Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Roxy Music—
Virginia Plain/The Numberer


Released 1972 on Island
The Seth Man, September 2001ce
“Virginia Plain” was one of the most weirdly airtight, pre-planned constructions disguised as a pop single ever: about as loose as the most libertine of roundheels and as tight a ship as ever sailed upon the sequined and eye-shadowed seas of glam rock. “Virginia Plain” stated its own unerring existence in an elegant galaxy all its own. Although lacking the offensiveness of Gary Glitter’s chest hair wig or Dave Hill’s spangled forehead, for all its well-integrated/-schooled strategies, it was an assault all the same through a keenly savvy attitude that also was straining on its own leash to unleash and tether into myriad kaleidoscopes of sound-scaping within the dutiful pop single duration of three minutes; it fact, it neatly ends at 2:57. And what do Roxy Music do on their first single ever but let loose with a pop image-laden road trip governed by piano and rhythm guitar so repetitious that all other instruments alight upon it like so many faerie lights upon telephone lines heading parallel to its roadside: oboe, synthesizer and Paul Thompson’s hawkeye drumming keep the pace buoyant and champagne-oiled bubbly until the troupe decides to spill outta the car pell-mell and fly down to Rio instead. And at this detour, Phil Manzanera’s well-measured burrowing and burning guitar solo underlines the song’s unpredictable shift as vocalist Bryan Ferry soon proclaims after one more verse: “So me and you/Just we two/Got to search from something new...” This levels the plateau (or plain) and signals the drummer's to hit only cymbals as accents for Manzanera’s staggered and single-struck guitar notes that erupt “BRAAANNNG!” against Captain Eno’s jeweled-gloved and serpentine VCS3 trajectories. Another hit of “BRAAANNNGG!” and the VCS3 is gaining ground. Another “BRAAANNNGG!” and it’s rising in volume. Another “BRAANNGGG!” and you begin to wondering if this is a John Cage exercise in repetition, or is the record skipping, but no, the VCS3 is changing pitch. A final “BRAANNNGGG!” rejoins the main theme already in progress, with the crew already hailing the horizons that once appeared so far, and with the infamous self-answered question finale, “What’s her name?/Virginia Plain” it ends in its synergistic tracks. I often thought that during the year it was released, many people must have heard only heard a snatch of it on the radio and without any buzz word in the chorus to identify the title (here left in a distinctly non-pop song format as the final two words of the lyrics) but heard its quizzical ending, you’d have to ask about it without knowing the title.

Another probable aid to the rise of “Virginia Plain” in the contemporary British charts of the time was the placement of an instrumental as the B-side (a well-known device to keep radio disc jockeys at bay and keep the A-side playing. Which they did due to Roxy’s management and Ferry’s intention to make it in “the most civilised manner possible.”) The instrumental hovering on the other side of “Virginia Plain” had the intriguing title of “The Numberer.” Composed by Roxy woodwind player Andy Mackay, it was a mosaic of different styles about as precariously balanced as a four-tiered wedding cake whisked out to the main dining hall by a drunken waiter on roller skates. It emerges the second Paul Thompson slams his kit and hi-hat over the low, introductory trail of Eno electronics, sending it into uncontrollable contractions and ever-zapping VCS3 palpitations. Mackay joins the fray with puckish Rock’n’Roll saxophone, weaving in and out of the still pounding drums and Doctor Who on acid electronics until it all settles down for no good reason but to give Mackay the floor in his American fifties fraternity lettered sweater, blowing as sweetly as you please as a mirror ball reflects and refracts gently overhead while simultaneously whisking away a glamourous, red velvet décolletage debutante with white gloves halfway up her arms. Then Manzanera turns in a luxurious and guitar solo that’s all moonlit reveries. But the spell gets broken as a harmonica starts rootin’ and tootin’ and getting the piece all worked up by going crazy as soon as they’re just getting intoxicated what with all the champagne and Chanel No.5 wafting in the air...And the cause of this hubbub? None other than Bryan Ferry, while the rest of the group is en masse is soon tumbling down the stairs of the lounge after their erstwhile romantic bigwig vocalist and into a taxi without paying the bill STILL rockin’ up a storm and stopping for no red lights as they musically roll in the clover well past the fade out.