The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Anniversary

Running Out Of Steam: Andy Mackay Of Roxy Music On Siren
John Doran , September 28th, 2015 08:35

David Chiu talks to the Roxy horn player and looks back at the legendary group’s highly ­regarded fifth record as it turns 40

In a 1987 Rolling Stone retrospective assessment of Siren, Roxy Music's fifth studio album from 1975, it looked like that the band was on the verge of finally breaking through in America at the time ­­ and it did so to a certain extent with Roxy's first and only Billboard Top 40 hit there, ‘Love Is The Drug’. Compared to previous albums, Siren is perhaps the most accessible as it further shifted from the sonic experimentations that marked Brian Eno's early tenure with the group (in his Rolling Stone review from 1976, Simon Frith called it “the simplest album Roxy has put down”).

In the same year that saw the Bee Gees release their comeback album Main Course, the arrival of Siren coincided with the growing popularity of the disco scene in America thanks to several danceable tracks: the swinging ‘Love Is The Drug’ that, with the exception of Chic’s ‘Good Times’, succinctly captures the hedonism of the Seventies; the funky and witty ‘She Sells’; and the sweeping and feverish ‘Both Ends Burning’. Even the long and meditative mood pieces like ‘Sentimental Fool’, ‘End Of The Line’ and ‘Just Another High’ reveal a tunefulness and directness of singer Bryan Ferry's signature sense of romantic cynicism.

Given those factors ­ along with the alluring and glamorous cover featuring model Jerry Hall­ Siren is arguably the perfect Roxy Music album from start to finish.

As writer Paul Gambaccini noted in his December 1975 Rolling Stone feature titled ‘Roxy Conquers U.K., Eyes U.S.’ the band was riding on the success of ‘Love Is The Drug’ as it climbed the British pop chart, along with having a sold­-out British tour and its first­ ever headlining dates in America. But instead of building off of that momentum, Roxy went on a recording hiatus for the next four years (with the exception of the live Viva! album), while the principal members Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, and saxophonist/oboist Andrew Mackay worked on their own solo projects. When the group eventually did reunite for Manifesto, the music became more streamlined and leaned towards a maturer sound away from the rocking first era of the band.

Forty years since its original release, Siren still remains one of Roxy's highest­praised records and is often a staple of critics’ ‘best­ of’ lists; two of its songs, ‘Love Is The Drug’ and ‘Both Ends Burning’ have been mainstays of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry’s set lists over the years. In a new interview, founding member Mackay ­ who now leads his own band the Metaphors ­ looks back at that now­ classic record made during a time when Roxy was actually drifting apart behind the scenes.

Most [U.S.] critics generally regard Siren as the best Roxy Music album or the one that received the most critical acclaim. Of the eight studio albums recorded by the band, how do you personally view the record?

Andrew Mackay: It is very interesting that it is so well regarded in the U.S. I have to say it is my least favourite Roxy album. This may be because we were as a band running out of steam. Phil, [drummer] Paul [Thompson] and I had tried to keep enthusiasm for Roxy up. But really since Eno left, the sense that we should all as individuals push our careers as Bryan spectacularly advanced his became more dominant. I had started my collaboration with Howard Schuman and Thames TV writing and producing the music for Rock Follies. I worked throughout 1975 on this while we were engaged on Siren and it premiered in February 1976.

Compared to the first four albums, Siren sounds more straightforward and less experimental. Was that a conscious decision on the band's part, especially Bryan's,­ to make something that was a little more pop­-oriented and accessible? Or did it just happen naturally?

AM: It does sound like an album of individual songs. There was pressure for the band to get more song writing credits ­­ and indeed to contribute more directly to composition. In any band, publishing royalties make huge differentials in income particularly when start-up costs, recording and touring are recouped from record royalties alone. Apart from needing to use the best songs, we collectively had available we needed to get a fairer split of real income. Hence the ‘Ferry/ Mackay/ Manzanera/ [keyboardist Eddie] Jobson’ credits. I don’t think we thought of the record as being any less ‘experimental’. We maybe felt more pressured and the fifth album is always a tricky one.

Chris Thomas was the producer for Siren as well as on the previous three albums For Your Pleasure, Stranded, and Country Life. How would you describe his contributions or impact on this album during its recording?

AM: Chris had a huge impact particularly on ‘Love Is The Drug’. His confidence and ability to make us work really hard and re­do parts was exceptional. I spent literally hours tracking the sax riffs on ‘Love Is The Drug’ when they sounded pretty much OK to me. Chris was of course right. Toward the end of recording, we were compromised as we had been on Stranded and other albums by Bryan not having finished lyrics so that tracks got overworked as instrumentals while we were working as it were in the dark. ‘Both Ends Burning’ is a case in point. It has always been better live because we know where the singing comes in!

You co-­wrote Roxy's biggest hit in America – and perhaps the band's signature song [Stateside] ‘Love Is The Drug’. Could you describe how that song came about? I read in a Rolling Stone article from that period that the song started out differently than the final version.

AM: Like most hit singles, 'Love Is The Drug' kind of selected itself and always sounded like something special. I say always, but Rolling Stone is right, in that it started out with my input as slower and a bit stately. The band collectively and Chris got the snappier feel. Johnny Gustafson came up with the bass pattern and Paul got that great tight snare sound. Bryan pulled one of his alchemical stunts and sang an almost complete vocal line with fantastic lyrics to general amazement and applause in AIR Studio No. 1 late one night. With some inspired sound effects it sounded like a hit and very narrowly missed being our first number one in the U.K.

Another great song from the album is a track that you also co­wrote with Bryan called 'Sentimental Fool'. I love how the song is framed musically, beginning with this ominous dreamy tone and then morphing into this sort of '50s­-styled pop number. How did that song develop, if you could possibly recall?

AM: We were fortunate to have plenty of studio time, as one did in those days, and that song developed over a good few sessions.Maybe it undermines the suggestion that Siren was less experimental than previous albums.

What was the mood within Roxy during the Siren period? It seemed like the band was still at the peak of its game -­ there didn't seem to be any indication from the record that Roxy would go on hiatus.

AM: As I hinted above we were not really happy. We never had big rows in the studio and still got on on some level. But as I said both Bryan and Phil recorded and released albums that year and I wrote 25 songs for TV. We did the Siren tour, including a successful U.S. leg in the winter, but all felt we needed a break from Roxy, with no certainty that we would ever get back together. We also had individual financial stability, which makes quite a difference. After four years and dozens of hits, I did not make a profit until that year - that is I owed money to our managers/record co-­publishers [E.G. Records]. Thanks E.G.

Looking back, Siren should have been Roxy's breakthrough album in America, and yet it didn't turn out that way, despite 'Love Is The Drug' peaking at #30 on the Billboard pop chart there. What is your theory on why that didn't happen? And did the album’s lack of success in America contribute in some way to the band's hiatus for the next four years.

AM: Well I suppose if we had become huge in the States that might have made a difference, but maybe not. Roxy always were and to a large extent still too weird for mainstream American touring. It is partly a choice; if an avant­ garde English band wanted to break in the U.S. in the 70s, you really had to spend a lot of time there and either compromise your music or put up with indifference or abuse except in the little progressive art­y or gay enclaves of New York, Los Angeles, Akron, Detroit, etc., and Canada. We chose to make things happen in Europe where we built big following really quickly and spent our time there.

In reading the story written by Paul Gambaccini for Rolling Stone from December 1975, it was implied that the reason for the delay of the album's original release from September to October of that year was because of last­-minute song writing from Bryan.­ You were quoted as saying, “The lyric machine was a bit late.” I was wondering if you could further elaborate on that.

AM: Bryan was always late with lyrics. His method, at least with Roxy, was to have a track to work to and then hone words to perfection to the music and arrangement. Inevitably I guess inspiration does not alway come on cue.

What was it like performing in the States during the Siren tour? I can only assume the reception there was different, or perhaps comparable to the U.K.?

AM: The reaction was great. We played mainly theatres which suited us. In the U.K. we were playing arenas, but the audience were great in both.

Would it be accurate to say that Siren marked the end of Roxy's first musical phase?

AM: I would say For Your Pleasure marked the end of phase one when Eno left. The last three albums have some general similarity of method and mood, and the ones in between were, ­­well, the ones in between.

Fast forward to today: are you working on any current musical projects with or without The Metaphors?

AM: My main project is a longish piece based around three Psalms for string orchestra, sax, vocals and electronics. Hope to premiere this winter. I have been in the studio with my musician son and some other musicians, including the amazing Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei possibly for an extended Metaphors recording. We hope to relaunch the EP next year. It is the 40th anniversary of Rock Follies next spring and I am working with the rights owners to get a re­-release of the TV show and the albums.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.