For Your Pleasure

A song-by-song analysis of the lyrics and music of Roxy Music and the solo work of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera in the 1970s


4 Comments

Street Life – Part 3

Street Life – Part 1
Street Life – Part 2
Street Life (1973)

I. The Prince Charming of Sleaze

It was with a swift one-two punch that the Roxy machine delivered their latest single to the UK’s massive television audience:  “the ideological wing of the movement, Roxy Music stunned the Top of the Pops audience with a hyper-intense lip synch of their manic hit ‘Street Life’ …” recalled Glam-fan Jon Savage. Yet if you were watching carefully, you would notice competing tensions both in the music and in the image: Ferry had dropped the glitz and glitter and medallions of ‘Virginia Plain‘ and ‘Pyjamarama‘ and was dressed instead in a non-glam white tuxedo, finger-clicking with an insolent and disaffected swagger, like he was singing in the shower, or running through a set-list he knew would blow the audience to smithereens. The finger-clicks provided the intentional reproduction of a pop cliche, the idea that fashion was comprised of a set of ritualistic motifs, recognizable and identifiable, and therefore reproducible. In this Ferry beat David Bowie‘s ‘Fashion‘ by six years, and the idea was important enough that Ferry produced an entire song of finger-clicking menace, ‘The In-Crowd‘ (spending cash, talking trash!), a song that provided the singer with his next (solo) Top 20 hit in June 1974, six short months later.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now I’m blinded I can really see, yeah
No more bright lights confusing me, no

Don’t ask me why I’m feeling blue
Because loving you is all I can doooo

Hey good-looking boys gather around
The sidewalk papers gutter-press you down
All those lies can be so unkind
They can make you feel like you’re losing your mind

Street life, Street life, Street life, What a life
Street life, Street life, Street life, That’s the life

We knew that you had to try to be different after every album.
Phil Manzanera

“For the Roxy Music tour that Autumn,” wrote Simon Puxley, writing Bryan Ferry’s 1976 biography – straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were – “Bryan wore a white tuxedo and bow tie sartorial elegance at its most refined.” The tux was met with little fanfare at the first concert of the Stranded tour, on October 14 in Bath, England. NME scribe Nick Kent attended a show a few weeks later and was unimpressed, declaring that Ferry had stolen the tux from the “dead body of Johnny Ace…” 

Long gone is the old snake-eyed armadillo glamour: Bryan Ferry ’74 is a whole different barrel of monkeys, one minute crooning like a dissipated lead from The Desert Song, the next sashaying across the stage like El Supremo, the Prince Charming of Sleaze. And the real clincher is – he’s the first real rock ‘n’ roll star you could ever imagine regularly playing Russian Roulette alone in his hotel room after a gig.

Nick Kent

“We had to change – all those glitter groups sprung up and debased the look,” explained Ferry, responding to the glam-scene he saw around him, one that Roxy had influenced,Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 6.21.09 PM shaped, and ultimately, with the release of Stranded, rejected. The black boa-feathers and glitter of the Brian Eno-era was gone: “I mean, I felt we had to drop all the overt glamour image mainly because all these other groups were starting to jump on the band-wagon and blow it out of all proportion.” Adding, tellingly, “Now, for me, it’s the Casablanca look, which I feel much better in anyway.” (Balfour).

In this regard ‘Street Life’ serves as an advertisement for the return of a new Roxy Music, a brand aimed at the demographically young and hip, audiences with disposable income for clothes, make-up, (Roxy) records and (Roxy) concerts. Keen to continue fulfilling the promise of “all styles served here,” Stranded arrived in new luxurious packaging and was presented as a new kind of Roxy movie. Back in the saddle was the same team that brought you the previous two successful albums – “Roxy Hair” by Smile; Fashion by Antony Price; Cover Design by Nicolas de Ville; Majordomo (whatever that is) did something; the Roxy gal was back, as was the reliable yet slightly menacing franchise promise “Stranded – The Third Roxy Music Album”. No wonder the record went to #1: the re-modelled Roxy came with all the flash and excitement that consumer advertising can bring – a visceral rush as strong as the best of a movie blockbuster experience: the opening credits, the dive from the cliff, the music, visuals, the golden girl..

Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 12.06.59 PM
In order to seal the deal and get the audience on side, ‘Street Life’ adhered to the increasingly regimented requirements of glam-rock: gimmicky, sparkly, effervescent sex-music, dosed with a the promise of secret knowledge – street stories, hustlers, contraband exchanges.  Ferry claimed he wasn’t interested in feeding the singles market – “We’re not a singles band, really – I don’t want to find myself sliding down the Slade/T. Rex corridor of horror”. This, in spite of the fact that ‘Street Life’ was holy grail to the singles buying public, a Top 10 stunner that sent the album Stranded to Number 1 in the UK charts. Yet the singer was not necessarily being disingenuous: the goal was to create an effect (Puxley: the “all-embracing focus”) that promised inclusivity and hyper-modernity, while remaining typically, stubbornly, retro-subversive.

Audience expectation meant that Roxy Music would resume their reputation as cultural seers and arbiters of good taste, keeping an aesthetic promise to their fans to inform and help make sense of what was happening on the charts, on television and the streets no matter how marginalized or messed up the night might become. ‘Street Life’ offers the chance to cruise for sex (“come on with me cruising down the street…”). There is street prostitution (“Continental-style strasse girls…”) and frank acknowledgement on a pop record that the purchase of sex could was part of an evening’s entertainment (“who knows what you’ll see/who you might meet”). There was innuendo and smutty word play: “Back to nature boys” (being both a Nat King Cole song and an obvious call to, eh, arms). There were “Vassar girls too” – Vassar being the private women’s college in New York where, according to Urban Dictionary, “incredibly well educated woman who always gets their way, mostly by being on top all the time and telling the guy to shut up”. This was equal opportunity in the age of Lou Reed‘s Transformer and ‘Walk on the Wild Side‘.

‘Street Life’ sounds like it was fun to write – it certainly is fun to listen to, providing Ferry opportunity to plunder present-day street narratives, name-check influences and contemporary entertainers and mine them for laughter and innuendo (“Your jet black magic helps you celebrate, woo!”). Yet while the song was designed to play to its strengths, there is a melancholy within the the lyric that contradicts the outward swagger and gregariousness.  “Don’t ask why I’m feeling blue,” we are told, so we take the advice and don’t ask, but in truth this sense of ‘feeling blue’ hardly registers with the listener, so caught-up are we in this fun-time romp with tour guide Ferry. 

The conflicted emotional states that run through ‘Street Life‘ not only speaks to Ferry’s gifts as a writer (Paul Thompson: “Some of the lyrics aren’t obvious, you know, they’re clever but kind of hidden and a little bit subtle”), but also the cool effect that is generated by juxtaposing two opposing or contradictory ideas together. Roxy Music relish presenting elements from different eras, fashion trends, musical styles – “things being combined with a sense of irony and collage” (Reynolds). In this world the high art of the Mona Lisa is juxtaposed beside low art TV, magazines, advertising and pop music; the pink flamingo high life competes with street life  (“back to nature boys“); white tuxedoes replace glitter and glam; elegance and style (Roxy Music album covers), are set beside sleazy glamour (Roxy album covers!), and so on. 

Roxy biographer Michael Bracewell observed that “Many of Ferry’s greatest compositions describe the fate of the lonely, isolated romantic – always on the outside, even at the heart of the grandest party or the most exotic city. Ferry has said of himself, ‘I feel always to be on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in -‘  – the classic situation of the artist”. Inside, looking out. Outside, looking in. When Roxy landed their greatest glamour hit in the winter of 1973 Ferry had been at the party for over a year, and was now making preparations to leave, eager to find a way out, or – with the help of new material – find a new way in.

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 9.28.24 AM

II. Blinded by the Light 

‘Bryan Ferry’ is kind of boring really.
Bryan Ferry

The news comes in the form of brightness, like that rare treasure in ‘Beauty Queen’ – a quality Bryan Ferry and Simon Puxley call the buzz, the action, the centre, the energy. “The all-embracing focus, past present and future, the ineffable.” No star is shining brighter than Ferry in late 1973, yet he’s harassed, irritable: “wish everybody would leave me alone, yeh.” He needs to clear his head, get away from the fame, and the game of fame. New opportunities await – the buzz, the action:

Now I’m blinded I can really see, yeah
No more bright lights confusing me, no

There are two extraordinary double-takes in ‘Street Life’ and “now I’m blinded/I can really see” is the first of them. In keeping with the aroused state of the narrator, there’s a sex pun lurking within – historically the teenage masturbator had been warned not to have a wank should he end up going blind – and of course “blinded by the light” is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration or overstatement, which suits the song to a tee. And here is Ferry’s combo trick again – opposites placed back-to-back in a light/ darkness fusion (blinded/see), a common device in novels that map the hero’s journey towards enlightenment or epiphany (as in Joyce’s Ulysses and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, not to mention ‘For Your Pleasure‘  and ‘Virginia Plain’). There is the sense in ‘Street Life’ – and throughout Stranded – of a striving towards rapturous transformation – something we’ll see most clearly expressed in ‘Psalm‘.

As a single, ‘Street Life’ promotes and entertains, but as album opener the song provides additional insight into Ferry’s situation: with Roxy’s two hit albums, two hit singles, combined with his own solo hit album and single, Ferry is, as the new year 1974 approaches, “undeniably a star” (Balfour), “recognized as a leader of fashion,” harnessing an allusive charm, distant, yet “undeniably glamorous”. Listen to Puxley and Ferry work the PR:

“Bryan always travelled alone, though there were numerous adoring females who would have moved heaven and earth – sometimes almost did – to accompany him. But at concerts especially, Bryan demanded of himself, for both personal and professional reasons, an absolutely isolated concentration”.

The Bryan Ferry Story

To be sure, this type of male celebrity-mongering is cringe-worthy, but for its time, it got the job done. This image of an all-round personality (“he made it the year of the tuxedo”) who was Britain’s answer to Hugh Hefner (“There were the girls too. Often fashion models and always beautiful…”) delivered a new kind of rock star to the European public, one defined as much by the movies (Bond and Bogart), as by pop music. Writing as if he’d wandered into an Ian Fleming pot-boiler, Puxley turns the “rather boring” Bryan Ferry into the Implied (i.e., fictional) Bryan Ferry, the suave jet-setting bachelor who, when he is not wrestling sharks, drives to Oxford to “escape the ever-churning vortex of his own making”, ruthlessly “pushing the black Daimler to its limit, to end up in the early hours at yet another exotic haunt, a wild party in the Belgravia mansion of some profligate crypto-financer, or the high-strung tension barely controlled beneath the plush, aristocratic ambience of a Mayfair gaming club.” Phew.

Roxy fashion designer Antony Price nails the appeal and the public relations strategy along gender lines:

Women are not aware of Roxy Music in the way that men are. It’s a man’s band. It’s always been a man’s band. And he (Ferry) is a man’s idol; the young men have always admired him, he’s what they aspire to, to have taste like that, to be in the rock business but still have taste and credibility, which is very thin on the ground in the rock business, darling, let’s face it.

Antony Price

And so, Puxley and Ferry create a great Friday night movie, a rock-star secret agent who dabbles in pop music and sings the classics of the Great American Songbook. His cultural popularity is confirmed when he appears on TV doing a duet of ‘It’s My Party‘ with Cilla Black on her highly watched variety hour, the Cilla Black show. Electronics giant Phillips even creates a Bryan Ferry inspired record player called “The Shooting Star

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 9.47.36 AMThe designers of the Roxy machine (Price, Ferry, de Ville) delighted in gloriously artificial image making: “our currency was fantasy and glamour, with nothing left to chance” (Price).  Yet encoded in that engagement and harnessing of male glamour was a concern about the “boomerang” – the inevitable downslide – the trap of the ordinary and a deepening attention to, and concern for, the value of the work:

The sidewalk papers gutter-press you down
All those lies can be so unkind
They can make you feel like you’re losing your mind

Ferry presents a spiffy picture of the glamorous life while conversely (comically) giving it a kick to the stones. His fans want a piece of him (“wish everybody would leave me alone“). The press are relentless and critical (“All those lies can be so unkind”). During the 1973 Roxy tour Ferry dresses like a classic male snob, perfecting his acting repertoire (the Ferry duck-wobble, the Romantic croon). To promote ‘Street Life’ on television he sneers blankly at the camera while finger-clicking in time, like a senior member of the in-crowd delivering orders to the Friday night contingent:

Week end starts Friday soon after eight
Your jet black magic helps you celebrate

Your charm and bewitching “jet black magic” are the tools of your trade, your celebrity and your glamorous attraction (see ‘glamour’ word origins in Scottish witch-lore, Beauty Queen Cover Art). You are a glorious idea, but are feeling tormented, misunderstood  (“don’t ask why I’m feeling blue“). Taking note of the glam hang-over taking root in late 1973, Simon Reynolds describes the situation Ferry himself warned of in ‘Virginia Plain’:

Sophisticates are too clever to fall for the illusion any more, but secretly wish they could be fooled. What tantalizes is the remembrance of a long-gone possibility of absolute enchantment and entrancement.

Simon Reynolds

We choose then to file Ferry’s condition under the heading ‘Loss of Innocence’, exemplified by the the Stranded cover girl clutching a stem of Oriental white Lillies, a symbol for purity, sympathy, and innocence. And we see too that there has been a thematic consistency in Ferry’s writing to date, a desire to define the moment as honestly as possible: Roxy Music/’Virginia Plain‘ described the dream and the drive for fame.  ‘Pyjamarama‘/For Your Pleasure described the first wave of popularity. A mask was adopted, a persona to deal with the attention and the tensions (“I always wrote as a character” Ferry, 2020). With each new success the mask attaches itself more firmly to the surface of the skin, like fingernails digging into flesh. There is fear and uncertainty about future outcomes. Decisions are made. The band re-makes and re-models:

We were very conscious of not repeating ourselves. So after the first two albums [Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure], we needed to expand and do something different. Because we had a very different way of some writing, that’s why those tracks ended up the way they did because it wasn’t like conventional songwriting.

Phil Manzanera

Street Life‘/Stranded gives way to “Roxy Mania”. The mask settles, inseparable from your own skin now. Human relationships fail. All that remains is art and aesthetics, the striving for the perfection of art.  You reach for another cognac, stranded.

You may be stranded if you stick around

This is the second notable double-take on ‘Street Life’. Describing the Stranded tour, Puxley/Ferry observe “The tropical ambience of the stage-set arose from the new album art … a girl collapsed on the floor of the jungle .. the title describes her as ‘Stranded’ – which was also a double-edged allusion to the enigmatic concept the previous album’s most popular song [‘Do the Strand’], and furthermore appeared in the last line of a song on this new album ‘Street Life’: “you may stranded if you stick around.”

The continuation of the theme of the ‘strand’ through For Your Pleasure (‘Do the Strand’) and Stranded suggests that this search for change or enlightenment – or just new material – was, at this pivotal moment in Ferry’s career, still attainable. No matter that Stranded is the album that best describes the Ferry’s attempt to “escape the ever-churning vortex of his own making” – it is only when we arrive next year at the Weimar tainted decadence of Country Life that the Roxy front man finally admits defeat – stranded, between art and life, “Gestrandet an Leben und Kunst” (from the German stanza of Bitter Sweet).

And that’s really something..

Credits: Stranded close-up; credits Stranded back-cover; Stranded promo; 1972 advertisment for the “new”; Ferry cartoon promo 1973; Phillips “shooting star” promo, 1973/4; visions of Stranded – the brilliant Karl Stoecker cover photography center; some additional images, author not credited, the net.

Next: Just Like You: Stranded Cover Art.


2 Comments

Street Life – Part 2

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 6.59.23 PMStreet Life – Part 1 
Street Life (1973)

Rock n’ roll was real. Everything else was unreal.
John Lennon

Roxy and Glam – 1: Sign of the Times

When Todd Haynes tried to capture the characters and music of the UK Glam scene in 1973 with his film Velvet Goldmine, he failed, according to the film’s un-cooperative  subject David Bowie, because Haynes missed entirely the innocence of the times, underplaying the fun, silliness, and fantastic “shopping” the period offered. Though Glam may have been a youthful response to a good number of serious societal issues –  “Glam was finally some kind of free expression of male homosexuality in popular culture” (Jon Savage) – it was silliness and frivolity that defined the movement, and, like many good-time relationships, it started to peter and die when it became formulaic, losing its zest and sparkle and sense of fun, say, around mid-1974 (about the time Bowie flashed his man-mutant genitalia to the world).

Screen Shot 2020-06-06 at 8.10.09 AM
Known to the band as “Song 1” during recording sessions for the new Roxy Music album Stranded  – indeed all the tracks had numbers – “Song 2”, “Song 3” (can you imagine a time when ‘Song for Europe‘ was known as “Song 6”?..) – ‘Street Life’ was always seen as a forerunner for the singles charts (“I do remember approaching it very much as a potential single” recalls Manzanera), having arrived with all ingredients intact: robust and insolent energy; dense, hard-rocking instrumentation; camp delivery; and, just to be sure, white-knuckled finger-clicking. In discussing ‘Street Life‘ for an article in Uncut (2012) Bryan Ferry observed: “I wanted it to be a high-energy, fun song – buzzy and vibrant”. Indeed, ‘Street Life’ is the track you hold up to Roxy nay-sayers as evidence that the band possessed a formidable muscular sound that went beyond the hype of fashion models and white tuxedos. (If you still find yourself arguing the point, put on ‘Editions of You‘ and demand the foe get the next round of drinks in).

Born in the pressure-cooker of the new – new album, new single, new band member (on salary, mind), new golden age (ah hem), and absolutely no new demos or written songs before entering the studio – ‘Street Life’ succeeds in spite of its hasty creation, with band members Thompson, Manzanera, Mackay and Jobson laying down their claim as vital and equal creators of the Roxy sound. With its camp dramatic lyric and vocal delivery a career win for Ferry, ‘Street Life’ is nevertheless a noticeably coherent group recording that lays down Roxy’s musical template for the rest of the 70s. At this juncture, each member, previously side-lined by the hoopla of the Ferry/Eno axis, gains considerable strength and confidence as solo musicians and as members of the insuppressible Roxy machine. From here on, the story is less about Bryan Ferry as Gatsby, and more about Roxy Music as a band.

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 9.32.30 AM
Written and performed in the key of Eb Major, ‘Street Life’ epitomizes the associated Eb musical characteristic of Cruelty and Harshness (wish everybody would leave me alone), Yet Full of Devotion (loving you is all I can do). It’s a neat trick, this tension between opposites, and explains why critics often use contrasts in describing the band’s music (my own favourite is Gary Sperrazza‘s description of ‘Street Life’ as “punk-rock in space”). Yet musically it feels like there is little musical ambiguity in the song at all. In fact, it’s pure punk, right from the start, with its highway-star drum intro courtesy of Paul Thompson, and grinding over-dubbed guitars and killer 6-note hook by Phil Manzanera. 

‘Street Life’ bleeds intensity, honesty and wit. For Ferry, the single was another stunner in a line of exciting, dramatic productions. In the same stylized manner of ‘If There is Something’ and ‘Strictly Confidential’, the song delivers a swinging performance, the singer acting out – petulant, inflated – the life of a put-upon rock star. Wish everybody would leave me alone, yeah. It’s a good gag – Ferry was white hot during this period, so why not write a tantrum overture composed entirely of talent, nerves and self-doubt:

Wish everybody would leave me alone, yeah
They’re always calling on my telephone
When I pick it up there’s no one there
So I walk outside just to take the air

With new-found fame came troubles, and Ferry was in fact getting harassed during this period: two teenage fans, Denise and Jackie, would camp outside the singer’s Redcliffe Square apartment, and make calls from a red telephone-box across the road, and watch intently as “Ferry would move past the window to answer the phone, and then would hang up” (Buckley, 152). Ferry’s solution to these intrusions on his privacy was to escape, and escape is exactly what we come to Roxy Music for. When Bowie decides to get some action he self-consciously “yawns” as he breaks up his room and “runs to the centre of things” (‘Sweet Thing’). Ferry on the other hand neither breaks up his room nor yawns: he hits the street with all the pent up desire of a druggie on the prowl for an eagerly anticipated dose of sex and drugs (and we all know where that leads – another top 10 hit single!). Stuck in the house, pacing back and forth, genuinely hemmed in, Ferry declares it’s time to get out, find a party, spend some cash, and if you, dear and loyal listener, want to come along for the ride, then all the better. Come on with me cruising down the street, we’re told and so we join the superstar on an updated version of the ‘Virginia Plain‘ rollercoaster ride.  I like tacky things and low life as much as high life” Ferry confessed in 1973 and, just like the black panther that susses our lurid intent on the cover of For Your Pleasure, we are caught staring with Eveline and Constanze into the blaring headlights:

Come on with me cruising down the street
Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet
This brave new world’s not like yesterday
It can take you higher than the milky way

There’s genuine excitement here, not a yawn or histrionic gesture to be seen or heard. If part of the Roxy promise is to take us closer to the thrill of it all, this is Ferry’s first opportunity to dance the cha-cha from a position of real advantage and knowledge. The British Roxy Music Winter tour of 1973 – rolled out after the recording of Stranded, but before the album’s release – was so successful it had proceeded around the country like a “tremendous triumphal march” (Balfour). Ferry was white hot both as solo artist and Roxy front-man. Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure had been big sellers, and the solo release These Foolish Things was extremely profitable – staying in the charts long enough to still be selling when his second solo album Another Time, Another Place placed in the charts. The clarity of celebrity experience is made manifest by the time ‘Street Life’ is recorded and released: we are invited to taste and experience the flavours of the mountain streamline for ourselves with the added bonus that our the Implied Bryan Ferry is acting as tour guide. The listener is summoned: Come on with me cruising down the street, and we do not hesitate. This brave new world’s not like yesterday we are told. We are all stars now. Take my hand: Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet. And we’re off, the boys and girls of the suburbs fleeing the hum-drum days of school or the Industrial revolution, like some re-enactment of a Joycean epiphany, on a mad journey heading for Nighttown in Ulysses.

Screen Shot 2020-06-11 at 6.41.47 AM
If ‘Stranded’ was Roxy Music’s Goldfinger moment – a critical and popular work that influenced culture, shifted taste and fuelled high sales of future releases – then ‘Street Life‘ was the blockbuster teaser trailer for the film, cut to reflect the sign of the times as they appeared in the grey and drab early 70s. By the winter of 1973, Ferry delivered what he had prophesied a year previously in ‘Virginia Plain‘: a new movie for new times, a cinematic art-project that brought together sex, glamour, luxury and irony as a stylistic device, authenticity through the pursuance of sex and glamour. “From one hotspot to another,” noted Simon Puxley, ghost-writing Ferry’s biography in 1976, “til dawn if need be, to locate the true experience.” Oh, that sounds like fun, and at the time of ‘Street Life’s release, the county needed it. Movie critic Tim Blanks describes the landscape of the times:

One of the things that struck me most about the 2011 movie version of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was how dismal its depiction of early-70s London looked. But it was set just when Bowie was unleashing Ziggy Stardust, and Ferry was launching Roxy Music. Somewhere other than MI5’s grey, grim world, a new breed of glamorous young nightcrawlers was exploding into life.

Tim Blanks

Screen Shot 2020-06-09 at 2.08.01 PM

Roxy and Glam – 2: The Strange Case of Adrian Street

The groundswell of circumstances that created Glam and its glamorous young nightcrawlers have been well documented (Reynolds/Savage), yet, for our money, the most interesting sign of the times is the example of the coal-miner-turned-professional wrestler Adrian Street, the man who, in the laddish days of 1973, was one of the first fighters to put on make-up, boa-feathers, platforms and glitter – and bring it all into the bloke-culture of British wrestling. The son of a Welsh miner, Street went down the coal-pit at 15, following in the footsteps of his Dad and his brother.  A year later – as they say in the movies – “Adrian decided that this was not the life for him” (ProWrestlingStories).  He came back to the surface, shed his filthy clothes and made for London, emboldened with velvet goldmine self-belief – he came back to Wales a known commodity: a TV star (the b/w photos above and below is Street visiting his Dad at the pits after his success). “There’s nothing I like more than somebody telling me I can’t do something,” said Adrian of the photo, “I was saying, ‘F-U, bastards!’ It was very, very satisfying.”

Screen Shot 2020-05-23 at 3.27.01 PM
Street’s influence on musicians in the early 70s was duly noted by the press. Marc Bolan of T-Rex was asked where he got his ideas for his makeup and his costumes, and he said “from watching Adrian Street on television.” Street sold himself as a brand, and understood the music business and professional wrestling had a lot in common:

Interviewers would ask if I invented glam rock. I’d always say, ‘I didn’t invent it, though we sure borrowed a lot from each other.’ But I often wonder if Ziggy  Stardust wasn’t a direct copy of what I was doing at the time.

Whether by accident or gleeful intent, Ferry conjures up Adrian Street‘s zeitgeist in ‘Street Life’ if not by name (though I reserve judgment) then by Roxy Music’s association with a movement in full swing, at that time influencing every corner of British life. This brave new world’s not like yesterday, Ferry tells us, as if speaking to Street and the other thousands of kids looking to escape their “no future” fate. By referencing Aldous Huxley‘s famous novel of down-trodden dystopia, Brave New World, Ferry sets the scene for a guided tour through the new reality, authentic and gritty, yet blessed with a touch of magic.

Screen Shot 2020-06-08 at 12.10.15 PMI was really trying to give you a shot of the street.
Lou Reed 

I like tacky things and low life as much as high life.
Bryan Ferry 

Street life, Street life, Street life, What a life
Street life, Street life, Street life, That’s the life

Roxy and Glam – 3: Walk on the Wild Side

The idea of portraying a ‘street life’ in all its gritty filth and colour can be seen as products mostly of America – or, at least, the America that had the greatest impact on Brits musicians such as David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. For many, The Velvet Underground (1964-73) were the pioneers of what The Guardian called the ability to put “drugs, fetishism, infidelity and heartbreak into song.” As we know, by 1967 the musical landscape was defined largely by the escapism offered by the The Beatles and Procol Harum singles, positing that drugs, sex and transcendence were a path to the doors of perception. Formed in the same milieu that created the Jefferson Airplane,  the scruffy Velvets (they “looked like the Addams family”, noted Iggy Pop), didn’t buy into this message – “I fucking hated hippies” said drummer Maureen Tucker while Reed later observed that “flower-power … was a nice idea but not a very realistic one.” For the Velvets, and Lou in particular, the strength of the new openness provided the opportunity to write about REALITY, no matter how sordid: “The ability to shock with taboo subjects such as buying drugs has waned today, but until 1967’s I’m Waiting for the Man, music was devoid of an overtly decadent tale such as this”. (Guardian).

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 8.29.52 AM

The Brits had plugged into the idea of American street-wise authenticity and coupled it with the emerald Isle’s natural tendency for camp, wit, play-acting, and a piss-take culture that did not allow to take yourself too seriously (they frequently turned on their heroes. See: Bryan Ferry solo career 1975-1979). American rockers generally liked their realism straight-up, as in Iggy Pop‘s ‘Down on the Street’ (floatin’ around/I’m a real low mind), to the spectacle of Lou Reed and John Cale busking in 1965, offending New York’s lunch crowd with:

Heroin
It’s my life
And it’s my wife

‘Heroin’, (quoted in Wyman).

And, let’s not forget one of the more subversive yet popular street-wise rock songs: Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, a perfect encapsulation of where the artistic sentiment was on other side of the Atlantic:Screen Shot 2020-05-03 at 3.05.38 PM

Candy came from out on the Island
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head


She says, “hey baby, take a walk on the wild side”
Said, “hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”

And the colored girls go …

In stark contrast to America in the early 70s, the Brits were living in the Dark Ages – a three-day work-week was imposed by the Government to save on electricity due to an angry and heart-breaking miners strike; a rapid crippling of the economy was brought on by rampant inflation and the slow but inevitable closure of the once-glorious smokestak industries. There was, it could be said, a self-consciousness built into the times: a sense that lives and times were changing. Sexual identity rights were, albeit haphazardly and with a hint of ridicule, at the forefront of what ordinary people were talking about, expressing at least a fascination or repulsion for the difference and change that was taking place around them. David Bowie was wearing a dress. Freaky Brian Eno was getting all the girls. The yobs and cavemen were still out there, but now they were dressing like Kubrick‘s Clockwork Droogies – and in between the violence and mayhem the Droogies were watching television, and had opinions too. 

Screen Shot 2020-06-08 at 8.17.49 PMBritain in 1973 had three TV channels (BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV). The population of the country was 54 million, and 93% of which were able to watch programmes (BBC).  One episode of Coronation Street – where Valerie was electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer (!) –  had over 18 million people watch her death and subsequent funeral. Top of the Pops had 15 million viewers on a typical Thursday night –  that’s 15 million people watching Roxy’s “hyper-intense” performance of ‘Street Life’ and the latest glam sensations and outfits. The same massive audience gave Sweet three hit singles in 1973 – Blockbuster (Jan); Hell Raiser (April); Ballroom Blitz (Sept) – and it wasn’t just the kids buying the records. Many of us have memories of mums dancing in diminutive living rooms to Cum on Feel the Noize by Slade (“We get wild, wild, wild!”). Jon Savage confirms this sense of national pride in the art of silliness (The Goodies, Monty Python), as glam was about getting out there and having fun: “I think it’s been undervalued critically because it didn’t appear to take itself too seriously. It had that horror of pomposity. But it wasn’t like some little ghetto. It was full of vigour and full of life, and it bossed English pop music for two or three years” (Savage).

The Manhattan sleaze of Lou Reed and Iggy and the Stooges, dressed itself up in glitter, but only after it had visited and recorded in Britain. Contrasting sharply with Iggy Pop’s Detroit blitzkrieg approach (We are the street-walking cheetahs with hearts full of napalm), David Bowie sold back to the Brits their fondness for tacky street sex and faded glamour when he materialized from another planet (courtesy of Doctor Who’s Tardis) in the shape of Ziggy Stardust.  Yet Ziggy himself struck a pose that was pure street-level rent-boy availability, mixing Bowie’s love of street-smart Velvet Underground with a sci-fi rock ‘n roll sensibility that gleefully drew attention to itself in a self-mocking and ironically distant manner.  My set is amazing, Bowie told the faithful, It even smells like a street. And who were we to argue?

Screen Shot 2020-05-03 at 3.06.07 PM
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
Bowie, ‘Queen Bitch’

Roxy Music were having none of it though. By the time the band released ‘Street Life‘ in December 1973 they were onto something entirely different, a twisted yet utterly  convincing commitment to change…

See you in a few weeks for Street Life – Part 3

I hope you are all keeping well, are safe, and are being kind to yourself and others. We have lost so many friends and loved ones in the past months, and we continue to struggle across our world to recognize the strength of compassion and the senselessness and waste of poverty and violence.

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth. William Faulkner

To glam star Steve Priest of the Sweet, Rest in Peace (23 February 1948 – 4 June 2020). Thanks for the memories.

 


6 Comments

Street Life – Part 1

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 8.57.37 AMStreet Life (1973)
Street Life (wiped Top of the Pops performance)

We are the street-walking cheetahs with hearts full of napalm.
Iggy and the Stooges

Street Life‘ starts agitated and stays that way for three minutes and twenty-six seconds. There is congestion, a need to break free of the crowd. Simulated traffic horns sound off, overlap, warning us to stand clear, imminent danger. The song begins with a “cacophony of traffic noise,” Bryan Ferry tells us, “played by (Eddie) Jobson on synthesiser and Andy Mackay on sax, mingled with real sounds of the street – car horns  – and then the vocal enters” (Uncut). But Andy reckons it’s a Mellotron, not a synthesizer. Paul Thompson reckons it’s the sound of a pre-recorded Moroccan market, not a Mellotron. The listener doesn’t know what to make of it. New boy Eddie Jobson‘s presence is keenly felt, a statement of intent as he holds down unapologetic, dissonant chords. Get out of the way, he says, here we come. (“That’s the sort of thing Eddie would get up to,” recalls Phil Manzanera fondly, “he was very young and you couldn’t control him”). As usual, it is Paul Thompson that signals the break-out, the clearing from the crowd. He executes a drum-skin pounding of staggering power and we’re off – wish everybody would leave me alone – yeah!”

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 4.02.37 PM
Peak Glam 

Sticking to their strategy of opening albums with hard-driving rock songs (Re-Make/Re-Model; Do the Strand), Roxy Music returned to the UK pop limelight with an exciting appearance on Top of the Pops on Thursday November 22nd, 1973, to promote their new single ‘Street Life‘ – their third straight UK Top 10 hit single, and the first track taken from the new LP, The Third Roxy Music album Stranded, strategically released one day after the TOTP appearance. Stranded was the band’s first Number 1 record – an accomplishment that would not be repeated in the UK for another seven years until 1980s Flesh and Blood.

These were heady times and an important commercial peak for Roxy in the 70s: a term was coined by the mainstream press to capture the hysteria that followed band appearances – “Roxy Mania” (for shits and giggles check out a glossary of all-things “mania” here). In these heady days of peak Glam, the band and its off-spring were everywhere: Bryan Ferry was still occupying the chart with These Foolish Things (and would do so for another 42 weeks, still in the charts by the time of his second solo release Another Time, Another Place, and even holding on (by one day) when The Fourth Roxy Music album Country Life was released a year later). A ‘Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘ was still selling and remained in the singles charts after a run of 9 weeks (finally dropping out two days after the ‘Street Life’ Top of the Pops appearance). Ex-band member Brian Eno had released an album – the collaboration No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp – on November 3rd 1973. Eno’s first proper solo release Here Come the Warm Jets – recorded with 3/4s of the Roxy line-up, Paul, Andy, and Phil – was already in the can. And to top it off, Roxy Music had been on tour for six weeks before the public had a chance to hear Stranded or ‘Street Life’. “Looking back,” Ferry would recall years later, with some understatement,  “it seems like a whirlwind of events” (Uncut).

Screen Shot 2020-04-12 at 1.05.35 PM
When Bryan Ferry took his trip down the mean streets of London in the Fall of 1973, he was a rushed and frantic man, having to navigate the recent surge of critical and commercial success. It was the height of Glam, but Roxy were already changing: Stranded marked the first group recordings without Eno. (The reasonable and pragmatic Eno had uncharacteristically lost his cool and quit Roxy Music, pinned down by the passive-aggressive Ferry and a willing management team, who had a different vision for the band). Replacing Eno, the young teenager and accomplished musician Eddie Jobson was drafted in for keyboards and strings (and anything else musical – tin box, broken flute – the guy could play anything). Two bassists replaced the talented John Porter: John Gustafson was hired for recordings and Sal Maida for live work. Chris Thomas no longer shared co-producing credits with John Anthony, but instead was given control of the new album, even adding to the list of Roxy’s bass players by playing the (un-credited) bass on ‘Street Life’. And Bryan Ferry had waltzed into the BBCs Top of the Pops studios to mime and finger-click in a very un-Glam white tuxedo..

Wish everybody would leave me alone, yeah
They’re always calling on my telephone

When I pick it up there’s no one there
So I walk outside just to take the air

You’d be hard pressed to recall a hit single or album opener wanting its audience to fuck off, yet ‘Street Life’ holds its irritability like a key, a point of reference.  “It wasn’t the happiest time in Roxy’s history” recalled Andy Mackay, reflecting on the ill-feeling surrounding Eno hasty departure. The band were reeling from losing one of their original members and an important ally and friend, while solo Ferry was creating headlines with his mash-ups of Dylan and ‘These Foolish Things.’ “There was something of a battle going on between Bryan and everyone else,” Mackay noted, “Bryan’s solo success was threatening to blur the line between Roxy and him. Bryan definitely felt that Roxy was his band and he could push it in the directions he wanted. He didn’t realize that your best work tends to come from a bit of struggle, rather than having things all your own way.”
Screen Shot 2020-04-12 at 1.05.03 PM
Keep the Chocolates

In spite of his success, Bryan Ferry was having to adapt to new realities:  ‘Take me on a roller coaster/Take me for an airplane ride’ he’d sung on Top of the Pops in 1972, but a short year later he realized that the roller coaster he’d dreamed of was travelling at peak velocity while taking sharp corners. “To counter the encroaching adulation,” Max Bell observed during a Melody Maker interview at Ferry’s apartment, “he has been forced to change his phone number (“Wish everybody would leave me alone”) and install an Ansafone which, when played back, revealed a mixture of bone fide messages and very silly crank calls.” Two teenage fans had taken to observing Ferry in his upper flat from the vantage point of an outside telephone box, making calls and hanging up when the singer answered, taking great at delight at his arm-waving frustration. (One journalist remarked, That’s what you get for labelling your doorbell “FERRY,” in black felt-tip capitals). The fraught artist told journalist Bell: “Since I give about twenty-four hours a day to the public, they should leave me alone the rest of the time. The worst aspects are when one is virtually imprisoned in a hotel or leaving concerts. That can be frightening.”

Just as the narrator of ‘Virginia Plain‘ sings his cautionary tale while luxuriating in the imagined roller-coaster ride of bright lights and pink flamingos. ‘Street Life‘ provides us with an update on fame – or, at this early stage – the rapid arrival of heightened experience, something that Ferry likens to an epiphany:  “now I’m blinded I can really see“. Throwing off the cloak of irritability (for the moment), Ferry frames  the circumstances of the au courant modern pop star in order to launch a spectacular walk through this “brave new world,” an experience so audacious it juxtaposes the mean streets of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed with a very funny roll-call of best-selling milk chocolates: Take you higher than the milky way/Weekend starts Friday soon after eight/Your jet black magic helps you celebrate .. 

‘Street Life’ follows previous album front-runners Re-Make/Re-Model and Do the Strand as fresh statements of intent – this is where we are taking our stand, this time. The close of For Your Pleasure plays out the burial of a tongue-tied, schizophrenic persona, while Stranded, with its metallic, rattling ultra-modernity (the sound at the beginning of ‘Street Life’ is an Eno quote, no debate), signals a new manifesto, a new potency and energy – hell, a new line-up – that is just as muscular as the one before it.  On a roll, and game for a dare, Roxy step up by releasing one of their finest singles and in doing so declare war on their peers – so you want to take a walk on the wild side? – get a load of this. The band’s performance to promote ‘Street Life‘ on Top of the Pops acknowledges yet conquers the tropes of high Glam, announcing the movement effectively dead – replaced, naturally, with a new dance. “I wanted it to be a high-energy, fun song – buzzy and vibrant,” said the finger-clicking Ferry in 2009. “I hope the words convey some of that joie de vivre”. To be sure, Ferry was writing at his peak, the words and attitude an epitome of cool. But it wouldn’t have worked – not one bit – if the music put down by the members of the band was not as every bit as powerful and ballsy as the swagger and intent of the lyric.

Screen Shot 2020-04-13 at 7.47.45 PM

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance

Allan Watts

Next – ‘Street Life Part 2’the sidewalk papers gutter-press you down!

Credits: Ferry gets blinded, courtesy Village Voice; montage courtesy of Top of the Pops Glam camera-man, lovingly screened and captured by RMS; original single, 1973; original promo poster, found on e-Bay; the brilliant inner sleeve, Stranded.


7 Comments

These Foolish Things – Part 2

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 5.56.46 AM
These Foolish Things,
Bryan Ferry, These Foolish Things, 1973
These Foolish Things – Part 1

Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.
Jane Austen

After I started with my solo career, doing classic songs written by other people, I think that had a lot of influence on my work. I became more interested in songwriting as opposed to making records.
Bryan Ferry

In October 1973, the two brightest pop stars of the day both released covers albums a mere fourteen days apart from one another. David Bowie’s Pin Ups (October 5th) and Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things (October 19th) entered the UK charts on the same day on November 3rd, 1973. Legend has it that Ferry threatened lawsuits and injunctions against Bowie’s management. Ferry later confirmed the truth was less dramatic – that Bowie “cheerfully” rang him one day and said “Just to let you know, I’ve just done an album like yours.” No law suits, injunction, no bad feelings (we presume). For Bowie, his covers LP was a lark, an excuse to slow down for a few weeks, put out new product with minimal effort – keep the punters happy. But Ferry was going for greater spoils: the death of the cult of originality. Part false part true, it was time to present to his new young audience the idea that the modern personae was a creature defined – formed and informed – by books, poetry, cinema, movies, art, music, magazines, tabloid newspapers, clothes, language and style: “for me,” said 50s pop icon Frank Sinatra, capturing and reflecting the desires of post-war American society  – “a tuxedo is a way of life.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 1.54.15 PM

In February 2020, Bryan Ferry released Bryan Ferry – Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1974 an album of solo selections containing nine of fourteen tracks from These Foolish Things. By the time of the live concert in December 1974 Ferry had (co-)written and released Roxy Music’s Stranded and Country Life, and recorded another album of (mostly) standards with Another Time, Another Place, delivering its sublime versions of ‘The In-Crowd‘ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘. The fact that the Foolish Things material was obviously important to Ferry – and still is, given that the Albert Hall album had plenty more live tracks to choose from – its heavy inclusion in the set confirms Ferry was willing to forge a parallel career path that looked self-consciously to the past (Foolish Things), in order to create a fresh European sound that provided a roadmap to the future (Stranded). Whether this corresponds to a demise – or a “dilution” of the Roxy aesthetic (as Phil Manzanera put it), is entirely up to you, reader, and your discerning taste and preferences.

Reviews for this month’s release of Live at the Albert Hall have been very strong, which is surprising considering the camp nature of much of the material (viz ve ‘It’s My Party‘, ‘Sympathy for the Devil‘) and the sense of the album as a you-had-to-be-there keepsake. (For a great read of happy reminiscences of those who attended the concert in ’74, see the VivaRoxyMusic forum discussion here). Echoing widespread raves for the release, Pitchfork declared that Albert Hall “captures the prolific Roxy Music leader in top form.” Spill Magazine gave the album a high 4.5/5 rating; and Rolling Stone enthused that the concert “is a must-hear snapshot of one of the Seventies’ finest artists on an absolute tear.”

The Royal Albert Hall solo show was an important gig both strategically – The Royal Albert Hall of the early 70s didn’t put on many rock shows (Pink Floyd were banned in 1969 for shooting off cannons) – and it was a big deal musically, with a large cast of Roxy and solo supporting players to make it all work (“Basically, I’m using the people who played on the albums,” said Ferry at the time, “including the orchestra, that’s 55 people”).  The concert also marked an important transition milestone for Ferry: by the time he had put on the now-famous formal dinner jacket and bow tie for the show, the look was already over a year old, the singer having slipped into its skin a year previously as part of another genre-busting visual shift with prime project Roxy Music, away from the strategic glittery appropriation of Glam (1971-72), and into the ‘Gentleman of Style’ formal classicism as demonstrated by the music on The Third Roxy Music Album and the 1973-74 Stranded Tour.

Screen Shot 2020-02-14 at 5.35.03 PM
Pitchfork summarized Ferry’s appeal and public personae in 1974 as “being Bob Dylan in 1965, Clark Gable in 1939, and Oscar Wilde in 1895…He commanded his space, he bulldozed the rickety fence between sincerity and irony for a generation of acolytes, and his hair was fabulous.” The hair was fabulous alright, and so was the exquisite taste – Ferry could not put a foot wrong in 1973-74, relying on his brilliant capabilities in art and design to dress and present himself to the public as his own argument for success.

His ambition was, as usual, to get to the kernel of pop-cultural sensibility,” writes Roxy cultural critic Paul Stump when coming to grips with the Bryan Ferry persona in 1973. Yet ambition only partly reveals the complete absorption of Ferry’s life into his art, for, in spite of the pink flamingos and good taste, at heart of the Roxy machine there is an essential weirdness of presentation, a filtered condition of an artistic sensibility applying English tropes to American ideas and images.

Take, for instance, the beef-cake picture of 1960s hot-rod boy toy Bryan Ferry, tee-shirted, gold-chained, dark-haired and daring. Ferry goes into this pose as a statement ofScreen Shot 2020-02-28 at 7.02.08 AM independence: this clearly isn’t Roxy Music (Roxy’s covers are cinematic scenes as sleeve art), this is Bryan Ferry as Elvis or Brando – a solo star performing the standards for you, dear audience, updated with a just a hint of something new to keep you interested.  The moment Ferry slipped into the skin of his record though, it changed the trajectory of his career (“through every step/a change”). Absorbing the language and structure of classic pop and the Great American Songbook served to heighten Ferry’s musical sense of himself and what he could perform. “I was there learning all these songs by people I’d always admired like Cole Porter, Smokey Robinson, etc. and it made me want to master the art of writing a good melody,” before adding  – “these people had in fact more influence on me than the so-called avant-garde” (NME, May 79).

The stage was set then: in October 1973 Ferry started his solo career wearing the skin of a 1950s pin up model who had been invited to partake in the creative spoils available within the New York City Brill Building hit-making factory to absorb the nuances of melody and composition as written by the great pop composers of the mid-20th century: Goffin & King; Leiber & Stoller; Lennon & McCartney. By the time Ferry got to the end of the recording sessions he had increased in confidence and was ready to move into his real zone of interest: the great jazz standards of the 20th Century – in particular, the Stachey & Maschhwitz 1935 classic These Foolish Things.

Frank Sinatra had covered ‘Foolish Things’ on his last album for Columbia Records,  Point of No Return. Ella Fitzgerald covered the song, adding additional lyrics for good measure.  Billie Holiday covered it. Nat King Cole cut a splendid version that has never been bettered. Sam Cooke covered it. So did the giants of bop and post-bop jazz – John Coltrane. Charlie Parker. Chet Baker… You can almost see Ferry in AIR Studios salivating at the chance to record the song, the buzz of being in the same company as his musical heroes (“Opens up exclusive doors oh wow!“), gleefully fussing with his new musical prodigy Eddie Jobson over the details – tone, musical arrangement, performance. (“I was the whole orchestra” noted Jobson on those early sessions,  “because Bryan couldn’t really afford an orchestra back then”). Taking the arrangement for ‘Foolish Things’ that Jobson and Paul Thompson had so carefully and expertly worked up, Ferry approached the microphone to perform his take on a timeless classic, slipping into the skin of Sinatra as he did so. Finding his form in the first few lines, his enunciation affected and clear, Bryan Ferry transformed himself into an interpreter of standards, an arbitrator of taste for a generation.

Q: On a long-term basis, the idea of doing standards, being a modern Sinatra, is intrinsically appealing?

AThere are many beautiful songs I’d like to do – so why limit oneself?

Bryan Ferry, NME, December 1974

Ferry had two promotional films made in support of the two best cuts on These Foolish Things: ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and title track ‘These Foolish Things‘. ‘Hard Rain’ is genuinely exciting, filmed with energy and verve, with a keen eye on making the Thursday night slot on Top of the Pops, while ‘Foolish Things’ is the unloved and glum double. It’s a matter of form and function: we are in forlorn, emotive territory after all. Broken romance. Fleeting memories. Self-conscious performance, hand-on-brow: “Oh, will you never let me be?/Oh, will you never set me free?”

Ferry not only sings ‘Foolish Things’, he performs it:

The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses
The waiters whistling as the last bar closes
The song that Crosby sings
These foolish things
Remind me of you

On stage at that Albert Hall concert in December 1974, you can hear the audience howl with excitement the moment Ferry adopts his Sinatra persona for concert closer ‘These Foolish Things’. The audience enthusiasm is not based on the song, necessarily, but the opportunity for their hero to step out of his rock star role and act like an actor and matinee idol while performing a scene from what has become one of their favorite television films: the ‘Foolish Things’ promo. Ferry cheerfully collapses the difference between rock star and actor as part of his natural art-background modus operandi, earning the credit bestowed on him by cultural observer Michael Bracewell as being in the “the presence of an entirely postmodern sensibility at work.” True to form, NME scribe Max Bell was at the gig that chilly December night and describes the encore: “Ferry comes back to croon one more number,  ‘These Foolish Things’, cigarette drooping Sinatra style. Jobson tinkles the piano in the next apartment while Ferry sings about Crosby singing.” In short, to wrap his show, Ferry performs for his audience a cover version of a song that re-enacts the film he made of himself performing a cover version of the song, which inScreen Shot 2020-03-01 at 6.41.27 AM itself is a enactment of the moment of the song’s composition. (Phew!). Postmodern sensibility indeed.

Clocking Bing Crosby as one of many singers of ‘These Foolish Things’ and also a referenced character in its story (the song that Crosby sings), Ferry invites visions of old Hollywood into his performance, re-creating a popular continuum of male celebrity across the ages – Astaire, Crosby, Bogart, and Sinatra. In the promotional clip Ferry serves up a white piano set against a background of pink flamingo shade. An unscrewed and half empty whiskey bottle sits open beside a burning cigarette. The mood is sombre but heated, the shadow of tropical plants paint prison bars on Ferry’s face, who, deep in performance, raises his eyes to the heavens, chasing down memories that will not settle. He smokes. He drinks. He emotes. The pianist plays the song that Crosby sings. We’re in Casablanca, and we are in Casablanca.

Today, if you feel so inclined, you can visit a simulacrum of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca city (it is simulacrum, for Rick’s Cafe is neither film set or real historical location). The description in the tourist blurb reads like the interior set-direction for Ferry’s promotional film:

curved arches, a sculpted bar, balconies, balustrades as well as beaded and stencilled brass lighting and plants that cast luminous shadows on white walls

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 7.03.18 PM

Ferry did Bogart in 2HB, but the homage was based on literary allusion, while the clothes were still razzle dazzle Glam. Ferry did the cigarette smoking Lonely Man in Do the Strand, but he was standing left-of-stage, while on the other side of the room the jukebox sang Sinatra, not Ferry. And then Eno left Roxy Music and the band re-calibrated into something stronger, not better necessarily, but more musical, fulfilling the prophecy at the close of For Your Pleasure: “Through every step, a change/You watch me walk away.” Foolish Things was a surprise hit and Ferry took command of center stage. (“It was a weird situation to be in, two gold albums which were selling without live promotion”).

Buoyed by the success, but ever loyal to Roxy Music – snapping at one reporter, “You’re assuming that my solo career is more important than Roxy, which is not in fact the case” (Sounds) – Ferry was nevertheless fundamentally changed by the recording of his first solo album. “I consider ‘These Foolish Things‘ to be the third Roxy Music album due to the influence it had on my writing” (2009).

Ferry went into 1973 as a rock futurist, the leader of a demented band of musical personalities and collisions, and came out the end of it as the new superstar of male classicism, the embodiment of new money, a style icon for thousands of kids who understood intuitively that it was all showbiz, a con against authenticity, a kick-in-the-balls against seriousness in a world were a heightened cinematic and a musical self-identity was all that mattered. Ferry went through Alice’s rabbit-hole knowing he was being watched, which was the only way to go, for if you weren’t being watched, you were nothing. This was social life as arch spectacle and love as a foolish thing, mediated through showbiz and presentation, a re-telling of the story of your life in the only manner you felt comfortable with  – as a consumer. Ferry capitalized on this zest for distance and irony and, for those that were watching, marketed his image as a man living outside of the narrative of emotion and sentiment, yet yearning for an authentic life lived, just like his heroes Bogart and Sinatra.

FERRY: (Singing) A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces, an airline ticket to romantic places – and still, my heart has wings. (NPR reviews ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall, 1974’).

The dream places Ferry center-stage. He sings the same songs that Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald once sang. He stands under those kleig lights, in the spotlight, on no less a stage than the prestigious Royal Albert Hall.

Ferry appears to be acting a role within the often impressionistic narrative of the songs – and yet the acting of each role is already in itself a stylised caricature.
Michael Bracewell.

I love that mohair suit in the spotlight business. [Frank Sinatra] has an immaculateness which I admire. His best stuff is like this … the sort of thing you put on when you get home in the rain. Pour a couple of martinis, sling it on the phonogram, kick off your shoes, put your feet up, and survey your G-Plan furnished apartment.
Bryan Ferry

‘These Foolish Things’ was not a celebration of rock but a subversion of it.
Simon Reynolds

Stranded: left without the means to move from somewhere (Oxford Dictionary).

Screen Shot 2020-03-01 at 9.22.08 AM

Titbits: An extra this month for fans of The Albert Hall gig. The original NME review by Max Bell, printed a week or so after the event. Enjoy!

Bryan Ferry: Royal Albert Hall, London

Max BellNew Musical Express, 28 December 1974

THE ALBERT HALL is teeming, brim-full with the beautiful awaiting the first solo airing of his master’s voice in the Capital.

Onstage an electric-acoustic seven-piece, Bugatti and Muskett, are performing a pleasant warm-up set. Although the material isn’t exhilarating, and definitely sub-Byrds, the playing presence of B.J. Cole on pedal steel and Barry De Souza (drums), establishes their credentials.

The audience are pleased but concentrating on other things. At ten to nine, there’s a momentary hush as the lights dim, then a huge roar announces the emergence of the Group and Orchestra, the former resplendent in tuxedos and looking distinctly self-conscious.

But just as you’re musing the wisdom of that venture, eyes left while a huge spotlight follows the evening star across the marble. Ferry, formally smart in dark dinner suit, and patent leather hair, swaggers to a centre microphone and introduces himself with ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.

Behind him Jobson fiddles and John Porter’s guitar works intermittently though everyone is watching Bryan.

When he reaches those lines about the Kennedys, a werewolf grimace twists his face bringing out the full menace of the lyric.

Straight into ‘I Love How You Love Me’, Manzanera carrying the lead part until Jeff Daley’s alto sax rips a hole in the melody. Ferry’s voice is excellent. Notice how he’s dropped the vibrato now, concentrating on emphasis and tone for vocal effects.

He has maybe the most distinctive white male sound of the moment and adapts it accordingly so that, although he’s an idiosyncratic singer, he isn’t an annoying one.

Time for a quick “Hello, how are you?” and then virtuoso John Wetton trundles the crazy rocking bass into ‘Baby I Don’t Care’. Bryan hangs on to the final phrase, just like Presley, sashaying gently until a right hand cuts the air. End of song.

Porter’s guitar is functioning properly for ‘It’s My Party’, he and Manzanera interlocking neatly on the rhythm parts. Any chances of this being a fag song are wiped out by the butch brass and Ferry’s sardonic gestures on the tear-jerking lines.

It’s obvious that no chances have been taken tonight, everything is polished to a degree, very tight and precision timed.

Martyn Ford, Bryan’s arranger and conductor, brings the strings into action for an exactly faithful ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, sung to a background of muted feminine squeals. The climax of this number is superb live, with Wetton and Thompson rapping out the heart beat under a fading vocal.

‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is a minor disappointment, missing the “wall of sound” drumming which is almost made up for by Porter’s stylish solo. His guitar work improves steadily after the initial mishap, switching to slide for ‘Another Time Another Place’ after which Ferry gives him a name check.

There’s a momentary lapse in the atmosphere with an average rendition of ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ which lacks the frenzy of the original and is unfortunately followed by a plodding ‘You Are My Sunshine’, spoilt by the girl singers being a shade too raucous and the trumpets not raucous enough.

However, Bryan catches the fervour on the upsurge with a very hot ‘Finger Poppin”, removes the mike for the first time, sweating under the lights. Ford twists in time to the tempo and Chris Mercer stands up to blow a turbulent tenor solo. Up-roarious reception.

‘Tracks Of My Tears’ is introduced as one of Ferry’s all-time favourites and he sings like he means it. The girls are good, too, especially on the oo-oo’s, not The Miracles, but good.

The hall is charged now. It’s already a success and getting better.

‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ keep it simmering, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ takes it to boiling point. Ferry needs the lyric sheet for the plethora of verses, but gets away with that by whipping a real fervour into the sentiment, assisted by the power house Paul Thompson.

The first genuine surprise of the night’s entertainment comes with the decision to do ‘A Really Good Time’ from Country Life which is followed by a tremendous ‘In Crowd’ in which Manzanera pulls out all the stops and slicks off his best Sterling Morrison riffs.

Exit Ferry with the band still on, pandemonium down front and a foot-stomping demand for an encore.

He returns to croon one more number, ‘These Foolish Things’, cigarette drooping Sinatra style. Jobson tinkles the piano in the next apartment while Ferry sings about Crosby singing.

Nelson Riddle would approve, and probably Cole Porter, too.

© Max Bell, 1974

 


4 Comments

These Foolish Things – Part 1

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 5.14.10 AMThese Foolish Things, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, original written by Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey, 1936
These Foolish Things, Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson & Orchestra, 1936
These Foolish Things, Turner Layton, 1936
These Foolish Things, Benny Carter, 1936
These Foolish Things, Benny Goodman/Helen Ward, 78RPM, 1936
These Foolish Things, Nat King Cole, Nat King Cole at the Piano, 1947/50
These Foolish Things, Billie Holiday, Solitude, 1956
These Foolish Things, Ella Fitzgerald, Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert, 1956
These Foolish Things, Etta James, These Foolish Things, 1960-65
These Foolish Things, Frank Sinatra, Point of No Return, 1962
These Foolish Things, Sam Cooke, Mr. Soul, 1963
These Foolish Things, Bryan Ferry, These Foolish Things, 1973

I put this moment here
I put this moment – over here

Kate Bush

The song that stabilized Ferry’s reputation as a dependable hit-maker was ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. The song that stabilized Ferry’s reputation as a durable, old-style matinee idol was These Foolish Things.  An extremely important song in Bryan Ferry’s lexicon, These Foolish Things cemented the two key strands of the singer’s career and subsequent image – one, as crooner and leading man, an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, and the other as postmodern stylist, using the tricks of performance and entertainment to present a European Cabaret rock fantasy, replete with music, theater, dance and the promise of a front seat at the Kit Kat Klub. Beneath both images was the unifying image of wrecked love contemplated and lost – remembered – over a gin martini and a pack of Gitanes cigarettes.

‘These Foolish Things’ is positioned at the close of the album These Foolish Things, providing the concluding moment to a record that has history and human activity as its central guiding principle. Opening with Bob Dylan’s mythological epic ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘, we listen as the poet-mind observes and recites for us the trauma of human experience across the ages:

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

Ferry sweetens the message by turning the folk song into a stomping glam-epic, rousing the troops with an archness and gaiety that resulted in the music critics seething with anger in 1973 (“I can’t really understand what all the fuss is about,” Ferry said. “I really can’t”). The songs that follow are tender and lighthearted: having provided a view of human history on a grand scale, we then are presented with the ordinary, observing the tug and drama of human love in all its tatty glory as demonstrated in the selection and presentation of River of Salt, Don’t Ever Change, Piece of My Heart, Baby I Don’t Care, It’s My Party, and Don’t Worry Baby.

Keen to maintain his structural framework, Ferry presents additional allegorical context by sequencing Sympathy for the Devil at the beginning of the second side of the original LP – a strategically placed doubling of Dylan’s mythological odyssey, only this time  we are lead across those sad forests and dead oceans by old saucy Lucifer, who is busy getting off on his crucifixions, revolutions and blitzkrieg. What follows next is chaos theory, but on a very human, mundane level – the minutia of the every day, the froth of love as seen through the sixties pop machine: The Tracks of My Tears, You Won’t See Me, I Love How You Love Me, Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.
Screen Shot 2020-01-28 at 6.31.11 AM
Then Ferry drops a (structural) bomb: until this point These Foolish Things has selected tracks from the 1960s – eleven of thirteen songs are from 1961-1967 – an important period for Ferry:  “[Foolish Things] reminds me of when I used to be in Gas Board in Newcastle – in fact, the whole LP does!” (Ferry). In a sense, Foolish Things is Gas Board’s first release, the record that never was. Just as Roxy Music‘s For Your Pleasure was a chronicle of the dark strategizing of an ambitious mind (through every step/a change), Ferry uses Foolish Things to consider his options and take a moment to pull back into his recent past, square up his influences, and digest and strategize on the kind of artist he is going to be moving forward. He then takes an intuitive leap and lands a career defining moment every bit as encompassing as Virginia Plain: he chooses a song largely forgotten by modern audiences, the classic, These Foolish Things.

Screen Shot 2020-01-29 at 8.03.26 PM

II. These Foolish ThingsScreen Shot 2020-01-30 at 10.40.11 PM

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you

For sheer hairy yarbles, in-your-face daring, no song on Ferry’s first solo album has more visceral impact than These Foolish Things. Recorded in 1936 – the oldest tune on the record by a good few decades – ‘Foolish Things’ was originally added (late) to the set-list of a London revue titled Spread it Abroad, written by songwriters lyricist Eric Maschwitz and composer Jack Strachey and performed on stage by Dorothy Dickson.  This is the version most critics cite as the one Ferry emulated (“Bryan Ferry covered the Dorothy Dickson version of the song for the title track of his first solo album…” Wiki). Yet this is unlikely, as no recorded version of Dickson’s song exists. Instead, Ferry’s adaptation most resembles the version recorded by the man who first made the tune a hit – Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, the famous West Indian-British cabaret star of the 1930-40s. Visiting lyricist Maschwitz’s studio one afternoon hunting for songs, Hutchinson saw the unloved ‘Foolish Things’ manuscript sitting on top of the studio piano. The Great American Songbook quotes Maschwitz in his autobiography:

“What’s this?” he [Hutchinson] asked.

Maschwitz explained it had not been picked up by any publisher.

Hutch placed the music on the rack, played and sang the song right through.

The Moment he had finished, he turned to Maschwitz and said: “I have a recording session in two days’ time. May I use it?”

May I use it? Talk about being at the right place at the right time. Hutchinson recorded his version and it was an immediate hit in the UK. After Hutchinson’s success, a further five other covers charted the same year, 1936: Benny Goodman (# 1), Teddy Wilson with Billie Holiday (# 5), Nat Brandywynne (# 6), Carroll Gibbons (# 8), and Joe Sanders (# 17). Between 1936 and 1963 the song continued its massive popularity, being covered by many of the great musical talents of the twentieth century – in addition to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra, there was Nat King Cole, Etta James, and Sam Cooke. The track also became a favourite of the bop and post-bop jazz giants, with versions recorded by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Red Garland, Johnny Hartman, Dave Brubeck, Art Pepper, and Chet Baker – the seductive lyric an invitation for embellishment via saxophone, trumpet, or piano.

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 7.36.59 AM

‘These Foolish Things’ is known as a “list” or catalog song, and is one of the very earliest examples of narrative cataloging in pop music, capturing, in particular, the virtues or vices of a spurned or absent lover (The Great American Songbook is now full of them: All the Things You Are, Thanks for the Memory, and The Way You Look Tonight). Maschwitz knew he wanted to write a song in the vein of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top – a hit two years previously, in 1934 –  in which Porter lists the many amusing qualities about his sweetheart. Maschwitz created a moody epic, lingering on such timeless images as The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations/Silk stockings thrown aside, dance invitations, adhering to a poetic sensibility with just a hint of flirtatious sex. Music critic Robin Miller comments in his 1963 article, that it is quite possible that a certain kind of songwriting success is no longer possible because “The great songs of the 1930s were written by adults for adults. People with experience of life and love, who could appreciate wit and were not afraid of sentiment. And sentiment, of course, is what is revealed by Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 7.08.12 AMevery line, every note of ‘These Foolish Things’.”

Not surprisingly, given the evocative and sensual lyric of the song, the public was fascinated by who Maschwitz might have had in mind while writing ‘These Foolish Things’. True, Maschwitz was romantically linked to the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong while working in Hollywood during the early thirties, but The Great American Songbook tells us the lyricist himself “does not mention this.”


The far more interesting story
is that ‘These Foolish Things’ is a song inspired by Jean Ross, British writer, activist, film critic and the role-model for Christopher Isherwood’s ‘divinely decadent’ Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin, later adapted into the long-running stage musical and film, Cabaretstarring Liza Minnelli as Sally/Jean. According to the research, “most sources, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, posit cabaret singer Ross, with whom Maschwitz had a youthful romantic liaison, as the Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 5.36.52 AMmuse for the song” (Ross). The implication then, is that the dark and decadent Berlin Weimar Republic years of 1931 are the inspiration for one of the twentieth centuries most popular romance songs. I wonder if Michael Buble knows this?

This darker undertone would appeal to the cheap and vulgarity loving Ferry, shedding a bit of light on the reason why he selected the song – you can safely say ‘Foolish’ being out of style with the young teen fans he had converted with Roxy Music’s early singles. On on the one hand, the possibilities of seductive interpretation certainly appeal to any singer who tackles ‘Foolish Things’ – Hutchinson (stoic); Sinatra (self-absorbed); Ella Fitzgerald (emotive, insightful). To his credit Ferry chooses to play it straight, respectful, yet laced with dollops of camp and ironic awareness – this is the movies, after all. He nails the lyric by getting inside the seductive element of the song, not once flinching over the innate high-style Romanticism of the tune (think Morrissey dreading another sunny day) and never once backing down from such ironic, poor-taste pearls as Gardenia perfume ling’ring on a pillow/Wild strawb’ries only seven francs a kilo. Respected as a man who knows his stuff, Ferry is to be credited for keeping the original lyric, including the opening stanza “Oh will you never let me be?/Oh will you never set me free?” – even the song’s originator Leslie Hutchinson didn’t include that one. And Ferry didn’t add new verses or change lines lines, like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald did – indeed, Ella added whole new verses, but it’s Ella – so who cares?

We’ll look at the fantastic filmed promotional clip for ‘These Foolish Things’ in part two of this entry, but it is enough to say for now that Ferry’s vision for the piece was interesting, choosing to stage the song for cinema, contrasting sharply with ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘s pure (and funny) Top of the Pops band-in-action clip. When Ferry stages ‘Foolish Things’, he does so in pink flamingo shadows, an opened, half empty whiskey bottle sitting open beside a burning cigarette. The mood is sombre but heated, the shadow of tropical plants paint prison bars on the singer’s face. He looks up and around (a little awkwardly, it must be said) chasing down the memory.

Knowing the song is inspired by fashion model cabaret rebel Jean Ross, and bearing in mind his own taste for decadent Weimar imagery – Country Life is full of it, the track ‘Bitter-Sweet‘ in particular (years before Bowie and Iggy descended on Berlin) – we can posit that Ferry’s promotional movie is actually a re-staging of ‘These Foolish Things’ moment of composition, the point in time Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson discovered the battered manuscript on top of the piano, and he and the love-torn Maschwitz worked out the song between plentiful sips of “vodka and coffee”. Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 9.02.13 AMFerry replaces the West Indian-British cabaret star Hutchinson with a gorgeous African-American pianist, who is smiling up at the singer, but somehow distant, out-of-frame, yet responsive to the changes in Ferry’s phrasing and vocal enunciation. Ferry’s performance is almost diabolical in its seriousness, pushing through to a point where some viewers want to snigger, others simply laugh out loud at how odd and different the whole thing is. A little, perhaps, like Sally Bowles herself.

She had a surprisingly deep, husky voice. She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides – yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse of what people thought of her.

Christopher Isherwood

Credits
Great articles at The Cafe Songbook provide the historical context for this entry; as do clips from Ferry’s ‘Foolish Things’ film; with the web providing great shots of Leslie Hutchinson, Jean Ross, Ana May Wong, Hutch’s These Foolish Things, original release; and of course the brilliant movie poster art for Cabaret – not Bob Fosse’s best film necessarily (that distinction goes to All That Jazz), but any Fosse film is worth more than most.

Titbits
Not convinced by the Weimar Republic connection to ‘Foolish Things’? – no problem – enjoy instead Bryan Ferry‘s cameo doing Roxy Music‘s Bitter-Sweet on the television series Babylon Berlin. The woman watching is the flawed and lovely Weimar character Charlotte Ritter, police clerk by day, cabaret star by night..

Screen Shot 2020-02-01 at 9.38.45 PM

Next: These Foolish Things – Part 2!


2 Comments

Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 8.21.54 AMLoving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, Bryan Ferry (These Foolish Things, 1973)
Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, The Four Tops, (Ivy Jo Hunter/Stevie Wonder, 1966).
Club a’Gogo, Eric Burdon and The Animals (Animal Tracks, 1965)

My baby found a new place to go
Hangs around town at the Club-a-gogo
Takes all my money for the picture show
But I know she spends it at the club-a-gogo

Eric Burdon and the Animals, 1966

Written in typically optimistic fashion by Stevie Wonder (You Are the Sunshine of My Life/Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing) Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever is a wonderful Four Tops recording released by Motown in 1966, reaching #45 on the Billboard 100. The Four Tops original is so bright and assured that most of 70s rock royalty have added it to their reportoire – The Band, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins – failing in all instances to re-capture the sprightly bounce of the 1966 Motown release. Only Marvin Gaye comes close to the original by re-thinking the music and applying his typical pixie dust to the recording. Bryan Ferry and his magic band of John Porter, Eddie Jobson and Phil Thompson come close to the mark – the backing track is a percussive and funky wonder – but unfortunately the Ferry trademark vocal style interrupts the beat of the song, deflating it of its attractive innocence.

‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ continues Ferry’s fascination with the hit-making factories of 50s and 60s America, in this instance foregoing New York’s Brill Building hit-factory in favour of Detroit City’s Motown Records (the name Motown a mix of motor and town, the nickname for Detroit, and significantly, the location of the world’s first stage dive by Iggy Pop – it’s amazing what you can find at detroithistorical.org!).

The pull to Motown was significant for Ferry, for, growing up in Washington, County Durham during the 1950s, like many young people he needed a lifeline and an inspiration: “I loved American music,” he told Jon Savage in 2018. ““From the age of about 10, every week you’d discover somebody new. I was very much into jazz. You know how English people are; there’s a certain amount of musical snobbery. I mean, I loved Little Richard and Fats Domino, but when I heard Charlie Parker for the first time, this was something I really loved, and nobody else who I knew knew anything about him.” (Guardian).

Jazz came first (“In 1955, I also started listening to jazz – I became obsessed”), followed by R n’ B, Stax & Motown, soul – female singers, in particular, caught his ear: “I love women’s voices, actually – I haven’t got much time for men’s voices…But Billie Holiday is probably my favorite singer ever because she was so inventive, and soulful, and just so cool” (Pitchfork).

I. West Side
What is interesting is that the absorption of American influences and styles would produce such as European, neo-futurist, and often very weird sound with Roxy Music, a compositional blueprint that would eventually morph into the softer, restrained and more soulful sound of Manifesto (“West Side”), Flesh and Blood, and Avalon. Coming off an interview with Ferry in 2013, journalist Lindsay Zoldaz is impressed with how closely Ferry studies the form of song and performance – in this case, Prince on YouTube during a George Harrison tribute (“Ferry studies the screen like a quarterback taking mental notes on a rival’s game”) – and goes on to say, significantly:

From the innovative pastiche of Roxy Musics earliest records to his best solo albums– which feature wildly imaginative covers of Dylan, Otis, and Lesley Gore, to name just a few– [Ferry’s] career has played out like one prolonged, well-informed, and often-exclamatory conversation with popular music.

Lindsay Zoladz, Pitchfork, 2013

As musician and music theorist, Andy Mackay has identified the process of Ferry absorbing musical influences and turning it into a sound that was so successful for Roxy Music, while also recognizing the “tremendous influence” Ferry’s vocal style had “on people who perhaps wouldn’t have been confident in going out and becoming singers, because they didn’t sound enough like soul or rock singers or whatever. And then they heard Bryan…”:

The band he [Ferry] was in before, The Gas Board, was basically a soul band; and it’s very interesting that as soon as he got the chance to launch his solo career […] with These Foolish Things, he immediately did covers of all the songs by singers who he admired – which were soul songs. I think he thought he was singing one thing, but because he was English, it came out differently.

Andy Mackay, 1997

Screen Shot 2020-01-01 at 6.16.40 PMThe Gas Board // Bryan Ferry (r)

While I was at university I put together my own band called The Gas Board and we played a lot of clubs in the area. None of the material we performed was original – it was mainly R ‘n’ B covers. But two of the musicians from that band – Graham Simpson and John Porter – were later to play with me in Roxy Music, so as you can imagine this was a very important time for me.

Bryan Ferry, 2009

The Gas Board was formed in the latter half of 1965 and included a three piece horn section (which, a bit surprisingly, included future film-maker Mike Figgis). American Screen Shot 2020-01-02 at 9.48.58 AM.pngSoul was popular in the UK charts in the 60s, with Motown stars The Four Tops (Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever); The Temptations (My Girl); The Supremes (Baby Love); and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (Tears of a Clown) having big hits in the country, instigating a move away from classic Rhythm & Blues towards Soul.

Knowing which side their bread was buttered, this is the direction the Gas Board decided to take, with Ferry covering as best he could quintessential 1960s Stax and Motown hits of the day. “In my college band, I had been imitating whichever song I was singing.” Around the same time he hitchhiked to London to see the Stax Roadshow featuring Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Sam and Dave. This was the singer’s ‘Road to Damascus moment’: “I’d been nursing the idea for Roxy since my last band [the Gas Board], since 1964-65. Obviously, when I stopped with the other band I was still thinking about music, but in more creative terms” (Ferry). With the concept and idea firmly in his mind, Ferry started to plan the mixing of “black soul music and the art school influence” to create a new hybrid European sound.

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 1.10.25 PM

II. Devil With a Hatchet
The cross-pollination of styles and collisions in Bryan Ferry’s musical output was due in part to the location and heritage of his hometown – the unglamorous working-class industrial city of Newcastle Upon Tyne (specifically, Washington, County Durham), in North East England. Against a backdrop of Newcastle’s typical cobblestoned, coal-dirty streets Ferry took in the visual influences of architectural marvels Penshaw Monument and the Central Arcade (see: The Track of My Tears), Newcastle also provided access to American Jazz in the 50s, R n’ B, Soul, and high-pedigree rock in the 60s. An early home for jazz in the city in the 50s, The Newcastle Jazz Club was followed by The New Orleans Club, and The University Jazz club – the latter owned by Michael Jeffery (probably best known as the man who managed the Animals and Jimi Hendrix) and also as the future founder and owner of the Club a’Gogo.

The Club a’Gogo was great. That was near the bus station. You’d go up these stairs, past all these bus drivers and bus conductors who had a tea room or office there, and the club was at the top. Later I saw all sorts of people there: Cream, the Spencer Davis Group, Wilson Pickett, Captain Beefheart – I was DJ at the club the night Beefheart played there.

Bryan Ferry, 2008

The significance of the Club a’Gogo was to provide a place where art, commerce, and music could meet.  In the latter half of 1961 Mike Jeffery and and his partner Ray Grehan had gone ahead with the purchase of a site above the Handyside Arcade on Percy Street. According to the excellent online series of articles on gigging in the North East (Ready, Steady, Gone), the expectation for Jeffrey was that the club be the “best in the city”. As well as live Jazz and Latin American music, there was to be a games room with roulette, meals and a late drinks license. Mike Jeffery targeted the youth and older crowds –

“by splitting the Club A’Gogo into the two discrete venues. The club consisted of two rooms either side of a landing. On the right was the licensed ‘Jazz Lounge’. On the left was the unlicensed ‘Latin American Lounge’, later to be renamed the ‘Young Set’”.

Roger Smith, 2013

Screen Shot 2020-01-01 at 9.31.40 PM

John Lee Hooker: ‘You ever hear’a Newcastle’?
Interviewer:Newcastle, Mississippi?’
John Lee Hooker: ‘Newcastle in Britain. Newcastle . . . boy, that was rough. There was a bar I played every night. It was rough.’

Like many Northern music venues, the club had a violent reputation. Gambling and late night drinking were a problem. Eric Burdon and The Animals were the house band during some of the club’s most influential years (even recording a song called Club a’Gogo) and the influx of music styles and cast of characters made it an exciting place:

The ClScreen Shot 2020-01-02 at 10.11.10 AM.pngub a Go-Go was a shining star of the northern British club world, which meant it also had to be a den of iniquity. It’s where the North East mob was born – they ran several clubs in the area. It was a mixture of teen heaven, with the devil running loose wielding a hatchet. It was the only place outside of one club in London that actually had a full-on gaming licence. It was very clear that the mob from London would take interest, as gaming back then was strictly controlled in England and only one club in London’s West End had been allowed the game of roulette. I have many great memories from Club A Go-Go.

Eric Burdon

My baby found a new place to go
Hangs around town at the Club-a-gogo
Takes all my money for the picture show
But I know she spends it at the club-a-gogo
Let’s go babe, let’s go, I love you, come on, yeah!

It’s one of the coolest spots in town
You take too much tho’ it’s bound to get you down
She’s got a boy-friend they call Big Joe
He’s a big shot at the club-a-gogo
Babe, come on, let’s go, let’s go babe, yeah!

Now they play the blues there every day and every night
Everybody monkeys and they feel all right
Ask my friend, Meyer he’ll tell you so
That there ain’t no place like the club-a-gogo
Let’s go babe, ah let’s go, come on it’s all right, s’all right, s’all right
Yeah!

I guess I can’t blame her for goin’ up there tho’
The place is full of soul, heart and soul, baby
It’s all right dad, John Lee Hooker, Jerome Green,
Rolling Stones, Memphis Slim up there, Jimmy Reed too baby,
Sonny Boy Williamson baby

Eric Burdon and The Animals, Club a Go-Go, 1966.

From Burdon’s description and lyric it is safe to say Club a’Gogo provided Ferry with access to music of some considerable variety and character, introducing an explicitly Roxy Music sensibility born of trampy, stylish decadence – the sleazy scene depicted on the cover of For Your Pleasure coming alive in its high-heeled glory – girls, clothes, dirty deeds done dirt cheap – as Ferry confirms: “Some quite hard men used to go there – like gangsters; dressed in mohair suits, with beautiful girls – the best looking girls in Newcastle; quite tarty. It was really exciting – it felt really “It” to go there. Beautiful girls …” (Ferry). And Ferry connects the dots of his flash American fantasy to the style and attitudes of the American bands – “the Stax label and Motown, they were into presentation and show business, mohair suits, quite slick. And the cover art…was a bit off-kilter as well; there was something a bit strange about it, futuristic as well as retro” (Guardian).

A bit off-kilter, something a bit strange, futuristic as well as retro: as if to seal his concept for the Roxy machine and his solo career, Bryan Ferry would recall that one of the large walls in the Club a’Gogo Jazz Lounge had a large day-glo mural of the New York skyline. Ferry assisted in painting the mural, applying his musical and artistic signature to the interior design of a club that brought him soul and excitement in equal measure. The primary artist of the piece – the flamboyant poet and writer David Sweetman – went on to became a life-long friend of Ferry – their common interests of art, music and writing outliving the typical life-span of a city nightclub, with its final claim on our memories, and all of our times and places.

Screen Shot 2020-01-01 at 6.32.38 PMIt was by far the greatest club in the UK, even the planet for that matter and that’s an understatement!

Alan Brack, Club a’Gogo patron, 2013

The Club a’Gogo closed its doors in June 1968. To quote the Newcastle Live newspaper: “The whole 1906-built building, including the Handyside Arcade was, to the despair of many, demolished in the late 1980s to make way for the new Eldon Garden shopping mall.” (Maybe City Council will recognize the mistake, and like Liverpool’s Cavern, have to painstakingly re-build the club with its original bricks).

Postscript: It was nice to read this past week that plans are being made to resurrect Club a’Gogo in January 2020 (“Newcastle’s legendary 1960s Club a’Gogo is set for a regular revival night).” We wish the owner much success, and will keep an eye on events and information as it becomes available: Club a’Gogo 2020 Facebook.

Happy New Year!

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 7.26.36 AMCredits: many thanks to the excellent info compiled at Ready, Steady, Gone – the brilliant site that reviews gigging in the North of England, late 60s/early 70s.

Photos: Gas Board original promo (Ferry in tie); Billie Holiday; Gas Board promo; Stax/Volt Road Show poster (Norway); Club a’Go-go logo; Club opening night; Animals recording of Club a’Go-go; Club a’Go-go exterior and interior shots; Club New York skyline mural by David Sweetman, assisted by Bryan Ferry.

Next: Triumph in Endings: closing out with ‘These Foolish Things’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

I Love How You Love Me

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 7.13.25 AMI Love How You Love Me, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
I Love How You Love Me, The Paris Sisters (original, Barry Mann/Larry Kolber; Produced by Phil Spector, 1961).

Bryan Ferry’s cover of the Phil Spector classic ‘I Love How You Love Me’ is a return to form on These Foolish Things after the misjudged train wreck of The BeatlesYou Won’t See Me‘. Ferry is more confident of Spector’s material, getting the mood and swing just right, over-riding the smooth tones of the original and raising the temperature with a welcome doo-wop bounce. Ferry even throws in a harpsichord riff (provided by the brilliant Eddie Jobson) to get the party rolling, and it works beautifully. Perfectly timed and rendered, you can feel the album winding down now in glorious fashion as the band prepare the next tracks ‘Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever‘ and ‘These Foolish Things‘ on the sidelines.

‘I Love How You Love Me’ is another selection from New York’s Brill Building staple of writers (It’s My Party/Baby I Don’t Care/Don’t Ever Change) that provides Ferry further opportunity to cross paths with Phil Spector (Don’t Worry Baby) and the joys of 50s and 60s American AM Radio. At this juncture there are three distinct threads weaving through These Foolish Things: songwriting as assembly-line craft (Brill Building songs); the new 60’s breed of songwriting (Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones), and a ‘Do the Stand’ historical odyssey booked-ended by two extended tracks, A Hard Rain’s-a-Gonna Fall and Sympathy for the Devil. Interestingly, ‘I Love How You Love Me’ also provides a bridge between 54th Street production line ballad-making and 60s singer-songwriter aesthetic, via TV’s favorite teen throb phenomenon The Monkees (no less). What can we say – you heard it here first!

Written in the vocal friendly key of C-major, ‘I Love How You Love Me’ was composed by Barry Mann (Who Put the Bomp) and lyricist Larry Kolber (Sweet Little You), both staff writers at Don Kirshner‘s Aldon Music. Often mistaken as a pure Brill Building recording (Brill was actually located at 1650 Broadway, Aldon Music was next door at 1619 Broadway), ‘Love Me’ was nevertheless a definitive product of New York song-writing labor, sweated over in the Eastern US hit factory before Phil Spector took it to his home turf of California and the custom designed echo chambers of Gold Star Studios to record with his new girl group, The Paris Sisters.

Typically obsessed with the song (remixing the strings over thirty times), Phil Spector’s version of ‘I Love How You Love Me’ is a nostalgic wish to return to small-town America – a feeling capitalized on by Bobby Vinton‘s own 1968 hit version of the song (a David Lynch movie contender) where Vinton calls out an American innocence that was frequently name-checked but rarely existed, much like those abandoned towns and last picture shows captured in Virginia Plain, resulting in a sweetness of atmosphere wrapped in a banality kissed by a touch of menace. In keeping with the vibe of David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet then, ‘I Love How You Love Me’ is the sound of an all-American logging town of white picket fences and street-corner diners going Top 5, no questions asked, in August 1961.

Bryan Ferry seems to have copped this strangeness and wisely resisted it, instead giving ‘I Love How You Love Me’ a bit of much-needed bounce and lightness, courtesy of the girl singers he used as his own backing band, the wonderful The Angelettes. The brighter feel-good élan suits the song, re-making the original for a modern, ready-to-dance crowd. Let’s face it, the kids in the early 70s needed a bit of cheering up after Altamont, the Beatles break-up, and MacArthur Park climbing to the top of the charts.

These Foolish Thingswill probably succeed best in the context of a party

Ian MacDonald
Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 7.07.41 AM
To me it was a business and I had to knock off the songs.

Don Kirshner

Pop from the production line; that seemed to be the story of the late Fifties and early Sixties.

Greg Shaw

There is an incredible TV rock show, rarely referenced today, that offered a staggering lists of musical guests and chart topping bands performing live in the studio, introduced by a man with a bad hair comb-over and a stilted, monotone delivery. The show was Don Kirshner’s Rock Concertan American music program that taped live in-studio shows with the 70s and 80s biggest acts. (Think Old Grey Whistle Test or Der Musikladen in Europe). Rock Concert was the brainchild of one of pop music’s greatest businessmen: Don Kirshner (1934-2011). Kirshner was a pioneering New York City music publisher who brought the Tin Pan Alley approach to rock ‘n’ roll in the late Fifties and by the 60s had helped launch the careers of Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Neil Diamond and The Monkees. Setting up his publishing company Aldon Music in 1958 with partner Al Nevins, both men began working as producers as well as publishers, with Aldon not just offering songs but also recording finished recordings to the labels, which gave them a share of artist royalties as well as the standard publisher’s share of revenue from songs. With the business of business firmly in our minds then, we may recall the lyric to the opening lines of Roxy Music’s first single ‘Virginia Plain‘:

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

This is a desire for fame articulated in a manner that Don Kirshner would have approved of – clearly, the business of music was on Ferry’s mind right from the get-go. Don Kirshner’s Aldon publishing empire is regarded as having played a significant role in shaping the Brill Building Sound in the late 1950s and 1960s, a pooling of talent that comprises well over half of the selections on Ferry’s These Foolish Things. Yet, with the coming of The Beatles, and the increasing practice of performing artists writing their own material, the demand for “song factories” such as Kirshner’s began to decline. As Ferry commentator Hal Norman notes on the Foolish Things website: “After the Beatles, how could a rock musician ever claim legitimacy or validity without writing their own material? There can be no sincerity or personal expression without originality…” (Norman).

This is the question Ferry strives to answer on his first album of singing the pop canon. Ferry’s fascination and admiration for Brill Building composers and recordings is embedded in the idea of song-writing as craft, a respect for pop as a work of art, akin to painting, sculpture, and movie-making. In the same manner that Ferry, Eno and Mackay fused classical, avant-garde electronics and rock ‘n’ roll in Roxy Music (The “accidental synthesis”, as Andy Mackay described it), Ferry makes an important personal move in 1973 to look under the hood of his new profession to see what makes it tick, using These Foolish Things to enter the doors of the Brill Building and navigate its “rabbit warren of cubicles” furnished with a pianos and desks. He is keen to throw light on the craft of pop music making, a genre that had previously been seen as imminently childish and disposable. Yet, critically, Ferry understands that pop’s disposable nature is the very bedrock on which it stands.  The Encyclopedia Britannica credits Madonna for exposing this defining paradox of rock and pop music, but surely it was Ferry’s early 70s postmodern approach to his own and other’s songs that gave early wide-acceptance to the idea:

Madonna can be described as a rock star (and not just a disco performer or teen idol) because she articulated rock culture’s defining paradox: the belief that this music—produced, promoted, and sold by extremely successful and sophisticated multinational corporations—is nonetheless somehow noncommercial.

And so Don Kirshner embraced the issue of authenticity vs commercialism and tackled it head-on: he arranged and produced the music for the television show The Monkees, the group formed in 1966 by American TV executives desperate to cash in on the Beatles phenomenon. The creators of The Monkees, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider (Easy Rider), knew exactly the Screen Shot 2019-12-25 at 6.27.48 AM.pngkind of guys they wanted for their new series. So the ad they took out in the September 8, 1965 edition of Variety had to reflect the attitudes of the burgeoning youth culture (the ad included the line, “Must come down for interview,” a reference to being high, according to Rafelson). Don Kirshner was hired to provide the music from his staple of Brill Building writers:  “They were the idea of the studio, who wanted to capitalize on the Beatles’ `Hard Day’s Night’ with a weekly TV show built around the same kind of high-spirited hi-jinks,” Don explained. “What they did was hold a cattle call and selected the four guys out of a thousand or so, based on their appearance, rather than any musical ability. The group was thrown together from scratch and then the studio gave them to me with full creative control to supply the music” (Kirshner).

What happened next was extraordinary, even by music business standards, as the boys themselves were hired only to act and sing, while Kirshner applied his winning formula in a premeditated manner to produce a string of tuneful hit singles: I’m a Believer (Neil Diamond); Last Train to Clarksville (Boyce, Hart); Pleasant Valley Sunday (Gerry Goffin, Carole King); A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You (Neil Diamond); Valleri and (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone (Boyce, Hart). Selling more than 75 million records – outselling the The Rolling Stones and The Beatles in the year of Sgt. Pepper, 1967 – The Monkees became the epicenter for the originality vs commercialism argument (the “how could a rock musician ever claim legitimacy or validity without writing their own material?”).

Moving in the same circles as The Beatles (Nesmith even appearing in the A Day in the Life promo video), Monkees band-members Dolenz, Nesmith, Jones, and Tork objected to Don Kirshner lying to the public about their musical abilities and not playing on their records (they did little more than provide vocals on their second album, More of the Monkees: In the October 2 edition of The New York Times, writer Judy Stone asked Davy pointedly if “the big push for The Monkees was fair to real rock groups?” Jones responded: “…you can’t fool the people, you really can’t.  There’s a showdown sometime” (MoM, liner notes). In response, the band demanded more input and control: Kirshner was fired for promoting his session musicians over the four members of the band and soon enough, with original material flowing from The Monkees (most of it not very good), the hits stopped coming altogether. By the end of their short two-year television season Mike Nesmith brought in the decidedly teen-(un) friendly Frank Zappa as guest, and for the actual final episode, directed and co-written by Micky Dolenz, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley performed a solo acoustic version of his lovely but mournful Song to the Siren. Buckley’s appearance marked a moment of authenticity incarnate in The Monkees debate – earnest folk solo artist guitarist and songwriter – and by the end of 1968 the kids of pleasant valley had killed the band (at least until MTV came along in the 80s).

Don Krishner went on to repeated success when he gathered yet another set of studio musicians to create The Archies (1968), a cartoon act that wouldn’t talk back (they were just cartoons, after all). The hits kept coming though, the most famous being Sugar, Sugar, written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, which went to number one on the pop chart in 1969, selling over six million copies. They called Kirshner the “man with the golden ear” for good reason.

Perhaps the biggest blight of the late ’60s was ‘bubblegum’, music planned entirely as a product, not as anybody’s art.

Charlie GillettThe Sound Of The City

I take my musical influences from everywhere.

Bryan Ferry

While acknowledging the accomplished and personal song-writing power of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, These Foolish Things nevertheless strongly tips its hat to the fruits of what many consider a more cynical approach to song-writing – the musicians and writers buried deep at Aldon Music and the Brill Building applying a formula to drive towards a hit. And clearly Ferry believes in this approach – song as craft – as do contemporary musical stars of today as they apply the codes of beat and melody provided by every Apple computer. And such, for Ferry the implications of Foolish Things were wide-reaching and permanent: Stranded was written with a greater knowledge of song-writing craft, achieving what is perhaps the best and well-rounded album in the Roxy canon; and Ferry’s own personal voyage was set on discovering the perfect song, reaching a point later in life, perhaps, where he recognized that he had already written it.

Credits: America’s wonder-kid and convicted killer provides the one finger salute (we love you too, Phil); These Foolish Things Japan/The Paris Sisters; Ferry French ‘Love Me’ single release Island / Phonogram 6138.035; mash-up of “fake” bands The Monkees/Spice Girls/Madonna/Lady Ga-Ga/Bay City Rollers; BF at the piano around the time of recording These Foolish Things.

Titbits

Ya know, there’s a PhD out there waiting for anyone wanting to document the Lynchian version of These Foolish Things: it’s the same cast of characters – Bobby Vinton, Ketty Lester, Phil Spector. It’s the perfect antidote to Christmas music – the kids will love it!

~HAPPY HOLIDAYS~


2 Comments

You Won’t See Me

Screen Shot 2019-11-29 at 1.51.51 PMYou Won’t See Me, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
You Won’t See Me, The Beatles, (original, Rubber Soul, 1965)

Although Bryan Ferry established a considerable work ethic early in his career – three albums written, arranged and recorded in 1973 – The Beatles set a sizable precedent in 1965 with the Tamla Motown influenced McCartney track ‘You Won’t See Me‘: adding the song as a late contender for Rubber Soul, ‘See Me‘ was recorded during a single thirteen-hour session that saw the Beatles finish three complete tracks (‘Girl’, ‘Wait’, and ‘I’m Looking Through You’) and only requiring – by necessity – two passes at ‘You Won’t See Me’ to get it in the can. (The rush-recording did impact quality control – ‘See Me’ is unique among Beatles songs in that it changes tempo slightly but noticeably, moving from 119 to 113 bpm over the course of the track).

Like everyone else born in the 20th century, The Beatles are mecca when it comes to influence, range of style, and sheer breadth of songwriting ability. Ferry has openly acknowledged the influence the band had on his music (“the best films were American films, the best stars were American stars… and the best music was American, until The Beatles came along” – Disc),  and he would go on to record a number of Beatle tracks – It’s Only Love; She’s Leaving Home; and of course John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy‘ – but the relationship for Ferry was never an easy one: as a band, The Beatles were so multi-talented that when it came to artists covering them, the plethora of vocal options presented a problem to outsiders: am I Paul; or John; or George? And am I all three during the harmonies? Joe Cocker was able to overcome this embarrassment of riches with his cover of ‘A Little Help From My Friends‘: all he had to do was appropriate Ringo’s expressive baritone. Covering Bob Dylan is an opportunity; covering Ella Fitzgerald is a challenge; covering a mid-period career-peaking tenor-sweet Paul McCartney is near on inconsolable.Screen Shot 2019-11-29 at 12.50.37 PM

Original full-length photograph // The Beatles // 'Rubber Soul' (1965)

Ferry’s version of ‘You Won’t See Me’ is unfortunately one of the least successful ready-mades on These Foolish Things. Starting with a high-in-the-mix sound effect, an engaged telephone that sounds half-hearted and confusing (certainly sounds dated, even for 1973 – when did phones ever sound like this) and not nearly as effective as Blondie’s urgent ring at the beginning for Hanging on the Telephone (I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall/If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall). Ferry’s intention for the gimmick is to have it draw attention to the first line of the song – When I call you up/your line’s engaged – but something is horribly wrong: his voice is weak and pleading, almost irritatingly timid. On first listen you take a mental note to never answer the phone while this guy’s on the line, no matter how long it rings.

Ferry tries to cut through to the heart of ‘You Won’t See Me‘ by enunciating the lyric with new emphasis – his timing is purposely out-of-sync with the original, but the effect is disjointed, providing little reward or preparation for what follows next – the complete abandonment of the song’s key motif – the climbing and repeated vocal refrain you-/won’t-/see-/-me//you-/won’t-/see-/ me etc. Ferry kills the signature motif by replacing it with piano, so we get plunk-/plunk-/plunk-/plunk. It’s like recording ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction‘ while relegating the famous signature guitar line to glockenspiel. Ferry’s attempt is in keeping with Anne Murray‘s embellishment of her version with fuzz guitar (bzzz/bzzz/bzzz/bzzz) – but at least Murray’s version is funky and in keeping with the original Tamla Motown vibe.

More comfortable with love as an ideal, what’s really missing from Ferry’s version of ‘You Won’t See Me‘ is the nasty undercurrent of the original, provided by Paul McCartney in all his Liverpudlian male-dominant glory: in the opening lines he addresses, nay, scolds the woman by telling her to “act her age” – a position that is hilariously hypocritical given that, if the song really is about his split with Jane Asher, then McCartney screwing behind Asher’s back between 1963-1968 (!) is just what the little woman was expected to put up with, Beatlemania or not. McCartney discussed the song in 1994:

As is one’s wont in relationships, you will from time to time argue or not see eye to eye on things, and a couple of the songs around this period were that kind of thing… I would write it out in a song and then I’ve got rid of the emotion. I don’t hold grudges so that gets rid of that little bit of emotional baggage…

Paul McCartney

Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 11.39.11 AM
Women and relationships are the key topic of Rubber Soul (drugs are the key topic of Revolver). The album is riddled with take-it-or-leave it ultimatums: we listen quite happily to McCartney’s I’m-done-with-you-now songs (‘You Won’t See Me‘/’I’m Looking Through You‘); we marvel at George Harrison’s I’m-done-with-you-now songs (‘If I Needed Someone‘); and we cringe at John Lennon’s I’m-done-with-you-now songs (‘Run For Your Life‘). There are of course lots of romantic bits on Rubber Soul – this is a Beatles album after all – ‘Michelle‘ and ‘Girl‘ are lovely (She’s the kind of girl/You want so much, it makes you sorry) – but the overall feeling is, Jesus Christ woman, if you can’t handle me being a Beatle, then oan yer bike eh!

Perhaps this is why Ferry presents such a timid reading of the track: although capable of being a surly Northern male himself  (I hope something special will step into my life/Another fine edition of you), Ferry rarely sticks the boot in in his songs; his MO is wit and repartee, while The Beatles are quite happy to say I’d rather see you dead, little girl/Than to be with another man. The churlishness of some of the lyrics on Rubber Soul are rightly forgotten in the rush to enjoy the brilliant sunny optimism of the music.

Overall then, Ferry falls pretty flat on this Beatles track, a misstep he would easily recover from with his later versions of  ‘It’s Only Love‘ (1976) and ‘Jealous Guy‘ (1980). Indeed, the Let’s Stick Together cover of ‘It’s Only Love’ soars in comparison to ‘You Won’t See Me’, full of confidence and deft keyboard touches, warm to the touch for those open to the invitation. Even a majestic and inventive guitar solo from Roxy Music guest Phil Manzanera at 1:18-1:46 cannot muster the heavy-lifting required to save ‘See Me’. We might consider perhaps that Ferry felt more in the skin of the looser interpretive strengths of John Lennon than the precision beast that was Paul McCartney in full flight – the tenor vocal and backing harmonies alone making this minor Beatles track fly higher above its station than it perhaps deserves.

Credits: Alan Aldridge, Beatles illustrator extraordinaire;  rare Beatles Rubber Soul shot, LA Times; Paul and Jane Asher, Beatles Bible.

Next: ‘I Love How You Love Me’ – Phil Spector returns with a classic!


8 Comments

The Tracks of My Tears

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 6.26.53 AM
The Tracks of My Tears
, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
The Tracks of My Tears, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (original, Going to a Go-Go, 1965).

Teenage dreams, so hard to beat
The Undertones

One of the more over-looked aspects of Bryan Ferry‘s public personae is his dedication, love and respect for the pop music canon – These Foolish Things (1973) not only established a solo career for Bryan Ferry outside of Roxy Music, but his first solo album also invited the listener deep under the skin of its author: if Roxy Music was the creative definition and projection of a perfect (desired) life, then Ferry’s personal and public dedication to popular music was an honest attempt to strip his image of its over-heated rhetoric and celebrate the very DNA of the culture and the social background that had defined him.

For those of us whose formative years were built upon late nights (10pm-midnight) listening the John Peel show, the music of 1977-1979 never dies – listen to that match strike cigarette flame as the first bars of ‘Dance Away‘ are broadcast to the world for the first time, or digest the thunderous bass line to John Lydon‘s post-Pistols classic ‘Public Image‘ and come to understand that, even as a teenager, the only certainty in life is change – and you get the same sense of wonderment, one might expect, that Bryan Ferry felt the first time he heard Charlie Parker, or sang Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. And so, as the next Roxy Music masterpiece took shape amid a background of tension and high expectation (Ferry recorded Foolish Things and Roxy’s Stranded back-to-back) we come to recognize there could be no ‘Mother of Pearl’ without Dylan; without Ketty Lester or Elvis; without The Miracles ‘The Tracks of My Tears’. How could this be so? Let us count the ways..

Central Arcade // Entrance to J. G. Windows Music Shop // Newcastle

I started being a music fan at the age of ten or eleven, and I bought my first record at Windows.

Bryan Ferry

I. The Kingdom

There is something that is both peculiar and captivating about the land and environment that Bryan Ferry grew up in. Like many of us raised in the North, headlines such as “Roman silver found in Fife by teenager” didn’t seem uncommon. To muck around the desolate hills of say, Fife Scotland (as I did), or the plush greens of Herrington Country Park, Newcastle upon Tyne (as Bryan Ferry did), meant that you were occupying – or more likely, abusing – the playgrounds of history. Dads were by-and-large coal-miners and builders, hard-drinkers many of them, living in dreary surroundings against a back-drop of endless history – wars, fallen castles, broken monuments. According to Fife City Council, my own tribe lived in the esteemed “Kingdom Of Fife”. Or just “The Kingdom”. (Even our local shopping mall was “The Kingdom Center” – as far removed from the Promised Land in 1974 as one could imagine). Ferry’s tribe lived in Newcastle upon Tyne, with its 2,000 year history of invaders, Romans, Angles, and Norsemen. The town was one of the earliest industrial centers in Northeast England due to the availability of coal and the possibilities of easy export offered by close proximity to the River Tyne.  Coal grime, then, was under your fingernails, in the blood. And it was history – the past – that whispered its secrets, wrapped in tales of beauty and magnificence:

Over the hills and down the valleys
Soaring aloft and far below
Lying on stony ground the fragments
Truth is the seed we try to sow
Strictly Confidential

One of the those unavoidable truths in Ferry’s playground was the massive and dominating Penshaw Monument, the impact of which was explained in Michael Bracewell’s essential Roxy biography, “Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music“: “In the late 40s and early 1950s, looking back up, was Bryan Ferry, then a boy…entranced…”

Strand Power // The Penshaw Monument 1844 // North East England

When my parents were first married they lived in a farmhouse; and there was a hill nearby called Penshaw Hill. On top of the Hill was a local landmark – a Greek monument built for the Earl of Durham. This is where my father was brought up and his family had farmed on the sides of the hill. When I showed this place to Antony Price he said, ‘Now I know why you’re so interested in the visual things: it’s because of that monument.

Bryan Ferry

For Ferry, living under this slab of neo-Greek classical architecture represented a “symbol” for art and another life away from the coalfields and the hard north-eastern environment; it seemed to represent something from another civilization, that was much finer. (ibid). This then is the beginning of the definition and creation a “state of mind” Screen Shot 2019-11-16 at 9.04.51 AMthat would eventually take shape in the art project Roxy Music. By several accounts (Bracewell/ Buckley/Stump), Ferry was a man at odds with his surroundings – sensitive, out of place – yet possessing a deep understanding and respect for his working-class roots: “My father used to win prizes for his ploughing, but during the Depression the farm failed and he had to work underground, tending pit ponies. He courted my mother for ten years before they got married. It brings a tear to my eye every time I think about it”.  Once comparing himself to “an orchid born on a coal-tip” Ferry recognized he had a depth of feeling: “it was a case of where to channel it” (ibid).

Imagine then the wonder to a kid of a local High Street music shop, standing as strong and as iconic as the classical monuments that first informed his childhood. Better yet, imagine that record store being housed within an architectural gem – The Central Arcade, Newcastle, a temple built in the heart of industrial Newcastle

Exclusive Doors // Central Arcade Architecture // 1906

II. Windows

“It’s always sad when I go back to Newcastle and see that certain places don’t exist any more,” Ferry told Michael Bracewell in 2007:

But it’s great that one shop – which was very important for me … – is still there, in an wonderful old arcade, with extravagant tiled floors, rather like the Bond Street arcades. It’s a shop called Windows, which is a family music shop and the only place you really go to buy records. I started being a music fan at the age of ten or eleven, and I bought my first record at Windows.

J.G. Windows record shop is built within the spectacular and durable Central Arcade in Newcastle, the elegant Edwardian shopping arcade built in 1906. An incredible entrance to an incredible and stylish world, shut far off from Northern hardships and reality, the Arcade was designed to house a commercial exchange and newsroom. The book Newcastle Through Time (John and Joyce Carlson) identifies the design of the Arcade as being inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Italy. Temples, Monuments, cobblestone streets holding up the polish of the new, and at the end of the long corridor a gentle invitation of warm light: the record store! Dramatic, certainly. Longlasting, definately. A modern church containing sacred artifacts of music, history, and endless escape.

J.G. Windows is 110 years old and it was Ferry’s high street go-to music shop. “Some of the first records I bought were jazz records” Ferry noted in 2013. Note then the reverence in which Ferry describes seeing a jazz trumpet in the Windows display as a boy:

The windows are full of clarinets, saxophones, electric guitars – a proper music shop, which sold everything. But to just see a trumpet in the window – a real instrument, to look at it and study it!

The fascination and wonder can be heard in the voice over half-a-century later. A real instrument, to look at – to study! There can be no better place to understand the considerable legacy of Roxy Music as conceived by Ferry in these moments: the ‘ideal of beauty’ that was found among the trumpets and the clarinets, the perfect timbre of a perfect visual: Roxy (cinema) Music (sound).

III. The Archivist

An archivist is a collector and, yes, a fetishist, to be sure – remember the creepy lessons we learned in Silence of the Lambs but an archivist is also a custodian, a caretaker, a steward and keeper of the flame. Speaking to Melody Maker writer and supporter Richard Williams in 1973, Ferry acknowledged “The trouble with doing something like ‘The Tracks of My Tears‘ is that the original was so brilliant it’s hard to touch it.” (Williams). And so it remained. “Ferry’s voice was perfect for his own songs,” David Buckley offers in his biography of Ferry: “where he could shape the contours of the music to suit his undulating and highly distinctive delivery, but when pitted against some of the technically finest singers in pop history, his interpretations were destined to come off second-best.”

This is a fair statement but somehow misses the point, for it feels now, with the benefit of time, that Ferry wasn’t trying to go head-to-head with Smokey Robinson or Brian Wilson, or even Janis Joplin, but was wanting to collect and possess – even own –  his favorite records as perfect artifacts, to get inside them, to understand what made them tick, to unravel the mother-of-pearl coating in order to reveal the oyster within. This is the beginning of ‘Stranded‘. This is the beginning of the theme of the art of obsession, of trying to possess the unobtainable. The nose is pressed against the window; the siren’s sound has done its work: these foolish things await their call.

Q: Is your constant pursuit of the beautiful an attempt to escape the everyday and mundane?

Yes. It’s a search for a better world, really.

Chris Roberts interviewing Bryan Ferry, thirty-seven years after the release of These Foolish Things.

Titbits

My favorite Screen Shot 2019-11-28 at 5.59.21 AMmusic archivist, speaker, singer, poet and music enthusiast is Henry Rollins: a beautiful heart and mind in the body of a modern warrior. As Morrissey said, it takes strength to be truthful and kind. Between radio shows, tours and books, Rollins is also a collector. He has just released a fascinating new book “Stay Fanatic Vol 1“, a 330 page fanzine.  “If you like music,” says Henry, “going to record stores, to shows, if music is one of those things that is and has always been one of the best friends you’ve ever had, you might like this book.”

Music has always been the one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and was always there when perhaps others couldn’t be. So too for Bryan Ferry: it’s the whole point of These Foolish Things. Perhaps it’s the whole point of his career. So too for Henry Rollins; for John Peel; and for a lad wandering the city alone, trying to find The Kingdom.

Screen Shot 2019-11-28 at 5.55.25 AM

Next: Ferry tackles the greatest: The Beatles. December 2019!


6 Comments

Sympathy for the Devil

Screen Shot 2019-08-19 at 6.37.49 AM

Sympathy for the Devil, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Sympathy for the Devil, Bryan Ferry, (cover version, Live at the Albert Hall, 1974)
Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones (original, Beggars Banquet, 1968)

When Mick Jagger wrote ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ he was thinking Baudelaire. When Bryan Ferry recorded the song for his covers album These Foolish Things he was thinking amusement value. That both scenarios were possible is a testament to the Stones achievement in the song. In truth, the only snag with ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is the weight of its considerable fame: a staple of Classic Rock Radio for over forty years, it is hard to hear the track with fresh ears. Yet Ferry rises to the challenge, stripping the track of its back-story and witchy melodrama, choosing instead to deliver ‘Sympathy’ as a straight musical dance number. In later years Jagger would pay the Roxy front-man the ultimate compliment by adopting this version of the song to fill stadiums (and bank balances) across the world.

The ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that presented itself for selection on These Foolish Things was a very different proposition in 1973 that it is today, all smoothed out and easily digestible for world-tours and star-studded guests Madonna and Bill Clinton et al. ‘Sympathy’ was born in a transitional phase for the Stones, coming as it did on the coat-tails of a band keen to present itself as the anti-Beatles (“every story needs good guys and bad guys”).  Early Stones (’62-’65) were a power-house of Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon covers, with a propulsive rhythm section and a intense (albeit 20 minute) live show. Caught up in the hysteria of Beatlemania, Jagger & Co gradually learned to write their own songs and hit mecca with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction‘ – a monumental achievement both in guitar innovation – the fuzzbox riff igniting a stampede of teenage boy garage bands (Iggy and the Stooges taking note) – and a lyric that took the restlessness of Eddie Cochran‘s ‘Summertime Blues‘  and placed it squarely into the consumer age, summing up teenage disengagement as succinctly as ever been captured:

When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me

It’s interesting that Bryan Ferry didn’t select a similar mid-60s Stones track given that his early R ‘n’ B covers band The Gas Board would have been active during this period of the Stones career, watching from afar as the Jagger/Richards partnership gained steam with a series of incredible hits – ’19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Paint It, Black’, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow’ – all plugged in, socially relevant, and tuneful as hell (just spend an hour with Hot Rocks and you’ll see what we mean). But what came next both propelled the band to greater musical heights, and also changed them irrevocably into the parody band we know today.

Screen Shot 2019-08-29 at 11.05.57 PM
The first time I ever heard the song was when Mick was playing it at the front door of a house I lived in Sussex. It was at dinner; he played it entirely on his own, the sun was going down and it was fantastic.

Charlie Watts

I. Just Call Me Lucifer
First the drug busts: using London as their personal pharmacy (“When we got busted at Redlands, it suddenly made us realise that this was a whole different ball game and that was when the fun stopped”) Jagger and Richards escaped jail time on account of fan and (surprisingly) newspaper protests (see: Times Editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?‘). Released from jail, Jagger and Richards wore the win like a badge of honour – they had beaten the establishment in a very public battle, and now the “doors were off their hinges” – they were free to do as they pleased. Now the band were in the ascendant, living privileged, decadent (not necessarily wealthy), lives, not yet fully self-aware, or ironic, but keen to cultivate (and capitalize) on the image of darkness rising. All they had to do was re-connect with their audience and come to grips with the turbulence of the times in which they lived and represented. In this regard ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ came out of an angry place: “The violence was all pervasive. And you can’t help but live in it and reflect it back again. And then, of course, it goes into a feedback loop” (Jagger, Crossfire Hurricane).

That feedback loop presented the audience with an image of escalating paranoia and fear: in ‘Gimme Shelter‘ the key line is “rape, murder/it’s just a shot away” (sung by pregnant soul singer Merry Clayton at 3am in the morning – shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage). In ‘Midnight Rambler‘ Jagger turns from victim to killer by assuming the identity of the Boston Strangler: Did you see me jump the garden wall/I don’t give you a hoot of warning/A-dressed up in my black cat cloak – a narrative-point-of-view Ferry would pinch for his own highly paranoid and murderous ‘The Bogus Man’. And the albums of this period are soaked with gloom and decadence  – Let it Bleed, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Through the Past, Darkly and the point-of-view is unremittingly dark and violent. And so out of this mise en scène comes one of rock’s first Grand postmodern statements (Bowie and Ferry were taking notes): Jagger pens ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by himself (“I was just trying to figure out if it was a Samba or a goddam folk song”), and convincingly collapses the authorial gap between ‘rock star’ and ‘Devil’ (and future solo star and celebrity). Pleased to meet you, he winks, Hope you guess my name. 

It’s a smart move and it works: by playing into one of America’s great music myths – Robert Johnson making a Faustian deal with the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for a life of wealth and taste – Jagger creates his public persona: the wicked and contemptible Peter Pan, the transcendent outsider. The singer invites his audience to the Beggar’s Banquet and dramatizes his transformation into Lucifer at a live taping of  the Rock N Roll Circus on 11 December 1968, dramatically peeling off his shirt in full view of an audience fascinated by the red (fake) tattoo on his chest, the Devil born, coiled and writhing on the stage like a character from Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin‘). Looking red-eyed and demented himself (too many drugs, a 5am taping time), Jagger’s intensity is convincing, earning him a rare compliment by West Coast concert promoter Bill Graham: “I hate him, but that “c*nt is a great entertainer!”

II. Blood on the Ground
When Bryan Ferry first heard ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in 1968 the Stones were broke, and had not toured the US for three years. Cash poor and unable to get their hands on record income – manager Allen Klein held onto their money while the band investigated him for mismanagement – the only way to keep afloat was to tour. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was rolled out live during the famous Rolling Stones American Tour 1969 (“rock and roll legend” as they say in the biz – or at least Dave Marsh did). The tour started out with inadequate lighting, poor sound, and unprecedented high ticket prices – and ended up defining a new financial model for the industry.  With ‘Sympathy’ recently recorded and filmed (see: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil: a piece of new wave cinema capturing the band creating and recording the song), both ‘Sympathy’ and Jagger’s refined public persona was rolled out during the 75 minute live show, which often went past midnight, and kept the crowd waiting for over three hours or more. Keith Richards told Rolling Stone: “Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time. But after ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil’… There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer, and others who think we are Lucifer.” The reviews for the tour and the audience response were ecstatic, and when given the benefit of hindsight, even slightly hysterical.

That the tour ended with resounding grimness at the Altamont Speedway concert has been well documented (particularly in the excellent Joel Selvin book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day). Chasing the Woodstock vibe that had unfolded only four months previous – a vibe the Stones missed entirely – the band came under increasing criticism for high ticket prices during the ’69 tour (“How much can the Stones take back to Merrie England after taxes, anyway?” asked journalist Ralph Gleason). The Stones were forced to make an extravagant gesture: a free San Francisco concert on the final day of the tour. Oh, what hideousness ensued: we can safely say that if ever there’s been a vision of hell on Earth, it materialized on the cold rocky grounds of the decrepit Altamont Speedway on December December 6th, 1969.

Altamont Speedway was run down and mostly neglected, an end-of-life race track littered with derelict cars and old tires strewn across its barren landscape, a place that, at its peak, had never hosted more than a few thousand racing fans. Having blown their chance to host a local free concert in San Francisco the Rolling Stones mishandled negotiations for a free gig in Golden State park because they insisted that their representatives negotiate directly with city officials, who quickly rejected their request. A second option – the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County – was a well-established venue used to hosting large events and would have been ideal for the free concert.  However, when Sonoma management asked for a share of the profits from the filmed documentary of the event (eventually titled Gimme Shelter), the Stones refused to pay. With only two days to go before the gig, the owner of the infrequently used Altamont Speedway offered the land for free, thinking that it would be good publicity for the venue (it generated publicity alright, but not the kind intended).

When the 300,000 fans started arriving at Altamont they discovered no basic amenities: no toilets, no facilities, and no way to purchase food, water, or any other essentials. It was early winter – Dec 6th –  and getting cold (dropping below zero at night) and the landscape was harsh and barren and not in the least bit festive. There was no real stage to speak of – a ground-level wood platform had been hastily constructed, with only a line of strung rope acting as a barrier between fans and artists. To make matters worse, the local Hells Angels had been hired to maintain order but were (unwisely) paid in alcohol. The Angels were also selling vast quantities of LSD that had been laced with speed and various poisons, and it was being passed around to people in orange-juice containers – after eighteen hours of waiting, strangers shared the juice and drank freely, unknowingly passing on a very bad collective LSD and speed trip – half the crew filming Gimme Shelter were unwillingly drugged, some hiding behind their cameras terrified for their safety. Stepping out of his arrival helicopter, Mick Jagger was punched in the face by one drug taker. Another person tripping dove into the local aqueduct and was immediately ground up into tiny bits. (Two more people were killed at Altamont when a car drove into the crowd after the gig. The culprit was never caught). Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was punched in the face when he demanded that the violence stop. During the CSNY set, another Angel methodically carved Stephen Stills leg with a switch-blade until the blood trickled freely down his leg. Stills kept playing – wisely deciding to keep the set short.

The violence continued during the Stones set. ‘I pray that it’s alright‘ Jagger repeated over and over again, mouthing the lyrics to ‘Under My Thumb‘ while taking in the mayhem that was going on around him: a wolf-dog sauntering by, center-stage; an Angel staring up into the black heavens, his mind melting under the hideous acid concoction. A few moments later an 18-year-old African American pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by an Angel, his body kicked and pummeled, a trash can smashed on his head as a parting gesture. Rolling Stone magazine reported that it was the infamous and cursed ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that was being played as Meredith Hunter bled to death from his knife wounds on that cold stony ground. They were wrong (it was ‘Under My Thumb’), but what did it matter now anyway.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 5.59.06 AM
We were scared. It was scary. These people were crazy. And they were standing next to you and we didn’t know how to control it, stop it – it was completely out of our control. It was a nightmare.

Mick Jagger

III. The Groove is Very Good
This then is the song that Bryan Ferry decided to cover to open the second side of his “lighthearted” covers album, These Foolish Things. The mood around the Rolling Stones in 1973 – a few short years after the Altamont debacle – remained dark, almost certainly decadent and detached. The Stones were searching, trying to find the shape-shifting form they could assume in order to continue to make a living – Goat’s Head Soup had just been released in ’73, but it was treading ground. Bryan Ferry, on the other hand, was a new breed of artist – These Foolish Things was an attempt to reduce and re-produce pop music in purely post-modern terms: as product. In Ferry’s view, Dylan‘s ‘Hard Rain’ could be interpreted as a hard glam masterpiece; ‘River of Salt‘ could be sung free of ironic intent, open and bare. Keep the critics engaged was the game plan, and keep the fans happy by giving them a quality experience. The Rolling Stones quickly came to understand the power of product, and it was Bryan Ferry that showed the way, and he did so with the toughest and most feared cut in the Stones catalog: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
Screen Shot 2019-10-16 at 6.38.25 AM
If the 70s narrative is frequently portrayed as one of conflict between rigid and exclusive clans, whether political, social or aesthetical, then Roxy’s manicured mastermind asserts his position as that era’s glamorous go-between, a one-man movement of revisionism and unprejudiced appreciation for the entire pop panoply.

Hal Norman

Still, I much prefer their version to mine.

Bryan Ferry

It was bold for Ferry to select ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to open the second side of These Foolish Things. Not only was the Stones song a non-negotiable rock n’ roll epic – with dobs of violence to stoke the legend – but it was also Mick Jagger’s signature track: how do you sing Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste without thinking about the man and personae behind the song (Jagger, man & myth?). When David Bowie covered ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together‘ on Aladdin Sane (issued only a few short months earlier in April 13, 1973), his version merely propped up the Stones myth and replaced it with his own (Bowie’s cover is a bump-and-grind-affair presented against a backdrop of cocaine-addled sex and impending physical violence). Part of the appeal of These Foolish Things (today and yesterday) was its humble intentions, its desire to entertain. It was neither naive in its approach, nor overly calculating in its delivery: but it was calculated by design, and in deciding to shed ‘Sympathy’ of its voodoo, Ferry lifts the song from its sordid associations and brings it back into the realm of the purely musical. In addition, Ferry provides a structural framework by opening the second side of the These Foolish Things in the same way he opened it – with a mythological epic.

The cover of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall opens Foolish Things in spectacular fashion, as Ferry invents a new way of expressing Dylan’s poetry, producing a glam version of a mind traveling through human history, climbing across those twelve misty mountains and graveyards, the lyric unflinching in its honesty and poetic light (I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children). It’s a form we recognize from ‘Do the Strand‘ – observing across human history (The sphynx and Mona Lisa/Lolita and Guernica/Did the Strand) – and so it is with ‘Sympathy for the Devil‘: interviews show that Jagger wished to write an epic in the form of a Dylan song, his ambition likewise molded by the French symbolists and poets (Rimbaud, Mallarme, Baudelaire): “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s…It was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” (Jagger). Rampaging across time, the poet-mind shape-shifts as Lucifer observes and comments on human history – the trial and death of Jesus Christ (Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate); the violence of the Russian Revolution (I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change); World War II (I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank).

Compare this to Dylan‘s “I met a young woman whose body was burning” and we begin to see Ferry’s game plan: opening each side of the original record with somber observations on the nature of history, murder, and human frailty provides context for what follows – pop music as just another “foolish thing“, a few wasted moments of escapism that help us move through time, adding to our collective, though limited, mortal experience. It’s a great set-up and does not intrude on the enjoyment of the album, as we make our way through stories of love won and lost, car races, Elvis and Beach Boys, and rivers of tears.
Screen Shot 2019-10-16 at 6.35.58 AM
Draft track list, These Foolish Things.

Cutting through the stale dope-smoke fug of the hippie hangover, Roxy were the first true band of the 70s. But they also prophesied the 80s, their celebration of posing and artifice anticipating postmodernism, the new romantics, the Face, pop video and self-reinventing superstars like Madonna.

Simon Reynolds

Popular music got ahead of itself in the late 60s, burning out on endless Cream solos, Altamont, and the paranoia brought on by the Manson murders (name-checking Manson is always risky, but investigate the 60s music industry & Beach Boys Dennis Wilson relationship with the homicidal and delusional Manson, Tex Watson, etc).  If you want to get a sense of how drab and depressing the early 70s were, watch the Beatles at work on Let it Be and feel the cold seep into your bones. Our heroes – Bowie, Bryan and Brian – saw the 70s in a much different way, of course, cutting through the “fug of the hippie hangover” to produce in Europe what was known as Glam rock – or, as John Lennon accurately called it, “rock n’ roll with lipstick” (Lennon). Ferry was keen on stripping his tunes to their basic universal musical message, to produce, as music critic Ian MacDonald observed, “as a light-hearted and positive an album as you could expect from anyone in these turbulent times(MacDonald). For Ferry, the groove and the lyric were the thing:

I recorded a version of Sympathy For The Devil on my first solo album, These Foolish Things, in 1973. I always try to pick songs with lyrics that interest me, and those might be Mick’s best. Sympathy is a really outstanding song, it’s lyrically surprising and it gets going and grooves along. The percussion is great on the Stones version, that was what really stood out to me first. Jimmy Miller produced it and he always liked lots of maracas and tambourines going. I added women’s voices singing the “hooh hoohs”, whereas they just did it themselves, but it’s very effective like that. We had horns and lots of things going on, quite a big band, fun times.

Bryan Ferry, 2012

Musically, the original ‘Sympathy’ really hits the money. The steady Brazilian beat, the slow build, the guitar solo: quite possibly my favorite solo ever: crisp, contained, an inspired clarity of attack and creativity on display.  It’s a really savage 17 measures, and  much credit here must go to Keith Richards’ innate musicality and taste, compounded by his thrilling and expressive bass run that chases down the track and does not let go. Wisely, Bryan Ferry does not take on the weight of the original recording, but chooses to expand and modernize it, re-purposing the song as a Glam teen anthem, a ‘Hard Rain‘ to open the second side of the LP.

Ferry’s cover wears its glam heart on its sleeve – over-baked and over-the-top, a synthesizer fart in the opening bars introduces the modern touch, while a series of carefully-separated drums bully to get on the soundscape at 0-10s. The first power chord arrives at .11s, announcing this is glam – obtrusive, over-fed, self-aware. Throwing out the trade-mark congas, maracas, piano and bass, Ferry’s ploy is to fill as much space as he can right off the mark, leaving behind the slow-build of Jagger’s original as a mere 60’s footnote. Ferry’s arrangement skills are particularly sharp here as he brings forward the “woo-woos” to the beginning of the song at .20s, nailing down the vocal trademark early in the track to ensure brand recognition for a vocal line that does not show up in the original until around the two minute mark.

Anticipating his audience’s lack of patience, Ferry throws in a surprising manipulated vocal at .28s – a technique Iggy Pop would deploy later in the late 70s (see: New Values @ 1.56). In spite of the Darth Vader sound effects, Ferry carefully enunciates each word, respectful of the original, yet the effect is schizophrenic, verging on the comic.  [Question – sternly]: I shouted out who killed the Kennedy’s? [Answer – with conviction]: well after all, it was you and me (3.20). The heavily processed vocal has trouble cutting through the noise, and the changes in tone and emphasis demands too much of the listener: you’re either surfing on top of the imagery or you’re inside it, and we’ve already seen what being inside ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ entails..

Nevertheless, Ferry cackles convincingly throughout the song at 3.00 & 4.00, though sometimes treading a little too close to ‘Grimly Fiendish’ territory. Whether the bombastic approach is ultimately successful probably depends on what kind of mood you’re in: do you prefer the blow-dried and perfumed ‘Sympathy’ as seen in the live Stones movie Shine a Light (come on kids – “woo-woo!”), or do you hanker for some authentic French New Wave burn-down-the-studio mise-en-scene, as Jean-Luc Goddard delivers the goods in Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One). Either way, Ferry’s guitar and keyboard overload does not discriminate, nor will it allow lazy criticism. And this in its own quiet way is revolutionary – as Ferry commented at the time of the album’s release: “I hope the general point will be understood. Its amusement value, I think (Viva).

This would have been music to Mick Jagger’s ears: wanting to leave behind the Satanism and diabolique, opting instead for safety (for his band and for his audience), the boy from Dartford could see an opportunity to re-invent himself again, and take on a fresh move towards something “not so dangerous”:

The [new] feeling was you were having a good time. It was more kind of fun. But, it was more colorful and produced and it wasn’t supposed to be taken totally seriously.

Jagger, commenting on the Steel Wheels tour, ’89/90.

Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 6.15.56 PM

Credits:

The Manson clan gets a hearing from the unwittingly sympathetic media; The Stones, mid-60s hit-makers; Book cover, The Sixties: The decade remembered now, by the people who lived it then (a Rolling Stone publication), 1977; Kafka Die Verwandlung; Altamont pics; Rolling Stone magazine ground-breaking article on the after-math of the Speedway concert; Ferry in the studio, These Foolish Things; Ferry solo ‘Hard Rain’ Top of the Pops, and interview 1973; Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour inflatable.

Next, November – ‘Track of My Tears’ – Ferry records a classic!