Teenage dreams, so hard to beat
One of the more over-looked aspects of Bryan Ferry‘s public personae is his dedication, love and respect for the pop music canon – These Foolish Things (1973) not only established a solo career for Bryan Ferry outside of Roxy Music, but his first solo album also invited the listener deep under the skin of its author: if Roxy Music was the creative definition and projection of a perfect (desired) life, then Ferry’s personal and public dedication to popular music was an honest attempt to strip his image of its over-heated rhetoric and celebrate the very DNA of the culture and the social background that had defined him.
For those of us whose formative years were built upon late nights (10pm-midnight) listening the John Peel show, the music of 1977-1979 never dies – listen to that match strike cigarette flame as the first bars of ‘Dance Away‘ are broadcast to the world for the first time, or digest the thunderous bass line to John Lydon‘s post-Pistols classic ‘Public Image‘ and come to understand that, even as a teenager, the only certainty in life is change – and you get the same sense of wonderment, one might expect, that Bryan Ferry felt the first time he heard Charlie Parker, or sang Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. And so, as the next Roxy Music masterpiece took shape amid a background of tension and high expectation (Ferry recorded Foolish Things and Roxy’s Stranded back-to-back) we come to recognize there could be no ‘Mother of Pearl’ without Dylan; without Ketty Lester or Elvis; without The Miracles ‘The Tracks of My Tears’. How could this be so? Let us count the ways..
Central Arcade // Entrance to J. G. Windows Music Shop // Newcastle
I started being a music fan at the age of ten or eleven, and I bought my first record at Windows.
I. The Kingdom
There is something that is both peculiar and captivating about the land and environment that Bryan Ferry grew up in. Like many of us raised in the North, headlines such as “Roman silver found in Fife by teenager” didn’t seem uncommon. To muck around the desolate hills of say, Fife Scotland (as I did), or the plush greens of Herrington Country Park, Newcastle upon Tyne (as Bryan Ferry did), meant that you were occupying – or more likely, abusing – the playgrounds of history. Dads were by-and-large coal-miners and builders, hard-drinkers many of them, living in dreary surroundings against a back-drop of endless history – wars, fallen castles, broken monuments. According to Fife City Council, my own tribe lived in the esteemed “Kingdom Of Fife”. Or just “The Kingdom”. (Even our local shopping mall was “The Kingdom Center” – as far removed from the Promised Land in 1974 as one could imagine). Ferry’s tribe lived in Newcastle upon Tyne, with its 2,000 year history of invaders, Romans, Angles, and Norsemen. The town was one of the earliest industrial centers in Northeast England due to the availability of coal and the possibilities of easy export offered by close proximity to the River Tyne. Coal grime, then, was under your fingernails, in the blood. And it was history – the past – that whispered its secrets, wrapped in tales of beauty and magnificence:
Over the hills and down the valleys
Soaring aloft and far below
Lying on stony ground the fragments
Truth is the seed we try to sow
One of the those unavoidable truths in Ferry’s playground was the massive and dominating Penshaw Monument, the impact of which was explained in Michael Bracewell’s essential Roxy biography, “Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music“: “In the late 40s and early 1950s, looking back up, was Bryan Ferry, then a boy…entranced…”
Strand Power // The Penshaw Monument 1844 // North East England
When my parents were first married they lived in a farmhouse; and there was a hill nearby called Penshaw Hill. On top of the Hill was a local landmark – a Greek monument built for the Earl of Durham. This is where my father was brought up and his family had farmed on the sides of the hill. When I showed this place to Antony Price he said, ‘Now I know why you’re so interested in the visual things: it’s because of that monument.‘
For Ferry, living under this slab of neo-Greek classical architecture represented a “symbol” for art and “another life away from the coalfields and the hard north-eastern environment; it seemed to represent something from another civilization, that was much finer.“ (ibid). This then is the beginning of the definition and creation a “state of mind” that would eventually take shape in the art project Roxy Music. By several accounts (Bracewell/ Buckley/Stump), Ferry was a man at odds with his surroundings – sensitive, out of place – yet possessing a deep understanding and respect for his working-class roots: “My father used to win prizes for his ploughing, but during the Depression the farm failed and he had to work underground, tending pit ponies. He courted my mother for ten years before they got married. It brings a tear to my eye every time I think about it”. Once comparing himself to “an orchid born on a coal-tip” Ferry recognized he had a depth of feeling: “it was a case of where to channel it” (ibid).
Imagine then the wonder to a kid of a local High Street music shop, standing as strong and as iconic as the classical monuments that first informed his childhood. Better yet, imagine that record store being housed within an architectural gem – The Central Arcade, Newcastle, a temple built in the heart of industrial Newcastle.
Exclusive Doors // Central Arcade Architecture // 1906
“It’s always sad when I go back to Newcastle and see that certain places don’t exist any more,” Ferry told Michael Bracewell in 2007:
But it’s great that one shop – which was very important for me … – is still there, in an wonderful old arcade, with extravagant tiled floors, rather like the Bond Street arcades. It’s a shop called Windows, which is a family music shop and the only place you really go to buy records. I started being a music fan at the age of ten or eleven, and I bought my first record at Windows.
J.G. Windows record shop is built within the spectacular and durable Central Arcade in Newcastle, the elegant Edwardian shopping arcade built in 1906. An incredible entrance to an incredible and stylish world, shut far off from Northern hardships and reality, the Arcade was designed to house a commercial exchange and newsroom. The book Newcastle Through Time (John and Joyce Carlson) identifies the design of the Arcade as being inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Italy. Temples, Monuments, cobblestone streets holding up the polish of the new, and at the end of the long corridor a gentle invitation of warm light: the record store! Dramatic, certainly. Longlasting, definately. A modern church containing sacred artifacts of music, history, and endless escape.
J.G. Windows is 110 years old and it was Ferry’s high street go-to music shop. “Some of the first records I bought were jazz records” Ferry noted in 2013. Note then the reverence in which Ferry describes seeing a jazz trumpet in the Windows display as a boy:
The windows are full of clarinets, saxophones, electric guitars – a proper music shop, which sold everything. But to just see a trumpet in the window – a real instrument, to look at it and study it!
The fascination and wonder can be heard in the voice over half-a-century later. A real instrument, to look at – to study! There can be no better place to understand the considerable legacy of Roxy Music as conceived by Ferry in these moments: the ‘ideal of beauty’ that was found among the trumpets and the clarinets, the perfect timbre of a perfect visual: Roxy (cinema) Music (sound).
III. The Archivist
An archivist is a collector and, yes, a fetishist, to be sure – remember the creepy lessons we learned in Silence of the Lambs – but an archivist is also a custodian, a caretaker, a steward and keeper of the flame. Speaking to Melody Maker writer and supporter Richard Williams in 1973, Ferry acknowledged “The trouble with doing something like ‘The Tracks of My Tears‘ is that the original was so brilliant it’s hard to touch it.” (Williams). And so it remained. “Ferry’s voice was perfect for his own songs,” David Buckley offers in his biography of Ferry: “where he could shape the contours of the music to suit his undulating and highly distinctive delivery, but when pitted against some of the technically finest singers in pop history, his interpretations were destined to come off second-best.”
This is a fair statement but somehow misses the point, for it feels now, with the benefit of time, that Ferry wasn’t trying to go head-to-head with Smokey Robinson or Brian Wilson, or even Janis Joplin, but was wanting to collect and possess – even own – his favorite records as perfect artifacts, to get inside them, to understand what made them tick, to unravel the mother-of-pearl coating in order to reveal the oyster within. This is the beginning of ‘Stranded‘. This is the beginning of the theme of the art of obsession, of trying to possess the unobtainable. The nose is pressed against the window; the siren’s sound has done its work: these foolish things await their call.
Q: Is your constant pursuit of the beautiful an attempt to escape the everyday and mundane?
Yes. It’s a search for a better world, really.
Chris Roberts interviewing Bryan Ferry, thirty-seven years after the release of These Foolish Things.
My favorite music archivist, speaker, singer, poet and music enthusiast is Henry Rollins: a beautiful heart and mind in the body of a modern warrior. As Morrissey said, it takes strength to be truthful and kind. Between radio shows, tours and books, Rollins is also a collector. He has just released a fascinating new book “Stay Fanatic Vol 1“, a 330 page fanzine. “If you like music,” says Henry, “going to record stores, to shows, if music is one of those things that is and has always been one of the best friends you’ve ever had, you might like this book.”
Music has always been the one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and was always there when perhaps others couldn’t be. So too for Bryan Ferry: it’s the whole point of These Foolish Things. Perhaps it’s the whole point of his career. So too for Henry Rollins; for John Peel; and for a lad wandering the city alone, trying to find The Kingdom.
Next: Ferry tackles the greatest: The Beatles. December 2019!