ANDY MACKAY describes himself as one of the “shy, slightly bookish people” who formed Roxy Music.
Dans 1971, the saxophonist was among a bunch of hip art school types bent on pursuing their rock ’n’ roll dreams.
Ensemble, by some strange alchemy, they began making some of the most thrilling, outlandish and daring pop ever conceived.
They took their cue from Elvis, Motown, Cole Porter, The Beatles and The Velvet Underground and fashioned something entirely new, calling it “avant-rock”.
Dans Bryan Ferry, suave, sophisticated with a winsome croon, they had a magnetic frontman.
And they dressed in exotic clothes — leopard-skin prints, brightly coloured satins, even ostrich feathers — and their album covers were adorned with outrageously sexy women.
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“Luckily for us, we didn’t have to strive for originality but got there thanks to a combination of enthusiasm and desperation,” says Mackay with a knowing grin.
La semaine prochaine, the band’s 50th anniversary tour rolls into the UK for their first live shows on these shores since 2011.
Just back from a string of North American dates, including one at cavernous Madison Square Garden, Mackay, 76, is talking to me via the customary Zoom.
How times have changed for the sonic adventurers who first played the iconic New York venue in 1972.
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When we played at Madison Square Garden though, it was the 50th anniversary of our nightmare
Minus the trademark quiff of his early Roxy days but with a distinguished head of grey hair, Mackay says: “I’d never thought of us as a band with much presence in America but there was an enormous amount of warmth from these audiences.
“When we played at Madison Square Garden though, it was the 50th anniversary of our nightmare.”
He recalls: “We were the support act to Jethro Tull and all of us still wake up in a cold sweat about it.
“Tape recorders and synths were not like the modern ones so our equipment included an odd, ambitious mixture of experimental pieces.
“There was no soundcheck which, combined with our lack of experience playing a big venue, meant we stumbled off stage going, 'Oh, dear!»
Aujourd'hui, pourtant, Mackay has loved every minute of being back in the company of Roxy Music’s other three core members, Traversier, guitarist Phil Manzanera and drummer Paul Thompson.
The dates came about after the band reunited to be inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2019.
They played six of their best-loved songs at the ceremony . . . In Every Dream Home A Heartache, Out Of The Blue, Love Is The Drug, More Than This, Avalon, Editions Of You.
The current shows draw on what Mackay says are “the three periods of Roxy Music”.
The first is represented by two albums, the self-titled debut and For Your Pleasure “when Brian Eno was still with us.”
The second begins with 1973’s Stranded, “in many ways our best album”, continues with Country Life with the most risqué of their album covers and is completed by Siren featuring massive hit Love Is The Drug.
Mackay calls 1979’s Manifesto, released after a four-year recording hiatus, as a transitional album to the third phase of Flesh + Blood and biggest-selling Avalon.
Defined by a smoother, radio-friendly sound that Ferry had been searching for, Avalon opened up new audiences, particularly in the US.
“I very much like the album,” says Mackay. “When you’re in a band, you never know which will be the one everyone ends up really liking. Not everyone has their Revolver or their Dark Side Of The Moon.”
He also has a huge amount of affection for the first album, singling out the thrill of Re-Make/ Re-Model, the synth-heavy Ladytron and the lilting If There Is Something as key tracks.
“I feel very close to that record,” Mackay admits. “Although all the credits are Bryan’s, we were all very much involved in developing the songs.
“There are some quite long instrumental sections and it is much weirder-sounding than later work.
“The Bob (Medley) is really strange but actually full of very interesting experimental bits and pieces.”
Brian Eno was brought in by his friend Mackay to handle “treatments” with the VCS3 synthesizer and give Roxy edginess and quirkiness. “I said I had just the person to twiddle the knobs,” he laughs.
Eno left after album No2, the wildly entertaining For Your Pleasure, and of course went on to a stellar career in production and solo artistry.
Next I ask Mackay to just give me his views on the Roxy members who have stayed the course . . . right up to these 50th anniversary celebrations and his responses are typically gracious.
He says of Ferry: “I know Bryan was in bands in Newcastle while he was studying and he has always had fantastic instincts as a performer.
“Famously, they were slightly slow to develop. In the very early Roxy days, he was playing a keyboard at the side of the stage while the middle was largely empty. Phil and I had to step into it and prance around a bit more.”
They knew it was a situation which couldn’t go on for ever. “We had to persuade Bryan to stand in the middle and be the frontman,” says Mackay. “Now it really suits him.
“As he gets older, he’s perfected the art of less is more. He can command it all with a wave of his wrist or a nod of his head.
“That’s a great skill and his delivery and timing are incredible.”
Mackay believes Ferry could have had “a different life. Although he’s a shy person, he could have been an actor or a music hall performer. He loves to connect with the audience.”
Next Mackay turns his attention to Manzanera: “Phil has always been a very interesting guitarist because he’s so hard to categorise . . . perfect for Roxy if you like.
He is able to play different styles, embrace experiments and work intensely on sounds and textures.”
Mackay remembers that Manzanera was only recruited a few weeks before the debut album sessions but “still did amazing things”.
“He’s also developed on stage over the years and is now a formidable performer. The American audiences were surprised to find these quiet English guys with an incredible-looking guitarist.”
As for Thompson, il dit: “Paul may be the best English drummer, bar possibly John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), of the past 50-plus years.
“He’s a fantastic asset and I’m incredibly pleased he’s been doing these shows. Paul has had health issues which were, thank God, overcome.
“He wasn’t able to do the Hall Of Fame with us and when the American tour offer came up, J'ai dit, ‘I only want to do it if Paul can do it too, as it’s a Roxy celebration’.
“If he is playing, I only need to hear one beat of his snare and I know that he’s there.”
Next I ask Mackay a bit more about himself . . . specifically how he came to found the band with Ferry, his exuberant stage image and how he gave the saxophone and oboe prominence in the Roxy Music sound.
‘I decided to go for a rocker quiff look’
“Bryan loved rock ’n’ roll and had wide-ranging musical taste but neither of us had a fixed idea of what sort of band we wanted to be in," il dit.
“I was more into The Velvet Underground and experimental avant-garde classical music but I loved rock ’n’ roll as well.”
The flatmates set about putting Roxy together but “we didn’t think we’d be this funny art school band. We didn’t say, ‘Right, we’ll be a prog or a metal or a blues band’. We just thought we’d do what we could.
“Then we put an ad in Melody Maker for a drummer and a guitarist, which was how we got Paul and Phil.”
In England, you put your jeans on and picked up a guitar. We didn’t want to go with that
As the band started gigging, Mackay decided to go “for the rocker quiff look”.
“Although I was more of a mod in my late teens, I think Bryan inspired us by drawing on Hollywood," il dit.
“And we all know that American and particularly black American music had a theatrical element. You wore a sparkly jacket. Elvis and the country scene had that too.
“But in England, you put your jeans on and picked up a guitar. We didn’t want to go with that.”
Mackay explains their style-conscious approach: “Because we were surrounded by fashion student friends, we exaggerated what we were wearing for the stage.
“Around 1971 and ’72 was a great time to be living in London, particularly Soho and Kensington with shops like Mr Freedom on Church Street.”
Mackay’s flamboyant persona was enhanced by his trademark “duck walk”, employed during performances of raucous For Your Pleasure track Editions Of You.
“If I did it now, I’m afraid I’d end up in A&E,” he says with typical wry humour.
He remembers seeing a clip of a sax player in a Sixties American band “who lies on his back and kicks his legs in the air.
“I was impressed by that but I decided to go for the duck walk, which came from Chuck Berry. He did it much better than me . . . and carried on doing it into his Seventies.”
Although Ferry is credited with the vast majority of Roxy songs, Mackay can be proud of his significant co-writes with the singer.
Il dit: “By the time we got to Stranded, Bryan was able to benefit from having input from Phil and myself.
“I tended to write on the keyboard. Love Is The Drug, Angel Eyes, Bitter-Sweet and A Song For Europe were among the songs that worked well.”
Another Ferry/Mackay co-write has been given the limelight at the recent shows, the haunting Avalon instrumental Tara.
‘Odd being away when Queen died’
It has been performed as a tribute to Her Majesty The Queen, with her portrait displayed on the big screen.
“We really felt we had to do something,” says Mackay. “It was very odd being away when the Queen died because we missed everyone looking back at their lives and the collective sense of change. I’m not a huge monarchist but I really appreciate how much she meant to this country.”
Mackay casts his mind back to the creation of Tara and says “it was an accidental piece”.
“We were recording Avalon at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, nice place to be. The door was open and we were near the beach," il dit.
“Bryan was playing away on the piano, a little chord sequence I’d not heard before.
“I picked up the soprano sax and started playing along to it while Rhett Davies (co-producer) switched the tape machine on and recorded us.”
Performing it live in 2022 puts Mackay firmly in the spotlight for a few minutes. “It gives me a chance to show off and gives everyone else a break," il dit. “Tara’s great to do and I always look forward to it.”
Pour terminer, he considers his place among the Roxy Music stalwarts taking their bow in UK next week.
“When you’ve got four people who first played together 50 il y a des années, it’s quite something. It’s emotional.”