Just look at the surface of my paintings and films…and there I am. There’s nothing behind it
Andy Warhol, 1967
I. Beneath the Surface
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 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.
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.
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 and a shot of Roxy Music pop-art in the music charts would seal the deal.
II. Make Me a Deal
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) 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 perspective 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.
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
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 a passage from 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.
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 Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Frank O’Hara, Helen Frankenthaler, Norman 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
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’.