Brian Eno was waiting for the tube at Maida Vale. A train stopped, leaving Brian equidistant between two carriages.
He didn’t know it, but his destiny awaited.
Enter one carriage, and he would become a pop star, an innovator of ambient recording, and eventually collaborate on some of David Bowie’s most remarkable albums, using a deck of cards with cleverly worded “oblique strategies” that would encourage the Thin White Duke to move out of his comfort zone.
Go into the other carriage, and he would remain an art student with big ideas, a high forehead and a pack of cards with weird instructions that would encourage people to believe he was slightly touched.
This was his Gwyneth-Paltrow-in-sliding-doors moment, albeit his destiny would be to reach the giddy heights of producing Coldplay, rather than producing Coldplay’s children.
Thankfully – not least for the sake of this story – he didn’t fluff his lines.
He consulted his cards.
“Flap your hands like a bird” said the first one.
“Massively unhelpful” thought Brian. “These cards are going to need a bit of work…” *.
He stepped onto the train.
In the carriage he chose stood Andy Mackay.
They knew each other just a little, enough to recognise each other. Mackay told Eno he had just started a band with a guy called Bryan Ferry, and they wanted to record their music. The trouble was, they didn’t know anyone with a tape recorder.
As luck would have it, Eno was playing around with such machines as only someone like Eno would have been back then.
From that moment, Eno was part of Roxy Music.
Roxy Music appeared in 1972, apparently from nowhere and seemingly fully formed. At a time when authenticity was a key measurement of the quality of rock music, Roxy Music showed up with daft clothes, odd yet romantic songs about growing potatoes, a singer who warbled strangely and a geezer who “played” what looked like a console ripped out of Heathrow’s air traffic control room.
It wasn’t an obvious template with which to form a band.
Bryan Ferry: “Thank you everyone for coming. I have this idea for a rock band, and I’m looking for volunteers. We’ve got guitar, drums and bass, so there are just two missing ingredients. First, I need a bloke who can dress up strangely in a feather boa and be a knob-twiddler”.
(Brian Eno consults card. It says “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”). Confused, Eno raises his hand.
Bryan Ferry: “Cheers Brian. You’re in. Now, who can play the oboe?”
It wasn’t just the instruments that were unique. The lyrics weren’t the regular type either.
Bryan Ferry: “Okay everyone. I have written this romantic song called “In Every Dream Home a Heartache”. Any questions?”
Graham Simpson: “What’s it about Bryan?”
Bryan: “er, it’s a romantic song about a blow up doll……”
Simpson: “……are you alright Bryan……do you need a rest?”
Bryan: “um, it can wait for the second album. I’ve got one about growing potatoes instead. By the score. It’s really romantic.”
Andy Mackay “Well, that’s not right for a start. By the score? Who goes to the greengrocers and asks for a “score” of potatoes? They’re sold by the pound, Bryan….”
The potato song, or “If There Is Something” as it is better known, made the first album.
The other thing you should know about Roxy Music is their story really begins with The Beatles’ White Album. Because the artist who designed that cover was Richard Hamilton, and Richard Hamilton happened to be not only one of Bryan Ferry’s teachers at Newcastle University, but a hugely influential driver of the pop art movement.
In his last year at Newcastle, Hamilton would work on a piece titled “Large Glass”, a statement of romanticism which featured a mechanised “bride” figure. This, and other such ideas – especially that of art being about many things; sculpture, fashion, music, rather than simply painting – took root in the young Bryan Ferry’s mind. Ferry left Newcastle for London looking to form a new kind of band.
He had a vision – one of romanticism and glamour – which was far removed from the singer-songwriters and progressive rock virtuosos of the time, for whom such artifice was inauthentic. Roxy met through friends of friends, band members came and went. Their first drummer, Dexter Lloyd, left to join the Oxford Playhouse’s pit orchestra for a production of Aladdin. Great decision.
Dexter Lloyd’s wife: “Honey, don’t those fellas on Top of the Pops look like your old band mates?”
Dexter Lloyd (humming “A Whole New World”): “Don’t worry love, they won’t get far. They had songs about potatoes and blow up dolls. Bunch of weirdos.”
Ferry even auditioned for King Crimson at one stage. Eno was one such friend of a friend, having stepped on the right train carriage, and bought into Ferry’s vision. If art school had taught Eno anything, it was that you didn’t need to be an expert painter to be a great artist. He was pretty sure the same applied to pop music. At Winchester School of Art he joined a “scratch orchestra” which allowed people of little talent to play along with those of greater ability. His art teachers were divided as to his qualities, some seeing him as a “bad influence”, others as “an interesting student” “hampered by intellectual considerations”.
This is why Roxy Music emerged seemingly fully formed. All these life experiences brewing around the various band members came together. Ferry was nearer thirty than twenty. Their art-school friends shot the cover art. They even credited their hairdressers in the sleeve notes. Roxy Music wasn’t just a band, it was a concept. A lifestyle.
They also weren’t afraid of a little hard work.
They spent eighteen months rehearsing the same dozen songs. The line up changed, with Phil Manzanera joining just three weeks before the debut album was recorded, but the songs were the same – just honed to perfection. They played the somewhat strange songs so much they sounded normal to the players. When they finally appeared on TV they were a well oiled machine, looking alien, yet exotic, playing songs with prog-level complexity, beautifully executed. For everybody else, who hadn’t heard them before, it all sounded fresh, strange and exciting…
A box set of the first Roxy Music album featuring demos, Peel Sessions and an enthusiastic price tag has just been released. A two CD edition is also available.
Source: “Re-make/ Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music” by Michael Bracewell
* This bit almost certainly didn’t happen: I just like to think Eno strolled around London for years reading cards that told him to do all sorts of odd things, (“wear a coat with feathers on the back”), but I have absolutely no evidence to support this whimsical theory. Because there isn’t any. The cards were reportedly developed in 1975.