II. Comedown: Backing Track, Instrumentation
In a fun (and revealing) email Question & Answer exchange with a Detroit newspaper in July 2019, Bryan Ferry reveals that he once owned a “Psychedelic Mood Adjuster” – an early model amplifier created to enhance or “adjust” your mood. (Ferry also reveals his standard dream/nightmare scenario: “My leg is trapped and I can’t stop the car I’m driving from hurtling forward to doom” or that he’s “in a plunging elevator …”). While we all share common bad dreams, Ferry’s mood adjuster is a wry acknowledgement of the emotional contradictions the Roxy leader had exhibited throughout his early career with Roxy Music. From the giddy highs of Roxy Music, to the turbulent, darker turmoils of For Your Pleasure, Ferry had demonstrated an honest and heart-felt desire to communicate with his audience, albeit through the intricate and knotty threads of irony, pop-art, literature, musical history and what we now call postmodernism.
By the time of the release of the Third Roxy Music Album Stranded in November 1973, the artistic moods, though still varied, had leveled out, tilting towards a more sophisticated sheen – warm, slightly nervous, romantic, opulent. The self-doubt was still evident, but the maturity expressed a new reality: “no more brights lights confusing me”. Ferry had crossed over to the other side and was now living inside the image he had once constructed as fantasy. The process and experience of this change was reflected throughout Stranded and most successfully realized in the masterpiece cut ‘Mother of Pearl’ – a song that demonstrated that perhaps the “Psychedelic Mood Adjuster” had outlived its usefulness and Ferry was now willing (and able) to get down to the only thing and subject that mattered to himself and his fans: the life and times of the modern pop star.
The scene at AIR Studios, London, September 1973 during the recording of penultimate album track ‘Mother of Pearl’ would have seen a typical late night recording – the Roxy team (sans Ferry) were working on Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets during the day and recording the Stranded album at night. According to tape box pictures ‘Mother of Pearl’ would have been “Song 2″ on the roster (none of the songs had titles while the backing tracks were being cut). Late at night, the studio would have the lights turned low, a thick carpet laid out on the floor, incense lit to capture the vocal with the right atmosphere (“bollocks” says producer Chris Thomas kindly, contradicting Phil Manzanera‘s recollection). What is agreed to by all however, is the unexpected and scintillating performance delivered by Roxy lyricist and singer Bryan Ferry for the track that would become ‘Mother of Pearl’ – arguably the high-water mark in the Roxy Music canon (““How did I get this so right?” Ferry asked one interviewer in 2020. “What is it?”).
Those sessions at AIR were the days of having lots of time in the studio. We’d get there in the afternoon and maybe put down some guitar and bits and pieces. Then Bryan would come. He always liked to do vocals very late at night. We’d break for dinner, go over to Charlotte Street, then come back until about four.
Originating the song on a battered bass guitar during a Greek holiday with Roxy PR man and close friend Simon Puxley, Ferry‘s initial instructions to the group would have been threadbare, at best: provide a shimmering instrumental back-drop for a post-party come-down soliloquy. The chords – text book rock n’ roll staple D-A-E (“Polythene Pam“, Eddie Cochran, and everything written by Lou Reed), form a basic progression pattern (minor subdominant – minor tonic – minor dominant) that is as varied to the ear as it is popular with music fans. Concluding the last blast of Phil Manaznera‘s guitar solo @ 1:25 (see Part 1 for review), the feedback is faded out by producer Thomas to make way for Eddie Jobson‘s sombre piano chords, Jobson applying the classic style as a hold-over from previous track ‘A Song for Europe‘. What really establishes the groove though is Paul Thompson‘s base drum, feathered with typical taste and style, assured and patient, impeccably introduced @ 1:34. If you are in the mood for more subtlety, catch the one-note guitar over-dub just before Paul’s entry (1:33) and marvel at the beauty and detail of the backing track – a key ingredient to making ‘Mother of Pearl’ peak Roxy Music.
What the music conjures in these early stages is a languid, shoulder-swaying shuffle, infinitely dream-like for those listening at home. When playing the song live though, the track produces in Roxy Music a kind of drunken swagger, Ferry in particular adopting a peculiar – though effective – posture that comes over like a mix between the demonic Bogus Man and a pregnant duck, arse and limbs at cross-purposes while moving forward in slow motion.
Ferry’s grand entrance to his best song has clearly been carefully planned for this specific occasion, reminding us of Dean Martin tripping carefully down the staircase in front of a TV audience, drink in hand, careful not spill a drop. (Or Gloria Swanson hands coiled silent movie style in Sunset Boulevard – “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”). Ferry’s exaggerated grand entrance is encouraged by the delicious swagger of the music, a fact that even the usually reliable Eddie Jobson also cannot resist in live settings, as he sets forth also with the shoulders and the heavy anticipation (see here and here).
‘Mother of Pearl’ would be a fabulously beautiful and inventive piece of music on its own, but it would be empty without Ferry’s words and his vocal performance… Every line is delivered with a deranged archness of emphasis, infusing the song with a kind of poisoned camp.
Simon Reynolds (“Glam”, p 362).
The prerecorded group instrumental establishes the “fabulously beautiful” and “inventive” musical baseline for ‘Mother of Pearl’, but as Reynolds notes, the song would be empty without Ferry’s words and vocal performance. Bassist John Gustafson creates some of his most thoughtful work for Roxy Music on this track (see also: Love is the Drug), introducing Ferry’s vocal with a sly climb through root notes D-A-E before the singer hits the podium with the delicious confessional “Well I’ve been up all night” @ 1:42:
Well I´ve been up all night (Again?)
Party-time wasting is too much fun
The mock-shock comment “Again?” is like an ex-wife or trusted friend trying to tell you something that you should already know. The remark is funny, Ferry obviously willing to mock his Bad Boy image as much as promote it. “Again?” is also the last echo from the opening party scene where Ferry’s voice is over-dubbed, altered and multi-tracked to replicate the demented energy of a high society party in full swing: instead of taking the easy route and sing his song, Ferry decides to take on all the roles at once. Conversely, for the Comedown section we switch gears and are presented with a stunning single-take vocal performance, the stuff of legend:
Producer Chris Thomas was astonished – and so was everyone else in the studio – when Bryan came in and sang over a seemingly long instrumental track, the whole of the lyric of Mother Of Pearl from beginning to end. No-one until that moment had heard or even seen a single line of the song.
“Rex Belfour” (Simon Puxley), The Bryan Ferry Story.
[To be continued…]
Ah, summertime. Will dive into the MoP’s lyric before month’s end. In the meantime, be safe, get vaccinated, be good to others and yourself. Chow for now.
Credits: The one-of-a-kind Mata Hari, exotic dancer and accused French spy decked in jewels and attitude; Ferry’s go-to amplifier, the Psychedelic Mood Adjuster; New Musical Express covers, 73-74; shots of Bryan Ferry performing ‘MoP’ with Roxy Music, 1974. Check out the extraordinary pictures from the set here.