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 3

8 Comments

Mother of Pearl – Part 1
Mother of Pearl – Part 2
Mother of Pearl (Ferry), Recorded September 1973
Mother of Pearl Lyric (Ferry)

Well I’ve been up all night (again?) party-time wasting is too much fun.

Mother of Pearl’ appeared as the penultimate track on Roxy Music UK #1 album Stranded (1973). Commonly recognized as one of the most assured and satisfying songs in the Roxy canon, the track concluded an LP that had already showcased some of the band’s best work including ‘Street Life‘ (UK #1 single), ‘Just Like You‘, ‘Amazona‘, ‘Serenade‘ and ‘A Song for Europe‘ before landing magnificently on ‘Mother of Pearl‘. Album closer ‘Sunset‘ would provide a stunning epilogue to Stranded, wrapping neatly Ferry’s concerns with mortality, the role of art, love and obsession, constructed identities, theatricality and camp – all designed by a newly anointed pop star ambitious to satisfy sensation-hungry audiences.

‘Mother of Pearl’ is milestone recording for Roxy Music due to its pitch perfect presentation of these ideas, delivered via a striking and original three-part structure (Party/Comedown/Epilogue) and an alternating savage/sublime arrangement composed and played by band members Phil Manzanera, Paul Thompson, and guest bassist John Gustafuson, with major contributions from producer Chris Thomas and band multi-instrumentalist Andy Mackay (who largely sits this one out). These ingredients are capped by a career-high performance by lead Roxy singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry, an artist so on his game in 1973 that he co-wrote and recorded Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Stranded and released his own hit solo album These Foolish Things – an astonishing work-rate that culminated in the peerless and lasting achievement of ‘Mother of Pearl’.

II. Comedown: Lyrics, Vocals

During last month’s ‘Mother of Pearl’ deep dive (ah hem) we explored the hard-rocking Party opening section (Part 1) and the sublime Comedown backing-track laid down by Roxy Music and producer Chris Thomas (Part 2). We now arrive at what many consider the key ingredient to ‘Mother of Pearl’s success: Bryan Ferry‘s lyrical and vocal performance, recorded, as legend has it, in a single take during the late hours of an unusually warm London September night. In his book Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, music journalist Simon Reynolds succinctly writes:

‘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…

Simon Reynolds  (“Glam”, p 362).

I thought [Bryan Ferry] was the most exciting singer that I’d heard. His voice had limitations, but what he managed to do with it was beautiful, I mean, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. For me it covered the whole emotional spectrum, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.

Kate Bush

For the first major iteration of Roxy Music (’72-’75), Bryan Ferry‘s vocal style and on-stage persona was, as Roxy observer Paul Stump puts it, “often over-emphatic”: “When one expects a top note from Ferry it often arrives in exaggerated vibrato or in a semi-spoken form.” Ferry agrees: “I tend to be very woo woo woo!” he once admitted (humorously). Yet, as all Roxy fans know, Ferry may have a technically limited range but his ability to convey menace, wit, longing, obsession, menace (or even joy) is one of the many pleasures of listening to Roxy Music. This impressive range covers a wide span of human experience and emotion, from the icy tenor of For Your Pleasure‘s ‘Strictly Confidential‘ to the despondent hedonism of the sex doll fiend in ‘In Every Dream Home, a Heartache‘, to ‘Bogus Man‘s multi-tracked heavy-breathing predator, or pushing further on Stranded as the baleful suitor (‘Just Like You‘), laid-back hipster (‘Amazona‘), romance ballader (‘Song for Europe‘), and onto the narrative pièce de résistance of ‘Mother of Pearl‘. A truly impressive array of characters and narrative performances, particularly for rock as distributed and digested in 1973 (true, Bowie was treading similar territory at the same time, but Bowie’s take was one character per album, not necessarily one character per song). Andy Mackay once noted, due to Ferry’s persona-adopting irony-laden narratives, Roxy Music did not necessarily communicate a wide emotional range (“such as sentimentality”) – yet the opposite could also be said: to get under somebody’s skin, to inhabit who they are, to portray an emotional point-of-view within a pop music format is a sincere attempt to capture the breadth of the human experience with the bonus for the listener being highly visceral and vastly entertaining.

The heavily-stylized vibrato changed over the years of course, from the slightly hysterical pitch used Roxy Music (“shake your head girl…“), to the richer (and better recorded) vocal performances on For Your Pleasure and Stranded, in particular the rich baritone Ferry used on ‘A Song for Europe‘ (“Here as I sit at this empty cafe..”). Performing and recording provided more experience and therefore more more options and by Stranded Ferry was increasingly committed to presentation of character through vocal and lyric, adopting personas in the same manner of presenting a play or a film:

With every song you play, … you take an aspect of yourself and either simplify it or ham it up. To some extent it’s like method acting. In an hour and half show you go through a lot of different moods, one right after the other… You say to yourself, how does this song go? Oh yeah, then you get into a role for it and leave that role when the song ends.

Bryan Ferry

The 2nd splendid part of ‘Mother of Pearl’ – the Comedown – finds Ferry’s narrator in a contemplative mood: the Party is over, the girl has gone home (presumably), and the party animal contemplates his loneliness from the vantage point of success – there is no fretting over jobs, no immediate Monday morning commitments, just a philosophical, even spiritual – perhaps comically so – review of where his life is going, where his dreams have taken him, and how he’s spending his time:

Well I´ve been up all night (Again?) party-time wasting is too much fun
Then I step back thinking of life´s inner meaning and my latest fling

It´s the same old story all love and glory it´s a pantomime

Ferry amusingly quotes from Humphrey Bogart‘s classic Casablanca as Sam sings and plays sings ‘As Time Goes By‘ (“It’s the same old story/A fight for love and glory“) and it sounds like the our hero has been at the bar a lot recently. The mock-shock of “Again?” is well-positioned and hilarious, sounding like an ex-wife or trusted friend trying to tell you something that you should already know (but won’t admit). And in a sense this is what ‘Mother of Pearl’ does throughout its 6:52 duration – bouncing as it does from thrill to comedown, from comedy to despondency as we consider the contradictions of replaying those oft-repeated stories of our lives (that “same old story“).

Again?” is also the last voice we’ll hear from the opening party scene, that multi-tracked demented high society rave-up: from here on it’s all pantomime as Ferry acts out for us in the privacy of his personal drama the disappointments, the loss of innocence, the deflated sense of self in a world that contains no more heroes and, subsequently, no more starry-eyed dreams. Against this backdrop, then, the search for love is only the first in a series of disappointments:

If you’re looking for love in a looking glass world it’s pretty hard to find

In Johnny Rogan‘s salacious (and entertaining) Roxy Music biography Style with Substance there is a finger-wagging chapter called “False Images and Lost Goddesses” where Ferry is accused of having the “unfortunate habit of associating with publicity-seeking glamour girls who hardly fit the Virgin Mary image attributed to them in his songs” (ibid). Roxy girls Kari-Ann Mueller, Amanda Lear and Playmate of the Year (1972) Marilyn Cole are presumably the publicity-seeking glamour queens in question yet it’s hard to see where any of these young Roxy models could be idealized as the Virgin Mary … Certainly none of the album covers nominate them for saint-hood as they radiate desire and attraction, from Pop Confection, to Femme Fatale, to Damsel in Distress

The Roxy aesthetic has always preferred a certain sleaziness in it presentation of sex and relationships – Roxy songs are riddled with affairs, betrayal, vanity, histrionic emotion, exaggerated posturing and breakdown. With Roxy, lovers and partners are marketable and replaceable, and once spent they become destined for the scrap heap:

Just looking through an old picture frame
Just waiting for the perfect view

I hope something special will step in to my life
Another fine edition of you
A pin-up done in shades of blue

Editions of You

Career girl cover exposed and another slips right into-view
Oh looking for love in a looking glass world is pretty hard for you

Mother of Pearl

Who in this age of Tinder, Bumble, or OKCupid would not agree that this carte du jour aspect of modern dating or match-making was identified, in part, by Ferry in the early Roxy songs. “Popular, transient, expendable, low cost” was how pop-art teacher Richard Hamilton explained the packaging of desire to the eager young art student – and the student responded in kind with music that celebrated Hollywood glamour – (“take two people, romantic/Smoky nightclub situation”); the pin-up lifestyle (“oh the way you look/make my starry eyes shiver”), and irony at a very cool distance (“she’s the sweetest queen I’ve ever seen (CPL593H)“). Clearly, Ferry also nailed the second half of Hamilton’s pop-art manifesto by producing music that was “young, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business” (Hamilton).

By the time of Stranded though there is a shift away from equating romance with consumerism, as Ferry cashes in his chips and leaves the more disposable aspects of the pop-art movement behind, moving with conviction towards something classic, even heroic: ‘Just Like You‘, ‘Psalm‘, ‘Serenade‘ and particularly ‘Song for Europe‘ show increasing maturity of social observation and narrative detail, with the sense that the writing is now being composed and applied in the manner of a Romantic painter. Ferry’s theme is still his attraction to glamour and beauty (“Serpentine sleekness was always my weakness“) but just as paint is slowly absorbed into canvas, the issues of light, colour, and how one perceives and composes those elements becomes the subject of the work. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the first glimpse into Bryan Ferry’s future solo career, with each subsequent album vying for the status of hard-won masterpiece, a prime example being the luxuriant and densely layered Mamouna – a record that took eight full years to satisfactorily get down on tape. Seductive. Addictive. And just out of reach.

Divine intervention always my intention so I take my time
I´ve been looking for something I’ve always wanted but was never mine

Divine interventionis a good gag on a track full of good gags, but the longing of “looking for something” that was “never mine” is emotionally grounded. Here we see Ferry shifting the focus away from the lover as flesh and blood subject – the magazine pin-ups of Roxy Music and ‘Virginia Plain‘ are gone, as are the women of ‘Pyjamarama‘ and ‘Just Like You‘ with their “secret lives”, and emotional detachment (“Quicksilver baby/so hard to pin down“). Instead Ferry cannot take his eyes off the real prize:

But now I’ve seen that something just out of reach – glowing – very Holy grail

Ferry uses the Grail myth to poke fun at the worth of his own obsessions (“my own predilections“) as they remain stubbornly “out of reach.” And what might those obsessions be? If women were the only problem then this would be Roxy choice cut ‘Casanova‘ (next album, next set of problems). If proving strength and heroism was the objective, then the Grail image would suffice. But there is grit in this song, a substance that Ferry is trying to get hold of in order to make something beautiful. As cultural critic Simon Reynolds observes of 20th century art, its makers and its audience:

Sophisticates are too clever to fall for the illusion any more, but secretly wish they could be fooled. What tantalizes is the remembrance of a long-gone possibility of absolute enchantment and entrancement.

Simon Reynolds

Now too clever to ‘fall for the illusion’ anymore Ferry, the craftsman, song-writer and master illusionist (“you get into a role”) is chasing down his material for Stranded, honing his craft in order to deceive and seduce, and ultimately, produce something beautiful and long-lasting.

And so what serves ‘Mother of Pearl’ so well is this focus on the powers of attraction, the bringing attention to the illusion-building process itself. Like the substance found in the natural world that gives Stranded‘s penultimate track its title, mother-of-pearl (or nacre), is a multi-coloured iridescent substance found in the internal layer of shells and oysters. This nacre stuff is secreted when grit or sand gets inside the shell. As a result, grit and dirt are the critical base materials needed to create bright shiny attractive sheen – the glamour effect. In this light (pardon the pun) we can intuit Ferry’s true intent: ‘Mother of Pearl’ does not actually celebrate the pearl, nor the diamond, nor the jewel, nor even the pin-up girl or Beauty Queen – Ferry is mesmerized by the transformative power of glamour as process: the creativity that builds beauty from grit, the craft that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, the sweat that builds a song into masterpiece.

I don’t think there’s one spare syllable in those lyrics that Bryan wrote that he wouldn’t have been happy with

Chris Thomas

Right from the get-goMother of Pearl‘ transforms mundane reality into shimmering fantasy. We arrive at our destination having set off on the sidewalks of ‘Street Life‘ (“come with me cruising down the streets“), encountering a multitude of adventures along the way, meeting amazon beauty queens, fashion-house ladies, televangelists, even Lady Luck herself (“Who knows what you’ll see, who you might meet“), until finally we arrive at our Party destination and step into a world of physical change and thrilling action (“Turn the lights down“/”walk a tight rope“/“take a powder“). Drugs. Sex. Glamour. In an instant Ferry shifts us from dull grey to heightened effervescence – where everything is “glowing“/”lustrous“/”shimmering” – and he doesn’t stop for a breath as we move beyond ‘Virginia Plain‘s ‘Flavors of the mountain streamline’, past the stars in the sky (“higher than the milky way“) and ever upwards toward heights of luxury dreamed of by the many, yet experienced only by the few:

Fall on feather-bed quilted faced with silk softly stuffed eider down

‘Mother of Pearl’ transports us into the world of the glamorous and the very rich: Ferry’s obsession with the upwardly mobile – in particular the self-belief and posturing needed to move from working-class hero to jet-setting rock star – has been an essential Roxy trope, providing Ferry with some of his greatest insights: early cut ‘Beauty Queen‘ dazzles in its rags-to-riches story as Ferry recognizes in Valerie a mirror-image of his own dreams:

Swaying palms at your feet
You’re the pride of your street..
Gold number with neighbours
Who said that you’ll go far
Maybe someday be a star

Street Life‘ famously tells us to skip the road well travelled (“Pointless passing through Harvard or Yale/Only window shopping – it’s strictly no sale“) and throughout the Roxy canon those who scratch and claw their way to the top are given particular attention – like the dig at For Your Pleasure Roxy cover girl Amanda Lear in Pyjamarama “(They say you have a secret life/Made sacrifice your key to paradise“). Secrets around Lear’s past and sexual identity (see here) provide Ferry with-the-diamond-in-the-rough narrative so clearly influenced by his own working-class upbringing, the coal miner’s son, industrial Newcastle’s own pride of the street. (Sorry Sting, get your own fan blog).

Golden girls Valerie and Amanda aren’t the only rags-to-riches Roxy ladies Ferry draws attention to, the theme reaching somewhat of a peak on Stranded. The game is afoot for the female subject of ‘Psalm‘ as the narrator denounces the social climber for switching beliefs as easily as trying on a new pair of shoes: “Try on your love/Like a new dress/The fit and the cut/Your friends to impress“. Meanwhile the lover in ‘Just Like You‘ refashions herself – according to taskmaster Ferry – with all the skill and trickery of the seasoned alchemist:

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

Amazona‘ takes the quicksilver change a step-further as Ferry assumes the role of enchanter and magician, assisting his pupil in their desire to re-make and re-model:

Hey little girl is something wrong
I know it’s hard for you to get along…
But your castles in Spain
Still maybe realised

Castles in Spainis Fool’s Gold, a trap of false illusions. Yet Ferry presses on regardless, having been there himself, his rough exterior softening, the magician behind the curtain:

Little one, take my hand
I’ll try to help you there
I’ll take you there

Ferry then takes this glittering “jungle music” (his words) and bakes the themes of change and dream fulfillment directly onto the Stranded album sleeve itself: rags-to-riches cover girl Marilyn Cole was internationally famous at the time of Stranded’s release, having been named Playboy’s magazine’s January 1972 Playmate of the Month, as well as their 1972 Playmate of the Year, the only Briton to hold that title (Wiki). Her rapid rise to fame in two short years – 1971-1973 – mimics exactly Bryan Ferry‘s own whiplash climb to stardom as cultural icon, solo artist, and Roxy Music front-man. Ferry grew up in the “gritty North”: his father tended horses as a farm plow-man – and later, during the depression, tended to coal mine ponies. “We didn’t have a car or a telephone or a fridge…” notes Ferry. “We lived in a Coronation Street-type terraced house” (Wheels). Compare this with supermodel Marilyn Cole as she echoes in a separate interview the same humble beginnings, almost verbatim: I was born in a Coronation Street house,” says Cole, “Two up, two down, outside lav” (see: ‘Just Like You’: Stranded Cover Art).

Such a bright hope, right place, right time
What´s your number? Never you mind

By placing his female doppelganger on the cover, Ferry presents along with Cole both sides of the glamour paradox – the excitement and pull of the new generation glitterati – (“me and you, just we two/Got to search for something new“) – while simultaneously showing the same superstars as ship-wrecked, beached, inviting yet vulnerable, awaiting rescue. If you look closely you’ll see Cole holding a crumpled white lily at her side – the lily a symbol, for many (at weddings and funerals at least) of lost innocence, of purity in passing.

Take refuge in pleasure just give me your future we’ll forget your past

The grit in the shell creates a picture of dazzling glamorous seduction, an ideal of beauty created by mother-of-pearl, that strange substance that shimmers and shines in its fantastic unreality.

Virtually imperishable, nacre exists right on the edge of the organic and inorganic, the mortal and the deathless. It suggests that there is something life-denying, or at least life-freezing about glamour.

Simon Reynolds

You may be stranded if you stick around
And that’s really something

Street Life

Bryan Ferry invented the fictional dance The Strand for his fictional characters and his audience to dance to, and in doing so drew attention to the constructed (and repeatable) nature of trends, music, glamour, and ideas. Yet, the more the artist became adept at pearl making, the more he recognized he was becoming trapped by it. At the 3:18s mark ‘Mother of Pearl’ picks up some considerable musical heft as the whole business of star-making and image creation comes under blistering attack:

With every goddess a let down every idol a bring down
It gets you down

There is real hurt here as the disappointment of finally meeting his artistic and musical heroes gives way to reality – these are, after all, the beautiful people that were so critical to Ferry’s conception of Roxy Music in the first place – “I’ve always been star-struck, basically” Ferry told Rock Scene magazine in 1973, “Hollywood has always been Mecca” (Ferry). A meeting between Roxy Music and art superstar Salvador Dali in 1973 was a disaster – “Dali seems to have deteriorated into someone who hangs around with bands just to get publicity. His current output is quite meagre” Ferry noted testily at the time. (Roxy manager Mike Fenwick scribbled ‘Asshole’ on the forehead of a Dali photo that appeared in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine not long after).

This business of suffering false-idols is essential in ‘Mother of Pearl’ and throughout each stanza the lyric is saturated with the visual imagery of Gods, divinities and/or Olympians as the search for perfection goes “on and on” (and on):

Divine intervention always my intention so I take my time..

But now I’ve seen that something just out of reach – glowing – very Holy Grail ..

Thus: even Zarathustra another-time-loser could believe in you ..

You’re highbrow, holy with lots of soul melancholy shimmering...

You can see that “Holy grail” glowing like a cheap effect in a Monty Python movie – but the sentiment is real, as “Zarathustra” is deemed a loser and every goddess is labelled a “let down”, every idol a “bring down”. This is the reality. Ferry dreamed a dream called Roxy Music to get away from the dirty, gritty industrial North, and when the dream became reality it not only failed to satisfy but remained, like the Holy grail, stubbornly out of reach: “It gets you dowwwn” the singer intones bitterly – the vocal emphasis on “dowwwn” bearing the weight of the disappointment. (That’s three “downs” in two sentences!).

III. Epilogue (Acapella)

But that’s how it had to be; better to seek and not find than to not seek at all. Moreover: the search for the thrill of it all was also the artist’s search for his material.

Simon Puxley (Rex Balfour), The Bryan Ferry Story

Though often seen as a song in two parts (Party/Comedown) there is actually a third section in ‘Mother of Pearl’, though short, that is striking, even chilling, and provides a final answer to the question posed at the beginning of the song. (“Have you a future?”). Recognizing that his new found skill and craftsmanship (not to mention fame and celebrity) necessitated the forfeiture of a degree of “absolute enchantment”, Ferry bears witness to his own loss of innocence and writes it into the very fabric of Stranded. Those ‘flavours of the mountain streamline’ as dreamed of in ‘Virginia Plain‘ are past him now, the bright lights no longer confuse, and the gulf between what’s real and make-believe has narrowed, leaving less artistic freedom and, worse, the unmistakable dread of having reached an aesthetic conclusion. What next? Have you a future? (No/Yes).

The language of glamour (“glowing“/”shimmering“) is reduced by the end of ‘Mother of Pearl’ into language that is cold, sunken, lifeless: his “submarine lover” no longer shines beyond the stars or the milky way, but is caught in a “shrinking” “detached” world of “lonely dreams“. By the song’s conclusion, the seductive music is stripped out. The vocal is naked, the singer alone. Sensing the game is up, the narrator goes on and on anyway, for the obsession, the work, is all he has, is all he’s ever had.

Oh mother of pearl I wouldn´t trade you for another girl

Oh mother of pearl I wouldn´t trade you for another girl

Oh mother of pearl I wouldn´t trade you for another girl

Credits: The one-of-a-kind Mata Hari, exotic dancer and accused French spy decked in jewels and attitude (re-visited); Roxy Music PR shots; Bryan pin-up from an internet fan (he dances and sings); a mother-of-pearl watch design; shots from Ferry‘s Mamouna-era video Your Painted Smile (the obsession goes on and on). And finally Ferry as seen by Mick Rock; and Candy Darling as seen by Andy Warhol. This entry also owes much credit to Simon Reynolds and his brilliant book Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy.

Sophisticates are too clever to fall for the illusion any more, but secretly wish they could be fooled. What tantalizes is the remembrance of a long-gone possibility of absolute enchantment and entrancement.

But the search for perfection
Your own predilection
Goes on and on and on and on
..

Next: The brilliant Stranded coda – ‘Sunset‘. See you soon!

8 thoughts on “Mother of Pearl – Part 3

  1. ‘Again ?’ Probably one of the most important moments in my life .. even now all these years later … whenever I hear it it’s like a magic spell .

  2. I’ve always found the humour interesting.. I love all the stages of Roxy Music .. but now that I think about it there’s definitely less humour in the last three albums … however – I always found the intro to ‘In the midnight hour’ amusing – and a great beginning to an album 🙂

  3. Noel Coward meets Bob Dylan and the result is Symbolist poetry of the highest order.

  4. I love the fact Ferry never sang the “again” live because if you’ve never heard it before and would hear it live. Then you get a record and play it. The “again” will make sense.

Leave a Reply