How fantastic is this song? How could you choose between Bryan Ferry and David Bowie? They’re gods!
‘Re-Make/Re-Model‘ and ‘Ladytron‘ received justified glowing attention in the Roxy Music album reviews during that “abnormally cool; generally changeable and dull” British summer of 1972. The first two tracks were highly regarded both in the John Peel live session(s) format and as energetic studio cuts under Peter Sinfield. Strangely, the epic third track ‘If There is Something’ seemed to lose points by comparison, possibly due to its ambitious narrative structure or because of a stated overuse of that damn mellotron (“an obvious mistake,” noted Melody Maker). Roxy Music were fortunate to have signed with E.G. Records, David Enthhoven and John Gaydon’s respected management firm who’d managed to score a hit with King Crimson and their classic In the Court of the Crimson King. In doing so, Roxy joined a high-profile, high-prog stable that included King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, so barbs regarding the mellotron were to be expected (perhaps warranted). Writing for the NME, Tony Tyler praised the album but judged ‘If There Is Something’ to be less successful, “I wish it weren’t there because there’s too much Crimson-quoting.” (Again with the bloody mellotron!).
Over the course of five decades the song has gained in stature and power, triggering much discussion, praise, narrative analysis, and a surprising stamp of approval from the Millennials in the form of a major Hollywood movie vanity project. And who are we to argue? ‘If There is Something’ is arguably the best track on the album, delivering a sublime Ferry lyric and melody; a John Coltrane-inspired solo from Andy Mackay; gorgeous guitar work from Phil Manzanera, and – shake your hair girl! – the definitive introduction to the Great Paul Thompson on record. You heard it here first kids, this one has it all…
What interests me, far more than ambiguity, is juxtaposing things so they shock
Bryan Ferry, 1972
Writing in his diary (‘Roxy, early, 71-72’, quoted from Brackwell), Brian Eno designed and staged (on paper at least) his idea of how the song could be presented to a live audience:
‘If There is Something’
Friendly yellow lights – cf ‘Oklahoma’
‘I would do.’ – dark and more dramatic
occasional reds in torrid section
grand purple guitar arpeggios – lights on player
Sax solo – fade to morose deep green and violet
‘Shake your head girl’ – pink spot on Bryan
2nd verse spot on Andy and Eno
In this notebook sketch we get a clear sense of sense of how the band felt about the song, how they viewed its various components and narrative conceits. Eno’s reference to yellow lights viz ve ‘Oklahoma’ is prescient as in the opening bars we have big country music, the expanse and optimism of Old West sheen brought to us by Phil Manzanera’s good ‘ol boy scale runs and slide guitar refrain. It may not be ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin‘ but this is jocular, hillbilly music and the approach is cheeky indeed, considering contemporary critics didn’t like cheeky rock bands (see the Doors through the eyes of Lester Bangs, for instance). Perhaps this is the reason why ‘If There is Something’ did not click with some reviewers – the honkey tonk piano and twangy guitar was witty but suspect: it was either musically naive or it was taking the piss – neither of which was very cool to the musical press. Of course it was taking the piss! (Of course it wasn’t taking the piss!). This was early Roxy Music juxtaposition at play, and it was shocking (and funny).
Friendly Yellow Lights
If there is something that I might find
Look around corners try to find peace of mind,
I say Where would you go if you were me?
Try to keep a straight course not easy
After the opening coda of country guitar and drums, Ferry enters in with an Americanized strained yokel accent – I-If there is ah s-something, that ah m-might fiiindd – and we quickly recognize that our singer has kicked off a call and response here, the first and second part of the first line divided into two voices, a pattern that continues as said juxtaposed conversation between two different voices or selves throughout the first verse:
If there is something (enter wobbly country yokel)
That I might find (enter new voice, production echo)
Look around corners (country yokel)
Try to find peace of mind (echo voice)
I say, Where would you go (yokel)
If you were me? (echo)
Try to keep a straight course not easy (yokel / echo combine)
The song is clearly a quest narrative, in this instance a quest for “peace of mind,” and it again quite uncannily captures Bryan Ferry’s key concerns, even within this early pre-fame persona: The dedication to a quest for knowledge (art school) vs. party-time wasting (rock school). Try to keep a straight course not easy!
Follow Thru, Lloyd Corrigan & Laurence Schwab, 1930
The call and response pattern continues in the second verse but the gaze is crucially shifted from looking/seeking to being seen/sought:
Somebody spe-cial / looking at me
A certain re-action /we find what should it try to be?,
I mean if there are many /meaning the same
Being specific is just a game
This is metafictional self-consciousness writ large: the looker now finds himself looked at (around that corner) but artfully steps outside himself to consider (construct) what his re-action should be – if many (possibilities) mean the same, then the possibility of natural Ideal Love is rendered meaningless within the slippery medium of language, awareness, and randy thought. Roxy has taken us here before: in Re-Make/Re-Model the love object is recalled through the recollection of license plate CPL593H – the cleverness of the image being the true love subject of the song!
In the first two stanzas of ‘If There Is Something’, Bryan Ferry expounds on the professional and personal conundrum that has provided the jet fuel of his exemplary writing and music for over five decades. The man is, by many accounts, an obsessive possessing an intensity of intent and work ethic coupled with a melancholy disposition (Rigby/Bracewell/Buckley). In this regard, Bryan Ferry is truly a modern Romantic thinker in the mold of a Bryon or Shelley, intellectually gifted, seeking his one natural and passionate (intuitive) Ideal, yet also slightly morose in his infatuation with the impossibility of knowledge or love in this degraded, meta-textual world. There are sublime examples of this mind-set in the Roxy albums that follow (For Your Pleasure, Siren) but this record, at 1:39 in, is just finding its voice and the band have lots of space still to deliver their extraordinary literary and muscular musical argument.
Dark and More Dramatic
The 3rd act of this 4 act play is where Ferry constructs his vision of the Ideal Love and that image is at both once profoundly touching and, let it be said, gently, intentionally, hilarious:
I would do anything for you / I would climb mountains
I would swim all the oceans blue
I would walk a thousand miles / reveal my secrets
More than enough for me to share
I would put roses round our door / sit in the garden
Growing potatoes by the score
What woman (or man) could resist such declarations of love? This guy would walk a thousand miles, swim not just the ocean blue but all the oceans! This is the promise of life’s commitment to domesticity – roses are dutifully placed round the door, secrets are revealed, and potatoes are grown by the score (this is Oklahoma after all). Look closer though, and there is doubt in the declaration, and the structural tense provides the clue: contrast the declaration of I would walk a thousand miles with I will walk a thousand miles. Would is the past tense form of will. Because it is a past tense it is used to talk about the past, or to talk about things that are imagined rather than true. Our man is deep in his head again, imagining himself as the Byron poet declaring his love with offers of traversing endless oceans instead of actually getting down and dirty with the potatoes.
If There Is Something (BBC SESSION 1972)
This is an excellent BBC session recorded on 18th July 1972 at Maida Vale studios, broadcast on Sounds Of The Seventies with John Peel on August 1st.
If There is Something – Memphis Industries
A nice synthetic version with Bryan Ferry vocals evoked with taste and confidence.
The picture accompanying Dark and More Dramatic is of the great Romantic Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As the synopsis says, regarded by many as among the finest lyric, as well as epic, poets in the English language.