10
Mar
09

The Beauty of Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: Michael Bracewell’s Re-Make/Re-Model


I’ve read a fair amount of band/artist biographies with varying amounts of interest(oddly enough, as much as I love the band Pulp, their 400-page biography by Mark Sturdy was one of the hardest to conquer). I stumbled upon Michael Bracewell’s 2007 biography of Roxy Music, Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music, by accident while looking for other Michael Bracewell books. You see, I quite like Bracewell’s ideas and style; I’ve read both England is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie and When Surface Was Depth: Death by Cappuccino and Other Reflections on Music and Culture in the 1990’s, which both gave me fascinating intertextual insights into popular culture from vastly different angles. The former probes various aspects of Englishness from arcadia to suburbia via John Betjeman, Lindsay Anderson films and The Cure while the latter discussed the atmosphere of the 90s, including a shift from irony to “authenticity” and the gentrification of the avant-garde, and explored topics from Britpop to Howard Devoto to the Millennium Dome to American pop group, Hanson. These earlier works point to Bracewell’s intelligent wit and extensive research, aspects which definitely infuse Re-Make/Re-Model.

The key difference with Bracewell’s take on Roxy Music’s biography, or the band biography genre in general, is that he strictly focuses on the way the band came about; once the band gains a record deal and creates their self-titled first album, the book ends. By the way, this book is nearly 400 pages long. And I finished it in a few days. The difference between this book and that massive history of Pulp is the almost academic take on the ideas, art and socio-historical forces that shaped the band and their music. This book isn’t about a meticulous chronology of singles, albums and gigs, power struggles, band member departures, and outrageous gossip. This book isn’t about a band’s personal relationships as such; it’s more about the constellation of people and ideas that provided the perfect conditions to create such a unique band which took high and low art and married them with a camp aesthetic.

The book is divided into three main sections: Newcastle 1953-1968, Reading, Ipswich, Winchester 1964-1969, and London 1968-1972. In doing this, Bracewell can thoroughly discuss the milieus from which Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno emerged, parallel them, and then join them up in the final section. Of course there are plenty of interviews with the band members themselves, but there are equal amounts, if not more, interviews with people who had contact with the band members, and in effect, “made” Roxy Music as much as Ferry, Mackay and Eno. In the Newcastle section, you learn about the Richard Hamilton-influenced art school concepts that surrounded Ferry and his fellow students, including Rita Donagh, who eventually ended up teaching at Reading University where Andy Mackay was studying English and Music. Hamilton and his postmodern pastiche, Pop Art ideas and Duchampian aesthetics become clear foundations for Roxy Music’s borrowing from an eclectic, extensive palette for both their music and their image. But in addition to these high art philosophies, Ferry and his colleagues were equally exposed to Club A-Go-Go, a venue that held lunchtime dances for Newcastle’s working class, and the social significance of mod clothing at Marcus Price.

The second section shows how ideas migrated and cross-pollinated between the art schools in Newcastle, Reading and Ipswich, taking in Andy Mackay and Brian Eno’s pieces of the Roxy Music story. In the process, Bracewell emphasizes the similarities between Brian Eno’s concern for process over product and the theories being practiced in both Newcastle and Reading. While Eno’s new, postmodern attitude toward art almost got him kicked out of Winchester School of Art, it demonstrated a new way of approaching both art and music, thus creating unexpected art that wouldn’t have occurred any other way. At the same time, at Reading, art students were being exposed to Armenian philosopher, Gurdjieff, who came up with the concept of “self re-membering,” a philosophy that says you can create your own being. Through Hamilton’s emphasis on Duchamp, the future members of Roxy Music and their milieu learned “art can be anything,” and through Gurdjieff, they learned that “you can be anything”; the combination of these two ideologies took their subcultural activities to the mainstream and provided a foundation for what would eventually be termed “glam rock,” a deliberately artificial construct. This is also the section of the book that introduces you to the Moodies, the Reading-based, pop art performance group that pre-figured punk, and the avant-garde “happenings” occurring in and around Reading, which are both elements that contributed to how Roxy Music ended up fusing the mass market appeal of pop and glamour with high art consciousness, and more practically, how Mackay came to meet Eno.

The final section of the book, which is likely where most biographers would start the bulk of their story, ties all the ends up in London, where all of Roxy Music’s members finally converge in the midst of new, outrageous fashion from the likes of Ossie Clark, Antony Price, Pamla Motown, and Eno’s then-girlfirend, Carol McNicholl; inventive, entrepreneurial hairstyling from Keith Wainwright; and decadent, poetic PR from post-graduate Romantic Literature student Simon Puxley. This steaming soup of embryonic ideas and creative businesses provided the perfect environment for the birth of Roxy Music. Interestingly enough, Roxy Music was initially perceived as emerging too fully-formed by music journalists and critics – to them, apparently Roxy Music hadn’t paid their dues in previous music scenes like David Bowie. But if I learned anything from the book, it’s how much went into creating the success and critical acclaim behind Roxy Music. They truly were the product of their postwar times and paid their dues in multiple, eclectic arenas outside of the music scene itself, making for one of the most interesting bands of all time.

In terms of writing talent and knowledge, Michael Bracewell is already heads above many other music writers (Morrissey has called him “the most adroitly gifted writer of our generation”); he writes the types of books I need to come back to again and again just to comprehend the full meaning and scope of what he places under the same umbrella. He’s brilliant at unravelling pop culture’s seemingly seamless tapestry and re-weaving it into a web you never would have expected. With his obvious knowledge of both pop culture and academic theory, he was the perfect biographer for this band, which represented both facets simultaneously. Not only did this book give me a fantastic insight into the people who made up Roxy Music and their music, but it made me think and learn. I fully acknowledge that most bands wouldn’t warrant this kind of biography nor stand up with this kind of cerebral analysis; however, the fact that Roxy Music does makes them all the more significant a collection of true artists. In effect, Bracewell takes Eno’s process over product philosophy and applies it to the band itself, showing that the process itself can be a work of art.

Re-Make/Re-Model – Roxy Music

Ladytron – Roxy Music

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1 Response to “The Beauty of Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: Michael Bracewell’s Re-Make/Re-Model”


  1. 1 JC
    March 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    That review has made me determined to buy this book…..I’m a sucker for good music bios.


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Gigs Attended

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Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave

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But I've never caught a glimpse

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I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

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Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun

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Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

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They've come to chop, to chop off your head

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Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away

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(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners

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Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

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Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

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Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

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I don't know whether

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Personal taste is a matter of gender

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All I have is words, words that don't obtain

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Is it him, is it me

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How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

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Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

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Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

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Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb

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Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

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Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape

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Well, maybe there's a god above

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And what costume shall the poor girl wear

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For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning

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I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

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Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

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Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

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You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

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Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love

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I know we suffer for fashion

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Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

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In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

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Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

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No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south

Empty

Running on

Bravado

As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different

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LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell

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Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are

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You must let her go

She's not crying

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Baiting

Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times

Valentines

Hating

Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone

Whipcrack

Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't

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So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need

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The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest

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Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know

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No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more

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All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids

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Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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