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

Psalm – Part 1

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Psalm (1973)
Psalm (Live, 1974)

Once I get on stage I throw myself totally into it and when I get off I’m drained. That’s what any emotional kind of singer ought to do anyway
Bryan Ferry

I. Stars on Sunday

A serious contender for the strangest Roxy Music track in the band’s catalogue, ‘Psalm‘ is both epic in its formal construction (i.e., “a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition”); its length (8 minutes plus), and its sheer gall and inspired frazzle: at the height of 1973’s pop music explosion, the high-priests of Glam concluded the first side of their #1 chart-topping album Stranded with a Church-going, preacher-waving, God-fearing sermon.  The result – depending on who you ask – is classic Roxy Music, delivering an authentic band performance that manages to be both ironic, unironic, moving, inspired, and downright frustrating all in one go.

Legend it that ‘Psalm’ is the one of the “first things” that composer Bryan Ferry wrote, but this isn’t quite true: ‘Psalm’ was considered for Roxy Music, but did not make the cut. (Ferry: “‘Psalm’ was one of the songs I’d started on during the making of the first Roxy Music album but had never finished”). In addition to, presumably, the matter of those “12 different futures” (Eno) already being defined and sequenced to satisfaction. Next record For Your Pleasure already had a monster track that took up a quarter album (‘The Bogus Man‘ at +9 minutes). And so it was left to the time-pressured Stranded sessions for ‘Psalm’ to finally find a home.

Within the context and aural soundscape of Stranded, ‘Psalm’ is a success, appealing to both head and heart both as formal prototype (musical psalm) and as a vehicle of emotional transcendence (church prayer). Last month (Dec 2020) we discussed the jungle-heated track ‘Amazona‘ and noted that Stranded was as every bit as experimental as Brian Eno’s first solo recording Here Come the Warm Jets (Eno even using five of six members of the early Roxy Music team). Admittedly, it’s difficult to imagine a more staid musical event than a ‘Stars on Sunday’ church sermon and call it experimental, and many critics certainly were underwhelmed by the inclusion/intrusion of ‘Psalm’ on an otherwise successful rock record:

Psalm’ is a very odd liturgy with its Blackpool pier organ and doctored harmonica sound, but it’s hard to sustain interest over eight minutes on the strength of bizarre-ness alone (Melody Maker / Watts).

Psalm’, a protracted prayer of sorts that, along with ‘Sunset’ on Side two, provide the lower points on the album (Shakin’ Street Gazette / Sperrazza).

Psalm’, Ferry’s contribution to God-Rock, is the most obscure nine minutes on the album, building inevitably through a never-ending sequence, collecting heavenly choirs, weirdly-filtered violin, and a couple of Andy MacKays en route, but without reaching, a convincing resolution. (New Musical Express/ Ian MacDonald)

Yet including ‘Psalm’ on Stranded makes sense, as Roxy at this point were making bold choices: Stranded is wonderfully inventive in its presentation of a variety of musical forms – from cod-reggae (‘Amazona‘), to romantic ballad (‘Just Like You‘), hard rock (‘Street Life‘), ambient folk-song (‘Sunset)’ – all wrapped in a rich, beautifully recorded ambience. Michael Bracewell (Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music) confirms for us Bryan Ferry’s observation that “Roxy Music did not possess a particular ‘style’; but rather, in their mix of music and the visual imagery, bring together many different styles into a new synthesis(Bracewell). In short, ‘Psalm’ is not so far from Brian Eno’s insanity music as contemporary writers would have supposed – you just had to live with it a bit.

II. My Sweet Lord

This idea of merging religion and pop music was well established by 1973: famously, George Harrison had a huge hit with my ‘My Sweet Lord‘ three years previously in 1970 (which, unfortunately, culminated in the humiliating spectacle of Harrison peddling the song on acoustic guitar in a packed London courtroom to disprove a plagiarism charge (Lennon: “He walked right into it. He knew what he was doing”)). Before ‘My Sweet Lord’ there was ‘Can I Get A Witness’ by Marvin Gaye (At 16 weeks, “Can I Get a Witness” lasted longer than any other Marvin Gaye entry on the Hot 100 during the 1960s); as had ‘People Get Ready‘ by The Impressions’; ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ by Bob Dylan, and so on. After ‘My Sweet Lord’ there was Talking Heads (‘Take Me to the River’/’Heaven’); Talk Talk (‘Spirit of Eden’/’I Don’t Believe in You’); and lots and lots more Bob Dylan (‘Blood on the Tracks’/etc). There was also the ‘Book of Moses’ by Tom Waits, and, my own personal favorite, ‘Let Jesus Make You Breakfast’ by BR549. Make that two eggs sunny-side up, please.

And Ferry too had flirted with the sacred in his music: ‘If There is Something‘ uses devotional prayer – heightened and exaggerated – as the narrator raises his arms to the heavens: “I would do anything for you/I would climb mountains/I would swim all the oceans blue/I would put roses round our door/Sit in the garden/Growing potatoes by the score”. Devotion mixed with humor; ironic in a way that ‘Psalm’ would never be – sitting in the garden, the poet sees himself magnified, a modern Adam courting his Eve. To seal the deal, the voice cracks, bursting with Evangelical passion:

Shake your hair girl with your ponytail
Takes me right back (when you were young)
Throw your precious gifts into the air
Watch them fall down (when you were young)
Lift up your feet and put them on the ground
You used to walk upon (when you were young)
Lift up your feet and put them on the ground
The hills were higher (when we were young)
Lift up your feet and put them on the ground
The trees were taller (when you were young)
Lift up your feet and put them on the ground
The grass was greener (when you were young)
Lift up your feet and put them on the ground
You used to walk upon (when you were young)

A very beautiful sequence that carries the scent of the sacred about it, especially so if you have been with an audience during a live performance, hands in the air, remembering when the hills, trees, and grass were higher, taller, greener.


III. Is There a Heaven?

Ferry’s next ecclesiastical outing was ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache‘, an altogether more creepy examination of the crippled modern psyche and its relationship to spirituality. Our narrator is the hypothetical ‘man who has everything’ – opulent home, private swimming pool, the must-have inflatable doll (“lover ungrateful”). The four-bar chord progression is replete with church cinema organ and ominous overtones. The voice is reverent, the confession modern:

In every dream home a heartache
And every step I take
Takes me further from heaven
Is there a heaven?
I’d like to think so

Explicitly theological in his outlook, the narrator moves past a belief in God (“Is there a heaven?”) towards secular living, the new god of materialism. What is interesting is that Ferry positions the religious question in the very first stanza – acknowledging not so much a personal view (though this might have been the case) but certainly a musical one: the Hippies and Haight Ashbury had reached their zenith and were on decline by 1969, and Jesus had become a post-Woodstock pop character in the counterculture scene, peaking with the commercial Jesus Christ Superstar (musical, double-album, film. Over a quarter $ billion sold). Three years later, Roxy Music occupied the void left behind by flower-power, incense, and ‘Spirit in the Sky’, injecting a much needed dose of sleazy realism and salacious decadence into the question of personal worship:

The cottage is pretty
The main house a palace
Penthouse perfection
But what goes on
What to do there
Better pray there

No lines better describes modern times than this: the citizens of our age, seeking pleasure at the expense of intellectual and emotional growth, pray to false Gods, or fail to pray to any god, believing instead in fool’s gold (“the main house a palace”), and technological and consumer advances (“penthouse perfection”). The ominous “but what goes on?” chills us in the age of Trump and Jeffrey Epstein as we lack the imagination to find anything of substance to do in our palaces – and so we lash out in boredom and anger. The narrator suggests we “better pray”, for he senses a world of pain approaching on the horizon (and boy, did it land in 2020). The need to worship is embedded in the human psyche, Ferry seems to say, but what now, “What to do there?” This vision predates by nearly fifty years the super-slick television narrative ‘American Gods‘ – an entertainment that revels in the theological and mythic, honing in on the “really modern, occasionally very tacky, underbelly” of the West. Pleasure/Stranded-era Roxy Music, you might say, in a nutshell.

IV. Believe in Me

From ironic to demonic, Ferry’s lyrical intent with the ‘Psalm‘ feels like a movement away from character portrait (‘If There is Something) and heavy messaging (‘Dream Home), towards the purely musical. Yes, there’s a televangelist power statement bubbling beneath the surface – “look Ma! I can make them dress up and dance and sing and listen to church hymns!” – but really ‘Psalm’ is less a statement of ego or intellect and more a summons to experience the transformative power of music.

As was the case with previous album For Your Pleasure, the themes of transformation and perception continue into Stranded, furthering the idea that nothing engages our senses more than the age-old practices of sex, drugs, music, cinema, the church, and art. Stranded presents for its audience a brave new world of possibility and change: the Roxy Music state-of-mind as prophesized in ‘Virginia Plain‘ has arrived. During ‘Street Life‘ our sketchy tour guide (“come on with me cruising down the street”) has an epiphany of such force that it borders on the religious (“now I’m blinded I can really see”). ‘Just Like You‘ uses the language of alchemy to woo the fickle “quicksilver” lover, but she’s having none of it. Like the weather, everything changes – iron turns to gold, hot turns to cold, beauty turns to dust, and courtly love achieves levels of Shakespearean pathos. The playful ‘Amazona‘ turns from funk-fest to put-downs, feeling like a heroin buzz might, with its “no doubt/no fall-out” dream state. “Is something wrong?” our tour guide asks, ridiculing our dreams and delusions of paradise (“Castles in Spain”). We are stranded between life and art – death chomps at our heels (“the bell-tower rings/tolls a hollow sound”). We long for life everlasting. We long for evermore. Is there a heaven? The tour guide takes our hand: “Why don’t you step through the mirror and see?”

Getting closer
Soon you’ll see
Journey’s over
We’re almost there!

Amazona

We are ready then – if we so choose – to take the necessary leap of faith across the pale horizon. And so we arrive at the Church doors, ready for observance and change, ready for a new idea, a new thrill, lover, experience. (“Try out your God…”).

Believe in the artist. Believe in the art.

Next:Psalm – Part 2′:  precisely drawn and transformative, ‘Psalm’ marks the beginning of a change in Ferry’s writing, a change that will lead us from the dense lyrical conceits of Stranded towards the condensed word pictures of Avalon

Credits: Bryan with a little Brian on his shoulder, https://www.mlinehamart.com/product/saint-bryan-ferry-roxy-music; sleeve for Impressions single ‘People Get Ready‘; Bryan Ferry with Roxy Music, ‘Psalm’ live, 1974; Satan, as drawn by Gustave Doré, in John Milton‘s Paradise Lost; ‘Sinners Welcome’: title credits American Gods, artist Patrick Claire

Coda: 3 Psalms, by Andy Mackay.

In 2017, Roxy Music saxophonist (solo artist, producer, educator and author) Andy Mackay was diagnosed with throat cancer. He had been suffering low-level discomfort for some eighteen months, until one horrible day he coughed up blood – a terrifying moment that eventually brought him to St. Mary’s Hospital, London, to undergo robotic cancer treatment (transoral robotic surgery) and remove the tumor from the middle of his throat (Mackay/IPH). The experience lead the multi-talented Roxy Music co-founder to complete the solo work 3 Psalms, a three-movement symphony he had begun working on over 20 years previously in the mid-90s, “a time in the world, and in my personal life, of a lot of change and turmoil” (Churchtimes).

At the time that ‘Psalm’ was written circa 1971 by Bryan Ferry, Mackay and Ferry shared a flat in London, plotting together the Roxy Music manifesto, recruiting new members (Eno, Manzanera, Thompson) and dreaming together a possible future in music. A year later both men were on their way to achieving their goals. And while Bryan Ferry took the lion’s share of exposure and solo recognition during Roxy’s first magnificent phase (1972-1975),  it was Andy Mackay that served – you felt – as the quality control lead of the band. This has nothing to do with religion or the definition and sharing of song-writing credits: Mackay’s slightly dour but prescient insights into the band revealed him to be the George Harrison of the group – massively gifted but endlessly oppressed by the shining brilliance of the band’s main headliner(s), rendered grumpy by the perverse reductionism of the press, of management, of the superficiality of a rock-star life that was blind to spiritual expression and truths.

Watching the clip of Psalm performed by Roxy Music on Musikladen in 1974, you feel Andy Mackay’s musical taste and sensitivity in full reveal, as he plays the keyboards and oboe, and contributes the feel and tone of the piece, like a guiding hand. This nurturing is all over Stranded – calm and attentive, culminating in the exquisite ‘Song For Europe’.

Please take a moment to give 3 Psalms a listen: Andy’s solo work links to the themes and musical freedoms of Roxy Music: exploring, taking chances, never settling.

3 Psalms Links:

https://www.andymackay.co.uk/3psalms

Andy Mackay on Roxy Music and his proggy new solo album

Andy Mackay talks religion, life & music

3 Psalms: A Conversation with Andy Mackay

9 thoughts on “Psalm – Part 1

  1. Probably the first Roxy song I ever heard – my older brother and his friends would tell everyone to be quiet when it came to the ‘mountain so high’ part and all of them would shake their heads in wonder and disbelief at the vocal .. I was only about 10 years old .. it would be another 3 years before my own revelation and my personal Roxy journey began ..

  2. Yes – it definitely is a song that clearly reflects the architectural / interior environment of the Stranded ambience .. Its a song I was always in awe of .. never thought there would be an issue with it – and was surprised when I had access to music press reviews and saw that it divided opinion .

  3. I have always been a huge fan of Psalm, right back from 1973. I am always surprised when it receives negative criticism.

  4. I see Psalm as contemporary to Breathe (Reprise) + The Great Gig In The Sky. Mortality abd Religion tackled in two different ways.

    “Far away across the field
    The tolling of the iron bell
    Calls the faithful to their knees
    To hear the softly spoken magic spells”

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