New York: From Out of the Blue Comes a Bad Review: - Wed 25th Jul

New York: From Out of the Blue Comes a Bad Review:
25 July 2001

A critical response to the NY Daily News concert review
by Scott Briggs

I almost chose to ignore the review of the first New York City Roxy Music concert since the early 1980s, by journalist Isaac Guzman writing for The Daily News on July 25, 2001, but after giving the matter much thought, I found his piece required a considered, careful response. Instead of slamming Guzman for slamming Roxy Music,instead what is clearly needed is a point-by-point analysis of what he found lacking in the show and the band, and in doing so I hope to prove that perhaps Guzman was not the best choice to cover this event in particular, and why I believe his review is mean-spirited at
best and misleading to people who may not even know Roxy Music or Bryan Ferry, or indeed, why it's even significant that the legendary band decided to get back together after 18 years.

I've read previous pieces by Isaac Guzman in this newspaper, and I can attest that he knows how to write some snappy copy, and clearly he knows how to write a good review: read the opening paragraph of his review and it's clear this is a man who knows his craft--no complaints there. The first point he brings up is Roxy's public image of trash meets high fashion, although I'm not sure that Guzman, like many who don't really know the details or history of this band, isn't making a sweeping generalization.

Anyone who knows about the early days of Roxy knows that "high fashion" was not quite the point: faux glam, outrageous outfits, semi-drag (in the case especially, of Brian Eno during his brief stint in the band) and tons of irony to go around were more the order of the day, followed right behind this by the band's eclectic, experimental, avant garde, and generally wonky, time-tripping sense of what kind of music they set out to make. Perhaps we'll relent that the later, mid-1970s to early 1980s versions of Roxy tended more towards Guzman's perception of the band as "high fashion" representatives. If nothing else, Roxy Music is a band with a long history, and one that has gone through as many stylistic changes as it has bass players! All this being said, what Guzman should be concentrating on (and this not just his fault, but seems to have been the fault of many a reviewer of the band since Day One) is the music. Fashion sense and silver tuxedos bedamned, if the music sucks, who would give a toss about a Roxy Music reunion tour?

And truly, I believe Guzman is so far off-base in his assessment not only of this show, but of Roxy's continuing musical worth as almost a self-perpetuating phenomenon, that upon first read, I wondered if he even likes Roxy's music at all. What's the point of writing a review of a band that you're already not predisposed to like? It would have been a different story if Guzman was a disappointed fan of the band, and the new tour failed to capture what he liked about Roxy Music in the first place--however, this doesn't seem to be the case since there's no evidence of it in his review.
Instead, we get scathing passages like this:

"Even Ferry's obsession with swimming pools, beautiful women, country homes and the trappings of luxury seemed oddly quaint. Perhaps those old songs foreshadowed the crass materialism of today's rappers, but they now sound more like the naive fantasies of a coal miner's son (which Ferry is) impersonating a monied playboy."

Scathing, perhaps, but ill-considered and missing the mark, definitely. Guzman makes so many mistakes here that I'm so glad he didn't decide to edit it out of his review: here we get to the heart of what I find most offensively irritating about this piece. Guzman seems, like many Americans (many of whom have seemingly ignored Ferry and Roxy Music for years, given their chronic lukewarm reception in this country since 1972), to have a real problem recognizing something as simple as irony in a piece of music. The main song he's referring to here, "In Every Dream Home A Heartache," from the second Roxy album For Your Pleasure, is, if one takes the time to truly examine it, if anything a terrifying deconstruction of these high-life "obsessions" that he ascribes to Ferry. In fact, the song in question delineates an eerie relationship a rich playboy has with his beloved blow-up doll/sex toy. Besides being unbelievably funny and scary at the same time, the song still manages to delight audiences in 2001, and it was no different at the first NYC show. The irony that Guzman is missing here is that the song is not obsessed with these things, but rather conflates and ridicules them to achieve a certain comic, eerie effect--the minimalist, scary music that accompanies Ferry's intentionally ludicrous lyrics is designed to bring this across to even the thickest of audience members. I rest my case.

I don't understand what Guzman has against coal miners, or even the sons of coal miners, but it is a fact that Ferry grew up the son of a miner and jolly interesting as that may be, it has no place whatsoever in a review of a live performance of the band. A biography of Ferry and Roxy Music, perhaps. Does this fact make Ferry a bad person? This is really too idiotic a point to discuss here but it points out that there are serious flaws in Guzman's approach to the writing of his review.

These above facts also lead us to conclude that Roxy Music could not possibly have foreshadowed the "crass materialism" of "today's rappers," since a true understanding of the point of view of a song like "In Every Dream Home..." elicits the existence of the ironies just mentioned. Besides having almost no artistry in evidence (with a few notable exceptions over the past 20-odd years), and most of them, very little irony either, "today's rappers" would be hard-pressed to understand the complexities of what makes Roxy Music not only a great rock and roll band, but also why most of their music will be scrapped in five years' time to make backup CD-Rs whilst Roxy Music will still listened to, amassing new fans each year, well into the next century at the very least.
I could go on about this point but I'm afraid I don't have the time or web space at my disposal to do so, alas. Suffice it to say that I think that we need a Roxy Music tour more than ever in 2001, given the rather pathetic state of popular music in the present day. In fact, I would even call it vacuous, plastic, disposable, reprehensible, and embarrassing, on the whole, but I guess that wouldn't be being politically correct. As if I care.

As far as Roxy Music sounding dated, all I can say is that even Ferry himself has mentioned in a recent interview that he was afraid of this possibility, but couldn't really determine if it was going to be the case for live audiences in 2001. I don't think artists like Roxy Music owe it to their audiences to try to update every piece of music they're going to play live in an attempt to make it sound like the latest Madonna album. With a band like Roxy, this would be the height of futility: either the old songs are going to have new life breathed into them, or they're not. Having been at the first New York City show, I can attest that even had I not been a fan of the band from years ago (but certainly not from the early 1970s, when I was but a very wee lad myself!), I would still have found much of the show to sound fresh, innovative, and not dated in the least. And certainly not nearly "archaic," as Guzman puts it. I would have expected a comment like that to be leveled at a show featuring The Grateful Dead, The Moody Blues, or Gary Numan, for that matter.
There's no reason why Roxy can't sound as fresh today as it did in 1973, and I think much of it does. It's probably true that much of the post-punk music of the 1980s that followed and was inspired by Roxy Music would sound dated now if performed live, but then again, to many new and young fans, the music might sound as fresh as the latest CD from Radiohead, let's say, or Green Day. Some dating is inevitable when a band is performing music from such a vast range of its own history as a recording unit. I also would ask Guzman why a rousing song such as "Street Life" is less dated-sounding then say, "Ladytron," a song from the band's debut album? I think these songs still hold up to a great degree, and if Guzman doesn't like the older material, that's his choice to make.
"Editions of You" is only an obscure song to those who don't really know the early Roxy Music's string of "hits," (to be fair, "Editions" is better-known by European Roxy fans simply from earlier tours and airplay alone, the song was never going to be a staple of American Top 40 radio--why? perhaps it, like much of Roxy, is simply too complex and sophisticated in its approach and lyrical content for most American listeners.)

It's true that much of the audience is coming to hear the later Roxy sound, with songs like "Avalon" or "Oh Yeah," since there are a lot of fans of my own generation who didn't discover Ferry and his original band until the 1970s or 80s. However, sometimes it seems to me that some of Ferry's later solo material, as much I've enjoyed albums such as Boys And Girls and Bete Noire, sound even more dated than his early music, given their "80s" slick production values and decreasing sense of the avant garde replaced, perhaps, by an ear for the nightclub dance floor and the Billboard album charts.

At least Guzman has the decency to mention the outstanding performances of the band members overall, especially Phil Manzanera's always astounding lead guitar performance, Chris Spedding's solid and richly complex turn as a guest guitarist, Lucy Wilkins' astonishing violin playing which made older songs such as "Out of the Blue" soar like never before, and he fails to mention the amazing surprise of Yannick Etienne's vocal solo on "Avalon." Ms. Etienne, who sings on the original album version of the song, was not even schedule to appear at this show and her surprise appearance only raised the credibility level that much higher. Guzman also doesn't even mention the stupendous performance by original drummer Paul Thompson. This new tour would have been much the poorer without Thompson's presence, and I believe his rock-solid drumming was the mortar that held the show together, proving that Roxy Music, as a touring or recording unit, is much more than the sum of its parts, Brian Eno's absence or presence notwithstanding.

Guzman makes it sound that, apart from any "dating" of the band's music, they weren't on top of their performance game. One listen to Thompson performing a song like "For Your Pleasure" and it's clear that he and Roxy were never stronger as live performers. "Dated" or not, this Roxy Music show was anything but lackluster in a performance sense--the audiences are getting their money's worth there for sure.

I find another point Guzman makes early in his review interesting: he mentions that the "group's blend of rock, R&B and experimental synthesizer sounds made them a pioneer of glam rock and New Wave, in concert their frenetic rhythms and jittery keyboard solos sounded perilously dated." The fact of the matter is, most of the bands of the 1980s such as Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, Devo, Japan, even singers such as Sade, owe Roxy Music so much in terms of influence and image, that the extent of the band's influence on later music is almost incalculable. It's also true that a lot of even more current and perhaps better-known bands such as U2, R.E.M., Radiohead, and their ilk may not have had an audience if not for people who had grown up listening to bands such as Roxy Music. I've even heard people accuse early U2 and R.E.M. of sounding dated, and maybe some of it might to our 2001 ears, but I maintain that good music is good music no matter what the era might be. This the only explanation that I can think of as to why I can listen with immense pleasure to the likes of Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure, The Buzzcocks' Operators Manual, Stiv Bators's career-defining "LA, LA" collection, The Sisters of Mercys' Floodland album and The Clash's London Calling today and not cringe, whereas you can play me a Steve Miller, Scorpions or Foghat album and I'll run to find the nearest operational blowtorch to melt it down for candles.

Guzman notwithstanding, viva Roxy Music! (to paraphrase the title of an old Roxy live album, which, amazingly, I don't like cause it actually DOES sound dated and bad for some reason) The first New York City show, to this fan's ears, sounded wonderful, fresh, innovative, and everything I could have hoped for in a reunion show. For a show that could have been overly nostalgic, bloody awful and boring, it was more than a pleasant surprise, it was a revelation that the band still "has it." And rest assured, Roxy Music aged better in 30 years than the new P. Diddy single has in a month's time. This is because, in the plastic, disposable-music-infested, instant-celebrity-obsessed cultural wasteland that, for the most part, has characterized popular music for the last 20 years or so, talent, good songwriting and real style still stand out, and in that sense, Roxy Music will always be the innest of the "In Crowd."

Scott Briggs
Forest Hills, New York
August 1st, 2001

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