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Loudspeaker: Roxy Music’s postmodern soundscape

In 1972, Roxy Music was a band confronted with opportunity. Their self-titled debut album reached the top 10 of the UK album charts, their song “Virginia Plain” hit number four on UK singles charts, and they were hailed by the British music press as one of the Next Big Things in music. Its lead singer, Bryan Ferry, became an immediate icon of strange smoothness, embodying a lounge lizard-meets-pop artist persona. The soon-to-be-legendary Brian Eno worked on the band’s instrumentation, creating strange sounds and wonky melodies that gave the band a distinctive arty vibe. Owing to these factors, Roxy Music’s debut was an immediate assertion of style — a fusion that should not have worked, of ’50s rock pastiche with glammed up musical experimentation. Given the artistic thrust of its debut, the British music press wondered what would emerge next from the collective consciousness of such a strange and daring group.

In 1973, they received their answer with the release of “For Your Pleasure,” Roxy Music’s second album. If their debut introduced Roxy Music’s distinctive style into public consciousness, this album succeeded in galvanizing it, turning the slightly askew experimentalism into an atmospheric and avant-garde odyssey. “For Your Pleasure” would be hailed as some of Roxy Music’s greatest creative output, a postmodern masterpiece that confirmed the artistic bona fides of its creators. Listening 45 years after its release, it remains a fiercely experimental record, one that repays repeated listening and never fails to impress as a work of sheer creative genius.

Thinking of “For Your Pleasure” as a postmodern work is important to unlocking its cultural verve. In his work on the subject of postmodernity, scholar Fredric Jameson noted that a key aspect of the postmodern condition was the collapse of the boundaries between high and low culture. What was once in the realm of hackwork and kitsch finds itself aesthetically important in the new cultural landscape, on equal footing or superseding the great masters of arts, music and letters. In “For Your Pleasure,” the postmodern collapse of high and low culture is particularly present in “Do the Strand,” the opening track. Here, Roxy Music’s high-art preoccupations are brought to bear in lyrical reference amid low culture musicality — “The Sphinx and Mona Lisa” as well as “Lolita and Guernica” have all done the Strand as part of the collapse of old into new. “Do the Strand” is as much a celebration of rock and roll low culture as it is soaked with high artistic reference, coming together in an infinitely danceable masterpiece of kitsch and grandeur. 

Between a rollicking piano and screeching saxophone reminiscent of jump blues, Ferry describes a dance that transcends borders and class, a hit danceable “in furs or blue jeans” in Britain as well as globally. There is never any discussion of how to perform the Strand, unlike the ’60s dance crazes the song is based on. Where in 1962 Little Eva told us to swing our hips like a train to do the Loco-Motion, Ferry offers us no hints outside of the Strand being a “danceable solution to teenage revolution.” This postmodern take on rock ‘n’ roll invites us to be ourselves in a Platonic ideal of the dance we all can share in. Its subversion of dance craze tropes — in particular, Ferry’s refusal to give us dance instructions — nevertheless promises the opportunity to “dance on moonbeams and slide up rainbows” however we please. 

But this danceable utopia is not without its loneliness, even with its tales of beautiful people and aesthetic preoccupations. “For Your Pleasure” never loses an affective charge, even at its campiest moments. Ferry sings about romance and heartache in a way that turns the passion of rock on its head, focusing attention on a blow-up doll in the chilling eroticism of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the album’s fifth track. Ferry departs from his role as the master crooner, channeling the bored lassitude of the nouveau riche and the heartsick into pledges of eternal devotion to the constructed through internal monologue. He ditches flesh-and-blood romance in favor of imagined lovers in a perfect complement to the album’s postmodernity. The song is perhaps the apex of the album’s emotion, as Ferry describes his life with an idealized plastic lover. His plastic lover “floats in his new pool” and came to him in a brown paper package. It is this inflatable plastic lover that keeps him in as well as gives him a reprieve from the banality of postmodern life, a figure that matches the artificiality of postmodernity. The song reaches its emotional climax as it monologue ends with the brilliant exclamation “I blew up your body, but you blew my mind!” before segueing into Brian Eno’s free-form sonic experimentation. 

The last half of the album is dominated by two long and mainly instrumental tracks, “The Bogus Man” and a title track, “For Your Pleasure.” The former compounds the erotic sinisterness of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” describing with increasing menace a stalker. Eno’s influence is particularly felt here, as the last several minutes of the song consist of guitar riffs, strange noises, marimba notes and clicks. But what could easily descend into sound devoid of meaning is arranged to build the intensity of the song, reaching an experimental peak of noise and improvisation. The listener gets the feeling of having seen something forbidden as the song descends, as it eventually ends with the sounds of labored breathing after its steady buildup. Whatever has been interrupted is meant to be secretive, and given the song’s subject matter, is likely illicit and disturbing.

After a brief return to traditional rock forms with Grey Lagoons, a shiny musical tribute to soul and blues forms, the title track of the album begins. It starts with Ferry performing a slow and soulful ballad, taking his crooning to an apex. But this seeming traditionality quickly ends, as the song moves into repeated echoing tape loops and chants. Ferry’s piano backing gains an ice-like quality, branching out into crystalline echoes behind a synthesizer and drums. The track’s experimental and emotional resonance is not dulled as these atmospheric qualities last for the remainder of the song, successfully capturing emotion with instrumentation rather than voice as was the focus for most of the album. This pure instrumentation ends with a quiet spoken command, the last voice heard on the album. It is that of Dame Judi Dench, then primarily a stage actress. As the atmospheric epic of the title track closes, she tells us “You don’t ask. You don’t ask why.” Even after re-listening to the experimental saga of “For Your Pleasure,” the listener is confronted with questions. But we are denied answers, left to listen again in search of answers that are not easily located amid its postmodern sonic landscape.

— Maxwell Fenton ’19

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