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

Just Like You – Part 2

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Just Like You, ‘Stranded’ (1973)
Just Like You – Part 1

Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

David Bowie, ‘Changes

Thought patterns hazy
This auto-style age
Will lady luck smile old and sage

Bryan Ferry (lyric), ‘Just Like You

There has always been a wonderful longing at the heart of Bryan Ferry‘s writing, and his credentials as a writer of considerable skill and talent – rare in the rock world – do not need to be repeated here. (If you have the time, go to our first entry and start with ‘Re-Make/Re-Model‘). A reflexive personality tinged with a melancholic temperament is a great character trait for a writer, and Ferry’s skill was honed to even greater heights on The Third Roxy Music album Stranded, based in part on changing life experiences – fame brought more choice, greater artistic freedoms, new people, new ideas.  In contrast, the songs on previous album For Your Pleasure were songs of darkness and Poe – “rubbing shoulders/with the stars at night shining so bright” (‘Pleasure‘). The horrors of For Your Pleasure are the horrors of the mind – self-analysis, schizophrenia, suicide, mental illness, the burden of doing the right thing. Not so with Stranded: the view is outward looking, street lights and relationships, cities, parties, sunsets. And this difference requires a higher degree of engagement with the physical, an appeal to get out of your head and engage directly with the cosmos (you can see where the comedy in this stuff comes from).

In ‘Just Like You’, time conquers innocence and destiny renders us mortals puny beneath the heavens: “Time conquers innocence/Pride takes a fall/In knowledge lies/wisdom/That’s all.” With the punchline delivered so early in the song, we might be rightly bummed by the prospect of suffering through pages of poetry written along the line of Shelley’s Ozymandias (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”). Thankfully, Ferry’s approach in ‘JYL’ is designed to delight and surprise, providing us with a collision of styles and ideas, no less sparkling in their own way than the pop art of ‘Virginia Plain‘ or ‘Do the Strand‘, but more reflective and mature – and very much sly, playful and entertaining. 

The triumph of time and nature over human tyranny” is how The Guardian described the Great Themes of the Romance Poets – Blake, Shelley and Keats. And keeping with the tone of Stranded’s early mood (“wish everybody would leave me alone, yeh”), Ferry is a bit grumpy about this state-of-affairs, commenting through gritted teeth:

Everything changes
Weather blows hot or cold
Through alchemy iron turns gold
Quicksilver baby
So hard to pin down
Oh when are you coming around

As a formal solution to the problems presented in ‘Just Like You’ – the search for love, the passing of time, the loss of innocence and the hard won knowledge that comes with experience – Ferry protects his song with the armour of Romance poetry’s greatest conceit:  the poet as Visionary Seer. In A Defence of Poetry (1821), literary titan Shelley defined the poet’s job as measuring “the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit…”. In her article Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, literary critic Stephanie Forward argues that the Poet Prophet stood alone in their ability to interpret reality: “The Romantics highlighted the healing power of the imagination, because they truly believed that it could enable people to transcend their troubles and their circumstances” (Forward). 

Having finally arrived to a position of status and influence in late 1973, Ferry was broadening his tastes in art and music while expanding his social networks and experiences. As a writer, he was keen to continue creating characters and situations that captured the emotional and provocative impacts of those experiences. After the original batch of early songs was used up on Roxy Music, Ferry’s writing took a turn towards the dark and introspective on second album For Your Pleasure. For follow-up Stranded Ferry (largely) abandoned the darkness but keep the shadows, preferring cities at night, rain-swept streets and melancholic melodies (Ferry: “I find it much easier to write sad things”). Ferry also began to write in the character of a Brill Building songsmith (see: ‘Don’t Ever Change‘), using the base materials of words and music to forge and create as a modern craftsman might: if I’m sad, I’ll write a modern ballad. If I seek epiphany I’ll write a modern Psalm. If I’m looking for sex I’ll bubble-up bubble-up a modern dance number. If I’m writing a song about a lost love I’ll reach back to the past and adopt and present for modern audiences the themes of Literary Romanticism..

I mean I do love Fitzgerald, he was a huge influence on me, but I love the Romantic Poets as well.
Bryan Ferry

An intuitive and gifted writer, it is unclear if Ferry studied English Literature or merely had the sensitivity of an artist who read for pleasure and absorbed the themes of Romanticism naturally (you know, while chasing down the next party at the “Belgravia mansion of some profligate crypto-financier”..). Certainly Ferry’s friend and confidante (and Roxy Music PR man) Simon Puxley was a key literary influence, holding doctorates in both Philosophy and English literature: 

[Simon] was a big part of my life in music: he wrote the sleeve notes on the first Roxy Music album cover…He was like the fifth Beatle: a part of Roxy Music who was always there. He was a beautiful writer, a doctor of philosophy and of English literature. He worked with me every day

Bryan Ferry, 2001

It is clear now that Bryan Ferry was close to many extraordinary artistic talents in the creation of the Roxy Music aesthetic – Antony Price, Karl Stoecker, Nick de Ville are universal life forces in these pages – and we know that Simon Puxley represented the literary arm of the Roxy Machine. Producing both sleeve and song notes (Roxy Music/’Do the Strand Explained‘), in addition to being Bryan Ferry’s ghost-writing biographer (Rex Belfour/The Bryan Ferry Story), Puxley was already on record for having made significant contribution to Stranded’sMother of Pearl‘ (taking nothing away from Ferry’s composer credit) and in similar manner Puxley will have contributed or edited ‘Just Like You‘ as a matter of course, as a friend and confidante, providing the Roxy front man the scholarly grounding to his tale of lost love and adherence to the themes and tropes of Romantic poetry.

Dr. Puxley would have been intimate with the key motifs of English literature, confirming for Ferry that the poets of the Romantic period (1800-1850) saw Nature as a source of purity and truth, regarding the natural world as a window into the mutability of time, physical change and the passing of the seasons. One of the most famous works of Romanticism is John Keats’ To Autumn (1820):
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Compare to Ferry’s song of spring:  

Buttercups daisies and most anything
They wither and fade
After blossom in Spring
Time conquers innocence
Pride takes a fall
In knowledge lies wisdom
That’s all

Melancholy is another key feature of Romanticism, usually seen as a reaction to human frailty or failure, such as a broken romance or the recognition of a misspent youth. In ‘Just Like You‘ Ferry adopts (again) the role of The Lonely Man (see original: ‘Do the Strand‘), a cool Frank Sinatra film-noir-inspired character we will meet once more in Stranded (‘Song for Europe’/’Sunset’): 

Hopelessly grounded
I walk through the streets
Remembering how we spent time

Similarly, overt melancholy and dramatic introspection is the approach of Percy Bysshe Shelley in A Lament:
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And so Ferry offers his own version of introspection, inquiry and release:

Hopefully yearning that someday we’ll meet
But when will we, how could we, why? Oh my!

A dissatisfaction with the present is the engine that drives Romantic poetry, as the truths of life – our human insignificance in the grand scheme of things – can only be addressed via the heightened emotions and intellectual clarity brought forward by the Poet Prophet. A true Romantic troubadour during this period in Roxy Music’s development, Ferry portrays himself both as victim (“wish everyone would leave me alone”) and the visionary who stands outside of it all: 

Thought patterns hazy
This auto-style age
Will lady luck smile old and sage

For the Implied Bryan Ferry (Rock God, Lonely Man), the modern age presents a lack of intellectual rigour (“thought patterns hazy”) and modern glamour is seen – ironically, as it is the engine of Ferry’s own success – as an aesthetic dead-end (“this auto-style age”). The warnings contained in ‘Virginia Plain‘ (Last Picture Shows and Teenage Rebels of the Week) are coming home to roost: 

Fashion houses ladies
Need plenty loose change
When the latest creation
Is last year’s fab-rave

Yet Ferry stands readily atop an industry built on the fickle desire for novelty and the next new thing (ie., a famous dance craze, The Strand). In this regard ‘Just Like You’ continues the conversation started on ‘Street Life‘, only in different temper. Stranded opens with anticipation and excitement laced with cruelty: the phone rings endlessly (“When I pick it up there’s no one there”). Public relations is little more than a tool of oppression (“The sidewalk papers gutter-press you down”). People are fickle and cruel (“All those lies can be so unkind.”) Which leads to a state of mental anguish and disarray (“They can make you feel like you’re losing your mind”).

Contradictions in experience is Ferry’s late 1973 conundrum – the numerous Roxy/Ferry personas are responding to multiple layers of stimuli but are unable to identify a clear path forward. Ferry recognizes he embodies the multiplicitous and contradictory nature of his times and his songs push this confusion to the forefront: at one moment he is “blinded” but “can really see.” This glamorous “brave new world” takes him “higher than the milky way”, yet the experience leaves him alone, “feeling blue”.

In order to make sense of his predicament – and to communicate honestly with his audience – Ferry draws attention to the act of writing itself (“I scratch away for hours, like an old-style lyricist”) and bakes the theme of change and transformation into the very fabric of his song, reaching back to the ancient arts for alchemic redress and remedy: 

Everything changes
Weather blows hot or cold
Through alchemy iron turns gold
Quicksilver baby
So hard to pin down
Oh when are you coming around

Here in his modern romance ballad, Ferry highlights the old practice of alchemy (“Through alchemy iron turns gold”): Alchemy is the medieval forerunner of chemistry, and was an early pseudoscientific attempt to benefit from the process of transformation, turning worthless objects such as tin into gold or silver. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, alchemy was a “seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.” This aspect of thought corresponds to the older tradition of astrology: both representing the attempt to discover the relationship of humanity to the cosmos. Ferry goes for the intellectual deep dive, and has enough confidence in his audience to take them with him. Here we find him quoting and referencing the alchemic arts in an attempt to change (or outwit) his fate:

Through alchemy iron turns gold
Quicksilver baby
So hard to pin down
Oh when are you coming around

Ferry situates the process of change and transformation into the very narrative of his song: Iron is one of the seven metals of alchemy (along with gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, iron & tin). The symbol for iron is traditionally used to represent the planet Mars in astrology – ergo, male strength, war, dominance. Gold, of course, represents the perfection of allScreen Shot 2020-10-13 at 6.45.16 AM matter on any level, and is the motivational objective of any alchemic process, adding highest value to the basest of materials. In ‘Beauty Queen‘, Valerie is that “gold number.” In ‘Just Like You’ it is Ferry who wishes to move from ordinary to extraordinary – changing tin into gold – and he’s working out ways to take the prize. 

Conversely, Ferry identifies his ex-lover as the “quicksilver baby”: Quicksilver being another alchemic symbol. Webster Dictionary describes the quicksilver character as “cool and willful at one moment, utterly fragile the next.” Ferry has fun here as his description of the love-object (“Quicksilver baby/So hard to pin down”: ‘erratic’, ‘fickle’, ‘changable’) becomes both pun, sexist observation and an alchemic object subject to change.

The use of quicksilver and alchemy in a modern pop songs serves to map Ferry’s frustration with modern science and knowledge, equating elemental processes like the weather blowing “hot or cold” in the same manner a Screen Shot 2020-11-16 at 6.22.07 AMwoman might be fickle and unmovable (to his mind). Within this poem of memory and retribution, Iron (man) turns to Gold (sun), while the Quicksilver (female) ex-lover is seen as unpredictable, erratic, an unreliable object of emotionalism and mercurial change. Seen in this context, ‘Just Like You’ is a Noel Coward comedy-of-manners set against the ancient arts and sciences, a product of the “hazy thinking” of modern times – a ‘Pyjamarama‘ for the masses. 

This is a marvellous joke on Ferry’s part: conjuring the ancient arts to resolve romance problems leaves him just as confused and floundering as does the so-called “wisdom” of his brave new world. In ‘Just Like You’ there are no absolutes, or tested ancient truths, man does not turn from tin to gold through alchemy and Lady Luck remains indeterminate, a fictional muse that this “hazy” thinker cannot be bothered to change, edit, or re-write:

She knows that never again, no
Will I give up my heart
To gamble with fate is my crime
Nevertheless love, it’s all here in my book
I’d write it but don’t have much time

Resolution turns to retribution. The poetics of Romantic poetry fail to provide insight or relief. The Poet Prophet‘s human laziness outstrips wisdom and knowledge (after all), and the passing of the seasons wins again: “Nevertheless love, it’s all here in my book/I’d write it but don’t have much time“. The “hazy thinking” of our own auto-style age is let down by the modern writer, no better off than any other generation to defeat or befriend Fate, get the girl, or avoid an inevitable decline.

And to underline the point – and as a petulant final gesture to cap his ill-temper at the beginning of the album – Ferry and Puxley dump on the very idea of knowledge – ancient, modern, or otherwise – by designing their poem in the shape of an upside-down pyramid, snubbing the early assertion that “in knowledge lies wisdom/that’s all”. If you run your eye across the lyric you’ll notice the first stanza is seven lines long; the second stanza is six lines; the third is five; fourth is four; third is three. This pattern presents a set of stanza-by-stanza diminishing returns in a poem that places its hopes on experience and knowledge (aka “maturity”) as a solution to our problems. By song’s end, however, knowledge has not produced the way forward. Hopelessly grounded again. To age and die is our collective fate. Stranded in life until death, just like you (dear reader): 

As destiny wills it
So seasons will change
Just like you
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Next: Another set of brave new worlds in ‘Amazona’!

Credits: Our man gets too close to gold/sun/knowledge: Icarus” (1887) by Sir William Blake Richmond (not Willam Blake, the poet); brilliant visual artist, Bill Viola, Woman (Ocean without a Shore) and Man (Chris); Simon Puxley photo montage – credit unknown, pinched from Roxy Music; “You’re Never Alone with a Strand“: Ferry chooses the name of the most disastrous cigarette advertising campaign in British history for his fictional dance ‘Do the Strand’ (see our entry, ‘Do the Strand’ for this fascinating punning story); another Bill Viola, The Raft; alchemical symbol for iron (male)/quicksilver (woman) and old engraving of alchemical event, complete with symbols for iron, quicksilver and gold in background; The Great Pyramid of Giza, Ivan Aivazovsky 

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