Photo: Francois Rousseau
"I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character," the French musician says of his decades-long desire to democratize sound.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Jean-Michel Jarre, whose work has greatly influenced the scope of electronic music and broken multiple records.
Jean-Michel Jarre is living proof that age is a construct.
The 74-year-old electronic music legend is just as curious and excited about music as artists in their 20s heading out on their debut album tour. For 50 years, Jarre's resume has overflowed with a spirit of ingenuity.
Jarre first sparked international attention with his 1976 album Oxygéne, which was one of the first to solely utilize synthesizers in the creation of three-to-four-minute pop songs. The LP’s second single, "Oxygene, Pt. 4," merged then-unheard bubbly synth sounds with a clear sense of melody and song form — launching both the technology and electronic music to new heights.
In the decades that followed, the global music community took note of Jarre's innovation and the artist became a sought-after collaborator. He’s worked with classical composers including Hans Zimmer, dance music stalwarts such as Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills and trance legend Armin Van Buuren, collaborated with Moby, and partnered with burgeoning talents like the anonymous music project, Deathpact.
But the reach of Jean-Michel Jarre extends beyond his discography; he continually redefines what electronic music can be in both the listening space and the live space.
He’s invented hybrid instruments like the laser harp. He’s broken records with his performances, playing for audiences of over a million people on multiple occasions. Jarre has also broken geographic and cultural boundaries with his performances; in 1981 he became the first Western artist to perform in China in the post-Mao Zedong era. On Nov. 25, Jarre celebrated the 40th anniversary of these historic performances with The China Concerts, a remastered edition of the live recordings from those five concerts.
But Jarre is doing more this year than looking back into his extraordinary past. His 22nd album, Oxymore, came out in October and is billed as the "first commercial release of this scale" to fully utilize multichannel and binaural sound in the production, composition, recording and mixing processes. This spatial 3D audio allows listeners to feel as if they are physically inside the music — a concept Jarre has wanted to bring to life since he first saw Chet Baker play trumpet in Paris when at age 10. The album was developed in the "Innovation" studios of Radio France and is a homage to the late composer Pierre Henry, Jarre's mentor and a pioneer of electronic music.
Jarre created an Oxymore-based VR world, Oxyville, and has hosted several performances in the metaverse. During a digital meet and greet with fans and avatars, "one girl was very excited. Asking lots of questions and moving and bouncing everywhere," Jarre says from his home in Paris. "I discovered by talking to her that she was quadriplegic and it was her first time she attended a concert and danced all evening."
Such an interaction is what keeps Jarre excited about what’s coming next in his career. It’s not technology. It’s the magic he can generate by sharing creative, physical experiences with other human beings.
"Who cares about the technology? When you are in a restaurant you don’t care so much about the kitchen and how it’s done. You just enjoy the food or not, and it’s the same with music or art," Jarre says. "I think mystery is key. I have a son who is a great magician and the last thing I want to know is how he is doing his trick. It’s a magic killer."
Jarre is still finding that magic. He spoke with GRAMMY.com about his two new albums, his continuing relationship with experimentation, and how the role of art and culture in the world has changed (or stayed the same) over the last five decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I read that you started your musical experimentation as young as age 11 with a secondhand tape recorder. Have your feelings towards musical experimentation changed or stayed the same over that time?
When I started at the age of 11-12 with this second-hand tape recorder that my grandfather gave me I became obsessed with the machine. I was basically recording everything all day and sometimes at night, but I had no idea that it could be a link to any future linked with music.
One day, I played the tape backward and I had the feeling that some aliens were talking to me, and from that moment I started to record. I was starting to play in some local rock bands with friends, and so I was recording some of my guitar and organ and playing [the recordings] backward, changing the speed, just doing experiments with sounds but with no preconceived ideas.
And then when I discovered [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] in Paris, one of the origins of French electro-acoustic music, I discovered that some people were considering music in a different way. Thinking about integrating noise and sounds into music, and it became very obvious that it was really a revolution — a revolution in music.
I was listening to American rock bands or British rock bands, and it was a revolution globally around the world, but I felt that something else could be explored. These days were right in the middle of the student revolution where it was cool to rebel against basically any kind of establishment and, in a sense, electronic music was a way to rebel against the establishment of rock. We tried to find a different voice in a different way, and at that moment I was experimenting with very limited technology…. doing field recordings and processing sounds, or stealing some oscillators from radio stations to create the first DIY type of synthesizer.
Today whatever you do — hip-hop or rock or pop or techno — we’re all integrating sound effects into our music. We all became sound designers as well as music producers. Today, the emergence of immersive technology and immersive worlds are two other disruptive moments very potent in my career.
Does that drive to revolutionize music still play a role in how you move forward as an artist?
I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character. I’ve always been interested in new ideas or new tools. I’ve always considered that technology is dictating styles and not the reverse.
It’s because we invented the violin that Vivaldi made music with it. It’s because we had 78s in Elvis Presley’s time that you could only cut three minutes on the 78 and it was the only way to put a record in a jukebox. The pop single as a format started to be played on the radio and not the reverse. This link between tech and culture has been always something quite essential in music production.
I’ve always been curious about new techniques because the beauty of lots of music productions is the idea of hijacking technology — to take technology which has not been devised or designed for us, but stealing from them. We are all robbers.
It brings us back to the idea that great art goes against what’s come before.
[Electronic music is] probably the most popular music in the world, but it still has its underground feel, its underground image.
Every emerging movement in music has been rejected by the previous one. The first jazz was quite rejected by classical musicians. Then the first rock musicians were rejected by jazz.
When I started with electronic music it was really against the establishment of rock. Lots of rock artists [were saying] "What’s all these machines with knobs? They are not real instruments," and a few decades later these instruments are still called machines.
All these signs are showing that electronic music is still underground. It’s still truly something linked with a kind of rebellious approach about sound production and music production.
Considering the "machine-instrument" relationship, you built the laser harp, which no one can deny is a machine, but no one can deny is an instrument either.
Exactly. It’s all a cultural thing. What is an instrument? A saxophone is a fantastic piece of technology. A clarinet is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s quite sophisticated. And then it’s a machine. It’s an acoustic machine. It’s a manual machine. It’s not electric but it’s a machine also.
For Oxymore you were the first person to conceive and compose an album from beginning to end using 360-degree audio. What’s it like for you to use different forms of technology in your music today?
[I don’t consider] myself a geek. I’m not really interested in technology for the sake of it. The same way you don’t ask a pianist to fix a piano. It’s the same thing, but I’ve always been interested by the relationship between my music and space. Even in times of Oxygéne, I was …finding delays or reverb to try to enlarge, widen the soundscape in a sense.
We have, culturally, this kind of frontal relationship with music. When you compose for a symphonic orchestra you visualize the orchestra in front of you. When you’re producing music in a studio you have two speakers in front of you. When you are in the festival or concert hall you still have the PA system in front of you.
So our relationship is more a kind of representation of music than an immersion into music. Stereo doesn’t exist in nature. When I’m talking to you I’m in mono. When a bird is singing it’s singing in mono. It’s the environment around us and our ears which are creating the perspective in audio.
And then modern technology is allowing us to go back to a very natural way of experimenting and experiencing sounds, and for the first time, we can be inside the music. This is a total disrupting moment.
At the moment, lots of spatial audio is conceived and composed in stereo but then spatialized later on. I conceived and composed the music [for Oxymore] in space. Putting every element of my arrangement in speakers that go all around me is a totally different approach. It’s like going from painting to sculpture.
How did you conceive of and compose this record in spatial audio?
I started in my own studio in 5.1 [speaker setup] because only 5.1 was allowing me to put the sound in space. Then I went to Radio France Internationale, the French BBC, and they have a very sophisticated studio with 36 speakers where you can really adjust sounds by degree.
Then you could say "that’s interesting, but who can listen to that?" And the answer is important.
Binaural — the multichannel audio version translated for headphones — was not devised for music at the beginning, but more for movies. We had to twist the system to get a convincing binaural version [that would sound] very close to the experience you could have with real speakers around you.
The binaural version, for me, is essential because it’s the real democratization of immersive sound. With just your standard headphones and any kind of smartphone or laptop, you can have access to the immersive experience. With the development of the metaverse and VR, with the development of electric cars that are more equipped with immersive sounds, we know that this technology is going to be the next step.
I’m actually convinced that in maybe in five years’ or six years' time, we’ll probably consider stereo with the same nostalgia that we are considering the gramophone of our grandparents.
I’m also convinced that new styles and new artists in hip-hop, punk, and the pop of tomorrow will depend on this new technology. As all the previous genres of music have been depending on the tools we were using as music producers.
Read more: What Is Immersive Audio?: How Engineers, Artists & Industry Are Changing The State Of Sound
You’ve said your first physical experience with music came when Chet Baker played his trumpet for you at the age of 10. Fast forward to today and you are performing in VR worlds with 360 audio where people are literally surrounded by the music. How does that physical experience of VR and spatial audio compare to your experience with Chet Baker?
In a sense, it’s very similar. I always consider our relationship with any kind of art form to be organic and based on emotions and feelings, physically. When I think about what happened with Chet Baker and this physical feeling I got with the air of the instrument on my chest, it was absolutely purely physical and the feeling was from an organic process.
It’s the same thing with VR. The first VR object is a book; you are projecting yourself and you imagine the face of the characters and you become inside the fantasy world as a watcher or as an actor. VR is one step further where you are sending your digital twin into a VR world. But it’s still emotional; it’s still very organic.
When I was playing in VR I have my instruments in the physical world, but if I’m in front of an audience made of avatars, these avatars are digital twins of real human beings, a real audience. So after five minutes, I’m sweating. I’m nervous or I’m enjoying it in the same way. It’s even strange to think that after five minutes you forget you are in a virtual world because you are still feeling, physically, emotions.
There is a social dimension that we forget when we’re talking about the metaverse because lots of people these days are mixing the metaverse and cryptocurrencies and saying the metaverse is linked only to business.
Actually, there is a fantastic creative potential, poetic potential, a kind of Romanesque approach to creating your own world even from your living room. For the last 20-30 years you can produce, compose and distribute your music from your living room with a laptop. The same thing is going to happen with VR. A young artist could create his own fantasy world with some tools from his home.
This month you will celebrate 40 years of your performances in China, which remain an astounding testament to how music can generate unity. In today’s world, we are seeing so much division and turmoil. What do you think your role is as a musician with a huge audience to address that?
I was raised by an extraordinary woman. My mom used to be a great figure in the French resistance and after the war. When I was a child, she told me about this idea that we shouldn’t mix ideology and people.
I think we have to go everywhere where people don’t have the same freedom of speech and freedom of expression as we have. And I think that more than ever culture should be considered as a trojan horse.
The beauty of VR is tomorrow you can have people from Iran or from North Korea — if they have a headset or even a laptop — and they can have access to the concert we can do in New York or in Paris or in London.
When I look back, I think that China concerts are very special to me because it was like playing on the moon for both sides. At that time people had absolutely no idea about what was going on in the West. I went there with a stage project that was even revolutionary from the Western point of view —with electronic music, with lasers, things that were totally new. But you can imagine from the Chinese point of view, in those days, it was a real shock.
That your career has lasted so long to allow for a 40th anniversary album is kind of unbelievable. When you think back on your decades as an artist, what are your key takeaways?
What I learned is the importance of curiosity. Every time you start a project is to touch reset. I’m starting again as a beginner. I’m not really interested in what I’ve done before. It doesn’t really belong to me anymore. I’m more interested by what’s next — not to try to beat records, but as a kind of excitement. As long as this excitement exists, I think you go on.
Living Legends: Roger McGuinn On The History Of The Byrds, His One-Man Show And Editing His Own Wikipedia Page
Photo: Steven Sebring
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing… [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With
Photo: Barry Feinstein Photography, Inc.
At 80, the former Byrds leader remains as curious as ever — puttering with gadgets, learning obscure folk songs, and playing songs and telling stories on the road. A new, photo-stuffed coffee-table book illuminates his early history like never before.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Roger McGuinn, a member of the Byrds and folk-rock pioneer who, at 80, remains active as a solo act. A new coffee-table book about the early history of the band, The Byrds: 1964-1967, is available now.
Roger McGuinn is still tinkering.
Decades ago, he helped codify the Rickenbacker 360/12 as a rock 'n' roll armament. He electrified his beloved folk music to make it jangle and chime. He wrote immortal odes to celestial voyages and alternate dimensions, and threw down incendiary "out" solos that would make John Coltrane proud. And that maximum-curious mind is still humming.
This is wholly apparent in his one-man show currently criss-crossing the East Coast. Therein, the 80-year-old former Byrd clarifies, contextualizes and canonizes his life story, perhaps working it out for himself just as much as he is for his audiences.
And as far as the folk canon that galvanized and mobilized him in the first place, he's far from finished with his decades-long analysis. On his website, he releases free-to-download interpretations of songs from the folk, gospel, sea-shanty, and calypso traditions, among others — under the umbrella of his "Folk Den Project."
On top of that, he remains a lifelong enthusiast for all things engineering, aviation, gadgets and science fiction. From the road, McGuinn explains that his engineer grandfather got him interested in all things that light up and whir.
"I take LEDs and put them in a little box with a switch on it and make them blink, just for fun," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I love taking things apart and trying to put them back together."
Fortunately for all of us, McGuinn isn't all that different from the man we learn about in The Byrds: 1964-1967, a lavish new coffee-table book that hit shelves on Sept. 20.
Featuring 400 pages of more than 500 illuminating photographs and an oral history courtesy of surviving Byrds McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby, the book is a definitive account of the band's genesis, commercial breakthroughs with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and on-ramp to their eventual plunge into psychedelia.
In his post-Byrds life, McGuinn deepened in profound ways — not only in diving deeper into the folk tradition and honing his storytelling acumen, but focusing on his Christian ministry alongside his wife, Camilla. These days, he may have little interest in getting the old band back together, but he arguably remains their most active and public custodian — one one-man show at a time.
Read on for a history-spanning interview with the three-time GRAMMY nominee about the new book, his folkie origins, how he picked up the Rickenbacker, the importance of Gene Clark and Clarence White, and myriad other Byrdsy subjects.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Before we time-warp to 55 years ago, I think it's important to lead with a question about your life and work today. What's creatively percolating for you?
Well, I've been touring since [hesitates, chuckles] 1960! I'm still doing it at 80 years old. We're on a tour right now. We're going to play a theater in Brattleboro tomorrow night. I think it's a month-long tour; it's going to take us around to Easton. So, that's one thing.
When I'm home, I record; I've got a Folk Den Project that I do every month; I record a song and put it on the internet for a free download, in a section called The Folk Den on my website, McGuinn.com. It's a public service sponsored by UNC Chapel Hill.
I record other things. We've recorded CDs, but CDs are kind of a dying breed, so we've had to find some other way. The streaming thing is working out well.
For people who may know the Byrds, since they've been in the ether for so long, but haven't caught you live, what can they expect from you in performance?
I do a one-man show. I do, like, the life of Will Rogers, except it's not about Will Rogers; it's about me. [Chuckles.] I tell the story about how I was inspired early on in my teens to get a guitar; I played guitar in the Old Town School for Folk Music and got hired by the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio. [I played with] Bobby Darin and Judy Collins and became a studio musician and writer at the Brill Building in New York.
Tell me how The Byrds: 1964-1967 came to be. Why did it feel appropriate to tell the story of the band's early history mostly through photographs, with an oral history threaded through them?
I wasn't really on the inside of this, but Chris Hillman did an autobiography a couple of years ago for BMG Publishing. They acquired a number of photographs of the Byrds, and I guess they had so many, they couldn't use them all.
So, they said, "What are we going to do with these?" They decided to make a coffee-table book — 400 pages, 500 photos, printed with Italian paper. It's beautiful; it's a gorgeous edition.
Before we dig into this era of the band reflected in its pages, can you tell me about your early love of all things related to technology, outer space and sci-fi? To me, that's one of the most captivating facets of the band — that sense of far-out curiosity, that futuristic bent.
Well, I got into it when I was living in Chicago. My grandfather had been an engineer for the Deering Company or something — I'm not sure of the company — but he was instrumental in building bridges over the Chicago River.
He was always in engineering, and he used to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago every Sunday. That's where I developed my love of technology. I'd push buttons, things would light up and whir, and I'd go, "Wow! That's cool!"
That's where it all came from. I've just got a little bit of engineering in my blood.
Are you still a tinkerer to this day?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I love taking things apart and trying to put them back together. [Chuckles.] Building little things. It's a lifelong hobby.
The Byrds in Chicago, 1965. Photo: Jim Dickson Archive, courtesy of Henry Diltz Photography
This coffee-table book goes pretty deep into the band's synthesis of influences, from folk music to the Beatles. But I'm most interested in how the Byrds were almost predicated on a single instrument; that's a rare concept. What attracted you to the bell-like sound of the Rickenbacker so early on?
I was a 12-string player back in the folk days. I got my first 12-string guitar in Chicago in 1957; I believe it was a Regal 12-string. I was interested in the 12-string because of Lead Belly and Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson, who was kind of an acolyte of Pete Seeger.
When I was a studio musician in New York, I was the go-to guy for acoustic 12-string for a lot of folk acts. I was the musical director on Judy Collins' third album [1963's Judy Collins #3]; I played on the demo of "The Sound of Silence" for Paul Simon. The Irish Rovers, a lot of folk acts.
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So, I was already a 12-string player, and when the Beatles came out, I was enthralled with [them] because they were using folk-music chords in their rock 'n' roll. I noticed that George Harrison had a Rickenbacker electric 12-string, and I'd never seen one of those before. It was a new instrument at the time; in fact, his was only the second one ever made. The first one went to somebody named Suzi [Arden], who was in a group in Las Vegas, doing lounge acts.
When I found out about the Rickenbacker electric 12-string, I went to a music store and traded in my acoustic 12-string that Bobby Darin had given me and a five-string, long-necked banjo — a Pete Seeger style — and I got the Rickenbacker electric 12.
It was just such a great-sounding instrument. I played it eight hours a day!
Roger McGuinn performing with the Byrds in 1965. Photo: Barry Feinstein Photography
I don't think most people grasp how much of a pressure cooker the mid-1960s pop market was like; we hear stories about the Beatles needing to rush out Rubber Soul by Christmas, and so forth. The Turn! Turn! Turn! album came out only six months after Mr. Tambourine Man. Did you guys feel that crunch, that market demand?
We had a contract with Columbia where we had to do an album every six months, so it really did put the pressure on. We came out of the box with a No. 1 hit, and we had to live up to that. Fortunately, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" became a No. 1 as well.
It was a lot of pressure. We had Gene Clark as the main writer; he was doing great. Then, when he left, it was more difficult to come up with enough material for a good album. Every six months — that was part of the contract.
Gene is often framed as the tragic figure of the band, but The Byrds: 1964-1967 lays out what a force he was; he was the most prolific writer in the band. How would you describe his role in the creative machinery early on?
Well, he was obviously the main songwriter. He and I started the group; we started writing songs together, and he and I wrote some songs. Then, Crosby came along, and he wasn't really writing songs at that point.
We were doing some outside material, like Dylan and Seeger, and Gene kept writing every day. He must have written 30 songs a month; some of them were really good, so we ended up using those.
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The Byrds in Beverly Hills, 1965. Photo: Jim Dickson Archive, courtesy of Henry Diltz Photography
The book closes right at that jumping-off point into 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which means we go deep on that delicious transitional period, with songs like "5D" and your cover of Dylan's "My Back Pages." Those are probably my two favorite Byrds tracks; can you share any memories regarding them?
"5D": I wrote that while I'd been reading a little book called 1, 2, 3, 4, More, More, More, More [by Don Landis]. It was about multiple dimensions — kind of like string theory, or something. I thought that'd be an interesting subject for a song.
"My Back Pages": Jim Dickson had been the Byrds' manager, and we'd fired him. One day, I was in L.A., driving up La Cienega, and came to a stoplight, and Dickson pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. He said, "Hey, Jim!" — that was me — "You guys ought to record Dylan's 'My Back Pages!'"
I said, "Thank you." It had been a while since the Byrds had a Top 20 hit. So, I went home, got the record out, and listened to the song. It was in 3/4 time, and I had to rearrange it for rock 'n' roll. So, I did, and it became — I think it was No. 22. I'm not sure. [Writer's note: The song peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.]
I feel like "5D" fell into that space where, for decades, people presumed it was about drugs. No such thing: it's the product of a curious mind, which you still possess.
Exactly. It was more of a spiritual thing than a drug thing.
A lot of people don't grasp how incredible, in my opinion, the band remained in the late '60s and early '70s after so many lineup changes; just recently, I was wigging out to the 16-minute live version of "Eight Miles High" on 1970's (Untitled). What do you remember of this time? Are these happy memories for you?
Well, [Byrds guitarist and mandolinist] Clarence White and I were good friends, and we loved playing together. He was probably the best guitar player we ever had. It was like having Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton in your band, or something.
I remember one time at the Whisky, Jimi Hendrix came backstage, and he went running right over to Clarence and shook his hand. The first time we played at Fillmore East with Clarence and the band, there was a big difference between the way it had been with the audience reaction [and the way it was then].
The audience was used to a certain level of Byrds musicianship, and when Clarence came out there, he just slayed them. He was just incredible.
We lost Clarence too young, just like Gene. What was it like to have those guys in the room?
Well, they didn't hang out in the same room. [Chuckles.]
I know — separately, I mean!
Clarence and I hung out more than Gene and I did. Gene was kind of off to himself; he had his life. But Clarence and I were on the road together, and we'd hang out more. Clarence was just a really nice guy and a brilliant guitar player.
What misconceptions still float around regarding the Byrds and your role therein that you'd like to correct, if any?
Oh, I don't really need to fix history. I tried that once on Wikipedia. Somebody put out some stuff on there that wasn't correct, so I went on Wikipedia and corrected it. And they banned me, because some 15-year-old kid in Canada had changed it!
Oh my gosh. Do you remember what the falsehood was?
I think it had something to do with the Subud religion. I'm not sure. [Writer's note: McGuinn changed his name from Jim to Roger in 1967 during a period of experimentation with Subud.]
[McGuinn's wife, Camilla, interjects in the background.] Oh! I forgot that. My wife says I had friends who went on and corrected it for me.
That's good to hear. The historical record can become distorted. A lie travels around the world before the truth is still putting on its shoes, as they say.
Right, we've heard that saying. I think Henry Ford said, "History is bunk."
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Photo: David Sutton, courtesy of the David Sutton Collection
Nancy Sinatra is more than "Boots" — the singer and actress has recorded over 20 albums during her six decade-long career. Sinatra spoke to GRAMMY.com about her canon of pop records, recording with Lee Hazlewood and her dream collaborators.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com caught up with Nancy Sinatra, whose work is receiving the grand retrospective reissue treatment through Light in the Attic Records.
Nancy Sinatra is barefoot.
The woman whose most enduring hit is an ode to footwear — and the power of female — of course, doesn’t wear shoes inside her home in California’s low desert. But one need not speculate that she once had a closet full of supremely fashionable kicks.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sinatra, now 82, was a fashion icon and actress with a powerful pop voice to boot — pun intended. While she may be most known for singing 1966's "These Boots Are Made For Walking" and the theme to You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra has a sizable catalog which boasted new material through 2013.
Sixty-something years after "Boots," Sinatra is still being celebrated. Seattle reissue label Light in the Attic Records launched a retrospective effort on Sinatra's career in 2020, and has released multiple solo and duet albums since. In May, the label reissued the 1968 duet album Nancy and Lee, with additional tracks, for the first time.
But when Sinatra picked up the phone to chat about the release and her career over the summer, her mind was on more serious pursuits. Sinatra was in the middle of watching the January 6 hearings on the attack on the Capitol, and she had visions of the massacre at Uvalde. "It’s just a scary time in many ways," Sinatra says with more than a hint of sadness and exasperation.
We go back to another turbulent time: 1968. Vietnam raged, Nixon took office, the Chicago Democratic Convention became bloody, and the country mourned both MLK and RFK. Amid the turmoil, Sinatra was in studio with singer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood recording Nancy and Lee, the first of their three duet albums.
Lee and Nancy were paired together in a last-ditch effort by Reprise Records — a label owned by her father — to get Nancy a hit. It seemed an odd pairing; Hazlewood had been working with rock guitarist Duane Eddy and his productions effused a Western twang, while Sinatra was a pop icon who studied classical piano. Yet, the combination worked, and Hazlewood would write and produce several of Nancy’s efforts.
While the pair collaborated on several of Nancy's solo efforts prior — and worked together well into the '90s — Nancy and Lee is worth close examination for its stories in folk, country and pop traditions. Their first album of duets melds Hazlewood’s Johnny Cash-like vocals with Sinatra’s adaptable and often sugary-sweet timbre, is an unlikely masterpiece with a Wall of Sound quality.
Nancy spoke to GRAMMY.com about the album’s creation, her fruitful partnership with Hazlewood, and her list of fantasy collaborators.
From what we were discussing about January 6, let's bring it back to another time that was also very tumultuous. There was a lot going on in 1968 when Nancy and Lee came out. Did you feel that in the same way as you do today?
Yeah, you were either pro-war or anti-war, so it was politically challenging. I knew one thing: I was pro-troops. None of it was their fault; they were stuck, and they had to be supported. No doubt about that.
You've recorded so many records over your career; I'm curious why Nancy and Lee is so enduring in your mind.
You know, I wonder that too. I have to credit Lee, because he's the added factor in those recordings. The arranger was the same for most of my work. The songs were mostly written by Lee, so I don't know. Maybe it was the chemistry that people were attracted to, or Lee’s voice itself. I mean, nobody sounded like him; Johnny Cash was the closest vocally.
You’ve described your relationship with Lee as "beauty and the beast" and have said that your voices didn't blend, but you have this really distinctive vocal harmony; it sounds like you're having a lot of fun. How did you create that
There were times when we actually sang together on the mic, and there were other times when Lee was in the booth when I was singing.
He didn't like singing with somebody. He would prefer — even though they were duets, a contradiction in terms — to have us sing separately. Which is why we have that verse, chorus, verse, chorus thing most of the time. There were very few times that we actually sang together.
I think we did do ["Ladybird"] in the studio together. I think that the chemistry reflects that. It was fun.
Did you find that challenging?
No, it was a very comfortable process. The studio was familiar; we were all friends. The challenge was trying to create vocals that had power and magic to them. It wasn't easy to do, but Lee’s songs were really fairy tales — and telling stories was what we did.
It really does seem like you're having fun throughout the record, especially on "Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman."
[Laughs] It was a piece of s—, it was awful! It was just a crappy song.
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood | Photo by Paul Ferrara, courtesy of Boots Enterprises
You were paired with Lee as sort of a last-ditch effort by Reprise Records, right?
The problem was I wasn’t selling in the United States. I sold a lot of the early bubblegum records around the world but nothing in this country. Jimmy Bowen, who was the head of the A&R department, wanted me to stay on the label. I mean, it was my dad's label after all, and it kind of would have been embarrassing if they had to let me go!
I don't know why Jimmy thought this — because Lee was not working with a vocalist; he was producing Duane Eddy. I guess Lee must’ve assured him he could do it. So [Jimmy] put us together, and it was just magic. The "beauty and the beast" thing came joking about how we sounded together. We were pretty self-deprecating.
Did you have to develop your creative relationship actively or was it instant magic?
It really was instantaneous. I had heard the record that Lee had made with Suzi Jane [Hokum, 1967’s “Summer Wine”] and I thought they were so cute.
It was something different about the two of us that captured the fancy and the imagination of the public. It’s weird how those things happen, those unexplained magical pairings.
Did you at least stay in touch with Lee until he passed? Were you friends?
Well, we were touring in ‘95 and he was part of our touring group. The only time we weren't in touch was when he disappeared and took off for Sweden at the height of our recording careers. I never understood that and I was hurt so.
One day he just up and left. [Aftward] I struggled, floundered. I made a few albums with Billy Strange.
Did you and Lee ever have to hash it out when he came back to the States?
No, not really. We got along on the surface, but deep down I think it's still a love-hate thing. I didn't hate anything specifically, except that he would disappear. [I loved] his talent.
Where were you personally in your musical taste and desires as a performer in the mid-60s? Your first two duet albums with Lee have really big pop production, country elements and even Baroque traits. "These Boots" has a country feel if you listen closely, and then you're putting out bubblegum songs.
I studied classical piano for 12 years as a kid. Frank Sinatra was my father and my friends were his friends. There was a lot of influence from that side of the musical spectrum. I also grew up with soul — LaVerne Baker and Ruth Brown were favorites of mine early on, and I loved Johnny Mathis better than anybody. I had an eclectic background, musically.
I guess it would only make sense considering your father and the musical world that was around him. Back to your collaboration with Lee — it was so fruitful, and I'm curious why if at all, this Nancy and Lee reissue is particularly special to you.
Well, first of all, Light In The Attic is incredible, they do amazing remastering work. To save these recordings means a great deal to me. I like the fact that they are protected and will be around for decades to come. After all, that's what we hope for with whatever work we do — we want to be remembered and valued in some way.
They are saving, in a brilliant way, a lot of my recordings. I hope that they go deeper into my catalog and pull out hidden gems that people haven't heard in years, or maybe never. Because I recorded so much rich material with great arrangers. It's exciting to think that that will be part of my legacy, not just "Boots" and "Sugartown."
A lot of press releases have highlighted the fact that you're personally involved in these reissues, and Light In The Attic has done quite a campaign over the past two years. How were you involved?
I actually was not involved. I was delightfully surprised when they launched this project. Both my daughters have been working to ensure that my legacy lives on. It's wonderful, they are amazing — AJ and Amanda — they're so helpful with this process.
Let's face it, this stuff could have just died in the world. But they're not letting it. They’re promoting it and the beauty of it all; it's really quite a remarkable collection. I'm excited that people will be able to hear things they may never have heard before.
You had such a prolific recording career, 20 albums or so overall. Is there a record, or records from your catalog from the deeper collection, that you are most proud of?
I love the self-titled album from 1995, where a lot of '80s artists contributed songs and actually performed them with me. My California Girl album, which is great fun; it was not an album, per se. It was recorded over a couple of decades and we just pulled it all together, realizing that there were so many songs about California in my catalog.
When did you move to California?
My parents moved to California from New Jersey when I was about 4 years old. I still live in California, in the low desert. It's a wonderful place. It's peaceful and mostly quiet. When you get to be my age, those are important things.
Speaking of neighbors — I read that you used to live near Morrissey and consider him a mentor. What was it like working with him?
Oh, he's just brilliant. He's very tender and kind and sweet and funny. He’s the main reason besides my two daughters that the Nancy Sinatra album came to life. He’s on the track "Let Me Kiss You." He wrote the song and sent me his recording of it, and that’s how the whole thing started. It was a real resurgence for me, which was a surprise that changed my life, really.
I was just a rumor before that came out. Whatever people thought of me was history. I was traveling with my little band and doing clubs and that sort of thing, nothing big. It's just a gift to have people — like Kim Gordon, for example — just approach me. My daughter AJ had to pull them in from everywhere, and they gave me these wonderful songs.
Wow, that must have made you feel so good. You also had another resurgence or when Kill Bill used your cover of "Bang Bang" prominently.
Yeah, that was thanks to Quentin Tarantino. He apparently had always wanted to use the song. I got messages from people saying they had no idea it was me on the soundtrack until they saw that credit on the screen.
[I remember recording it] very well. It was Billy Strange and me in the studio. We tried to do the occasional duet with his guitar and my voice; that one was an idea that we had batted around a little bit and then we decided to pull it off. It was quick; the wonderful, magical tracks tend to happen quickly.
I read somewhere that you would like to collaborate with Billie Eilish — why her? Is there anyone else you would like to collaborate with?
I think she’s great! I’m too old for that now, but I think it would be fun. I’ve always loved Avril Lavigne and think she’s great, very fun. I also love Adam Lambert. He'd be a fabulous duet partner, and Bruno Mars… there’s a whole list of people, we could do a whole new album! Hello Bruno!
I also want to ask you about owning your masters; that is no small feat for any artist. Why is that important to you and how it's influenced your career over the decades?
Owning your masters is vital; that’s something that every musician should aim for. If there's a label involved, you've got to make a deal where at the end of a certain amount of time, the masters would revert to you. You have to have control of your work.
With "Bang Bang," for example, Quentin was able to have free reign because I owned it. He didn’t have to battle with a label.
Are you working on anything right now?
I have a book coming out that my daughter Amanda is pretty much responsible for. Because of Covid we got delayed by about a year, [but] it’s going to be a really wonderful picture book; it captures a lot of my career and my life and pictures. It's by David Willis [and is called] Nancy Sinatra: One For Your Dreams.
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Photo: Brian Cooke
Fifty years after their debut, Roxy Music's eight studio albums have been reissued and the band is embarking on a tour. GRAMMY.com spoke with guitarist Phil Manzanera about the band's art rock origins and long tail of influence.
Roxy Music has always been a few steps ahead, and a few degrees to the side, of many of its contemporaries. Helmed by GRAMMY-nominated vocalist/songwriter Bryan Ferry along with Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson (with Brian Eno as an early member), the British group is credited with birthing the art rock movement by infusing glam into rock '70s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roxy Music's eponymous debut album.
Inspired by film and fashion, painting and photography, Roxy Music’s output is an aural and visual amalgam that blurs the lines between musical styles. From the group's formation in 1970 to Avalon, its last studio album in 1982, Roxy Music has informed and influenced genres — from experimental prog and glam rock, to new wave and electronic pop — and created an enduring impact.
This year, the group’s eight studio albums — Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life, Siren, Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon — have been reissued as special anniversary editions with a new half-speed cut, and revised artwork with lyrics., The Best of Roxy Music was released on vinyl for the first time on Sept. 2. The reissues arrive ahead of Roxy Music’s North American arena tour, which kicks off in Toronto on Sept. 7 at Scotiabank Arena. The last time Roxy Music toured was over a decade ago.
Still, the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have remained active, with and without Roxy Music. This year, Ferry has released a four-track EP of iconic love song covers, Love Letters, and published a book. Mackay, who plays oboe, saxophone and keyboards has released a number of solo albums, written a book on electronic music and studied theology. Drummer Thompson left Roxy Music 1980 and joined an array of other bands, including Concrete Blonde, before returning to Roxy Music in 2011. Guitarist Phil Manzanera produced for Pink Floyd, David Gilmour and John Cale, among others, is currently working on an album with Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz.
From his home in the English countryside, Manzanera spoke with GRAMMY.com about his teenage dream of leaving his exotic world-trotting upbringing for a boarding school in England, where he could connect with fellow musicians. "Through music, you can meet people, you can have fun, you can have an adventure," he says. "I didn't want to learn too quickly. I wanted to spread it out over a whole lifetime. Touch wood, still here."
What was the musical landscape like at the time of Roxy Music’s formation?
In the UK, we were coming out of the period where the big guns, Led Zeppelin and all those bands were to the fore. It was the tail end of the hippie jamming period and the start of prog rock. The drugs had done a lot of those bands in; People were on heroin, so it was very gray and introverted. A bit drab really. The time was ripe for a new bunch to emerge.
By complete happenstance, Bowie and us came to the fore in 1972. On the same day that we released the first Roxy Music album, he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The next week, we were supporting him in a pub in Croydon [South London] called the Greyhound. There was only about 40-50 people there. Every time I used to meet David, we used to have a big banter about it because everyone claims they were there. He was incredibly nice to us. He loved what we were doing. He asked us to be at his support act at the Rainbow Theatre, which is a big deal. He couldn't quite believe that we'd just come out of nowhere, whereas he was [on] his fifth album.
The '70s were such a time of experimentation and new sounds.
We called ourselves inspired amateurs. A bunch of guys who didn't particularly want to be technically brilliant, but wanted to play interesting music. Some of the people in the band have been to art school, so there was this visual side to the whole thing. Music and image are explosive, which we all learn from the Beatles. New fashion designers and photographers were coming up to the age where they were going to be influencers, and they all had a similar aesthetic with the films they liked and visual art and bands that were influential on them. We stuck it all together and presented it in an attractive fashion.
What was the reception for Roxy Music like in the United States at the time?
We went to the U.S. in December '72. We were a bit early. People didn't understand the look of the band. When we got to Fresno, people threw water bombs at us and said, "Get off you faggots." But we were going to continue playing this music regardless of what you throw at us.
It took us a long, long time to have any kind of impact in the States. But what was great and cool was that in San Francisco or L.A. or New York, we attracted the freaks. We were supporting Ten Years After or J. Geils Band, totally not our audience, but all the freaks knew [we] were coming to town and they would be partying at our hotel after the gig.
Roxy Music was very prolific, sometimes putting out two albums a year — originally all written by Bryan Ferry — but you started writing from the third album, Stranded?
The way the band evolved, the first two albums that Eno was involved with were the first period. By the time it came to the third album, Eno had left, and, in no way can you do the same stuff again. There was a desire to do something different. We needed to expand our musical palette, and so me and Andy [Mackay] started contributing music.
The way we write songs in Roxy was so different because we had no idea how to write a song. We did all the music first, which is really dangerous, and then Bryan [Ferry] would try and work out some lyrics. Sometimes it was fabulous. Sometimes it was rubbish. Out of the 80 songs of the Roxy catalog, I would say 70 percent hit the mark and perhaps 30 percent we won't talk about. It's a very different way of working, creating a musical texture and musical world behind this singer with a strange voice, but good looking, so we could get away with it.
You had a whole host of musicians playing on later Roxy Music albums. How was that different for you as far as writing and recording and realizing musical ideas?
There's definitely a difference between the first five years and second five years of Roxy Music. We'd worked with so many other musicians in between, we wanted a bit of that flavor. Bryan, especially, had lived in L.A. for a bit and worked with a lot of American musicians. When we got back together for the second phase of Roxy, which is '77 to '83, by that time, I had my own recording studio and we were using that as our base. Technological innovations affect the way you work in a studio. If you're doing what we're doing, you can use the studio as an instrument. It happened organically because we had the means of production.
But we were coming to New York, and working with Bob Clearmountain at Atlantic Records and at the Power Station, and having these amazing American bass players and drummers, because Paul [Thompson] had left toward the middle of that period. Bob would mix it and he would just get rid of all the s—. He would say, "I'm going to focus on this, and it's going to rock." Thank God for him, otherwise it would have been airy-fairy, and all over the place. He mixed Avalon in one week. Ten tracks, five days, two tracks a day, three hours a track. boom, boom, boom, boom. Done. He just knows what to do. He just had it.
The first half of Roxy Music was hinged on a strong artist/producer relationship with Chris Thomas in the producer’s seat.
We were so lucky to get Chris Thomas. He came on board from the second album. As you know, he assisted George Martin with the Beatles. The whole tradition of recording from Abbey Road was passed on to us via Chris Thomas. Everything I've ever learned to do with production — and I've produced loads of people, was a mixture between what Chris Thomas taught me coming from George Martin and my experiences with Eno. Two totally different approaches.
You seem to get along very well with both Ferry and Eno.
After Eno left, when we were doing Stranded, we were up at Air Studios until 6 o'clock. And then I would go to work on Here Come the Warm Jets with Eno from 6 o’clock onwards. We continued for another three years. We had a band, 801, who played live and all sorts of things. But then he just disappeared.
Your guitar riff from the title track of your solo album K-Scope was sampled on the GRAMMY-winning "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West.
That's the only GRAMMY that I've ever been associated with, so cheers Jay-Z and Kanye, and 88-Keys, who was the person responsible for playing it to them.
Did your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and induction, come as a surprise?
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is not on British musicians’ radar too much. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was for us. We hadn't played together for six or seven years. We thought, we’ve got to have rehearsals. We rehearsed for a week because we want to do a good job and acquit ourselves well — especially in front of all those top musicians who are going to be watching us, particularly Fleetwood Mac and Def Leppard, the Zombies and Radiohead.
On the night, at the Brooklyn Center, when I saw 30,000 people, I realized, this is actually a big deal. I’m about to get scared now. We loved it. We had such a great time. When Bryan said, "Shall we do 'In Every Dream,'" which is about an inflatable doll, I thought, I don’t think that’s going to be shown on telly, and it didn’t make it, but it was really great fun to do. I had a great big guitar solo, which wasn’t shown, but I got to show off in front of Brian May and Fleetwood Mac.
How did this 50th anniversary tour come about?
I had done bits and pieces on Bryan’s new solo stuff. We were having a cup of tea at Christmas, and he just said, "Do you fancy doing some gigs?" I said, "Do you want to do them?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, in that case, I'm always up for the crack."
We don't have management. If we want to do something, we just ring each other up, and say, "You want to do it?" I also thought, these songs don't get an airing by us, the original people, very often. When we come to the U.S., it will have been 20 years. That's not exactly overdoing it. If there's ever a time to do it, it's at 50.
What does the ongoing impact of Roxy Music feel like for you?
I don't think about it at all. We never thought we'd do this tour, but we’re doing it. We're really putting in the hours to make it as good as we possibly can. What I want to see when I look out into the audience is people glammed up. I want to see glam out there: heels and feathers — for men and women.
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