There’s an exhibition on at the Tate Liverpool at the moment called Glam! The Performance of Style which looks interesting. Part of the show is a 1977 documentary called Roxette about young Roxy Music fans in Manchester getting dressed up to go see the band live. The whole movie is 30 minutes long and looks utterly fab judging by this short clip which makes me really want to see the entire thing (wish they’d used a different song though, don’t they know I posted “Beauty Queen” just last week!) I’d love to make it to Liverpool to see the show too but doubt if that’s on the cards.
The main job of British movie dolly birds in the 60s and 70s was to be passive objects for the likes of Sid James or Robin Askwith to phwooaar all over or to scream helplessly and faint when Christopher Lee appeared in a cape. But with her imposing height, Amazonian build, and drop-dead looks, Valerie Leon didn’t fit the part of the ditzy barmaid or virginal damsel in distress so she was usually the one being sexually aggressive and domineering — entering rooms like a panther in heat, thrusting her cleavage forward like a deadly weapon, giving off enough horny static to power a large city — and it was the men who got all flustered and ran to the fainting couch when she approached.
She looked like such a you-are-not-worthy goddess that a lot of the time she wasn’t cast as a regular human being and played a variety of jungle warriors, aliens, and reincarnated Egyptian queens. Even in the Hai Karate ads she came across like some amorous Terminator robot who could not be stopped. Typically, when she did play a normal person we were supposed to believe she was such a crazed nympho that she’d chase after such weedy targets as Jim Dale, Ronnie Corbett, and even Charles Hawtrey. But I guess that was supposed to be the funny part.
She was a ubiquitous presence on 1970s telly, forever popping up as the comedy crumpet on variety shows and sitcoms, and you could always rely on her to class up a production — at least visually. As a boy I would immediately, um, perk up when she appeared and would sit through some right old rubbish in the hope that she’d appear again, however briefly, in that low-cut cocktail dress or fur bikini and play havoc with my hormones.
I’ve no idea if she was any good as an actress, watching her my normal critical faculties tend to be short-circuited, and her filmography is full of such nameless roles as “Hotel Receptionist”, “Lady in Bahamas”, “Serving Wench”, “Bath Girl” and, amusingly, “Queen of the Nabongas.” But one credit she should be proud of is having Roxy Music’s “Beauty Queen” written about her. I never knew that until recently but apparently she had a fling with Bryan Ferry at some point and now the opening line “Valerie please believe, it never could work out” makes sense to me. Whether this is true or not (the internet says it is) I hope it is because someone as gorgeous as Valerie Leon should have songs written about her.
I’ve been on a lot of photo shoots and they’re usually very enjoyable, but it can also be bloody hard work getting the shot right. Never done anything like these though, the last model I shot was a bloke. Sigh.
I’ve recently discovered the Roxy Music live bootleg “City Hall, Newcastle 1974″ which is an absolute corker, parts of it ended up in slightly more polished form on their official live album “Viva!” two years later but overall this is a much better set.
Listening to early Roxy live performances it always strikes me how a group of (mostly) art school boys whose music relied so heavily on arty effects and highbrow concepts like post-modern artifice (and had a lead singer who wore a tuxedo!) could also rock out like a turbo-charged rocket hurtling towards a crash landing on Mars. Most “art-rock” bands leaned too heavily on the former but Roxy managed to find the perfect balance between the two, they made music you could write an essay about and jump up and down to. They don’t just raise the roof with these they burn down the whole damn building.
Haven’t had any Roxy Music around these parts for a while. The more I see old clips like this (and this and this and this — I could have posted ‘em all) the more I think the Roxy of the 1970s were the greatest rock band ever.
I was playing some records last Saturday morning when my little girl decided she wanted to pick a record to play next. So she started pulling out albums at random and when she handed me this, saying “I want this one, Daddy!” I had to grab the camera.
I’ve no idea why she chose that particular one, but having her ask me to play a Roxy Music album was one of my proudest moments as a father so far.
Shopping with my mum in the 1970s usually involved dull shops like C&A, Richard Shops and British Home Stores looking at beige polyester slacks and brown nylon tank tops, but once in a while we’d go to the wonderland that was the Biba department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Derry & Toms building, it looked like a Roxy Music album cover come to life, all mirrors, chrome, leopard skin, ostrich feathers and black walls, and with it’s dark lighting and loud rock music blaring from massive floor speakers it felt more like a nightclub than a store.
Biba started out in the 60s as a poky little boutique off the High Street selling miniskirts and skinny tops to the beautiful young things of Swinging London and by 1973 had expanded into the seven opulent floors of “Big Biba” which was like some mad Kubla Khan fantasy palace amid the dingy grayness of early 70s England. Their “look” evolved into an extravagant mix of Art Deco elegance with Hollywood glitz and bohemian decadence that defined the trashy cabaret and retro-futuristic look of Glam and the peacock style of 70s rock fashion. Not just spangly shirts, tight pants, feather boas and platform shoes, their dark and exotic cosmetics range was perfect for that elegantly wasted look, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury both wore Biba’s black nail polish and a young suburban girl who would later call herself Siouxsie Sioux took the train into London to buy her red eye shadow there.
The shops founder Babara Hulanicki said she designed her clothes for “Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes. Postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people” so it wasn’t exactly aimed at single mums with two children like mine but it was a great place to take the kids for the day, only a short bus ride away and it was free. You could literally spend all day there and I think we often did, the store actually encouraged hanging out. For a kid my age Biba was like a theme park, every one of it’s seven floors an exercise in high concept and pure fun, like the men’s department where you could play darts and bowl and featured a “Mistress Room” that sold lingerie and had a huge leopard-skin bed. For obvious reasons my absolute favourite place was the kid’s department which looked like it had been designed by Lewis Carroll, with a roundabout in the shape of a record player, a castle and a dog kennel that was big enough to walk into. I remember the kennel had a giant stuffed Snoopy sitting outside that my sister and I desperately wanted mum to buy for us but I think it was beyond her budget. It wouldn’t have fitted into our council flat anyway.
But while the clothes were meant for skinny, 20-something, “Nova”-reading, girls about town, at Big Biba they stuck their famous black and gold logo on everything from fashion to furniture, make-up, toys, even soap powder and tins of baked beans so everyone could take home a bit of Biba cool — even eat it on toast. It was probably the world’s first lifestyle emporium (before the concept of “lifestyle” had been invented), you could wear, eat, wash, play, and literally live in Biba.
On the top floor was the gorgeous Rainbow Room restaurant and concert venue which dated back to the 1930s style of the original building. in many ways this the place where 1970s rock and style collided, the clubhouse where Freddie Mercury had afternoon tea and David and Angie Bowie hung out with Mick and Bianca in the evenings. The New York Dolls played two infamous concerts there (their only London shows I think) and it must be the only place ever to host both the Dolls and Liberace. The Wombles played there too but that’s a whole other story.
Naturally, Bryan Ferry made a video there, “Let’s Stick Together” was filmed on the Rainbow Room stage and features a cameo by Jerry Hall looking very Biba-esque in a gold dress and vampy Hollywood siren make-up.
Suzi Quatro might not have been as chic as our Bryan but the video for “Devil Gate Drive” was shot there too (on the Ground Floor) it shows what a well-know cultural icon the brand had become that the Biba logo is shown so prominently here. Though this must be one of the few cases where a store looks more glamourous than the pop group.
Sadly Big Biba was only open for two years and closed in 1975, the store was making money but not enough to escape the sinking gloom of the times. During those two years the miners went on strike, the country was put on a three-day work week and power cuts meant that people were living in darkness and some stores were lit by candles in the afternoon. It’s been said that the store lived up to the rock and roll credo of “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse” and looking back there’s something all a bit Weimar Republic about Big Biba with it’s extravagant decadence in the middle of a country falling apart, according to “Ziggy Stardust” we only had five years left before the end of the world anyway so why not build a monument to dressing up and looking as fabulous as possible.
The Derry & Toms building is now occupied by a Marks & Spencer which about as far from Biba as you can get. I bet they don’t sell black nail polish.
No way I could get through this post without some actual Roxy Music, if the store had a house band it would have been them. You don’t hear their second single “Pyjamarama” much so here it is in all it’s glittery glory.