A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall Bryan Ferry (cover version, ‘These Foolish Things’ 1973)
A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall Bob Dylan (original, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ 1963)
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I. Where Have You Been?
There is a moment at the beginning of Ken Burns heart-rending documentary The Vietnam War when Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall provides the soundtrack to a chilling and moving prophecy: something dreadful and abhorrent is on its way, and the blue-eyed sons of a generation are going somewhere they may never return from, and if they do return, they may never be the same again.
Another blue-eyed son – Bryan Ferry – takes Dylan’s anti-war anthem and turns it inside out, downplaying and de-emphasizing the poetry while heightening the music and tunefulness of the original. It’s a fair trade, and one that still stands as an astonishing cover version of a folk classic. Strikingly original and as tuneful as hell, Bryan Ferry chose to re-record the song as the lead track on his first solo album These Foolish Things, and in doing so scored a surprise hit, reaching number 10 in the UK charts in October 1973 (Viva). Success came at a price however: the single was controversial for its stomping (literally) on sacred ground, and it also created a schism in Bryan Ferry’s writing – a trend towards minimizing lyrical density in favour of cover songs and a heightened mainstream sensibility – an inclination, thankfully, still far away on the horizon as 1973 unfolded, they year that delivered two classic Roxy Music albums (For Your Pleasure, Stranded) and a surprising, even innovative, “one-off” solo release in These Foolish Things. As Ferry drily noted, 1973 “was some year of work.”
As Brian Eno left the band in July 1973, the Roxy Music band-members felt the pain of losing their original line-up and their hard-earned musical identity. Andy Mackay felt angry enough to come close to quitting Roxy and joining Mott the Hoople (with whom he had played on their single ‘All the Way to Memphis‘ during the recording of For Your Pleasure). The saxophonist even insisted on creating a solo personae in the vein of a Ziggy Stardust alter-ego, as if to hedge bets for the future. (“I’m changing my name to Eddie Riff,” he told the NME in the same issue that Eno’s departure was announced). Phil Manzanera recalls the period as being, understandably, highly contentious and difficult: “When Eno left we were in danger of imploding completely” (Rigby, 86). After some breathing space and tempered negotiations – Manzanera and Mackay would receive writing co-credits on future Roxy Music recordings – the band decided to continue, Manzanera for one observing that “I hadn’t had my fill of being in a pop band yet” (Stump, 99). Band members also felt that doing solo albums would be a good way to relieve creative tension and so followed the two Brians on their solo album path, while retaining the Roxy Music brand as their raison d’être:
What’s interesting about Roxy is that most people in bands don’t do solo albums until they’ve been together for years. We all started doing solo albums almost immediately. We always had our own agenda, and as long as there was enough common ground we stayed together. There was always a possibility I could have left when Brian Eno did. I felt very loyal to him.
For his part, Bryan Ferry still felt that Roxy Music was the main thing, yet considered the Roxy ‘state of mind’ as malleable and applicable to other art projects. So he set upon the idea of recording an album of pre-written “ready-made” songs, some standards, some well-known classics, all of them personally important to Ferry as they spanned several decades from the 1930s through the 1960s, re-creating in spirit the set-list of his previous R ‘n’ B band The Gas Board. Confiding to Melody Maker that “The people who did the best songs were pre-Beatles” Ferry was keen to surprise his audience, so much so music writer Hal Norman maintains that by its very contradictory nature These Foolish Things “remains as much of a revolution in the head as the great LPs of ’67 or ’77.” While this errs on the side of hyperbole – The Beatles and Sex Pistols be damned! – there is little doubt that Ferry was in new territory in 1973: for the post-60s generation originality was King, and anything less than an artist writing, recording and playing songs of striking originality was met with suspicion. Covering other people’s tunes demonstrated a lack of talent, a throw-back to Frank Sinatra‘s generation and the jazz standards of the 50s. No matter that John Coltrane had savaged the old Broadway chestnut ‘My Favourite Things‘ to create a be-bop revolution, the current thinking was that a Neil Young or a James Taylor wrote from their own observations – meaning and expression was a gift to the audience by Artist, who toiled in everyday experience to bring the fruits of their insight to the masses. Even Ferry was initially cautious in his ambition. “It wasn’t that I wanted to have another career,” he explained, “I saw it as a one-off album”:
I must have been encouraged to do [a solo album] by Mark and David [Enthoven]. I thought it would be great to do a different kind of album to For Your Pleasure, one which wasn’t as dark and had a lightness in the way that, say, Picasso does ceramics which are fun, and also does dark and mysterious work as well. I’m sure the album had good and bad repercussions. It opened Roxy Music up to a more mainstream audience. On the other hand, I might have pissed off the purists.
Moving fast then – ‘Foolish Things’ was recorded in June 1973, with single and album released in September and October (at the same time Roxy went into the studio to record ‘Stranded‘), Ferry wisely stayed within his comfort zone by working with the members of the established Roxy Music machine – Paul Thompson was invited to play drums; Phil Manzanera played guitar on the Beatles cover of ‘You Won’t See Me’; For Your Pleasure musician and friend John Porter played bass and co-produced with Ferry; AIR Studios was re-booked; John Punter was back for co-production and engineering assistance; and as per the previous two Roxy albums, cover design was by Nicholas De Ville and photography was by Karl Stoecker. Andy Mackay and Brian Eno did not participate – which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one given the subterfuge and fall-out of the summer.
Utilizing Marcel Duchamp‘s idea of ready-mades or ‘found-objects’ – a pop-art trick Roxy Music had used so well on ‘Virginia Plain‘ and ‘Editions of You‘ – Ferry was keen to stick to mentor Richard Hamilton’s credo that art should be “Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business” (Hamilton). This opened the way to throw another brand into the mix – that of the solo star, a beefcake teen idol called “Bryan Ferry”. The message to his audience and fellow Roxy band-members was clear: damn the torpedoes, I have ideas to burn, I can make it on my own. In doing so Ferry hit the nail on the head: the record sold by the bucket-load.
II. Who Did You See?
‘Hard Rain’ starts with the plaintive and familiar sound of Bryan Ferry’s electric piano tapping out a D-chord intro: it’s telling that the rhythm is slightly choppy, irregular, a human touch – until four short seconds in, when the sound of violins slowly creep into the mix, precise, panning across both speakers. Ferry takes a breath at .09 and the voice is introduced, mid-range. Paul Thompson kicks in at .16 with a deft double-stroke roll and we’re off to the races, the rhythm catching fire for an extremely original and entertaining 5.19 minutes of pop perfection.
The introduction and selection of ‘Hard Rain’ for this, the opening cut on Bryan Ferry’s first solo album, is inspired and provides context for much of what follows for Ferry and Roxy Music in the 70s. Take innovative song selection and album sequencing for starters: in its original format Dylan’s track is a brilliant, if musically repetitive, question-and-answer poem that was ten minutes+ plus live, and six minutes fifty-five recorded – influenced by French Symbolists Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme, and others, Dylan took the question and response format from multiple sources, some religious, one of them in the style of a centuries-old Scottish border ballad called “Lord Randal” with its question-and-answer format: “Oh where have you been, Lord Randal, my son; And where have you been my handsome young man” (FT). All sources helped imbue his song with striking images of conflict and apocalypse. The effect was a rain-driven “surrealistic downpour” (Riley) that became increasingly important and prescient for a country who, in 1963, was incubating hostility in Vietnam. (In another world, in some faraway galaxy, it is nice to imagine a society that heeds the warnings of the poets and assigns the Generals and war-mongers the noble job of grocery shopping and child-rearing). Intensely cinematic, Ferry’s choice is inspired – so wrong it’s right – and the sequencing on the record surprises as we move from ‘Hard Rain’s five minutes plus (the longest track on the record) to Ketty Lester‘s ‘River of Salt’ (the shortest).
The first few moments of ‘Hard Rain’ also introduce a significant moment in the history of Roxy Music: the debut of new band member, the fantastic and compelling multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson.
“Who can replace Brian Eno?!” Andy Mackay fumed to the NME when the split was announced to the music papers in July 1973. The answer to Andy’s question is, Eddie Jobson can.. Or, to be more precise, no one can. But Eddie Jobson was not a replacement for Brian Eno – he wasn’t hired to mix sound at live concerts, or manipulate Phil Manzanera’s guitar in the studio; he wasn’t hired to provide theories of being in a rock band or explain the role of ‘non-musician’ – quite the opposite, the gifted and multi-instrumentalist Jobson was hired to enhance and strengthen the musicianship of Roxy Music, to provide a wide breadth of support for live concerts, where keyboards, synth, violin and more could be supplied as the songs required, while Bryan Ferry took center-stage as singer and centerpiece of the live Roxy line-up. This view of Roxy as a professional and much sought-after viable recording & live music entity was what had kept Bryan Ferry awake at nights during the writing and recording of For Your Pleasure. Now the message had clarity – the goal of all marketing initiatives – resulting in no audience confusion on how to receive and enjoy the b(r)and. Glamour. Style. Pop and rock perfectly captured and presented – the best integrated guitar, drums and saxophone in England, and not an earthworm in sight. Now the parts were in place, Ferry began to extract the spoils of war and put the (very young) 18-year-old Eddie Jobson to work.
“Did you know I was the entire orchestra on Bryan’s first album?”
Whether by grand design or sheer luck – Bryan Ferry was familiar with Eddie Jobson via a close family connection, both men hailing from North England, County Durham – Jobson was an incredible find for Roxy Music, enhancing the band’s sex appeal via his youthful presence (he was eighteen when he joined Roxy) and musical skill, topped off with a visually arresting translucent plexiglass violin that was as thrilling to look at as it was to listen to. Moreover, Jobson contributed immensely in the studio, not only honing and applying an exquisite taste in musical embellishment, but also bringing his creativity and skill to some of Roxy’s best recordings (‘Song for Europe‘, ‘Out of the Blue‘ and ‘Sunset‘ among many). And so too is the case with Ferry’s first solo outing – if you ask most people about Ferry’s cover of ‘Hard Rain’ it is the strident and multi-layered strings that are most remembered. “I came up with the choppy strings,” Jobson recalled of the sessions:
My credit on [These Foolish Things] casually says “strings” but I don’t think people realize that I not only wrote all the string parts, but I individually over-dubbed the violins, violas and cellos until my fingers were blistered. I also added the double bass parts by playing them on viola at double speed and then slowing down the tape (Jobson, 141).
The intensive string over-dubs changed the music beyond recognition – the Dylan original was a classic finger-picked ballad/protest ballad in the vein of folk icon Woody Guthrie (with whom the unknown 19-year-old Dylan visited regularly during the famous folkie’s final years). The finger-picking style – with thumb picking out the base line and middle fingers picking out the rest of the chord – is a great vehicle for writer/poets who prefer to place emphasis on sound and alliteration, the steady rhythm serving to unclutter the poetry and message. John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero‘ is a classic of the genre, where the beat is steady and simple throughout, yet the message is barbed and to the point. In this regard, Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’ is designed to be listened to. Indeed, Dylan took the question and answer format in part from the sacred text Child Ballad No. 12 Lord Randal and it does carry a sense of religious fervor that one suspects Ferry responded to – he didn’t care much for the political aspects of the song (“I can’t be bothered with all that Cuba Crisis stuff” (Viva)), but the devotional format would have made sense with Roxy recording the evangelical ‘Psalm‘ from Stranded almost concurrently with ‘Hard Rain’s’ release.
Lyrically, Ferry largely keeps to Dylan’s word choice, dropping only the repeated personal pronoun – instead of I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, Ferry’s version go straight to the verb form as in “stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains”/crawled on six crooked highways and so on. These minor edits keeps each line moving at a fair clip. Ferry’s cover of ‘Hard Rain’ also adopts the Q&A format, with each verse the narrator asking a specific question, with answers coming from the young son. Verse 1 asks Where have you been? (Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?). Verse 2 asks What Did You See? Verse 3 asks What Did You Hear? 4 asks Who Did You Meet? And the final verse asks the most important question What Will You Do Now? Ferry used this call-and-answer format to maximum effect in his famous (and very early) promotional video for the single: sitting at his Grand white piano, squeezed between the instrument’s cover and soundboard, Ferry looks directly to his viewers and asks his questions. A separate camera picks up the dialog as he turns his head dramatically to answer and describe what he sees/hears/meets (Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter/Met a young woman whose body was burning/Saw a etc). An important aspect of Dylan’s song is retained and dramatized in the promo video as we, the audience, become the ‘blue-eyed’ son making our way through this tangle of poverty, ignorance and violence.
III. What Did You Hear?
By the time the first verse is underway, Ferry, Jobson and Thompson are inter-locked, moving swiftly towards twelve misty mountains and six crooked highways. At .44 we hear the winning sound of The Angelettes affirming Ferry’s conclusion that “it’s a hard (hard!) hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” The Angelettes – Pat, Jan, Sue and Julie – were a harmony girl-group from Manchester, and along with Eddie Jobson, serve as a North England talent coup for Ferry, as he hired them for the AIR studio recordings and for his (now lost) appearance of the song on Top of The Pops. This is the first instance in a long career that Ferry uses female singers for vocal accompaniment – an attribute used extensively for future solo and Roxy Music recordings. While the commercial fortunes of The Angelettes never matched their skill for harmony and innovation, the fact that they contributed so much to ‘Hard Rain’ is often over-looked due to the humorous rag-tag chorus of the promotional video (complete with cross-dressing Coronation Street alumni), yet they shine on the album, particularly on ‘Hard Rain’ and the successful Beach Boys cover, ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘
If Verse 1 sets the ball rolling with heavy rock, strings and dynamic drumming, then Verse 2 builds the sound picture with the introduction at 1.05 of John Porter’s guitar. In an effort to paint pictures in words and music, the guitar is the first instrument that sonically responds to the horror of the lyric, recoiling with a shake and a twang at I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’ (1.21). Intending the song to be heard (before it was seen) Ferry applies sound-effects liberally: “The sound of a thunder” produces thunder-claps at 2.02; “Heard the roar of a wave” and we hear the sound of waves crashing at 2.08; Heard many people laughin’ brings forth studio laughter (2.17) and so on. In fact, it may be the effects and laughter that got up the noses of hardcore Dylan fans and critics – how can laughter be appropriate in such an apocalyptic song? – but this is both the attraction and ultimate success of this cover version – it’s grand, crass, pompous (in the best 70s sense), ironical, inspired, and above all, reverential. Taking on the mantle of the poet who “died in the gutter” new poet Ferry assumes the role of Dylan the Clown (who cried in the alley) only to be mocked by the chorus – announcement of his death is met with a sarcastic “awwww” at 2.21. Sounds like everyone in the control room – including the Angelettes – had fun with that one.
Over the course of the five verses in this six minute song, music and effects are carefully added to build a tapestry of ominous visual images and puns. The question and answer effects continue (black dog: “howwwl“/rainbow: “sprinkkkle”), yet there is a sense at the half-way point that we could conclude here and all would be fine, slow fade. A good cut for the BBC and the singles market. But the story is not over: we have been, seen and heard, but have yet to absorb the lessons of human history, so the young one volunteers to “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” Ferry is up for a-goin’ back out, and carries the second half by beefing up the instrumentation and vocals for the remaining two minutes 40 seconds of the song.
Facing an emotional challenge – the young son will most certainly face death if he goes back out into the black forest (Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden) – the chorus and guitar build their lines to a harmonious climax. But the song is designed for Ferry by Ferry, the new solo star, so he creates room in the final verse to highlight his vocal performance and power, raising his naturally odd inflections across several closing lines:
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Ferry sings brilliantly here as he spits out Where the people /Where the pellets/Where the home/…/ culminating in a fantastic staccato rhythm that requires an (audible) sharp intake of breath to get through the climax:
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Here Ferry declares his right to sing Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘ and re-interpret this classic folk song, turning it away from its acoustic roots to the world of foot-stomping teenage-rampage Glam. It matters not a wit, the message is the same: he will tell it, speak it, and continue to breathe it, for truth never goes out of style. A song re-made without compromise, Ferry gives a giant to-hell-with-you to the snobs and critics, and climbs to the top of the mountain streamline as a beacon of light, a reflector of the new modernity.
In Memoriam: To all the men, women and children killed and injured in New Zealand, March 2019. To the families of those left behind, we are sorry for your loss.
You may have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Next month: Brian tackles a sad-song metaphor – ‘River of Salt’
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973. Various different versions of ‘Hard Rain’ release potent emotional energy – The Staple Singers engage in a powerful 1968 call-and-response that maintains a steady beat, and intensifies before the final verse; so too with Joan Baez, her unmistakable voice holding us in rapt attention. By far the most emotionally charged and profound take on the song, building to tears by the final verse, is Patti Smith‘s Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Noble Peace Prize. At 1.54 Smith completely freezes (her word), and there is stunned silence from the Nobel crowd as she tries to get back to the verse lines. With a disarming “Sorry…I’m sorry.. Can we start that section.. I’m sorry…I apologise.. I’m so nervous” and a wide smile, she gains a well-earned round of applause. Emotion and good-will fill the room. It’s a profoundly moving moment, and Smith tackles the tough last verse cleanly with her frailty acknowledged and her humanity intact.
Pics: BF close-shot cover These Foolish Things; RMS composite Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry (in studio recording TFT); various editions of the single; Eddie Jobson; EJ and BF making boogie at the old Grand piano; RMS composite from ‘Hard Rain‘ promo video plus some Bob Dylan shots pinched from the internet; RMS composite the magnificent Angelettes; RMS composite official BF ‘Hard Rain’ promo vid.
March 22, 2019 at 1:42 pm
Another wonderful piece. Thank you. I’ve been a fan of Bryan’s work for longer than I care to remember – however – I’m learning, and gaining insight, about his recordings with every new post. This already reads like the definitive account of Ferry’s genius. Book to follow please.
August 2, 2019 at 7:02 am
Thank you for your kind words Terence, please keep reading! Kevin
November 14, 2019 at 10:23 pm
Thank you for those kind words! Book would be nice! cheers