BY MIN CHEN
Artifice and exaggeration, Susan Sontag argued in 1964, lie at the heart of camp. And they’re the same two qualities that—coincidentally or not—are embodied on the cover of Roxy Music’s 1972 debut album. Splayed across that picture sleeve is model Kari-Ann Muller, decked out and made up in the manner of a 1950s pin-up, in an ultra-flouncy, pastel-hued bodysuit with a garish sky-blue eyeliner to match. In her pose and expression could be read come-hither seduction, if not for the air quotes hanging around the entire image. All of it is staged and performed with high manner, theatricality, and detachment. The camp here is no row of tents.
Flip past that cover and we’re introduced to the band: a line up of snazzily dressed young men from the contemplative, leopard print-clad Brian Eno to gold-fingered Andrew Mackay to flamboyant frontman Bryan Ferry. The album credits lists them all, along with one Antony Price for “clothes, make-up & hair.” For, just so you know, this was no grimy, unwashed band, lugging their gear in a rundown van and living in frayed denim. This was Roxy Music, postmodern art-rockers lavish in their satin and tat, suites and champagne (as Ferry once declared, “Other bands wanted to wreck hotel rooms; Roxy Music wanted to redecorate them”); and with Price among its ranks, a group that would never lack for visual flair, nor clothes, make-up, and hair.
Price, who’d been designing sumptuous womenswear for the London-based retailer Stirling Cooper since 1968, was no stranger to the realm of rock. His pieces were sought after by no less than Mick Jagger and he’d also had a hand in styling the back cover of Lou Reed’s 1972 sophomore outing Transformer. “I was literally laughed out of court by the fashion business for fiddling with rock,” he recalled. But it’s his work with Roxy Music—designing and dressing their eight LP covers, bringing Ferry’s concepts to life—that continues to resonate in both music and fashion worlds for its bold sensuality and ingenious image-building.
From the sultry, night-lit atmosphere of For Your Pleasure, featuring a feline-taming Amanda Lear, to the Anglesey vista of Siren, the titular temptress embodied in the gangly frame of Jerry Hall, the band’s record covers presented a handsome array of scenes and contexts, each constructed around a distinct female archetype. Lear’s brief, for instance, was to play “a girl who looked like a Hitchcock movie, a little bit dangerous but arrogant at the same time.” Each woman nails her part; the covers thrill and titillate even in their artifice.
The details in these tableaux—the tropical fronds on Stranded (plus, “the dress was getting wet in all the right places,” according to model Marilyn Cole), the choice of lingerie on Country Life—are faultless, though the aim here is less reality than a hyper-reality. Ferry himself would admit, “There’s something removed from reality about the girls on the covers.” Presented not as actual females but long-held feminine ideals, these covers, when viewed from a contemporary perspective, are hardly progressive artifacts. Even Price concurred, “Anything that’s of the moment is guaranteed to date, isn’t it?”
But the defense here, of course, was that of camp, that of artful scene-setting and character-making, undertaken with a suitable amount of irony. Sontag again: “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”
Ferry himself was well-versed in that metaphor. “With every song, you play a character a bit,” he’s said. “You take an aspect of yourself and either simplify or ham it up.” His lyrical themes, too, have at points revolved around “celluloid pictures of living” (“2 H.B”) and a “looking glass world” (“Mother of Pearl”), where women are barely flesh and blood (“Flesh and Blood” and “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”). It’s fitting that the cover of 1979’s Manifesto does away with living models all together, instead featuring a group of mannequins in a highly fabricated party scene.
The point here, then, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, was not sincerity, but style. Remarking on Ferry’s penchant for coupling “direct feeling with a stylistic thing,” saxophonist Andy Mackay has bemoaned the band lacking “the whole range of human emotions.” Which kind of misses the point of Roxy Music, a glam rock band that never claimed to sell profundity or authenticity in the same way they never did trash a hotel room. They did after all, have a stylist in their employ. And there was cause for their Price-assisted record sleeves to look they way they did—a confluence of image, performance, and elegance. “You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in 1954’s The World in the Evening. “You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it.” And over eight striking album covers, Roxy Music and Price, if they weren’t sincere about style, were at least very, very serious about it.