We are the street-walking cheetahs with hearts full of napalm.
Iggy and the Stooges
‘Street Life‘ starts agitated and stays that way for three minutes and twenty-six seconds. There is congestion, a need to break free of the crowd. Simulated traffic horns sound off, overlap, warning us to stand clear, imminent danger. The song begins with a “cacophony of traffic noise,” Bryan Ferry tells us, “played by (Eddie) Jobson on synthesiser and Andy Mackay on sax, mingled with real sounds of the street – car horns – and then the vocal enters” (Uncut). But Andy reckons it’s a Mellotron, not a synthesizer. Paul Thompson reckons it’s the sound of a pre-recorded Moroccan market, not a Mellotron. The listener doesn’t know what to make of it. New boy Eddie Jobson‘s presence is keenly felt, a statement of intent as he holds down unapologetic, dissonant chords. Get out of the way, he says, here we come. (“That’s the sort of thing Eddie would get up to,” recalls Phil Manzanera fondly, “he was very young and you couldn’t control him”). As usual, it is Paul Thompson that signals the break-out, the clearing from the crowd. He executes a drum-skin pounding of staggering power and we’re off – “wish everybody would leave me alone – yeah!”
Sticking to their strategy of opening albums with hard-driving rock songs (Re-Make/Re-Model; Do the Strand), Roxy Music returned to the UK pop limelight with an exciting appearance on Top of the Pops on Thursday November 22nd, 1973, to promote their new single ‘Street Life‘ – their third straight UK Top 10 hit single, and the first track taken from the new LP, The Third Roxy Music album Stranded, strategically released one day after the TOTP appearance. Stranded was the band’s first Number 1 record – an accomplishment that would not be repeated in the UK for another seven years until 1980s Flesh and Blood.
These were heady times and an important commercial peak for Roxy in the 70s: a term was coined by the mainstream press to capture the hysteria that followed band appearances – “Roxy Mania” (for shits and giggles check out a glossary of all-things “mania” here). In these heady days of peak Glam, the band and its off-spring were everywhere: Bryan Ferry was still occupying the chart with These Foolish Things (and would do so for another 42 weeks, still in the charts by the time of his second solo release Another Time, Another Place, and even holding on (by one day) when The Fourth Roxy Music album Country Life was released a year later). A ‘Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘ was still selling and remained in the singles charts after a run of 9 weeks (finally dropping out two days after the ‘Street Life’ Top of the Pops appearance). Ex-band member Brian Eno had released an album – the collaboration No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp – on November 3rd 1973. Eno’s first proper solo release Here Come the Warm Jets – recorded with 3/4s of the Roxy line-up, Paul, Andy, and Phil – was already in the can. And to top it off, Roxy Music had been on tour for six weeks before the public had a chance to hear Stranded or ‘Street Life’. “Looking back,” Ferry would recall years later, with some understatement, “it seems like a whirlwind of events” (Uncut).
When Bryan Ferry took his trip down the mean streets of London in the Fall of 1973, he was a rushed and frantic man, having to navigate the recent surge of critical and commercial success. It was the height of Glam, but Roxy were already changing: Stranded marked the first group recordings without Eno. (The reasonable and pragmatic Eno had uncharacteristically lost his cool and quit Roxy Music, pinned down by the passive-aggressive Ferry and a willing management team, who had a different vision for the band). Replacing Eno, the young teenager and accomplished musician Eddie Jobson was drafted in for keyboards and strings (and anything else musical – tin box, broken flute – the guy could play anything). Two bassists replaced the talented John Porter: John Gustafson was hired for recordings and Sal Maida for live work. Chris Thomas no longer shared co-producing credits with John Anthony, but instead was given control of the new album, even adding to the list of Roxy’s bass players by playing the (un-credited) bass on ‘Street Life’. And Bryan Ferry had waltzed into the BBCs Top of the Pops studios to mime and finger-click in a very un-Glam white tuxedo..
Wish everybody would leave me alone, yeah
They’re always calling on my telephone
When I pick it up there’s no one there
So I walk outside just to take the air
You’d be hard pressed to recall a hit single or album opener wanting its audience to fuck off, yet ‘Street Life’ holds its irritability like a key, a point of reference. “It wasn’t the happiest time in Roxy’s history” recalled Andy Mackay, reflecting on the ill-feeling surrounding Eno hasty departure. The band were reeling from losing one of their original members and an important ally and friend, while solo Ferry was creating headlines with his mash-ups of Dylan and ‘These Foolish Things.’ “There was something of a battle going on between Bryan and everyone else,” Mackay noted, “Bryan’s solo success was threatening to blur the line between Roxy and him. Bryan definitely felt that Roxy was his band and he could push it in the directions he wanted. He didn’t realize that your best work tends to come from a bit of struggle, rather than having things all your own way.”
Keep the Chocolates
In spite of his success, Bryan Ferry was having to adapt to new realities: ‘Take me on a roller coaster/Take me for an airplane ride’ he’d sung on Top of the Pops in 1972, but a short year later he realized that the roller coaster he’d dreamed of was travelling at peak velocity while taking sharp corners. “To counter the encroaching adulation,” Max Bell observed during a Melody Maker interview at Ferry’s apartment, “he has been forced to change his phone number (“Wish everybody would leave me alone”) and install an Ansafone which, when played back, revealed a mixture of bone fide messages and very silly crank calls.” Two teenage fans had taken to observing Ferry in his upper flat from the vantage point of an outside telephone box, making calls and hanging up when the singer answered, taking great at delight at his arm-waving frustration. (One journalist remarked, That’s what you get for labelling your doorbell “FERRY,” in black felt-tip capitals). The fraught artist told journalist Bell: “Since I give about twenty-four hours a day to the public, they should leave me alone the rest of the time. The worst aspects are when one is virtually imprisoned in a hotel or leaving concerts. That can be frightening.”
Just as the narrator of ‘Virginia Plain‘ sings his cautionary tale while luxuriating in the imagined roller-coaster ride of bright lights and pink flamingos. ‘Street Life‘ provides us with an update on fame – or, at this early stage – the rapid arrival of heightened experience, something that Ferry likens to an epiphany: “now I’m blinded I can really see“. Throwing off the cloak of irritability (for the moment), Ferry frames the circumstances of the au courant modern pop star in order to launch a spectacular walk through this “brave new world,” an experience so audacious it juxtaposes the mean streets of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed with a very funny roll-call of best-selling milk chocolates: Take you higher than the milky way/Weekend starts Friday soon after eight/Your jet black magic helps you celebrate ..
‘Street Life’ follows previous album front-runners Re-Make/Re-Model and Do the Strand as fresh statements of intent – this is where we are taking our stand, this time. The close of For Your Pleasure plays out the burial of a tongue-tied, schizophrenic persona, while Stranded, with its metallic, rattling ultra-modernity (the sound at the beginning of ‘Street Life’ is an Eno quote, no debate), signals a new manifesto, a new potency and energy – hell, a new line-up – that is just as muscular as the one before it. On a roll, and game for a dare, Roxy step up by releasing one of their finest singles and in doing so declare war on their peers – so you want to take a walk on the wild side? – get a load of this. The band’s performance to promote ‘Street Life‘ on Top of the Pops acknowledges yet conquers the tropes of high Glam, announcing the movement effectively dead – replaced, naturally, with a new dance. “I wanted it to be a high-energy, fun song – buzzy and vibrant,” said the finger-clicking Ferry in 2009. “I hope the words convey some of that joie de vivre”. To be sure, Ferry was writing at his peak, the words and attitude an epitome of cool. But it wouldn’t have worked – not one bit – if the music put down by the members of the band was not as every bit as powerful and ballsy as the swagger and intent of the lyric.
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance
Next – ‘Street Life Part 2’ – the sidewalk papers gutter-press you down!
Credits: Ferry gets blinded, courtesy Village Voice; montage courtesy of Top of the Pops Glam camera-man, lovingly screened and captured by RMS; original single, 1973; original promo poster, found on e-Bay; the brilliant inner sleeve, Stranded.