360°Sound spoke with author and music historian Simon Morrison about his 33 1/3 book on Roxy Music’s classic final album Avalon. The 1982 LP is smooth and immaculately produced, a stark contrast from the British group’s more experimental records in the decade prior. Roxy Music’s biggest commercial success in the United States, Avalon spawned the hits “More Than This,” “Take a Chance With Me,” and the title track.
Morrison is a professor of music at Princeton University. He specializes in Russian music of the 20th century and is a leading authority on composer Sergei Prokofiev. He is the author of Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today and Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev. Morrison is currently working on a biography of Stevie Nicks. Roxy Music’s Avalon is out now on Bloomsbury Press.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Please start by telling us why you decided to write a book on this particular Roxy Music album.
Simon Morrison: It was the most popular album they did, certainly in North America. I was really fascinated by the production values on the record. Roxy Music’s sound changed a great deal over time, and I know that a lot of diehard fans are very committed to the earlier records, including the first one. I was really interested in how [singer] Bryan Ferry, in particular, transformed popular music and was really interested in exploring texture in different ways through new technologies in the studio.
What is it about the production that makes it so special?
I got this record when I was a kid. I really liked Roxy Music and listened to all their other albums. When I went to music school, I was sort of taught to think about how a song is made in terms of how it’s organized – choruses, verses, chordal structure, the notes. Listening to their records and sort of clinking some of the tunes out on the piano, I realized that over the course of time, the musical language, the notes, had become simpler.
Bryan Ferry, who has an interesting voice, probably not the strongest in rock. He manages to work with a lot of nuance and shading in his voice, but not a great deal of range. Over the course of time, the band became more commercial, more appealing for AM and FM in the United States. But they were less eclectic, the quirkiness went away, and certainly, the experimental nature of the early albums went away. I think a lot of fans limit [them] a little bit.
What I was struck by was how much Ferry and the rest of the band really started to weave together all sorts of different textures. So, when you listen to Avalon and Bryan Ferry solo records, it’s kind of unclear what instrumentalist is playing what. Everything is really blended in this really subtle nuance and sensuous kind of texture. This was one of the first albums that had, for popular music, such high production values. It was one of the first albums released as a compact disc.
When they came to New York to record and when they were in the Bahamas recording, [Ferry] was working with an increased soundboard, the track sizes on the album far exceed what took place on the previous records. Even on Avalon itself, certain songs have more tracks than others. Just exploring it and conversing with him a little bit about the record, asking the studio a lot of questions about it, I got a real sense of how [Avalon] was put together.
The books in the 33 1/3 series take a wide variety of approaches. One of the things that stood out to me in your book is your detailed musical analysis of the songs. Talk about why you chose to approach your book the way you did.
I don’t write much about popular music. This one I wanted to do because I had the opportunity and privilege of meeting Ferry and seeing him live a few times. And then growing up with that music, so it was something that kind of hung around as an interest point.
I was in London, and I visited the studio that Ferry owns. I initially thought maybe I would do a book about the band and its history. I wrote a proposal up, but then thought that given that Ferry might be offering an autobiography at some point soon, that might not be a project that would work out. I instead retooled the proposal as a pitch for 33 1/3 and they took it on. And then sitting down to write it, my instinct was to just figure the music out and how it worked. That’s how I’ve been trained.
My habit was to try and figure out why “Avalon” is a catchy song. What is the hook about? So, you plunk it out, and why is the opening track so great and the guitar playing is wonderful on that track? That has a great hook as well. Why are certain tracks earworms?
The first chapter is on modernism. Briefly explain what modernism is and how Avalon is an example of it.
One of the things that modernism did is it kind of erased the division between popular and serious music. You had a lot of composers who got jazzy or imported the blues into their sound, or ragtime. They wrote popular songs as well as ballet scores — Cole Porter was one of them, Erik Satie was another.
One of the things I thought was fascinating was the opposite phenomenon of a group of popular musicians actually aspiring to create something that had the difficulty or the texture, the layers of nuance of meanings and shadings. Say, something larger with many different voices involved in it. What I found interesting about Roxy Music given that Ferry comes from an art school background — he’s very interested in the visual arts — how he, on one hand, was trying to push popular music in a direction that’s more sophisticated and at the same time really accessible for the public. It was taking a popular music and making it kind of classical that I was interested in.
I noticed also that Ferry’s operation, the band was obviously very concerned with fashion and look and women, everything is a kind of a package that’s sophisticated. The visual arts, and poetry, and music are all sort of blended together. That seemed very modernist to me as well. Not only this breakdown of the relationship between the low and the high in music but also the idea that this music is very colorful.
Ferry has this persona as a suave, gentlemanly crooner, which has made him stand out among rock singers. He’s a bit of a cult figure in the U.S. What’s he like in person?
He has a kind of old-school demeanor. He’s very soft-spoken. The clothes, he’s very elegant, he dresses for work. He’s fairly reticent and quite shy in a way. I think a lot of performers are that way. When they get on the stage, they’re something else. I find him to be very kind, a gentle demeanor, cordial.
He’s a lot of the reputation. He’s a lot of the image of himself. When I had dinner with him, I was able to pepper him a little bit more with random questions. He can be mordant, a slight streak of black humor. I remember asking him, “What do you think of Manchester?” He said, “I think it’s a godforsaken place,” just before playing a big gig there [laughs].
What do you view as the key themes of the album?
[Ferry] came with the title based on that song. It’s interesting. What’s it about? King Arthur legend, mythic, the romance associated with the medieval, chivalrous. I realized he liked the idea of a 20th-century troubadour. Most of the songs deal with some late stage of romance or something not working out or some type of memory or nostalgia for some relationship. To me, it’s sort of an album about a singer at court with a beautiful lady, and you’re not worthy of her, and she will dump you anyway [laughs]. This kind of thing treads through the entire album, this sort of wistfulness.
indulge in more great 33 1/3 Author Talk…