Hovering right in there at the midpoint of the 1970s,
Love Is The Drug is axis on which the decade hinges. Take it one step backward and you're knee deep in T. Rex, The Chi-Lites and King Crimson — the realm of prog, glam rock, Philly soul, funk and metal — but lean one step into the future and you're looking at The Clash, Chic and Blondie — hanging right there at the ground floor of everything just around the corner — where the monolithic groove of new wave, post punk and disco slowly emerges to conquer all and set the stage for the dawn of the 1980s.
Now there's no getting around it, Roxy Music had their roots in the heady first half of the seventies, where they emerged at the arty end of glam in the year of our Lord 1972. Their self-titled debut was a monster pile up of proto-punk/new wave, art pop, prog, and pre-rock songcraft, all spiked by the presence of one Brian Eno working his magic on the machines. With everything from sound collage to chanson and even country stylings cropping across its 45 minute running time, the record's scope was tremendous (even for its day). Over the course of their next four albums, the band would continue to refine this sound, beveling the rough edges of their early music down to a sophisticated, increasingly groove-oriented sheen.
However, the seeds of this trajectory were right there from the beginning, if only you knew where to look. The band's first single
Virginia Plain1 — with its manic burst of looping Velvet Underground-style piano, cascading rockabilly guitar, horn fanfare and overflowing synth blasts — may have been a perfect example of what Eno called the 'idiot energy' of the band's earliest records, but the way the whole thing rides a 4/4 stomp midway between
I'm Waiting For The Man and
Heart Of Glass is definitely locked onto something wholly other, a something that bears a striking resemblance to disco's relentless motorik pulse.
This thread runs right through Roxy’s next few records to follow — from the mythical dance craze of
Do The Strand to
Street Life’s frenzied rock-inna-disco rhythms and the pounding mantric attack of
The Thrill Of It All, with its mutant Philly soul/Gamble & Huff string section — it's a sound unlike anything else of the time.2 Dig a little deeper, and a couple tracks are even more telling.
The Bogus Man, from the band's sophomore album For Your Pleasure, is a slinky marathon groove that comes on like cabaret funk (imagine Can doing Brecht/Weill circa Ege Bamyasi), with its second half descending into pure atmospheric paranoia (Eno’s genius in full effect).
Pyjamarama, the single Roxy released before their first two albums, is even more explicitly aimed at the dancefloor, its loping motorik rhythm the split of disco and Bo Diddley-esque rhythmic overload. From the loping, ultra-chorused underwater guitar figure to Bryan Ferry’s plastic soul falsetto and an undeniable Adam And The Ants thing going on — the way Paul Thompson’s recurring Bo Diddley beats sketch out Terry Lee Miall’s realization of Ant’s Burundi drum obsessions and Phil Manzanera’s tearing guitar lays the blueprint for Marco Pirroni’s epic Morricone-inflected lines3 — the whole thing's so fab that it was very nearly the record I was going to talk about today, beaten out by Love Is The Drug by just a whisker.
So let's talk about Love Is The Drug. 'Enough setting the stage, you long-winded bastard!' Well, ok then. First of all, the Roxy Music that gave us
Love Is The Drug is a couple years older than the one that gave us
Virginia Plain. Eno’s out of the band by this point,4 replaced on the keys by multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson. Remember how I mentioned that the band would (*hits PAGE UP to confirm*) 'continue to refine their sound, beveling the rough edges of their early music down to a sophisticated, increasingly groove-oriented sheen?' Well, this is the culmination of all that beveling. Talk about refined! Just look at that picture... you can practically feel the new waves coming off of the band by this point.
Love Is The Drug springs from the band's fifth album, Siren (which features Bryan Ferry’s then-squeeze Jerry Hall on the sleeve). After Eno, but before the band's new romantic return,5 it's a great little record. There's no shortage of gems to be found here, from the Steely Dan-in-a-parallel-dimension6-jamming-with-Family jazz pop of
She Sells to
End Of The Line’s warped country rock and (especially) the spellbinding
Both Ends Burning (the undeniable blueprint for Japan circa Quiet Life), but none of them come close to its utterly infectious opening track. When
Love Is The Drug hits, you can feel it running through your veins...
Scene: You're under the streetlamp on some lonely intersection, any intersection. You hear footsteps... they're your own. You're walking to your car. You open the door and step inside, closing it behind you. A guitar clanks and kicks a two-note bass pulse into gear, and a lonely sax breathes shades of Spy Hunter into the nighttime air. Is it coming through on your car's soundsystem or just humming in the world all around you? Does it even matter? You start up the car, rev the engine and peal off into the moonlight... and then the groove hits.
It all clicks into place when Paul Thompson’s drums roll in to snap out a loose-limbed 4/4 time, and bass-man-of-the-moment7 John Gustafson unveils a killer bassline, throbbing against the beat with a rude swagger straight out of a Tarantino movie. Even Phil Manzanera locks into the rhythm, his guitar chopping out a taut new wave kind of funk as Eddie Jobson interjects some ultra-disciplined Stax sax lines into the mix. Liquid organs change chords to the beat, washing across its surface and melting into the rhythm, as those spectral Farfisas swirling just below the surface. Then, Bryan Ferry enters the fray:
T'ain't no big thing
To wait for the bell to ring.
T'ain't no big thing
The toll of the bell.
Aggravated, spare for days
I troll downtown the red light place.
Jump up bubble up, what's in store?
Love is the drug and I need to score.
Maybe the most perfect portrait of going out for a night on the town, looking for some action? Prince must have rivaled it at some point, but specifics don't come to mind. At any rate, this song's verse takes Bryan Ferry’s whole lounge-lizard-from-a-parallel-dimension persona and distills it all down to its purest essence:
Showing out, showing out, hit and run.
Boy meets girl where the beat goes on.
Stitched up tight, can't shake free,
Love is the drug, got a hook on me.
Oh oh catch that buzz,
Love is the drug I'm thinking of.
Oh oh can't you see,
Love is the drug for me...
Well now. That's some serious Smokey Robinson-meets-Nuggets action right there, an age-old sentiment whittled down to its poetic core with razor precision. Believe me when I say that it's the perfect counterpoint to the music itself, the band's taut interplay and smokey dancehall vibes, conjuring up a sublime slice of of dancefloor perfection.
Make no mistake, this is your every new wave rock disco fantasy — from
Miss You to
The Magnificent Seven — played out on a single slab of wax, well before anyone had any business doing so. Off the top of my head, the closest anyone had come by then to this sort of paranoid, half-lit bedroom disco were The Rolling Stones with
Fingerprint File,8 but that tune operates on the plane of midtempo funk — marked by Charlie Watts’ loose-limbed mini-breakbeats — whereas
Love Is The Drug’s central groove is disco through and through.
The twist is that it's chorus isn't disco at all. Kicking into gear with another drum roll from Paul Thompson, the groove collapses into a quintessentially 'seventies rock' chorus, soaring across the track in great arcs like something off Abbey Road. The effect is just like when Babe Ruth’s
The Mexican switches gears, and the tune's proto-disco rhythm tumbles into a radio prog half-time downbeat stomp. That's what places this tune at the axis of the decade. With both sides of the coin rubbing shoulders on the same record, the same song even, it's as if glimpses of the decade were flashing before your eyes in bullet time: each and every peak-era memory and all tomorrow's parties getting down in the same nightclub. With prog's breathtaking vistas still lingering in the rear view mirror, they all dance the night away together and slip softly into the future.
And just as
Pyjamarama gave us
The Pride And The Pain on the flipside,
Love Is The Drug gives us
Sultanesque. Roxy always had a knack for giving you more than you bargained for on the b-side, and this is no exception.
Sultanesque opens on a droning synth phasing in and out of focus, cycling across your entire field of vision like starships strobing the desert. It's a whole minute before anything else happens. Then, rhythm box begins tentatively ticking out a little beat, and a bassline slowly begins to pulse from within. Even the synths warp themselves into something approaching a melody, keyboards shimmering in plain sight. Terry Riley trapped in a music box, and it just builds and builds for another two minutes.
Then, Phil Manzanera’s guitars begin to hover right there at the edge of perception, twisting against the synths somewhere on the horizon, shrouded at first in the mist of surrounding synths, before the bagpipe drone begins to rise through the haze. Then, a slow-motion gong-in-reverse builds up to a swirling crescendo. Suddenly, Manzanera’s center stage, guitars cutting graceful arcs against the deep red sunset, these great gorgeous silhouettes in the fading brilliance of another day, slipping into the past with all the others. And just like the setting sun, Manzanera recedes back into the haze just as soon as he's begun.
The whole thing's a dead ringer for something Richard Pinhas might have dreamt up in Heldon’s heyday, which any fool knows is high praise indeed. It's hard to believe Eno’s not lurking in the track somewhere, but it's 1975 and he was off exploring the spaces between the places in Another Green World. Proving that even without Eno, Roxy Music still had more than a little strangeness up their sleeves, which is a big part of the reason no one else could've done this record in 1975. Roxy’s trademark twist of art and pop walked a razor's edge, and Love Is The Drug might be their finest balancing act of all. Shot from any angle, it's a dazzling dancefloor burner... not to mention a tantalizing glimpse of the future.
Also included on the U.S. version of their debut.
Only the Sparks come close.
A fact borne out on the record's b-side,
And into Another Green World.
Siren is the last album before the band's four year hiatus, after which they return as the elder statesmen of new wave (much like Bowie circa Scary Monsters), and just in time for the rise of MTV.
Props to my brother for making this connection years ago.
Bassists were to Roxy Music as drummers were to Spinal Tap.
Coincidentally, my favorite Stones song.