I. Seductive Power
‘Beauty Queen’ derives its power from a fantastic musical presentation, sweeping and innovative vocal delivery and stylizations, and captivating lyrics (“Ferry’s best,” Rogan). The song pulls the listener deep into an album that is at once both darker, more experimental, and certainly better recorded than its predecessor. For Your Pleasure was also more successful than Roxy Music – hitting #4 in the charts – and in turn produced, as Roxy archivist John O’Brien has succinctly put it, “a warmer more organic sound,” overlaying “the pop art devices of the first album with a more psychedelic treatment and hallucinatory insight” (Viva). Musically, ‘BQ’ is a haunting creation, the result of merging the classic ballad form with a host of disparate, wounded elements: heavily treated piano chords stir coldly to life; a beautifully literate poetic sensibility paints pictures in bold strokes (Your swimming pool eyes in sea breezes they flutter/The coconut tears heavy lidded they shed); the lead vocal chases down words, but it cannot capture, let alone tame them. The track is so far removed from Frank Sinatra balladering that you can only scratch your head and wonder how they got away with it. Not even David Bowie ever sounded this odd (Laughing Gnome not withstanding). Did I mention the blistering hard-rock break at 2.30? We’ll get to that.
The seductive yet coolly distant atmosphere of the song derives from its subject matter and the position that Bryan Ferry found himself in when he in the band entered the studio to record For Your Pleasure in February 1973. Legend has it that during the months preceding, Ferry went through a period of introspection, self-consideration, zoning out in front of the television set with the sound turned off, insular, trying to make sense of it all. To this end, critic Michael Bracewell believes the subject matter of FYP is about “paranoid fame“. This feels correct, the sense of unbridled possibility Ferry and the band must have felt by the close of ’72 as the ink on those Robert E. Lee “deals” dried and doors opened, while on the other hand experiencing the downside of the music business as band and management tried to broaden their audience and gain a footing in America. Roxy had just come off an exhausting and “humiliating” US tour before recording FYP, where the band played for 35 minutes as a warm-up for headliners like the J. Geils Band and Wild Turkey (wild turkey? hint: they never recorded a record). Poor treatment at shows and a lack of time for sound-checks and proper preparation lead Andy Mackay to complain that “some bands treat their support acts very badly. For whatever motives, I always felt that on those early gigs Jethro Tull were to some extent sabotaging our act” (Rigby, p59). Ferry didn’t mince words: America was “three years out of date” and most of the cities he felt “you could do without…there were really only half a dozen towns worth spending any time in” (Sounds Jan 72, quoted in Viva). This must have been extremely disappointing to Ferry in particular, who had chased visions of America since his childhood, worshiping James Dean, Andy Warhol, Gatsby and Hollywood, only to find that US audiences in the early 70s were, in the words of Roxy manager David Enthoven, “fucking thick. They didn’t fucking get it at all” (Story of RM). And meanwhile, a road-battered Brian Eno was taking notes in his journal, citing the harshness of repetition and the tedium of life on the road..
I don’t really have a fixed notion of glamour; I love the glamour of Las Vegas for example – the extravagance of showgirls with long false eyelashes, masses of hair and high heels. I think that’s fabulous, even though its completely tacky.
Bryan Ferry, quoted in Glamour: A History, by Stephen Gundle.
Glamour and camp were essential to the Roxy Music aesthetic – two concepts that had little currency in the rock and pop world in the early 70s. The term “Glamour” has origins tracing back to Scotland circa 1720, meaning “magic, enchantment”, a variant of Scottish gramarye “magic, enchantment, spell,”(Etymonline). Vampires “glam” their victims by putting them under a mental spell or compulsion, presumably making it easier for the archfiend to render his victims powerless to seduction (and possible, nae probable, death). So, there are two very interesting aspects of this word glamour when it comes to analyzing Roxy Music: one comes from the dark side side of the catwalk – witches or vampires casting spells, used to influence the actions, thoughts and memories of victims; the other comes from the bright side of the catwalk, where the glitz and dazzle is so awe-inspiring we look away, too much for one day. According to Glamour: A History, this brighter glitzy meaning of glamour, like its darker counterpart, carries talismanic hypnotic qualities, and “has a sparkle and glow about it that enhances the people, objects, and places to which it is attached”:
It is an enticing and seductive vision that is designed to draw the eye of an audience. It consists of a retouched or perfected representation of someone or something whose purpose it is to dazzle and seduce whoever gazes on it (Glamour, p.5).
Glamour therefore has a yin-yang quality, a dark-bright, negative-positive power that seduces as much in daylight as in darkness. Consider, if you will, the beautiful pink hypnotic dazzle of the Rita Hayworth-type glamour shot on Roxy Music, and contrast it with the dark seduction shot of Amanda Lear on For Your Pleasure, and you’ll know where we are going with this. First, the pink dazzle: ‘Beauty Queen’ is a song that places beauty – treasure so rare – above all other qualities. Surface perfection is the stated subject of the song in both title and execution. Ferry sees/remembers/reconstructs a picture of the model in his mind and in doing so becomes seduced by the “dazzle” of the image she projects – his starry eyes shiver as he looks away, too much for one day. In this regard, ‘BQ’ is the direct off-spring of ‘Virginia Plain‘: Valerie is no more a flesh and blood person (in the song) than Virginia Plain was in ‘VP’ – think of the singer’s student painting of Virginia Plain and replace it with the photograph/magazine cover of model Valerie, and you get the picture (pardon the pun). Indeed, this “replicated” ideal of beauty runs through For Your Pleasure as a persistent theme, launching off the back of earlier tracks VP, Re-Make/Re-Model, and Ladytron and into the Andy Warholian universe of surface perfection and repeatable representation in songs such as ‘Editions of You‘ (girlfriend as glossy magazine reissue) and ‘In Every Dream Home, a Heartache‘ (girlfriend as synthetic beauty queen inflatable doll, the perfect companion).
Poppy: Beauty Queen of the Internet Age
II. Dark Glamour
Lyrically, ‘Beauty Queen’ is a beautiful piece of work, it shivers and shines, matching with considerable style the thematic interrogation of glamour that is the song’s subject. The shining effect of glamour and its evocative allure is accentuated throughout as the images stack in bright shining motifs: “starry eyes” / “treasure so rare” / “worship the sun” / “gold number” / “be a star” / and so on. Ferry is keen to show the impact star-quality has on him (and us) by showing that glamour and enchantment is necessary fuel for modern living. Yes, there is a sincere and valid reading of ‘BQ’ that sees our man romantically turning his back on his past, sniffling into his perfumed handkerchief as he says goodbye to his childhood love and his own loss of innocence (before he steps on that plane to Rio, presumably). This is a ballad after all, so why not get deep into the emotion and sincerity that is the hallmark of the ballad style. But compare for a moment the over-heated tint of Ferry’s glamour narrative with a contemporary ballad released on the very same day as FYP, March 23, 1973: Paul McCartney’s My Love. In this popular ballad McCartney declares: I know my heart can stay with my love/it’s understood/It’s in the hands of my love/and my love does it good. A simple declaration of love, surprisingly clever in its phrasing – does it good is left intentionally informal – like McCartney is keen on leaving the lyric uncluttered in order to get to the heart of the matter – this being his personal declaration of love (my love) presented to his wife Linda, (my Love). (Like John Lennon, McCartney was doing a lot of stripped-down honesty in the early 70s, though he never got much credit for it. Temperamentally an optimist – never a good starting point with critics – his subject matter was often compared unfavourably to the more skeptical, and undeniably cooler, J Winston). McCartney strives for simplicity of expression in order to get his audience closer to his feelings of love. Another contemporaneous ballad appeals for the same reason, Stevie Wonder‘s You Are the Sunshine of My Life: You are the sunshine of my life/That’s why I’ll always be around/You are the apple of my eye/Forever you’ll stay in my heart/And if I thought our love was ending/I’d find myself drowning in my own tears. Stevie applies off-the-shelf metaphors liberally here: apple/eye; drowning/ tears. A satisfying song, to be sure, but apple of my eye /drowning in my own tears is the stuff of high school duels at dawn (just kidding) with Stevie using familiar and slightly stale metaphors in order to cut through the clutter, striving for a connection with his audience, striving to achieve, as Shakespeare would have it, “more matter with less art.”(Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2).
Or, as Roxy Music would have it, “no matter without more art.” Ferry loves using metaphor in his lyrics (Sunset from Stranded is extraordinary), and he’s just as serious about connecting with his audience and as his popular contemporaries:
When you find that what you’ve done is important to someone, then one gets involved. If it means something to them, you’ve got a fan for life, at least they’re interested in what you have to say. Then I feel the lyrics should always stand up to reading. I take a tremendous amount of care with them.
– BF, interview, quoted in Rogan, (56).
Ferry’s stylized language of love is however designed to draw attention to itself, and works both as metaphor and as a vehicle that uses the strategies of glamour: Your swimming pool eyes/in sea breezes they flutter, for example, is a line that contains the language of cinema, with its poetic imagery, hints of Hollywood (swimming pool), intertextuality (sea breezes), and unabashed quivering glam effect – those beautiful eyes flutter. ‘Beauty Queen’s’ lyric draws attention to itself in an effort to maximize effect – the very tenet that Glamour is based upon. The narrator observes in ‘BQ’ that those swimming pool eyes produce coconut tears (heavy lidded they shed). The coconut/tears comparison is of course the metaphor (fruit in the shape of a tear drop) but the use of the word coconut is loaded: coconuts don’t grow in the warm glamorous Caribbean/Southern countries that we Northerners dream of escaping to every winter. Coconuts come from palm trees, and as a cultural image, palm trees are associated with California/Los Angeles, a fact that was stamped on the cover of Hotel California (years later) and used ad nauseam to describe a American cultural mythology created by the film and music business. Moreover, the plural noun Coconut tears sounds right to our ears, but the familiarity actually stems from “crocodile tears”, a phrase meaning “expressions of sorrow that are insincere”(Oxford). Look a bit closer and you’ll find that as a plural noun, “crocodile tears” origins date from the 16th century: named from a belief that crocodiles wept while devouring or luring their prey. Ferry’s tears, instead of being plentiful enough to drown in, come from the eyes of “heavily lidded” glambots that shed fake tears while devouring their prey. Ferry therefore feels drawn to, yet is also devoured by, the shining glamorous image before him. Bloody hell, some love song.
III. The ‘Real’ Beauty Queen
Marilyn Monroe was one of the big iconic graphic figures that Richard [Hamilton] used, and Andy Warhol, and that might have rubbed off on me. And the beauty queen idea seemed to click with the music, there was the same sensibility at work.
BF, interview, 2010
I’m not sure what Bryan thought his roots were, but they probably had more to do with Marilyn Monroe than with any musical influences.
Tim Clark, former marketing director of Roxy Music’s label
This hyper self-awareness or self-consciousness in Roxy Music may have created initial commercial problems in America (a problem solved less than a decade later) but the shimmer of initial fame in Europe emboldened Ferry to at once both expand his horizons, meet new friends, enjoy new experiences and expand considerably his artistic mandate to front a pop band that created beautiful “cinema music”. Drawing attention to the process of trying to achieve an emotional impact is what is on offer in the moving and clever ‘Beauty Queen’. Emotional sincerity in Roxy is to be found in the presentation of the music and in the lyrical process of revealing a song’s construction, of peeling back the layers that show how style and effect – i.e, Glamour – works, its potency and its effect on people. Acknowledging that the works of Warhol and his mentor Richard Hamilton had “rubbed off on him,” Ferry applied the principles of postmodern art to his song writing.
Beauty Queen: My Marilyn, Richard Hamilton, (1965). Original, uncolored (bottom). Tinted Silkscreen (top).
Richard Hamilton is legend in this blog, and no introduction is needed (see: here, here, here). An astonishing artist in his own right, his stature for Roxy fans is unquestioned, for he is the man who was able to say “Bryan Ferry – my greatest creation” – and get away with it. Take a look at Hamilton’s photo collage of Marilyn Monroe above (My Marilyn) created in 1965, two or three short years before Ferry studied with him, as the art work serves as a visual guide to the Roxy art-making approach: without us having doing research on this photograph (intentionally) we can come at it with uncluttered eyes. What do we see: we see Marilyn Monroe on a beach, probably late-period photo shoot. The photos may have been taken by Hamilton (or not), thereby confusing origin and “authenticity” of source. But look at the interesting way the collage reveals the process of deciding on what will be the eventually chosen as the ‘Good-to-use‘ shot – some pictures are discarded for consideration outright with giant red X‘s; one is a very good contender (upper left; red/yellow square box); the final one is circled in yellow and rather comically identified as “good” – and on the lower right this “good-to-go” shot is presented as the final shot (with modifications). Moreover, Hamilton does not simply replicate the Good shot and make that his final picture (as many artists would do) but keeps the construction and thought process as part of the final product. Depending on how you see these things, your own aesthetic bent, do you determine your emotional and aesthetic satisfaction at the result – do you like seeing the construct in play, the “fakeness” of the original shots revealed, the drawing attention to the process of their placement as messy, far from an ideal of beauty, or do you feel that revealing the tools that make up the picture to produce a powerful aesthetic response that feels, well, more honest, engaging and satisfying. Perhaps by seeing this process-making you feel a tinge of pity for Monroe, as she is displayed objectively on the beach, photographically hacked up and – is this the case? – posing at the end of a troubled career, the water’s edge denying the promise of the West, the sun setting:
All of my hope and my inspiration
I drew from you our life’s patterns drawn in sand
But the winds could not erase the memory of your face
‘Beauty Queen’: My Marilyn, Bryan Ferry, (1973)
This zeitgeist of artifice, fake or stylized ‘ideal of beauty’, this drawing attention to the power and seduction of glamour and the processes in which it works, was part of Ferry’s strategy to create a “new” approach to stage-craft and music, based on his deep understanding of pop-art principles administered by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Richard Hamilton, coupled with his appreciation of classic novelists sense of depth and social exploration read in books by Scott F. Fitzgerald and J.G.Ballard. To quote our observations in Beauty Queen – Part 1:
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.
‘Beauty Queen’ carries with it the faint ludicrousness of a man in love with, infatuated by, and possibly singing to, the picture of a woman on a magazine cover. “It could never work out,” is a good joke as it’s hard to have a relationship with a reproduction or reprint (trust me, I know). This also part of the painting/cigarette joke in Virginia Plain, and part of the cringing laughter in In Every Dream Home, a Heartache where the love object is synthetic (and willing). The magazine cover-girl picture is most likely a shot of her on the beach (while you worship the sun/summer lover of fun) and the scene feels like it has come straight off of Richard Hamilton’s silk screen My Marilyn:
While you worship the sun summer lover of fun
Gold number with neighbours who said that you’ll go far
Maybe someday be a star a fast mover like you
And your dreams will all come true
Here the glamour trope both shines (“gold number“) and reveals the dirty black coating behind the dressing room mirror (“fast mover“). ‘Gold number’ is a nice touch for it feels Northern and colloquial – “number” is slang for phone number = a treasured prize if you’re chasing sex. And the viewpoint in this stanza is small-town and a bit of a put-down too. Ferry internalizes the drive to be famous here by equating the girl on the magazine cover with his own dreams and aspirations. “Gold number”/”Fast mover” are the judgements of an older generation, people who distrust success, a particular cultural trait of the British perhaps (raised in Scotland, I recognize the sentiment) and this gold number is damned with faint praise, the sting in the voice palpable at 2.00-2.28. Then, we’re off to the races as the music takes a hold of the uppity wannabees and hurtles them towards the heavens (2.26-3.19). You can almost see the tongues wagging over the fence a la Coronation Street as Phil Manzanera‘s guitar propels the fast movers into the cosmos.
Deep in the night plying very strange cargo
Our soul ships pass by solo trips to the stars in the sky
Gliding so far that the eye cannot follow
Where do they go? We’ll never know
Brightness and sheen give way to darkness, deep in the night. The coldness of the opening piano refrain returns, completing the journey of outward impressions and glamorous sensation, the gaze now completely turns inwards to complete the song: man/woman; artist/model; voyeur/object – strange cargo indeed – are now separated into separate vessels, soul ships catapulted out towards the stars, egos unbridled, unchecked. This is a lovely and sad image, as it metaphorically identifies both a journey to the heavens (towards death) and the more earthly cliche of “shooting for the stars” – not just the name of a TV talent show (ha) but an identifier for all those stars and hopefuls that have escaped small towns in order to seek fame beneath the craggy rock face of the Hollywood hills. Ambition is under interrogation in these lines, a questioning of what it means to be on one of those magazine covers: 36 year old Marilyn Monroe ended up drug-addled, alcoholic, death-by-suicide. The creeping sense of “paranoid fame” that first made an appearance in Virginia Plain and continued into Pyjamarama, is now encoded deeply in For Your Pleasure, the masterpiece unfolding before us. The haunting image of soul ships passing by, not touching, no communication possible, shows our narrator haunted and alone – in front of a flickering television set, perhaps – for he is himself on those magazine covers now – locked in a solo trip into the unknown. A faint icy-echo in the vocal is introduced at the top of the line gliding so far (4.10) to emphasize the point, sounding like cold death itself and beyond the experience of us mere mortals (the eye cannot follow). The final question is stunningly posited as he looks towards his own future – Where do they go? We’ll never know. And lo and behold, the next song on the album is dedicated to you and I dear reader, the envelope pressed into our hands is marked ‘Strictly Confidential’, and with it comes a narrative of heavy loss and suicide.
1973 FYP photographed by Karl Stoecker (model Amanda Lear)/2013 FYP by Terry Richardson (model Catherine McNeil); time-wasting youtube nonsense or ultimate Beauty Queen?: check out Poppy; the brilliant Richard Hamilton and My Marilyn; Marilyn Monroe shot for the pin-up generation, 1940s.
Do-it-yourself Postmodernism. The influence of meta-culture on our lives. Not-famous but now-famous “Amy” has fun with a Richard Hamilton classic. “Amy Amy Amy”: human figure response to Richard Hamilton’s ‘My Marilyn’ silk screen prints. Nice!