For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s

Virginia Plain – Part 3

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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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 9.23.14 AM

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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