For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s


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Virginia Plain – Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Reach For Something New

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

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

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I think audiences are quite comfortable watching something coming into being

– Brian Eno, interview, 1995

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

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

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

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, final Part 5, published June 2017

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

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

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Virginia Plain – Part 3

last picture poster

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

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

Sinking Fast – Verse 3

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

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

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

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

robert johnston made a deal with the devil

Robert Johnson …making a deal with the devil.

Havana sound we’re trying
Hard edge the hipster jiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

james dean

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

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

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

Part 4 of 4 – early May/2017

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

Titbits

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

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


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Virginia Plain – Part 2

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


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

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

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

-Bryan Ferry, interview, Bracewell.

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

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

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

-Brian Eno, interview, 2001

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

Is she really going out with him?

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

Make Me a Deal – verses 1 &2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Phil Manzanera, to Mick Wall, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Serene she stands
– a monument
on this horizon

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

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

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

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

-Mark Lancaster, Interview, 2004

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

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

-Nick De Ville, interview, Bracewell

Part 3 here.

Titbits

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

 


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Virginia Plain – Part 1

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

-BF, commentary, 2009

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

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

-Phil Manzanera, to Mick Wall, 2014

Part 2 here.

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

Titbits

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

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

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Bitters End

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The hybrid of styles and musical backgrounds of the band members created a blend of music that was like nothing that had gone before in music. This made a huge impact on the music scene in 1972 and is seen as one of the most exciting and innovative debut albums ever.
– John O’Brien, archivist/author (vivaroxymusic)

Roxy Music was recorded at Command Studios, a refurbished studio formerly owned by the BBC (Piccadilly 1) in central London. Command lasted for only a few years and was beset by management rows and technical troubles (the train noise from the Piccadilly tube would spill into recordings). Nevertheless even though the studio didn’t last long, in its short span it was responsible for capturing some killer sessions: Brian Eno’s  No Pussyfooting; King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongue in Aspic; and Slade Alive! (don’t laugh, Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler set up a Slade fan club concert in Command’s large studio that by all accounts was riotous.  The subsequent album launched Slade’s commercial career – three singles went straight in at No 1, one of them selling half-a-million copies in its first week). Command Studios also gave us, of course, the debut Roxy Music album.

Roxy Music was recorded and mixed in less than a month for a modest sum (£5,000). Peter Sinfield’s production of the album has been criticized over the years, and while there is no doubt that the thin sound and high-pitch tremolo of Bryan Ferry’s vocals do take some getting used to, it is the context and circumstance that serves to define the sound of the first album. The producer and the studio were not a fault – Sinfield did record Virginia Plain a few months later at Command Studios, and no way can anyone say that classic single does not jump out of the speakers! The issue, if any, is the fact that the mandate for the first Roxy Music album was to be different, to try different styles and moods, to upset or stretch expectations about what pop could do. And this meant sounding different, and getting under the skin with something we hadn’t heard before.screen-shot-2016-05-08-at-7-39-02-pm
The first record was really exciting to make, because it had so many different flavours.
– Bryan Ferry, interview, Bracewell

Bitters End is the last cut on a musically diverse album. The lyrics are largely throwaway, though of course Pale fountains fizzing forth pink gin is a direct sign-post to the pink colour-assortment of the (soon-to-be) famous album cover. The image of decadent luxury, and old Brit cultural snobbery is embedded in the song, rife with doo-wop singers, a quivering Noel Coward vocal delivery, and some nifty sax. It’s a tuneful song, highly listenable with a subject matter and lightness close to The Beatles ‘Savoy Truffle (Creme tangerine and montelimar/A ginger sling with a pineapple heart). The party laughter and clinking of drink glasses that opens the album has its closer here, and with a wink and a nod Ferry summarizes the completion of the album – a celebration for the band – and its delivery, perhaps, to the unsuspecting record company:

Give now the host his claret cup
(the host of this party, Island Records owner Chris Blackwell)

And watch madeira’s farewell drink
(British cocktail: In a 2-oz. sherry glass, stir madeira with bitters and Campari. Serve)

Note his reaction acid sharp
(host’s unfavourable reaction to the album’s diverse contents)

Should make the cognoscenti think
(the intelligensia or ‘smart’ people to whom the record’s stylistic and lyrical pastiches and irony was aimed).

The record did appeal to the cognoscenti, and many more listeners besides: an immediate critical and commercial hit (16 weeks in the UK charts, with a high of #10). Roxy Music launched the careers of the band and its members, and influenced countless others, divided critics created who debated whether Roxy were a “real” band or just a bunch of art students taking the piss. The first single Virginia Plain would cement the band’s success and demonstrate that the group were more than just a gimmick. The following album, For Your Pleasure would deliver the first masterpiece.

Much happiness and health to you and yours – see you again in 2017!

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Recorded: Command Studios, London, March 1972
Pics: Roxy Music album art, John O’Brien (http://www.vivaroxymusic.com/albums_1.php); Roxy Music publicity shot (www.bryanferry.com/roxy-music-history-tab/#history); Command studios (www.gearslutz.com/board/so-much-gear-so-little-time/346235-1972-command-studios-piccadilly-england-what-gear.html); David Enthoven (www.theguardian.com/music/2016/aug/12/david-enthoven-obituary)

In Memory

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David Enthoven (1944 – 2016), former co-manager, Roxy Music

Roxy Music were not to everybody’s taste…they were taking good, straight forward songs and treating them, and doing something quite madly avant-garde with them…It was “fun” music…so fresh and new.

David, interview, Bracewell

Graham Simpson (1943-2012), Roxy Music co-founder and bass player

Roxy Music were not so much a hybrid of musicians with different influences but were independent musicians with their own individual voice that work well together

Graham, interview, bryanferry.com

Graham Simpson was a founding member of Roxy Music with Bryan Ferry, and was an excellent bass player and contributed much to the first Roxy album (listen particularly to the amazing bass work in Sea Breezes). In 1972, Graham lost his mother to cancer and he was depressed. The life-style and pressure of being a member of an up-and-coming band did not alleviate his increasing mental health problems, and unfortunately, Graham had to leave the band in April 1972, after the first album and his wonderful contributions were recorded.

The Bryan Ferry website has an excellent page dedicated to Graham. (http://www.bryanferry.com/graham-simpson-1943-2012).  Please visit as often as you can, and be sure to check out the excellent short film called Nothing But The Magnificent which explored the disappearance, re-emergence and ultimate path to redemption of Graham Simpson.

 


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Sea Breezes – Part 2

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so help me, so many questions? & are the answers naked to the eye – or ear? or are they undercover?
Simon Puxley, Roxy Music inner sleeve notes (72)

The first Roxy album asks questions, and offers answers grudgingly, undercover often, and for the ear mostly. The 2nd half of Sea Breezes makes an abrupt break with the tone and mood of the music that came before it. What is cool and interesting is that the objectivity of the piece shifts to a mind mediating on what that experience is. Breaking down the track we can read it as follows:

Waves (0.1-0.37)
Eno sets the scene with a mellotron seascape (It’s the first thing anyone does when they get a synthesizer, makes the sound of waves with it – BE). For him, the instrument is a pun, a fake form of emotional rendering. This is our first entry into the song.

Been Thinking (0.38-2.07)
We’ve been running round in our present state
Hoping help would come from above
But even angels there
Made the same mistakes in love
In love, in love, in love

The young Romantic poet takes to the beaches to console himself, offering up his suffering (his sensitivity) as a work of art in its own right. The North East England coast has never been so rain swept beautiful and, lest we forget, alone. This loss and loneliness is augmented by a stunning oboe accompaniment by Andy Mackay that later bleeds cross-purpose into Phil Manzanera’s guitar. Musically, the first verses are in the key of B minor, with shifts to A, G, and Em throughout. The harmonic characteristic of Bm is often expressed as one of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation. There can be hardly a more accurate summary of the narrator’s stance in the first verses: terribly affected, awaiting divine judgement, the distant speaker eventually drifting away, drowned in love in love in love. 

Echoes (2.05 – 3.32)
A tiny chime bell at 2.05 signals the start of an understated instrumental section, the kind of unfolding that, like the Pink Floyd at their best (Meddle, 1971) allows the music to grow from minimal information, taking the time to explore little sonic clusters and ideas. Andy Mackay plays the verse melody with a gentle line as Bryan Ferry’s electric piano carefully plucks the verse notes. Phil Manzanera’s guitar lines provide a mournful counterpoint, a sadness washed up on the tide of Eno’s mellotron seascape. This is a Roxy moment of extreme beauty and sublime interaction between the musicians that, for many fans, has never been bettered. The instrumental dissolves at 2.49, and then re-starts, mocking the anticipation of an ending. This time Mackay contributes more complex and uplifting lines. Manzanera says goodbye on a sustained root note, and then there is an abrupt change – like a windy slap in the face.

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Sea Breezes (3.33-6.12)
With as little as a few piano notes to warn us, we are thrown into a very discordant, abrupt rhythm. In come two key musicians that have been waiting on the sidelines: drummer Paul Thompson and bassist Graham Simpson. Paul’s drumming is avant garde jazz splutter, and Graham’s hesitant halting bass is as discordant as Bryan Ferry’s choke-on-an-apple vocal delivery. What happened to the lush musical landscape? Now that we are lonely/Life seems to get hard. Indeed, the life message here is delivered like a bracing wind and, just as a sea breeze brings in cold air from the ocean, the impact on the music is unequivocal, like a Samuel Beckett play where language, pace, rhythm, and delivery turn into something colder and self-analyzing:

Thought-train set in motion
Wheels in and around
Express our emotion
Tracks up then it cracks down, down, down, down, down

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The internalization of thought is explicitly summoned here, tongue in cheek perhaps (motion is the key to this stanza: train/wheels/express/tracks) yet serious about what the experience of thought or thinking feels like. If the process of thought is captured as the movement of (fake) seashore waves, then a burst of cold insight comes like a punch to the gut: the narrator recognizes that to express our emotion with sensitivity and feeling is poetically admirable (Tracks up) but the down side is vulnerability and, in this case, depression or melancholia (Then it cracks down, down, down, down, down). The whole temper of the track shifts, and a gnarly solo from Phil confirms the bad tempered nature of this cold wind. We have moved, musically, from the divine calm waiting in the key of B minor to the sudden shift coming ashore in the form of D flat major. As musicologist Christian Schubart points out: [Db is] a leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying. Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.

Help from Above (6.13-7.05)
This view offers up our narrator’s fate: from a patient, calm poet awaiting divine judgement (along with the angels, presumably), to a leering breakdown of a man degenerating into grief and rapture, marveling at his cleverness and way with language, exposed and raw, the endless torment of the suffering creative artist. Bryan Ferry and the band have fun with this one and the outcome is as hollow as Eno’s counterfeit mellotron waves: the singer re-states the original verses and theme (Hoping help would come from above), but no knowledge has been gained. This sea breeze has passed.

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Recorded: Command Studios, London, March 1972
Pics: Sea Breeze pinball,
homemade; Roxy Music (72)http://www.bryanferry.com/roxy-music-history-tab/#history; First Edition Waiting for Godot, Samuel Becket; all aboard for Whitley Bay, British Railways.

Titbits

banshees

Susan Janet Ballion (ne. Siouxsie Sioux) was such a fan of Roxy Music that she named her band Siouxsie and the Banshees after Bryan Ferry’s formative pre-Roxy group the Banshees. Siouxsie has always worn her influences on her sleeve and in 1987 recorded an album of covers that included the Roxy Music track Sea Breezes. Though the Looking Glass tackles an excellent set of artists (John Cale, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, the Beatles) with exciting and mixed results in equal measure (though a UK top 3 hit was enjoyed with “Dear Prudence”). Looking Glass came at the tail end of a remarkable set of post-punk albums (Juju in particular still sounding fresh and accomplished), and Siouxsie herself can be seen on the Roxy Music documentary More Than This espousing her hatred of the suburbs and her love of the glamour of Roxy. Yeah!

Her Dark Materials: great interview with Siouxsie chatting with Roxy Music biographer Michael Bracewell.

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Meddle, Pink Floyd (1971). While worlds apart, both Roxy Music and Pink Floyd were similar in that they never threw away a single idea, squeezing a piece of music until it spilled its truths and thrills. The instrumental at the heart of Sea Breezes has its antecedents in King Crimson and pre-Dark Side Floyd. Noticeably, Phil Manzanera and David Gilmour share common styles (clean tone and precise, bluesy lines). Manzanera has of course played a significant role in the latter day Floyd canon – co-producing several David Gilmour solo albums, and having significant input into the last (dreadful) Floyd album Endless River. Friends since pre-Roxy days, the pair have contributed some of the most tasteful guitar playing in rock. Echoes is essential, and never mind the stuff about the albatross.


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Sea Breezes – Part 1

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Sea Breezes
Sea Breezes (John Peel Session)

Coming quickly after the Rock n’ Roll genre piece Would You Believe? Roxy Music deliver one of the album’s stand-out tracks, Sea Breezes. Recorded mid-way through the 2nd and final week of recording at Command Studios, the track delivers as a real group effort, highlighting not only Bryan Ferry’s exquisite melody and lyrics, but also the genuine musical sophistication and interplay of Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera as they shine in solo instrumentation passages, adding much-needed emotional texture to this unique and satisfying song.

I’ve been thinking now for a long time
How to go my own separate way
It’s a shame to think about yesterday
It’s a shame
A shame, a shame, a shame

We’ve been running round in our present state
Hoping help would come from above
But even angels there
Made the same mistakes in love
In love, in love, in love

Thematically, ‘Sea Breezes’ finds us on familiar ground as the narrator ponders the difficulties of love. The tone is lofty and elevated, the words used to express love are not spoken in a manner that would suggest maturity or emotional availability: for this chap, the end of love’s promise is merely a shame. In Roxy Music, love is always spelled with a capital L and is never mocked or undercut, unless purposely so (Would You Believe?). In this game the stakes are high, as love takes on a religious or artistic idealism which forms viewpoints, morals, and spiritual destinies. But what happens when love is not seen as a force of nature, a deep and lasting kinship with another person, but rather as a solipsistic way to marvel at your facility for cleverness and moral detachment? In lighter moments you might say, fine, I’ll take it, but in all likelihood that path is lonely and unsatisfying:

Now that we are lonely
Life seems to get hard
Alone what a word lonely
Alone it makes me cry

The focus on alone is so acute that the mere utterance of the word “lonely” wracks the narrator: Alone what a word lonely/Alone it makes me cry. What makes the narrator cry is not the prospect of lost love or companionship, but word choice. We’ve been here before on the album – the love object in Re-Make/Re-Model is a (witty) recollection of the license plate CPL593H, not the woman herself Throughout the ages it has been the job of the poet to discuss love, loss and loneliness with words that convey significant meaning, but that effort has meant different things over time, from Classicist ideals, to Romantic, Modernist, and Post-Modernist (and many more besides). In ‘Sea Breezes’ Bryan Ferry assumes the cloak of narratorial disguise enjoyed by the Romantic poets, in this case most associated with Lord Byron (George ‘Goodtime’ Gordon), a man who, in the words of one biographer, created an immensely popular Romantic hero — defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt — for which, to many, he seemed the model. This is the narrator hero of ‘Sea Breezes’- defiant, melancholy, and guilty enough to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. This is Love as solipsistic self-analysis, and Ferry is fully aware of this narrative angle and, thankfully, plays it to the hilt.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know
Lady Caroline Lamb on Romantic poet Lord Byron

We’d often go to the seaside when I was a child…Whitley Bay or Marsden.
Bryan Ferry, before a 2016 festival gig in his hometown

Born in Washington, County Durham, England, Bryan Ferry knew the Tynemouth coastline and its windswept landscapes well. Schooled at Washington Grammar school and Newcastle University, the young man was rarely less than 25 minutes away from coastal shores and beaches. The landscape of his youth was the North England coast and weather-beaten seascapes, 7th Century monasteries, and fortified castles.

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This is Romantic territory, in landscape if not in social graces. Clearly the sea-swept ocean imagery was fertile ground for Ferry’s imagination (see the beached damsels of Stranded; the blue-stained mermaids of Siren). In lyric and in tone, ‘Sea Breezes’ revels in the Romance poet’s suffering as the heightened emotion crashes against the cold sandy Tynemouth surf. Alone! he cries – what a word lonely/ Alone it makes me cry/I’ll cry, I’ll cry, I’ll cry. The Smiths later adopted this pose too, as Morrissey held his weary hand to brow and begged to Please please please let me get what I want…/this time. Ferry is the early master of the idiom of self-obsessed or narcissistic narrator, and the real love-object of the first Roxy Music album is the self-love of the narrator as he marvels at his ability to, at any given time, associate himself with the love trials of the Epic Hero Odysseus (Ladytron);  or align himself with the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley by melancholic over-emoting (If There is Something); and even takes sides with a dangerous sociopath, seeing love first as possession and ownership (Chance Meeting).

Hardly about love at all, and ‘Sea Breezes’ is no different: if you look closely you notice that for a song that calls itself ‘Sea Breezes’ there is actually no water or sea imagery used in the lyric and certainly nothing even loosely resembling a beach, wind, salt, storm – not a word. Then there is the amazingly abrupt and odd-metered musical interruption half-way through the song. Out of nowhere the meter changes, and Ferry sounds like he has been kicked in the knees and told to keep singing  – gone is the gentle appeal to the angels, Romantic or otherwise. Why the change? Because the poet cannot help but present his greatest love: his genius. In keeping with first album’s gleeful subversion of expectation, the lyric and singer becomes increasingly self-absorbed,to the point where what we are seeing and hearing is the sound of meditation and composition, of a brain working, of the poem being written: a thought-train set in motion – words in fog being prepared for paper, hard and alone, before the crack down.

Sea Breezes – Part 2, next week.

Pics
The Rex Hotel where BF visited sea swept Whitley Bay with his parents; Lord Byron has his eye on a charming lady on beach, grabbed here; when you’re obsessed with music you Google Map your hero and the route he would have taken to the seaside as a boy  (Nabokov: be obsessed with scientific yet artistic appreciation of detail); before selfies you had to stare into the abyss for days to know your true self,  Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818.

Titbits

The Smiths, bringing literary irony and anti-glamour to the 80s.

I can only think of one truly great British album: Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure.
Morrissey

From left, clockwise:
Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now: Viv Nicholson, found fame in 1961 when she won £152,319 (roughly £3m/$6M today). She famously said she was going to “spend spend spend!” And she did, squandered it all and battled with alcoholism and 4 husbands. On the bright side, she is still with us today, 79 years old. Great Beehive Viv!

This Charming Man: Swashbuckling actor Jean-Alfred Villain-Marais, in a still from Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (lovers in real life, Jean Marais also starred in the Cocteau masterpiece Beauty and the Beast). Easily a contender for a never-produced picture cover of ‘Sea Breezes’.

The Queen Is Dead: Of course he isn’t – Morrissey lives on as petulant and litigious as ever. Here is another French actor, Alain Delon, taken from the 1964 noir film The Unvanquished on the cover of The Smiths masterpiece album.

It is true, Morrissey told The Observer that he could “only think of one truly great British album” and that was For Your Pleasure. He later took it back because he was pissed off at one of Bryan Ferry’s sons support fox-hunting, but nevertheless the reference does confirm Morrissey as serious contender as England’s hand-me-down rock poet laureate: ‘Cemetry Gates‘ is a re-take of Ferry’s ‘Sea Breezes’, portraying as it does the artist as young man, the self-absorbed aesthete impressed by his talent and lecturing on his art (If you must write poems/the words you use should be your own/There’s always someone, somewhere/With a big nose, who knows) and greeting the horrors of a rare sunny day in Manchester:  A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetery gates/Keats and Yeats are on your side/While Wilde is on mine. There are no apologies for high-brow literary references or taking sides in this scenario: Keats the Romantic & Yeats the Modernist take on Morrissey & Oscar Wilde, the Comic Realists. May the best man(ic) poet win!

The record covers were stunning; this was anti-glamour. As much as Roxy Music had aimed glamour towards the seedy, The Smiths sold the forgotten sex objects of British tabloid and European film as presented them as projections of Morrissey’s fantasies. In the UK you spend a lot of time In Your Room with your posters, wet dreams and soundtracks. (Years before fame, Steven Morrissey stayed in His Room writing letters to the New Musical Express – and they got published). In the 70s Bryan Ferry projected male dissonance and sexuality with Humphrey Bogart. In the 80s Morrissey projected the same with gay French stars and kitchen sink drama queens. As in Roxy as is in The Smiths – who you watch, read and listen to is who you are.