#396: Roxy Music, "For Your Pleasure" (1973)

The band history of Roxy Music lends itself to a number of those “what if” scenarios historians and others alternately deplore or ponder. What if Robert Fripp had selected Bryan Ferry as King Crimson’s vocalist? Roxy may never have existed and, also, what would a Ferry/KC have sounded like? What if Eno hadn’t left Roxy after For Your Pleasure? How different would the ensuing albums sound? And—to reference a scene from This is Spinal Tap—what if For Your Pleasure’s cover had featured Amanda Lear on a leash held by Ferry instead of Lear walking a chained panther with Ferry looking on as a boyish chauffeur? To extend the Spinal Tap (il)logic, there’s such a fine line between clever/stupid and sexy/sexist. Yet, fine lines are one of the things For Your Pleasure is about. It constantly shifts modes, tones, melodies, and boundaries—and rarely in the manner one might think.

There are those who consider Roxy’s first two albums their most ambitious or best, with For Your Pleasure serving as the better of the two. I am one of those people. Opinions on music, as with all art forms, are highly subjective, however I happen to think the objectivity of my perspective on For Your Pleasure benefits from the facts that it appeared before I was born, that no one I knew listened to Roxy, and that I heard it for the first time over two decades after its release—amid the grunge/techno/rave menagerie of the mid-1990s. I believe this temporal remove is largely responsible for my own reactions to the album often seeming at variance with those of music critics from the 1970s/80s.

Critics of previous generations, for example, have celebrated or at least recognized a sexiness of sound and appearance. I experienced neither. I’m not sure I can define a “sexy sound” in music and although I find Amanda Lear beautiful, the album’s cover shot is not unlike what one might glimpse inside the pages of any number of fashion magazines in a doctor’s office waiting room.  Another discrepancy is that while earlier critics focused a great deal on Bryan Ferry, I had never heard of him before. The only musician name familiar to me was Eno and I remember wondering if he was in fact the same guy who was making U2’s albums sound progressively weirder. So much for Generation X backtracking and ignorance.

On the positive side of all this, I think if a person comes to an album with virtually no prior knowledge of it or the band and comes away impressed, then chances are there’s something rather unique and distinguished about that album. Such was my reaction to For Your Pleasure. Listening to it for the first time over two decades after its initial release, my observations, in no particular order, broke down as follows: 1) This singer reminds me a lot of David Bowie, only with stronger pipes; 2) The rhythm section really drives the hell out of these songs when it wants to; 3) This lyricist has some convictions and something serious to say; 4) The guy working synth and effects is incredible. Looking back, I think the last of these points is the most interesting. Hearing Eno’s work on that album for the first time during an era in which a lot of his innovations had been incorporated into digital machines for rap, techno, and trance music, it amazed me how ingenious, warm, and alive his effects sounded using comparatively primitive analog equipment.

For all the glitz and sexiness critics seem to have associated with Roxy and, especially, Ferry, For Your Pleasure, as a whole, is a rather dark, haunting album. The song “Beauty Queen,” for example, laments how the lovers “never could work out” and that even life’s patterns are drawn in sand. Moreover, despite bearing the label of artsy pop band, no single was released from For Your Pleasure, though the album rose as high as #4 on the UK charts. Lastly, it’s the only Roxy studio album that contains a nine-minute song, the end of which includes a Judi Dench voiceover.

Like a lot of strong writing, much of For Your Pleasure’s musical power and achievement stem from its contradictions. The listener does indeed experience pleasure from the songs, even though the lyrics themselves hardly speak of it. Ferry’s usually conventional melodies are alternately complemented or foiled by Eno’s sonic experiments (it is unfortunate, though not surprising, the two found it impossible to continue working together). Even selecting Amanda Lear as the cover’s female sex symbol is misleading, given that she was born a male and spent time performing in various European transsexual clubs. The album also reveals a sense of humor, however macabre, as underscored by its love song for an inflatable sex doll (“I blew you up / but you blew my mind”).

There’s a traceless quality to good enduring art, regardless of the medium, which eludes articulation. Based on the slick Chris Thomas production quality of the album and not having glanced at the liner notes, I remember during my first exposure thinking For Your Pleasure must have been recorded in the late 1980s. So there I was, listening to the album in the mid-1990s, assuming it was from 80s, and subsequently shocked to discover it had first appeared in 1973.

Sitting here, absorbing the album in 2015, I’m struck again by its timeless innovations and contradictions. Roxy would move on to make other strong albums. Even Eno himself admitted his departure allowed the band to become more focused and commercial. I agree. More focused and commercial? Yes. More artistically innovative and ambitious? No. It’s also no coincidence Eno would move on to work on what I consider David Bowie’s best albums: Sound and Vision and “Heroes.” What Roxy lost in Eno became the gain of numerous others.

As guitarist Phil Manzanera recalls of the album’s development, “We found ourselves being successful and having a lot of expectation. We said: let’s go and do something different, something weird and wonderful. Let’s explore.” And, for what may have been the final time, the band did just that. Don’t believe me? Go listen to it—for your pleasure.

—Casey Clabough