Morrissey once claimed that Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure was the quintessential British album. The contentious fop and noted animal-lover later retracted the comment when he found out about Bryan Ferry’s predilection for fox hunting.
But I’m inclined to agree with his statement. Not our bucolic idyll, granted, but the Britain that lurks after dark: the cocktail-swigging Soho-ites, the chain-smoking art darlings, the ask-me-no-questions-I’ll-tell-you-no-lies suburban minxes, the flamboyant, the lascivious, the eccentric, the weird.
As an album, For Your Pleasure is like a sordid peek through our net curtains. Oh, and Judi Dench is on it.
So it seems the perfect choice for the next high50 album listening club. And this is why their guitarist, Phil Manzanera, has invited me into his studio to discuss Roxy, recording and rappers.
“Someone like me, of my age (he was 62 on 31 January), was brought up with vinyl. It’s a real event, to do something like you guys are putting on. It’s a bit like going to a festival where you commune together.” In a little more comfort, mind, thanks to our friends at Soho House.
It was 40 years ago today (almost)
Roxy Music – consisting of Manzanera, frontman Bryan Ferry, saxophonist Andy Mackay, drummer Paul Thompson and Brian Eno on synthesisers – released For Your Pleasure almost 40 years ago, in March 1973 (not that you’d know by listening to it).
It came only eight months after their self-titled debut had launched them on to the scene in a maelstrom of outlandish costumes, mad hair and artsy references. They were one of the first bands who considered their style as much as their substance, with album sleeves containing credits for hair and make-up artists and live shows featuring a host of fashionable collaborators.
“The triumph of artifice,” sneered famed critic Lester Bangs.
Manzanera is more prosaic when it comes to the band’s image: “It was a lot of fun. It wasn’t po-faced, serious sort of ‘art’. All these people [hair stylists, photographers etc] were our peers.
“We never had a co-ordinated sit-down. It was all, ‘I’ve got this girl and she makes stuff’. So we’d turn up to shows and say ‘You put on your costume!’, ‘No, you put on your costume!’ and then these ridiculous fancy-dress things would appear.
“‘Shit, we’re really going out like this?!’
“‘Quick, let’s put on lots of make-up!’”
And to those who sneered at them? “I think because we ‘made it’ quite quickly some people resented that; those [bands] who’d been trudging up and down motorways for years.
“We’d come out of nowhere, so they thought, ‘What’s all this, with your funny clothes and funny colour hair?!’ and would call us faggots or whatever.
“For us it was just theatre, and fun – and being nervous about playing live.”
There wasn’t much time for nerves, though; their ascendency had been meteoric.
“We found ourselves being successful and having a lot of expectation [of For Your Pleasure]. We said: let’s go and do something different, something weird and wonderful. Let’s explore.
“There was a definite sense of adventure; a lot of humour and fun.”
How Roxy wrote their songs
The standard Roxy modus operandi was for the ‘musicians’ of the group to provide their ideas for Bryan Ferry to try to come up with something lyrical. Often it wasn’t until they reconvened at the studio that they’d have any idea what the song was going to sound like.
“It was the beginning of working the way Roxy pretty much ended up working all its life,” says Phil, admitting a modest 60 per cent success rate.
The main thing (if I may quote a Roxy song) that differed between their eponymous debut and For Your Pleasure was that the group found a kindred producer in Chris Thomas. He had assisted George Martin when he recorded the Beatles at Abbey Road so came with considerable clout, and they went on to work him with throughout the Seventies.
“Bryan had initially asked John Cale of the Velvet Underground to produce it. Now I love John – even produced one of his albums – but thank god he didn’t, as it would’ve been so wrong for us at the time,” says Manzanera.
“The first album’s got a great naive charm but the sound of For Your Pleasure was so much better.”
After aborted sessions with Queen producer John Anthony, Roxy found their sonic saviour, Chris, down the corridor from where they were recording. He was mixing a certain Dark Side of the Moon. “Serendipity,” says Phil.
‘We wanted to kill each other’
He’s a serendipitous type, actually, is Manzanera. After Roxy Music disbanded (“We could only do four or five years together and then we wanted to kill each other”) he went on a musical journey, taking in solo albums, collaborations and productions.
A chance encounter with an unknown young poet called Anna Le, and some gentle persuasion from a journalist pal, ended with a lovingly packaged album of her poems backed by Phil’s music.
Another, with some Spanish musicians at a music conference led Manzanera to produce some of the biggest Spanish-speaking rock albums. “Unbelievably,” says Phil, whose mother is from Colombia, “there was no one else who could speak Spanish in England who had the knowledge of producing such records.”
Then, when, Colombian sculptor Lucho Brieva moved in beneath Manzanera’s London home (“It’s a little Spanish-speaking enclave now”), the pair struck up a friendship and a new project was born. The pair tried to convince Brieva’s then-wife Chrissie Hynde to sing some songs in Spanish and took the liberty of recording a couple of her hits en español.
“You sound like a pair of hicks!” said Hynde; or what the Colombians – politically incorrectly – call ‘Corroncho’. And so an album was conceived. “We said fuck it, we’re going to call the album Corroncho and we’re going to release it in Colombia.
“It’s a bit like Gorillaz: the characters are two politically incorrect Colombian guys but they’ve got warm hearts and they can dance.”
They roped in some famous friends and the result was a South American smash. An invasion-style map of the continent propped up in Phil’s studio is the blueprint for a follow-up.
Lady Luck calls (or is it karma?)
But can such projects, done purely for love, keep the wolf from the door? “These wacky things are obviously going to make no money at all,” says Phil.
Thanks to Jay-Z and Kanye West, though, that’s not a concern.
Manzanera explains: “I’m driving in Notting Hill with my son and this foreign number comes up on my phone. “It’s Roc-A-Fella records here from New York,” so I stop the car.
“Is that Phil Manzanera?” asks a voice. “Kanye West and Jay-Z have sampled your guitar.”
“You must’ve made a mistake. Are you sure you’re not thinking of Ray Manzarek from The Doors? I’m always getting mixed up with him.”
But, sure enough, the rap titans had sampled a riff from an obscure Manzanera solo album (K-Scope) on their collaborative effort, Watch the Throne. On Sunday, the track, No Church in the Wild, picked up a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
“I wrote that in 1976 without thinking, probably just sitting in front of the telly playing around. Forty years later, it’s like winning the Lottery. I get more than Kanye West and Jay-Z do!”
After an afternoon in Manzanera’s company, his enthusiasm for what he calls “the social side of music” is downright infectious, so such a karmic pay-off seems wholly deserved.
As I’m leaving, I ask if his motivations are different these days.
“It’s great to create something new, even if it’s just for yourself. The older I get, the more I enjoy that kind of mental satisfaction.
“I can head on my journey to nowhere without any particular destination in mind, and that’s exactly the way I like it.” We couldn’t have put it any better ourselves.
Our next record listening club, featuring For Your Pleasure, is on 20 March in Chiswick, west London