For Your Pleasure

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

Sea Breezes

Leave a comment

Sea Breezes (Ferry), Roxy Music, 1972
Sea Breezes – John Peel Session

I. Mistakes in Love

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

II. Thought-train set in motion

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.

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:screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-10-23-43-pm

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

 

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, marvelling 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.

hotel

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

III. Influences

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.

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-9-47-24-am
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);  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. Why? Because the poet cannot help but present his greatest love: his genius. In keeping with Roxy Music‘s gleeful subversion of expectation, the lyric 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 prepared for paper, stark and alone, before the tide turns.

Credits: Pics: Sea Breeze pinball, homemadeLord Byron has his eye on a charming lady on beach, grabbed here; First Edition Waiting for Godot, Samuel Becket; The Rex Hotel where BF visited sea swept Whitley Bay with his parents; 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”); all aboard for Whitley Bay, British Railways.

Recorded: Command Studios, London, March 1972

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!

Leave a Reply