Roxy Music: Flesh + Blood 40 Years On

Couldn’t let 2020 squeak by without celebrating 40 years of Flesh + Blood.

As a young whippersnapper, along with Sgt. Pepper’s, it was probably the first LP I enjoyed all the way through. But these days it’s often mentioned as an afterthought to Avalon and the early albums (maybe Peter Saville’s cover rankles?).

It featured not one but three classic singles (‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Same Old Scene’, ‘Over You’), two distinctive cover versions, and was arguably one of the most influential collections of the 1980s.

It also perfectly compliments such contemporary new-wave/disco work from Blondie, Duran Duran and Japan (also sharing with those acts a reliance on the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, heard prominently in the intro of the below).

Flesh + Blood is the last Roxy studio album where Andy Mackay (sax) and Phil Manzanera (guitar) were major players if not songwriters (all tracks were written by Ferry apart from the covers, though Manzanera had a hand in ‘Over You’, ‘No Strange Delight’ and ‘Running Wild’). Both add memorable solos and nice ensemble work throughout.

It’s also a classic early-’80s bass album: reliably excellent Alan Spenner and Neil Jason joined new boy Gary Tibbs, fresh from his acting role in Hazel O’Connor’s ‘Breaking Glass’ movie and about to become one of Adam’s Ants.

The great Andy Newmark piled in on drums, having just completed work on Lennon/Ono’s Double Fantasy, alongside fellow NYC sessionman Allan Schwartzberg (who plays a blinder on ‘Same Old Scene’).

Londoner Rhett Davies was on board as co-producer, fresh from groundbreaking work with Brian Eno (both are apparent influences on the psychedelic/ambient outros to ‘My Only Love’ and ‘Eight Miles High’, and atmospheric overdubbing throughout), working with the band at his favourite Basing Street Studios (later Sarm) in London’s Notting Hill. There were also occasional sessions at Manzanera’s Gallery Studios in Chertsey, Surrey.

Burgeoning star NYC mixing engineer Bob Clearmountain took time off his work with Chic to add some hefty bottom-end and fat drums at the fabled Power Station studios. Bob Ludwig’s ‘definitive’ 1999 CD remaster is one of the loudest, bassiest re-releases of the last few decades (but not a patch on the original cassette!).

But basically Flesh + Blood is very much Ferry’s show, layering Yamaha CP-80 piano (in his trademark ‘no thirds’ style) and synths to great effect, and even adding some amusingly sleazy guitar on the title track. He also sings superbly, delivering a particularly impassioned performance on ‘Running Wild’.

Even when he veers slightly out of tune, as on ‘Rain Rain Rain’, it’s an artful, conscious move (unlike these days!), a la Dylan or Bowie. His lyrics are generally fascinating – dreamlike, elliptical, odes to unrequited love and possibly one or two illicit substances.

Flesh + Blood was a big hit in the UK, reaching #1 on two separate occasions between May and September 1980. But surprisingly it didn’t quite work in the States, just scraping into the top 40, possibly not helped by a stinking review in Rolling Stone (‘…such a shockingly bad Roxy record that it provokes a certain fascination…’!).

But Ferry could see a path ahead, and would repeat the winning formula (drum machine + painstaking overdubs + much-pondered-over lyrics/melody lines) for the rest of the decade.

Rhett Davies had his work cut out – he moved on to work with Robert Fripp on the classic King Crimson reunion album Discipline.

Roxy Music’s Avalon: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 1st June 1982

9/10

How do you like your classic album: consistent in tone/texture or mercurial and unpredictable like Sgt. Pepper’s (released on this day 50 years ago)? Avalon definitely belongs in the former camp. Beautifully performed, recorded, mixed and mastered, it maintains its mood throughout.

Through a variety of working methods – some originated on previous albums Manifesto and Flesh & Blood – Messrs Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay arrived at Roxy’s perfect studio swansong and, for many, the peak of ’80s sophisti-pop.

Today, Avalon sounds completely different to almost anything else released in 1982. It’s always a shock seeing reruns of Ferry on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming something from the album – the whole package seems way too refined and luxurious for the worldly environs of a TV studio.

Crucial to Avalon‘s success was the reinstatement of the crack Flesh & Blood ‘backroom’ team: producer Rhett Davies and legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Also key was the choice of studios: Compass Point in Nassau and Power Station in New York, whose staircase was put to good use, as Davies told ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine: ‘The main thing at the Power Station was the stairwell. It had an unbelievable sound. You’d put anything through it and you’d just go “Yeah, we’ve got to have that.”’

Davies also brought with him another recording technique developed from working with Brian Eno on Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World. ‘Eno had opened me up to the way of working where you walk in with a blank sheet, stick some white noise down, count one to 100 and then fill in the spaces, and it was great working that way. When I started working with Roxy, Bryan had only known the “Let’s cut the track with the band in the studio” approach. I said, “Well, there is another way of working. We can put down our groove exactly as you want it synthetically, using a rhythm box, and the musicians can then play to that groove.” The musicians came in and responded to the atmosphere that was already on tape.’ (Eno of course also utilised a similar approach on Bowie’s Low and Heroes.)

Accordingly, drummer Andy Newmark was very often the last musician to overdub – most tracks were first laid down with a Linn drum machine backing. ‘The Main Thing’, ‘India’ (which sounds like Ferry was checking out Miles Davis’s On The Corner) and ‘The Space Between’ are the most obvious results of this approach, essentially jam sessions built on one-chord vamps. This painterly, piecemeal style of recording was also meat and drink to Ferry who was struggling with writer’s block at the time.

The title track was apparently a delightful accident, rescued at the eleventh hour after the song had almost been shelved: Davies: ‘We were mixing the album, and the version of the song that we’d done just wasn’t working out, so as we were mixing we recut the entire song with a completely different groove. We finished it off the last weekend we were mixing. In the quiet studio time they used to let local bands come in to do demos, Bryan and I popped out for a coffee and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went “What a fantastic voice!” That turned out to be Yanick Etienne who sang all the high stuff on ‘Avalon’. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band’s manager, came in and translated.’

Some have claimed that Avalon‘s beautiful closing track ‘Tara’ demonstrates a rare example of Ferry’s humour, ‘ta-ra’ of course being Northern English slang for ‘goodbye’ (the track was co-written with Mackay).

Lyrically, Avalon shows Ferry becoming a superb, somewhat surrealist chronicler of intense love affairs, often painting himself as the windswept loner weighed down by desire. Musically, the album is a marvel of ensemble playing – solid but expressive bass (Neil Jason and Alan Spenner) and drums (Newmark – superb), Ferry’s impressionistic piano and synths, colourful percussion from Jimmy Maelen, and spare, tasteful guitar licks placed around the stereo spectrum from Phil Manzanera and Neil Hubbard (who also plays a great solo on ‘To Turn You On’).

And finally there’s extra spice from Andy Mackay on various saxes and Fonzi Thornton on vocals, whose uncanny alto compliments Ferry so well.

Avalon was a hit, reaching #1 in the UK (though, surprisingly, only #53 in the US) and producing three UK hit singles. Sonically and lyrically, it also set the template for all of Ferry’s subsequent solo projects. Happy birthday to a true ’80s classic, oft imitated but never surpassed.