I. Open Engagement
‘Serenade’ announces its arrival with a groundswell of energy, like a train speeding through a tunnel that pulls you into darkness. Indeed, “darkness falls” is the first line of this superb Stranded second side opener, but that is as bleak as ‘Serenade’ gets – it’s a recovery song, a recovery that kicks in within less time than it takes to sing the first verse..
Darkness falls around your window pane
A light still burns but just a smouldering flame
Is it the end of another affair?
An open engagement with gloom
Or will you be smiling
When the sun conjures up?
A broken spell au clair de lune
We move from darkness to light, to smouldering flame, to smiling sun and back again by the light of the moon (“au clair de lune”), all within the space of seven lines, with Ferry layering on the painterly chiaroscuro, applying deft brushstrokes of light and dark to his canvas. The painting metaphor is apt, as the mise-en-scene draws attention to itself as Portrait of the Artist at work, providing the clearest articulation yet of a life lived as theater: in ‘Serenade‘ everything is staged – the romance, setting, delivery and the emotion. Moving promptly to the second verse (the track moves at a fair clip), Ferry retains the chiaroscuro motif (“Silhouette as you draw the shade”) and presents the slightly ridiculous concept of a man imagining a woman imagining her most idyllic romance scenario:
Silhouette as you draw the shade
Cloak of night you know it’s tailor-made
By an everglow fire
Could never mean the same
As summer enchantment
By an old mill steam
From courtly love to costly game
The male narrator is relentless, the imagination charged: night is “tailor-made” for love and sex (“G-plan gymnastics”). He invokes an “everglow fire” for her winter nighttime trysts. And when warmer weather arrives with its inevitable “summer enchantment” what better idea than to lie down by the “old mill stream” for picnic and sport. Consequences will follow (“from courtly love to costly game”), but it hardly matters anymore: When love is this good, why spoil the movie.
‘Serenade’ teases us with cues from Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy‘s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (sub-title: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented). Nevertheless Shakespeare is the dominate force here: ‘all the world’s a stage’ was a key idea for Bryan Ferry’s 1973-4 persona, so why not crib from the Bard’s greatest romance, Romeo and Juliet – the play that cemented for contemporary audiences the iconic image of a man with a lute singing beneath the lover’s balcony (see also: Shakespeare in Love, Wide Side Story, Tangled (!)). When it comes to Shakespeare, Ferry may also have been influenced by the goings-on in Twelfth Night (male/female cross-dressing romance with twins and a shipwreck); or the comic Much Ado About Nothing (extreme sassiness in the Italian countryside). Is love a tender thing? Only in art..
II. Play On
“If”, as the quote goes, “music be the food of love, play on” (Twelfth Night), then Roxy Music step up to the challenge on ‘Serenade’. Having just come off an extensive 1973 Fall/Winter Tour, the band were well-rehearsed and excited to be in George Martin’s AIR Studios accompanied by the talented and experienced producer Chris Thomas.
Chris Thomas plays a major role on Stranded and he should take the credit for that the record still sounds rich and adventurous today (a candidate for the 5.1 surround sound treatment). A talented musician himself (Thomas had an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Music before his teens), the engineer/producer had the necessary know-how to converse and interact with Roxy Music as fellow musicians, and could pick up the slack or change approach when needed (for example, Thomas plays bass on ‘Street Life’). His many recordings are noted for their depth and warmth, layering instruments and building up the backing tracks one by one. Thomas explains his approach:
When we did Stranded, the way we worked mostly was first we just put down backing tracks of keyboards, bass and drums. ‘What’s this one called?’ ‘Number 3.’ ‘Oh, okay, that’s inspirational!’ Half the time there were no lyrics written for these songs. Then, Phil would go in and put guitar parts down, and that actually was the point for me where the songs would turn into something. Then we’d build up these backing tracks to flesh it out, and that was always tremendous fun. Then Bryan would come in at the end and put his vocals on.
One of the great Roxy Music production effects is the opening moments of ‘Serenade‘ (0:1 to 0:7) where the lead vocal is multi-tracked, built-up meticulously, creating the sound of a night train ripping through the tunnel before landing evenly and thrillingly on the first line: “Darkness falls..” It’s an impressive start to the second side, the band and production team keen to bring us back from the sedate (yet rousing) eight-minute pulpit-thumping ‘Psalm‘. (At at live Musikladen performance the band fluffs the opening to ‘Psalm‘ (Jobson’s timing is off), and the group laughs cheerfully as Ferry dead-pans “here’s a real chart-buster…”).
The Chris Thomas/Roxy Music working relationship ran from For Your Pleasure to Viva! with a return for the aborted 2007 album with the original five Roxy Music members. “Not one single molecule in that studio had changed in 30 years” Brian Eno noted in amazement. In addition to Roxy, Thomas worked with The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, Chris Speeding, solo Bryan Ferry, The Pretenders, David Gilmour (with Phil Manzanera), and Pulp.
III. Now’s the Time
Given the Roxy Music practice of recording the melody line and vocals last (“Half the time there were no lyrics written”) Chris Thomas used the time to listen to the band’s ideas and build and record the understructure of the song. With this in mind, try listening to ‘Serenade’ just as a backing track (drums, bass and guitars) and you see the success of the song is placed in the band’s hands, sharing credit with Ferry and Thomas for creating a pulsing and efficient rock n’ roll statement that actually swings.
The additional kick that ‘Serenade’ has for its listeners is due to the song’s arrangement, an outcome that you sense was derived during the composition and build-up of the backing track. To that end, there are two musical and lyrical patterns that are repeated in each verse, divided by the first two lines of each section:
These first two lines shift between two sympathetic and warm F and C chords while Andy Mackay plays a seductive romantic line that is sensitive to Ferry’s vocal while the lyric mourns a romantic loss by shutting out the light (“Darkness falls/Cloak of night”).
In both instances the music and voice do a neat trick of bouncing back, almost giddy, for lines 3-7 & 3-9 repeated, moving through the more solid G to C:
“Is it the end of another affair?” our smirking troubadour asks, knowing full well the hurt won’t outlast a night’s decent sleep, the spell inevitably broken as we dust ourselves off to play again, “from courtly love to costly game”. Andy‘s oboe is still in the mix but he shifts to a jocular, animated soloing – like some darting sparing love-bird (0:22 to 0:41/ 0:56 to 1:10) mirroring the change in Ferry‘s temperament and vocal. Andy is sensational here and provides exactly what ‘Serenade‘ needs – the application of his taste and woodwind flair that makes Roxy Music so remarkable.
This lesson in band synergy isn’t done yet however: Phil Manzanera brings it all together by exploding onto the track at the conclusion of the second verse with a beautifully textured guitar re-run of what we just heard: two verse melody and vocal line, mirroring Mackay, mirroring Ferry. It’s another fantastic solo – meticulously constructed and executed by Manzanera and brilliantly recorded by Thomas – yet it somehow sounds effortless, capturing perfectly the sunny optimism of the song, a yearning for the possible before it all turns sour.
IV. Don Juan
Motoring along on ‘Serenade‘s chorus-less locomotive (see also: ‘Virginia Plain‘), Manzanera‘s solo ushers in a typically manic musical bridge that expands the narrator’s finger-wagging by turning the subject “You” into the subject “I”:
Maybe I’m wrong for seeming
Oh how it hurts now you’re finally leaving
I couldn’t take anymore
It has been suggested that the word ‘camp’ derives from ‘se camper’, meaning ‘to posture boldly’ (Bekhrad) and here Ferry’s delivery is intentionally extravagant and comically artificial, both in sentiment and intent. Conjuring the fickle nature of the love object, creating a canvas of love scene scenarios, the narrator completes the kiss off with dollops of insincerity – “ungrateful, unforgiving”/”Oh how it hurts now you’re finally leaving” – and delivers the last line with comic spite: “I can’t take any-muh-uhhh“! Indeed.
We hit the gas again in the final verse and hurtle towards yet another doomed love affair (“Now’s the time! Let’s hide away”). Ferry continues to ham it up (“Boo-hoo willows weep around you still”) and the nature of this particular serenade becomes clear:
Mirror reflections of dew
But waterfall pages of an open book
Could shower new horizons soon
Call the tune will you swoon
As I croon your serenade?
“Mirror reflections” implicates both lover and narrator who endlessly chase a romantic literary/cinematic ideal of courtship that is artificial and unattainable. “Waterfall pages” contains the Rolodex of past lovers, looking towards those highly anticipated “new horizons” of courtly engagement and disappointment. The song that is sung – this ‘Serenade’ that we are listening to – is delivered by a modern Don Juan, a rock star troubadour and absurd hero who maintains a reckless abandon in his approach to love, projecting onto the love object a shared cynicism for courtship and the seductive lifestyle.
The inauthenticity of this modern ‘Serenade‘ is concluded by Ferry in his hilariously crafted car-crash at the end of the song as the serenading balladeer piles up the end-rhymes “soon”, “tune”, “swoon”, “croon”. It’s a lost battle to in the name of love, and certainly a slaughter to the English language as Ferry delivers his best line: “But waterfall pages of an open book/Could shower new horizons soon/Call the tune will you swoon/As I croon your serenade?”. A favorite moment indeed for all who love Roxy Music’s (underrated) comic sensibility.
The shortest track on Stranded at under three minutes (2:59), ‘Serenade‘ prepares us for what comes next – glamorous parties and long walks down European streets, the next bleary-eyed morning and the wasted day’s inevitable sunset. ‘Serenade‘ (innocently, it must be said), even directs us towards the self-obsessed soft-porn decadence of Country Life. You wouldn’t know it though: this under-performed (unloved?) classic only wants us to have fun, spell unbroken, au clair de lune.
Credits: dancers Ted Shawn & Ruth St. Denis (1916) re-presented by the fantastic work of Stuart Humphrey’s at BabelColour; Shakespeare sketch; The Serenade 1629 Judith Leyster; Chris Thomas 1970s; visions of Andy Mackay, 1974; a wonderful composite by Fly Garrick @ https://www.facebook.com/groups/GlamazonaRoxyMusic. Great work Fly!