For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s


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Beauty Queen – Part 1

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Beauty Queen
Beauty Queen (Live, 74)

The Sphinx, by British painter Augustus John, from Bryan Ferry’s personal collection

He is clearly a very serious collector. You do find some celebrities try to be snobby or elitist about their collection but this suggests something else… –Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones

One of the delights of 1970s Roxy Music is the way the songs push up against one another, jostling the ear for attention. Band preference for songs was to favour eccentric pairings and stylistic collisions, jigsaw pieces mapped across the span of a record, mini-adventures in style and form. In his 1976 essay Generating and Organizing Musical Variety in the Arts, Brian Eno defined the process as “generating new hybrids.”  The hybrid approach, particularly evident on the first album Roxy Music, was carefully and self-consciously applied with strange sci-fi adventures (Ladytron) placed beside love-sick emotional epics (If There is Something), for example. This trend continued on the 2nd record, For Your Pleasure, recorded in the chilly British winter of 1973, as Bryan Ferry settled in to explore and tease out a new side to his writing. ‘Beauty Queen’ is the first attempt at writing a ballad in a career that would soon go on to define excellence in the form – heightening the song’s impact by placing it right after the bombastic opening  ‘Do the Strand‘, that hard blast of lyrical and musical virtuosity. True to form, ‘Beauty Queen’ is a study in contrasts, a lithe ballad in C major (signifying innocence, simplicity, naïvety); an affectionate fan favourite; a source of musical collisions (the ballad contains a blistering hard rock break at 2.30), and a love story without a partner, replacing emotion with an ode to art and artificiality, and a succinct farewell to the past with no trace of sentimentality, tears, or regrets. Soul ships passing in the night, Ferry observes. Where do they go? We’ll never know.

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Valerie please believe it never could work out
The time to make plans has passed faded away
Oooh the way you look makes my starry eyes shiver
Then I look away too much for one day

The crooner starts in high style, at top of his range – Vale-rie ple-assse, he pleads, before clenching down on the word be-lieve (gentle pause) – it never could work out. It’s an astonishing moment and arguably Ferry’s best vocal performance to date – well recorded and produced, the thinness of the first album is replaced by a sound thick and present, courtesy of George Martin‘s AIR Studios and Chris Thomas’s co-production.  Oooooh the way you look, the singer croons (second pregnant pause) – makes my starry eyes shiver. The spacing and alliterative timbre of starry eyes shiver is expressive and emotional, but wrapped in that exaggerated tremor voice is an important message: this is a performance. This is Ferry’s singular achievement at the beginning of the 70s – the vocalist singing a love song, requiring an emotional connection so deep that he is afraid of not doing it justice: so he invents a new way to sing it. Not even Bowie (at this point) bothered to alter the timbre or affectation of his vocal delivery (thin in 72/73; deeper baritone by 1975 and Young Americans, see ‘Win‘). Mick Jagger sung straight up rock n’ roll. Bolan teased but kept it straight. Lou Reed played with words and meaning but was largely sullen: but Bryan Ferry acted out a role, played a part, creating yet again a marked distance between signified and signifier. Influenced by the classic vocalists of the 20th century – Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Otis Reading – Ferry understood that these singers connected directly with the emotion they were expressing, their singing was felt at that moment: my lover has left me, these are my tears. Years later people like Whitney Houston would slaughter the idea of emotive sincerity by merely turning everything up to 11, making you reach for the cotton wool and ear plugs (and Jack Daniels). But the Roxy manifesto was to “reach for something new,” and they did so in their music, presentation, subject matter, and perhaps most strikingly, in the limited but wholly unique presentation of the singer’s significant vocal range and stylized quiver. A neat summation of the Ferry technique might read: I write because I feel emotion and want to convey it as honestly as possible; but the medium in which I express that emotion is inauthentic, I am a performer performing – at best –  a re-telling of an emotional experience, therefore to get to the truth of that moment I must give equal weight to the way I am articulating that emotion, the performance must be as entertaining, meaningful and informative as the content of the lyric and the drive and seduction of the music.

This is quite the task, but Ferry was born to it: the ballad croon of ‘Beauty Queen’ morphs into the psychotic games of ‘Bogus Man’; distance and disconnection dominate the male voice ‘In Every Dream Home, a Heartache’, and later in the year, on the next album Stranded,  his vocals act out evangelical zealotry (‘Psalm’);  playboy comedy (‘Mother of Pearl’); and the last gasp of a dying day (‘Sunset’). All perfectly contained and presented.

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When we doIf There is Somethinglive, people always seem startled
by the juxtapositions. It’s tilting alone pleasantly and suddenly this
agonized voice bursts out. I find doing it quite embarrassing sometimes
because it’s just raw emotion…You have to be an actor, project yourself
into it. 
BF, Interview, 1972

The structure of ‘BQ’ is pure romantic ballad, a form dating back to the late medieval period through the 19th century, relying on an oral tradition that favoured repetition, clear enunciation of narrative, and good guy/bad guy, good girl/bad girl stories, mostly of love, loss and redemption. Ballad story-telling was brought into the modern age vis-à-vis popular songs such as Marty Robbins gunslinger narratives (see Cool Iron, a story about a man and his mule and a mirage in the desert) and extended out into ear-destroying mediocrity by hair glam bands like Motley Crue and Poison. For Bryan Ferry the narrative ballad held particular sway, for his pop idols were classic crooner story-tellers such as Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. Indeed, in the same year For Your Pleasure and Stranded were recorded (1973), Ferry also managed to record and release his first solo album of covers, These Foolish Things, a collection of mostly love ballads such as Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears.” Of the covers album Ferry said, “Some will presumably dislike it for the wrong reasons though I hope the general point of it will be understood. It’s amusement value. I think” (VR).

Ah, we’ve hit upon something here: an album of serious intentions, constructed to draw attention to a classic form, re-done by a futurist rock star with the goal of provoking a smile and a dash of insight – Modern Irony, in other words. As rock critic David Marsh noted in the New Rolling Stone Album Guide,”Ferry views pop as a kind of continuum, extending through all sorts of Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building craftsmanship and incorporating visions as radical as Dylan’s and as banal as Gore’s. Within such a sensibility discerning what deserves to be dismissed as “trash” and what deserves elevation as “art” is not a simple problem… By altering tempos and singing every song with the deadpan emotional blankness he largely avoids with Roxy, Ferry exposes these issues as effectively as any pop singer in history.” Check that out: as effectively as any pop singer in history: low art vs high art; sincerity vs performance; what constitutes worth, or worthy subject matter, in a word, What is Art, the great subject matter of pop-art giants Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton, and, of course our man in Havana, Bryan Ferry. (Once a keen painter, the Roxy front-man didn’t pick up a paint-brush after 1972, and who can blame him – his musical pop art experiment was as engaged and serious as anything by Warhol, but the pop star’s job came with a cache of cool clothes, a bit of money, a gig and a girlfriend in every port, and presumably, a cool pad in Chelsea).

What then is the narrative subject matter of ‘Beauty Queen’ and how does it use the modern pop ballad to tell a contemporary love story. Well, it pays to keep two ideas close to the chest: keep an eye on who or what the love objective is, and be willing to let go and indulge in a bit of “amusement value”. Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 12.01.21 PM

Coming hot on the heels of ‘Do the Strand’, ‘Beauty Queen’ slows the tempo down considerably with a shimmering Eno-treated electric piano introduction,  similar in texture to the music he would soon develop on his solo albums, particularly Another Green World (1975). This thick warm start to of ‘BQ’ is a study in contrasts to the bombastic ‘Strand’ and serves to re-situate the listener’s sound-space: we enter ballad territory with a languid 52-55 beats p/m, placement in the key of C major, that stalwart signature for ballads and love songs throughout the ages. The singing is mannered, yet sincere, a performance that begins with heightened emotion, an appeal for forgiveness (Valerie please), and a Dear-John letter (it never could work out). The time to make plans has passed we’re told. The love has merely faded away, which, in its own terms, sounds sadder than the doomed love affair of society egotists in ‘Pyjamarama‘ or the chilly presence of the spurned male lover in ‘Chance Meeting‘.

Starry Eyes – Verse 1
Valerie please believe it never could work out
The time to make plans has passed faded away
Oooh the way you look makes my starry eyes shiver
Then I look away too much for one day

Valerie please: there is the sense that love object Valerie is not actually present, no more present than Virginia Plain or even the woman behind that famous license plate CPL593H. Is the speaker looking at a photograph, a movie, or calling up a memory. The clue to the point-of-view is contained in the sudden shift from the plea-making of Valerie please believe to the voyeuristic gasp of Oooh the way you look/makes my starry eyes shiver. If the time to make plans has “faded” away, then she is no longer part of the present moment. The “way you look”, then, is contextual, and she lives or exists in some other form. The glare from the memory or photo is so bright he must turn away – too much for one day, at least.

The killer line here is of course Oooh the way you look/makes my starry eyes shiver, an image that deliciously identifies the silver screen obsessions of the singer/narrator – he is literally star-struck, dazzled by what he sees before him, physically present or otherwise. Contained in this image is a reflexive hall of mirrors identifying not only what he sees but how he sees her. These are his starry eyes, after all, Ferry’s word-choice suggesting a self-aware narcissism – an increasingly important element in Roxy’s songs as the singer/song-writer starts to unhinge a little as his fame increases and an emotional disconnection begins to settle into his relationships and word-view, a factor that will play a significant role in several key For Your Pleasure tracks such as ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ and ‘The Bogus Man’.

Starry eyes shiver is a phrase of poetic language that draws us away from naturalism towards pure cinematic magic. One of the greatest pop magicians is, of course, Beatles main man John Lennon. Lennon wrote and published two books of stories, cartoons and funny poetry (‘In His Own Write‘/’A Spaniard in the Works’) and crafted a series of brilliant postmodern masterpieces that highlighted pop artifice at its best, including ‘I Am the Walrus‘, perhaps the best example of a kind of self-conscious writing that explodes the myth of what a pop song is and can be (Yellow matter custard/ dripping from a dead dog’s eye/Crabalocker fishwife/Pornographic priestess) all the while taking great delight in rendering language meaningless – Goo goo g’joob, indeed!

One of Bryan Ferry’s greatest covers was, tellingly, a Roxy Music recording: John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ was taped as a tribute two months after Lennon’s death in December, 1980. This greatest of songs – that rarity when the original stands untouchable yet is enhanced and extended by the cover version – demonstrated an emotional honesty and a self-questioning maturity not seen during Lennon’s Beatle years. Fed up with word-games and LSD, Lennon moved towards a more concise language whereby tangerine trees and marmalade skies (’67) gave way to the clearer and calmer images of Thoughts meander like a restless wind (’68), to the near-nuclear clarity of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono band and ‘My Mummy’s Dead‘ (’70). Incredible stuff. As a student Bryan Ferry was clearly listening and taking note, as any aspiring artist would. As much a fan of Cole Porter as Bob Dylan, Ferry was keenly aware of the song-craft excellence of the writers of the 40s and 50s, and the music of the imaginative 60s and the incredible changes that had taken place during that time (see: ‘Revolution in the Head‘).  It is no surprise therefore that in coming to compose ‘Beauty Queen’ Ferry chose his hero John Lennon’s late 60s haunting ‘Julia‘ as poetic inspiration and linguistic baseline for the Roxy ballad.  Here’s the Lennon’s lyric in full:

Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia

Julia, Julia, oceanchild, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering,
In the sun

Julia, Julia, morning moon, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind, Julia

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Hum hum hum hum…calls me
So I sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia

Half of what I say is meaningless...Lennon acknowledges the limitations of language and of the chance of making a real connection, but he soldiers on nonetheless just to reach you, Julia. Ferry delights in matching Lennon’s hippie phrasing (windy smile vs patterns drawn in sand; silent clouds vs swaying palms) and Lennon’s preferred alliterative use of “s” is adopted by Ferry throughout – seashell smile/sleep/sand/silent becomes starry/shimmer/swimming/ sea. Metaphor is shared (Lennon’s “seashell eyes” become Ferry’s “swimming pool eyes“) and adjectives are interchangeable – Lennon’s floating sky shimmering becomes Ferry’s starry eyes that shimmer, and so on. There is no meanness of spirit or intent in Ferry’s utilization of the tricks and techniques of poetry – nor did Lennon invent the form – but you can tell that Lennon’s lyrical and linguistic approach was in the blood, and who better to tip his hat to his 50s and 60s references and influences than the man who had already laid down his 70s cultural manifesto in Elvis Presley Vampire gear on Top of The Pops.

Just as the subject is absent in ‘BQ’, so too with ‘Julia’: Lennon’s mother was struck by a car and killed at age 44 – and only a few photos of her remained. Having recently re-kindled his relationship with his mother Julia in his early teens (she had left the boy when he was a toddler) the blow to Lennon, understandably, was incalculable and contributed to his cynical and sarcastic view of his life and fame (they didn’t want me so they made me a starI Found Out). Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 8.27.15 AM For Lennon, ‘Julia‘ marks the acknowledgement of a changing of influence of his muse mother to Yoko Ono – the line “Ocean child calls me” refers to Ono, whose name means ‘child of the sea’ in Japanese. For Ferry, Valerie is similarly a staple of the past (faded away) and an ocean child calling to him (winds could not erase/The memory of your face). And it is here that Ferry leaves the stratosphere (literally, as we’ll see in the final verse) as he subverts the very idea of poetic revelation – that is to say, he takes Lennon’s idea of “half of what I say is meaningless“, absorbs its lessons and conjures up his own-style modern love song. The difference between the two ballads is that, although both writers call out their mystical muse, Ferry cannot take its value or “message” quite seriously, as he recognizes the limitations of memory not only as a process of recollection but also how it recreates or re-constructs the past. This is a familiar Ferry motif, and is captured most completely in Re-make/Re-model:

I tried but I could not find a way
Looking back all I did was look away

In looking away from the memory of the past, the singer candidly admits he cannot take basic emotional stimuli seriously: looking back provides no answers, no way forward. In both ‘Re-make’ and ‘BQ’ the narrator turns from the emotional connection of memory in favour of something more… artificial. In short, there is absolutely no way this singer-songwriter is going to look back on the memories of his life – the loves, losses, pain, growth – and write it straight. He may admire Lennon’s linguistic gifts, he may go back to the classical song structures of the 40s and 50s to understand and utilize popular song structure and appeal (in time the lessons would be useful and lucrative) but this was merely a secondary consideration to the essential purpose of fulfilling the requirements of the recently declared Roxy manifesto: So me and you, just we two, got to reach for something new.

For Bryan Ferry the only reliable truth is the truth of Art, of the act of living, recording, and re-playing life’s experiences in a playful, self-aware construct of your own choosing – preferably those fantastic starry dreamscapes based in part on the Rich & Famous, and the Glamour of Cinema and Hollywood. This is not necessarily the truth of the matter as Brian Eno and Andy Mackay would come to see it – more of that later –  but all Roxy members at the time believed in the pursuit and definition of a new kind of popular music and artistic intention. ‘Beauty Queen’ uses as its starting point the ballad form and subverts its by utilizing the poetic mannerisms of 1960s celestial and shiny prose and wrapping it up in imagery that is filtered through a cinematic or ‘modern’ sensibility: Oooooh the way you look – part parody, part earnest. The result becomes a wonderful mixture of the heartfelt and ironic; the song’s warmth and popularity with fans defines success in part because of the utilization of old tricks wrapped in an approach that screams “performance”. But within this achievement lies a core question – how to move forward? The subject of the second Roxy Music album is the story of Ferry searching for a new muse, for himself and for his times, and during the unfolding of For Your Pleasure, we witness him using all of his creative powers to identify and harness (and tame) that muse, and he knows, intuitively, that danger lies ahead..

Credits
The Sphinx, by British painter Augustus John, from Bryan Ferry’s personal collection; BF performing with Roxy Music 1972; Roxy mural; the fantastic Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947; Our “Man of the Decade“, John Ono Lennon; John and his mum, Julia; Amanda Lear For Your Pleasure cover out-take (panther and photo liberties, yours truly).

Beauty Queen Part 2 – December 2017

Titbits
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http://www.beatlesagain.com/btwhite.html

With the anniversary of John Lennon’s death nearing (December 8) it is enough to say that the love for the man never fades. Though deified as a Saint by his peers and subsequent generations, Lennon was actually a man of his time, misogynist, heavy-handed, difficult, but ever-searching, massively talented, and, safe-to-say, like all of us, his search and desire to make himself a better person would have been better suited to a longer life, if only he had been given the chance.

While we’re imagining the universe and its infinite possible outcomes (a side-step here, a ride to the front door instead of a moment to talk to fans) think about the Beatles White Album as it almost was, provisionally titled A Doll’s House, with the proposed cover, above. Now, wouldn’t that have been something? Or just one of many possible outcomes. We miss you JL.

 


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Do the Strand – Part 2

The journey that Roxy Music found themselves on as they entered the studio to record their second album For Your Pleasure in February 1973, was one of hard work, hard knocks, and increasing public visibility. Two years after forming, the band had now crystallized into a creative powerhouse both live and in the studio. Initially driven by the singular vision of Bryan Ferry’s musical and cinematic obsessions, the group dynamic was now pushing itself to the fore, presenting a unified front of talent, anarchy, and creativity. Indeed, Roxy were in the enviable situation of harboring one of the greatest breeding grounds of talent in art-rock history: synth-player, sound manipulator and all-round intellectual, Brian Eno was a force unto himself (“Young girls are wonderful”) both musically and as a media personality. As reporters obsessed over the story that in his spare time Eno was recording the sounds made by earthworms, saxophonist Andy Mackay contributed to the Roxy machine as a classically trained, musical experimentalist and a stylistic natural. The sharp and handsome 50s glitter teddy-boy played oboe and saxophone as dangerous counter-points to melody and rhythm, and along with Eno perhaps captured best the visual aspect of Roxy Music’s dangerous wholly seductive retro-futurist image. Guitarist Phil Manzanera described the first album as created by “inspired amateurs” (Viva), but no such throwaway quip would be offered for this, the follow-up LP: drummer Paul Thompson and Manzanera took the conceptual model provided by the band’s front line and dreamed up and executed instrumental passages that added flesh to the bone, coming to For Your Pleasure still believing in the power of their leader and the musical purity of the band and its collective destiny.

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While Bryan Ferry’s journey and increasing musical maturity was no different from his band mates, he possessed a wholly unique position in the group: the role of lyricist. One can argue until the cows come home about the contentious arguments regarding musical credit and authorship in Roxy Music – surely the 70s output shows that all members played a critical role in the band’s success – but when it comes to the lyrics there was only one prime mover and that was Bryan Ferry. And so in this regard, the Roxy Music experience is the journey as the author wrote it, inventing for himself an implied author in which to tell his stories, and a vehicle of expression called “Roxy Music” in which to relay the message. The author’s personal experience was fashioned, documented and transformed as part of the writing process, disguising the flesh-and-blood Self in a game of cat-and-mouse where the enjoyment for the listener is, let us say, not what ‘Mother of Pearl’ or ‘Do the Strand’ say about the nature of the universe or how better to live your life, but rather what is the author is up to, why is he or she choosing these words, that rhythm, that image. And, beyond the words, the omnipresent fantasy projection that the suave front-man exuded: what is it like to live the glamorous high-life?

Luckily for fans Roxy Music Bryan Ferry respected his audience enough to write up to them, involving us in his own dramatically changing experience, but cagey and sharp enough to apply the pop-art principles of distance, irony, literary and art history, shock and awe, emotional connection and vulnerability, often in equal measure to protect and disguise his true self. It’s a tricky act to pull off, but he did it better than nearly all of his early 70s contemporaries: by comparison, Marc Bolan’s lyrics are trite (get it on, bang a gong, get it on); pop-kings Slade wanted to be taken ‘Bak ‘Ome‘; and Elton John’s Bernie Taupin was striving for universality in songs like ‘Rocket Man’ (Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids) and merely ended up stating the obvious. (Yep, cold as hell).  As Roxy/Pink Floyd producer Chris Thomas said of Ferry in the excellent documentary The Story of Roxy Music : “At the time of For Your Pleasure and Stranded…[Ferry] was the best lyricist in England…Absolutely he was the best lyricist there had been around in England for ages. I mean, who else was a great lyricist? I mean, he was astonishing.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-12 at 6.54.25 PMThe only other writer to match the quality of Bryan Ferry’s lyrical output in ’72/’73 was David Bowie, who was a master lyricist but was a quick worker and prone to throwaways (Joe the lion, made of iron) and gimmicky cut-up techniques (Don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways). Bowie would gladly sacrifice a good lyric to make the music fit a line, a sin one feels Ferry would never abide. Bowie liked to shock a romantic image as much as any London dandy (We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in a river holding hands), but the difference is clear: you’d never get Bryan Ferry writing an album of songs called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. bowie maskAnd nor would he want to: Ferry’s use of disguise was, if anything, more subversive than Bowie’s masks and characters: Ferry’s subject was himself but morphed through a hall of splintered mirrors so close to his own flesh that eventually, yes, it consumed him (around 1975/6).  What else could it do – if you wear a mask and tell the world you are wearing a mask, as Bowie did, it is easy to throw away that mask, stamp it underfoot and create a new persona for your image-hungry audience. But what happens when you create a pop construct that is a dream ideal of yourself, a 1940s matinee idol to which your skin naturally fits, the flesh tugging over the new experience until the mask is wafer thin and the artifice begins to envelope The Life. You gradually discover you have the drive and desire to sing and breathe music that moves the people and fills the dance halls: you stumble into the studio with a few grand and you write of artifice and the nature of memory (Re-Make, Re-Model/2HB); of fun and frivolity (Bitter’s End); of love and yearning (If There is Something); and even of obsession and revenge (Chance Meeting). And then you explode into a wider public consciousness and you are encouraged to go deeper, so you reach back in time to the moment of the birth of the dream (‘Virginia Plain’) and the mask settles closer to the skin, and the heat rises (what’s real and make belief?) and it seeps into relationships and distorts outcomes (‘Pyjamarama‘). And then, a blank wall and the constructed persona, the celebrated, fabricated Self emerges from the shadows, as all selves do in the wee hours of morning, until the moment of doubt takes hold and the Bogus Man reveals himself to you. This is the horror-show of For Your Pleasure, the 2nd Roxy Music album, one of the unarguable masterpieces in the catalog, and an honest response to you and I dear reader, and our insatiable audience expectations.

For your pleasure
In our present state
Part false part true
Like anything
We present ourselves

ferry 72
Don’t Stop the Dance 
A fair question at this point would be, why all the doom and gloom – ‘Do the Strand’ is a rocking song, it makes me want to dance! How true this is – indeed the structure of For Your Pleasure, and one of the reasons for its critical popularity over the past 44 years, is the breadth and depth of its songs, of which ‘Strand’ is one of three tracks that contain a contagious buoyancy (the others being ‘Editions of You’ and ‘Grey Lagoons’). Pleasure is a classic album in the same way that Revolver, Automatic For the People or Kid A is,  records that take you on a journey, that have a breadth and shape and take their time to reveal their stories and entertain you with their different moods and textures. Building on the hit sound of glam in the early 70s (not guitar as one might expect, but a gated multi-tracked drum sound a la The Glitter Band/Cozy Powell and thumping keyboard riffs) the album hooks the listener with its killer invitation to dance the dance to end all dances – the excitement in the opening lines is palpable: there’s a new sensation (Roxy + dance being the new sensation); a fabulous creation (fabulous as both ‘purely imaginary’ and Beatles ‘fab‘ulous); and ending on a very grand flower-power idea:  a danceable solution to teenage revolution.

The idea of channeling youthful energy into a creative or personally meaningful act was explored in the last entry (Do the Strand – Part 1) with the notion that, when you do that crazy shit The Strand, you are creating and enjoying a universal energy that has been harnessed and deployed by the most recognizable human personalities and artistic achievements across history, including the Mona Lisa, Lolita, King Louis, The Sphinx. The children of the early 70s who became the musical leaders of the late 70s and 80s (Stranglers, Pistols, David Sylvian, Duran Duran) intuitively understood the invitation, knowing that social/political history and art/cultural history in the 20th century had become indistinguishable and inseparable, and that the New Thing wasn’t something “out there” but was rather a product of yourself – what you liked, listened to, and watched (or, as they say in modern parlance, ‘consumed’). Being aware of this process of endless re-cycling and creative engagement, the artist was creating something wholly unique to themselves and, better yet, wholly unique to the audience as well, as the implied or new Self became a Brand and a Story, a saleable commodity. Roxy Music were early exponents of this phenomenon the universities later called Postmodernism – with Eno in particular spearheading its absorption into the public mainstream by the mid-90s with his solo albums and production/co-writing work on U2’s postmodern epics Achtung Baby and Zooropa, and Bono dressing himself up as fictional pop star “The Fly” (dude! Phil Manzanera was the original FLY!).

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Pay attention!

With pop music’s version of postmodernism still in its infancy while For Your Pleasure was being written and recorded, and with a hit album and two charting singles under his belt, Bryan Ferry was keenly aware that his art-project was visible not only to the general public but also the art world with its many cliques and facets across music, design, art, fashion, and sexual politics (Roxy had a tremendous gay following). So then, with his friend and literary mentor Dr. Simon Puxley sitting beside him at the St. James Gentleman’s Club (or so we imagine), with a full-bodied 16th century brandy cupped in one hand (or so we imagine – remember, this is our constructed image of the suave ‘Implied’ Bryan Ferry), the singer/song-writer set forth on interrogating this new construct in the hope it would result in the most truthful, self-aware pop-art ever attempted. Thus Puxley writes of ‘Do The Strand’:

No ordinary dance, but an eternal, universal or a tangible image of an indefinable aesthetic and emotional perfection.

Ah, aesthetic and emotional perfection. What a goal. What an objective. But what does aesthetic and emotional perfection look like? And is it even possible down here on Planet Earth. Well, given half the chance we’ll argue that the LP covers for the first five Roxy Music albums are as close to aesthetic pop perfection as you can get – and Ferry may well achieve immortality for this very act of creativity, design and execution. Thinking in structural terms however, ‘Do the Strand’ holds importance as the album opener and a lyrical statement of intent. Puxley continues:

Interestingly the dance was exactly such an expression of an ideal state in much fin-de-siecle and early twentieth- century art; it was an obsessive image, for example, for the poet W.B. Yeats: 0 body swayed to music, 0 brightening glance,’ How can we know the dancer from the dance? (Puxley, Do The Strand Explained, quoting Yeats’ ‘Among School Children‘)

Puxley’s direct quoting of modernist poet W.B. Yeats in relation to the poet’s theory of “the dance” is telling and informative as it provides a sign-post to the song’s meaning beyond it’s considerable appeal as a “knees up” rocker. Bryan Ferry and Andy Mackay hired Puxley as Roxy Music publicist and Ferry used Puxley as the mouthpiece for his authorial intentions as a kind of intellectual-with-class PR strategy.  Indeed, Ferry would have approved, nay encouraged, the writing of Do The Strand Explained, in the same manner he did so for Puxley’s linear notes to the first album Roxy Music. Quoting W.B. Yeats, Puxley posits the Strand as the an expression of an ideal state – the body “sways” to the music (the dance), producing a “brightening glance” (enhanced artistic sensibility). Ferry’s obsession with dance as a symbol of perfection is demonstrated in his repeated use of the image throughout his career. Think Dance Away, Don’t Stop the Dance, You Can Dance, hell, even Dance with Life – and you get the picture. (The last song was written for Ferry by Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin, and reads like a laundry list of what Bernie thinks Ferry’s Implied Author would say if he wrote for the Hallmark greeting card company: There’s no brilliance like beauty out there/No knowledge as wise as the heart/We all need reason to care – etc etc etc). Back to the point: for Ferry, the use of the dance as image identifies the energy of creativity and effort, of precision, of the Eternal Dance, of bringing the higher faculties to bear down on the problems at hand (relationships, money, time-wasting), and as a result of this activity, the question the poem asks points directly to the issue of masks and the nature of personal identity. Or, as Yeats puts it:  ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

I’m not sure you’d want to meet either W.B. Yeats or his modernist bud T.S. Eliot in a dark alley (it’s true, you can’t be a modernist unless you use acronyms in your name) based on the nature of their poetry at least.  It is a telling irony of modern art that our most hard-core and nightmarish poetic visions have come from bank-tellers (Eliot) and senators (Yeats). Careful and professional people engaging us with the problems of existence through acts of imaginative transgression – culture jamming by poetry, if one can imagine such a thing. And why not – T.S Eliot gave us Apocalypse Now via The Hollow Men, and W.B. Yeats supplied the horrifying monster born out of our collective consciousness in the form of The Second Coming (And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’). [See: White House, Trump & Co].

When W.B. Yeats began publishing poetry in the 1880s, his poems had a romantic style, focusing on love, desire and Irish myths. This romantic view turned sour over time as he experienced an increasing dread of the aging process, with the threat of death eventually becoming an obsession. Similarly, For Your Pleasure follows the same life-to-death narrative cycle: ‘Do the Strand’ opens the album with romantic energy and exuberance (Do the strand love when you feel love) followed by dark internal analysis (‘Beauty Queen’/’Strictly Confidential’), increasing physical loathing (‘Bogus Man’) until concluding with the death-obsessed ‘For Your Pleasure’: Old man/Through every step, a change/You watch me walk away/Tara. Now, this may feel like reading too much into the song-cycle, but Puxley/Ferry directly quoting Yeats does tease out another key theory for the unconvinced. Check this out: one of the cornerstones of Yeats poetry is his theory of historical recurrence, or “widening gyres” – slabs of lived human experience that spin and peel open over time, over-lapping with previous eons, events, empires, historical and historical dynasties. In practical terms, this is the sense you get as you get older of having seen the same human and historical patterns, mistakes, victories. This is the reason that human memory is such an important gift for humanity, that writing down and capturing the experience and lessons of the past is such a critical step for us in securing Screen Shot 2017-10-21 at 9.58.48 AMthe security and peacefulness of our children’s future. Today of course, in 2017, the past is under erasure, the blunders of the past are willfully ignored, if not even recognized in the first place. What was once science-fiction is now science-fact (Bladerunner was set in 2019, and we can say that AI, Corporate dominance, and environmental degradation are now a part of modern human experience). In short, Yeats’ “rough beast” is born – and the prick is sitting in our laps.

Aesthetically, Roxy Music tapped into the zeitgeist of Yeats’ “widening gyres” by virtue of picking up on this conflation and overlapping of historical and aesthetic experience – 50s rock n’ roll mashed against space-suit futurism; Forbidden Planet juxtaposed with the Rocky Horror Picture Show; ‘Virginia Plain’ back-dropped the Battle of the Alamo, the effects of US embargos on Cuban culture, the rise of commercial advertising – Roxy presenting this cultural and artistic cross-cutting as a solution to the problem of pop authenticity, or the critical expectation of writing an “original” song’. ‘Do the Strand’ outdoes itself with its focus on time, places, historical recurrence and conflation. The track ends with a thrust of sublime closure, identifying four key landmarks of human artistic achievement: The Sphynx and Mona Lisa/Lolita and Guernica/Did the strand.

“The Sphinx and Mona Lisa are two all-time great enigmas”, writes Puxley:

The Sphinx was a creature in both Greek and Egyptian mythology with a human head and a lion’s body...The most famous example of the Egyptian Sphinx, the massive stone figure (240 feet long, 66 feet high) still recumbent at the side of the Great Pyramid, is more mysterious: it actually exists, but what its exact purpose was is unknown.

And concludes: The Sphinx and Mona Lisa represent not only the arcane and mysterious but also – by implication – the ancient and immortal.

sphinxFerry’s art works identified in ‘The Strand’ are far from sunny dance-craze knock-offs: the works cited are full of danger and carry sins stretched across human time: Lolita stares down the subject of child-rape; Guernica catalogs the horror of war and the suffering of people wrenched by violence and chaos; The Great Sphinx of Giza earns its title of Abū al-Haul: The Terrifying One; or literally: Father of Dread, ‘ancient and immortal’.  These agents of dread are the gateway to the dark messages and brooding introspection of For Your Pleasure. ‘There’s a ‘new sensation’ we’re told, and the beast slumbers, and we are invited to dance..

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Conclusion
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I’ve always been drawn to melancholy…to introspection
Bryan Ferry, interview

The Lonely Man
‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ Consider for a moment it is late 1972 and the implied Bryan Ferry sits isolated in front of an unblinking television set, considering the future. He is anxious…drawn to introspection. Plans to record a new record are taking shape, and he considers what his subject might be, what the material is, and when the words might surface. A song comes on the radio and triggers a swell of recognition: The Lonely Man Theme, by the Cliff Adams Orchestra. Our man feels comfortable in its skin, the tune a popular hit for a late 50s British advertising campaign for a new cigarette. The black-and-white advert featured a Humphrey Bogart type walking down a wet London street. The man, dressed in trench-coat and upturned collar, chooses not to go inside a corner pub, and walks on, his face trying to solve an unresolved (romantic?) problem. The man turns to face the camera and lights a cigarette. This is the Bogart of 2HB. Or Sinatra singing ‘These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)’: A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces/An airline ticket to romantic places Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 3.13.39 PMThe man in the trilby hat and trench coat inhales his Strand cigarette, apparently satisfied that a good smoke is as good a release from the night-time emptiness of the rain-slicked streets. Helped by the Cliff Adam’s and his catchy jazz tune, The Strand’s ‘man in a mackintosh’ becomes an immediate and enduring icon of cool, with a cultural significance ranking alongside The Third Man and Mickey Spillane heroes.

Ferry absorbs the moment and internalizes the imagery. In a few short months he will release his first solo album, These Foolish Things. But first he records an album with Roxy Music filled with images of isolation and loneliness. The music is dark and gripping. Through his PR man, Ferry reminds his listeners that the ‘Strand’ was once a brand of cigarette. He does so because no one would remember, or probably even care about the Strand, for the cigarette is a commercial failure, one of Britain’s biggest advertising disasters ever, and the cigarette is taken off the market within a year..

Do the strand love when you feel love
It’s the new way and that’s why we say
Do the strand

Credits
Roxy Music,
inside cover For Your Pleasure; Kandinsky, Composition 8, a “utopian artistic experiment of the Russian avant-garde(The Damned paid tribute to Kandinsky on the cover for their 2nd album, Music For Pleasure, below); For Your Pleasure promo box ebay; Mackay/Ferry, More Dark Than Shark; Bowie mask; Bryan Ferry in recording studio, 1973; Phil Manzanera gives instruction to Bono; W.B. Yeats: his Slumbering Beast and widening gyre; You’re Never Alone with a Strand. The cigarette of the moment; Strand actor Terence Brook.

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Next: Beauty Queen/November 2017

 


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Do The Strand – Part 1

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Do the Strand
Do the Strand (Live, Viva!)

There’s a new sensation a fabulous creation
A danceable solution to teenage revolution

Do the strand love when you feel love
It’s the new way and that’s why we say
Do the strand

Roxy and the Punks – 1

‘Do the Strand’ is the quintessential Roxy Music song, a driving rocker and a punning literary juggernaut clocking in at a little over 4 minutes. Used to hook and engage the listener, ‘Strand’ was a killer opening for the new album For Your Pleasure, and a direct thematic descendant of the hit single ‘Virginia Plain‘. Surprisingly, the song was not released as a UK single at the time – band and management favoured the non-album track ‘Pyjamarama‘ – but it had all the makings of a major hit. A true Roxy Music “anthem” as Bryan Ferry has called it, and he should know, as the song closed the majority of Roxy shows over a period of 38 years, and is still used in the encore for his own solo shows up to the present in 2017.

What then has made ‘Do the Strand’ such a darling of fans, critics and admirers over the years? The music is great, for starters – proto-punk in its delivery, this muscular art-pop might have taken a few minutes to compose and record – hit the skins really hard Paul! – but there is complexity in the arrangement, with a dazzling delivery of contagious energy and verve that reveals how tight the band had become by the second album. Around this time Ferry switched from acoustic to over-phlanged electric piano and the white-hot keyboard sound defines the rock “thumpers” (Ferry’s word) of this early period. Add Andy Mackay’s saxophone punctuation mark at the end of each line of ‘Do the Strand’ and you have one of the track’s defining characteristics and an instant classic. Yet,  what ultimately holds the song down is the wink and nudge it provides its loyal fan-base (infectious pop/dangerous glam) and the message of love the song sends to all fans of pop music: you are the dance solution; you are the new sensation, the fabulous creation – make it new, make it yours, make it now, your moment has arrived (and your moment is passing).

For anyone wanting to understand the workings of the song a little better beyond its considerable infectious back-beat, there is an excellent piece of writing available: a rare analysis of a Bryan Ferry lyric by Ferry’s friend and literary guru, Doctor Simon Puxley. Puxley was responsible for the famous notes on the first Roxy Music album (“Saturday nite at the Roxy the Mecca the Ritz – your fantasies realized … “), and he subsequently penned the definitive entry on the song with ‘Do the Strand’ Explained. (Thanks to John O’Brien and his vivaroxymusic archive for making the piece available).  Puxley’s first paragraph underlines the song’s core conceits:

The Strand. First and foremost a dance, depicted as a new craze (‘new sensation’, ‘the new way’). However in the dictionary ‘strand’ can mean ‘walk’ (verb), a place to walk, a stretch of beach, or ‘to leave high and dry’. ‘Strand’ was also once a brand of cigarette. And the Strand is of course a famous London street, once highly fashionable: this is the meaning that the title immediately calls to mind, if any. BUT the Strand is none of these things. It’s without precedent and unique. It’s not even a dance-step. It is, as the lyrics demonstrate, everything; or more particularly it is – to use inadequate platitudes where it’s at, whatever turns you on. The buzz, the action, the centre, the quintessence, the energy. The all-embracing focus, past present and future, the ineffable. The indefinable. And in the context of performance the Strand is also something else the here- and-now, i.e. the song, the music and the atmosphere themselves.

-Simon Puxley, Do the Strand Explained (1973).

Ferry takes an idea for a new dance or a new “thing” and places it front and center in the auditoria of history. He does so with bombastic vigor – the song crashes into our listening experience with no musical intro or warning to deliver the famous Roxy “collision of styles”: high style vs and low style, furs vs. blue jeans, microcosm vs macrocosm. You can do The Strand at Quaglino’s (Puxley: exclusive London restaurant with dance-floor, frequented by aristocracy); or Mabel’s (a cheap cafe or brothel…Highlife or lowlife, it makes no difference with The Strand). You might be tired of the tango (established ballroom step); or fed up with fandango (a lowly shindig). Everyone in Who’s Who is dancing The Strand, slow and gentle, sentimental or Evergreen, all styles served here. History is quoted, then obliterated by the ever-eternal energy force called the Strand: from Louis the Sixteenth (Louis Seize he prefer Laissez faire strand), to The Sphynx, Mona Lisa, Lolita and Guernica. Puxley identifies this recollection of history as “the all-embracing focus, past present and future, the ineffable.”

The Sphynx and Mona Lisa
Lolita and Guernica
Did the strand

What is especially interesting is that ‘Strand’ presents a history where art subjects are living entities, as real as any historical figures. The song quotes Mona Lisa, for example, as having “done” the Strand. Yet, the Mona Lisa could not have done the Strand or any other dance routine, as “she” is a 16th century work of art. So too with Lolita (a novel), Gurenica (painting), and The Sphynx  (statue).  Beyond the undeniable enjoyment of the music, ‘Do The Strand’ presents itself is a game, or an ontological puzzle, demanding attention. See how it moves both past and within history, and interacts with our greatest and most fearful creations: Guernica is a painting representing the bombing of Gurenica in 1937 by Nazi Germany.  Lolita is the story of the daily rape of a child by her step-father. The Great Sphinx of Giza (literally, the ‘Father of Dread’), is believed to represent the Pharaoh Khafre, a cruel and tyrannical ruler. Love, of course, is the answer (Do the strand love when you feel love), but that can be a pretty flippant answer when you’re busy trying to explore the Nature of Being. Love may well be the answer to teenage revolution, but you have to be damn near 40 years old before you recognize it. ‘The Strand’ is more brittle and cannot be reduced to simple platitudes, it has bite in its bark. Behind the infectious beat and the twinkle in Ferry’s eye, the song is punk in it’s outlook, even nihilistic. Boredom and ennui are placed center-stage:

Had your fill of quadrilles the madison and cheap thrills
Bored with the beguine the samba isn’t your scene

Had your fill of quadrilles/the madison: ‘Quadrilles’a dance for squares, origin France; the ‘Madison’  a short-lived fad, America, early 60s. Dances DOA, in both instances.

Bored with the beguine‘The Beguine’ is rhumba-like dance-step from the Caribbean that “never established itself” (Puxley). A dead dance, in other words: boredom by definition.

The samba isn’t your scene: ‘The Samba’ is a vivacious dance, lively, rhythmical, colorful – if you don’t like the Samba you must be practically comatose. No, not our “scene” say the disaffected kids of tomorrow.

Lyrically, ‘Do the Strand’ is fed up, weary and bored, yet represented by music that is exhuberant and funny, which is a nifty trick that ‘Virginia Plain’ also pulled off.  ‘The Strand’ names heroes and dance moves from the ages and suggests they are about as relevant as the mashed potato schmaltz (schmaltz– sentimentality and over sweetness in music, films, etc, (Puxley).  Flowers, rhododendrons, even evergreensfoliage that retains its color throughout the year  – the most sturdy and life-affirming plants on the planet –  cannot beat strand power. Moreover, the song tells the listener/audience that strand power is a solution to teenage revolution. Ah, teenagers. Being bored is the general zeitgeist of the average teenager, who struggles with the way things are while dreaming of the way things should be, even if those goals are unwittingly motivated by self-interest. The average teenager is also extremely funny and communicates with their peers via humor, as they deconstruct all the things that adults and the world get wrong. In this regard, the teen experience echoes the formal structure of ‘Do the Strand’ which is the lyrical analog to a high school history and art class, with its lists of things to remember for the exam tomorrow, while the chatter inside your head is energetic and funny while you deface and add sexual appendages to the classroom copy of the Mona Lisa.

‘Virginia Plan’ identified the the rise of youth culture by addressing teens directly: you’re so sheer/you’re so chic/teenage rebel of the week. VP showed the teenager as representing the new future, undergoing change from childhood to adulthood, yet lacking in depth (all surface) and infinitely disposable and replaceable.  This insightful but cynical view articulates both the need for change and the anxiety as to what this new thing may actually be or look like (So me and you, just we two/got to reach for something new). This is the road Ferry was on in the early 70s: Roxy and Bowie were aware they were spearheading a shift in youth culture that was embracing a more open sexuality and a revolt against entrenched British norms. But both singers were equally concerned about the effect this would have on themselves and society – Bowie saw the outcome as the ruination of the youth and culture (“this ain’t rock n’ roll – this is genocide!”), while Ferry examined the social degradation via literary Romanticism, classic art, and the lessons contained in the The Great Gatsby.  Add to this mix the cultural and musical anarchist Mr. Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (ie., Brian Eno) who was very keen to dismantle the very idea of “aesthetic perfection” and you can understand that the idea of the “new” was paramount to the Roxy Music aesthetic. Listen to Jon Savage, author of the excellent England’s Dreaming, describe the impulse of the late 70s teenage revolution and note the similarities to the milieu of Roxy’s early years:

Punk was wild, outcast, vicious and protective at the same time. It wasn’t boring…It did not, initially, reinforce the dominant values. So if you’re pissed off, you might pick up some tips. You might find a bunch of outcasts coming together curiously uplifting.

-Jon Savage, interview, 3am magazine

jr
The early 70s were kind of boring, apart from Roxy Music
John Peel, 2005

Roxy and the Punks – 2

Some punks interpreted the “danceable solution” as an opportunity to Smash It Up  while much of Britain reeled from shock and horror of hearing the F-bomb being used on national TV for the first time. But the core mandate of a band like The Damned was not violence per se but the desire to express a music that articulated their frustration at not being given a shot at the good life, or even an interesting life beyond the council flats and dole queue. As a result, The Damned’s songs evoke strand power as musical buzz-saw.  Others harnessed the moment to break down the conventional walls between audience and performer (gob was in). Record companies, symbols of Corporate and musical control, had their money stolen as strand power slumbered towards Buckingham Palace (Sex Pistols, EMI/A&M). Yet the closest in spirit to ‘Do the Strand’ was the brilliant single  ‘No More Heroes’ by The Stranglers, a band that took the art-rock manifesto and added a menacing penchant for rats, leather and karate. Released in October 1977, ‘No More Heroes’ was in the charts for 18 weeks, reaching a high of #2. Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? asks singer/song-writer Hugh Cornwell: To dear old Lenny?/The great Elmyra/And Sancho Panza? While being a marvel of phrasing and expression, these lines also serve to erase and re-write history and define knowledge as product. Like Ferry’s mash-up, Cornwell places historical figures (Trotsky),  art forgers (Elmyr de Hory), cultural heroes (Lenny Bruce), and fictional characters (Sancho Panza) shoulder-to-shoulder in order to create a ground swell of artistic erasure or “inauthenticity” that presents the real, the fake, and the fakers all on an equal footing.  Compare this to ‘Do the Strand’ and its gang of characters picked from the mix of history (Louis the Sixteenth), art and literature (Lolita, Mona Lisa) and you have the beginning and continuation of a questioning of cultural, social, and political authenticity that started with Roxy Music and Bowie, exploded with UK punk, mutated and intellectualized with the new wave (XTC/Talking Heads), back-tracked with the commodification of the 80s, and re-generated and splintered in the 90s with grunge and its various off-shoots. Test the theory by asking yourself where we stand now in 2017 – forty years almost to the day after 1977’s Silver Jubilee and the summer of punk – on every level, political, sociological, cultural, all of us are being called on to counter the dark forces. Go on, find your strand power and harness it in your own unique image: the time is now (and your moment is passing).

There are never enough ‘I love you’s.

-Lenny Bruce

Came across this Melody Maker piece after the post was published. Nice one!

dancable solution

Part 2 – October 20 2017

Credits
Bombed out mannequins on London streets
from “In 1939, I didn’t hear war coming. Now its thundering approach can’t be ignored“; must read article from Harry Leslie Smith, a ‘survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy.’ Thank you Harry; Great Sphinx of Giza, Guernica by Picasso, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov; Strand cigarettes, Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci; John Lydon (Johnny Rotten); Sancho Panza (from Don Quixote); No More Heroes‘, The Stranglers; a Picasso forgery by Elmyr de Hory; comedian and provacteur Lenny Bruce; People’s Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs of the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky

Titbits

lady biffing dork
Harnessing Strand power

Isn’t she amazing! Culled from the excellent site We Hunted the Mammoth (Surviving the Trumpocalypse), one can only hope this dance catches on. Writer/editor/humorist David Futrelle tells us this blog is NOT a safe place. As in art, as in life. Enjoy.


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Pyjamarama

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Pyjamarama
Pyjamarama (Viva! live)
Pyjamarama (Polydor Mix, 1976)

‘Pyjamarama’ is a great song, funky and cool, and very stylized. Yet it fits uneasily within the Roxy canon, feeling much more like an album cut. But then – on which album would it be placed, and what running order? Recorded and released as a singles-only promotional track for the upcoming (not yet recorded) album For Your Pleasure, ‘PJ’ marked a few important “firsts” for the band: first use of George Martin’s newly opened Air Studios on Oxford Street, first use of Beatles/Pink Floyd co-producer Chris Thomas, first Bryan Ferry composition on guitar – check out the “ta-da!” opening to hear the grandeur and importance of it all. It was also the first time the production sounded really good: Ferry’s voice is clear and thick, and intelligible; Paul Thompson’s drumming is robust and placed high in the mix, and it can be said with no hesitation that musically this is a great performance from the band, as Andy MacKay and Phil Manzanera join Thompson to define the collective synergy that enabled Roxy Music to produce its very best music over the next decade.

Brian Eno didn’t think much of ‘Pyjamarama’  (“We should never have put it out as a single“), but John Peel loved it (“another dandy pearl from the boys,”) and it was popular with fans and easily made Top 10 in the UK. The hesitation came mostly from the circumstances of the recording, which were by all accounts rushed: between ‘Virginia Plain’ and ‘Pyjamarama’ (June 1972-Feb 1973) the band played at least 77 concerts, had their lead singer hospitalized for tonsillitis, replaced two bass players,  played a triumphant re-scheduled tour of the UK, played a dispiriting, unsuccessful tour of the USA, and now were back home, welcomed into a chilly London winter and tasked with creating a follow-up hit single and album.

The recording sessions for ‘Pyjamarama’ saw bass player Ric Kenton replaced by John Porter, a friend of Bryan Ferry’s and musical partner in the pre-Roxy University band the Gas Board. Porter was a strong influence in the group, very musical, and went on to do solo Ferry and Andy Mackay records, in addition to producing the first Smiths album (a place in the history books thereby assured).  In the 70s the ongoing joke about the displacement of Roxy Music’s bass players was that they were most often the worst or dullest dressed in the band. In point of fact, switching out bass players made perfect musical sense. Mackay, Manzenera, Eno and Thompson were a heavy-weight of talent ready to coil and fire, given the chance.  Despite that Roxy Music had been voted as Best New Act in all of the rock music papers (Record Mirror, Disc, NME, Melody Maker) Eno was chomping at the bit to change things up, to stretch his musical boundaries. As Ferry recuperated from his operation and the UK tour was re-scheduled and performed to glowing reviews, Eno joined his art-performance ensemble friends The Portsmouth Sinfonia for a concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth hall, performing such feel-good hits as Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Raising of the Titanic. Yet despite general band misgivings about the rush-job and timing and recording session,  ‘Pyjamarama’ is actually fairly experimental, both in its sound and its execution. For starters, it was not an overtly commercial song in the sense that ‘Virginia Plain’ was; and just like VP the band again achieved a Top 10 hit without the aid of a chorus or discernible hook.  The “hook” in this case is replaced by two dissonant instrumental breaks, the first is by Andy Mackay and is completely mental in its sound and execution, producing the famous “handsome noise” that John Peel commented on in his glowing review of the single.

Much had been made of ‘Pajamarama’ being Ferry’s first use of guitar as compositional tool, yet the strummed  introduction (“ta-da-da”) is the only place were this in fact makes much of a difference. The opening bars are high-drama bravado, an overture to announce that Roxy Music were back, ready for action and as full of promise and excitement as ever. The opening was a big tease, sly even, and unabashedly earnest. Ferry chose to set the song in Eb (E-flat), defined by Classicists as the key of  “love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.” (Musical Keys).  The “lifting-up” introduction is very effective as a scene-setter: check out the version on Viva! and consider for a moment that the song’s natural role should have been as a concert opener for every show they ever did. (No complaints from this side of the house). Shifting to the verse 30 seconds in, the reverie turns funky, and by all accounts, solicitous: couldn’t sleep a wink last night we’re told, and all at once we are set up for a classic Roxy Music faire une confession, and this one has considerable bite to it. In ‘Virginia Plain’ the author made a deal with the devil for fame and money: what now were the effects fame would have on love?

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Couldn’t sleep a wink last night
Oh how I’d love to hold you tight
They say you have a secret life
Made sacrifice your key to paradise
Never mind, take the world by storm
Just boogaloo a rhapsody divine
Take a sweet girl just like you
How nice if only we could bill and coo

Couldn’t sleep a wink takes us out of the fan-fare introduction and into a catchy but kooky and idiosyncratic musical funkiness, followed by an equally kooky and idiosyncratic vocal delivery by Ferry.  The music is tight and percussion and tambourine and bass are in lock-step here, with Porter’s new sound fitting right into the groove, perhaps even creating it. Eno has a nicely urgent bleeping synth note chasing down Ferry’s ultra-cool delivery and Paul Thompson’s drumming is exactly right, as the song is a tough one to get to swing properly, and in contrast to the opening section, the verse is considerably cooler, and is to be held together, held in place, oh just so. Then Andy Mackay comes along and throttles the bejesus out of the proceedings at 1.03, holding his opening note a full six seconds as the unwilling air around him is sucked into the saxophone and spat out the other side as if abused by a wrecking ball. It’s a lovely little lick Andy plays, very lively and clever, so lively in fact that Eno decides to goose-step the solo by programming his VCS3 to simulate the sound of the saxophone drowning – so incongruous is the juxtaposition of sax and synthesizer that, if you think about it, and you add Ferry’s hilarious ‘if only we could bill and coo-oo’ you may have actually found the secret sauce to which Roxy Music is built on. Lively, catchy, coy, funny, dissonant, urgent – you heard it here first.

As a package, ‘Pyjamarama’ is presented as a mystery.  The atmosphere of the song is utterly unlike ‘Virginia Plain’, that road movie on amphetamines. Instead, ‘PJ’ is like a dose of your favourite drug, administered by acolytes while a Turkish bath is being slavishly prepared across town at your private villa. You get the picture – above all, sensual. ‘Virginia Plain’ flirted with mystery too, its puns and illusions, its slippery surface in no hurry to reveal the identify of the love object. It was this aura of mysteriousness and seduction that was at the heart of Roxy Music’s appeal and popularity in early 1973, and the band enjoyed to tease, presenting the single and the upcoming album as an exercise in seduction and play, designed especially ‘for your pleasure’.  The voice hooks you right away with its graceful appeal to longing and desire, Couldn’t sleep a wink last night/Oh how I’d love to hold you tight.  Then it very quickly turns to the mysterious: They say you have a secret life/Made sacrifice your key to paradise. What a remarkable thing to say so early in the song –  I am crazy for you, I physically yearn for you, but people say have a secret life and that you may actually be dangerous. The “You” here is the object of desire (hold you tight); a subject of gossip (they say); mysterious (secret life); and strong (made sacrifice). This is almost a stock representation description of a 1940s and 50s cinema’s femme fatale archetype.  While it is true that Roxy did not go into Air Studios with a overarching plan for the next record (only one or two tracks having been written when recording started) Ferry’s cinematic interests extended to the film noir style, especially the themes of the mysterious and seductive woman whose “charms ensnare her lovers”(Wiki)  – just look at the cover of For Your Pleasure, where the femme fatale is so omnipotent she is leading a black panther on a leash. In literature, a black panther is an age-old symbol of death, hence the femme fatale is literally leading death around on a leash, choosing her moment to release her darkness and terminal ruination on any unsuspecting (male) victim – in this case a rather happy-chappy and recognizable chauffeur. As even the most casual Roxy fan knows, this particular femme fatale was the socialite and model Amanda Lear,  the subject and prime-mover, arguably, of ‘Pyjamarama’s secret life.

for your pleasureIn Italy I’m big because they’re all so sex-obsessed,” Lear once said of her Italian fan-base. “In Germany I succeeded because they’ve been waiting for someone like Marlene Dietrich to come along ever since the war. I played on their need for a drunken, nightclubbing vamp” (Guardian). In the same manner that ‘Virginia Plain’s Baby Jane Hozer was a strong-willed, independent woman from high-society background, Amanda Lear was also part of the 60s and 70s nightclub scene, her name linked in with David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and others, including Brian Jones, who wrote the Rolling Stones track Miss Amanda Jones about her. What is more interesting than her affairs with rock stars however is her relationship with Salvador Dali, the prominent Spanish surrealist painter and artist and publicity hound. Now, Dali is an interesting case in his own right – his subjects and interests included symbolism, science, sculpture, fashion and photography, theatre and film, literature (he wrote a novel). Tagged as a gimmicky art merchant in the 70s and 80s, Dali has since been cited as a major inspiration by many modern artists, such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Roxy Music muse Andy Warhol proclaimed him an important influence on pop art. Dalí met Amanda Lear at a French nightclub in 1965, when she was still known under the incredible name of Peki D’Oslo. According to Lear, she and Dalí were united in a “spiritual marriage” on a deserted mountaintop. Lear took the place of an earlier Dali muse, Ultra Violet (Isabelle Collin Dufresne), who had left Dalí’s side to join The Factory of Andy Warhol (the plot thickens!).

A Guardian newspaper article perhaps summed up the allure of Amanda Lear best: ‘Lear’s background remains a mystery. She has variously let it be known that her mother was English or French or Vietnamese or Chinese, and that her father was English, Russian, French or Indonesian. She may have been born in Hanoi in 1939, or Hong Kong in either 1941 or 1946. Once she said she was from Transylvania. And to this day, it is a matter of conjecture as to whether she was born a boy or a girl.’ (See also ‘Rebel Rebel‘, ah hem). Mysterious origins, the secret wife of a famous painter, a recipient of a sex-change operation, Lear has never confirmed these details, although she was happy to trade on the notoriety they generated. ‘It makes me mysterious and interesting,’ she said. ‘There is nothing the pop world loves more than a way-out freak.’ (Guardian).

dali

There are several different versions of how and where Bryan Ferry and Amanda Lear met – some say in August 1972 at the Rainbow Theatre in London during the support gig for David Bowie; others, that Ferry saw her on stage at a fashion show (Q). Some reliable sources even say they were engaged for a time, but we do not much care for these private details here, as our concern is primarily a careful reading of the lyrical and music content of the songs and not the social life of its authors. However, you can’t help but make associations, as Ferry’s style was quickly evolving into, as Nick De Ville would say, “I have this problem, I’m writing this pop song” – a meta-analysis of the world in which he had only recently entered, the work buffered and protected by dense literary and social puns, allusions, and inventive narrative imagery. Yet, make no mistake, his work was confessional in the sense that his experiences were being analyzed and interrogated, and the deeper search for meaning in a “looking glass world” was starting to be pushed front and center now that he had joined the fame game club. In ‘Pyjamarama’ the party is in full swing as the clandestine couple grab a private moment and our narrator leans in and whispers, Couldn’t sleep a wink last night/Oh how I’d love to hold you tight:

They say you have a secret life
Made sacrifice your key to paradise
Never mind, take the world by storm
Just boogaloo a rhapsody divine
Take a sweet girl just like you
How nice if only we could bill and coo

They say you have a secret life: ‘Secret Life’ is the title of Dali’s famous book
Made sacrifice your key to paradise: sex-change; deception of age and origin
Never mind, take the world by storm: the sacrifice will lead to success

Then, another shift in tone, and a move to judgement:

Just boogaloo a rhapsody divine: the text book meaning for rhapsody is an “effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling”, an intensity of emotion that is almost religious in its intensity – we hear this during the song’s 30 second intro. Ferry undercuts the sentiment by suggesting the woman “boogaloo” the divine – that is to say, turn rapture into a cheap (Latin) dance move. Cheapen the experience, commercialize it. High art becomes low art and Roxy Music continue their examination of trash and its increasing value in modern culture.

Take a sweet girl just like you: again, there is a trace of salt in these words – based on what we’ve seen so far this femme fatale is far from “sweet” and the “take a girl just like you” quip suggests she (and her fame dream) are dime-a-dozen, with thousands of hapless others willing to re-create and pimp themselves for stardom (Ferry, once citing himself as an “orchid born a coal tip” includes himself in this equation, obviously).

How nice if only we could bill and coo: one of the singer’s funniest lines, with a brilliant camp delivery (bill and coo-u-ooo). Again, there is shade and contrast here, as these two rather sophisticated types, full of self-interest, are placed in the context of a soft nest in which to nuzzle and purr and coo at one another. Secret lives, mysterious origins, affairs, world domination – these two would never win the lead roles in Bill and Coo, the 1948 film directed by Dean Riesner, a film that Ferry is sure to have known as it was a very popular entertainment for children in the UK, as a town of  birds is terrorized by a crow known called the Black Menace. Turn to the archetype of Lear as femme fatale and darkness incarnate and you can see the vision of For Your Pleasure being built in Ferry’s mind in this, the first song recorded at Air studios for the album.

Andy Mackay’s wonderful “handsome noise” solo at 1.03 propels us into the second half of the song, which is a mirror image of the first half, with the subject of the narrative focusing shifting to the male suitor and Andy’s musical solo being repeated on guitar by the magnificent Phil Manzanera, the musician who around this time stepped out of the shadows to contribute and define the classic Roxy Music sound.

I may seem a fool to you for ev’rything
I say or think or do
How could I apologise for all those lies
The world may keep us far apart but up in heaven, angel
You can have my heart

In the first verse the subject is the woman, the “you” who has a secret life, who made the right sacrifices and is set to take the world by storm. The second verse shifts to “I”, the man, the narrator of the song, who is apologizing for his very existence I may seem a fool to you for ev’rything/I say or think or do. His plea for forgiveness confirms we are eavesdropping on a couple’s clandestine break-up (How could I apologise for all those lies). The issue is, we know there is no apology forthcoming (it’s how could I apologise as opposed to how can I apologise) and by his own standards of judgement (up in heaven) the man is guilty. Two things are happening here: the narrator starts out by identifying and judging the woman (he sees through her), then shifts to judgment on his own actions (he sees through himself). But really, who can you trust? (I may seem a fool to you). Well, the answer of course, as any Roxy fan can attest, is to be found in the following run of brilliant songs on For Your Pleasure and Stranded, particularly ‘In Every Dream Home, a Heartache’ and ‘Psalm’. Ferry lands on a narrative strategy here by developing an idea he first hinted at in ‘Virginia Plain’: the role divinity plays in the lives of people. From this point on during the 70s until Manifesto in 1979, Roxy Music would explore both musically and lyrically how divinity as a spiritual Ideal provides us mere mortals (and rock stars) with the sign-posts on how to live; for Roxy, the divine is much less about “God” as a thing or religion as a collective, but as a place where Nature or Art is seen as one of the means of connecting yourself to a higher spirit or intelligence. Bryan Ferry uses the divine as a totem to measure and judge his actions, his moral code, and, in the end, the worthiness and success of his art.

The world may keep us far apart but up in heaven, angel/you can have my heart: the temptations of the flesh in this beastly world mean, frankly dear, you’ll have to wait until we are pure Spirit before you stand a chance of holding me down. This is both wonderfully honest and of course extremely self-serving: Ferry is looking up to the heavens, and saying – fuck it, catch you later – the time for fun is now. Let me catch up to Immortality and Goodness when I’m done with this corporeal road trip. Come on Angel, why do you think I had to tell all those lies?

Boogaloo the Divine

The concluding lines of the song offer up an opportunity for you, the listener, to see where you land on a key question:

Diamonds may be your best friend
But like laughter after tears
I’ll follow you to the end

In your own emotional experience, what does laughter after tears mean to you? Is it an image of reconciliation, that all becomes good once the sobbing has stopped (as explored by R.E.M in ‘Sweetness Follows‘); or is it a mocking gesture, best articulated in private (as explored by XTC in ‘Me and the Wind Are Celebrating Your Loss‘). The final dedication is unequivocal however: I’ll follow you to the end. This is either an act of intentional damnation for all eternity (we are the same creature you and I, and this will be our ruination), or something much different, for this divine dance has been mostly played out on the human scale, with its social play, its concern with appearance and diamonds and gossip and dramatic romantic gestures played to packed houses. Think pyjama party with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the play Private Lives. On the microcosmic scale this is a comedy of manners, a pyjama-drama played out by modern people who are unlikely to illicit our sympathy (he is a liar, she a manipulator). Yet by the time we get to laughter after tears, there are no regrets, and we turn to heaven where, at least in the world of Higher Ideals, he will follow you to the end.

Phil Manzanera’s wonderful guitar break closes the song – a genuinely fine and uplifting solo that repeats the central motif, then goes back on it, then forward again, with Paul Thompson’s juggernaut drumming propelling the whole scene outwards and upwards to a conclusion. This is a bursting forth moment, the musical equivalent of joy and rapture, a coming into the light, like laughter after tears.  We have come back full circle to the song’s opening celestial overture, our divine key of Eb (E-flat) with its emotional effect “of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.” Remember this has been a Pyjama-rama, and Rama, in the oldest Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana, is the Lord of Virtue and he and and his wife Sita are the very essence of purity – a shining example of martial devotion that our two earth-bound lovers could only aspire to. Using the guitar as a compositional tool for the first time, Ferry playfully opens the song with a devotional overture to to God (“ta-da-da”!), and then proceeds to judge his own actions in the context of the Divine, a role he understands, perhaps, but can never possibly fulfill.

tina and kevin

Credits: a painting of the 10-headed enemy of love, the demon Ravana. Rava kidnaps Sita, and is rescued by the noble Lord of Virtue, Rama (http://www.ancient.eu/Rama/); Italian copy of the single; NME review of the single; PJ original inner label 6159-A (that oddly does not credit Chris Thomas as co-producer); For Your Pleasure gatefold sleeve w/Amanda Lear and Bryan Ferry, design Ferry, Nicholas Deville art direction, photography; The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (by Salvador Dali); Bill and Coo, the 1948 film directed by Dean Riesner; Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the play Private Lives; two prints of the divine love of Sita and Rava


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Virginia Plain – Part 5

dylan 1
Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumors covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn.

-Bob Dylan, ‘Restless Farewell’, The Times They Are a-Changin (1964).

Every decade popular music re-experiences what Pete Townshend called “the bloody explosion” – the wonderful collision of music, energy and sex, the desire to get out of your head, break chains, kill boredom, be free. ‘Virginia Plain’ is a 70s road movie about that bloody explosion, and it is in the details of its flamboyance that is has been most celebrated. The song performed a career-defining double for the band: the university crowd bought the first album Roxy Music by the truck-load; and the kids bought ‘Virginia Plain’, not once but twice, propelling it to #4 in the charts in 1972, and then five years later their younger brothers and sisters took it to #11. This was cross-pollination of a kind that only happens once or twice in a band’s career, and it provided Roxy with longevity  in a tough and fickle business, re-uniting art, commerce, and accessibility most fully 10 years later in 1982 with Avalon.

In the meantime ‘Virginia Plain’ had to conclude its 2.58 minutes of pop art lunacy and Roxy had to get on with the business of taking a hit album and single on the road. Onwards and upwards and over to America, be damned, the country of origin for much, but not all, of ‘Virginia Plain’s imagery. One of the unexpected surprises of writing about VP over the past few months is the sheer depth and weight of its lyrical content – the five blog entries have totaled the same page count as that written for the first album Roxy Music. One song equaling one album! What a trip. And so it is fitting now to move on to the riches of ‘Pyjamarama’ and For Your Pleasure, as we arrive at the conclusion of our roller-coaster ride, destination reached, a place where Bryan Ferry, adopting the words of Bob Dylan, will make my stand/and remain as I am.Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 9.30.02 AMAnd you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
– ‘
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads/Eno)

Well, that highway could go something like this:

I: Make me a deal: The first verse presents the art project Roxy Music as they negotiate a music contract. As desperate as the band are to make the big time, the narrator reckons he may be making a deal with the devil. The verse cuts like a knife: make it/take it/show it/blow it.

II: What’s real and make belief: The journey kicks in, we lurch towards money, America, fame, and a walk with God. Don’t judge me or mess with my pride, the writer tells his Maker – isn’t it all just fiction anyway? The band hit the big time, leave Baby Jane in the dust and head for Rio. Take me/take me/take me.

III: Sinking fast: Enter teenage waste land for a hipster jive with fame. Take a trip to the dead desert for the Last Picture show; shake hands with dead and disposable rebels; drive in your mummified car and visit the ghosts of the sheer and the chic.  Trying/jiving/driving (drive-in).

IV: Reach For Something New: Shaking off the vibes from the previous verse, we now enjoy the view from mountain peak, enjoying exclusive access to those blue casino floors. Oh wow! We are characters in the Great Gatsby, reaching for something new. Burn those blue jeans, slaps on some lipstick and join the revolution. Me and you/just we two.

V: Far Beyond the Pale Horizon
Far beyond the pale horizon
Some place near the desert strand
And where my Studebaker takes me
That’s where I’ll make my stand but wait
Can’t you see that Holzer mane?
What’s her name, Virginia Plain?

Verse 5 is a consolidation of the ideas and images that have taken us to this mythical place beyond the pale horizon. By the journey’s conclusion, Ferry has shared his dreams (Americana, fame), influences (jazz, dance, cars), and fears (clutching at straws, sinking fast). The song serves as a psychological review of an artist’s state of mind as it becomes aware of a radical change brewing on the horizon.  Thankfully Ferry would continue this self-interrogation right through Roxy’s first five albums and beyond. The reason why ‘Virginia Plain’ is not cited as an example of meta-analysis in the same manner as, say, ‘Mother of Pearl’, is that the music is locomotive straight, lots of fun and catchy enough to captivate the ear on first listening without necessarily having to worry about the detail.

Eschewing a chorus in favor of a thrashing two-chord verse romp, ‘Virginia Plain’s forward moment is aided by a sentence structure that emphasizes the accents within each line. Look at the first three lines of each stanza and you see the repeating 8/7/8 pattern:

/           /     /     /    /      /      /            /
Make me a deal and make it straight [8]
All signed and sealed, I’ll take it [7]
To Robert E. Lee I’ll show it [8]

Take me on a roller coaster [8]
Take me for an airplane ride [7]
Take me for a six day wonder [8]

Throw me a line I’m sinking fast [8]
Clutching at straws can’t make it [7]
Havana sound we’re trying [8]

Flavours of the mountain streamline [8]
Midnight blue casino floors [7]
Dance the cha cha through till sunrise [8]

Far beyond the pale horizon [8]
Some place near the desert strand [7]
And where my Studebaker takes me [9]

Stanza five breaks the pattern for no reason other than “studebaker” is a bit of a mouthful! With this movement forward we eventually arrive at our destination, that mysterious place beyond the pale horizon. ‘Pale’ is an interesting word choice because being pale is to be without color: “lacking the usual intensity of color due to fear,” (Cambridge). To be beyond the pale is to “travel outside of a boundary. To leave behind all the rules and institutions of English society,” (Urbandictionary). The Irish origin of the word identifies The Pale as a geographical district for the well-heeled and educated; to live beyond The Pale was to be part of the lower social classes and, presumably, live among the uneducated and the Great Unwashed. Bryan Ferry, channeling his creative energies into a new style rock band, states his desire to seek out the new and leave polite society behind, break the chains of conformity, and live life on the edge with his new art. If this was biographical criticism then we have the coal-miner’s son trying to re-invent himself and leave behind his working-class background and origins. He takes us with him to party on the midnight blue casino floors and greet the pink flamingo morning,  onwards and outwards as the day brightens (pale horizon) and intensifies (desert strand). Tracing both the desire and distrust of fame, Roxy Music move beyond the pale horizon and land “some place near” the desert strand. And where my Studebaker takes me…Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 9.31.43 AMAcutely aware of the cruel nature of fame’s double-edged sword as lived by James Dean, Baby Jane, and Robert Johnson (he of devil-deal making) our singer/songwriter hero rides into the final scene of ‘Virginia Plain’ in his (un)trusty Studebaker, comically echoing the words of Bob Dylan and General Custer as he does so:  And where my Studebaker takes me/That’s where I’ll make my stand. Ferry is referencing Bob Dylan’s song ‘Restless Farewell’, the last track on the seminal album The Times They Are a-Changin (1964). The song was written by Dylan in anger in response to a newspaper article that he felt contained a number of hurtful comments and untruths. Dylan’s is a song of confession and moving on,  of saying, this is me, I’ve done my best, that’s all I can do, that’s how I am: Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time/To disgrace,/distract, and bother me/And the dirt of gossip blows into my face/So I’ll make my stand/And stay as I am. Ferry would have been well familiar with the song  – “[Dylan] brought poetry into pop music,” he told the Telegraph after completing an album of Dylan covers in 2007 – and the singer uses the sentiment to define his own professional modis operandi: remain as I am/bid farewell/not give a damn.

The problem for Ferry of course is that he does give a damn, and was sensitive to early criticisms of Roxy Music as a fake trumped-up band, dressing up, lacking talent, not paying dues.  At the time of ‘Virginia Plain’s composition, Ferry explained the criticism away as Roxy being an art-project first and a pop band second: “I came into pop music from a different angle. And a lot of people still resent me for it. That was one of the strengths and also the cross that I was sort of impaled on,” (Rogan, 44). This observation is written into the song as a statement of independence, echoing Bob Dylan’s make my stand/remain as I am. Years later the criticism continued and intensified. In 1978, Ferry, sporting an LA tan, mirror sunglasses and fashion-model girlfriend (Jerry Hall) experienced a ground-shift in his support base, and a deep suspicion was cast over his ability to speak – or have empathy with – his fans and ordinary people. At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee and the punk rock explosion, “entertainment” and artifice in rock and pop was under attack, as it had been when Roxy started out in 1971 during the earnest scraggly beard era. Authenticity was identified as political and class-based. Street-cred was everything. Even the best music writers were hard-core drug users (NME scribes Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray were heroin and meta-amphetamine addicts, respectively). Unfortunately, Ferry took the bait and errors in judgement was made. Scrambling for direction, the singer grew a beard to promote one of his best and toughest solo recordings, ‘Sign of the Times‘ – growing a beard in 1977/8 was like putting a sign on your head that read BORING OLD FART. Interviews with the singer were printed in a harsh unedited format that made you feel like you were eavesdropping on a Church confessional. In fact one article was actually called Darkness Falls: Ferry in the Confessional, and reads like ‘Virginia Plain’s deal with the devil had now gone all horribly wrong, and the song’s lost idols and ghosts were now closing in on the pop idol: “If people hate me, fuck them” he said. “I know how good I am, and as long as I have faith in myself, I’ll continue. And, as far as I’m concerned at the moment, everybody else can just go and fuck themselves” (Melody Maker, 1978). Markedly prophetic, the sentiment in ‘Virginia Plain’ is both open (where my Studebaker takes me) and defiant (That’s where I’ll make my stand). It is also forward looking (far beyond the pale horizon) and exciting (but wait). And then it posits that final question…custer
That’s where I make my stand… Battle of the Little Bighorn (The Custer Fight) by Charles Marion Russell

But wait…

There’s a wonderful moment in ‘Virginia Plain’ when Roxy Music asks us, the listener, if we are going to share in this new future:

And where my Studebaker takes me
That’s where I’ll make my stand but wait
Can’t you see that Holzer mane?
What’s her name, Virginia Plain?

One of the many gifts of Bryan Ferry’s song-craft is his belief in his art, and his willingness to share his most intimate feelings, joys, fears and inadequacies. For this he is on par with his heroes Bob Dylan and John Lennon, men who often stumbled in public but always strove to tell the truth as close as they could perceive it at the time. This level of self-interrogation takes guts and no shortage of humor to stay the course. Our hero rides into scene on his (untrusty) Studebaker to beat the critical insurgence coming from the South. In a quest for understanding, he turns to address his audience:

Can’t you see that Holzer mane?

Baby Jane Holzer, the signifier being her hair (not eyes or smile) but the appendage to which Warhol’s superstar is most famous for. Are you, the listener (just we two), seeing this as I do?

What’s her name, Virginia Plain?

The age old songs-about-women is both celebrated and undercut: undercut in that the mystery of the girl is never revealed in the song, nor mentioned at all in the romantic sense. This is not ‘Sweet Caroline’ as a mystery woman, or ‘Ruby’ as she takes her love to town, or even love object ‘Peggy Sue’.  This is a love story between singer and audience: Just as two flamingos look the same, me and you/just we too/got to reach for something new.  Do you see what I see, or more importantly, do you see how I see it? For I am everything that I hear, read and watch – I am the Great Gatsby; I am the Last Picture Show; I am the teenage rebel; I am the New York art scene in the 1960s; I am James Dean; I am a flight to Rio; I am Andy Warhol.

Just look at the surface of my paintings and films… And there I am.

maryln wink 2
Credits: Pete Townshend, Rolling Stone interview, 1968; Roxy Music promo and in the studio with Chris Thomas, 1972, More Dark Than Shark; Battle of the Little Bighorn (The Custer Fight) by Charles Marion Russell; Marilyn Munroe photographed by  Philippe Halsman.

Titbits

 

If Roxy Music never wrote a good song the rest of their careers, they still have that, and it’s great.
-John Lydon, interview, 2012


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Virginia Plain – Part 4

decoVirginia Plain – Part 1
Virginia Plain – Part 2
Virginia Plain – Part 3

‘Virginia Plain’ is a road movie song transported by car, plane, the imagination, and even the occasional roller-coaster. Its spirit and energy celebrates the spectacular growth in youth culture triggered in the 1950s and 60s, yet at its core the song mourns the past it replaces while being deeply suspicious of it. This delicious balance between celebration and anxiety, of reverence for the past and a mistrust of easy nostalgia, injected a freshness into the pop music scene in the summer of ’72. Promoting the single on Top of the Pops, the band presented themselves as collectors, hybrids of glitter, glam, Space Age 50s decadence, if there ever had been such a thing, and if there hadn’t been, there was such a thing now. Mining the past, the song builds on the music biz cliche of songs written about women: Barbara Ann; Gloria; Ruby; Peggy Sue. But who is Virginia Plain? – Baby Jane Hozer? The teenage rebel? The “you” in just we too? The guesswork is fun but the song denies the satisfaction of an easy answer. It teases. It winks. The tune rejects all effort to impose an over-riding interpretation onto its cool reflective surfaces. Indeed, there exists a deep thread of discomfort and warning within its grooves, a hand-wringing anguish that, like all the best narrative writing, starts with the personal and expands outwards to the Universal: even in his wild hybrid of pop culture images, Ferry is asking straight-forward questions we all can recognize: what are my life plans and goals; what does my life mean; what are my values and what is important to me.  ‘Virginia Plain’ marks a significant transition point between the gleeful thumb-your-nose experimentation of Roxy Music (72) and the darker more introspective hue of For Your Pleasure (73). Is it depressing? Goodness no – like all good road movies, the enjoyment is in the journey.

Our roller-coaster ride up to this point looks something like this:

I: Make me a deal: The first verse presents the art project Roxy Music as they negotiate a music contract. As desperate as the band are to make the big time, the narrator reckons he may be making a deal with the devil. The verse cuts like a knife: make it/take it/show it/blow it.

II: What’s real and make belief: The journey kicks in, we lurch towards money, America, fame, and a walk with God. Don’t judge me or mess with my pride, the writer tells his Maker – isn’t it all just fiction anyway? The band hit the big time, leave Baby Jane in the dust and head for Rio. Take me/take me/take me.

III: Sinking fast: Enter teenage waste land for a hipster jive with fame. Take a trip to the dead desert for the Last Picture show; shake hands with dead and disposable rebels; drive in your mummified car and visit the ghosts of the sheer and the chic.  Trying/jiving/driving (drive-in).

IV: Reach For Something New

Flavours of the mountain streamline
Midnight blue casino floors
Dance the cha cha through till sunrise
Opens up exclusive doors oh wow!
Just like flamingoes look the same
So me and you, just we two
Got to reach for something new

No longer sinking or clutching at straws, we sit now atop of a mountain, the multitude of fresh experiences flow like champagne down beyond the pale horizon. ‘Virginia Plane’ is at its most poetic here as Ferry shows us the view from the giddy peak. The words are designed to flow like champagne: mount/ain; stream/line; mid/night; sun/rise – the clipped emphasis propels us towards a soft landing: mountain streamline is a beauty, rolling effortlessly off the tongue, as luxurious as bubbly pouring into an open glass. Our destination is the midnight blue casino floor, an enviable place to visit by any account, and also a nod towards the jazz classic Midnight Blue by guitarist Kenny Burrell, the title track of which is a mid-tempo Latin groove. Name-checking Burrell’s lovely record keeps us close to ‘Virginia Plain’s Latin music sensibility – clearly as much a sign-post for Ferry as any American cultural source – wrapping us in an envelope of considerable expectation and warmth.

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I think audiences are quite comfortable watching something coming into being

– Brian Eno, interview, 1995

One of the striking aspects of ‘Virginia Plain’ is how the words and and music rub against against each other to create a sense of palpable excitement under a bed of lyrical uneasiness. Musically the beat is pure thrash (F#/C#/F#/C#/…) with no chorus to relieve the tension, while the words, giddy with excitement, deliver messages of loss and foreboding, blowing cactus across the dead towns that show dead movies starring dead celebrities. On the surface, Flavours of the mountain streamline is the lightest of the five stanzas – it’s pretty hard to beat quaffing champagne while en route to the casino! – and the stanza comes wrapped in a midnight blue moon glow, like a book jacket cover for a famous novel or classic jazz album. The blue color scheme is fortuitous: in literature the color blue is linked to consciousness and intellect, an introspective value associated with the blues, Blue Note, and of course that teeming bummer of a movie from the 80s, Betty Blue. In more recent times, the color is also associated with power brokering and Corporate culture. In art, it’s a primary cool color. In business, it’s the armor of lawyers and money men. (Don’t think color association works? Think of your favorite food in blue and you’ll see what we mean). Writers can strike an intended mood by selecting a particular color scheme – think yellow in this stanza and you get a sense of lightness and glitter perhaps, but it feels superficial and light. Red would be too much, too over-stated. Green doesn’t even rate. Blue has depth and shade, and also places us squarely in the hours of late evening, when the idle rich (ie, those privileged enough to not have to get up in the morning), come out to play. As we make our way to the casino in anticipation of a good party, we recognize the presence of a key Bryan Ferry literary influence: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his American fictional classic, the The Great Gatsby.

Published in 1925, seven years after the close of World War I, Gatsby portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. Works of art become “classic” in part for their ability to age well and speak to contemporary audiences over time. Gatsby held considerable weight in the 70s and the themes of the novel also ring true today, evidenced by the breakdown of industrial capitalism and its inability to look after the health and welfare of its underprivileged citizens. The albums Roxy Music made in the 70s used the style, mannerisms and themes of Fitzgerald’s novel as both experience lived (the endless pursuit of pleasure) and as a warning (In Every Dream Home, a Heartache). Indeed, Bryan Ferry has been so influenced by, and associated with, the Great Gatsby, that one critic was moved to ask, “Is Bryan Ferry the Real Gatsby?” And of course the singer contributed re-arranged Roxy and solo jazz covers to the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 flawed but entertaining film.

An early devotee of art and literature, Ferry has stated a life-long love of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The first novel that I really read for pleasure was “Gatsby.” At school we were always given, you know, “great books of famous literature.” I somehow discovered that myself and I said, “This is what I really want to study.” I love that book and all of his writing, actually (2013). For the song’s 4th verse, Ferry paints an exciting image of party-goers wrapped in sophistication and glamour – entry to those exclusive doors is by invitation only, and understandably, the mind of the coal-miner’s son is blown (oh wow!). The origins of the world we are entering here can be traced back to the deep influence Fitzgerald had on Ferry’s ideas and his obsession with style and decadence. The blue fever-dream of the Great Gatsby cover would have been burned into the retina of Ferry’s young imagination, and he successfully re-creates its themes in ‘Virginia’s Plain”s energetic mix of intoxication and fatalism. 

gatsby
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Painting sadness and decadence in equal measure,  the cover of the novel is still used on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut (!). Normally one would have to be specific about the edition and year of a cover to pin down an image or title that influences a generation, but not so in this case – indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of the story is that the cover was painted before the novel was completed, and that the picture actually influenced, or was used for, some of the scenes and images in the book. Painted by Spanish artist Francis Cugat for a $100, the image is built on a cobalt blue background, the sad gaze of another mystery woman (Daisy?), her face hovering over bright colors of city lights, good times and parties (oh wow!) but the look is sorrowful and sad, a nude body is the subject of the gaze, swirling, lost, against a tear that serves as an exclamation mark. In many Roxy songs, Ferry often replaces this female gaze for his own male point-of-view (‘Mother of Pearl’, ‘Beauty Queen’). Party-time wasting is indeed too much fun, and when one steps back to think of life’s inner meaning you may not like what you see. Here is Ferry quoting literary critic Cyril Connolly on F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in doing so he neatly sums up his own narrative style and approach: “‘His style sings of hope; his message is despair.’” (2014). In other words, ‘Virginia Plain’ in a nutshell.

When you mix color with the senses (flavours of the mountain streamline/Midnight blue casino floors) you have the effect known as synesthesia, the ability to taste sound, smell color, and other sensory phenomena as identified by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and every other pop song written in 1967. ‘Virginia Plain’s brand of psychedelia follows a color arc that leads us from dark to light, from midnight dance to post-party morning wakefulness (Dance the cha cha through till sunrise). Hangovers are felt, morning doors are flung open, and what do we see but the sun-hued visage of two pink flamingos:

Just like flamingoes look the same
So me and you, just we two
Got to reach for something new

The flamingos are presumably the spent party-goers (just we two) leaving their midnight cha cha romp in order to greet the sun-kissed dawn. A heightened romanticism is expressed in these lines as the beautiful dancers metaphorically represent the beauty, balance, and grace of the flamingos. You could also make an argument for the opposite, which would be to see the creatures as plastic, garden gnome variety suburban nightmares. Which would be true, and ironic and a great piece of pop art, but it’s a bit far-ahead of itself here, because we leave the puns and the color metaphors behind for a moment as Ferry strips down to the core question of the song and sings the next two lines from the heart, not the head: So me and you, just we two/Got to reach for something new.

These lines are as thrilling today as they were in 1972: we are the beautiful flamingos, young and full of potential, and we bring our music, dance, art, literature and fashion before you to usher in the new modern era. And the band are more than ready to give this moment the heft it needs to hit home. Listen in around the 2.00 min mark and you hear this “something new” presented in in the most dramatic musical terms: Ferry hammers out his C# piano chords like that train finally coming out of the tunnel; Phil Manzanera responds with clean guitar strikes, holding down the tension; Paul Thompson thrashes his skins in perfect timing to the guitar and piano, until at last all resistance gives way and modernity arrives in the form of – wait for it – Brian Eno’s synthesizer!

ems
The sound of the future
in ‘Virginia Plain’ is the sound of Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3 taking over the song at 2.12 to provide the best instrumental break in pop history (or of 1972 at least). Keen to answer the band’s call and response theatrics, Eno plays a four or five note scale refrain that is simple to the extreme but so full and thickly textured that it still sounds radical today. This would become one of the hallmarks of Eno’s brilliant solo career – the reward is in the texture and depth of the sound as much as the emotive beauty pulled from the uncomplicated chords and melodies.

It is no coincidence that the final lines of the stanza get such exciting musical attention.  Got to reach for something new is a break from the lyrical approach of the song; it breaks from mountains and champagne and casino floors and it breaks from the history of the previous verses with its concern with extinct cultures and forgotten matinee idols and last picture shows. The song yearns for a new future. But what is interesting is that there is no tidy conclusion as to what the future is, or what it should look like. During our art-rock journey we have rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, Marc Lancaster, James Dean, Peter Bogdanovich, the cast of the Factory, the jazz men of Havana Sound and many more, and so it would be safe to say that this cast of characters is the story of ‘Virginia Plain’. And this would be true enough, or at least as true as the me and you are the beautiful dancers waking to a new dawn. But me and you is also you and I dear reader, Ferry reaching out to you, the listener, with an invitation to come together with him to create meaning from our collective jumbled past and make something coherent and worthwhile of today, tomorrow, of this life. And don’t forget there is still that nagging “something” … something new is not the same thing as saying this is the new. Ferry is still reaching in the song, reaching for something not fully formed yet. And what is not formed is him, the man writing the song. As we leave stanza 4 and make our way towards the final installment of this masterpiece pop encyclopedia, I give the final words on this matter to the succinct writing of music critic Greil Marcus, speaking not only of Little Richard and Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley and Bryan Ferry and all those who have the drive to become famous, but speaking for us all:

You had to find something new. You had to listen to everything on the market and try to understand what wasn’t there – and what wasn’t there was you. So you asked yourself, as people have been asking themselves ever since, what’s different about me? Yes, you invent yourself to the point of stupidity, you give yourself a ridiculous new name, you appear in public in absurd clothes, you sing songs based on nursery rhymes or jokes or catchphrases or advertising slogans, and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too.

-Greil Marcus, History of Rock-n-Roll in Ten Songs, (2014).

Next, final Part 5, published June 2017

CreditsManhattan Hotel, Tokyo. A futuristic vision of Manhattan as if seen from the 1920’s, this Art Deco style mural is featured in the Anteroom of the Manhattan Hotel lobby. ©Copyright 2002-2004 Studio O.M.O; the cover of Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell, Blue Note Records; the cover of the Great Gatsby, painted by Spanish artist Francis Cugat; a picture of the EMS VCS3, taken from Brian Eno’s twitter feed, More Dark than Shark (https://twitter.com/dark_shark).

In Memoriam: To all the kids and families killed and hurt in Manchester, May 2017, and to those left behind – words fall short. We are so sorry for your loss.

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Virginia Plain – Part 3

last picture poster

So me and you, just we two
Got to reach for something new

On August 24th 1972 Roxy Music performed on Top of the Pops for the first time. Bryan Ferry later noted that writing a hit single was just an attempt “to meet Pan’s People.” (Pan’s People was the all-female dance troupe who appeared each week on the show). As usual the songs broadcast were a mixed bag; the good ones came in the form of Roxy, Mott the Hoople (‘All the Young Dudes’), Alice Cooper (‘School’s Out’), Hawkwind (‘Silver Machine‘), and, depending how you feel about these things, Slade’s ‘Mamma We’re All Crazy Now’ (low glam is invited to my party). The not-so-good included a band called Mardi Gras singing ‘Too Busy Thinking About My Baby’; Lindsey De Paul cheekily asking the audience to ‘Sugar Me’; Roberta Flack needing an answer to the question ‘Where is the Love?’ and a band called the Pearls laying down the worst song title ever with ‘You Came, You Saw, You Conquered’. The love songs are the duffs here; the better ones are all about rippin’ it up, tearing up school, frightening your mother half to death, or putting down your hippy brother for his Beatles and his Stones. Across the globe that same evening in 1972 Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night was recorded live at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Designed to scare absolutely no one, the record went double platinum. Los Angeles was a hot and humid 32C that evening. London had just endured two weeks of rain (even though it was peak summer). Two different brands of entertainment, two different worlds apart. It’s true Bryan Ferry did get to meet Pan’s People (not sure if Neil Diamond ever did) but as he played to the camera with his cinema sneer and his band of freaks played the car wreck glam that was ‘Virginia Plain’, he knew that ‘Sweet Caroline’ – as sunny as it was – contained its own broken myth, as fabricated and packaged as his own. In that cold London studio, Ferry was looking West, towards the heat and the sun, towards Hollywood and the twilight and the desert strand, and the view was blinding.

Sinking Fast – Verse 3

Throw me a line I’m sinking fast
Clutching at straws can’t make it
Havana sound we’re trying
Hard edge the hipster jiving
Last picture shows down the drive in
You’re so sheer you’re so chic
Teenage rebel of the week

At the end of the 2nd verse, the band is a force unto itself, flying to Rio to enjoy the spoils of their new found fame. Yet just as quickly desperation creeps back in: Throw me a line I’m sinking fast recalls the first stanza predicament of try try tryin’ to make make the big time.  Without reading too much into the song (too late!- Ed), Bryan Ferry’s famous vacillation and insecurity reveals itself here. The desperation is palpable: from the joys of meeting Baby Jane and flying to Rio, we are suddenly clutching at straws can’t make it. The song pulls in all directions, hedging its bets, switching from exuberance to dread, from joy ride to dead end, and back again. Havana sound is less a musical manifesto than something the band is trying. Not very flattering that, but it does point to the duality contained within the song: heaps of drive and ambition washed down with dollops of self-doubt. Or, at the very least, a sneaking suspicion that once achieved, attaining your goals may not be all it is cracked up to be. Nevertheless, Ferry reaches towards the New Thing, and the band are willing participants. With verve and gusto, ‘Virginia Plain’ name-checks Latin culture and dance crazes by the pound (Havana sound/Acacpulco/Rio/dance the ChaCha/hipster jiving) sourcing Latin/South American culture as much as it does its classic USA homages, and this aspect of the lyric that is rarely commented on.

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Jazz is an energetic and free music and the Cuban strain turned popular Latin dance forms into dance crazes such the Mambo and Chachacha. Ferry clearly loves the music, reveling in is energy and charm, but as ‘Virginia Plain’ bounces from exuberance to self-doubt and back again (throw me a line/sinking fast) the majority of the 3rd verse is distinctly skeptical in its outlook, though the catchy music and presentation do little to signal any change. Ferry takes it upon himself to undercut the pop-star dream myth by traveling – by car, by roller-coaster, by airplane  – into a hallucinatory mindscape of discarded artifacts and abandoned landscapes. This makes sense if we consider how young the band were and how new all of them were to making records and appearing on music shows like Top of the Pops. Being famous must be a keenly schizophrenic experience containing a multitude of contradictions that can only, as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke famously said, “seriously fuck up your head.”

The first album Roxy Music was an artifact of performances caught in time, living outside and beyond the life of its creators; so too was the pop single Ferry was composing and preparing to record in July 1972. Having worked on the album for so long, sweating over its recording and presentation, the band and LP was now ushered into the world as public property,  equally loved and mistrusted, praised and/or misunderstood. And on one level, this seemed to disturb Ferry a great deal, like it was creating an emotional hole in his psyche. Immediately after ‘Virginia Plain’ hit Top of the Pops in August 72, and before the recording of the 2nd album, For Your Pleasure in early 73 (less than five months), Ferry apparently went into a deep funk – as biographer Johnny Rogan observed: “his close friends indicate that Bryan went into a long period of introspection in late 1972, sitting alone and brooding in front of the TV, which always had the sound turned off” (Rogan). Without wanting to rub the elbows of conspiracy theorists, the darker subject matter of Pleasure would support the view of an isolated, brooding young man questioning what it all meant, and not at a trivial level. Take for example these lines from the masterpiece ‘Sunset’ (Stranded) written and recorded the following year:  Scenes like these from my dreams/Cover cutting-room floors all over. I turn my desires and dreams into art; art ensures a life after death; and for this and this alone will I be known into posterity. One last sigh of farewell, goodbye.  With his recording career and celebrity only just beginning, Ferry intuitively understood even at this early stage that his glam dreams would provide wealth and opportunity, but also contain a permanent record of his struggles, his disappointments, the youthful beauty of himself and the band caught in time, beyond life, on celluloid and record.  Look no further than David Bowie’s Blackstar for a fully realized example of an art-rock icon looking past his present moment and knowing he is recording all that will ever be left of him. (Woody Allen: ” I would trade that Oscar for one more second of life!“). Look too at Bryan Ferry’s last solo album Avonmore – the Dorian Grey cover portrait is a photo of a much younger Bryan Ferry, caught in (some) other time. Look at the cover and wonder if its a contemporary or historical shot, even though it is obviously not the physical portrait of a 70 year-old man; it is a picture of a constructed idol – one of our own choosing and composition. Alternatively, down here on planet Earth, we mere mortals, if we are lucky, are remembered by our dear family and friends (thankfully) while the famous are acutely aware that their mortal experience – all of the rot, brilliance, drugs, sex, indulgences, insights, inspiration, pettiness, lovers and lovers lost – will remain and entertain across time and generations. For Ferry, with his sensitive nature and the gifts of the poet, this ambition must have felt like he was making a pact with the devil, giving something essential of himself that, once freed, would never be his again. Make me a deal

robert johnston made a deal with the devil

Robert Johnson …making a deal with the devil.

Havana sound we’re trying
Hard edge the hipster jiving

If we recall our American history,  the Havana Cuban jazz sound was developed most fully during the long period of Cuban isolation:  in 1959 a Communist Revolution under the leadership of Fidel Castro took place. In retaliation, the U.S imposed a range of sanctions initially between 1960 and 1964, eventually including a total ban on trade between the countries that lasted for decades (and decades…). The result was enforced poverty and little communication or knowledge of the outside world. This created an odd cultural mix: many aspects of 50s Americana got stuck in time. Instead of James Bond and the Beatles, Cuban youth watched endless Rita Hayworth and Clark Cable films, and in doing so became entrenched in a 1940s form of glamour. To be sure, there was plenty of indigenous high-quality jazz and dance on tap, and the music maintained a vital force, but vitality mixed with ennui are the hallmarks here, like the effect of visiting Disneyland to see the Uncle Walt’s 1950’s version of Tomorrowland: no longer relevant, a snapshot of a bygone time when a better future was imagined but never materialized.

Selecting his images very carefully, Ferry introduces jazz obsessed old-time Havana into the song to draw attention to the band’s ambition and willingness to adopt styles. But Havana also provides a snap-shot of another interesting cultural phenomenon: struggling through the embargo, Cuba and its citizens kept thousands of old and aging classic American cars on the road.  True, there were a few Russian and Chinese imports available (Just Vote Red), but Cuba became a museum of Studebakers, Fords and old Plymouths, relics now of an age when the rich and famous partied in Havana before Communist rule. Even in 2017, with the death of Castro and cultural changes well underway, there is still estimated 60,000 pre-1959 American cars still driving through the streets of Cuba. In fact, tourists demand they be available and plentiful in order to get the “authentic” Havana experience. The cars are beautiful examples of automobile art, creatively maintained and mummified across generations, but the effect is ghostly, like history caught in time.

And where my Studebaker takes me:  the 1953 Studebaker Commander Starlight Coupe, Havana, Cuba; and Bryan Ferry‘s beloved Studebaker, circa 1950s.

This emergence an objective and personal past is palpable in ‘Virginia Plain’, like watching an old TV show unfold in front of you. Here the present moment is recorded and played back in our minds, much like cinema, as when we hear music and a memory is played within us that fills our vision and senses. With his interest in the inner workings of memory well established on Roxy Music (2HB/If There is Something hell, most of the first album), Ferry has some fun with the mummified car imprint by writing into the song yet another personal obsession: a name-check on his own pre-frame, student car (“always breaking down)” – that perennial Cuba Havana favorite, the 1950s Studebaker Commander Starlight. One of Ferry’s better qualities is his humor – often overlooked – and including your own precious youthful pose into your first single takes some level of honesty and self-deprecation!

So Cuba became a working museum for old American vintage cars and the band are trying to find their edge. Post-gig they hop in a car to go – where else – to the local drive-in:

Havana sound we’re trying
Hard edge the hipster jiving
Last picture shows down the drive in

You’re so sheer you’re so chic
Teenage rebel of the week

And what should be playing down but the American movie classic The Last Picture Show. Now, to a British kid in 1972 drive-ins would have been like visiting that 50s version of Tomorrowland, unearthly and out-of-reach, irrevocably tied to English idea of the American experience, or, the American teenage experience. (Not one to be undone, Bowie sets his Drive-in Saturday in the future as the aging ravers look back on old Mick Jagger videos to learn on how to do sex again. His name was always Buddy!).  The Brits didn’t have Drive-ins (poor weather, lack of cars due to the high cost of petrol; hard to watch a flick on your moped, etc), and they were also dying a slow death in America by 1972. The heyday of the drive-in theatre was actually twenty years earlier during the 1950s – you know where I’m going with this – when Americans began to move to the suburbs and everyone owned an automobile. And they loved their cars. Parents loved drive-ins because they could take their kids.  Teenagers loved them because of the privacy they gave them and their dates.  It was the beginning of a real and enduring (ultimately destructive) car culture, as demonstrated in the terrors of the open road (Hitchcock’s Psycho); fast food culture (McDonalds) and a developing business model that recognized and capitalized on the profit possibilities of teen culture.

As we saw with Roxy Music track Would You Believe?, the early 70s saw a blaze of interest in 1950s culture and style, probably most famously represented in the 1973 release American Graffiti, an early global smash for George Lucas. This was cars, girls, drive-ins, and rock n’ roll done to the max, a celebratory, non-critical look at American teen culture. Alternatively, only a few short years before American Graffiti, Peter Bogdanovich shot and released The Last Picture Show in 1971. A stunning and mournful black and white film, Picture Show was the polar opposite to Graffiti, focusing on a declining Texas small-town that, according to the film’s poster,  declared it as “the picture show that introduced America to the forgotten 50’s.” The kids who cling to the town try to find solace and escape from boredom in lost dreams, drinking, sex and the cinema. (Sound familiar?). The overall feeling of Last Picture Show is loss, wasted and/or expelled energy, thwarted youth. Cinema captures the present moment and embalms it, presenting itself and its subject as nostalgia and entertainment, just like those mummified Cuban Studebakers. How then to move to something new? This is one of the central issues Ferry is dealing with in ‘Virginia Plain’ as he reaches for new ways to express surprise and interest knowing that he and his generation are early proponents and translators of modern irony, mashing together the old and the new, but not necessarily feeling comfortable about the process. Ferry loves the glamour, but is wary of its power to entrance and corrupt.

You’re so sheer you’re so chic
Teenage rebel of the week

You’re so sheer you’re so chic is sung through clenched teeth. True, the alliteration (shh/chh) contributes to the effect. This does not suggest that the song is high-strung, or unpleasant – quite the opposite – but there is ironic distance here and it develops a wallop of a punchline. Bring together the various threads – Andy Warhol’s infatuation with surfaces (Just look at the surface of my paintings and films…and there I am. There’s nothing behind it); the New York lofts and pop art statements (Richard Hamilton, Mark Lancaster, David Bailey); the world of advertising and Virginia cigarettes, billboards, packaging and paintings – and we see clearly a song that is infatuated with the world of surface, image and style. ‘Virginia Plain’ has been correctly celebrated as a Glam Manifesto, an homage to money, dreams, fame, fun, music, youth. But as the youthful hordes fumble their way to the drive-in in anticipation of cheap thrills with cars, girls and monsters, they are instead presented with the Last Picture show, a re-telling of their own story played back to them, capturing their No Future experience in the American out-back, where teenage worth is valued entirely as commodity: check out a thesaurus for sheer and you arrive at “simple”/”scant”/”shameless”; push in the same direction for chic and you are left with “stupid”/”fad”/”novelty”. No wonder Ferry sings through clenched teeth – simple stupid thing, he hisses. Shameless fad. Scant novelty. Interviewing him at his flat in late 72, Caroline Coon noted several framed pictures of famous women hanging on Ferry’s wall – Marilyn Monroe, the actress Kay Kendall – both dead, both dying tragically young. And then the Teenage Rebel of the week enters the frame, and his fate is no better.

james dean

When ‘Virginia Plain’ was presented on record and on television in August 1972 it struck a chord with the future stars of tomorrow (John Lydon, Steve Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, Bono, John Taylor, Morrissey) by showing them a world of glamour, fame, fun and endless potential. And they took to it, and they themselves changed many vacant lives five short years later. But far from being these “little images and throwaway lines” (as Ferry put it) the song radiates an intense heat and a suspicion of the very goals it purports to be chasing. From sinking fast to clutching at straws, to dead cultures and dead superstars, the fame-game is questioned, the value of art on a personal level is interrogated. In this road trip we move irrevocably towards For Your Pleasure and the mountain streamline, three verses in now and more to come, the final stanzas primed, ready to reveal some of the best poetry and music Roxy Music ever produced.

Oh, we knew how good it was even as we recorded it
-Phil Manzanera, interview, 2014

[It was] a bid to get on Top of the Pops, actually, just a way to get to meet Pan’s People.
-Bryan Ferry, interview, 1972 (Rigby)

Part 4 of 4 – early May/2017

Credits: Last Picture Show movie poster; Havana dance festival; one of the only known pictures of Robert Johnson; Havana and Byran Ferry Studebakers; actress Kay Kendall; Robbie the Robot/Marilyn from Richard Hamilton, 1956 exhibition This is Tomorrow; Drive-in movie composite; James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause movie poster; Phil Manzanera’s sigature guitar, the 1964 ‘Cardinal Red’ Gibson Firebird VII; Havana club poster; Roxy ’72.

Titbits

The White Album. The group of teachers and artists Bryan Ferry studied with is unprecedented. Roxy Music was an art project that provided exciting careers in the new medium of pop music. Them heavy people Richard Hamilton, Marc Lancaster, Tim Head and Nick de Ville influenced Ferry both as part of the Roxy and solo aesthetic. Ferry studied fine art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1964–68 under Richard Hamilton for a year. Imagine being at school when teacher Hamilton comes back from designing the cover for The Beatles (The White Album).

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 7.48.10 AMOliver Whawell, sax and oboe player for the excellent Roxy tribute band Roxy Musique, put much love, time and effort into compiling a Roxy Music top 50 poll. Great fun to read, check out the fascinating results at http://www.roxymusique.com/single-post/2017/02/22/Roxy-Musics-Top-50-Songs. Share the love and share the link!