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For some strange reason the music gods (or journalists, as others call them) feel the need to compile lists of songs and albums that eventually become tablets of stone, with every addition an article of faith that can never be shaken. Why they do this is anyone's guess, though it's probably due in some way to a hellish combination of elitism and insecurity. Whatever the reason, one of those pieces of work that has been lovingly carved in stone for posterity is Roxy Music's second album, For Your Pleasure, a striking collection that is both outrageous and dark, if at times a little indulgent. That album's reputation is as it should be but it does give rise to a puzzle; namely, why is it that Roxy Music's third album, Stranded, the band's first No 1, has so fallen off the radar and so failed to impress posterity like its illustrious predecessor?
Stranded was the first milestone for Roxy Music. Soon after the release of For Your Pleasure in the spring of 1973 original band-member Brian Eno left to explore greener pastures. Eno's place in the band had been somewhat unique, in that he had been more of an artist than a musician. In fact, he hadn't really been a musician at all, although he had tinkered with the odd synthesiser and spliced the odd tape. Nowadays we might describe him as a 'creative consultant', an 'ideas' man. But with Eno gone, Roxy front-man and alpha male Brian Ferry lost no time in replacing him with Eddie Jobson, an eighteen-year-old musical prodigy who would ably take care of keyboards and synthesisers and also throw in a measure or two of electric violin when required.
With the addition of Jobson to the regular line-up - comprising Ferry on vocals and keyboards, Andy Mackay on sax and oboe, Phil Manzanera on guitar and Paul Thompson on drums - Stranded promised to be slicker and more overtly musical than its predecessor, which it proved to be. It has been argued that this was a sign that the band was losing its experimental edge, and there may well be something in that claim; Stranded lacked the more avant-garde flourishes that so marked For Your Pleasure. Yet the old Roxy eccentricity was still present in spades and it could equally be argued that the new-found slickness simply made the Roxy sound more easy on the ear. The band's revolving-door policy for bass players was also continued for Stranded, with jobbing bassist John Gustafson doing the honours.
Released in November 1973, Stranded quickly rose to the top of the album chart and stayed there throughout the grim winter of 73/74. Perhaps a little colour and camp pose were what the British record-buying public needed at that time. It's an album of distinct peaks and troughs, not in quality but rather in mood. There are eight tracks in all, four upbeat and exuberant and four mournful and reflective, one from the first group giving way to one from the second all the way through. Brian Ferry's impressionistic lyrics are strong throughout and his unique and disjointed delivery is confident and assured. Despite the increase in musical firepower that the addition of Eddie Jobson gave to the band, Stranded was an understated collection, with only the more aggressive tracks giving vent to 'effects' and 'treatments'.
The album begins on a high with Street Life, a glorious and rich blast that is superficially simple, with its standard four-chord progression, but which is backed by exotic layers of synth sounds and which contains some neat tempo changes. Ferry's energetic vocal fits in seamlessly and it's no surprise that the band broke with tradition by releasing this track as a single. It reached the top ten. Yet no sooner has the track faded than we are dragged back down to Earth by the mournful and poignant Just Like You, a song of unrequited love sung in a falsetto backed by languid piano and just a hint of electric violin. Only a guitar break in the middle disrupts the flow.
To cheer us up and knock our hats off we then get Amazona, a four-minute mini-epic in three phases. The song begins with a funk-style guitar backing Ferry's muffled grainy lyric but then the tempo changes along with Ferry's voice before phase three erupts into a raging storm of guitar and synth effects that sounds fantastic and demands that the volume be turned all the way to eleven. Guitarist Manzanera had joint writing credits on this song, no doubt because of his work in the middle of it. This is probably the most Roxyish of the tracks on Stranded. And then, seemingly to force some penance for our enjoyment, along comes Psalm. This is an eight-minute Gospelish song that slowly builds in power and volume. Its opening lines are memorable - "Try on your love like a new dress, The fit and the cut your friends to impress" - before the song becomes a curiously impassioned plea to the divine. Whether this was to be taken seriously is anyone's guess. It certainly sounds sincere.
Serenade lifts us back up again and gives us a taste of the whole band together in commercial mode. This is the shortest track on the album and it's a poppy and enjoyable effort that highlights Andy Mackay's scattergun oboe, an early Roxy Music signature, and Eddie Jobson's violin. The whole song is topped by Ferry's typically colourful and energetic lyric: "G-Plan gymnastics by an everglow fire, Could never mean the same, As summer enchantment by an old mill stream, From courtly love to costly game." Back down we go for A Song For Europe, another maudlin reflection about lost love, this time from a pavement café in Paris, that slowly builds to a crescendo. Mackay's sax dominates this song and he was given a joint writer's credit. The lyric wallows in Latin and French by the end, which is a little indulgent, but some of the other lines are good; "Though the world, Is my oyster, It's only a shell, Full of memories" is a sequence that is incredibly corny yet somewhat profound at the same time.
The penultimate track, Mother of Pearl, is undoubtedly the most lyrical on the album, with Brian Ferry really forcing the point being made all the way through: Love is a bitch. This is a six-minute track, the first part of which consists of a loud and loose jam that signifies party time: "All the gang's here... What's your number? Never mind, Take a powder." Then everything slows and the hangover begins. The rest of the song is a hypnotic musical and lyrical tour de force highlighting the shallow vacuity of celebrity culture (sound familiar?): "It's the same old story, All love and glory, It's a pantomime. If you're looking for love, In a looking glass world, It's pretty hard to find." And then we end with Sunset, a gentle poetic reflection backed by yet more languid piano and some faint background effects. "Sunburst fingers you raise, One last sigh of farewell - goodbye."
There is a streak of melancholy that runs right through Stranded, but the sheer musicality of the album coupled with the classy verve of the upbeat tracks ensures that the balance is about right. Everything just sounds so immaculate, with hardly a note out of place. The album was produced by Chris Thomas, who also co-produced For Your Pleasure and would go on to work with, among others, The Sex Pistols and Pulp. Thomas did an excellent job. The digitally remastered sound is exquisite.
And why has Stranded so eluded the plaudits? Well it hasn't really. Many people have long known just what a superb album it is, including Brian Eno himself who said as much. Perhaps the understated nature of Stranded meant that its qualities only revealed themselves slowly and the plaudit-givers impatiently passed on by to reward something a little more obvious and immediate. But the public weren't slow to fall for the album's charms and they bought it by the truck load, and a good thing too. One member of that eager public was the eleven-year-old me. It was the first album I ever bought and I still possess it to this day, though I'd be fibbing if I said that the striking gal spread-eagled across the album cover had nothing at all to do with my purchase. She was apparently called Marilyn Cole and she was Brian Ferry's girlfriend at the time as well as being Playmate of the Year for 1973. Bloody rock stars!
The CD can be picked up online for around £5 or you can simply download the tracks from iTunes.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Street Life
2 Just Like You
6 Song For Europe
7 Mother Of Pearl