For Your Pleasure

Roxy Music and the 70s

Beauty Queen – Part 1

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Beauty Queen
Beauty Queen (Live, 74)

The Sphinx, by British painter Augustus John, from Bryan Ferry’s personal collection

He is clearly a very serious collector. You do find some celebrities try to be snobby or elitist about their collection but this suggests something else… –Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones

One of the delights of 1970s Roxy Music is the way the songs push up against one another, jostling the ear for attention. Band preference for songs was to favour eccentric pairings and stylistic collisions, jigsaw pieces mapped across the span of a record, mini-adventures in style and form. In his 1976 essay Generating and Organizing Musical Variety in the Arts, Brian Eno defined the process as “generating new hybrids.”  The hybrid approach, particularly evident on the first album Roxy Music, was carefully and self-consciously applied with strange sci-fi adventures (Ladytron) placed beside love-sick emotional epics (If There is Something), for example. This trend continued on the 2nd record, For Your Pleasure, recorded in the chilly British winter of 1973, as Bryan Ferry settled in to explore and tease out a new side to his writing. ‘Beauty Queen’ is the first attempt at writing a ballad in a career that would soon go on to define excellence in the form – heightening the song’s impact by placing it right after the bombastic opening  ‘Do the Strand‘, that hard blast of lyrical and musical virtuosity. True to form, ‘Beauty Queen’ is a study in contrasts, a lithe ballad in C major (signifying innocence, simplicity, naïvety); an affectionate fan favourite; a source of musical collisions (the ballad contains a blistering hard rock break at 2.30), and a love story without a partner, replacing emotion with an ode to art and artificiality, and a succinct farewell to the past with no trace of sentimentality, tears, or regrets. Soul ships passing in the night, Ferry observes. Where do they go? We’ll never know.

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Valerie please believe it never could work out
The time to make plans has passed faded away
Oooh the way you look makes my starry eyes shiver
Then I look away too much for one day

The crooner starts in high style, at top of his range – Vale-rie ple-assse, he pleads, before clenching down on the word be-lieve (gentle pause) – it never could work out. It’s an astonishing moment and arguably Ferry’s best vocal performance to date – well recorded and produced, the thinness of the first album is replaced by a sound thick and present, courtesy of George Martin‘s AIR Studios and Chris Thomas’s co-production.  Oooooh the way you look, the singer croons (second pregnant pause) – makes my starry eyes shiver. The spacing and alliterative timbre of starry eyes shiver is expressive and emotional, but wrapped in that exaggerated tremor voice is an important message: this is a performance. This is Ferry’s singular achievement at the beginning of the 70s – the vocalist singing a love song, requiring an emotional connection so deep that he is afraid of not doing it justice: so he invents a new way to sing it. Not even Bowie (at this point) bothered to alter the timbre or affectation of his vocal delivery (thin in 72/73; deeper baritone by 1975 and Young Americans, see ‘Win‘). Mick Jagger sung straight up rock n’ roll. Bolan teased but kept it straight. Lou Reed played with words and meaning but was largely sullen: but Bryan Ferry acted out a role, played a part, creating yet again a marked distance between signified and signifier. Influenced by the classic vocalists of the 20th century – Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Otis Reading – Ferry understood that these singers connected directly with the emotion they were expressing, their singing was felt at that moment: my lover has left me, these are my tears. Years later people like Whitney Houston would slaughter the idea of emotive sincerity by merely turning everything up to 11, making you reach for the cotton wool and ear plugs (and Jack Daniels). But the Roxy manifesto was to “reach for something new,” and they did so in their music, presentation, subject matter, and perhaps most strikingly, in the limited but wholly unique presentation of the singer’s significant vocal range and stylized quiver. A neat summation of the Ferry technique might read: I write because I feel emotion and want to convey it as honestly as possible; but the medium in which I express that emotion is inauthentic, I am a performer performing – at best –  a re-telling of an emotional experience, therefore to get to the truth of that moment I must give equal weight to the way I am articulating that emotion, the performance must be as entertaining, meaningful and informative as the content of the lyric and the drive and seduction of the music.

This is quite the task, but Ferry was born to it: the ballad croon of ‘Beauty Queen’ morphs into the psychotic games of ‘Bogus Man’; distance and disconnection dominate the male voice ‘In Every Dream Home, a Heartache’, and later in the year, on the next album Stranded,  his vocals act out evangelical zealotry (‘Psalm’);  playboy comedy (‘Mother of Pearl’); and the last gasp of a dying day (‘Sunset’). All perfectly contained and presented.

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When we doIf There is Somethinglive, people always seem startled
by the juxtapositions. It’s tilting alone pleasantly and suddenly this
agonized voice bursts out. I find doing it quite embarrassing sometimes
because it’s just raw emotion…You have to be an actor, project yourself
into it. 
BF, Interview, 1972

The structure of ‘BQ’ is pure romantic ballad, a form dating back to the late medieval period through the 19th century, relying on an oral tradition that favoured repetition, clear enunciation of narrative, and good guy/bad guy, good girl/bad girl stories, mostly of love, loss and redemption. Ballad story-telling was brought into the modern age vis-à-vis popular songs such as Marty Robbins gunslinger narratives (see Cool Iron, a story about a man and his mule and a mirage in the desert) and extended out into ear-destroying mediocrity by hair glam bands like Motley Crue and Poison. For Bryan Ferry the narrative ballad held particular sway, for his pop idols were classic crooner story-tellers such as Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra. Indeed, in the same year For Your Pleasure and Stranded were recorded (1973), Ferry also managed to record and release his first solo album of covers, These Foolish Things, a collection of mostly love ballads such as Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears.” Of the covers album Ferry said, “Some will presumably dislike it for the wrong reasons though I hope the general point of it will be understood. It’s amusement value. I think” (VR).

Ah, we’ve hit upon something here: an album of serious intentions, constructed to draw attention to a classic form, re-done by a futurist rock star with the goal of provoking a smile and a dash of insight – Modern Irony, in other words. As rock critic David Marsh noted in the New Rolling Stone Album Guide,”Ferry views pop as a kind of continuum, extending through all sorts of Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building craftsmanship and incorporating visions as radical as Dylan’s and as banal as Gore’s. Within such a sensibility discerning what deserves to be dismissed as “trash” and what deserves elevation as “art” is not a simple problem… By altering tempos and singing every song with the deadpan emotional blankness he largely avoids with Roxy, Ferry exposes these issues as effectively as any pop singer in history.” Check that out: as effectively as any pop singer in history: low art vs high art; sincerity vs performance; what constitutes worth, or worthy subject matter, in a word, What is Art, the great subject matter of pop-art giants Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton, and, of course our man in Havana, Bryan Ferry. (Once a keen painter, the Roxy front-man didn’t pick up a paint-brush after 1972, and who can blame him – his musical pop art experiment was as engaged and serious as anything by Warhol, but the pop star’s job came with a cache of cool clothes, a bit of money, a gig and a girlfriend in every port, and presumably, a cool pad in Chelsea).

What then is the narrative subject matter of ‘Beauty Queen’ and how does it use the modern pop ballad to tell a contemporary love story. Well, it pays to keep two ideas close to the chest: keep an eye on who or what the love objective is, and be willing to let go and indulge in a bit of “amusement value”. Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 12.01.21 PM

Coming hot on the heels of ‘Do the Strand’, ‘Beauty Queen’ slows the tempo down considerably with a shimmering Eno-treated electric piano introduction,  similar in texture to the music he would soon develop on his solo albums, particularly Another Green World (1975). This thick warm start to of ‘BQ’ is a study in contrasts to the bombastic ‘Strand’ and serves to re-situate the listener’s sound-space: we enter ballad territory with a languid 52-55 beats p/m, placement in the key of C major, that stalwart signature for ballads and love songs throughout the ages. The singing is mannered, yet sincere, a performance that begins with heightened emotion, an appeal for forgiveness (Valerie please), and a Dear-John letter (it never could work out). The time to make plans has passed we’re told. The love has merely faded away, which, in its own terms, sounds sadder than the doomed love affair of society egotists in ‘Pyjamarama‘ or the chilly presence of the spurned male lover in ‘Chance Meeting‘.

Starry Eyes – Verse 1
Valerie please believe it never could work out
The time to make plans has passed faded away
Oooh the way you look makes my starry eyes shiver
Then I look away too much for one day

Valerie please: there is the sense that love object Valerie is not actually present, no more present than Virginia Plain or even the woman behind that famous license plate CPL593H. Is the speaker looking at a photograph, a movie, or calling up a memory. The clue to the point-of-view is contained in the sudden shift from the plea-making of Valerie please believe to the voyeuristic gasp of Oooh the way you look/makes my starry eyes shiver. If the time to make plans has “faded” away, then she is no longer part of the present moment. The “way you look”, then, is contextual, and she lives or exists in some other form. The glare from the memory or photo is so bright he must turn away – too much for one day, at least.

The killer line here is of course Oooh the way you look/makes my starry eyes shiver, an image that deliciously identifies the silver screen obsessions of the singer/narrator – he is literally star-struck, dazzled by what he sees before him, physically present or otherwise. Contained in this image is a reflexive hall of mirrors identifying not only what he sees but how he sees her. These are his starry eyes, after all, Ferry’s word-choice suggesting a self-aware narcissism – an increasingly important element in Roxy’s songs as the singer/song-writer starts to unhinge a little as his fame increases and an emotional disconnection begins to settle into his relationships and word-view, a factor that will play a significant role in several key For Your Pleasure tracks such as ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ and ‘The Bogus Man’.

Starry eyes shiver is a phrase of poetic language that draws us away from naturalism towards pure cinematic magic. One of the greatest pop magicians is, of course, Beatles main man John Lennon. Lennon wrote and published two books of stories, cartoons and funny poetry (‘In His Own Write‘/’A Spaniard in the Works’) and crafted a series of brilliant postmodern masterpieces that highlighted pop artifice at its best, including ‘I Am the Walrus‘, perhaps the best example of a kind of self-conscious writing that explodes the myth of what a pop song is and can be (Yellow matter custard/ dripping from a dead dog’s eye/Crabalocker fishwife/Pornographic priestess) all the while taking great delight in rendering language meaningless – Goo goo g’joob, indeed!

One of Bryan Ferry’s greatest covers was, tellingly, a Roxy Music recording: John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ was taped as a tribute two months after Lennon’s death in December, 1980. This greatest of songs – that rarity when the original stands untouchable yet is enhanced and extended by the cover version – demonstrated an emotional honesty and a self-questioning maturity not seen during Lennon’s Beatle years. Fed up with word-games and LSD, Lennon moved towards a more concise language whereby tangerine trees and marmalade skies (’67) gave way to the clearer and calmer images of Thoughts meander like a restless wind (’68), to the near-nuclear clarity of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono band and ‘My Mummy’s Dead‘ (’70). Incredible stuff. As a student Bryan Ferry was clearly listening and taking note, as any aspiring artist would. As much a fan of Cole Porter as Bob Dylan, Ferry was keenly aware of the song-craft excellence of the writers of the 40s and 50s, and the music of the imaginative 60s and the incredible changes that had taken place during that time (see: ‘Revolution in the Head‘).  It is no surprise therefore that in coming to compose ‘Beauty Queen’ Ferry chose his hero John Lennon’s late 60s haunting ‘Julia‘ as poetic inspiration and linguistic baseline for the Roxy ballad.  Here’s the Lennon’s lyric in full:

Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia

Julia, Julia, oceanchild, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering,
In the sun

Julia, Julia, morning moon, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind, Julia

Julia, sleeping sand, silent cloud, touch me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Hum hum hum hum…calls me
So I sing a song of love for Julia, Julia, Julia

Half of what I say is meaningless...Lennon acknowledges the limitations of language and of the chance of making a real connection, but he soldiers on nonetheless just to reach you, Julia. Ferry delights in matching Lennon’s hippie phrasing (windy smile vs patterns drawn in sand; silent clouds vs swaying palms) and Lennon’s preferred alliterative use of “s” is adopted by Ferry throughout – seashell smile/sleep/sand/silent becomes starry/shimmer/swimming/ sea. Metaphor is shared (Lennon’s “seashell eyes” become Ferry’s “swimming pool eyes“) and adjectives are interchangeable – Lennon’s floating sky shimmering becomes Ferry’s starry eyes that shimmer, and so on. There is no meanness of spirit or intent in Ferry’s utilization of the tricks and techniques of poetry – nor did Lennon invent the form – but you can tell that Lennon’s lyrical and linguistic approach was in the blood, and who better to tip his hat to his 50s and 60s references and influences than the man who had already laid down his 70s cultural manifesto in Elvis Presley Vampire gear on Top of The Pops.

Just as the subject is absent in ‘BQ’, so too with ‘Julia’: Lennon’s mother was struck by a car and killed at age 44 – and only a few photos of her remained. Having recently re-kindled his relationship with his mother Julia in his early teens (she had left the boy when he was a toddler) the blow to Lennon, understandably, was incalculable and contributed to his cynical and sarcastic view of his life and fame (they didn’t want me so they made me a starI Found Out). Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 8.27.15 AM For Lennon, ‘Julia‘ marks the acknowledgement of a changing of influence of his muse mother to Yoko Ono – the line “Ocean child calls me” refers to Ono, whose name means ‘child of the sea’ in Japanese. For Ferry, Valerie is similarly a staple of the past (faded away) and an ocean child calling to him (winds could not erase/The memory of your face). And it is here that Ferry leaves the stratosphere (literally, as we’ll see in the final verse) as he subverts the very idea of poetic revelation – that is to say, he takes Lennon’s idea of “half of what I say is meaningless“, absorbs its lessons and conjures up his own-style modern love song. The difference between the two ballads is that, although both writers call out their mystical muse, Ferry cannot take its value or “message” quite seriously, as he recognizes the limitations of memory not only as a process of recollection but also how it recreates or re-constructs the past. This is a familiar Ferry motif, and is captured most completely in Re-make/Re-model:

I tried but I could not find a way
Looking back all I did was look away

In looking away from the memory of the past, the singer candidly admits he cannot take basic emotional stimuli seriously: looking back provides no answers, no way forward. In both ‘Re-make’ and ‘BQ’ the narrator turns from the emotional connection of memory in favour of something more… artificial. In short, there is absolutely no way this singer-songwriter is going to look back on the memories of his life – the loves, losses, pain, growth – and write it straight. He may admire Lennon’s linguistic gifts, he may go back to the classical song structures of the 40s and 50s to understand and utilize popular song structure and appeal (in time the lessons would be useful and lucrative) but this was merely a secondary consideration to the essential purpose of fulfilling the requirements of the recently declared Roxy manifesto: So me and you, just we two, got to reach for something new.

For Bryan Ferry the only reliable truth is the truth of Art, of the act of living, recording, and re-playing life’s experiences in a playful, self-aware construct of your own choosing – preferably those fantastic starry dreamscapes based in part on the Rich & Famous, and the Glamour of Cinema and Hollywood. This is not necessarily the truth of the matter as Brian Eno and Andy Mackay would come to see it – more of that later –  but all Roxy members at the time believed in the pursuit and definition of a new kind of popular music and artistic intention. ‘Beauty Queen’ uses as its starting point the ballad form and subverts its by utilizing the poetic mannerisms of 1960s celestial and shiny prose and wrapping it up in imagery that is filtered through a cinematic or ‘modern’ sensibility: Oooooh the way you look – part parody, part earnest. The result becomes a wonderful mixture of the heartfelt and ironic; the song’s warmth and popularity with fans defines success in part because of the utilization of old tricks wrapped in an approach that screams “performance”. But within this achievement lies a core question – how to move forward? The subject of the second Roxy Music album is the story of Ferry searching for a new muse, for himself and for his times, and during the unfolding of For Your Pleasure, we witness him using all of his creative powers to identify and harness (and tame) that muse, and he knows, intuitively, that danger lies ahead..

Credits
The Sphinx, by British painter Augustus John, from Bryan Ferry’s personal collection; BF performing with Roxy Music 1972; Roxy mural; the fantastic Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything, 1947; Our “Man of the Decade“, John Ono Lennon; John and his mum, Julia; Amanda Lear For Your Pleasure cover out-take (panther and photo liberties, yours truly).

Beauty Queen Part 2 – December 2017

Titbits
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http://www.beatlesagain.com/btwhite.html

With the anniversary of John Lennon’s death nearing (December 8) it is enough to say that the love for the man never fades. Though deified as a Saint by his peers and subsequent generations, Lennon was actually a man of his time, misogynist, heavy-handed, difficult, but ever-searching, massively talented, and, safe-to-say, like all of us, his search and desire to make himself a better person would have been better suited to a longer life, if only he had been given the chance.

While we’re imagining the universe and its infinite possible outcomes (a side-step here, a ride to the front door instead of a moment to talk to fans) think about the Beatles White Album as it almost was, provisionally titled A Doll’s House, with the proposed cover, above. Now, wouldn’t that have been something? Or just one of many possible outcomes. We miss you JL.

 

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