Chance Meeting is one of the more disquieting songs in the Roxy lexicon (pre-dating the Bogus Man by eight months), Bryan Ferry creates a narrator that is at once sinister and seductive. If there is a truism that the Devil gets all the best lines, then there is indeed menace in these words, a portrayal of looming violence set against Haiku-style imagery (red dress mine) that is delivered with conviction by Ferry. The performance marries unemotional detachment with a haunting melody line, creating an incongruity of meaning and intent: is this a song of lost love, or are we witnessing something more sinister – a chance meeting of integrative menace and/or murderous intent? Whatever the case, you can almost see the fingers on the victim’s throat as the narrator utters “time spent well is so … rare.”
I never thought I’d see you again
Where have you been until now?
Well how are you?
How have you been?
It’s a long time since we last met
A short song (10 lines), ‘Chance Meeting’ has been seen by many observers as melodic, romantic, a gentle ballad, emotional (or “emotionally inarticulate”, p39 Rigby). For critic Paul Stump the piece is a re-visioning of the 1945 romantic David Lean film Brief Encounter. This was a view that Ferry himself held and was outlined in his working notebooks, but without sounding presumptuous, there is the sneaking suspicion that name-checking Lean’s classic film may have provided an over-simplification and a pat way into the song. Certainly, Brian Eno’s sonic treatments of ‘Chance Meeting’ was as far from classic romantic as can be imagined. And the song is based on a film alright, but Bryan Ferry’s cinematic influence is altogether more complex and sinister.
Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson//Brief Encounter
Bryan’s Chance Meeting
David Lean’s 1945 classic film Brief Encounter was voted by a leading UK magazine as the most-romantic film ever made (despite the lack of sex or happy ending). The film is an insightful, moving interrogation of marriage, sexual repression and self-sacrifice. The pedigree behind the production is impeccable, a masterpiece of writer-producer Noël Coward (based on his one-act stage-play Still Life) and a jewel in the filmography of director David Lean, who is no slouch when it comes to canonized classics (Lawrence of Arabia anyone?). The film has it all: heroism, stoicism, unrequited lust, regret, sacrifice – a must-see melodrama for a 1945 war-time Britain where the guilt of living in the moment for the past six years (who can blame them) had sunk in once the Allies accepted Germany’s surrender. As we have seen here, Bryan Ferry’s key influences of cinematic romance and reverence – 2HB and its smoky nightclub situations – is highlighted in spades in Michael Bracewell’s masterwork on Roxy Music, “Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music“, and here we are fortunate enough to be presented with Ferry’s working notes on ‘Chance Meeting’:
‘Chance Meeting’ (Quiet delicate simple plaintive)
voice & drama classical lovers chance meeting [inspired by the film Brief Encounter]
While Brief Encounter’s star-crossed lovers do happen to meet at a shadowy British railway station, and the unfolding events do have a classical doomed sensibility, the sensibility is nevertheless neither dark nor creepy, or even a tad bit dangerous: this is in stark contrast to the actual song we hear on the record – with its disassociated vocal and vacant lack of romance or emotion. In this case, the emotion isn’t inarticulate, it just isn’t there at all. By the time we get to Manzanera’s dissonant haunted-house feedback we are under the covers praying for daylight. Clearly, the execution of this “quiet delicate simple” piece is at cross-purposes with the romantic image that has been applied to it over the decades. It might be more useful to suggest that Ferry and Eno have been pulling the wool over our eyes, for there is a film that speaks more directly to the paranoia in the song, a film that was to introduce us to that girl in the red dress, and provide us no less with the actual title for the track, ‘Chance Meeting’.
Hardy Krüger, Micheline Presle// Chance Meeting (US)
Chance Meeting is a 1959 British murder mystery film by Joseph Losey, the famous political noir film-maker. Ben Barzman and Millard Lampell were nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best British Screenplay and it shows: the plot is layered and nuanced and pulls few punches. Jan (Hardy Kruger) is an artist who has recently met a high society woman. (If this isn’t a Bryan Ferry reference, I don’t know what is). When he arrives at her apartment for an afternoon tryst (as one does), he calls out to his lover but gets no answer. Two cops show up and question him. Jan is an uncomfortable position since he doesn’t want to give away the details of his affair. The situation worsens as he realizes his lover lies dead under the blankets on a couch: she has been murdered, and the police think it is him. The film unfolds in flashback, and we see the complications of characters who meet but barely know one another. The high-society lover turns out to be a prostitute; the artist, honest, but naive. The working class detective, noble, but ineffective. The killer, a high-level politician, getting away with murder. There is a relentlessness to the film that underlines the loneliness of the main characters; their disassociation from love and their desire for sex – chance meetings and encounters and secrets that lead to grim outcomes. It is to this that we should recall the tone and distance of Ferry’s vocal decision and performance; the careful enunciation and lack of emotion in the delivery; the oppressive guitar feedback 38 seconds in, relentless as it rides over top of the melody crashing down with oppressive weight. This is different social worlds colliding, relentless chance meetings spinning out of control, while the killer remains disassociated, untouchable. In ‘Chance Meeting’ the man happens upon the woman he eventually kills. Sentence fragments are highlighted to emphasize the unnatural pacing of intonation and expression:
I ne/ver thought I’d see you/again
Where have you been /
[she: avoiding him]
[he: chance meeting]
Well / how are you?
[she: good, until I bumped into you]
How have you been?/
It’s a long time since we last met/
[he: counting the hours, days]
It seems like yes/ter/day
[she: so fresh in your memory??]
When I /first saw you
In your red dress mine
[red: symbol of sex, lust, blood – the single use of colour imagery in the song.]
How could/ I forget that day?
[he: remembering, in great detail]
I know that time well spent is so rare
(obviously the time wasn’t well spent at all – run lady, while you still can!)
It took a while for Ferry to get the song right, but he never stopped championing the piece. A definitive live version was recorded in 1973 on Viva! (released 76); this version has a chillier delivery which emphasizes the hint of menace in the song, coupled with a sublime oboe accompaniment by Andy Mackay. Then in 1976 Ferry re-recorded ‘Chance Meeting’ (as he did with many of Roxy’s 1st album choice cuts): the sound is richer and better recorded, and has its supporters. Count me as one of them.
Brian Eno, AIR Studios//1972
Eno’s Chance Meeting
Andy Mackay and myself may have written to one another a couple of times, but the next time we met was one of those moments in life when things could have turned out completely different than the way they did. I was waiting on Maida Vale tube station [Mackay recalls that it was Earls Court] when the train came in. I was equidistant between two carriages. But in the one I chose was Andy, and we recognized each other. He asked what I was doing and I told him that I was playing around with tape recorders. – Eno, 2007
As a result of going into a subway station and meeting saxophonist Andy Mackay, I joined Roxy Music, and, as a result of that, I have a career in music. If I’d walked ten yards further on the platform, or missed that train, or been in the next carriage, I probably would have been an art teacher now. – Eno, 1992
Eno’s working methods, even as early as 1972, demanded a sonic aesthetic built around chance meetings. It is one of the great outcomes of this brilliant artist – clearly his legacy and influence will outlive us all – that his approach was so non-musical and so relying on “intentional” accidents, that in doing so he created some of the most pristine, beautiful and emotional music ever put to tape. What a charge!
In January, 1975, two and a half years after his split from Roxy, Brian and his painter friend Peter Schmidt released a set of flash cards called Oblique Strategies. The Strategies were a lesson in chance meetings, as they were contradictory declarations intended to be applied to a problem, context, atmosphere, or whatever issue or item the artist wanted to address. Card descriptions included “Put in Earplugs”, “Use Filters”, “What Wouldn’t You Do?” and, famously, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Eno utilized these strategies to some famous recording sessions – David Bowie’s seasoned musicians, put through the classroom broiler of pointers, white chalkboards and oblique card games almost walked out during the making of Lodger (but not before recording ‘Boys Keep Swinging’); forced to do the same, Phil Collins chucked cans of beer at the producer during the recording of Another Green World; Coldplay liked the cards (without any discernible musical advance) and R.E.M name-checked the cards on the track ‘Diminished’. And of course Oblique Strategies have informed a majority of Eno’s solo albums – masterpieces many of them – with one music production house even going as far as to promote the use of the deck as the “Ultimate Recording Tool“. A few years before in 1972, during the recording of ‘Chance Meeting’, Phil Manzanera was one of the first to be introduced to Eno’s unique way of working:
On ‘Chance Meeting’ they wanted me to play backwards, or rather play forwards while the tape went backwards. When that failed dismally I tried feedback which meant playing so loud I couldn’t hear Bryan singing, only the chord changes. Eno likes that a lot – randomness. Taping one track and then sticking another one over the top without listening to the first one. And with Chance Meeting it was singularly appropriate. – Phil Manzanera, NME 1972
The feedback on ‘Chance Meeting‘ is as chilling as anything Roxy Music ever recorded, virtually negating the interpretation of the song as a classic romantic piece (Brief Encounter, 1945) and placing it in the vanguard of discordant, murderous narratives (Chance Meeting, 1959). With Bryan Ferry’s penchant for supplying lyrics and vocals late in the recording process (much to the frustrations of other band members – but more of that for future posts) it is enticing to think that the track may have been named by Eno, or at the very least named as a result of Eno’s recording techniques, having Manzanera load his guitar feedback sight-unseen onto unheard music, ushering in the randomness, displacement and dislocated creepiness that haunts the track, and keeps us listening so many years later for hidden intent and meaning. Time spent well is so rare…
David Bowie, Red Money. Bryan Ferry, Sign of the Times. The line that plays its hand in ‘Chance Meeting’ is red dress mine. The colour red is a shock, but only in hindsight, and on a close reading. This is Bryan Ferry’s Haiku moment. Haiku is a poetic device that juxtaposes two images or ideas, one of which acts as a “cutting word” or verbal punctuation mark. Red is the cutting word in this song as it comes as us with its seductive connotations of red (sex), dress (flesh), mine (possession) against a backdrop of languid melody and expression. For a period in late 1979 Bowie was intrigued with the colour red and used it as a symbol that could evoke a particular emotion, bringing together thematic ideas that were subliminal instead of explicit. In Lodger, ‘Red Sails’ closes side 1 (red sail action: wakes up in wrong town). ‘Red Money’ closes side 2 (red money, project cancelled: good bye Eno, Iggy, Sister Midnight). Not to be left out, Ferry himself returned to explicit colour imagery in the late 70s: in Red is the bloody sign of the times, he sang as the end of the decade approached. Lipstick ‘n leather, wear ‘n tear…
‘Chance Meeting’ lead to After the Flood, the 10 minute epic track on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock album. Miles and decades apart perhaps, but the kinship between the two bands is deep and the legacy strong. After hitting it big as new wave stars in the early and mid-80s, Talk Talk abandoned synth-pop and went experimental. Their 1988 album Spirit of Eden and its follow-up, 1991’s Laughing Stock, are brilliant cult classics, steeped in the kinds of jazz-influenced sounds that would later be known as post-rock. Feedback has never sounded so good.
Oblique Strategies, Eno/Schmidt
My own copy (2nd edition), purchased on eBay eons ago. Card just pulled: “Do Nothing as Long as Possible.” Now they tell me.