When The Samba Takes You: Avalon at 40

The final Roxy Music studio album still enchants after all these years

Roxy Music Avalon promo poster (Image: eBay)

In the opinion of many critics, Avalon, Roxy Music’s eighth and final studio album ranks as the band’s best.

A triumph in terms of its atmosphere, ambiance and sensual, seductive melodies, it marked a change in direction, one that forfeited forever the brash glam rock mentality that had brought the group to prominence early on.

It represented the work of a stripped down line-up, one that included original members vocalist Bryan Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy McKay, but minus the long-since departed Brian Eno, the self described non-musician whose synthesized effects informed the decidedly giddy posture of the Roxy’s first two albums.

In many ways, then, Avalon was a mark of newfound maturity, one which found subtlety, sophistication and restraint firmly embedded in the band’s new persona. It was the sound of middle aged contentment, one that allowed them to age gracefully and still seduce their listeners with craft and creativity. The mellow mood had its charms, a hint of surreal circumstance that allowed the album to ebb and flow with a sense of assured serenity and sublime sensitivity.

Roxy Music Avalon, EG/Warner Bros. Records 1982

Nevertheless, the calm and caress still managed to resonate with their ardent admirers. The first single, “More Than This,” with its enticing combination of Ferry’s patented croon and an engaging sweep of sound, worked its way into the top ten in the U.K., Australia and several European countries. The title track, an earnest but yearning wish for greater glories, also scored success at home. The third single from the album, “Take a Chance With Me,” offered further evidence of the album’s cerebral sensibility, and while not as successful as its predecessors, it still managed to make its own impression on the charts.

Ironically, for an album that appears so methodical and decidedly disciplined, its origins were seemingly spontaneous. Although Ferry conceived several of the songs while staying at a lodge   on the Irish coast (the cover photo captures the view of the lake Ferry saw while residing at the retreat), Manzanera claims that most of the material was written and realized in the studio. Nevertheless, it was initially imagined as a concept album, given that Avalon is tied to the legend of King Arthur. While this new narrative seemed vague at best, the romance resonates throughout.

 

VIDEO: Roxy Music “More Than This”

Likewise, despite the unhurried affect, Avalon was the work of a relatively large number of contributors beyond the central core of Ferry, McKay and Manzanera. Guitarist Neil Hubbard and bassist Alan Spenner, both former members of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band and regulars in the Roxy Music orbit, shared their skills on the majority of tracks. However, the most impressive addition to the proceedings was garnered from an otherwise unlikely source. The high harmony on the title track was added by Yanick Etienne, a singer Ferry and Manzanera discovered by chance at the coffee shop adjacent to their studio. 

Ultimately, Avalon ranks as an album for the ages, and 40 years after its initial release, the aforementioned highlights, along with the equally alluring offerings “The Main Thing,” “To Turn You On” and “While My Heart Is Still Beating” still resonate in a decidedly sensuous way.

Consequently, consider Avalon nothing less than a minor masterpiece. Anything more than this is hard to imagine.

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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