Re-make/Re-model

Posted by PH on July 06, 2012
Music & Technology, Visual Culture

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Michael Bracewell’s 2007 book Re-make/Re-model: Art, Pop, Fashion, and the Making of Roxy Music, 1953-1972. Having now finished it, a few comments on the book and, more generally, Roxy Music.

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Anyone looking for a straightforward pop biog of the early days of Roxy Music would be seriously disappointed. The first section deals mainly with Richard Hamilton and his teaching at Newcastle University in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Bryan Ferry was a Fine Art student there. The second section then alternates between the Art Departments at Ipswich (Eno) and Reading (Andy Mackay). The third and final section describes how these key people came together in London in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Personally, I found the first section hugely interesting for its description of Hamilton’s Bauhaus-inspired teaching methods and the development of his early influential pop-art works. The Eno-related elements of the second section are likewise of interest; less so the Mackay/Reading axis. Things pick up again in the third section as the band gradually coalesces in London.
Overall: an intriguing investigation into a little-known area of England’s pop history.

Unfortunately, there are a number problems with the book as a whole. Firstly, you have to buy into its central thesis – that the life of Bryan Ferry is a Hamilton-inspired “work of art” – which, frankly, I didn’t. Secondly, the book’s “argument” often depends on these tenuous and unfounded links between people who probably never met let alone ever discussed or contemplated the life-as-art concept. This is a very typical example of the nebulous logical threads the author tries to set up:

Bryan Ferry had come to Brian Morris’ party with another friend of Juliet Mann’s called Paul Macbeth – who was at this point working as a private secretary for a friend of Elizabeth Taylor. Macbeth would subsequently work for the owner of Legends – a fashionable nightclub on Old Burlington Street, where much later in the 1970s Juliet herself would become well known as the glamorous hat-check girl. [pp.336-337]

Take this apart: it’s just piffle, insubstantial name-dropping for the sake of it. It tells us nothing.

Thirdly, by the end the author has to make some pretty outrageous claims for Roxy Music as a group so that he can justify everything else he’s written about the individuals. Talking of the first eponymous Roxy Music album, Bracewell says that it was:

…a project that would soon bring the avant-garde to the mainstream, and would have a massive effect on not just popular music, but the coordinates of popular taste. [p.342]

He goes on, calling the album and the group:

…an utterly unique new musical form, prompting many further ideas and questions about the nature of music-making and, very quickly, the making of stars. [p.347]

All of this is vacuous hyperbole. Yes, Roxy Music were popular at the time, but their music is essentially traditional, a collage of existing forms. They changed nothing (compared to say the Velvet Underground, whose name is bandied about quite a lot in the book whenever a bit of supporting evidence is required).

Fourthly, Bracewell spends a lot of time establishing a kind of “cool” timeline for the group: pop-art, Hollywood, Art school, Mod fashion, Stax and Motown, Warhol and the Velvets, etc. But wait! Let’s look at almost any picture of Roxy Music from this era and what do we have: glitter, leopard-skin prints, platform boots, flares… Like: gross!!!

So, to sum up: yes it’s an interesting book if you’re interested in pop art, Richard Hamilton, and Art School practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It tells us a lot about the early days of Roxy Music. But its central thesis is almost laughably overblown: if you can live with that, it’s worth reading.

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