For Your Pleasure

A song-by-song analysis of the lyrics and music of Roxy Music and the solo work of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera in the 1970s

Street Life – Part 3

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Street Life – Part 1
Street Life – Part 2
Street Life (1973)

I. The Prince Charming of Sleaze

It was with a swift one-two punch that the Roxy machine delivered their latest single to the UK’s massive television audience:  “the ideological wing of the movement, Roxy Music stunned the Top of the Pops audience with a hyper-intense lip synch of their manic hit ‘Street Life’ …” recalled Glam-fan Jon Savage. Yet if you were watching carefully, you would notice competing tensions both in the music and in the image: Ferry had dropped the glitz and glitter and medallions of ‘Virginia Plain‘ and ‘Pyjamarama‘ and was dressed instead in a non-glam white tuxedo, finger-clicking with an insolent and disaffected swagger, like he was singing in the shower, or running through a set-list he knew would blow the audience to smithereens. The finger-clicks provided the intentional reproduction of a pop cliche, the idea that fashion was comprised of a set of ritualistic motifs, recognizable and identifiable, and therefore reproducible. In this Ferry beat David Bowie‘s ‘Fashion‘ by six years, and the idea was important enough that Ferry produced an entire song of finger-clicking menace, ‘The In-Crowd‘ (spending cash, talking trash!), a song that provided the singer with his next (solo) Top 20 hit in June 1974, six short months later.

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Now I’m blinded I can really see, yeah
No more bright lights confusing me, no

Don’t ask me why I’m feeling blue
Because loving you is all I can doooo

Hey good-looking boys gather around
The sidewalk papers gutter-press you down
All those lies can be so unkind
They can make you feel like you’re losing your mind

Street life, Street life, Street life, What a life
Street life, Street life, Street life, That’s the life

We knew that you had to try to be different after every album.
Phil Manzanera

“For the Roxy Music tour that Autumn,” wrote Simon Puxley, writing Bryan Ferry’s 1976 biography – straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were – “Bryan wore a white tuxedo and bow tie sartorial elegance at its most refined.” The tux was met with little fanfare at the first concert of the Stranded tour, on October 14 in Bath, England. NME scribe Nick Kent attended a show a few weeks later and was unimpressed, declaring that Ferry had stolen the tux from the “dead body of Johnny Ace…” 

Long gone is the old snake-eyed armadillo glamour: Bryan Ferry ’74 is a whole different barrel of monkeys, one minute crooning like a dissipated lead from The Desert Song, the next sashaying across the stage like El Supremo, the Prince Charming of Sleaze. And the real clincher is – he’s the first real rock ‘n’ roll star you could ever imagine regularly playing Russian Roulette alone in his hotel room after a gig.

Nick Kent

“We had to change – all those glitter groups sprung up and debased the look,” explained Ferry, responding to the glam-scene he saw around him, one that Roxy had influenced,Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 6.21.09 PM shaped, and ultimately, with the release of Stranded, rejected. The black boa-feathers and glitter of the Brian Eno-era was gone: “I mean, I felt we had to drop all the overt glamour image mainly because all these other groups were starting to jump on the band-wagon and blow it out of all proportion.” Adding, tellingly, “Now, for me, it’s the Casablanca look, which I feel much better in anyway.” (Balfour).

In this regard ‘Street Life’ serves as an advertisement for the return of a new Roxy Music, a brand aimed at the demographically young and hip, audiences with disposable income for clothes, make-up, (Roxy) records and (Roxy) concerts. Keen to continue fulfilling the promise of “all styles served here,” Stranded arrived in new luxurious packaging and was presented as a new kind of Roxy movie. Back in the saddle was the same team that brought you the previous two successful albums – “Roxy Hair” by Smile; Fashion by Antony Price; Cover Design by Nicolas de Ville; Majordomo (whatever that is) did something; the Roxy gal was back, as was the reliable yet slightly menacing franchise promise “Stranded – The Third Roxy Music Album”. No wonder the record went to #1: the re-modelled Roxy came with all the flash and excitement that consumer advertising can bring – a visceral rush as strong as the best of a movie blockbuster experience: the opening credits, the dive from the cliff, the music, visuals, the golden girl..

Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 12.06.59 PM
In order to seal the deal and get the audience on side, ‘Street Life’ adhered to the increasingly regimented requirements of glam-rock: gimmicky, sparkly, effervescent sex-music, dosed with a the promise of secret knowledge – street stories, hustlers, contraband exchanges.  Ferry claimed he wasn’t interested in feeding the singles market – “We’re not a singles band, really – I don’t want to find myself sliding down the Slade/T. Rex corridor of horror”. This, in spite of the fact that ‘Street Life’ was holy grail to the singles buying public, a Top 10 stunner that sent the album Stranded to Number 1 in the UK charts. Yet the singer was not necessarily being disingenuous: the goal was to create an effect (Puxley: the “all-embracing focus”) that promised inclusivity and hyper-modernity, while remaining typically, stubbornly, retro-subversive.

Audience expectation meant that Roxy Music would resume their reputation as cultural seers and arbiters of good taste, keeping an aesthetic promise to their fans to inform and help make sense of what was happening on the charts, on television and the streets no matter how marginalized or messed up the night might become. ‘Street Life’ offers the chance to cruise for sex (“come on with me cruising down the street…”). There is street prostitution (“Continental-style strasse girls…”) and frank acknowledgement on a pop record that the purchase of sex could was part of an evening’s entertainment (“who knows what you’ll see/who you might meet”). There was innuendo and smutty word play: “Back to nature boys” (being both a Nat King Cole song and an obvious call to, eh, arms). There were “Vassar girls too” – Vassar being the private women’s college in New York where, according to Urban Dictionary, “incredibly well educated woman who always gets their way, mostly by being on top all the time and telling the guy to shut up”. This was equal opportunity in the age of Lou Reed‘s Transformer and ‘Walk on the Wild Side‘.

‘Street Life’ sounds like it was fun to write – it certainly is fun to listen to, providing Ferry opportunity to plunder present-day street narratives, name-check influences and contemporary entertainers and mine them for laughter and innuendo (“Your jet black magic helps you celebrate, woo!”). Yet while the song was designed to play to its strengths, there is a melancholy within the the lyric that contradicts the outward swagger and gregariousness.  “Don’t ask why I’m feeling blue,” we are told, so we take the advice and don’t ask, but in truth this sense of ‘feeling blue’ hardly registers with the listener, so caught-up are we in this fun-time romp with tour guide Ferry. 

The conflicted emotional states that run through ‘Street Life‘ not only speaks to Ferry’s gifts as a writer (Paul Thompson: “Some of the lyrics aren’t obvious, you know, they’re clever but kind of hidden and a little bit subtle”), but also the cool effect that is generated by juxtaposing two opposing or contradictory ideas together. Roxy Music relish presenting elements from different eras, fashion trends, musical styles – “things being combined with a sense of irony and collage” (Reynolds). In this world the high art of the Mona Lisa is juxtaposed beside low art TV, magazines, advertising and pop music; the pink flamingo high life competes with street life  (“back to nature boys“); white tuxedoes replace glitter and glam; elegance and style (Roxy Music album covers), are set beside sleazy glamour (Roxy album covers!), and so on. 

Roxy biographer Michael Bracewell observed that “Many of Ferry’s greatest compositions describe the fate of the lonely, isolated romantic – always on the outside, even at the heart of the grandest party or the most exotic city. Ferry has said of himself, ‘I feel always to be on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in -‘  – the classic situation of the artist”. Inside, looking out. Outside, looking in. When Roxy landed their greatest glamour hit in the winter of 1973 Ferry had been at the party for over a year, and was now making preparations to leave, eager to find a way out, or – with the help of new material – find a new way in.

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II. Blinded by the Light 

‘Bryan Ferry’ is kind of boring really.
Bryan Ferry

The news comes in the form of brightness, like that rare treasure in ‘Beauty Queen’ – a quality Bryan Ferry and Simon Puxley call the buzz, the action, the centre, the energy. “The all-embracing focus, past present and future, the ineffable.” No star is shining brighter than Ferry in late 1973, yet he’s harassed, irritable: “wish everybody would leave me alone, yeh.” He needs to clear his head, get away from the fame, and the game of fame. New opportunities await – the buzz, the action:

Now I’m blinded I can really see, yeah
No more bright lights confusing me, no

There are two extraordinary double-takes in ‘Street Life’ and “now I’m blinded/I can really see” is the first of them. In keeping with the aroused state of the narrator, there’s a sex pun lurking within – historically the teenage masturbator had been warned not to have a wank should he end up going blind – and of course “blinded by the light” is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration or overstatement, which suits the song to a tee. And here is Ferry’s combo trick again – opposites placed back-to-back in a light/ darkness fusion (blinded/see), a common device in novels that map the hero’s journey towards enlightenment or epiphany (as in Joyce’s Ulysses and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, not to mention ‘For Your Pleasure‘  and ‘Virginia Plain’). There is the sense in ‘Street Life’ – and throughout Stranded – of a striving towards rapturous transformation – something we’ll see most clearly expressed in ‘Psalm‘.

As a single, ‘Street Life’ promotes and entertains, but as album opener the song provides additional insight into Ferry’s situation: with Roxy’s two hit albums, two hit singles, combined with his own solo hit album and single, Ferry is, as the new year 1974 approaches, “undeniably a star” (Balfour), “recognized as a leader of fashion,” harnessing an allusive charm, distant, yet “undeniably glamorous”. Listen to Puxley and Ferry work the PR:

“Bryan always travelled alone, though there were numerous adoring females who would have moved heaven and earth – sometimes almost did – to accompany him. But at concerts especially, Bryan demanded of himself, for both personal and professional reasons, an absolutely isolated concentration”.

The Bryan Ferry Story

To be sure, this type of male celebrity-mongering is cringe-worthy, but for its time, it got the job done. This image of an all-round personality (“he made it the year of the tuxedo”) who was Britain’s answer to Hugh Hefner (“There were the girls too. Often fashion models and always beautiful…”) delivered a new kind of rock star to the European public, one defined as much by the movies (Bond and Bogart), as by pop music. Writing as if he’d wandered into an Ian Fleming pot-boiler, Puxley turns the “rather boring” Bryan Ferry into the Implied (i.e., fictional) Bryan Ferry, the suave jet-setting bachelor who, when he is not wrestling sharks, drives to Oxford to “escape the ever-churning vortex of his own making”, ruthlessly “pushing the black Daimler to its limit, to end up in the early hours at yet another exotic haunt, a wild party in the Belgravia mansion of some profligate crypto-financer, or the high-strung tension barely controlled beneath the plush, aristocratic ambience of a Mayfair gaming club.” Phew.

Roxy fashion designer Antony Price nails the appeal and the public relations strategy along gender lines:

Women are not aware of Roxy Music in the way that men are. It’s a man’s band. It’s always been a man’s band. And he (Ferry) is a man’s idol; the young men have always admired him, he’s what they aspire to, to have taste like that, to be in the rock business but still have taste and credibility, which is very thin on the ground in the rock business, darling, let’s face it.

Antony Price

And so, Puxley and Ferry create a great Friday night movie, a rock-star secret agent who dabbles in pop music and sings the classics of the Great American Songbook. His cultural popularity is confirmed when he appears on TV doing a duet of ‘It’s My Party‘ with Cilla Black on her highly watched variety hour, the Cilla Black show. Electronics giant Phillips even creates a Bryan Ferry inspired record player called “The Shooting Star

Screen Shot 2020-04-26 at 9.47.36 AMThe designers of the Roxy machine (Price, Ferry, de Ville) delighted in gloriously artificial image making: “our currency was fantasy and glamour, with nothing left to chance” (Price).  Yet encoded in that engagement and harnessing of male glamour was a concern about the “boomerang” – the inevitable downslide – the trap of the ordinary and a deepening attention to, and concern for, the value of the work:

The sidewalk papers gutter-press you down
All those lies can be so unkind
They can make you feel like you’re losing your mind

Ferry presents a spiffy picture of the glamorous life while conversely (comically) giving it a kick to the stones. His fans want a piece of him (“wish everybody would leave me alone“). The press are relentless and critical (“All those lies can be so unkind”). During the 1973 Roxy tour Ferry dresses like a classic male snob, perfecting his acting repertoire (the Ferry duck-wobble, the Romantic croon). To promote ‘Street Life’ on television he sneers blankly at the camera while finger-clicking in time, like a senior member of the in-crowd delivering orders to the Friday night contingent:

Week end starts Friday soon after eight
Your jet black magic helps you celebrate

Your charm and bewitching “jet black magic” are the tools of your trade, your celebrity and your glamorous attraction (see ‘glamour’ word origins in Scottish witch-lore, Beauty Queen Cover Art). You are a glorious idea, but are feeling tormented, misunderstood  (“don’t ask why I’m feeling blue“). Taking note of the glam hang-over taking root in late 1973, Simon Reynolds describes the situation Ferry himself warned of in ‘Virginia Plain’:

Sophisticates are too clever to fall for the illusion any more, but secretly wish they could be fooled. What tantalizes is the remembrance of a long-gone possibility of absolute enchantment and entrancement.

Simon Reynolds

We choose then to file Ferry’s condition under the heading ‘Loss of Innocence’, exemplified by the the Stranded cover girl clutching a stem of Oriental white Lillies, a symbol for purity, sympathy, and innocence. And we see too that there has been a thematic consistency in Ferry’s writing to date, a desire to define the moment as honestly as possible: Roxy Music/’Virginia Plain‘ described the dream and the drive for fame.  ‘Pyjamarama‘/For Your Pleasure described the first wave of popularity. A mask was adopted, a persona to deal with the attention and the tensions (“I always wrote as a character” Ferry, 2020). With each new success the mask attaches itself more firmly to the surface of the skin, like fingernails digging into flesh. There is fear and uncertainty about future outcomes. Decisions are made. The band re-makes and re-models:

We were very conscious of not repeating ourselves. So after the first two albums [Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure], we needed to expand and do something different. Because we had a very different way of some writing, that’s why those tracks ended up the way they did because it wasn’t like conventional songwriting.

Phil Manzanera

Street Life‘/Stranded gives way to “Roxy Mania”. The mask settles, inseparable from your own skin now. Human relationships fail. All that remains is art and aesthetics, the striving for the perfection of art.  You reach for another cognac, stranded.

You may be stranded if you stick around

This is the second notable double-take on ‘Street Life’. Describing the Stranded tour, Puxley/Ferry observe “The tropical ambience of the stage-set arose from the new album art … a girl collapsed on the floor of the jungle .. the title describes her as ‘Stranded’ – which was also a double-edged allusion to the enigmatic concept the previous album’s most popular song [‘Do the Strand’], and furthermore appeared in the last line of a song on this new album ‘Street Life’: “you may stranded if you stick around.”

The continuation of the theme of the ‘strand’ through For Your Pleasure (‘Do the Strand’) and Stranded suggests that this search for change or enlightenment – or just new material – was, at this pivotal moment in Ferry’s career, still attainable. No matter that Stranded is the album that best describes the Ferry’s attempt to “escape the ever-churning vortex of his own making” – it is only when we arrive next year at the Weimar tainted decadence of Country Life that the Roxy front man finally admits defeat – stranded, between art and life, “Gestrandet an Leben und Kunst” (from the German stanza of Bitter Sweet).

And that’s really something..

Credits: Stranded close-up; credits Stranded back-cover; Stranded promo; 1972 advertisment for the “new”; Ferry cartoon promo 1973; Phillips “shooting star” promo, 1973/4; visions of Stranded – the brilliant Karl Stoecker cover photography center; some additional images, author not credited, the net.

Next: Just Like You: Stranded Cover Art.

4 thoughts on “Street Life – Part 3

  1. Great read once again.

    I have always felt the finger-clicking intro to Street Life was the precursor to the crunching footsteps at the beginning of Love Is The Drug somehow. When glam turned into cool. You are right, it was at that moment.

    Regarding the teenage boys “wanking” reference – that is delightfully and ludicrously obscure! Mind you, maybe you have a point as Marilyn Cole’s blatantly visible nipples on the cover did have an effect on my teenage self…

    Weren’t seventies album covers great? Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, Country Life, Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading, as always. Yes, finger-click runs from Street Life to In-Crowd to Love is the Drug. Ferry’s favourite pose, perhaps.

      The covers of the Roxy albums I think are great, yes. It’s a complicated question though isn’t it – rock being of its time. I feel Ferry encodes his own self and the audience into the covers, so it’s a shared responsibility. But maybe that’s just a way of wiggling out of a difficult question! Til next time my friend… Kevin

      Like

  2. My favourite single. So much going on – within and without. It’s such a hard song to categorise ..

    Like

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