Salon des Refusés: Roxy Music

In 1863, the Salon des Refusés was launched to counter the conservative aesthetics enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts in the annual Paris Salon. That year, the “rejects” included such later revered painters as Manet, Courbet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne. Perhaps it is now time to establish a Salon des Refusés for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s rejects.

The rules of eligibility for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include:

Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.

And yet many artists who have had huge impacts on the development and evolution of rock & roll have been snubbed over and over, including: Kraftwerk, Chic, Big Star, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Television, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Joy Division.

Roxy Music was a thoroughly British band. Every one of their eight studio albums entered the U.K. top ten, with three of them topping the charts, while only three entered the U.S. top 40, none breaching the top 20. They had numerous top 10 singles in the U.K., beginning with their debut, “Virginia Plain,” . . .

. . . but only one top 40 hit in the U.S., “Love Is the  Drug,” which reached only #30.

Many British bands in the ’60s and ’70s were formed in art schools. However, as Michael Bracewell’s excellent pre-history of the band, Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music, makes very clear, bandleader Bryan Ferry took his art studies far more seriously than most would-be rockers. He was particularly influenced by the instruction of British pop artist Richard Hamilton at the University of Newcastle.

Richard Hamilton is perhaps best known to the general public for designing the cover of The Beatles, AKA the “White Album.” He and the Independent Group launched British pop art (Hamilton is credited with the first documented use of the term “pop art”) in their section of the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, when Andy Warhol was still drawing shoes. (Bryan Ferry would later record a solo song titled “This Is Tomorrow.”)

Both U.K. and U.S. pop art reveled in contemporary pop culture and embraced its imagery, but those on opposite sides of “the pond” approached the similar material in very different ways. Early U.S. Pop tended to focus on and blow up individual images: flags and targets (Jasper Johns), single frames from comic books (Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol), consumer goods like Campbell soup cans or Brillo boxes, celebrity and/or tabloid photos (Warhol).

U.K. Pop also appropriated images of (mostly American) comic books and consumer goods, but they were more likely to mash them up in a postmodern pastiche, as in Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, which made a big impression at This Is Tomorrow . . .

todays-homes

. . . and later, presumably, on Bryan Ferry. Could this living room be the setting of “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” on Roxy Music’s second album, For Your Pleasure?

Of course, there were trans-Atlantic bridges between the two movements, particularly in the person of Mark Lancaster. Hamilton supplied his student with an introduction to Warhol, for whom Lancaster briefly worked as an assistant. He even appeared in a few of Warhol’s films.

Upon his return to the U.K., Lancaster shared his travel photos:

Back in Newcastle I put together a slide show for the school, with all the things I had photographed in New York, and music like that at the Factory, such as Lesley Gore singing “It’s My Party,” and ending with the taxi sequence with “Moon River” playing, because it reminded me, like all of New York in 1964, of Breakfast at Tiffanys. Images from America were still pretty rare, and some of the students, including my friends Stephen Buckley and Bryan Ferry, were impressed and affected by this experience. I remember I was just trying to keep the projector and the record player going and trying not to cry.

The Factory and Warhol’s traveling multi-media show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, also provided a platform for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees The Velvet Underground. In some ways, Roxy Music was to Richard Hamilton as The Velvet Underground was to Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground had the amphetamine focus of Warhol’s pop art, homing in on a single riff, chord, even note, repeating it endlessly with very little variation. Roxy Music engaged in musical pastiche, juxtaposing bits and pieces from many different musical styles from many different contexts and eras.

This postmodern approach was not just apparent in their music. As Chic‘s Nile Rodgers explains, Roxy Music was a whole package. . . .

. . . integrating music, performance, fashion and art into their overall image.

With few exceptions (Richard Hamilton’s cover of the “White Album” being a rare and notable one), most pop and rock albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s featured the performers on the cover. Roxy Music had different designs. They featured classic pin up style glamour shots by Karl Stoecker, beginning with former Bond girl Kari-Ann Muller on the cover of the band’s debut album:

Bryan Ferry was known to date most of these cover models, even became engaged to Jerry Hall (before losing her to Mick Jagger):

(In his autobiography, Le Freak, Nile Rodgers tells the funny story of Chic also imitating this aspect of Roxy’s overall package, featuring two models on the cover of their debut album, only to end up hiring two female singers for their tours because fans kept asking where the women on the cover were. Their next several album covers featured the band.)

Roxy Music was not just Bryan Ferry, though, as quickly becomes evident when you compare Roxy’s albums to Ferry’s solo albums. Even though the latter feature a few of the same songs and even some of the same musicians (as well as Nile Rodgers, who has played on several of Ferry’s later solo albums), they sound very different from Roxy albums. Roxy Music was very much a collaborative project, with guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay and drummer Paul Thompson being the other constants in the band.

Perhaps foremost among Ferry’s collaborators in Roxy Music, at least at the beginning, was Brian Eno who played John Cale to Ferry’s Lou Reed. Eno, who studied cybernetics with pioneering interactive artist Roy Ascott, often described himself as a non-musician. He did not play an instrument, but fiddled with a mixing deck through which he live processed all of the other instruments. He initially manipulated the music out of view, but he eventually joined the rest of the band onstage with his electronics, and his flamboyant fashion sense:

Following John Cale’s model, Eno left the band after two albums, though Eno’s departure seems to have been far more amicable than when Reed kicked Cale out of the Velvet Underground. And don’t cry for Eno, who pursued a very successful career as a solo artist, often collaborating with various former bandmates, as well as John Cale and David Bowie, and especially as a producer of such bands as Talking Heads and U2.

Roxy’s next album, Stranded, proved that it was as overly simplistic to view Eno as wholly responsible for Roxy’s experimental side as it was to believe the same of John Cale in The Velvet Underground.

However, with the next two albums, Country Life and Siren, the band’s sound became more integrated. There was now one distinct Roxy Music style instead of a pastiche of many styles. That should not be taken as a criticism, though, as it was quite a distinctive style they settled on. It even earned them their one U.S. hit, “Love Is the Drug”:

Many even claim Siren is their best album, though I am partial to For Your Pleasure.

And then Roxy Music was done . . . at least for a while. Although Ferry had already released several solo albums, In Your Mind was his first to feature all original songs (the earlier albums were dominated by quirky covers, including some of Roxy songs). The other members also released solo albums, as well as collaborating with Eno in the band 801.

Roxy Music reformed in 1979, . . .

. . . just in time to usher in the era of the New Romantics, who were so influenced by the band’s original incarnation, both their music and their fashion sense.

Roxy’s influence is obvious in bands such as Ultravox, . . .

. . . The Human League, . . .

. . . ABC, . . .

. . . even in bigger bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode.

To Roxy, though, it must have felt like the same old scene . . .

. . . and they packed it in with their next studio album, Avalon.

It was a glorious, but ultimately nostalgic, valedictory. No longer postmodern deconstruction, but nostalgic revival.

Even notorious curmudgeon John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) has nice things to say about Roxy:

Roxy Music surely deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both for their “unquestionable musical excellence” and their “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”

Salon des Refusés: Chic

In 1863, the Salon des Refusés was launched to counter the conservative aesthetics enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts in the annual Paris Salon. That year, the “rejects” included such later revered painters as Manet, Courbet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne. Perhaps it is now time to establish a Salon des Refusés for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s rejects.

The rules of eligibility for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include:

Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.

And yet many artists who have had huge impacts on the development and evolution of rock & roll have been snubbed over and over, including: Kraftwerk, Chic, Big Star, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Television, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Joy Division.

This year, Nile Rodgers will be honored with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Award for Musical Excellence, presumably for his work on records by everyone from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Diana Ross (as part of The Supremes), Madonna and David Bowie to Sister Sledge, Duran Duran and Daft Punk. And yet, Chic, the band Rodgers formed with Bernard Edwards, has been overlooked yet again. Always a nominee (11 times), never an inductee.

It’s understandable why Rodgers finds this a bit disconcerting:

It’s sort of bittersweet. I’m a little perplexed because even though I’m quite flattered that they believed that I was worthy, my band Chic didn’t win. They plucked me out of the band and said, “You’re better than Chic.” That’s wacky to me. The only reason why I met Bowie and Madonna and Duran Duran and INXS is because they all loved Chic.

Chic‘s biggest hit was “Le Freak”:

What began as a bitter response to being denied entrance to the notoriously exclusive Studio 54, even though headliner Grace Jones had invited them, “Le Freak” would become one of disco’s defining songs after the “fuck off” chorus was changed to “freak out.”

But the band’s most influential track was certainly “Good Times”:

It would later be appropriated* as the backing track for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” arguably the first true rap record:

And with only the slightest of modifications, it became the bass line for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Queen‘s “Another One Bites the Dust”:

As Chic’s bass player Bernard Edwards explained:

Well, that Queen record came about because that bass player… spent some time hanging out with us at our studio. But that’s O.K. What isn’t O.K. is that the press… started saying that we had ripped them off! Can you believe that? ‘Good Times’ came out more than a year before, but it was inconceivable to these people that black musicians could possibly be innovative like that. It was just these dumb disco guys ripping off this rock ‘n’ roll song.

And that may explain why Chic has not been welcomed into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Chic played disco. And disco has never gotten the respect it deserves. Especially in 1979.

At the height of the “Disco Sucks” movement, DJ Steve Dahl organized the “Disco Demolition” between games of a baseball double-header at Chicago’s Comiskey Park (well, it was supposed to be between games, but the second game was forfeited after rioting tore up the field).

It is hard to miss the racism and, especially, homophobia inherent in the anti-disco movement, which pitted “gay” dance music against “manly” rock and roll. (Richard Dyer wrote a well argued “In Defence of Disco” at the time, but an article in Gay Left, a British “socialist journal produced by gay men,” was not likely to be read by, much less persuade this crowd.)

And that is the social context in which Rodgers and Edwards wrote and produced the Diana album. They were aware of the anthemic possibilities of the song “I’m Coming Out,” . . .

. . . but Rodgers claims they downplayed that reading of the song to “Miss Ross”:

We went to this transvestite club but everyone went there. I went to the bathroom and I happened to notice on either side there were a bunch of Diana Ross impersonators. I ran outside and called Bernard and told him about it and said, ‘What if we recognize Diana Ross’s really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community?’ So we sat down and wrote, ‘I’m Coming Out.’ Meanwhile Diana took a rough mix to the top DJ in the country who hated it and she came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, ‘Why are you trying to ruin my career?’ She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Are you kidding?’

The Motown diva was still hesitant, though, and the song was remixed before it was released, downplaying the disco horns and chicka-chicka guitar, accentuating the drums, and shortening the intro before her vocals come in:

Still an amazing song, but a bit less disco.

There was a time I, too, thought “disco sucks,” but Chic, along with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Donna Summer‘s “I Feel Love,” unlocked the groove for me, leading me to finally hear the similarities between disco and other repetitive music I appreciated by “serious” musicians like Steve Reich, Neu!, Suicide and Spacemen 3. I realized the distinction between “listening music” that appealed to the mind and “dance music” that appealed to the body was an artificial and elitist distinction. Plus, what’s so bad about appealing to the body anyway?

My girlfriend at the time I was reacquainting myself with disco and filling in the large gap in my music collection claimed to hate disco, yet even she loved “At Last I Am Free” when I played it without telling her it was Chic:

Chic surely deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both for its “unquestionable musical excellence” and its “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”


* Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had to sue for co-writing credit, the first of several battles involving the song: many corroborate early South Bronx MC Grandmaster Caz’s claim that the song’s lyrics were stolen from him and two past members have sued so they can use the name Sugarhill Gang, along with the all too usual fights over royalties.

Party Like It’s 1977

A spinning disco ball has transported pop music back to 1977, the year Studio 54 opened and Saturday Night Fever premiered.  Marvin Gaye became one of many R&B stars to adopt a disco beat on “Got to Give It Up” and Chic released their debut album.

It’s like disco vu all over again, to mangle Yogi Berra’s famous phrase.   Robin Thicke‘s “song of the summer” was inspired by Gaye’s classic while Chic’s Nile Rodgers collaborated on Daft Punk‘s “song of the summer” (if you have not yet watched the Colbert Nation “Song of the Summer” episode. definitely check it out).

Nile Rodgers also collaborated on Daft Punk’s “Give Life Back to Music” and “Lose Yourself to Dance”:

Which makes this a perfect time to revel in Chic Organization: Up All Night, which compiles a number of the hits Chic Organization (Rodgers along with Bernard Edwards) produced for Chic itself, along with Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Debbie Harry and even Johnny Mathis:

Unfortunately, it does not include the hit song Rodgers later solo produced for David Bowie, “Let’s Dance.”

Giorgio Moroder also appears on Random Access Memories, explaining how he helped create the disco sound in the first place:

Best of Electronic Disco collects some of Moroder’s early work, including “First Hand Experience with Second Hand Love,” from 1977.  The refrain sounds a whole lot like Daft Punk would several decades later:

The compilation includes only Moroder’s solo recordings, not his distinctive soundtrack work or his many productions of others, including perhaps the greatest disco track of all time, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”  Overlapping Rodgers, Moroder also produced Debbie Harry (“Call Me”) and David Bowie.  In fact, Bowie recorded “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” with both producers, first with Moroder for the movie Cat People and then later with Rodgers on Let’s Dance.

But Daft Punk and Robin Thicke are not the only ones reviving disco this summer.

If you are into neo-disco, there are few sources better than the Italians Do It Better label that spins around Johnny Jewel’s many collaborations with Glass CandyChromatics and others.  The label’s recent After Dark 2 compilation is a great place to start:

Then move on to “Strangers” by Little Boots, which is oh so Moroder:

Chirping synths also appear on Classixx‘s “Holding On”:

Annie is more Euro-disco on “Ralph Macchio”:

And many songs on Disclosure‘s great debut album, Settle, feature disco clap tracks.

As Chic sang back in 1977:

Everybody dance, do-do-do
Clap your hands, clap your hands”

Copied Lines?

Back in June, when “Blurred Lines” first hit #1 on the Billboard charts, which it still tops 17 weeks later, Robin Thicke was happy to tell anyone who asked that the song was his attempt to capture the vibe of his favorite song, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

Last Thursday, as posted by The Hollywood Reporter (thanks for the tip, Matt), attorneys for Pharrell Wiliiams, Robin Thicke and Clifford Harris Jr (AKA TI) filed suit against the Marvin Gaye estate’s claim that Thicke borrowed too directly from his favorite song:

The basis of the Gaye defendants’ claims is that ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got To Give It Up’ ‘feel’ or ‘sound’ the same. Being reminiscent of a ‘sound’ is not copyright infringement. The intent in producing ‘Blurred Lines’ was to evoke an era. In reality, the Gaye defendants are claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work, and Bridgeport is claiming the same work.”

(Thicke et al are also suing Bridgepost Music, Inc., which claims they copied Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways.”*)

I never listened to the two songs back to back before today, but now that I have, I realize that “Blurred Lines” does not straight up sample Gaye’s hit as I had always assumed.  However, it certainly reproduces, though speeds up, its rhythm track.  And “everybody get up” scans as very similar to “got to give it up.”

It just so happens that I have been reading Nile Rodgers’s autobiography, Le Freak, which includes Chic’s lawsuit to get their due credit for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”  In those pre-sampling days, a studio band recorded the backing track, but it was very clearly playing “Good Times.”  Chic won the lawsuit and received co-writing credit and royalties.

However, that case was based on a stolen melody.  U.S. copyright laws are based on European standards of music that privilege melody and harmony.  This might make sense for so-called serious music like classical, but less so for pop music which owes far more to African and African-American traditions grounded in rhythm.  This leads to paradoxes like Bo Diddley not being entitled to a penny of royalties for other artists’ songs featuring the “Bo Diddley beat.”

Now I am not a musician, music theorist or copyright lawyer, but it seems to this layman’s ears that “Blurred Lines” rips off “Got to Give It Up”‘s rhythm, but not its melody.  This becomes evident if you listen to the “Bee’s Knees Remix”:

This is still clearly “Blurred Lines,” but it loses almost all similarity with “Got to Give It Up” when the new Chic-like “chucking” rhythm track is substituted.

So what this whole case really comes down to is a recurring question in regard to pop music:  Where is the line between copying and being inspired by, between plagiarism and homage?  That can be a very blurred line indeed.

On a side note, one of the more bizarre copyright infringement cases came when Saul Zaentz sued John Fogerty for copying himself.  Zaentz claimed Fogerty’s “Old Man Down the Road” plagiarized a song he wrote for his former band Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle,” for which Zaentz still held the publishing.  The judge ruled an artist cannot plagiarize himself.

*  Not even George Clinton, who co-wrote “Sexy Ways,” believes Bridgeport has a claim: