For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s


Leave a comment

Do The Strand – Part 1

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 7.36.21 AM

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.


3 Comments

Pyjamarama

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 8.27.51 PM

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?

Screen Shot 2017-08-05 at 2.41.54 PM

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


Leave a comment

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


Leave a comment

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 10.55.51 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 1.47.59 PM


Leave a comment

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 9.23.14 AM

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!


Leave a comment

Virginia Plain – Part 2

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-10-43-26-pm

Just look at the surface of my paintings and films…and there I am. There’s nothing behind it
-Andy Warhol, interview, 1967


To title a song is to give it the promise of mystery
. ‘You’re So Vain’ immediately begs the question, Who’s so vain? Who is she talking about?  (Warren Beatty, obviously). The Stones sang ‘Ruby Tuesday’ but who is she, really? And what about the doomed boyfriend singing ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’  Doesn’t she know already? And – hate to ask – why is his car bursting into flames? And so on. Naming a song after a woman is at once a great music cliche and an invitation to mystery, a mystery that Bryan Ferry had been thinking about since his first year at Newcastle University in 1964.

Before a song had been written, a band formed, or music being thought seriously as a potential career, Bryan Ferry painted Virginia Plain.

vp-paint-3
It was a watercolor or a painting on paper. It was just like a surreal drawing of a giant cigarette packet, with a pin-up girl on it. I liked that phrase Virginia Plain…so it later became the title of the first single I put out with Roxy Music – with a slightly imponderable lyric…

-Bryan Ferry, interview, Bracewell.

With the old painting on his mind, Ferry moved towards a new vehicle or mode of expression that he could hang impressions on and indulge his interests and influences in art, music, theater, pop culture, and design, and, what the hell, even get a bit of  money, pleasure, and sex.  Luckily for Ferry, this way forward was already embedded in the band’s collective DNA: Key members of Roxy were art school heavy-hitters, the front line of Ferry, Mackay and Eno would have had exceptional avant-garde careers no matter what media they worked in. Andy Mackay studied at Reading Art School, where he was exposed to major modern composers such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, as well as Joseph Beuys, the Dadaists; and Brian Eno went to Winchester School of Art where he studied beyond art, into cybernetics, Cage and Riley, Tom Phillips and more, all under the guidance of University innovator Roy Ascott. Armed with his own extended training and experience from Newcastle School of Art, Ferry created with Mackay and Eno a hot-bed of possibilities in a pretty sexed up and hungry environment.

London’s curious blend of promiscuity and conformity was, by the end of the 60s, ground in a willingness to please (though not necessarily behave). In contrast, an overlooked influence on Roxy is the don’t-give-a-fuck decadence of New York and Andy Warhol’s Factory,  with its cast of Superstars, bohemian and counterculture street artists and survivors that included Nico, Joe Dallesandro, Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Ultra Violet, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, and Candy Darling. The Superstars had the art, the decadence and the hard drugs, and within this package (with the New York Dolls not far behind) was the fulfillment of a certain “seediness” that Roxy Music would incorporate.

nyc new year eve
I saw Bryan’s songs in the context of pop art…That was the period when pop music became self-conscious, in the sense that it started to look at its own history as material that could be used. We wanted to say, ‘We know we’re working in pop music, we know there’s a history to it and we know it’s a showbiz game.’ And knowing all that, we’re still going to try to do something new.

-Brian Eno, interview, 2001

After the success of the first Roxy Music album, the band recognized they could take the pop-art manifesto one step further. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had a no-singles, no-Top of the Pops scorched earth policy, but Roxy understood that singles were a different form, and had a potentially different and wider audience than the LPs. Besides, the pop-art movement did not distinguish between high and low art (a critical concept), and so the singles market was up for grabs: “I think a single is necessary,” said Ferry in the summer of 1972. “Most of the best things in pop have been done in that medium.” A favourite single was Leader of the Pack by the The Shangri-Las, a teenage tragedy song that was referenced in ‘Virginia Plain’ viz ve the sound of reving motor bikes (legend had the Shangri-Las recording their motorbike in a hotel lobby, while Roxy hung a tape reel-to-reel outside Command Studios at Piccadilly Circus). Ferry would have been drawn to the the narrative story-telling of the song (I met him at the candy store/He turned and smiled at me/You get the picture), not to mention great internal dynamics and yet even more car accidents (look out! look out! look out! CRASH). Ferry understood that singles were min-adventures that advertised and sold the artist, entertained the listener, and told complete stories in one affordable package.  Singles were a given for Roxy Music and a shot of hyper pop-art in the charts would seal the deal.

Is she really going out with him?

Joe Jackson (Album and single, Is She Really Going Out With Him)
The Shangri-Las (
Album and single, Leader of the Pack)
The Damned (
Single, New Rose)

Make Me a Deal – verses 1 &2

Make me a deal and make it straight
All signed and sealed, I’ll take it
To Robert E. Lee I’ll show it
I hope and pray he don’t blow it ’cause
We’ve been around a long time
Just try try try try tryin’ to make make the big time

Take me on a roller coaster
Take me for an airplane ride
Take me for a six day wonder
But don’t you throw don’t you throw my pride aside besides
What’s real and make believe?
Baby Jane’s in Acapulco
We’re all flying down to Rio

Forces were afoot in 1972. Bowie was hungry (I could do with the money/I’m so wiped out with things as they are), and Roxy Music were asking for a straight deal, signed and sealed no less (We’ve been around a long time/Just try try try try tryin’ to make make the big time).  While the desperation is genuine (Manzanera had been working at a travel agency the previous year), the tongue is firmly in cheek. The band were critical darlings, sure, but the  press (Melody Maker) and TV (Old Grey Whistle Test) mocked the band’s easy ride to fame and their perceived lack of paying dues. Yet from the band’s perspective1 the idea of rock music and stage presentation as being serious or reverent was all wrong. Somewhere along the line it had been forgotten that rock was dressed-up entertainment, Jerry Lee Lewis bombast, Elvis Presley hip-shaking. At one concert, a disgruntled fan demanded the group get on with it and play some rock n’ roll. Ferry replied: “we are Rock ‘n Roll!”  Moreover, the criticism that the band had had an easy ride is dismissible if we consider the 100 or more concerts performed by the group in 1972 alone…Surely the grind of making the big time is the sound of Eno try try tryin’ to run his synth off a cliff 36 seconds into the song! The irony is that by the time ‘Virginia Plain’ was recorded and performed on Top of the Pops, the lyric was already a historical artifact, the deal signed and the big time arrived, fully formed.

rio

The sound of ‘Virginia Plain’ is the sound of a musical locomotive racing through a dark tunnel.  Listen to the first 15 seconds of the song and you can hear the approaching train, Phil Manzanera’s guitar-treated notes providing the get-outta-the-way warning. Roxy Music producer Pete Sinfield observed: Bryan was playing eights in the studio as he was wont to do. He said, ‘I can hear this bass part going braaam like a train.’ Then he launched into these wonderful lyrics. It was obviously more catchy than anything on the album.

The song crashes out of the tunnel
with Ferry’s fever dream spilling past with impressionistic cool and verve. Make me a deal/Make it straight he insists, the band riffing behind him on synth and guitar in the key of  F#. According to Shubart’s Emotions of the Musical Keys, the key of F# holds the characteristic of Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted. ‘Virginia Plain’ does feel triumphant: the approaching guitar-treated train whistles gives way to a sudden burst of synth, bass and drums that drives the beat and comes in so unexpectedly that it took many disk jockeys and most listeners by surprise. “This day and age when you think of singles, they have the formula perfected,” Phil Manzanera said in 2014.  “Straight into the chorus for the beginning, play the hook, quick verse, back to chorus, repeat until fade. There was none of that with Virginia Plain.

The dream of ‘Virginia Plain’ is the dream of showbiz America, of cultural Americana and its historical and artistic freedoms. The punning coherence of the song’s many surfaces reflects in all directions: the young band looking for a deal, name-checking and taking the document to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Northern Virginia Civil War general. But the reference boomerangs back and we find ourselves eavesdropping on the current state of the band – the reader of the document will be, in fact, Roxy Music lawyer Robert Lee. The “E” was added by Ferry as British lawyers are unable to advertise, in addition to being a nice pun on the said General Robert E. Lee – which, in turn is a joke about making a deal with the “devil” – Just try try try tryin’ to make make the big time. The hero of the South who lost the war. Hope he don’t blow it, indeed.

Was there ever a hit single with an oboe in it? I don’t know. But I think the feeling was there should be. No other band at the time seemed to have one.

-Phil Manzanera, to Mick Wall, 2014

Andy Mackay talks up a mile on ‘Virginia Plain’, adding color to the driving beat with his oboe chirping like a parakeet swinging on his shoulder, jabbing quick note bursts, short lines, repeated notes. It’s a marvelous, energetic performance, and must have knocked the wind out of him during live shows. Here the Roxy factor plays out once again with its inclusion of saxophone and oboe as a front-line instrument. In Disc, Caroline Boucher observed: Andy is unusual in that he is a classically trained oboe player. There aren’t many oboe players in the rock field, probably because it’s the most difficult woodwind instrument. We can assume the real reason is early 70s rock aesthetics – hard to picture Jimmy Page grinding out a power chord with an chirping oboe sitting atop his bottle of Jack Daniels.

‘Virginia Plain’ is all journeys and invitations.  We move from train to roller-coaster to airplane, and then God steps in to provide our hero with a six day wonder (according to the Book of Genesis, God created the world in six days flat and took a breather on the seventh). The ultimate trip, one would imagine, with God being deemed a suitable and worthy escort for this particular Northern English proto-celebrity. At the time of the song’s composition Ferry was a hair short of full blown fame, but that didn’t matter one wit as the hand-wringing and self-doubt he would manifest over the years was already there is spades. Don’t you throw don’t you throw my pride aside he tells his Maker, before getting in a spectacular dig with the core question of the song: besides/What’s real and make belief? Question my journey, hurt my pride, and I’ll interrogate your very existence. If Robert E. Lee is the Devil, then Ferry introduces the modern phenomenon Celebrity as a societal replacement for God (a favourite Ferry subject; with more to follow in  Psalm and In Every Dream Home a Heartache). There is a sadness to the realization, to be sure, which becomes more acute as Ferry becomes one of the celebrity Gods himself searching for an emotional connection in a desensitized glamour-soaked world. In the end, the heavy questions are set aside, frivolity wins the day, with clever clipped internal rhymes (pr-ide/as-ide/bes-ides), puns (“A side”/”B side”), and the singer simply shrugs and re-joins the party: We’re all flying down to Rio (!)

Take me for a six day wonder
But don’t you throw don’t you throw my pride aside besides
What’s real and make believe?
Baby Jane’s in Acapulco
We’re all flying down to Rio

And so at the mention of Baby Jane, we enter the temple of Warhol, one of the original artists to recognize the importance of surfaces and the collision of art, pop, society, religion and fame. ‘Virginia Plain’ name-checks Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer not once but twice (Baby Jane’s in Acapulco/Can’t you see that Holzer mane?). The reasons are compelling: Holzer was a high society lady and a famous fashion model in her own right before she met Warhol and became one of his early Factory ‘Superstars’.  Baby Jane helped coin a hip 60s lexicon, making popular such Austin Powers phrases such as  ‘super marvelous’ and ‘switched-on’ but left the Factory when the madness became too great (i.e. when Warhol was shot, near fatally). Ferry chose Baby Jane for her beauty, surface coolness, and success in the fashion world and, cheekily, saw the fun in possibility of creating a narrative fictional heroine (nee Virginia Plain/”plain Jane”) that would have a real-life correlative with a known super star. But it is more useful to think of Jane – and cigarette packages and student paintings – as surface clues to the mindset of the author as he grappled with the problem of how to present his slightly embarrassing youthful dreams (stardom, glamour, money) in a meaningful and honest way, while still being entertaining and fun and not being too literal, or, horror of horrors, naturalistic.

A few years before Roxy, Ferry had been trying to capture his obsession in lyric poetry, but the attempts were too earnest, purple and stilted. Here is his early attempt at writing ‘Virginia Plain’ as a piece of love poetry:

Serene she stands
– a monument
on this horizon

she’s on her own
so fair and sweet
that pure
Virginia Plain

You can feel the strain here (a monument /on this horizon/so fair and sweet) it feels like the Queen’s speech at Christmas or Hardy’s Tess of the d’urbervilles. This is the challenge of writing as an art form: get too specific or too earnest and you get too boring. Smash it up a bit though, create a fresh angle into the story or image, and you are really onto something, something more intense or interesting than the original image itself. Ferry soon realized this and in doing so quickly became a sublime writer, merging narrative distance and technique into a very satisfying musical package. Take for instance the distancing effect we saw used in Re-Make/Re-Model where the image of a beautiful girl is expressed in recollection, not as, say, you and I might write it, in shimmering eyes of blue, but rather as the license plate CPL593H, which is the memory trigger of the moment he sees her. This Romantic idea of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Wordsworth) is considered to be a more truthful attempt at getting to the heart of the matter, the way a smell brings back the memory of a youthful love affair, or a oddly framed picture tells you more about the moment than any royal portrait ever could. See here she comes, see what I mean?/C P L 5 9 3H! Yeah Bryan, we see what you mean.

ferry-72
Roxy Music explored and incorporated early postmodern techniques
before the term had ever been seriously applied to pop music. Name-checking a Warhol Superstar in a pop single enabled Ferry to state his artistic intent and allegiances while still playing up the mystery at the heart of the song, who is ‘Virginia Plain’. The writing of the song, Ferry told Caroline Boucher in September 1972, was influenced by “the whole early Warhol movement of the time – of wanting to have a huge studio an live in New York. The face of the girl in my painting was based on one of Warhol’s stars at the time, Baby Jane Holzer.” Fortuitously, one of Ferry’s close friends at art school,  Mark Lancaster  had gone to New York on Richard Hamilton’s recommendation, to record the art scene there and experience the new modern ideas. Lancaster was lucky enough to work as an assistant to Warhol, and met and photographed Roy LichtensteinFrank Stella,  Frank O’HaraHelen FrankenthalerNorman Mailer and many others. He brought his New York photographs back to England (this was at a time when art news from New York was hard to come by), giving a “New York” lecture and slide show with music to Ferry and his fellow Newcastle students:

Back in Newcastle I put together a slide show for the school, with all the things I had photographed in New York, and music like that at the Factory, such as Lesley Gore singing It’s My Party, and ending with the taxi sequence with Moon River playing, because it reminded me, like all of New York in 1964, of Breakfast at Tiffanys.  Images from America were still pretty rare, and some of the students, including my friends Stephen Buckley and Bryan Ferry, were impressed and affected by this experience. I remember I was just trying to keep the projector and the record player going and trying not to cry.

-Mark Lancaster, Interview, 2004

As excited and impressed by the information as he was, Ferry closes the verse with a joke at the expense of his New York cultural heroes: Baby Jane’s in Acapulco, says our narrator, calling up images of airplanes and sexy getaways (air travel was rare for the working class in the early 70s and a very glamorous idea at that), but not content to be mere Warhol copies or hangers-on, Roxy decide instead of going to Acapulco with Baby Jane and Co, they’ll jet-set to their own sparkling destination – We’re all flying down to Rio! And they certainly did. 

There were all kinds of popular culture references embedded in Roxy — the way Bryan used clichés in the lyrics which turn in on themselves, that’s very pop art. Those lyrics are very abstract in a way. They seem like they’re about something but they aren’t reflexive. They are about their own condition an awful lot: ‘I’ve got this problem. I’m writing this pop song’.

-Nick De Ville, interview, Bracewell

Part 3 here.

Titbits

Secret 7″ is a charity auction of 7 album covers designed by a range of designers and illustrators. Exhibited at Mother London, the charity event raised money for War Child, an organization that Brian Eno and many other generous people have supported. Our favorites, unsurprisingly, come from the batch submitted for Roxy Music – ‘Virginia Plain’.

 


Leave a comment

Virginia Plain – Part 1

baby-jane-holzer-david-bailey

Virginia Plain (1972)
Virginia Plain (Peel Session, July, 1972)
Virginia Plain (Top of the Pops, August 1972)

When David Bowie held a Ziggy Stardust press conference at the Dorchester Hotel late summer 1972, the only record he allowed to be played other than his own was Virginia Plain. While this may be urban myth – Bowie was notoriously competitive – it does signal the weight the new Roxy Machine was harnessing after the release of Roxy Music in June 1972. NME raved: “Altogether this is the finest album I’ve heard this year, and the best first I can EVER remember”. “Roxy Music are destined to save the world,” said Melody Maker‘s Richard Williams with only little understatement;  “This band will be a monster,” said Disc, and so it goes. The band performed over 70 concerts in the second half of 1972 – and this pace only accelerated with the release of the single ‘Virginia Plain’ and the band’s first appearance on Top of the Pops in August.


The previous two years hard work had handsomely paid off: the album was an instant hit and the band were looking to extend their success with accelerated touring. In the interim, Roxy Music co-founder and bass player Graham Simpson had become withdrawn and difficult to work with, and at an important Sounds of the Seventies show (a “big deal” for the band) Graham would not, or could not, play a note. He departed Roxy after recording the album, and was replaced by Rik Kenton who picked up the 4-string, toured with the band and recorded ‘Virginia Plain’ at Command studios several months later. Another early Roxy casualty was Brian Eno: although a committed group member, he developed a dislike for touring and the rock routine, for poor sound environments and questionable blunders by management (trying to crack the US market). Though still enjoying the attention (and girls), Eno would leave Roxy less than a year later and never tour with a band (or virtually anyone else) again for the rest of his career.

Yet during the Glam Summer of 1972 (Bolan, Bowie, and Roxy), with new bass player Rik Kenton on-board, the creative and artistic opportunities for delivering exciting pop-art product were there for the taking. The trendsetting Roxy Music had made its point about glam, style, kitsch, art and pop culture (and saving the world) and now was the time to capitalize on those wins with a cross-over into a truly massive pop art audience  – the Great British Public, a good quarter of the population, 15 million viewers, of whom watched Top of the Pops each week.

We had just released the first Roxy Music album and the record company (Island Records) seemed as surprised as we were by its amazing instant success.

Their only problem was that there was no single there – so they asked me if I had any other songs knocking about. I did have an unfinished song lying around called Virginia Plain, which we quickly recorded at Command studios in Piccadilly and this seemed to do the trick. I vividly remember our roadie driving up and down Piccadilly outside the studio as we tried to record the sound of his motorbike.

The song itself was based on a painting I had done a few years before while I was an art student at Newcastle University. I was interested in stream of consciousness writing, and since the songs on the first album hadn’t been very wordy, I felt it was time for a bit of verbal dexterity.

I suppose nowadays any song with this title would be banned.

-BF, commentary, 2009

In the modernist, Joycean sense, what Ferry created wasn’t stream-of-consciousness, but a structured and punning coherence aimed at the gut and the head. The story he tells (sells) us is a picture of his pre-fame self, alone in his room,  imagining a life beyond Newcastle, a life of American cars and girls, travel and sex, stardom and glamour: So me and you, just we two/Got to reach for something new..
big-vp
The Roxy Music invitation is a invitation to enjoy the good life, to inherit (hopefully without too much effort) the gift of youth and good art and great conversation with everyone who inhabits this interesting and exciting club. Pretty exclusive, true, but if you play your cards right (and buy the album) the group promise to take you with them for the ride. That is one of the best invitations going in rock music: better than a coked-up weekend with Oasis, better than a front row seat at a private Radiohead concert. With ‘Virginia Plain’, the band kick in with energy and service the lyrical dexterity with spirited musical performances that are both catchy and unique: whispering intro; sand-blast opening (Make me a deal); sans chorus, sans hook; a parakeet pretending to be an oboe; ray-guns; motorcycles. (Just kidding about the ray-guns).screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-12-18-02-pmCatchy yes, and stylish as hell. The performance on Top of the Pops is career-defining, as was Bowie’s a month before with ‘Starman’ and his boys keep swinging moment. Both appearances coming so close together it was like a coordinated art happening, and it worked, launching the thinking man’s Glam, leaving Mud, Sweet, Slade, and the rest of the Nicky Chinn/Mike Chapman stable looking for new sound gimmicks. (The Glitter Band’s zoot suit sax was pretty nifty tho). Considering the nerves and inexperience of the band, Ferry’s performance is absolutely masterful, steering the group with his stilted sneer and his pop-art poem, he rips into the first verse without flinching and delivers a Glam Manifesto.

Was there ever a hit single with an oboe in it? I don’t know. But I think the feeling was there should be. No other band at the time seemed to have one.

-Phil Manzanera, to Mick Wall, 2014

Part 2 here.

Credits: “Baby” Jane Holzer photographed by David Bailey, capture Alfredo Garcia; breaking Roxy in America poster, Reprise Records; Virginia Plain single cover, Netherlands; clockwise, BF TOTP, Command Studios building exterior (today), Virginia Plain single cover, UK; inspirational cigarette package, Virginia Plains; Bryan Ferry original painting, capture Brian Eno twitter; clockwise, Richard Hamilton, Fashion Plate, The Tate Gallery, 69-70; Brian Eno mask; Phil Manzanera mask; below – Bowie, Diamond Dogs; photo Jimmy King.

Titbits

Bowie’s all over this one as it’s more or less the one year anniversary of his death. The Bowie and Roxy story are inexorably linked; in style, approach, mannerisms, background, ambition. You feel him right at the beginning, at The Dorchester Hotel with the press allowing only ‘Virginia Plain’ to interrupt his looping Ziggy Stardust. Fat chance. He actually also puts on the newly recorded Mott the Hoople album for Charles Shaar Murray, and Lou Reed comes over as Mott’s version of ‘Sweet Jane’ wraps (“the best Mott I’ve heard” says Murray). This is the afternoon of Bowie’s three costume changes (he’s meeting the press silly); of tough-nut Lou Reed straight in from the streets of New York, recording Transformer with Bowie; of little mad-dog Iggy Pop swinging between them both, wearing a T-Rex tee-shirt and grinning as Mick Rock takes the snaps. There he is again, a mirror reflection, back at you and upside down, for as Ferry reaches upwards, So me and you, just we two/Got to reach for something new,  Bowie does the opposite and takes a dive –  We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/Then jump in the river holding hands. Both are images of city love, Romantic love, hopeful yet corrupt.

And there he is again, final photographs taken by a friend, close to home now, looking snappy and free, and happy.  RIP DB.

david-bowie-a-435