March 23 – Ferry/Eno Combo Kept Pleasing In ’73

Fans were pleased by Roxy Music this day in 1973. The then art rock quintet put out their second album, For your Pleasure 49 years ago today. The album picked up where their eclectic and odd debut album left off the year before. For fans it’s noteworthy for both being the most “out there” of their output and for being the last one with Eno on it. He quit the band shortly after the record came out, to chase his own musical rainbows and get more seriously into production – something that U2 would be very grateful for about a decade later!

They recorded it at George Martin’s Air Studio in London (not to be confused with Abbey Road where Martin did so much of his magic with the Beatles) and had another Beatles connection on it. They brought in Chris Thomas to co-produce with them (and possibly John Anthony, who’s credited on some versions of the albums and not on others.) Eno seemingly began to cut his chops as a producer on this one but having Thomas to help was invaluable. Previously he’d been working extensively with Procol Harum in the studio and had assisted Martin with the last few Beatles recordings, allegedly doing the full production on their song “Happiness is a Warm Gun”.

The songs were written by Bryan Ferry and it was Ferry at his most adventurous. Add to that unusual instruments (Ferry played guitar on one track, an oddity, and mellotron on several; Eno did all sorts of ahead-of-its-time things like playing around with tape loops in the studio to add other-wordly effects) and striking arrangements and you have a very odd-sounding record. Odd, but strangely catchy. The standouts were the album’s opposites. On the one hand, there was the dynamic, glam rock track “Do the Strand”, which was a single in much of Europe and sounded precisely like a hit single. On the other, there were the lengthy, moody, more than a little creepy “The Bogus Man” and the ode to a rubber sex doll, “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, with lines like “My plain-wrapper baby, your skin is like vinyl” and which became a standout in a slightly livelier version on their first live album, Viva!

The album squeaked into the American album chart but was far from a hit, but at home in Britain it made it up to #4 and went gold (every Roxy studio album would go gold or better there, when all was said and done) despite the lack of a hit single. “Do the Strand” wasn’t released domestically as a 7” then, and the band was riding on the success of “Pyjamarama”, a top 10 standalone single released almost simultaneously (and later added to many pressings of the album and CD).

Critics liked it then, and still do. Q consider it the 33rd best British album of all-time and Rolling Stone now include it among the 500 greatest albums – British or otherwise – ever calling it “highly stylish, abstract-leaning art rock”. Pitchfork rate it 9.5 out of 10 and noted at length that both Ferry and Eno came from low-income, working class homes and went to art school and both were vivid influences on them; feeling “rat-trapped” in the “impermeable class system” and influenced by being surrounded by artists as youth, they gravitated towards glamor and glitz and viewed music as their escape. Allmusic consider it one of the band’s four 5-star albums, particularly “Do the Strand” and loving how “the tensions between Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry propelled their music to great, unexpected heights.” Heights they would perhaps top in some future albums but never with the level of unexpectedness.

 

 

March 4 – DJs Were Getting It On The Radio 50 Years Ago

Huge at home in Britain but essentially a one-hit wonder in North America, T Rex had their one hit here shine 50 years back. “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” peaked at #10 on Billboard this day in 1972.

In the UK, it was the second #1 hit for them after “Hot Love.” It sat in the midst of a run of 10-straight singles to make it into the top 5 there. It was no surprise to them that it did well in the States. Bolan wrote it in L.A. with the idea of making a hit that would be palatable to the American market as well as the home one. He actually wrote it late one night while partying at the house of Howard Kaylan, aka “Flo” of Flo & Eddie and The Turtles. The rocker was said to be about sex, but as Songfacts note, few objected since it’s “imagery was comically vague.”

The band led by singer Marc Bolan had begun in 1967 as a more folk-oriented group but by 1971’s Electric Warrior had moved into electric, psychedelia-tinged territory to the dismay of older, Hippie fans but delight of the younger crowds. It became their only non-compilation #1 album in Britain, and only gold one in the U.S. Along with David Bowie, they were more or less responsible for originating the Glam Rock movement, which later spurred on Roxy Music and Sweet and was a huge influence on the likes of The Smiths, Oasis and Siouxshie and the Banshees.

Robert Palmer and his side-project, Power Station actually did a wee bit better with their version of the song here in 1985, getting to #9 on the charts. That came some eight years after T Rex broke up after the untimely death of Bolan in a car crash.

December 17 – A Hunky Dory Day For Glam Fans

It was a Hunky Dory kind of day for art rock or glam rock fans 50 years ago. That was because the David Bowie album of that name came out this day in 1971.

The singer soon to be nicknamed “Starman”s own star was on the rise by then, particularly in his UK homeland. Hunky Dory would only accelerate that rise. It was his fourth album, but first on RCA Records, kicking off a highly-successful string of ’70s albums with them. He brought guitarist Mick Ronson back to work with him; the pair had already forged quite a friendship and creative bond through his previous work. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman was the main keyboardist. However, RCA changed things up a little for it by bringing in a new producer to help Bowie, Ken Scott. Scott had been a studio engineer at Abbey Road studios and helped out on various Beatles albums and had just finished off working with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass.

Although they recorded the album in London, Bowie looked elsewhere for inspiration. He’d later say it “reflected my newfound enthusiasm for this new continent (North America) that had been opened to me.” That showed up not only a little in the sound but in the songs themselves…”Andy Warhol” and “A Song For Bob Dylan” for instance. On the former, although Warhol and Bowie would become friends, the American was apparently not altogether impressed. Bowie says the song was played for Andy and he hated it. He got up and left the room, “he had nothing to say at all, absolutely nothing.” There’s no word on whether Dylan liked his song any better.

When it was done it was an 11-song set that veered all over the musical map, as Bowie typically did at his best early on in his career. There was what the BBC described as the “proto-punk” “Queen Bitch,” written for Lou Reed, side by side with the almost folky “A Song For Bob Dylan.” And there was the lead-off song on the album that would become one of his signature pieces, “Changes.”

Reaction was enthusiastic right away. Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits exclaimed “my view is that David Bowie is the best writer in Britain at this moment.” Britain’s Melody Maker declared it “the most inventive piece of songwriting to appear in some time,” and the New York Times one-upped that, saying Bowie was “the most intellectually-brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression.” Unlike some albums of that era, the praise hasn’t dimmed in the decades since. Spin, Rolling Stone, Blender and allmusic all have retroactively given it a perfect 5-star rating at different times. The latter applauded him for “leaving heavy metal behind” (that being a reference to his prior album, The Man Who Sold the World) and called this one “fresh post-modern pop…a kaleidoscopic array of pop styles tied together only by Bowie’s sense of vision.” Rolling Stone have consistently ranked it as his second-best album (behind only Ziggy Stardust) and in the top 200 greatest albums of all-time on various lists they’ve published through the years.

For all that, critics seemed to like it a bit more than the ordinary public. RCA didn’t promote it that heavily, especially in North America where they feared he was a one hit wonder and perhaps worried about his androgynous look on the cover… a photo of him in which he said he was trying to channel Marlene Dietrich and the glory of the war-era Silver Screen sirens… a bit much perhaps for Americans to swallow, they thought. As a result (not to mention the fact that the music was boundary-pushing which seldom results in smash hits when they arrive) it did well in the UK, getting to #3, by far his best-showing to that point, and being his first to go platinum. There, the single “Life on Mars” hit #3. Over here though, the album peaked at #57 in the States, helped along by “Changes,” which just missed the top 40. Needless to say, as the world of music caught up to him through the ’70s, the album continued to sell decently and “Changes” has become a rock-radio staple, yet it still hasn’t moved enough copies to be certified gold anywhere besides Britain.

November 27 – Sweet…Now T-Rex Had Competition

Sweet! Just in time for Christmas, fans of one of Britain’s first and foremost Glam rock bands had a chance to have their favorites on an LP. The Sweet (who sometimes lost the “the” and just went by “Sweet”) put out their debut album this day in 1971. It had the incongruous title Funny How Sweet Co-co Can Be, which borrowed from their two hit singles and of course, the band name.

The Sweet formed in the dust of a few other bands, in London in 1968. They had an ear for both the Archies and The Who and set out to make melodic, “bubblegum” hard rock, something rather new back then. Their sound and appearance also owed more than a passing nod to T-Rex who were quickly becoming a sensation there. The quartet of singer Brian Connolly, drummer Mick Tucker, guitarist & keyboardist Andy Scott and bassist Steve Priest played their first gig in spring of ’68 and shortly after signed to Fontana Records. However, their first single, “Slow Motion” never got out of slow motion to move onto the charts, so they were dropped and then signed to EMI Records. The label famous for having the Beatles before and the Sex Pistols (briefly) later, believed in The Sweet’s musical direction and trendy, “glam” look with coiffed hair and platform boots. They made the smart move of teaming them up with the then up-and-coming duo of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman who began to write material for them and would eventually produce them also. This worked much better than the Fontana effort, with their first single there, “Funny Funny” making it to #13 in the UK. Some – Casey Kasem being one – thought it was a bit too obvious a nod to the Archies and “Sugar Sugar” but the fans didn’t seem to mind. The second EMI single, in summer of ’71, “Co-co” did better still, getting to #2 at home and actually being a #1 hit in South Africa and some continental European lands.

So, with the band on the rise, and having a few new tunes ready, it was time to launch the album. Funny How Sweet Co-co Can Be contained the two hits and a handful of other tracks which were already released plus several new tracks, mostly written by Chapman and Chinn. As well there was a cover of the Supremes “Reflections” and some later editions also included covers of classics “Paperback Writer” and “Great Balls of Fire.” However, with no brand new single released from it, the Brit fans didn’t find a lot to entice them to the checkouts and the album failed to chart there. Surprisingly, in Finland it hit #1.

However, they kept releasing singles readily and “Little Willy” soon became their next top 10 in the UK and before long, they’d break it big over here as well with Desolation Boulevard and the song “Ballroom Blitz”, another Chapman and Chinn effort.

Allmusic gave it a decent 4-stars calling it a “record of almost unholy pop pleasure” which was the “first step towards establishing Chinn and Chapman as a songwriting brand name”. They liked the singles and some of the material although they did caution listeners some of the new tracks were “a lackluster rendering of …unappealing American soft rock.”

So perhaps instead of a “sweet” dessert, …Co-co was just the appetizer!

May 16 – Chinn Had An Ear For Hits

Without him, Britain’s Glam movement wouldn’t have been nearly as “glam”, and people might not have been quite as good to Tina Turner. But he’s hardly a household name, except perhaps in his Nashville home, where people will be wishing Nicky Chinn a happy 76th birthday!

Chinn was born and raised in London, and apparently was a talented musical mind early on. He was writing movie score music by the late-’60s when he met Mike Chapman, a waiter at an establishment he hung out in! They found they clicked on several levels and could write some pretty catchy tunes. He says “we were best friends and musically we saw things exactly the same way.” They soon connected with The Sweet, and became their writers of choice and even record producers through their hey day which included 13 top 20 singles through the ’70s in the UK, including ones like “Wee Willie”, Blockbuster” and their North American breakthrough, “Ballroom Blitz.” That happens to be the record Chinn says is his favorite of all the ones he’s written. “It’s got everything,” he says, “it’s got drama, it’s got a wonderful vocal performance, wonderful performance by the band.”

Although the almost “in-house” writing team for The Sweet, other acts called on Chapman and Chinn as well, including Exile, for whom they wrote “Kiss You All Over” and Suzi Quatro, for whom they wrote several hits including the one which was her North American break, “Stumblin’ In.” Although the output of hits slowed in the ’80s, Chinn still scored several biggies, including “Heart and Soul”, originally recorded by Exile but made a hit by Huey Lewis, Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good To Me”, and one-hit wonder Toni Basil’s one hit – “Mickey.” He says that’s the only hit he’s written that perhaps surprised him. “It wasn’t a pop era in America and I didn’t think radio would play it,” he admits, noting Basil was a “completely unknown artist” at the time. Surprise or not, it hit #1 in the States, Canada and Australia.

Of late, Chinn’s written some country music as well as Selena Gomez’s 2010 hit “Live Like There’s No tomorrow.” While some songwriters work randomly, or wait for divine inspiration, Chinn says he had a formula for songs. “I always start with the title. I go in (to a recording session) with a list of titles and say ‘which ones do you like?’ … (it) gives you a theme, an idea where you’re going, whether it’s up-tempo or a ballad.”

So why hasn’t the three-time Ivor Novello winner ever found any titles he liked and record them himself? “I can explain it very easily. I can’t sing!” When you can write like Nicky, that’s quite OK.

April 13 – Spacehog Rocketed Up Briefly

A few days ago we looked at one of the ’70s great “one hit wonders” – Ace’s “How Long?” Today we skip ahead about two decades to one of the ’90s best singles that became the act’s single hit: “In the Meantime” by Spacehog. It hit the U.S. top 40 on this day in 1996.

It was the first anyone had really heard of Spacehog, and now a quarter century on, it might be fair to say also the last. The group was British – the leader, Royston Langdon (the bassist, lead singer and primary songwriter) and his brother Anthony (one of two guitarists) were from Yorkshire, England but curiously enough, met the other two, also British, while staying in New York City. The story has it they met their drummer, Johnny Cragg, at a restaurant where Cragg worked… killing rats!

They loved new techonology but old, British glam-rock ala T-Rex, early Roxy Music and Ziggy-era Bowie and fittingly, dubbed themselves “The band that fell to earth.” Which, along with their nationality and residence probably explains their debut album’s title, Resident Alien. They signed with Elektra Records in ’94 and had the album out (in some regions sublet to Sire Records) the following year.

Allmusic summed it up quite well: “retro glam vocation (played) with panache, flash and good humor but ultimately there’s not a lot of substance behind the theatrical poses.” However, “In the Meantime”, the lead single was definitely catchy and just different enough from the Brit music of the time (e.g. Blur, Oasis) and the American music of the time (e.g. Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam) to make one notice it. Langston says of it, “it’s me trying to reach people…and I think it’s also me talking to myself, getting through my wan axiety and fear of death.”

Whatever it meant, it was a likeable song and it reached #32 in the U.S., although it did much better on selected radio stations, in fact topping Billboard‘s mainstream rock chart. It also made the top 40 in Canada and their UK and helped Resident Alien get them a gold record in the U.S. and a platinum one to the north in Canada.

Unfortunately for them, fairly good reviews, a guest vocal appearance from Michael Stipe and a slot opening for Pearl Jam on tour couldn’t help propel the follow-up, The Chinese Album far on the charts and Elektra quickly ditched them. They’ve continued from time to time, and Royston plus two of his brothers formed a band called Arckid briefly, appearing at Lollapallooza in ’07. Things haven’t been all bad for Royston since Spacehog’s moment in the sun, mind you. He married actress Liv Tyler in 2003 (they’re divorced but say they are still friends) and the use in video games like Rock Band has kept “In the Meantime” in the public’s ear… and the royalty cheques in his mailbox!

November 30 – John & His Furry, Wobbly Guitar

Happy birthday to the guitarist who made the Psychedelic Furs sound…well, so “furry”. John Ashton turns 63 today.

Ashton was born in London and joined the young band on his 21st birthday – thus this day in 1978. He was at the time the secondary, rhythm guitarist behind Roger Morris, but Ashton tended to define the band’s early sound more. “To me, the Psychedelic Furs sound was two guitars and a saxophone,” he told Veer magazine. “My sound is usually heavy rhythm guitar and I use effects quite extensively, mainly flangers… which is the ‘Sister Europe’ wobbly guitar sound.”

He was in the band through their heyday, right up until they went on hiatus in the early-’90s, but his love is clearly the early days of the group. He described that era as sounding “somewhere between the Velvet Underground and a little bit of Roxy Music and the aggression of punk music.” While singer Richard Butler looked to commercialize their sound a little in the mid-’80s, using producer Todd Rundgren on their Forever Now album, for example, John wasn’t entirely pleased with the metamorphisis although he remained on good terms with all of the band members. He did rejoin the Furs for several tours when they reformed in the early 2000s, but skipped out of the 2015 tour and wasn’t on their latest comeback album, Made of Rain.

Keeping busy though, he produced a number of records in the ’90s including ones for artists like Sisters of Mercy and Marianne Faithfull. When he thought it was “blatantly obvious there was going to be no new Furs” he started to put together a new band around 2014, Satellite Paradiso. Not believing you can never go home again, he brought in members of David Bowie’s old band (he noted that while many Brit new wave artists like Squeeze and Elvis Costello were primarily raised on the Beatles, he grew up adoring Bowie and Roxy Music) as well as various other artists and his old former Furs’ guitar partner, Roger Morris. The album garnered decent reviews, but low sales. If some thought it sounded like old Furs, it was no coincidence. He says he began writing some of the songs while he was still in that group and based some songs loosely on their old catalog. “I modelled ‘Angelic’ on ‘Pretty in Pink’ “, he admits, “with a few twists and turns thrown in.”

Ashton may like glam British influences but prefers this side of the ocean. He and his family now reside in Woodstock, New York.

September 26 – Seventy-five And Suave

Happy birthday to one of the most stylish and style-setting singers of our time. Bryan Ferry turns 75 today!

Ferry is of course best-known for being the suave singer for Roxy Music although he’s actually compiled a heftier catalog of records on his own than with the British group that along with T-Rex and David Bowie more or less started the whole Glam Rock movement in the ’70s, and then also rather Bowie-like, morphed into one of the premier “new romantic” acts of the ’80s.

Ferry actually got a degree in Fine Arts and was briefly an art teacher before concentrating on music and forming Roxy Music around the end of 1970. Their first album took Europe by storm and was nothing if not new and avant garde. Through the years, especially after Brian Eno quit the group, it morphed into a stylish, elegant pop outfit remembered for 10 UK top 10 singles including their #1 cover version of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.”

During the Roxy years, Ferry put out a number of solo albums heavy on old cover versions ranging from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” to relatively contemporary tunes like “Don’t Worry Baby.” After the band broke up, he put out more original material, with his first post-Roxy album, Boys & Girls hitting #1 in the UK and being a reasonable success in North America as well, perhaps thanks to his presence on the Live Aid stage with David Gilmour in his band. Ferry’s put out a total of 16 solo studio albums, his last one, Bittersweet, two years back, being credited to Bryan Ferry & his Orchestra, consisting of reworkings of old Roxy and solo songs done in a Big Band/Jazz style. Fittingly, he’s appeared of late as a cabaret singer in the German TV show Babylon Berlin. And on top of that, he’s contributed to a bevy of soundtracks including Bright Lights, Big City, Phenomenon and Legend.

He was expecting to tour extensively this year, but you know the rest…Covid caused that to be postponed indefinitely. Instead he’s put out a live album from 1974 from his first solo tour. By the way, if you think he has the looks of a model, you’re right. Marks & Spencer used him as a fashion model for menswear in 2006!

May 23 – Ferry ‘Flesh’ed Out Sound With Roxy Music

Ever-morphing and ever-popular in Europe, Roxy Music put out their seventh (and penultimate) studio album, Flesh + Blood this day 40 years back.

The 1980 album was surprisingly the first of their records to go platinum in the UK and the second one to top the charts there; it cracked the U.S. top 40 which they’d only done once before. Roxy was down to just a core trio of Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera by this time but were well-supplemented with a raft of studio musicians including Paul Carrack on this one. The album was a little uneven and focused largely on love lost and also included a couple of ’60s cover songs – Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and the Byrds “Eight Miles High.”

Critics weren’t impressed; Rolling Stone called it “such a shockingly bad Roxy Music record” while years later would upgrade it to a 3-star rating saying it was “good – but lacked the spark that made some of the earlier albums so good.” Allmusic similarly gave it an unusually bad 2-star rating, surprising in that the review wasn’t all that bad really. They suggested that at its best, it was “effortlessly suave and charming”, that “Oh Yeah” was one of their best singles ever, but that the cover songs were superfluous and showed the band was running low on ideas. Ferry’s own website says of it “a record of grace and graciousness, sense and sensuality” and while top 10 singles “Oh Yeah” and “Over You” are good enough, it’s “Same Old Scene” that steals the show. Biographer David Buckley notes it was the band’s “most perfect dance record” and that a year later “the charts would be full of songs with a similar musical trajectory.”

Roxy Music continued to slide towards being a super-smooth and sophisticated pop outfit with their next album, Avalon, which would be their most successful – and last. 

March 23 – Roxy Avoided Sophomore Slump, For Your Pleasure

Fans (like Morrissey) were pleased by Roxy Music this day in 1973. The then art rock quintet put out their second album, For your Pleasure 47 years ago today. The album picked up where their eclectic and odd debut album left off the year before. For fans it’s noteworthy for both being the most “out there” of their output and for being the last one with Eno on it. He quit the band shortly after the record came out, to chase his own musical rainbows and get more seriously into production – something that U2 would be very grateful for about a decade later!

They recorded it at George Martin’s Air Studio in London (not to be confused with Abbey Road where Martin did so much of his magic with the Beatles) and had another Beatles connection on it. They brought in Chris Thomas to co-produce with them (and possibly John Anthony, who’s credited on some versions of the albums and not on others.) Eno seemingly began to cut his chops as a producer on this one but having Thomas to help was invaluable. Previously he’d been working extensively with Procul Harum in the studio and had assisted Martin with the last few Beatles recordings, allegedly doing the full production on their song “Happiness is a Warm Gun”.

The songs were written by Bryan Ferry and it was Ferry at his most adventurous. Add to that unusual instruments (Ferry played guitar on one track, an oddity, and mellotron on several; Eno did all sorts of ahead-of-its-time things like playing around with tape loops in the studio to add other-wordly effects) and striking arrangements and you have a very odd-sounding record. Odd, but strangely catchy. The standouts were the album’s opposites. On the one hand, there was the dynamic, glam rock track “Do the Strand”, which was a single in much of Europe and sounded precisely like a hit single. On the other, there were the lengthy, moody, more than a little creepy “The Bogus Man” and the ode to a rubber sex doll, “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, with lines like “My plain-wrapper baby, your skin is like vinyl” and which became a standout in a slightly livelier version on their first live album, Viva!

The album squeaked into the American album chart but was far from a hit, but at home in Britain it made it up to #4 and went gold (every Roxy studio album would go gold or better there, when all was said and done) despite the lack of a hit single. “Do the Strand” wasn’t released domestically as a 7” then, and the band was riding on the success of “Pyjamarama”, a top 10 standalone single released almost simultaneously (and later added to many pressings of the album and CD). that single, by the way, so impressed a trio of British lasses that they took their band name from a derivation of it – Bananarama.

Critics liked it then, and still do. Q consider it the 33rd best British album of all-time and Rolling Stone now include it among the 500 greatest albums – British or otherwise – ever calling it “highly stylish, abstract-leaning art rock”. Pitchfork rate it 9.5 out of 10 and noted at length that both Ferry and Eno came from low-income, working class homes and went to art school and both were vivid influences on them; feeling “rat-trapped” in the “impermeable class system” and influenced by being surrounded by artists as youth, they gravitated towards glamor and glitz and viewed music as their escape. Allmusic consider it one of the band’s four 5-star albums, particularly “Do the Strand” and loving how “the tensions between Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry propelled their music to great, unexpected heights.” Heights they would perhaps top in some future albums but never with the level of unexpectedness.