The Real 1975, Part 1: Roxy Music

Two distinct and historic tours bookend a crucial year in rock and roll

Roxy Music Siren, Island 1975

Yes, there’s a modern English rock band called The 1975 – and they’re not half-bad, mind you – but let me take you back to my 1975.

This is part one of two, concerning two high-expectation concert experiences that year – one in February with Roxy Music and the other in November with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. I was crazy mad to see both shows. And both required a considerable amount of, shall we say, effort on my part, And both ultimately involved me getting sick (and having no regrets.)

I was 19 and in college at the University of Maine in Orono, a good 4 ½ hours from Boston. The last outpost of civilization in the state, as we liked to say. (Just moose and trees further north.) I was a DJ/music director at the college radio station, WMEB, and a fledgling rock writer for the college newspaper, The Maine Campus and a nascent rock mag called Sweet Potato, as well as an assistant manager at a small record shop.

Feb. 1976 issue of Sweet Potato

Yeah, music was my life. And this is about the thing we do for the love of music; the lengths to which we go.

And Roxy Music was my band. The 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees – finally – were transitioning from their Bryan Ferry/Brian Eno-led days and had moved to an Eno-less zone. Meaning they’d shed some of the early, chaotic, glorious weirdness and shifted into a glossier art-rock sound, something a bit more conventional and romantic (not to mention the inspiration for Duran Duran and lots more to come.) They are not quite so arch, ironic or detached. I wasn’t 100 percent on board, but at least 80 percent. I was enjoying the mutation, as evidenced on 1974’s Country Life, which they were touring behind, and the soon-to-be-released Siren.

 

 

The band always loved a good dress-up. For Ferry, on stage, he described it as: “romantic, swashbuckling, Valentino, Hollywood tarted-up gaucho,”

Now, I’d traveled to Boston explicitly to buy their second and third albums in 1974 – they just weren’t for sale in Bangor, Maine. In early ’75, it was announced Roxy Music was on tour and coming to Boston’s Orpheum Theater. These were the days when you bought tickets on site or mailed away for them. Being in Maine, I depended on the US Mail. Just one ticket.

I kept waiting for the golden ticket to arrive. The show was Feb. 20th. It was now the morning of Feb. 20th. It was beginning to snow. I was coming down with some flu-like symptoms. I was headed toward the acceptance of defeat – no ticket, no transportation, getting sick. But then around noon, the mailman came and there it was. What to do? Go.

Roxy Music ’75

I’m not quite sure why I didn’t drive. I did have a crappy car at that point, a Datsun 510. There was the take-forever Greyhound bus. I was never much a hitch hiker – too afraid (for good reason I think) and not willing to depend on the kindness of strangers. But for some reason I decided that was how I should get to Boston for Roxy. I mustered up my courage, bundled up, packed an overnight bag. My dad, no doubt against his better judgment but accepting of his son’s mis-decision, drove me to the on-ramp in Bangor for the turnpike and wished me luck.

I stuck out my thumb and hitch-hiked south. I can’t recall who picked me up. Maybe three or four cars and/or trucks. No horror stories to tell about the trip. Pretty amiable. Checked into the low-budget Fenway Motor Hotel (it’s now the rock and roll-themed, upscale Verb) in Kenmore Square and went to the show. A campy, Boston-based theatrical art-rock band called Orchestra Luna opened. My seat was in the balcony, about half-way back. Not great. But I was in heaven. Also, I was getting more and more delirious with fever.

It was a wonderful show, Eddie Jobson filling Eno’s slot by spinning out mesmerizing violin riffs, especially on the elongated “If There Is Something.” (See: the live album, Viva! Roxy.) They played nine of 10 songs from Country Life, kicking off with “Prairie Rose,” the resplendent, but wistful, rocker about Ferry’s paramour Jerry Hall. They did enough of the first three albums to tickle me pink: “Mother of Pearl” and “A Song for Europe” – the two best from Stranded – near the beginning and “Virginia Plain” (first single, first album) and “Editions of You” and “Do the Strand” from For Your Pleasure, ultimately my favorite Roxy record.

 

 

Afterwards, I go back to hotel, but the fever gets worse. The next day I call my aunt Connie, who lives on the South Shore, about a half-hour from Boston. She gets me and takes me in for three days of rest and recuperation. And then, I hitch back home, a happy traveler, still high from the thrill of it all.

Years later, as a rock critic working for the Boston Globe, I had opportunity to review the band and interview Ferry a number of times. In 1993, I met with Ferry at the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic Bros. branch office just outside Boston. Ferry was working his solo career and Roxy was either broken up or on hiatus.

I asked if Ferry might consider putting Roxy Music back together for one last go ’round.

“When people ask me,” he said, “I say I’d be open more to the idea than I was two years ago, simply because as time goes by you start getting a bit nostalgic and curious about what it would sound like. But then I say: `Which band do you want? The first one, which is the first two records, which was very exciting?’ “

My hand shot right up.

“Yeah,” Ferry said, with a laugh. “Em. Or, there’s the middle period, where we were trying to become more musical, with Eddie Jobson in the band, and I’d stopped doing keyboards on stage and became the singer. That period stopped with Siren {in 1975}. Then I went and did another solo tour, an album, In Your Mind, then The Bride Stripped Bare, which was quite a turning point, which led to Manifesto and then up to the end, Avalon. During the final period, the records kept getting more sophisticated, in a way. A more atmospheric sound, softer on the drums. I got into a blacker thing, which personally I like better, but unfortunately it meant I stopped being as zany and, perhaps, quirky.”

This is some of what I wrote, reviewing Roxy in 2001 for the Boston Globe: Of course, what was once radical in terms of structure, arrangement, and attitude has been somewhat tempered by time. The pleasure, however, has not diminished. When guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay leapt into the swirl of sound in the chaotic, dreamy “Ladytron” or the extended, bluesy version of “My Only Love,” heaven was in reach. This was heady rock ‘n’ roll without pointless solos, ensemble rock ‘n’ roll with a point.

Ferry is one of rock’s most commanding vocalists, but a fair part of the enjoyment came during the instrumental mesh when Ferry would step back (or move to piano) and the gears of the band would lock in. Instruments once foreign to the rock mix (sax, oboe, violin) were deployed. There was a dexterous weave during both “Avalon” and “Dance Away,” and a lovely duet with Mackay and violinist Lucy Wilkins on the instrumental “Tara.”

This incarnation of Roxy Music also included the band’s original drummer, the hard-hitting Paul Thompson, and was augmented by six other players, including guitarist Chris Spedding and pianist Colin Good, the latter the bandleader on Ferry’s last solo tour. Sarah Brown handled soaring and soulful backing vocals, particularly with her orgasmic emoting during “My Only Love.” Violinist Wilkins contributed on percussion, joining Julia Thornton. There were four sexy female dancers employed judiciously, onstage during the smoldering “Both Ends Burning” and back for the encores of “Do the Strand” and “For Your Pleasure,” where they were dressed as Las Vegas showgirls.

 

 

The latter song, the finale, was perfect – spooky yet comforting. “In the morning, the things that you worried about last night will seem lighter,” sang Ferry. And then, “You watch me walk away … ” That, he did, followed by Mackay and Manzanera. One by one, to rapturous applause, the remaining band members left the stage, until finally only Good was left, his spare, eerie synth parts spiraling into the summer night.

Coming up: Bob Dylan and friends in Bangor, Maine.

 

 

                            

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for the the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem.

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