar. “That was my chance to vent my inner psychedelia,” Manzanera laughs. Even more far out is the title track/finale to For Your Pleasure, especially its hallucinatory extended coda of pointillistic piano trills, like the Milky Way going down the cosmic plughole. The product of the strong bond Manzanera formed with Eno, For Your Pleasure is comparable with Hendrix circa Electric Ladyland or Tim Buckley’s Starsailor in its use of the studio and recording tape as a canvas for sound painting.

In late 1973, looking back at the first two Roxy albums not long after he was pushed out of the band, Eno enthused about the music’s “insanity… the element of clumsiness and grotesqueness”, the “terrific tension”, caused by the group “juxtaposing things that didn’t naturally sit together”. Even after Eno’s departure, Manzanera continued to pursue the absurdism and studio-boffin experimentation on the third album, Stranded. Amazona, for instance, is split apart by an indescribably strange guitar solo midway between a fire storm and a gigantic bubble machine. It sounds like the work of several guitarists but it’s just Manzanera playing through a complex relay of distortion, repeat echoes and vari-pitch, using a specially built contraption that worked just once. That first and only take is what you hear on the album.

Amazona was the first song on a Roxy album for which Manzanera received a credit. Because music publishing operates according to an antiquated, pre-rock conception of composition that rewards those who write the top-line melody and lyrics, most Roxy tunes are credited solely to Ferry. “It goes back to Tin Pan Alley and the 1930s,” says Manzanera. “Eno’s synth part on Ladytron, Andy’s oboe parts – that came from them. Each member was contributing to the music and to all the arrangements. I like to think that we produced the musical context for Bryan to put his vision into. But that’s not reflected in the publishing.”

It’s all the more unfair because, according to Manzanera, from about halfway through For Your Pleasure and onwards, the band would write “the music first – all the music, including the solos. Then Bryan would listen to it and try to write a top-line tune and words. When it worked, it was absolutely brilliant. Because none of us knew what the song was going to be about until he recorded the vocal. Imagine, you’ve been working on Love Is the Drug for absolutely ages, with no idea that it’s even going to be called Love Is the Drug. Then Bryan turns up, and he sings it, and we’re like, ‘bloody hell, we’ve got a single’.”

Rather than the players “backing” their singer/leader, then, it would be more accurate to say that Ferry fronted them: many of Roxy’s greatest songs would never have been written in the absence of what had been generated first by the musicians. Which is not to downplay the importance of Ferry’s “completion” role. Stranded‘s high point, Mother of Pearl, would be a fabulous instrumental but it would not have a fraction of its emotional power without Ferry’s words or his incredible vocal performance, where every line, every word even, is delivered with a deranged archness of emphasis, suffusing the entire song with bitter, poisoned campness. In purely musical terms, Ferry’s greatest invention is his voice on the first two albums, the reptilian vibrato that paved the way for neurotic new wave mandroids like Gary Numan and Devo. As much as the jarring and jolting music, Ferry’s grotesquely stylised singing contributed the aspect of “insanity” that Eno valued in early Roxy.

There’s no doubt that Roxy was Ferry’s “baby”. He formed the group and formulated its overall vision and framing. But, curiously, what becomes apparent as you follow the band’s arc through the eight albums (plus one double CD of B-sides and outtakes) corralled in the new box set, The Complete Studio Recordings, is that as Ferry gradually asserts total control over the band, the music becomes less characterful. The individuality of the players, that strange “mish-mash”/mismatch Manzanera speaks of, starts to fade, and so too does the collective character of Roxy as an entity set apart from the landscape of pop.

This smoothing-out begins to set in circa 1974-75 with Country Life and Siren. It’s in full swing with the reformed Roxy of Manifesto and Flesh + Blood, where Roxy are playing the game of pop according to the radio and dance-floor rules of the disco/new wave late 70s and early 80s. And playing it well: there’s no denying the grace of Oh Yeah and Over You, and the shimmer and shiver of Same Old Scene.

The same syndrome affects the lyrics: the verbosity and over-ripeness of the early albums goes, but so too does the imagistic vividness, the unclassifiably mixed emotions. “Songs like Mother of Pearl had masses of words,” recalls Manzanera. “In Roxy’s first five years there’s a lot more witty metaphors and wordplay. But it got more serious gradually, and by the end you had a bunch of haikus, virtually.”

By Avalon and its big single More Than This, the sound is all patina, glistening with professionalism and perfectionism. The words sketch the barest suggestion of mood; the voice, once so blood-curdling and startling, has become a debonair croon, evoking just a faded and jaded gentility. Ferry has not just annulled the personalities of Manzanera and Mackay, who might as well be session players like the other hirelings credited, he’s erased himself too. Immaculate background music, Avalon could be seen as Ferry’s own version of ambient music: an “I can do that too” riposte to Eno’s reputation as doyen of the cutting edge. A triumph, in its way, but also a tragic inversion of everything that made Roxy so arresting.

Background information
Origin London, England
Genres Art rock, glam rock, protopunk, pop rock, baroque pop, progressive rock
Years active 1971–1976, 1979–1983, 2001–present
Labels Island, E.G., Virgin
Atco
Reprise/Warner Bros.
Associated acts The Explorers, 801
Website www.roxymusic.co.uk
 
Members Bryan Ferry
Andy Mackay
Paul Thompson
Phil Manzanera
 
Past members Graham Simpson
Roger Bunn
Dexter Lloyd
Brian Eno
David O’List
John Porter
Peter Paul
Rik Kenton
Sal Maida
Eddie Jobson
John Gustafson
John Wetton
Rick Wills
Jimmy Wyllie
Paul Carrack
Alan Spenner
Gary Tibbs
Andy Newmark
Neil Hubbard
Jimmy Maelen

Queen Turns 40: How rare was Freddie Mercury?

Queen - 1973

Queen – 1973

“When we lost Freddie, we not only lost a great personality, a man with a great sense of humour, a true showman, but we lost probably the best. The best virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that’s an art. And he was brilliant at it.” -Roger Daltrey

“The bright light of Freddie’s talent has been so cruelly extinguished… it needn’t have happened, it shouldn’t have happened. Please let’s not let it happen again.” -Elizabeth Taylor

“I won’t be a rock star. I will be a legend.” -Freddie Mercury

Forty years ago, Queen unleashed their theatrical brand of lightning rock ‘n’ roll to the masses with their self-titled debut album. Although guitarist Brian May feels it was over-arranged, drummer Roger Taylor hates his drum sound, and bassist John Deacon admits it was just a collection of tracks they had been playing for years, the album’s power dwells within the fact that it opened doors for broader endeavors, such as its underrated 1974 follow-up, Queen II, and, of course, their platinum-selling epic, 1975′s A Night at the Opera. Bottom line: It exposed the world to the true power of vocalist Freddie Mercury.

Admittedly, I don’t really like Queen. After hundreds of sporting events, years of FM airplay, and over-bloated commercial use, hits like “We Are the Champions”, “Killer Queen”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Somebody to Love”, “Fat Bottomed Girls”, and “We Will Rock You” are about as exciting as a trip to Marshall’s on a Saturday morning. They do absolutely zilch for me, so much so that I can’t help but turn off the radio or walk out of a bar whenever they’re played. (This also applies to any singles by Journey, The Who, and The Steve Miller Band. Play Jimmy Buffett, and I might just throw a chair through a nearby window.) But ask me who I think the greatest vocalist of all time is and I’ll quickly reply, “Freddie Mercury. No contest.”

Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Robert Plant, Otis Redding, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Roger Daltrey, and many more all come close but end up brushing Mercury’s dust out of their teeth. There’s just never been a more iconic voice; Mercury convinced you that gods do exist, reaching impossible decibels and unbelievable heights, and it’s because of his extraterrestrial talents that critics and fans cherish the UK collective years later. (That’s not a slight against May, but c’mon. Steve Vai could play the same riffs, and as long as Freddie was singing, we wouldn’t care. Okay, so maybe it is a sleight.) Then there’s the whole way he redefined the idea of a frontman, changing the stage for rock ‘n’ roll forever. Yeah.

So, rather than digress on the pitfalls, the possibilities, the perils, and the promises of their debut, I thought it’d be fruitful to hear what the album’s songs sound like without Freddie Mercury. The result is something far less enviable — sorry to spoil the surprise.