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

Mother of Pearl – Part 1

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Mother of Pearl (Ferry), ‘Stranded’ 1973
Mother of Pearl Lyric (Ferry), November 1973
All Tomorrow’s Parties, The Velvet Underground
All Tomorrow’s Parties, Japan

There is a Bryan Ferry interview in Another Man magazine in 2019 were Ferry and journalist Tim Blanks discuss the singer’s career and the ‘Art of Roxy Music’. The conversation is pleasant, runs along party lines mostly (Newcastle, art school, jazz, Gatsby) when suddenly the interview takes a turn. Discussing stagecraft and performance Ferry explains:

Occasionally you get it with an audience yourself, where you feel that you’re representing yourself in the best possible way by performing a song well, with the right blend of elements you’re proud of, that people appreciate. Certain songs are tough to perform because you feel so moved when you’re doing them that you can hardly get through them. You feel you’re going to break up. Mother of Pearl is one of those, when you feel: ‘How did I get this so right?’ What is it? It’s words and music, but put them together and they conjure up a mood and a feeling that affects me greatly, and when I feel it affect an audience, it chokes me up.

Interviewer Tim Blanks is moved by what happens next:

Ferry actually chokes up as he says that. I choke too. You really do want to know that one of your favourite artists feels the same way about one of your favourite songs as you do, especially when he’s the person who wrote and sang it.

“How did I get this so right?” Ferry asks. “What is it?”

I rub my eyes reading this. You should too: ‘Mother of Pearl‘ is peak Roxy Music, hell, it’s peak rock music. It’s the view from the mountain-top. It’s the roller-coaster pulling up to to the station. It’s the guy from ‘Street Life‘ arriving at his destination, having brought you along for the ride. (“Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet?”). It’s Friday night, soon after eight. Gather around good-looking boys, Vasser girls too. Turn the lights down. Take a powder. All the gang’s here..

I’d written the songs for Stranded in a few locations: my flat in Earl’s Court, a friend’s cottage in Sussex, and even a couple of weeks on a Greek island, where I went with my friend, Simon Puxley, and where I recall bashing out the beginnings of “Mother Of Pearl” on a battered bass guitar.

Bryan Ferry

“This is it folks: Magnum Opus time” was how journalist Ian MacDonald characterized ‘Mother of Pearl’ in his glowing review of The Third Roxy Music Album Stranded.Exhilarating” said Roxy chronicler Jonathan Rigby (“scary and exhilarating in equal measure”). “Meisterwerk” wrote Nick Kent of the NME. “Ferry knows this is one of his two or three finest ever songs – possibly the finest of all”. “The definitive mid-period Roxy song” said Sam Richards (Uncut). Indeed, the high praise and critical approval for Ferry and Roxy Music reached its zenith with the release of Stranded in late 1973, and ‘Mother of Pearl’ was for many the jewel in the crown, arriving – in the nick of time – after the stylized machinations of the eight minute bible-thumping  ‘Psalm‘ and the eloquent, grand gestures of ‘A Song for Europe‘. Tilting the album back towards the promise and thrill of album opener ‘Street Life‘ ‘Mother of Pearl’ was a hot injection* of rock n’ roll delivered with intensity, control and taste. (*Apologies to Irving Welsh).

The answer to Ferry’s question “How did I get this so right?” is as interesting as it is obvious: if fortune favors the prepared, then Roxy were at this stage ready to capitalize on their increasing musical dexterity and skill. The sweet-spot of Manzanera, Mackay, Thompson, Jobson, guest bassist John Gustafson and producer Chris Thomas worked on ‘Mother of Pearl’ as an instrumental, layering and building the backing track in preparation for vocal, melody and lyrics. Producer Chris Thomas: “When we did Stranded, the way we worked mostly was first we just put down backing tracks of keyboards, bass and drums…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”.

Bryan would come in and do a sort of bravura performance of a finished lyric and top line that we hadn’t heard at all, ‘Mother of Pearl’ is the one that particularly stands out. Bryan came in and did the whole thing and we just sort of sat back and thought, “well that’s amazing”.

Andy Mackay

Working nose-to-nose with friend and Roxy Machine PR man Simon Puxley, Ferry carefully arranged the dramatic structure for ‘Mother of Pearl’ into three sections (not just two, as is usually reported): there is the Event (hard rock); the Comedown (funky chill); and Epilogue (acappella). The lone singing voice in the epilogue (“mother-of-pearl, I wouldn’t trade you for the whole world”) is often over-looked, but does provide a short, icy conclusion to the narrative. This pop-triptych enables Ferry to present a magnificent sample of moods and postures told by characters that are obsessed – as we all are – with glamour, sex, drugs and drink, of getting out your head, of escaping boredom. Thus, the song’s brilliance was in part due to its simple conceit: the thrill of new experience, the early morning blow-back, the chilly what-now conclusion.. 

Writing in his collection of essays on visual art The Space Between (2012), Roxy observer and (and Ferry uber-fan) Michael Bracewell notes that at the time of Stranded  Ferry appeared “to have passed through the looking glass of stardom and become the mythic version of himself.” Attuned to the obsessive level his audience was now identifying with him – his success, his fame, his lifestyle, girls, glamour, parties – the Roxy Music front-man decided that it was time to bring the fans in even closer and answer the question that was at the top of listener’s minds in late 1973 – what’s it like to be ‘Bryan Ferry’?


I. The Event

The first part of it’s this very physical thing
Bryan Ferry

The In-Crowd make their first appearance here (“we breeze up and down the street”) as the promise contained in ‘Street Life‘ (“Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet”) is brilliantly realized by the closing tracks of the Stranded album. With ‘Mother of Pearl’, Roxy were primed to deliver the equivalent of a musical head-rush: Paul Thompson launches into the assault with a kick-drum punch that propels Phil Manzanera’s shredding repeated 7-note guitar riff. There are no tricks or gimmicks used here – no slow fade-in a la ‘Virginia Plain‘, no grand openings as per ‘Pyjamarama‘ – just the fulfillment of a promise, that Roxy Music indeed are rock n roll. The atmosphere is charged, electric, the vocal demented:

Turn the lights down / way down low
Turn up the music / hi as fi can go
All the gang’s here / everyone you know
It’s a crazy scene (hey there just look over your shoulder..)
Get the picture?  No, no, no, no …  (YES)
Walk a tightrope / your life-sign-line
Such a bright hope / right place, right time
What’s your number? / never you mind
Take a powder (but hang on a minute what’s coming round the corner?)
Have you a future? No, no, no, no …  (YES)

Ferry mirrors the viciousness of Thompson and Manzanera‘s attack with a carefully planned pandora’s box of vocal effects that pulls the listener deeper into the experience, the production team extravagantly layering on percussion (maracas, tambourines) and a sustaining feedback guitar (a delight to follow in the mix) that re-creates the schizophrenic, coked up, sweaty energy of a well-attended party in full swing – this party that you’ve been invited to. Bouncing between Ferry’s Good Boy/Bad Boy personal commentary (“Turn the lights down / way down low/Turn up the music / hi as fi can go”) the audience is bombarded by music, lights, chatter – our confusion and paranoia comically captured as part of the party dialog – “Hey there just look over your shoulder” – “Hang on a minute what coming round the corner?” – not quite knowing what to expect next in this extraordinary unrestrained wall-of-sound, where the needle is constantly pushed into red without actually drawing blood (at least not that we can remember).


The overall effect of the ‘Mother of Pearl’ hard rock introduction is akin to a wall-of-mirrors madness – a wonderfully unique aspect of the Roxy Music aesthetic – as Roxy successfully deliver on the premise of, if you’re gonna promise a party you had better sound like you know how to host one. In doing so Ferry takes his hedonistic cue from The Velvet Underground – updating the spook and chill of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties‘ and re-branding it for the glam rock crowd. (Eno: “Bryan liked VU as well and we both knew about their connection with Andy Warhol, which gave them a sort of cultural position”).

There are further similarities with The Velvet Underground as Ferry returns to a theme that has preoccupied him since second single ‘Pyjamarama‘ and For Your Pleasure  (‘Editions of You‘): the strategies and affectations of the wannabe socialite and social climber (read: himself). In VU’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ the girl doesn’t belong at the party (“what costume shall the poor girl wear”) but strives to attain the part of social acceptability:

In what costume shall the poor girl wear
To all tomorrow’s parties
A hand-me-down dress from who knows where
To all tomorrow’s parties
And where will she go, and what shall she do
When midnight comes around
She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown and cry behind the door

Lou Reed/Velvet Underground

This is social observation of a high order, a Cinderella story for the modern ages, where the working class kid dreams of being wealthy and fashionable, carefully creating a persona that steps into the brave new world, but is forced back into the shadows when Sunday morning comes around, bereft of money and social standing. VU’s ‘Parties’ sequence plays like a template for ‘Mother of Pearl’ (Party/Comedown/Isolation) notably recalling Ferry’s obsession with the upwardly mobile and the elite, in particular the work, self-belief, and posturing needed to move from working-class hero to jet-setting rock star.

“Fashion houses ladies” we are told in ‘Just Like You’, “Need plenty loose change/When the latest creation/Is last year’s fab-rave”. And so it goes. ‘Stranded’ is obsessed with social status, as ‘Street Life‘ kicks off with the advice that  “Education is an important key, yes/But the good life’s never won by degrees, no.” We’d been told before that “Old money’s better than new” (‘Editions of You‘) and that upward mobility was a legitimate goal for those with the backbone to go for it (‘Beauty Queen‘: “Our soul-ships pass by/solo trips to the stars in the sky”). 

Ever since ‘Virginia Plain posited the pop-star manifesto of self-creation (“what’s real and make believe?”) we were knew that for Ferry stardom was the goal and transformation the process, and thus ‘Stranded’ reads as a text book of change and metamorphosis, baked into nearly every line, cover shot, and exaggerated pose. The ‘Stranded’ album cover introduces the idea: built on the idea of cast-at sea and loss of innocence, the sleeve was modeled by Playboy Playmate of the Year (1973) Marilyn Cole, who like Ferry, was born into the unglamorous hardships of the Northern middle class (“I was born in a Coronation Street house,” Cole told one interviewer “Two up, two down, outside lav”). Ferry neglected to include himself on the ‘Stranded’ cover (having previously made an appearance on For Your Pleasure), even though a photo was taken (see: ‘Just Like You’ Stranded Cover art) because he intuitively knew he was already there: desirable, urbane, harassed, stranded.

Modern pop culture gives the impression that by simply being wealthy and fashionable, beautiful and connected, an individual has the opportunity to become famous. Throughout his work, Ferry enjoys taking aim at those who strive to rise above their station, people who try to re-create themselves in their own image – gold tinged, transformed, but leaving the dirty little secret of birthright and social standing well behind, even buried (Pyjamarama: “They say you have a secret life/Made sacrifice your key to paradise/Never mind, take the world by storm/Just boogaloo a rhapsody divine”). For ‘Mother of Pearl’ Ferry presents the bold and the beautiful in full swing, on the make.  The Party is jam-packed with scandal, wealth, pop culture, public relations, models, celebrities, photographers, media types, and deals. The hard-rock introduction serves to re-create the energy and la vitalité of a great party, yet Ferry is careful to present the beautiful people as on the make, preoccupied by their image, deal-making, paranoid, intrusive, even deadly:

Turn the lights down / way down low
Turn up the music / hi as fi can go

The language of punning fun, frivolity, commercial consumerism: Electronics giant Phillips had created a Bryan Ferry inspired record player called “The Shooting Star…”

All the gang’s here / everyone you know

The London scene is reminiscent of Warhol’s Factory, where the studio, laboratory and party room became a mecca for the late 60s counterculture, attracting “every walk of life, from the most beautiful people to other artists, celebrities, musicians.”

It’s a crazy scene (hey there just look over your shoulder..)

Crazy. Paranoid. Dangerous. Factory film-maker Valerie Solanas shot mentor Andy Warhol in the chest “carrying two guns and a massive, paranoid grudge”. Warhol was declared dead for several minutes by first responders. Solanas shot Warhol because she thought he was stealing her film ideas and had been ignoring her repeated phone calls for arts and film funding (“wish everybody would leave me alone, yeh”).

Get the picture?  No, no, no, no …  (YES)

Fame and its downfalls. Get the picture? Or, “get the picture”? asks one party-goer to a press photographer.

Walk a tightrope / your life-sign-line
Such a bright hope / right place, right time

Fame as manifest destiny. Or merely a touch of Lady Luck before the inevitable decent into obscurity. (“Thought patterns hazy/This auto-style age/Will lady luck smile old and sage”).

What’s your number? / never you mind
Take a powder (but hang on a minute what’s coming round the corner?)

What’s your fate? (None of your business). Taking some cocaine sounds like a good idea, but what of tomorrow? (“What’s that coming round the corner…”?).

Have you a future? No, no, no, no …  (YES)

Public scrutiny (have you a future?). Internal anxiety (no, no). The powder kicks in (YES).

All things considered this is a pretty accurate summary of the conditions Ferry found himself in the Fall of 1973, as his projections for Roxy Music materialized, the band had hit records, and Ferry became a celebrated member of the London ‘In Crowd’. The modern version of this scene would include such self-made celebs as  Olivia Palermo, Lauren Santo Domingo, Derek Blasberg, and Jean Shafiroff. In contrast, the British scene of the early 70s would have comprised of the cream of the British Entertainment industry, Cilla Black, Lulu, Bruce Forsyth, certainly Gilbert and George, members of the inner circle The Roxy Machine ( Antony Price, Karl Stoecker, Nicolas De Ville, Simon Puxley, and Bryan Ferry), artists David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Roxy cover girls Amanda Lear, Kari-Ann Muller, Marilyn Cole, and lots of gay friends, fashion designers, and maybe even the occasional radio DJ, Kenny Everett or Paul Gambaccini.

Ferry and Roxy Music management acknowledged (and heavily promoted) the singer’s personal dalliance with the Roxy cover girl models and the glamorous jet-set scene, providing the largely working class audience with the illusion of vicarious accessibility and, most importantly, of being invited along for the ride (“Come with me cruising down the streets..”).  Indeed the answer to the question of “How did I get this so right?” is that ‘Mother of Pearl’ injects the listener directly into the party scene, allowing us to experience the high life, to adopt a pose, to set our tastes and sense of style well above the average crowd. (“Over the years,” Ferry bragged to Melody Maker, in 1974, “I’ve developed an appreciation of excellence in all things and therefore I have fairly expensive tastes”).

Conversely, the chase and thrill of glamour is tempered by down-to-earth pragmatism – a reality these self-made stars knew all too well: the transitory and fickle nature of fame; the spiritual hollowness at the root of the pursuit of money; the burden of media, the loss of innocence that comes with working in the entertainment business. Stranded bears the weight of this tension, as Ferry maps the experience of change and metamorphosis through ‘Street Life‘ (“now I’m blinded, I can really see”), ‘Just Like You‘ (“Everything changes/Through alchemy iron turns gold”), ‘Amazona (“Why don’t you step through the mirror and see?”) and though side one closer ‘Psalm‘ (“Try on your love like a new dress/The fit and the cut your friends to impress”). Indeed ‘Psalm’ is pivotal, closing one door while opening another. Pressing towards artistic transcendence, Ferry applies the same kind of creative intensity to religious conversion (“a paradise/a mountain so high”), yet by the time we get to ‘Mother of Pearl’ the ambition is dialed back, the “bright lights” dimmed. 

“How did I get this so right?” Ferry asks. “What is it?”

The answer is ‘Mother of Pearl’ was the song Bryan Ferry was born to write. However, it also marked the conclusion of the dream leading up to it.

Postscript:

The temperamental and competing tensions in Ferry’s writing – so perfectly captured in ‘Mother of Pearl’ – are playfully noted in an article published by glam photographer extraordinaire Mick Rock (Bowie, Queen, Roxy) reprinted for your entertainment below. The quotes and article confirms Ferry’s “outsider” designation (“not a social creature”) while also laying bare the full-throttle life-style Ferry was enjoying in late ’73/74. In addition are some germane comments by Brian Eno regarding the influence of The Velvet Underground on Roxy Music.

Enjoy! Have fun during these summer months. Be safe, be good, and see you soon for the tour-de-force  ‘Mother of Pearl’ Comedown (Part 2).

[My work] is the only thing I have any pride in, I suppose, because I’m not much of a social creature. Therefore, my work has to stand for everything I’m about really.

Bryan Ferry

Biba’s_London_1974_BryanFerry_AmandaLear©MickRock

“Get the picture?”

Oh well Bryan’s really drunk, and you can see the waitress is poised at the side. That was taken at Biba’s. Biba’s for a while—there was a lady called Barbara Hulanicki and her husband floating around London with their little shop, and they took over this great department store that had closed down—but right at the top they would have something that they called The Rainbow Room—I mean there have been other Rainbow Rooms, I know, including in New York—but that was The Rainbow Room, and right at the top of the building they would have these great parties, and people played there too, The [New York] Dolls, The Pointer Sisters, Screaming Lord Sutch, Albert King… they would have all these great performers, and all the fashionable people of that glammy London scene would show up including Bryan Ferry and Amanda Lear.

And people like that picture, partly because he’s fucking drunk and you can see it.”

PHOTOGRAPHY © MICK ROCK 2016 here https://flaunt.com/content/art/rock-will-roll


Eno on the Velvets: here

You first heard the Velvets on John Peel’s radio show while you were at Winchester School of Art in the 60s. What impact did that have?

Within the first few moments, I thought, “Okay, this is important.” I could hear the La Monte Young influence, the sort of drone thing that John Cale was doing on the viola. I think I heard Heroin first. So I bought that album [The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967], which not many other people did at the time. It might be hard for some people to understand, but they were a big influence on Roxy Music. Bryan [Ferry] liked them as well and we both knew about their connection with Andy Warhol, which gave them a sort of cultural position.

When we started Roxy, rock’n’roll was really 15 years old. And in that time you had the whole of doo-wop, Elvis, the Liverpool scene, psychedelia, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, this incredible compression of all that stuff. The history of the music form was already substantial enough to draw from.

We were pop artists in the little ‘p’ and big ‘P’ sense. Bryan had studied with Richard Hamilton at Newcastle, who people often say is the father of Pop Art, and I’d been tutored by one of his most brilliant students, Roy Ascott. So we both had that connection to the idea that culture was its own subject, as it were, and kept redigesting itself all the time. And that wasn’t an idea you were supposed to like back then. That’s what The Velvet Underground represented to me. They sort of endorsed all those things that people had said were wrong about pop music.

 

A few years after that first [VU] album, when I heard some of the other things, I thought they were too close to what I wanted to do at the time. I just thought, ‘Oh God, I mustn’t listen to this

Bryan Ferry

2 thoughts on “Mother of Pearl – Part 1

  1. Hi! I became a Roxy Music fan just a few months ago and have discovered your web only recently. I’m really enjoying your extremely in depth analysis of the different songs, hope you keep it up!

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