Photo: Brian Cooke
Living Legends: How Roxy Music Went From "Inspired Amateurs" To Art Rock Pioneers
Fifty years after their debut, Roxy Music's eight studio albums have been reissued and the band is embarking on a tour. GRAMMY.com spoke with guitarist Phil Manzanera about the band's art rock origins and long tail of influence.
Roxy Music has always been a few steps ahead, and a few degrees to the side, of many of its contemporaries. Helmed by GRAMMY-nominated vocalist/songwriter Bryan Ferry along with Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson (with Brian Eno as an early member), the British group is credited with birthing the art rock movement by infusing glam into rock '70s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roxy Music's eponymous debut album.
Inspired by film and fashion, painting and photography, Roxy Music’s output is an aural and visual amalgam that blurs the lines between musical styles. From the group's formation in 1970 to Avalon, its last studio album in 1982, Roxy Music has informed and influenced genres — from experimental prog and glam rock, to new wave and electronic pop — and created an enduring impact.
This year, the group’s eight studio albums — Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life, Siren, Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon — have been reissued as special anniversary editions with a new half-speed cut, and revised artwork with lyrics., The Best of Roxy Music was released on vinyl for the first time on Sept. 2. The reissues arrive ahead of Roxy Music’s North American arena tour, which kicks off in Toronto on Sept. 7 at Scotiabank Arena. The last time Roxy Music toured was over a decade ago.
Still, the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have remained active, with and without Roxy Music. This year, Ferry has released a four-track EP of iconic love song covers, Love Letters, and published a book. Mackay, who plays oboe, saxophone and keyboards has released a number of solo albums, written a book on electronic music and studied theology. Drummer Thompson left Roxy Music 1980 and joined an array of other bands, including Concrete Blonde, before returning to Roxy Music in 2011. Guitarist Phil Manzanera produced for Pink Floyd, David Gilmour and John Cale, among others, is currently working on an album with Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz.
From his home in the English countryside, Manzanera spoke with GRAMMY.com about his teenage dream of leaving his exotic world-trotting upbringing for a boarding school in England, where he could connect with fellow musicians. "Through music, you can meet people, you can have fun, you can have an adventure," he says. "I didn't want to learn too quickly. I wanted to spread it out over a whole lifetime. Touch wood, still here."
What was the musical landscape like at the time of Roxy Music’s formation?
In the UK, we were coming out of the period where the big guns, Led Zeppelin and all those bands were to the fore. It was the tail end of the hippie jamming period and the start of prog rock. The drugs had done a lot of those bands in; People were on heroin, so it was very gray and introverted. A bit drab really. The time was ripe for a new bunch to emerge.
By complete happenstance, Bowie and us came to the fore in 1972. On the same day that we released the first Roxy Music album, he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The next week, we were supporting him in a pub in Croydon [South London] called the Greyhound. There was only about 40-50 people there. Every time I used to meet David, we used to have a big banter about it because everyone claims they were there. He was incredibly nice to us. He loved what we were doing. He asked us to be at his support act at the Rainbow Theatre, which is a big deal. He couldn't quite believe that we'd just come out of nowhere, whereas he was [on] his fifth album.
The '70s were such a time of experimentation and new sounds.
We called ourselves inspired amateurs. A bunch of guys who didn't particularly want to be technically brilliant, but wanted to play interesting music. Some of the people in the band have been to art school, so there was this visual side to the whole thing. Music and image are explosive, which we all learn from the Beatles. New fashion designers and photographers were coming up to the age where they were going to be influencers, and they all had a similar aesthetic with the films they liked and visual art and bands that were influential on them. We stuck it all together and presented it in an attractive fashion.
What was the reception for Roxy Music like in the United States at the time?
We went to the U.S. in December '72. We were a bit early. People didn't understand the look of the band. When we got to Fresno, people threw water bombs at us and said, "Get off you faggots." But we were going to continue playing this music regardless of what you throw at us.
It took us a long, long time to have any kind of impact in the States. But what was great and cool was that in San Francisco or L.A. or New York, we attracted the freaks. We were supporting Ten Years After or J. Geils Band, totally not our audience, but all the freaks knew [we] were coming to town and they would be partying at our hotel after the gig.
Roxy Music was very prolific, sometimes putting out two albums a year — originally all written by Bryan Ferry — but you started writing from the third album, Stranded?
The way the band evolved, the first two albums that Eno was involved with were the first period. By the time it came to the third album, Eno had left, and, in no way can you do the same stuff again. There was a desire to do something different. We needed to expand our musical palette, and so me and Andy [Mackay] started contributing music.
The way we write songs in Roxy was so different because we had no idea how to write a song. We did all the music first, which is really dangerous, and then Bryan [Ferry] would try and work out some lyrics. Sometimes it was fabulous. Sometimes it was rubbish. Out of the 80 songs of the Roxy catalog, I would say 70 percent hit the mark and perhaps 30 percent we won't talk about. It's a very different way of working, creating a musical texture and musical world behind this singer with a strange voice, but good looking, so we could get away with it.
You had a whole host of musicians playing on later Roxy Music albums. How was that different for you as far as writing and recording and realizing musical ideas?
There's definitely a difference between the first five years and second five years of Roxy Music. We'd worked with so many other musicians in between, we wanted a bit of that flavor. Bryan, especially, had lived in L.A. for a bit and worked with a lot of American musicians. When we got back together for the second phase of Roxy, which is '77 to '83, by that time, I had my own recording studio and we were using that as our base. Technological innovations affect the way you work in a studio. If you're doing what we're doing, you can use the studio as an instrument. It happened organically because we had the means of production.
But we were coming to New York, and working with Bob Clearmountain at Atlantic Records and at the Power Station, and having these amazing American bass players and drummers, because Paul [Thompson] had left toward the middle of that period. Bob would mix it and he would just get rid of all the s—. He would say, "I'm going to focus on this, and it's going to rock." Thank God for him, otherwise it would have been airy-fairy, and all over the place. He mixed Avalon in one week. Ten tracks, five days, two tracks a day, three hours a track. boom, boom, boom, boom. Done. He just knows what to do. He just had it.
The first half of Roxy Music was hinged on a strong artist/producer relationship with Chris Thomas in the producer’s seat.
We were so lucky to get Chris Thomas. He came on board from the second album. As you know, he assisted George Martin with the Beatles. The whole tradition of recording from Abbey Road was passed on to us via Chris Thomas. Everything I've ever learned to do with production — and I've produced loads of people, was a mixture between what Chris Thomas taught me coming from George Martin and my experiences with Eno. Two totally different approaches.
You seem to get along very well with both Ferry and Eno.
After Eno left, when we were doing Stranded, we were up at Air Studios until 6 o'clock. And then I would go to work on Here Come the Warm Jets with Eno from 6 o’clock onwards. We continued for another three years. We had a band, 801, who played live and all sorts of things. But then he just disappeared.
Your guitar riff from the title track of your solo album K-Scope was sampled on the GRAMMY-winning "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West.
That's the only GRAMMY that I've ever been associated with, so cheers Jay-Z and Kanye, and 88-Keys, who was the person responsible for playing it to them.
Did your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and induction, come as a surprise?
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is not on British musicians’ radar too much. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was for us. We hadn't played together for six or seven years. We thought, we’ve got to have rehearsals. We rehearsed for a week because we want to do a good job and acquit ourselves well — especially in front of all those top musicians who are going to be watching us, particularly Fleetwood Mac and Def Leppard, the Zombies and Radiohead.
On the night, at the Brooklyn Center, when I saw 30,000 people, I realized, this is actually a big deal. I’m about to get scared now. We loved it. We had such a great time. When Bryan said, "Shall we do 'In Every Dream,'" which is about an inflatable doll, I thought, I don’t think that’s going to be shown on telly, and it didn’t make it, but it was really great fun to do. I had a great big guitar solo, which wasn’t shown, but I got to show off in front of Brian May and Fleetwood Mac.
How did this 50th anniversary tour come about?
I had done bits and pieces on Bryan’s new solo stuff. We were having a cup of tea at Christmas, and he just said, "Do you fancy doing some gigs?" I said, "Do you want to do them?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, in that case, I'm always up for the crack."
We don't have management. If we want to do something, we just ring each other up, and say, "You want to do it?" I also thought, these songs don't get an airing by us, the original people, very often. When we come to the U.S., it will have been 20 years. That's not exactly overdoing it. If there's ever a time to do it, it's at 50.
What does the ongoing impact of Roxy Music feel like for you?
I don't think about it at all. We never thought we'd do this tour, but we’re doing it. We're really putting in the hours to make it as good as we possibly can. What I want to see when I look out into the audience is people glammed up. I want to see glam out there: heels and feathers — for men and women.
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How 1973 Shaped Classic Rock: 10 Essential Albums From British Artists
Fifty years ago, there was a creative apex in what we now call classic rock. However, the sounds of '73 were wildly progressive and diverse, with influences that ranged from blues and baroque, to free jazz and acid-folk.
Fifty years ago, a young generation of British rock 'n' rollers were ready to show the world that the lessons learned from the Beatles were not lost on them. If the kaleidoscopic Sgt. Pepper’s had proven that pop music could be anything you wanted it to be, the artists that followed took those radical ideas to a new level.
United by the vague, umbrella-like term of progressive rock, bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Queen and King Crimson expanded the lexicon of rock with influences that ranged from classical and baroque to free jazz and acid-folk; blues to reggae and music hall. Today, these records define the sound of classic rock.
1973 signified an absolute apex — the sweetest moment in time when everything seemed possible and each new album gleamed with the joy of innovation. Here are 10 records from British artists that marked a before and after for classic rock.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
Years of psychedelic wanderings and space-rock exploration — not to mention the trauma of losing a beloved bandmate to drugs — crystallized into Pink Floyd’s unequivocal masterpiece. An album so sublime, it makes the seven LPs that preceded it sound like rough sketches in comparison.
The lyrics are wicked in their cynicism and existential malaise, and the band finally sounds tight and economical. But Dark Side's greatest virtue here is the sheer beauty of the melodies, one gauzy song leading into the other with effortless grace. "Money" was the hit single and "Time" redrew the boundaries of rock through immersive sound effects. But "The Great Gig in the Sky," with its wordless female vocals and achingly nostalgic chords, showed that the Floydian mystique was as soulful as the blues.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery
Trilogy, the dreamy 1972 album by mad keyboardist Keith Emerson, bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and drummer Carl Palmer, had been constructed in the studio with layers and layers of overdubs. As a natural reaction, the trio decided their next effort should be the kind of record they could play in a live setting.
Sporting an ominous cover by Alien visual artist H. R. Giger, Brain Salad Surgery is, strangely enough, the antithesis of prog-rock pomp. Behind the epic length of multi-part symphony "Karn Evil 9" lurk visceral touches of dissonance and noise, nocturnal piano harmonics and a goofy sense of humor. At the time, ELP was vilified for its pretension to merge rock with classical. Half a century later, they deserve praise for letting their collective imagination run wild.
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic
Led with unspoken dictatorial fire by acerbic guitar mastermind Robert Fripp, the mid-‘70s incarnation of the ever-evolving King Crimson played abstract heavy metal for the soul. All hell breaks loose when the freeform improvisation of "The Talking Drum" gives way to the demonic groove of "Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Part II)," enhanced by the pristine clang-clang finesse of Bill Bruford, the most intellectual drummer of his generation.
All Crimson albums drown their sorrows in an unexpected moment of pastoral bliss, and "Book of Saturday" doesn’t disappoint, the lament of vocalist John Wetton framed by Fripp’s avant-pop guitar — a song so quiet and beautiful, it almost hurts.
Camel – Camel
There was a pervasive sweetness of spirit, a caramel tint to Camel’s nimble instrumental workouts and monotone vocals. Their soundscapes were a tad too delicate and whimsical to match the imposing scale of ‘70s heavyweights like Genesis and Floyd.
In retrospect, Camel stands as the most criminally underrated band of the classic prog movement. This full-bodied debut is jazzy and psychedelic, showcasing the wide-eyed melodic sense of guitarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Pete Bardens. Camel proved that you don’t need a powerful vocalist to make the music soar.
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
A doorway into an enchanted world of sumptuous keyboard solos, 12-string guitars and rambunctious drum fills (hello, Phil Collins), Genesis’ fifth studio album has mystified and enthralled generations of art-rock lovers. The sonic manifesto of five young musicians at the top of their game (all of whom would eventually enjoy success as solo artists), Selling combines a wacky, quintessential British eccentricity with sweeping melodies, social satire and the surreal imagery of singer/lyricist Peter Gabriel.
Keyboardist Tony Banks found inspiration in Rachmaninoff for the majestic intro to "Firth of Fifth," while "The Cinema Show" namedrops T.S. Eliot. "The Battle of Epping Forest" turns a gang massacre over urban boundaries into a delirious mini-opera. An album of limitless imagination, it has aged remarkably well.
Queen – Queen I
Many fans prefer Queen’s early, heavier glam-rock albums over the polished commercial blockbusters that followed — and they have a point. An exhilarating debut, Queen I is deliciously rough around the edges, but at the same time brims with the grandeur and melodic genius that characterized the London quartet from its inception. "Liar" boasts the singalong melodrama that would explode in A Night at the Opera, while guitarist Brian May’s "The Night Comes Down" hums with folk-rock longing. Funky and defiant, opening cut "Keep Yourself Alive" unlocks the hit-making blueprint of a band poised to conquer the world.
Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans
At the time of its release, Yes’ sprawling double album based on four separate volumes of ancient Hindu scriptures appeared to encapsulate the excesses of ‘70s rock — and why the punk movement would aim to counteract and destroy rock. Tales even motivated keyboardist Rick Wakeman to leave the band, claiming that he couldn’t play music that he didn’t comprehend (no worries, he would return to the fold several times.)
Five decades later, it can be appreciated for what it really is: An ambitious sonic adventure that is in no rush whatsoever to take you to the bridge. Its four, 20 minute-long "songs" are cohesive, ethereal and filled with lovely moments, from the gentle meditation of "The Remembering" to the percussion freakout that brings "Ritual" to a feverish climax. Not for everyone’s taste, sure enough, but as dense and rewarding as a Gustav Mahler symphony.
Roxy Music – Street Life
"Here as I sit at this empty café, thinking of you," croons a mournful Bryan Ferry on "A Song for Europe." As the six-minute track meanders on – torrid sax lines, grandiloquent piano, lyrics in Latin and French — the Roxy Music aesthetic blooms, fully formed.
The third of eight exquisite albums that make up the Roxy canon, Street Life betrays Ferry’s fine arts studies at Newcastle with its combination of garish pop spectacle, avant-garde esoterics and a perverse obsession with the beauty of everything — from the group’s legendary LP covers to the ornate hooks and the aural architecture of it all. And the bridge, it sighs.
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells
Wunderkind Mike Oldfield was only 19 when he recorded the majority of this remarkable debut, performing every instrument himself. Inspired by the mystical sweep of English folk and drawn to minimalism and multi-tracking, the guitarist was in tune with the progressive trends of the time, but his long form pieces are stubbornly idiosyncratic.
Tubular’s opening theme was used in the horror movie hit The Exorcist and Oldfield became an instant rock star. Still, this album is only an intriguing opening statement for the many masterpieces that followed – most notably, Ommadawn (1975) and Incantations (1978.)
Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
Having cemented the bulldozer-like propulsion of its hard-rock creed, Led Zeppelin spent most of 1972 making an album that reflected the current times: expansive, stylistically omnivorous, preoccupied with grander themes. Seeped in haunting Mellotron textures, "The Rain Song" is the quartet’s proggiest moment, and "D’yer Mak’er" goes reggae-rock with impeccable taste. Conservative Zep fans found solace in the rollicking opener "The Song Remains the Same," proving that hardrock still enjoyed a creative peak in 1973. They had a dream, oh yeah, a crazy dream, and we’re still grooving along.
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Photo: Madeline McManus
Living Legends: John Cale On How His Velvet Underground Days & Love Of Hip-Hop Influenced New Album 'Mercy'
The Velvet Underground may be riding a wave of public interest, but John Cale is laser-focused on the now — especially his miles-deep new album, 'Mercy,' which features Animal Collective, Sylvan Esso and many more.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with John Cale, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and founding member of the Velvet Underground who has steadily built his solo discography for more than half a century. His new album, Mercy, is available now.
Back in 2018, John Cale strolled into the Velvet Underground Experience, an exhibition in New York City's NoHo neighborhood, and gazed upward at a massive projection at Lou Reed's face for several seconds. This writer was there, and the memory lingered — as did its attendant questions.
What must it be like to be chiefly known for what you did as a very young man, for all of two years? To boot, after decades of a storied solo career — including classics like 1973's Paris 1919 and 1982's Music for a New Society — what is it like to have people chiefly want to talk about the Velvets? On top of that, was there any perception among its members that what they were doing was important — much less momentous, and pivotal for popular music?
"I had some theoretical ideas as to why it was important," Cale tells GRAMMY.com over the phone from Los Angeles, where he resides. "I thought if I put together the music that Lou and I would do — which was out of tune slightly, but getting somewhere — the idea of what the music was going to be was going to have an effect. Not only on the avant-garde, but on a lot of other different styles.
The impact of the Velvet Underground on alternative, punk and experimental music has been litigated and relitigated — most recently, in Todd Haynes' fantastic 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground and Ignacio Julià's illuminating 2023 book of interviews, Linger On.
Where do you go from there, with Reed; Nico; manager, producer and cover artist Andy Warhol; and founding Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison no longer with us? Cale remains a potent creative force, so he keeps hurtling forward. His new album, Mercy, is one of his very best — aurally immersive, lyrically wise and filled with facilitative guests, from Weyes Blood to Laurel Halo to Animal Collective.
"I was angry," Cale says of his mindset while writing songs like "Noise of You," "Story of Blood" and "Not the End of the World." More specifically, "I was angry at the number of people in positions of power that should have known better and didn't." Thus, Cale remains a truth-teller as well as a thoughtful collaborator and vital innovator — and it's all there in the music.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Cale to discuss the origin of Mercy, the young rapper that's influencing him lately, and what the remainder of 2023 holds for him.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Whether political or personal, what raw materials went into Mercy?
Well, it was happenstance more than anything.
I was on tour in São Paulo, and I was getting on a plane to go home, and by the time I landed in LA, everybody was under strict lockdown. I'd already written the bulk of the album. So, I came back and was thinking: What is it I can add to this, and maybe ignore the lockdown for a minute and get on with some useful stuff?
Two and a half years later, I was still working on the structure and the noise of the album. I went straight back into it and added some other musicians. I was really glad I did, because [of] the variety of the musicians I found — I mean, I'd worked with them for the Velvet reunion concerts and other places.
So, there was Laurel Halo; there was Actress; there was Weyes Blood, Sylvan Esso, Animal Collective, and Fat White Family. And the songs benefited from all of that interruption.
Reading the lyrics, I was captivated by their heavy, overarching topics. You seem to have a bird's-eye view of everything.
Well, I was angry. I was angry at the number of people in positions of power that should have known better and didn't.
Regarding pandemic mitigation?
Pandemic mitigation, and distorting the truth. Disinformation, conspiracy theories, guns — so much hate. And we were really badly in need — and still are — for people to speak the truth, to help heal this mess and get to the point where redemption was possible. I thought, Well, that's what it is. Strain your soul.
Having been born at the top half of the '40s, do you remember another time when things were this nuts?
Well, I was born at the end of World War II, so it had something going on there that when you got out of it, you thought, Well, I'm glad that's over. Maybe now we'll go learn some common sense. And here we are, 60 years later; we still haven't learned it.
Can you describe the aural aesthetic you pursued for Mercy? I was struck by how enveloping it was from the beginning. It's maximal, but not busy.
That's true. I didn't want it to be busy.
Usually, I write songs from an improvisational point of view. I start with a rhythm, and I improvise the biggest part of the song and then simplify it. Because most of the stuff that I listen to is hip-hop, and I learned a lot from their style and their awkwardness. It was really instructive to me.
I only listened to certain kinds of hip-hop, and the further out they got, the better I liked it. There's a California style, and there's the Bronx. I can't say that I tried to imitate what they were doing, because I couldn't. I mean, I've got a Welsh accent, and that'll stop you in your tracks.
Tell me more about your improvisatory roots, back in the Velvets days when you played a lot of viola.
I don't play as much viola as I used to in those days, but that instrument was really what started me off. I was playing in orchestras from the time I was 12 or 14, and I used to improvise in the most awkward of situations. When you think of what the viola is famous for… not much!
I thought you'd be telling me you were really into Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or something.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I also loved listening to U.S. radio; the broadcaster came from D.C. I used to listen to Radio Moscow as well. It was full of those hard-to-find jazz musicians — I mean, Miles and Gil Evans and the entire "new jazz."
I used to go down to the Village and listen to all those guys playing there. I would go several nights a week to see Gil Evans and how his arrangements were really rich.
They were splendid, if you know what I mean by the use of the word "splendid." They had luxurious arrangements with several bass clarinets — not the simple, improvised pieces. These were chord-oriented and very rich. Yeah, they were something I learned a lot from.
John Cale performing with the Velvet Underground in 1966. Photo: Adam itchie/Redferns via Getty Images
You characterize yourself as being an awkward improviser early on. When do you feel like you really came into your own in that regard?
Last year, when I finally got this album under control.
Yeah. I mean, it really took a while, and it's kind of insecure. But when you start writing songs from the rhythm point of view first, you get to the end a lot faster — and it's a very exciting kind of journey, the progress to the end of the song.
That's what this album represents more than anything: what comes first? Do you put the melody down first? Do you put the rhythm down first? I put the rhythm down first. And as soon as you put the rhythm down first, you're in hip-hop.
Tell me a little more about what draws you to hip-hop. Which artists speak to you?
Earl Sweatshirt. A lot that didn't fall into any particular category. They drifted a bit; they drifted in their own thoughts. And I didn't mind that at all.
I'd love to go through the tracklisting and get your insight on each tune.
"Mercy": I had to decide whether I was going to lay myself open to pseudo-religious methodology, and Laurel Halo was similar. I met her in Australia on a tour, and she was a very trance-like synthesist.
"Marilyn Monroe's Legs": I wanted to write a song about Marilyn Monroe, but I didn't want to mention her name in the song. It has a certain obscurity to it; I wanted that song to have abstractedness.
"Noise of You" was something I wrote as an atmospheric piece. With all the melodies and choruses going in it, it really reminded me of Central Europe — of Prague in wintertime. Every time I played that song, I couldn't get away from the idea that this is the Charles river. When I first went to Prague, it was a difficult period, but it straightened itself out.
Then, there's "Story of Blood" with Weyes Blood. [She] has this passionate voice that really fits in, and carries the melody and emotion really well. "Time Stands Still," with Sylvan Esso — I loved them from when I first got used to them. I loved the way that they do melody and rhythm. They had some really beautiful phrasing.
"Moonstruck" is something that came late in my day. I'd not written a song about Nico, because I'd worked on a lot of her records, but "Moonstruck" is how I imagine her style would be. When she approached songwriting, it was because a big influence on her was Jim Morrison. She put much of it together in that style. Jim was making a point of saying, "Do the words first. Do the poetry first, and then the music will come." So, "Moonstruck" was something I reflected on.
"Everlasting Days" with Animal Collective was a very, very useful way of using several different harmonies, like the Beach Boys — four-voice harmony. This was a fun track to work on with them.
"Night Crawling" was about what I remembered from those days when CBGB's was carrying on. It was one of those cases where you really want to work with somebody so much that you don't get the opportunity.
"Not the End of the World" was my way of dealing with the serendipity of life. You got a problem? Yeah, well, get over it and get some work done. That's always the way I've found life since the Velvet Underground — to be a continuum. Because really, I was always into work. Andy [Warhol], Lou [Reed] and myself, we all had that poke in the eye that comes from doing good work.
So, you have "The Legal Status of Ice" by Fat White Family, and they were a rambunctious lot. As close to having a punch-up as anybody. "I Know You're Happy" has [Colombian-Canadian singer/songwriter] Tei Shi on it. And "Out Your Window" is a little bit of a look back at the Velvets. The piano part does.
John Cale. Photo: Marlene Mariano
Aside from Mercy, what's the remainder of 2023 looking like for you?
A break! The two-and-a-half years that I put into this album — before I could leave the album, I came off the road and started getting used to daily life without performing. And deciding that it was smart to write as many songs as I possibly could and get them done fast, because you've got this nasty little monster around.
So, that's what I did. By the time I went back on the road, my engineer and I looked at the list that we had. There were something like 70 or 80 songs on there, and I thought: Good job.
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Living Legends: Electronic Music Pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre's 50-Year Odyssey Of Audio Experimentation
"I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character," the French musician says of his decades-long desire to democratize sound.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Jean-Michel Jarre, whose work has greatly influenced the scope of electronic music and broken multiple records.
Jean-Michel Jarre is living proof that age is a construct.
The 74-year-old electronic music legend is just as curious and excited about music as artists in their 20s heading out on their debut album tour. For 50 years, Jarre's resume has overflowed with a spirit of ingenuity.
Jarre first sparked international attention with his 1976 album Oxygéne, which was one of the first to solely utilize synthesizers in the creation of three-to-four-minute pop songs. The LP’s second single, "Oxygene, Pt. 4," merged then-unheard bubbly synth sounds with a clear sense of melody and song form — launching both the technology and electronic music to new heights.
In the decades that followed, the global music community took note of Jarre's innovation and the artist became a sought-after collaborator. He’s worked with classical composers including Hans Zimmer, dance music stalwarts such as Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills and trance legend Armin Van Buuren, collaborated with Moby, and partnered with burgeoning talents like the anonymous music project, Deathpact.
But the reach of Jean-Michel Jarre extends beyond his discography; he continually redefines what electronic music can be in both the listening space and the live space.
He’s invented hybrid instruments like the laser harp. He’s broken records with his performances, playing for audiences of over a million people on multiple occasions. Jarre has also broken geographic and cultural boundaries with his performances; in 1981 he became the first Western artist to perform in China in the post-Mao Zedong era. On Nov. 25, Jarre celebrated the 40th anniversary of these historic performances with The China Concerts, a remastered edition of the live recordings from those five concerts.
But Jarre is doing more this year than looking back into his extraordinary past. His 22nd album, Oxymore, came out in October and is billed as the "first commercial release of this scale" to fully utilize multichannel and binaural sound in the production, composition, recording and mixing processes. This spatial 3D audio allows listeners to feel as if they are physically inside the music — a concept Jarre has wanted to bring to life since he first saw Chet Baker play trumpet in Paris when at age 10. The album was developed in the "Innovation" studios of Radio France and is a homage to the late composer Pierre Henry, Jarre's mentor and a pioneer of electronic music.
Jarre created an Oxymore-based VR world, Oxyville, and has hosted several performances in the metaverse. During a digital meet and greet with fans and avatars, "one girl was very excited. Asking lots of questions and moving and bouncing everywhere," Jarre says from his home in Paris. "I discovered by talking to her that she was quadriplegic and it was her first time she attended a concert and danced all evening."
Such an interaction is what keeps Jarre excited about what’s coming next in his career. It’s not technology. It’s the magic he can generate by sharing creative, physical experiences with other human beings.
"Who cares about the technology? When you are in a restaurant you don’t care so much about the kitchen and how it’s done. You just enjoy the food or not, and it’s the same with music or art," Jarre says. "I think mystery is key. I have a son who is a great magician and the last thing I want to know is how he is doing his trick. It’s a magic killer."
Jarre is still finding that magic. He spoke with GRAMMY.com about his two new albums, his continuing relationship with experimentation, and how the role of art and culture in the world has changed (or stayed the same) over the last five decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I read that you started your musical experimentation as young as age 11 with a secondhand tape recorder. Have your feelings towards musical experimentation changed or stayed the same over that time?
When I started at the age of 11-12 with this second-hand tape recorder that my grandfather gave me I became obsessed with the machine. I was basically recording everything all day and sometimes at night, but I had no idea that it could be a link to any future linked with music.
One day, I played the tape backward and I had the feeling that some aliens were talking to me, and from that moment I started to record. I was starting to play in some local rock bands with friends, and so I was recording some of my guitar and organ and playing [the recordings] backward, changing the speed, just doing experiments with sounds but with no preconceived ideas.
And then when I discovered [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] in Paris, one of the origins of French electro-acoustic music, I discovered that some people were considering music in a different way. Thinking about integrating noise and sounds into music, and it became very obvious that it was really a revolution — a revolution in music.
I was listening to American rock bands or British rock bands, and it was a revolution globally around the world, but I felt that something else could be explored. These days were right in the middle of the student revolution where it was cool to rebel against basically any kind of establishment and, in a sense, electronic music was a way to rebel against the establishment of rock. We tried to find a different voice in a different way, and at that moment I was experimenting with very limited technology…. doing field recordings and processing sounds, or stealing some oscillators from radio stations to create the first DIY type of synthesizer.
Today whatever you do — hip-hop or rock or pop or techno — we’re all integrating sound effects into our music. We all became sound designers as well as music producers. Today, the emergence of immersive technology and immersive worlds are two other disruptive moments very potent in my career.
Does that drive to revolutionize music still play a role in how you move forward as an artist?
I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character. I’ve always been interested in new ideas or new tools. I’ve always considered that technology is dictating styles and not the reverse.
It’s because we invented the violin that Vivaldi made music with it. It’s because we had 78s in Elvis Presley’s time that you could only cut three minutes on the 78 and it was the only way to put a record in a jukebox. The pop single as a format started to be played on the radio and not the reverse. This link between tech and culture has been always something quite essential in music production.
I’ve always been curious about new techniques because the beauty of lots of music productions is the idea of hijacking technology — to take technology which has not been devised or designed for us, but stealing from them. We are all robbers.
It brings us back to the idea that great art goes against what’s come before.
[Electronic music is] probably the most popular music in the world, but it still has its underground feel, its underground image.
Every emerging movement in music has been rejected by the previous one. The first jazz was quite rejected by classical musicians. Then the first rock musicians were rejected by jazz.
When I started with electronic music it was really against the establishment of rock. Lots of rock artists [were saying] "What’s all these machines with knobs? They are not real instruments," and a few decades later these instruments are still called machines.
All these signs are showing that electronic music is still underground. It’s still truly something linked with a kind of rebellious approach about sound production and music production.
Considering the "machine-instrument" relationship, you built the laser harp, which no one can deny is a machine, but no one can deny is an instrument either.
Exactly. It’s all a cultural thing. What is an instrument? A saxophone is a fantastic piece of technology. A clarinet is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s quite sophisticated. And then it’s a machine. It’s an acoustic machine. It’s a manual machine. It’s not electric but it’s a machine also.
For Oxymore you were the first person to conceive and compose an album from beginning to end using 360-degree audio. What’s it like for you to use different forms of technology in your music today?
[I don’t consider] myself a geek. I’m not really interested in technology for the sake of it. The same way you don’t ask a pianist to fix a piano. It’s the same thing, but I’ve always been interested by the relationship between my music and space. Even in times of Oxygéne, I was …finding delays or reverb to try to enlarge, widen the soundscape in a sense.
We have, culturally, this kind of frontal relationship with music. When you compose for a symphonic orchestra you visualize the orchestra in front of you. When you’re producing music in a studio you have two speakers in front of you. When you are in the festival or concert hall you still have the PA system in front of you.
So our relationship is more a kind of representation of music than an immersion into music. Stereo doesn’t exist in nature. When I’m talking to you I’m in mono. When a bird is singing it’s singing in mono. It’s the environment around us and our ears which are creating the perspective in audio.
And then modern technology is allowing us to go back to a very natural way of experimenting and experiencing sounds, and for the first time, we can be inside the music. This is a total disrupting moment.
At the moment, lots of spatial audio is conceived and composed in stereo but then spatialized later on. I conceived and composed the music [for Oxymore] in space. Putting every element of my arrangement in speakers that go all around me is a totally different approach. It’s like going from painting to sculpture.
How did you conceive of and compose this record in spatial audio?
I started in my own studio in 5.1 [speaker setup] because only 5.1 was allowing me to put the sound in space. Then I went to Radio France Internationale, the French BBC, and they have a very sophisticated studio with 36 speakers where you can really adjust sounds by degree.
Then you could say "that’s interesting, but who can listen to that?" And the answer is important.
Binaural — the multichannel audio version translated for headphones — was not devised for music at the beginning, but more for movies. We had to twist the system to get a convincing binaural version [that would sound] very close to the experience you could have with real speakers around you.
The binaural version, for me, is essential because it’s the real democratization of immersive sound. With just your standard headphones and any kind of smartphone or laptop, you can have access to the immersive experience. With the development of the metaverse and VR, with the development of electric cars that are more equipped with immersive sounds, we know that this technology is going to be the next step.
I’m actually convinced that in maybe in five years’ or six years' time, we’ll probably consider stereo with the same nostalgia that we are considering the gramophone of our grandparents.
I’m also convinced that new styles and new artists in hip-hop, punk, and the pop of tomorrow will depend on this new technology. As all the previous genres of music have been depending on the tools we were using as music producers.
Read more: What Is Immersive Audio?: How Engineers, Artists & Industry Are Changing The State Of Sound
You’ve said your first physical experience with music came when Chet Baker played his trumpet for you at the age of 10. Fast forward to today and you are performing in VR worlds with 360 audio where people are literally surrounded by the music. How does that physical experience of VR and spatial audio compare to your experience with Chet Baker?
In a sense, it’s very similar. I always consider our relationship with any kind of art form to be organic and based on emotions and feelings, physically. When I think about what happened with Chet Baker and this physical feeling I got with the air of the instrument on my chest, it was absolutely purely physical and the feeling was from an organic process.
It’s the same thing with VR. The first VR object is a book; you are projecting yourself and you imagine the face of the characters and you become inside the fantasy world as a watcher or as an actor. VR is one step further where you are sending your digital twin into a VR world. But it’s still emotional; it’s still very organic.
When I was playing in VR I have my instruments in the physical world, but if I’m in front of an audience made of avatars, these avatars are digital twins of real human beings, a real audience. So after five minutes, I’m sweating. I’m nervous or I’m enjoying it in the same way. It’s even strange to think that after five minutes you forget you are in a virtual world because you are still feeling, physically, emotions.
There is a social dimension that we forget when we’re talking about the metaverse because lots of people these days are mixing the metaverse and cryptocurrencies and saying the metaverse is linked only to business.
Actually, there is a fantastic creative potential, poetic potential, a kind of Romanesque approach to creating your own world even from your living room. For the last 20-30 years you can produce, compose and distribute your music from your living room with a laptop. The same thing is going to happen with VR. A young artist could create his own fantasy world with some tools from his home.
This month you will celebrate 40 years of your performances in China, which remain an astounding testament to how music can generate unity. In today’s world, we are seeing so much division and turmoil. What do you think your role is as a musician with a huge audience to address that?
I was raised by an extraordinary woman. My mom used to be a great figure in the French resistance and after the war. When I was a child, she told me about this idea that we shouldn’t mix ideology and people.
I think we have to go everywhere where people don’t have the same freedom of speech and freedom of expression as we have. And I think that more than ever culture should be considered as a trojan horse.
The beauty of VR is tomorrow you can have people from Iran or from North Korea — if they have a headset or even a laptop — and they can have access to the concert we can do in New York or in Paris or in London.
When I look back, I think that China concerts are very special to me because it was like playing on the moon for both sides. At that time people had absolutely no idea about what was going on in the West. I went there with a stage project that was even revolutionary from the Western point of view —with electronic music, with lasers, things that were totally new. But you can imagine from the Chinese point of view, in those days, it was a real shock.
That your career has lasted so long to allow for a 40th anniversary album is kind of unbelievable. When you think back on your decades as an artist, what are your key takeaways?
What I learned is the importance of curiosity. Every time you start a project is to touch reset. I’m starting again as a beginner. I’m not really interested in what I’ve done before. It doesn’t really belong to me anymore. I’m more interested by what’s next — not to try to beat records, but as a kind of excitement. As long as this excitement exists, I think you go on.
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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