Music

Critical Distance: Reevaluating Roxy Music’s ‘Siren’ In 2017

It is easy, on the right wrong day, to think the gig economy will undo music criticism. Find a few blog posts studded with typos and misidentified photos and you might logically guess that unpaid interns, or bots, are now in charge of what you read. With this in mind, it was reassuring to go into a rabbit hole and find that the criticism around Roxy Music’s Siren is weirdly uneven, especially reviews published around the release of the album in 1975. Zoom in on the album’s Wikipedia page — the way an overworked journalist or college student might — and the problems don’t turn out to be the fault of bad scans or broken links, or bots.

When I found Siren, as a teen, it was just an overstuffed single: “Love Is The Drug” plus some other stuff. The tumble of falling in love with music meant that fourteen other sounds fell on top of whatever Roxy Music was and it wasn’t until adulthood that I had any reason to sort out what was going on with Siren. In 2012, Roxy Music’s catalog was remastered and issued in a single lump. Even the audiophile crabcakes on the Steve Hoffman music forums gave the box set high marks. In mildly technical terms, the recordings sound “flat,” not juiced and primped and blown out for the sake of volume. This time around, the dodges and feints that produce natural qualities in an inherently unnatural medium worked. The albums went into my phone and stayed there. Siren revealed itself both as a clutch of strong songs and a remarkable example of what a rhythm section can do. If you reduced the album to John Gustafson’s bass playing, Paul Thompson’s drumming, and Bryan Ferry’s voice, you’d have most of the information that makes the album mean anything at all.

So let’s go to one of the lead reviews of the moment, Simon Frith’s Rolling Stone piece on Siren, printed on New Year’s Day 1976. Frith is as good as they get, especially with British art rock and any other variant that has notions to wander into the fancy seats. Here? Not sure what happened. First up are the factual snags. Frith writes that “With the single exchange of Eddie Jobson for Eno (on synthesizer, keyboards, strings) the band has been together for five albums and numerous tours…” Jobson did take over for Eno, but by Siren, the band had gone through four different bass players. This is of especial note on Siren, as bassist John Gustafson is essential.

Go to the technical aspects of the music, and we hit the kind of inaccuracy that is still commonplace. Of “Love Is The Drug,” Frith writes:

“The rhythm is the military stomp. Ferry barks out the words like some demented sergeant major; the atmosphere is tense, the band excited, the audience frenzied — and these aren’t the usual poseurs, these are rock & roll kids, dancers all. Not so decadent after all.”

We’ll come back to decadence, a trope in many reviews of the album. “Military stomp” — mate! If anybody in pop used such a thing (nobody does) you would be hearing a rhythm where every beat in a measure was equally emphasized. Think of what drum majors sound like when soldiers are actually marching. Not much like any pop you ever hear, because it’s very hard to move to unless you’re goose-stepping. “Love Is The Drug” is more or less funk, or slow disco, which could be mistaken for a military beat if you only paid attention to Paul Thompson’s steady snares on the two and four. But then there is this fluttery kick drum and Gustafson’s fractured Motown bass high in the mix, along with Phil Manzanera hitting a few well-chosen upstrokes on his guitar. And then the rest of the band.

If you think counting beats is nerdy, let’s work on how we identify a bark. Ferry, at his loudest, sort of wails. The verse finds Ferry employing a slightly aggravating kind of talking that slides into tonal singing. He enunciates clearly, but barks at no point during the song.

Frith is a careful enough thinker that this seems more like an absence of fact-checking than a mishearing. Or, further, a presence of bias, that musical commentary is the realm of subjective opinion, rather than a realm of empirical qualities. Early pop criticism, as a blend of cultural theory and textual analysis, would be looking for the big idea, like decadence. Upright bass? Fender? Eh.

Bob Christgau’s 1975 review contains no factual errors. He likes the record (A-) and can hear why it’s good. Or at least, what Ferry is singing about. On “Love Is The Drug,” which was almost as common a peg as Ferry’s girlfriend Jerry Hall being on the cover (something Christgau was one of the few to ignore):

Very appropriate to situate the song in a singles bar, for that ’70s reality is the exemplary environment for Bryan Ferry’s romantic pessimism. Much of what his music has to say about such environments is fascinating, even perversely attractive — but ultimately a little off-putting, which I guess is the point.

It’s not Christgau’s fault that Ferry’s take on romance became so common that it doesn’t even register as cynical now. In fact, Christgau isolating that emotional tendency is what makes this review valuable. But we still aren’t hearing about the music, and many pop listeners now would immediately be drawn to the rhythm section before they engaged with the hambone singer. Siren, in 2017, sounds like a master class in bass and drum parts, as Gustafson and Thompson are so tight they could easily have come out of somebody’s MPC.

Later reviews, like Stephen Erlewine’s post for All Music, pick up on the dance music threads that were apparently invisible to many critics in the moment. Dance music was on the radar of only a few writers in 1975, but it would have been of note to everyone in Roxy Music. (Two major exceptions were Record World’s Vince Aletti and Billboard’s Tom Moulton, both of whom wrote about dance music precisely as dance music.) Gustafson and Thompson were almost certainly listening to The Meters or the proto-disco coming out of Florida and New York — not marching bands.

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