The ideas we’d explored on the first album became more real and intense
Bryan Ferry, interview, 2002
Roxy Music came out of the gate hard on For Your Pleasure with ‘Do the Strand‘, a knees-up rocker that defined the new sensation and delivered an instant classic. The sound on Roxy recordings had improved considerably since the debut Roxy Music and the fullness of the sound on ‘Pyjamarama‘ (the first song recorded during the FYP sessions) was much in evidence on the new album. The introduction and warmth of ‘Beauty Queen‘s highly treated phlanged electric piano – Brian Eno‘s career dedication to minimalism starts here, and it’s glorious – slows the proceedings down and allows us to take a breath and pause: Valerie please, the singer asks, and we are drawn into a declaration of loss and breakdown – it never could work out. Called out as “the best love song Bryan Ferry has written”(Rogan), the general take on ‘BQ’ over the years has landed on a common theme: the “beauty of lost love”(Rigby); the “resigned mourning of lost love”(Stump); a “tender farewell to lost love”(Rogan) and everything generally in the universe confirming this is a song about lost love.
While we can agree that ‘Beauty Queen’ is indeed a song about lost love, we differ in opinion about who the declaration of loss is for. Typical readings point to a Bryan Ferry pre-fame girlfriend – some even offering up the name of actress Valerie Leon, one-time UK beauty queen, B-movie actress and model working in the Newcastle area – but there’s nothing to even remotely substantiate the claim (most mentions getting her birth place wrong) and besides, if you’ve been following the narrative so far we know the subject matter of Ferry’s songs are typically crafted to point back to himself or his constructed self (‘Re-Make, Re-Model‘/’If There is Something‘/’Virginia Plain‘/’Pyjamarama‘). Apply the term the Implied Author to Ferry’s writing and you have a handle to describe his self-reflective song craft, works of meta-analysis which pokes fun at his obsessions, influences, romances, and increasingly, more serious matters concerning life’s purpose, the impossibility of perfection and the loss of innocence. Peel back the surface of ‘Beauty Queen’ and the name “Valerie” is a merely a surrogate vehicle for implied author Bryan Ferry as he writes of his new experience of fame, his farewell to his Newcastle authentic self, and the realization that the mask he had architected at University was, by early 1973, attaching itself firmly to the surface of his skin, like fingernails digging into flesh. Just look at the cover of For Your Pleasure: it contains all the detail you’ll ever need to dive deep into ‘Beauty Queen’s cold dark heart.
Musically, ‘Beauty Queen’ is so well executed that, to these ears, this is the moment where Roxy Music really kick off and go for a deeper and more profound groove, leaving behind the glossy shining pinks and blues of the first album for something at once looser yet steely focused, settling into darker territory while attaining a result that can rightly claim classic status. The band put no foot wrong here and demonstrate compellingly the talent and massive influence the young musicians will have on the art-rock of the 70s – this the onset of Diamond Head and 801, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, ‘Miss Shapiro‘ and the great Roxy Music albums to come, Stranded, Country Life, Siren. Paul Thompson’s drum kick at .18 says as much, breaking in time to the vocal, Bryan Ferry now having to keep up to the unified musical synergy: “Everybody in the band featured on that record,” he observed years later, “there were no passengers – everybody was there, omnipresent in the sound” (BF). “Omnipresent in the sound” – there is no better way to describe it, as the song captures a poignant synergy between vocal, drums and bass – the bass in particular being extremely strong and creative, presenting a parallel melody line, a tasteful weaving of root notes that wrap themselves around Ferry’s unconventional vocal while providing much needed space to Thompson’s canny and consistent beat. The stalled hesitancy of the instruments during The time to make plans has passed/faded away (.40-.44) reflects the odd and somewhat comic abstraction of the moment, before the bass snakes up the fret-board like a needy lover after starry eyes shiver (.52-.56), repeated in the next verse after One thing we share/is an ideal of beauty (1.12-1.23) where again the expressive bass line wraps its arms around the lover, but this time ascends differently – same effect, but landing on a different set of notes, the ear recognizing motif and pattern while simultaneously engaged and delighted by the creative and difference in approach. Double-plus good.
The bassist on For Your Pleasure was the talented John Porter, a local Newcastle boy and school friend of Bryan Ferry. He was also a student of Fine Arts at Newcastle University, where he joined Ferry’s R&B/soul outfit The Gas Board (a band, surprisingly, who in 1967 were invited to lay down some tracks at Pye Studios in London for an American producer. Ferry’s first brush with fame). The story of Roxy’s revolving door of bass players is legendary, and many feel it to be an odd characteristic of the band’s make-up. In truth, given the immense talent of the individual members of Roxy, it made better sense to bring in a bass player to provide support and fresh ears at different moments in the band’s career. There’s little doubt the group would have stuck with founding member Graham Simpson had his ill-health not precluded this option, and so after the first album the revolving door die was struck – Rik Kenton came in for ‘Virginia Plain’ and did a fine job; Sal Maida was recruited for touring, and Ferry’s Gasboard collegue John Porter contributed to the For Your Pleasure sessions. (Then later of course, the brilliant John Wetton and John Gustafson – but more of those chaps in good time). John Porter however was a keeper, and Ferry knew it: not only an excellent guitarist and bassist, Porter also co-produced Ferry’s first solo album (These Foolish Things) and moved to America, master-minding and producing Buddy Guy’s career-revitalizing Grammy-winning Damn Right, I Got the Blues and bagging nine additional Grammy’s over the years, in addition to producing the first album by The Smiths – including the brilliant tremlo-drenched blues anthem ‘How Soon is Now‘. The rewards of Porter’s contribution to FYP can be seen in this unique combination of musical ability and sensitivity to sound and texture. So good was the fit that Porter – contradicting the theory that Roxy didn’t much care for having a long-term bassist as part of the band – was asked to join Roxy Music as a permanent member: “he wouldn’t join Roxy,” admitted Ferry, who still pines to go to New Orleans and make a record with him. “I asked him to … John was the one who got away”(Uncut). As an interim measure, Porter agreed to cut FYP and support the subsequent tour while the band looked for a permanent member. And the record is all the better for it.
Brian Eno Notebook (Roxy, early, 71-71)
Bryan and Eno return into pools of light. Spots on each at stage side – others slink into place lightless – drums in on second verse. Bryan and Eno lights cut and Andy and Phil freak out. We move off and return with guitars..
Eno invents stage directions in his diary, quoted in Bracewell (p355).
It is perhaps significant that ‘Beauty Queen’ was the last song that the original Roxy Music line-up performed live together. Five months after recording For Your Pleasure in the chilly winter of 1973, Eno played what would turn out to be his final concert that summer at the “New York Festival” York England, July 2nd. In addition to being on the bill with Roxy Music, Eno was also performing with music deconstructionists The Portsmouth Sinfonia. As a result, there was a considerable crowd support for Eno, and music journalists were keen to know more about his rumored collaboration with King Crimson front man Robert Fripp (on what would become the seminal No Pussyfooting). The story goes that when Roxy Music kicked into ‘Beauty Queen’, and Ferry presented his starry-eyed ballad and inspired vocal to the festival crowd, many of the audience shouted for Eno. Embarrassed, Eno walked off stage in an attempt to quell the unease, but this only made matters worse. Legend has it that Ferry fumed that he’d never go on stage with Eno again. ‘Beauty Queen’ thereby serves as a metaphor of the energies that broke the original Roxy, which, at the time of ‘BQ’s recording, were at the peak of their power. With all band members “omnipresent in the sound”, Ferry presented the track as a ballad, and he and the band crafted a song of beautiful oddness that all band members embraced, hip to the modern art-rock manifesto. For Ferry, the goal of writing ‘Beauty Queen’ was to create an “ideal of beauty“, “a treasure so rare”. Eno wanted to explore generative music, systems, randomness, process, and Honor Thy Error As Hidden Intent. Eno’s favourite Roxy Music track was ‘Beauty Queen’. And so it goes: split an atom and you get a release of energy, the broken pieces becoming atoms for other elements: solo trips to the stars in the sky..
The benefit for Roxy Music in early 1973 was that these solo trips were in the process of becoming and not yet fully formed. While listening to ‘Beauty Queen’ it is apparent that Ferry wrote the song with Roxy’s idiosyncratic approach in mind, and you can feel him keen to get past the uptempo feel-good stomp of ‘Do the Strand’ to something more thoughtful while still delivering the much coveted avant garde off-center tone. In his book Rock, the Primary Text, musicologist Allan F. Moore notes that “the harmonic structures in early Roxy Music songs were simultaneously extremely simple and frequently rather odd” (quoted in Pattie, 21). The crash of instruments at .40-44 is a perfect example of the quirkiness and self-deprecating humor expressed in a song that, as smooth as it is, presents in musical form the slammed door of a relationship’s end. By the time we come to the time to make plans has passed/faded away, we hit an obstacle, re-configure and start again. What is especially striking is that we’ve heard it before, playing on the ear like a subliminal tick – on ‘Sea Breezes‘ from Roxy Music. Take a listen to ‘Breezes’ at 3.33-6.12 and you’ll hear Ferry and Co. throw the listener a curve ball as we move from a contemplative Andy MacKay solo into a discordant, abrupt rhythm: Now that we are lonely, the narrator complains, Life seems to get hard. The loveliness of the song dissolves into a slap of cold air from the ocean, much like the realization in ‘Beauty Queen’ that the time to make plans has passed, faded away. Now, if one was courting the possibility of submitting an essay to the New Yorker (and who would bother with such a thing) we might flirt with the idea of mapping the related imagery between ‘Sea Breezes’ and ‘BQ’ – there’s much synergy between the two songs – but the one worth teasing out is the one Ferry presents under our noses:
One thing we share is an ideal of beauty
Treasure so rare that even devils might care
Your swimming pool eyes in sea breezes they flutter
Building on a modest body of work (one album, a few singles) ‘Beauty Queen’ is the first time Ferry is explicit about the intertextuality in his work, having fun referencing an earlier song. In ‘BQ’ the lyrical focus is on the eyes – that critical sensing tool of glamour and cinema that Roxy were so plugged into – nay, defined by – and by quoting ‘Sea Breezes’ we are tipped off to key insider information. Here’s how it works: Take the line Oooh the way you look/ makes my starry eyes shiver. The object of desire in this line produces the effect of stardom, her image is reflected in the eyes of her admirers (she is a star and her admirers are her mirror). With his gaze he consumes her star-power, he is the audience. Yet, as he absorbs the image, he chooses to encode his sensibility into the reflection and send it back as a popular product – a pop song. (He is the star and we, his pop audience, are his mirror). Literally, beauty in the eyes of the beholder. This is a critical strategy in Ferry’s work: in recognizing the presence of beauty, art, style, fashion as a major input into who he is, the singer digests, constructs and sends back to us the very core of who he is by telling us how he sees the world. His art is the art of process and perceptions. ‘BQ’ is therefore less about Valerie, that “gold number” beauty queen from Newcastle, and more about how Ferry’s perceives the process of recognizing and creating a ‘beauty queen’. And, because of own increasing fame, the writer recognizes that this process of art-making is evolving for him over time, based on his radically changing circumstances. The previous year, for example, on Roxy Music opener, Re-Make/Re-Model, Ferry recognizes the beauty queen on the street (in a bar, at a gig). Yet he doesn’t start writing “She had honey sweet lips. They were lilac soft” and so on; instead he captures the memory of the moment he sees her – for him (humorously) the trigger is the car license plate CPL 593H: She’s the sweetest queen I’ve ever seen! Ferry “re-makes” and “re-models” what he sees, and ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’ serves as a celebration both of her beauty, and of his sensibility and the process of pop art creation. Everyone wins, and ‘Re-Make’ is still a love song to boot!
Quoting ‘Sea Breezes’ in ‘BQ’ is clever, for the comparison pokes fun at the heightened sensibilities of the love poet – a man so sensitive he can declare (without irony) that Now that we are lonely/Life seems to get hard/Alone what a word lonely/Alone it makes me cry. ‘Beauty Queen’ rejects this notion of innocence, and mocks the young delusional Romantics that peppered the first album, those so in love (and in love with themselves) that they want to settle down and “grow potatoes by the score.” After the successful Roxy Music British tour of late 1972 and the success of two hit singles – whose content was already mapping the shift from pre-fame dreams to a life of opening exclusive doors (oh wow!) – the recording of FYP offered Ferry and the band a chance to play with image from the vantage point of popularity and success (in Europe at least). Ferry and Roxy Music had created a glamorous, campy, slightly sleazy image of themselves over the course of the previous year, and in doing so had created a product baseline that contained high audience expectations for something different on The Second Roxy Music album. The innocence of the first record is gone – it’s a shame to think about yesterday, opines the narrator in ‘Sea Breezes‘ (a shame A shame, a shame, a shame), but no such sentiment comes across in ‘BQ’, for the narrator rather coldly tells his subject that the time to make plans has “passed” – the message delivered with narry a word for her or her emotional well-being, in fact, she is barely there, reduced to magazine, newspaper, TV image. These are his eyes and they are starry and shivering. This is cold and distant indeed, and the song is written as a farewell to an earlier time, before the fast mover became a star and the dreams started coming true. He is the star (not Valerie) and we, my friends, are his mirror reflecting back. This record is all about our pleasure, after all.
“Walking Panther” shots photographed by Mikael Jansson, Vogue; Bryan Ferry edited; John Porter then and now, http://www.johnportermusic.com/about.html; Brian Eno tinted; Siouxsie Sioux, photographed by Pierre Terrasson
Jan-April 1973 saw the release of several albums that would make their mark on the 70s and still be a staple of rock playlists 44 years later. Roxy Music released two albums in ’73 (For Your Pleasure/Stranded), a feat bettered by Elton John (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the latter being a double, so technically three albums) but this only beats Roxy if we don’t count Bryan Ferry’s solo These Foolish Things (of course we won’t count it – it ain’t Roxy innit). Bowie released two albums in 1973, Pin Ups/Aladdin Sane. The former was also an album of covers, and the latter was rushed in both the writing and production but spawned ‘Drive-In Saturday’, Panic in Detroit’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the brilliant title track, so who cares. Bowie rescued Iggy from the loony bin around this time, getting Pop and the Stooges signed to his own label MainMan after they failed to sell any records, anywhere. For some reason MainMan allowed out-of-his mind novice Iggy to produce Raw Power, with our hero comically utilizing only 3 of the 24 available tracks (voice/guitar/band). Bowie was brought in to do a salvage job on the recording, which is an incredible story in itself as Bowie remixed the 7 tracks in a single day during the 1st Ziggy Stardust tour in late ’72 when he was a complete unknown in America and trying to break the US market himself. (Say what you like about Bowie, but he ponied up for his heroes when no one else would – Iggy, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople). Bowie used the cheap but efficient Western Sound Recorders studio complex on Sunset Boulevard where Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley recorded some of their best known songs – can’t you can just hear ‘Search and Destroy‘ rattling the ghosts of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’…
In contrast, the supremely well-recorded Dark Side of the Moon (co-mixed by Roxy Music producer Chris Thomas at roughly the same time For Your Pleasure was being recorded) made the most of its 16 available tracks and, despite its familiarity, still sounds wonderful today. Yet the closest to the Roxy Music high-glam darkness of FYP and released one month before it in February 25 1973, is the still-potent, tuneful and hard-rocking theatrical album Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper. Produced by Bob Ezrin (who co-produced The Wall for the Floyd and Peter Gabriel’s first solo album – hear that wonderful multi-tracked guitar on ‘Solsbury Hill‘!) this is the real Alice Cooper band (before Vincent Damon Furnier changed his name to Alice and became a regular on Hollywood Squares) and offers ample evidence of the superior instrumental skills of the original Buxton/Bruce/Dunaway/Smith line-up. Listen to the title track burn as Cooper and 60’s folk guru Donovan trade vocal licks (“we go dancin’ nightly“) and Buxton and Dunaway mash up savage guitar lines and deliver the most frightening bass line ever. Ezrin’s production is massive and unforgiving. Friends, do me a favour, bury me with the cassette and green snake-skin wallet and, as always, PLAY IT LOUD.