Arguably, Bryan Ferry’s purpose in including Lesley Gore’s ‘It’s My Party‘ in his collection of song favorites My Foolish Things, was an opportunity to go full camp and stir up his record buying, Roxy-worshiping public. In this goal Ferry succeeded in spades: “For weeks I’d been hearing how bad this album was from people whose judgment is usually reliable” noted one negative review at the time of the album’s release (Shaw). “A curious production” observed another (MacDonald). Even Ferry admitted he was “freaked out by all the bad reviews” (“beside the fact that I’m really sensitive to criticism anyway” he added, without irony). And while Bryan would enjoy swift vindication – “Then I read the first week’s sales figures and that alleviated the situation!” – there is little doubt that hearing the greatest mind of a generation count-in the story of a jilted teen romance is a little unnerving.
Going back a bit, the original ‘It’s My Party’ was a hit single for amateur teen singer Lesley Gore, reaching No. 1 for two weeks on June 1, 1963 (Billboard). The story of the song’s creation is one of those oddities when chance seems determined to set a path irrespective of logic or intervention. According to Tim’s Cover Story, New Yorker Steve Gottlieb, a restaurant owner-operator with a penchant for amateur lyric writing, was planning a party for his teenage daughter when he insisted her grandparents be invited to the celebration. With typical teenage overkill his daughter Judy burst into tears, and when asked to stop, blurted “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!” from which Gottlieb crafted a lyric of teenage innocence lost. Even though Gottlieb had a full-time job with his Manhattan restaurant, he wrote obsessively (“My dad’s real love was songwriting,” recalled Judy, years later. “He wrote on napkins, he wrote on cakeboxes, he wrote on everything he could find”). Gottlieb gave his lyric to his songwriting partner Herb Wiener – whom he had met at the famous songwriting Tin Pan Alley Brill Building in Manhattan – and promptly forgot about it. The next time Gottlieb heard the lyric was on the radio: he didn’t know Wiener had passed on the lyrics to a composer who had scored and recorded ‘Party’ with the Lesley Gore and novice producer Quincy Jones (‘Party’ is likely Quincy Jones’ first production job, certainly his first #1 hit). According to Gottlieb’s daughter Judy: “Dad said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s my song!'” and preceded to track down his songwriting partner Herbie Wiener to get a share of credit and royalties.
At this juncture, there had been several hands involved in creating the song (credits read: Gold/Gluck/Weiner/Gottlieb), yet what Gottlieb did not know was that the recording had been rushed onto the market: immediately after Lesley Gore recorded ‘Party’ for the aspiring Quincy Jones, Jones met Phil Spector at a concert. There, Spector announced that he intended to record It’s My Party with the girl group The Crystals, and that Spector anticipated it would be a smash hit. Jones, fearing that his own version might be scooped by Spector, skipped the concert, rushed to the studio, and immediately made a test pressing of 100 copies of the record, which he promptly mailed to DJs at major radio markets across the country. Lesley Gore’s recording of It’s My Party began to receive air time on pop music stations the next week. Within a month, the record was officially released, and just four weeks later it hit #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 Pop songs list and the rhythm and blues charts.
These circumstances reveal the capricious nature of the music business – lyrics passed over to song-writers who did not always credit their original sources – and the “factory-like” mode of production of songs coming out of such hit factories such as the Brill Building in New York. Indeed, what is striking about Ferry’s selections for These Foolish Things is, of the six tracks we’ve reviewed on Side 1, five of the six have been associated with the Brill Building song-writing factory. Strictly speaking, Lesley Gore’s magnificent ‘You Don’t Own Me‘ would have been a grander artistic choice for Ferry to cover, but was not a product of Brill Building song-writing partnerships. In choosing songs produced by the Brill Building hit-factory was Ferry concocting a covers concept album? It ain’t Quadrophenia but the choices and sequencing are compelling.
While contemplating how to record his album of other people’s tunes, Bryan Ferry intended to do a “totally different treatment of each song”, but found himself pressed for time (Kent). Taking on a considerable work-load in 1973 – For Your Pleasure, These Foolish Things and Stranded all recorded within several months of one another – Ferry came at the Foolish Things tunes square on, in some cases not even changing the gender specification of tracks like ‘It’s My Party’: “Party’ was done dead straight”, Ferry confided to the NME in January 1974, “but that was the beauty of it.” As a result, how much you enjoying the tune’s inclusion on Foolish Things ultimately relates to how you feel about Lesley Gore’s original: while hearing a new interpretation of a song provides ample opportunity to seek out and explore the work of an artist (ergo, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall‘), you’d be hard-pressed to find a version of ‘It’s My Party’ on our own Saturday night playlist. In 1973 however, choosing to cover ‘Party’ on a covers record was radical – playful and ironic, brave (certainly), and unquestionably catering to the crowd that Ferry was running with at the time: while acknowledging to the press his cover of ‘It’s My Party’ was “a hurried knock-off”, Ferry offhandedly pointed out it was “one for the boys anyway” (NME). Ah, the boys. The boys exerted considerable influence upon Bryan Ferry as a solo artist and Roxy Music as a cultural phenomenon – the ‘boys’ were prime movers and members of the “the Roxy Machine” – fashion designer and image maker Antony Price; photographer Karl Stoecker; and art director Nicholas Deville – others included those “attractive people” Ferry noted who would forget about him the moment his career dipped (he was right). The front cover of These Foolish Things is one for the boys then – pure beefcake. The boys are also present at party at the beginning of ‘Mother of Pearl‘ (all the gang’s here). And the boys walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Ferry as here surveys all before him as a one of ‘The In-Crowd‘. It’s his party…
If all the hairdressers are playing my album, then I suppose it must be alright!
‘It’s My Party’ when delivered by gay icon (Stump) and style kingpin Bryan Ferry is a camp in-joke for the stylists and art-crowd that Ferry hung out with in the early 70s. Roxy Music were a decadent band, stylistically speaking, with gayness and androgyny being the stuff of sex obsessed, scandal-ridden newspapers The Sun and News of the World. While Andy Mackay confirmed that “rock music has been a reaction against accepted standards” (ibid 88), Ferry acknowledged that his audience enjoyed the camp nature of Roxy’s decadent pose less for a revolutionary purpose and more to express teenage sexual awareness: “when the boys in the province are making up to attract girls they think that’s what the girls are going to like” (ibid 88). Certainly, it had worked for Eno – why wouldn’t it work for them?
Ferry took his fuel from gay and peripheral life-style language and style to forge and promote the Roxy Music ‘state of mind’: “I [find] gays more simpatico…a year ahead of everyone else. Being so close to the art world my friends have always nearly been gay. Most of the people I really know or see at all now are in fashion because they’re attractive people, personality-wise” (Burns). Admitting that he was “fairly camp” on stage, Ferry already used camp and gay symbolism to thrill audiences who basked in the illicitness of it all, marveling at the sexual ambiguity of Amanda Lear; the bisexual, homosexual riffing of Ferry’s own sexual identify underscored by fashion design and friend Antony Price’s comment that the Roxy star was essentially “gay in every respect – sensibility, style, taste, humour – except for between the sheets” (Reynolds, 352). This was camp on a scale not seen in pop music before, with identity and role-playing a critical component in this early postmodern mashup of playing with and against expectations.
As a result, rather than being a misguided knock-off a teenager’s jilted love affair – we’re still in ‘Puppy Love‘ territory, after all – Ferry chooses ‘It’s My Party’ as a fabulous in-joke, as a means of highlighting identity and role-playing games, as way to show the wonderful slippage of language as it envelopes both pop theory and pop culture. Susan Sontag wrote of camp that is a mode of enjoyment…it wants to enjoy: “camp delights in the artificial, in the melodramatic, allowing something to become good because it’s awful“(Sontag). And here we get to the heart of the matter: pressed for time, straddling a line between natural entertainer and musical visionary, Ferry took a gamble on expressing both in the same season – for in the end the critical response to These Foolish Things wouldn’t matter – he was doing the record for himself and his gay and marginalized pals, and all those hairdressers that bought the LP in droves. Love or it or loath it, Ferry’s version of ‘It’s My Party’ plays a postmodern trick as neat as anything on For Your Pleasure – the artist as signifier, a collision of things written, heard, and seen, the artist, who, like the Wizard of Oz, plays behind the screen gleefully manipulating scene, set and character:
Playin’ my records, keep dancin’ all night
But leave me alone for a while
Till Johnny’s dancin’ with me
I’ve got no reason to smile
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.
Credits: Print – Some great reviews and articles informed this entry, particularly Nick Kent, New Musical Express, 19 January 1974 interview with Ferry; Alan Smith, New Musical Express, 14 June 1963; Dave Marsh, Let It Rock, July 1975; highly enjoyable also was the music blog Tim’s Cover Story; Paul Stump‘s excellent book on Roxy Unknown Pleasures informed the camp and gay threads of the story. Photos: New York Dolls invite you to their party; teen queen Lesley Gore and her initial hit ‘It’s My Party’ (Gore went on to become a feminist icon by publicly announcing she was a lesbian, and of course by recording and promoting ‘You Don’t Own Me’); Brill Building New York (see also: Don’t Ever Change); promo materials, These Foolish Things, 1973.