Monday , September 28 2020
Looking back at Roxy Music's Stranded

“Looking for Love in A Looking Glass World”

(The following was inspired by two considerations of the band Roxy Music from bloggers Johnny Bacardi and Sean Collins.)
The cover to Roxy Music’s Stranded (a.k.a. “The Third Roxy Music Album”) clearly announced that this was No Album for Little Boys: a full-breasted model in a torn red dress, languorously lying on the ground with a “just laid” look. Inside the original LP gatefold, three rows of individual pics of the band – each row tinted different colors like an Andy Warhol silk screen – hid as much as they revealed. You had your typical longhaired guitarist, a familiar enough look for 1973, but who the hell was the guy with his hair slicked back?
It was Bryan Ferry, of course, lead singer and primary composer of this unparalleled Brtish prog-pop group. Stranded was not the first Roxy album that I’d heard, but it was the first that I thoroughly keyed into. “Street Life” was the immediate grabber – a yowling plaint that begins with off-key synth sounds and Ferry yelping, “Wish everybody would leave me alone!” – with “Mother of Pearl” a close second. Both songs open on pure chaos, “Street Life” only barely climbing out of it, while “Pearl” quickly settles into a “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” vibe. (When Bryan Ferry opened his first solo album with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall,” many critics saw it as a joke; I thought it was his means of tacitly acknowledging one of his foremost lyrical influences.) They’re two of the album’s most openly rock (third such track being the Spanish-tinged “Serenade”), and while the songs remain highlights after all these years of listening to it, they’re only part of Stranded‘s story.
To be honest, much of this album eluded me at first: slower, even more elliptical, more quietly pretty than the bombastic cuts that first grabbed me, it hardly fit the profile of glam rock (where the band was frequently miscategorized at the time: think of groups like Sweet or Gary “Big Drums” Glitter). Indeed, most of Stranded is barely rock at all (hardest rockin’ of the RM catalog: Country Life) – more like eccentrically personal cabaret.

And then there’s “Psalm,” eight minutes of solemnly religious lyricism (hard to tell how serious Ferry is being with this, but he did later do a cover of “Amazing Grace” for one of his solo albums, so who knows?), much of it just Ferry and his piano ’til Andy Mackay’s improving sax, Phil Manzanera’s guitar and Paul Thompson’s heavily cadenced drums enter. If ever there was a track designed to test the patience of a fastpop focused listener like me, it’s this ‘un. Yet Ferry’s voice is so bald and affecting in this cut that I can never push “skip” on it.
I need to emphasize Ferry’s voice because, for all the brilliantly off-kilter musicianship of the rest of the band (Manzanera’s guitarwork catches me more than once on this disc – the soaring interlude to “Amazona,” for instance – it’s both studied and uncontrolled at the same time), Bryan remains the voice and vision of Roxy Music. A crooner’s instrument capable of attaining trills unheard since Tiny Tim frolicked on the soundstages of Laugh-In but also adept at plain melodic balladeering, Ferry was an unlikely lead for a rock band in the early seventies. And the persona he evoked, that of a world-weary roué perpetually unlucky in love and also too smart to know (as Peggy Lee would also realize) that “party time wasting” was not all there is, was not in sync with the way we in America, at least, wanted to see in our rockstars. (Like David Bowie, Roxy Music would have to wait for the disco era – where the beat could camouflage the lyrical irony – before really hitting big in the U.S.)
As a singer, Ferry is not as adept on Stranded as he would later get – at times you can hear him camping things up where later he’d be more subtle – but he’s still phenomenal. Listen to him on “Sunset,” the album’s gloomy finale (in a way, it’s his rewriting of “Seasons in The Sun” – the Jacques Brel version, not the sappy Rod McKuen Americanized translation), sounding elegantly reflective and rueful as he inhabits one man’s reflections of a wasted life, and it’s clear that the man belongs to the tradition of great actor vocalists. (Whether that’s rock ‘n’ roll probably depends on whether you believe Lou Reed’s “Heroin” is fully autobiographical or not.) To my ears it just cements the message of Stranded‘s cover: that this is not music for little boys – not even grown-up little boys.
In sum: a splendorous record, sad and thoughtful, propulsive when it needs to be and tranquilly melodic (c.f. “Just Like You,” which I’d love to hear a singer like Annie Lennox wrap her tonsils around) other times. It’s the album that hooked me into Roxy Music – and later into Ferry’s solo stuff – and for that I’m still thankful. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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