‘Virginia Plain’ is a road movie song transported by car, plane, the imagination, and even the occasional roller-coaster. Its spirit and energy celebrates the spectacular growth in youth culture triggered in the 1950s and 60s, yet at its core the song mourns the past it replaces while being deeply suspicious of it. This delicious balance between celebration and anxiety, of reverence for the past and a mistrust of easy nostalgia, injected a freshness into the pop music scene in the summer of ’72. Promoting the single on Top of the Pops, the band presented themselves as collectors, hybrids of glitter, glam, Space Age 50s decadence, if there ever had been such a thing, and if there hadn’t been, there was such a thing now. Mining the past, the song builds on the music biz cliche of songs written about women: Barbara Ann; Gloria; Ruby; Peggy Sue. But who is Virginia Plain? – Baby Jane Hozer? The teenage rebel? The “you” in just we too? The guesswork is fun but the song denies the satisfaction of an easy answer. It teases. It winks. The tune rejects all effort to impose an over-riding interpretation onto its cool reflective surfaces. Indeed, there exists a deep thread of discomfort and warning within its grooves, a hand-wringing anguish that, like all the best narrative writing, starts with the personal and expands outwards to the Universal: even in his wild hybrid of pop culture images, Ferry is asking straight-forward questions we all can recognize: what are my life plans and goals; what does my life mean; what are my values and what is important to me. ‘Virginia Plain’ marks a significant transition point between the gleeful thumb-your-nose experimentation of Roxy Music (72) and the darker more introspective hue of For Your Pleasure (73). Is it depressing? Goodness no – like all good road movies, the enjoyment is in the journey.
Our roller-coaster ride up to this point looks something like this:
I: Make me a deal: The first verse presents the art project Roxy Music as they negotiate a music contract. As desperate as the band are to make the big time, the narrator reckons he may be making a deal with the devil. The verse cuts like a knife: make it/take it/show it/blow it.
II: What’s real and make belief: The journey kicks in, we lurch towards money, America, fame, and a walk with God. Don’t judge me or mess with my pride, the writer tells his Maker – isn’t it all just fiction anyway? The band hit the big time, leave Baby Jane in the dust and head for Rio. Take me/take me/take me.
III: Sinking fast: Enter teenage waste land for a hipster jive with fame. Take a trip to the dead desert for the Last Picture show; shake hands with dead and disposable rebels; drive in your mummified car and visit the ghosts of the sheer and the chic. Trying/jiving/driving (drive-in).
IV: Reach For Something New
Flavours of the mountain streamline
Midnight blue casino floors
Dance the cha cha through till sunrise
Opens up exclusive doors oh wow!
Just like flamingoes look the same
So me and you, just we two
Got to reach for something new
No longer sinking or clutching at straws, we sit now atop of a mountain, the multitude of fresh experiences flow like champagne down beyond the pale horizon. ‘Virginia Plane’ is at its most poetic here as Ferry shows us the view from the giddy peak. The words are designed to flow like champagne: mount/ain; stream/line; mid/night; sun/rise – the clipped emphasis propels us towards a soft landing: mountain streamline is a beauty, rolling effortlessly off the tongue, as luxurious as bubbly pouring into an open glass. Our destination is the midnight blue casino floor, an enviable place to visit by any account, and also a nod towards the jazz classic Midnight Blue by guitarist Kenny Burrell, the title track of which is a mid-tempo Latin groove. Name-checking Burrell’s lovely record keeps us close to ‘Virginia Plain’s Latin music sensibility – clearly as much a sign-post for Ferry as any American cultural source – wrapping us in an envelope of considerable expectation and warmth.
I think audiences are quite comfortable watching something coming into being
– Brian Eno, interview, 1995
One of the striking aspects of ‘Virginia Plain’ is how the words and and music rub against against each other to create a sense of palpable excitement under a bed of lyrical uneasiness. Musically the beat is pure thrash (F#/C#/F#/C#/…) with no chorus to relieve the tension, while the words, giddy with excitement, deliver messages of loss and foreboding, blowing cactus across the dead towns that show dead movies starring dead celebrities. On the surface, Flavours of the mountain streamline is the lightest of the five stanzas – it’s pretty hard to beat quaffing champagne while en route to the casino! – and the stanza comes wrapped in a midnight blue moon glow, like a book jacket cover for a famous novel or classic jazz album. The blue color scheme is fortuitous: in literature the color blue is linked to consciousness and intellect, an introspective value associated with the blues, Blue Note, and of course that teeming bummer of a movie from the 80s, Betty Blue. In more recent times, the color is also associated with power brokering and Corporate culture. In art, it’s a primary cool color. In business, it’s the armor of lawyers and money men. (Don’t think color association works? Think of your favorite food in blue and you’ll see what we mean). Writers can strike an intended mood by selecting a particular color scheme – think yellow in this stanza and you get a sense of lightness and glitter perhaps, but it feels superficial and light. Red would be too much, too over-stated. Green doesn’t even rate. Blue has depth and shade, and also places us squarely in the hours of late evening, when the idle rich (ie, those privileged enough to not have to get up in the morning), come out to play. As we make our way to the casino in anticipation of a good party, we recognize the presence of a key Bryan Ferry literary influence: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his American fictional classic, the The Great Gatsby.
Published in 1925, seven years after the close of World War I, Gatsby portrays the 1920s as an era of decayed social and moral values, evidenced in its overarching cynicism, greed, and empty pursuit of pleasure. Works of art become “classic” in part for their ability to age well and speak to contemporary audiences over time. Gatsby held considerable weight in the 70s and the themes of the novel also ring true today, evidenced by the breakdown of industrial capitalism and its inability to look after the health and welfare of its underprivileged citizens. The albums Roxy Music made in the 70s used the style, mannerisms and themes of Fitzgerald’s novel as both experience lived (the endless pursuit of pleasure) and as a warning (In Every Dream Home, a Heartache). Indeed, Bryan Ferry has been so influenced by, and associated with, the Great Gatsby, that one critic was moved to ask, “Is Bryan Ferry the Real Gatsby?” And of course the singer contributed re-arranged Roxy and solo jazz covers to the soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 flawed but entertaining film.
An early devotee of art and literature, Ferry has stated a life-long love of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The first novel that I really read for pleasure was “Gatsby.” At school we were always given, you know, “great books of famous literature.” I somehow discovered that myself and I said, “This is what I really want to study.” I love that book and all of his writing, actually (2013). For the song’s 4th verse, Ferry paints an exciting image of party-goers wrapped in sophistication and glamour – entry to those exclusive doors is by invitation only, and understandably, the mind of the coal-miner’s son is blown (oh wow!). The origins of the world we are entering here can be traced back to the deep influence Fitzgerald had on Ferry’s ideas and his obsession with style and decadence. The blue fever-dream of the Great Gatsby cover would have been burned into the retina of Ferry’s young imagination, and he successfully re-creates its themes in ‘Virginia’s Plain”s energetic mix of intoxication and fatalism.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
― F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Painting sadness and decadence in equal measure, the cover of the novel is still used on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut (!). Normally one would have to be specific about the edition and year of a cover to pin down an image or title that influences a generation, but not so in this case – indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of the story is that the cover was painted before the novel was completed, and that the picture actually influenced, or was used for, some of the scenes and images in the book. Painted by Spanish artist Francis Cugat for a $100, the image is built on a cobalt blue background, the sad gaze of another mystery woman (Daisy?), her face hovering over bright colors of city lights, good times and parties (oh wow!) but the look is sorrowful and sad, a nude body is the subject of the gaze, swirling, lost, against a tear that serves as an exclamation mark. In many Roxy songs, Ferry often replaces this female gaze for his own male point-of-view (‘Mother of Pearl’, ‘Beauty Queen’). Party-time wasting is indeed too much fun, and when one steps back to think of life’s inner meaning you may not like what you see. Here is Ferry quoting literary critic Cyril Connolly on F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in doing so he neatly sums up his own narrative style and approach: “‘His style sings of hope; his message is despair.’” (2014). In other words, ‘Virginia Plain’ in a nutshell.
When you mix color with the senses (flavours of the mountain streamline/Midnight blue casino floors) you have the effect known as synesthesia, the ability to taste sound, smell color, and other sensory phenomena as identified by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and every other pop song written in 1967. ‘Virginia Plain’s brand of psychedelia follows a color arc that leads us from dark to light, from midnight dance to post-party morning wakefulness (Dance the cha cha through till sunrise). Hangovers are felt, morning doors are flung open, and what do we see but the sun-hued visage of two pink flamingos:
Just like flamingoes look the same
So me and you, just we two
Got to reach for something new
The flamingos are presumably the spent party-goers (just we two) leaving their midnight cha cha romp in order to greet the sun-kissed dawn. A heightened romanticism is expressed in these lines as the beautiful dancers metaphorically represent the beauty, balance, and grace of the flamingos. You could also make an argument for the opposite, which would be to see the creatures as plastic, garden gnome variety suburban nightmares. Which would be true, and ironic and a great piece of pop art, but it’s a bit far-ahead of itself here, because we leave the puns and the color metaphors behind for a moment as Ferry strips down to the core question of the song and sings the next two lines from the heart, not the head: So me and you, just we two/Got to reach for something new.
These lines are as thrilling today as they were in 1972: we are the beautiful flamingos, young and full of potential, and we bring our music, dance, art, literature and fashion before you to usher in the new modern era. And the band are more than ready to give this moment the heft it needs to hit home. Listen in around the 2.00 min mark and you hear this “something new” presented in in the most dramatic musical terms: Ferry hammers out his C# piano chords like that train finally coming out of the tunnel; Phil Manzanera responds with clean guitar strikes, holding down the tension; Paul Thompson thrashes his skins in perfect timing to the guitar and piano, until at last all resistance gives way and modernity arrives in the form of – wait for it – Brian Eno’s synthesizer!
The sound of the future in ‘Virginia Plain’ is the sound of Brian Eno’s EMS VCS3 taking over the song at 2.12 to provide the best instrumental break in pop history (or of 1972 at least). Keen to answer the band’s call and response theatrics, Eno plays a four or five note scale refrain that is simple to the extreme but so full and thickly textured that it still sounds radical today. This would become one of the hallmarks of Eno’s brilliant solo career – the reward is in the texture and depth of the sound as much as the emotive beauty pulled from the uncomplicated chords and melodies.
It is no coincidence that the final lines of the stanza get such exciting musical attention. Got to reach for something new is a break from the lyrical approach of the song; it breaks from mountains and champagne and casino floors and it breaks from the history of the previous verses with its concern with extinct cultures and forgotten matinee idols and last picture shows. The song yearns for a new future. But what is interesting is that there is no tidy conclusion as to what the future is, or what it should look like. During our art-rock journey we have rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, Marc Lancaster, James Dean, Peter Bogdanovich, the cast of the Factory, the jazz men of Havana Sound and many more, and so it would be safe to say that this cast of characters is the story of ‘Virginia Plain’. And this would be true enough, or at least as true as the me and you are the beautiful dancers waking to a new dawn. But me and you is also you and I dear reader, Ferry reaching out to you, the listener, with an invitation to come together with him to create meaning from our collective jumbled past and make something coherent and worthwhile of today, tomorrow, of this life. And don’t forget there is still that nagging “something” … something new is not the same thing as saying this is the new. Ferry is still reaching in the song, reaching for something not fully formed yet. And what is not formed is him, the man writing the song. As we leave stanza 4 and make our way towards the final installment of this masterpiece pop encyclopedia, I give the final words on this matter to the succinct writing of music critic Greil Marcus, speaking not only of Little Richard and Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley and Bryan Ferry and all those who have the drive to become famous, but speaking for us all:
“You had to find something new. You had to listen to everything on the market and try to understand what wasn’t there – and what wasn’t there was you. So you asked yourself, as people have been asking themselves ever since, what’s different about me? Yes, you invent yourself to the point of stupidity, you give yourself a ridiculous new name, you appear in public in absurd clothes, you sing songs based on nursery rhymes or jokes or catchphrases or advertising slogans, and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too.“
-Greil Marcus, History of Rock-n-Roll in Ten Songs, (2014).
Next, final Part 5, published June 2017
Credits: Manhattan Hotel, Tokyo. A futuristic vision of Manhattan as if seen from the 1920’s, this Art Deco style mural is featured in the Anteroom of the Manhattan Hotel lobby. ©Copyright 2002-2004 Studio O.M.O; the cover of Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell, Blue Note Records; the cover of the Great Gatsby, painted by Spanish artist Francis Cugat; a picture of the EMS VCS3, taken from Brian Eno’s twitter feed, More Dark than Shark (https://twitter.com/dark_shark).
In Memoriam: To all the kids and families killed and hurt in Manchester, May 2017, and to those left behind – words fall short. We are so sorry for your loss.