Although Bryan Ferry established a considerable work ethic early in his career – three albums written, arranged and recorded in 1973 – The Beatles set a sizable precedent in 1965 with the Tamla Motown influenced McCartney track ‘You Won’t See Me‘: adding the song as a late contender for Rubber Soul, ‘See Me‘ was recorded during a single thirteen-hour session that saw the Beatles finish three complete tracks (‘Girl’, ‘Wait’, and ‘I’m Looking Through You’) and only requiring – by necessity – two passes at ‘You Won’t See Me’ to get it in the can. (The rush-recording did impact quality control – ‘See Me’ is unique among Beatles songs in that it changes tempo slightly but noticeably, moving from 119 to 113 bpm over the course of the track).
Like everyone else born in the 20th century, The Beatles are mecca when it comes to influence, range of style, and sheer breadth of songwriting ability. Ferry has openly acknowledged the influence the band had on his music (“the best films were American films, the best stars were American stars… and the best music was American, until The Beatles came along” – Disc), and he would go on to record a number of Beatle tracks – It’s Only Love;She’s Leaving Home; and of course John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy‘ – but the relationship for Ferry was never an easy one: as a band, The Beatles were so multi-talented that when it came to artists covering them, the plethora of vocal options presented a problem to outsiders: am I Paul; or John; or George? And am I all three during the harmonies? Joe Cocker was able to overcome this embarrassment of riches with his cover of ‘A Little Help From My Friends‘: all he had to do was appropriate Ringo’s expressive baritone. Covering Bob Dylan is an opportunity; covering Ella Fitzgerald is a challenge; covering a mid-period career-peaking tenor-sweet Paul McCartney is near on inconsolable.
Original full-length photograph // The Beatles // 'Rubber Soul' (1965)
Ferry’s version of ‘You Won’t See Me’ is unfortunately one of the least successful ready-mades on These Foolish Things. Starting with a high-in-the-mix sound effect, an engaged telephone that sounds half-hearted and confusing (certainly sounds dated, even for 1973 – when did phones ever sound like this) and not nearly as effective as Blondie’s urgent ring at the beginning for Hanging on the Telephone (I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall/If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall). Ferry’s intention for the gimmick is to have it draw attention to the first line of the song – When I call you up/your line’s engaged – but something is horribly wrong: his voice is weak and pleading, almost irritatingly timid. On first listen you take a mental note to never answer the phone while this guy’s on the line, no matter how long it rings.
Ferry tries to cut through to the heart of ‘You Won’t See Me‘ by enunciating the lyric with new emphasis – his timing is purposely out-of-sync with the original, but the effect is disjointed, providing little reward or preparation for what follows next – the complete abandonment of the song’s key motif – the climbing and repeated vocal refrain you-/won’t-/see-/-me//you-/won’t-/see-/ meetc. Ferry kills the signature motif by replacing it with piano, so we get plunk-/plunk-/plunk-/plunk. It’s like recording ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction‘ while relegating the famous signature guitar line to glockenspiel. Ferry’s attempt is in keeping with Anne Murray‘s embellishment of her version with fuzz guitar (bzzz/bzzz/bzzz/bzzz) – but at least Murray’s version is funky and in keeping with the original Tamla Motown vibe.
More comfortable with love as an ideal, what’s really missing from Ferry’s version of ‘You Won’t See Me‘ is the nasty undercurrent of the original, provided by Paul McCartney in all his Liverpudlian male-dominant glory: in the opening lines he addresses, nay, scolds the woman by telling her to “act her age” – a position that is hilariously hypocritical given that, if the song really is about his split with Jane Asher, then McCartney screwing behind Asher’s back between 1963-1968 (!) is just what the little woman was expected to put up with, Beatlemania or not. McCartney discussed the song in 1994:
As is one’s wont in relationships, you will from time to time argue or not see eye to eye on things, and a couple of the songs around this period were that kind of thing… I would write it out in a song and then I’ve got rid of the emotion. I don’t hold grudges so that gets rid of that little bit of emotional baggage…
Women and relationships are the key topic of Rubber Soul (drugs are the key topic of Revolver). The album is riddled with take-it-or-leave it ultimatums: we listen quite happily to McCartney’s I’m-done-with-you-now songs (‘You Won’t See Me‘/’I’m Looking Through You‘); we marvel at George Harrison’s I’m-done-with-you-now songs (‘If I Needed Someone‘); and we cringe at John Lennon’s I’m-done-with-you-now songs (‘Run For Your Life‘). There are of course lots of romantic bits on Rubber Soul – this is a Beatles album after all – ‘Michelle‘ and ‘Girl‘ are lovely (She’s the kind of girl/You want so much, it makes you sorry) – but the overall feeling is, Jesus Christ woman, if you can’t handle me being a Beatle, then oan yer bike eh!
Perhaps this is why Ferry presents such a timid reading of the track: although capable of being a surly Northern male himself (I hope something special will step into my life/Another fine edition of you), Ferry rarely sticks the boot in in his songs; his MO is wit and repartee, while The Beatles are quite happy to say I’d rather see you dead, little girl/Than to be with another man. The churlishness of some of the lyrics on Rubber Soul are rightly forgotten in the rush to enjoy the brilliant sunny optimism of the music.
Overall then, Ferry falls pretty flat on this Beatles track, a misstep he would easily recover from with his later versions of ‘It’s Only Love‘ (1976) and ‘Jealous Guy‘ (1980). Indeed, the Let’s Stick Together cover of ‘It’s Only Love’ soars in comparison to ‘You Won’t See Me’, full of confidence and deft keyboard touches, warm to the touch for those open to the invitation. Even a majestic and inventive guitar solo from Roxy Music guest Phil Manzanera at 1:18-1:46 cannot muster the heavy-lifting required to save ‘See Me’. We might consider perhaps that Ferry felt more in the skin of the looser interpretive strengths of John Lennon than the precision beast that was Paul McCartney in full flight – the tenor vocal and backing harmonies alone making this minor Beatles track fly higher above its station than it perhaps deserves.
One of the more over-looked aspects of Bryan Ferry‘s public personae is his dedication, love and respect for the pop music canon – These Foolish Things (1973) not only established a solo career for Bryan Ferry outside of Roxy Music, but his first solo album also invited the listener deep under the skin of its author: if Roxy Music was the creative definition and projection of a perfect (desired) life, then Ferry’s personal and public dedication to popular music was an honest attempt to strip his image of its over-heated rhetoric and celebrate the very DNA of the culture and the social background that had defined him.
For those of us whose formative years were built upon late nights (10pm-midnight) listening the John Peel show, the music of 1977-1979 never dies – listen to that match strike cigarette flame as the first bars of ‘Dance Away‘ are broadcast to the world for the first time, or digest the thunderous bass line to John Lydon‘s post-Pistols classic ‘Public Image‘ and come to understand that, even as a teenager, the only certainty in life is change – and you get the same sense of wonderment, one might expect, that Bryan Ferry felt the first time he heard Charlie Parker, or sang Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. And so, as the next Roxy Music masterpiece took shape amid a background of tension and high expectation (Ferry recorded Foolish Things and Roxy’s Stranded back-to-back) we come to recognize there could be no ‘Mother of Pearl’ without Dylan; without Ketty Lester or Elvis; without The Miracles ‘The Tracks of My Tears’. How could this be so? Let us count the ways..
Central Arcade // Entrance to J. G. Windows Music Shop // Newcastle
I started being a music fan at the age of ten or eleven, and I bought my first record at Windows.
There is something that is both peculiar and captivating about the land and environment that Bryan Ferry grew up in. Like many of us raised in the North, headlines such as “Roman silver found in Fife by teenager” didn’t seem uncommon. To muck around the desolate hills of say, Fife Scotland (as I did), or the plush greens of Herrington Country Park, Newcastle upon Tyne (as Bryan Ferry did), meant that you were occupying – or more likely, abusing – the playgrounds of history. Dads were by-and-large coal-miners and builders, hard-drinkers many of them, living in dreary surroundings against a back-drop of endless history – wars, fallen castles, broken monuments. According to Fife City Council, my own tribe lived in the esteemed “Kingdom Of Fife”. Or just “The Kingdom”. (Even our local shopping mall was “The Kingdom Center” – as far removed from the Promised Land in 1974 as one could imagine). Ferry’s tribe lived in Newcastle upon Tyne, with its 2,000 year history of invaders, Romans, Angles, and Norsemen. The town was one of the earliest industrial centers in Northeast England due to the availability of coal and the possibilities of easy export offered by close proximity to the River Tyne. Coal grime, then, was under your fingernails, in the blood. And it was history – the past – that whispered its secrets, wrapped in tales of beauty and magnificence:
Over the hills and down the valleys Soaring aloft and far below Lying on stony ground the fragments
Truth is the seed we try to sow ‘Strictly Confidential‘
One of the those unavoidable truths in Ferry’s playground was the massive and dominating Penshaw Monument, the impact of which was explained in Michael Bracewell’s essential Roxy biography, “Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music“: “In the late 40s and early 1950s, looking back up, was Bryan Ferry, then a boy…entranced…”
Strand Power // The Penshaw Monument 1844 // North East England
When my parents were first married they lived in a farmhouse; and there was a hill nearby called Penshaw Hill. On top of the Hill was a local landmark – a Greek monument built for the Earl of Durham. This is where my father was brought up and his family had farmed on the sides of the hill. When I showed this place to Antony Price he said, ‘Now I know why you’re so interested in the visual things: it’s because of that monument.‘
For Ferry, living under this slab of neo-Greek classical architecture represented a “symbol” for art and “another life away from the coalfields and the hard north-eastern environment; it seemed to represent something from another civilization, that was much finer.“ (ibid). This then is the beginning of the definition and creation a “state of mind” that would eventually take shape in the art project Roxy Music. By several accounts (Bracewell/ Buckley/Stump), Ferry was a man at odds with his surroundings – sensitive, out of place – yet possessing a deep understanding and respect for his working-class roots: “My father used to win prizes for his ploughing, but during the Depression the farm failed and he had to work underground, tending pit ponies. He courted my mother for ten years before they got married. It brings a tear to my eye every time I think about it”. Once comparing himself to “an orchid born on a coal-tip” Ferry recognized he had a depth of feeling: “it was a case of where to channel it” (ibid).
Imagine then the wonder to a kid of a local High Street music shop, standing as strong and as iconic as the classical monuments that first informed his childhood. Better yet, imagine that record store being housed within an architectural gem – The Central Arcade, Newcastle, a temple built in the heart of industrial Newcastle.
Exclusive Doors // Central Arcade Architecture // 1906
“It’s always sad when I go back to Newcastle and see that certain places don’t exist any more,” Ferry told Michael Bracewell in 2007:
But it’s great that one shop – which was very important for me … – is still there, in an wonderful old arcade, with extravagant tiled floors, rather like the Bond Street arcades. It’s a shop called Windows, which is a family music shop and the only place you really go to buy records. I started being a music fan at the age of ten or eleven, and I bought my first record at Windows.
J.G. Windows record shop is built within the spectacular and durable Central Arcade in Newcastle, the elegant Edwardian shopping arcade built in 1906. An incredible entrance to an incredible and stylish world, shut far off from Northern hardships and reality, the Arcade was designed to house a commercial exchange and newsroom. The book Newcastle Through Time (John and Joyce Carlson) identifies the design of the Arcade as being inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Italy. Temples, Monuments, cobblestone streets holding up the polish of the new, and at the end of the long corridor a gentle invitation of warm light: the record store! Dramatic, certainly. Longlasting, definately. A modern church containing sacred artifacts of music, history, and endless escape.
J.G. Windows is 110 years old and it was Ferry’s high street go-to music shop. “Some of the first records I bought were jazz records” Ferry noted in 2013. Note then the reverence in which Ferry describes seeing a jazz trumpet in the Windows display as a boy:
The windows are full of clarinets, saxophones, electric guitars – a proper music shop, which sold everything. But to just see a trumpet in the window – a real instrument, to look at it and study it!
The fascination and wonder can be heard in the voice over half-a-century later. A real instrument, to look at – to study! There can be no better place to understand the considerable legacy of Roxy Music as conceived by Ferry in these moments: the ‘ideal of beauty’ that was found among the trumpets and the clarinets, the perfect timbre of a perfect visual: Roxy (cinema) Music (sound).
III. The Archivist
An archivist is a collector and, yes, a fetishist, to be sure – remember the creepy lessons we learned in Silence of the Lambs– but an archivist is also a custodian, a caretaker, a steward and keeper of the flame. Speaking to Melody Maker writer and supporter Richard Williams in 1973, Ferry acknowledged “The trouble with doing something like ‘The Tracks of My Tears‘ is that the original was so brilliant it’s hard to touch it.” (Williams). And so it remained. “Ferry’s voice was perfect for his own songs,” David Buckley offers in his biography of Ferry: “where he could shape the contours of the music to suit his undulating and highly distinctive delivery, but when pitted against some of the technically finest singers in pop history, his interpretations were destined to come off second-best.”
This is a fair statement but somehow misses the point, for it feels now, with the benefit of time, that Ferry wasn’t trying to go head-to-head with Smokey Robinson or Brian Wilson, or even Janis Joplin, but was wanting to collect and possess – even own – his favorite records as perfect artifacts, to get inside them, to understand what made them tick, to unravel the mother-of-pearl coating in order to reveal the oyster within. This is the beginning of ‘Stranded‘. This is the beginning of the theme of the art of obsession, of trying to possess the unobtainable. The nose is pressed against the window; the siren’s sound has done its work: these foolish things await their call.
Q: Is your constant pursuit of the beautiful an attempt to escape the everyday and mundane?
Yes. It’s a search for a better world, really.
Chris Robertsinterviewing Bryan Ferry, thirty-seven years after the release of These Foolish Things.
My favorite music archivist, speaker, singer, poet and music enthusiast is Henry Rollins: a beautiful heart and mind in the body of a modern warrior. As Morrissey said, it takes strength to be truthful and kind. Between radio shows, tours and books, Rollins is also a collector. He has just released a fascinating new book “Stay Fanatic Vol 1“, a 330 page fanzine. “If you like music,” says Henry, “going to record stores, to shows, if music is one of those things that is and has always been one of the best friends you’ve ever had, you might like this book.”
Music has always been the one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and was always there when perhaps others couldn’t be. So too for Bryan Ferry: it’s the whole point of These Foolish Things. Perhaps it’s the whole point of his career. So too for Henry Rollins; for John Peel; and for a lad wandering the city alone, trying to find The Kingdom.
Next: Ferry tackles the greatest: The Beatles. December 2019!
When Mick Jagger wrote ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ he was thinking Baudelaire. When Bryan Ferry recorded the song for his covers album These Foolish Things he was thinking amusement value. That both scenarios were possible is a testament to the Stones achievement in the song. In truth, the only snag with ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is the weight of its considerable fame: a staple of Classic Rock Radio for over forty years, it is hard to hear the track with fresh ears. Yet Ferry rises to the challenge, stripping the track of its back-story and witchy melodrama, choosing instead to deliver ‘Sympathy’ as a straight musical dance number. In later years Jagger would pay the Roxy front-man the ultimate compliment by adopting this version of the song to fill stadiums (and bank balances) across the world.
The ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that presented itself for selection on These Foolish Things was a very different proposition in 1973 that it is today, all smoothed out and easily digestible for world-tours and star-studded guests Madonna and Bill Clinton et al. ‘Sympathy’ was born in a transitional phase for the Stones, coming as it did on the coat-tails of a band keen to present itself as the anti-Beatles (“every story needs good guys and bad guys”). Early Stones (’62-’65) were a power-house of Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon covers, with a propulsive rhythm section and a intense (albeit 20 minute) live show. Caught up in the hysteria of Beatlemania, Jagger & Co gradually learned to write their own songs and hit mecca with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction‘ – a monumental achievement both in guitar innovation – the fuzzbox riff igniting a stampede of teenage boy garage bands (Iggy and the Stooges taking note) – and a lyric that took the restlessness of Eddie Cochran‘s ‘Summertime Blues‘ and placed it squarely into the consumer age, summing up teenage disengagement as succinctly as ever been captured:
When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me How white my shirts can be But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke The same cigarettes as me
It’s interesting that Bryan Ferry didn’t select a similar mid-60s Stones track given that his early R ‘n’ B covers band The Gas Board would have been active during this period of the Stones career, watching from afar as the Jagger/Richards partnership gained steam with a series of incredible hits – ’19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Paint It, Black’, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow’ – all plugged in, socially relevant, and tuneful as hell (just spend an hour with Hot Rocks and you’ll see what we mean). But what came next both propelled the band to greater musical heights, and also changed them irrevocably into the parody band we know today.
The first time I ever heard the song was when Mick was playing it at the front door of a house I lived in Sussex. It was at dinner; he played it entirely on his own, the sun was going down and it was fantastic.
I. Just Call Me Lucifer First the drug busts: using London as their personal pharmacy (“When we got busted at Redlands, it suddenly made us realise that this was a whole different ball game and that was when the fun stopped”) Jagger and Richards escaped jail time on account of fan and (surprisingly) newspaper protests (see: Times Editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?‘). Released from jail, Jagger and Richards wore the win like a badge of honour – they had beaten the establishment in a very public battle, and now the “doors were off their hinges” – they were free to do as they pleased. Now the band were in the ascendant, living privileged, decadent (not necessarily wealthy), lives, not yet fully self-aware, or ironic, but keen to cultivate (and capitalize) on the image of darkness rising. All they had to do was re-connect with their audience and come to grips with the turbulence of the times in which they lived and represented. In this regard ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ came out of an angry place: “The violence was all pervasive. And you can’t help but live in it and reflect it back again. And then, of course, it goes into a feedback loop” (Jagger, Crossfire Hurricane).
That feedback loop presented the audience with an image of escalating paranoia and fear: in ‘Gimme Shelter‘ the key line is “rape, murder/it’s just a shot away” (sung by pregnant soul singer Merry Clayton at 3am in the morning – shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage). In ‘Midnight Rambler‘ Jagger turns from victim to killer by assuming the identity of the Boston Strangler: Did you see me jump the garden wall/I don’t give you a hoot of warning/A-dressed up in my black cat cloak – a narrative-point-of-view Ferry would pinch for his own highly paranoid and murderous ‘The Bogus Man’. And the albums of this period are soaked with gloom and decadence – Let it Bleed, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Through the Past, Darkly– and the point-of-view is unremittingly dark and violent. And so out of this mise en scène comes one of rock’s first Grand postmodern statements (Bowie and Ferry were taking notes): Jagger pens ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by himself (“I was just trying to figure out if it was a Samba or a goddam folk song”), and convincingly collapses the authorial gap between ‘rock star’ and ‘Devil’ (and future solo star and celebrity). Pleased to meet you, he winks, Hope you guess my name.
It’s a smart move and it works: by playing into one of America’s great music myths – Robert Johnson making a Faustian deal with the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for a life of wealth and taste – Jagger creates his public persona: the wicked and contemptible Peter Pan, the transcendent outsider. The singer invites his audience to the Beggar’s Banquet and dramatizes his transformation into Lucifer at a live taping of the Rock N Roll Circus on 11 December 1968, dramatically peeling off his shirt in full view of an audience fascinated by the red (fake) tattoo on his chest, the Devil born, coiled and writhing on the stage like a character from Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (‘When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin‘). Looking red-eyed and demented himself (too many drugs, a 5am taping time), Jagger’s intensity is convincing, earning him a rare compliment by West Coast concert promoter Bill Graham: “I hate him, but that “c*nt is a great entertainer!”
II. Blood on the Ground When Bryan Ferry first heard ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in 1968 the Stones were broke, and had not toured the US for three years. Cash poor and unable to get their hands on record income – manager Allen Klein held onto their money while the band investigated him for mismanagement – the only way to keep afloat was to tour. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was rolled out live during the famous Rolling Stones American Tour 1969 (“rock and roll legend” as they say in the biz – or at least Dave Marsh did). The tour started out with inadequate lighting, poor sound, and unprecedented high ticket prices – and ended up defining a new financial model for the industry. With ‘Sympathy’ recently recorded and filmed (see: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil: a piece of new wave cinema capturing the band creating and recording the song), both ‘Sympathy’ and Jagger’s refined public persona was rolled out during the 75 minute live show, which often went past midnight, and kept the crowd waiting for over three hours or more. Keith Richards told Rolling Stone: “Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time. But after ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil’… There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer, and others who think we are Lucifer.” The reviews for the tour and the audience response were ecstatic, and when given the benefit of hindsight, even slightly hysterical.
That the tour ended with resounding grimness at the Altamont Speedway concert has been well documented (particularly in the excellent Joel Selvin book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day). Chasing the Woodstock vibe that had unfolded only four months previous – a vibe the Stones missed entirely – the band came under increasing criticism for high ticket prices during the ’69 tour (“How much can the Stones take back to Merrie England after taxes, anyway?” asked journalist Ralph Gleason). The Stones were forced to make an extravagant gesture: a free San Francisco concert on the final day of the tour. Oh, what hideousness ensued: we can safely say that if ever there’s been a vision of hell on Earth, it materialized on the cold rocky grounds of the decrepit Altamont Speedway on December December 6th, 1969.
Altamont Speedway was run down and mostly neglected, an end-of-life race track littered with derelict cars and old tires strewn across its barren landscape, a place that, at its peak, had never hosted more than a few thousand racing fans. Having blown their chance to host a local free concert in San Francisco the Rolling Stones mishandled negotiations for a free gig in Golden State park because they insisted that their representatives negotiate directly with city officials, who quickly rejected their request. A second option – the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County – was a well-established venue used to hosting large events and would have been ideal for the free concert. However, when Sonoma management asked for a share of the profits from the filmed documentary of the event (eventually titled Gimme Shelter), the Stones refused to pay. With only two days to go before the gig, the owner of the infrequently used Altamont Speedway offered the land for free, thinking that it would be good publicity for the venue (it generated publicity alright, but not the kind intended).
When the 300,000 fans started arriving at Altamont they discovered no basic amenities: no toilets, no facilities, and no way to purchase food, water, or any other essentials. It was early winter – Dec 6th – and getting cold (dropping below zero at night) and the landscape was harsh and barren and not in the least bit festive. There was no real stage to speak of – a ground-level wood platform had been hastily constructed, with only a line of strung rope acting as a barrier between fans and artists. To make matters worse, the local Hells Angels had been hired to maintain order but were (unwisely) paid in alcohol. The Angels were also selling vast quantities of LSD that had been laced with speed and various poisons, and it was being passed around to people in orange-juice containers – after eighteen hours of waiting, strangers shared the juice and drank freely, unknowingly passing on a very bad collective LSD and speed trip – half the crew filming Gimme Shelter were unwillingly drugged, some hiding behind their cameras terrified for their safety. Stepping out of his arrival helicopter, Mick Jagger was punched in the face by one drug taker. Another person tripping dove into the local aqueduct and was immediately ground up into tiny bits. (Two more people were killed at Altamont when a car drove into the crowd after the gig. The culprit was never caught). Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was punched in the face when he demanded that the violence stop. During the CSNY set, another Angel methodically carved Stephen Stills leg with a switch-blade until the blood trickled freely down his leg. Stills kept playing – wisely deciding to keep the set short.
The violence continued during the Stones set. ‘I pray that it’s alright‘ Jagger repeated over and over again, mouthing the lyrics to ‘Under My Thumb‘ while taking in the mayhem that was going on around him: a wolf-dog sauntering by, center-stage; an Angel staring up into the black heavens, his mind melting under the hideous acid concoction. A few moments later an 18-year-old African American pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by an Angel, his body kicked and pummeled, a trash can smashed on his head as a parting gesture. Rolling Stone magazine reported that it was the infamous and cursed ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that was being played as Meredith Hunter bled to death from his knife wounds on that cold stony ground. They were wrong (it was ‘Under My Thumb’), but what did it matter now anyway.
We were scared. It was scary. These people were crazy. And they were standing next to you and we didn’t know how to control it, stop it – it was completely out of our control. It was a nightmare.
III. The Groove is Very Good This then is the song that Bryan Ferry decided to cover to open the second side of his “lighthearted” covers album, These Foolish Things. The mood around the Rolling Stones in 1973 – a few short years after the Altamont debacle – remained dark, almost certainly decadent and detached. The Stones were searching, trying to find the shape-shifting form they could assume in order to continue to make a living – Goat’s Head Soup had just been released in ’73, but it was treading ground. Bryan Ferry, on the other hand, was a new breed of artist – These Foolish Things was an attempt to reduce and re-produce pop music in purely post-modern terms: as product. In Ferry’s view, Dylan‘s ‘Hard Rain’ could be interpreted as a hard glam masterpiece; ‘River of Salt‘ could be sung free of ironic intent, open and bare. Keep the critics engaged was the game plan, and keep the fans happy by giving them a quality experience. The Rolling Stones quickly came to understand the power of product, and it was Bryan Ferry that showed the way, and he did so with the toughest and most feared cut in the Stones catalog: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
If the 70s narrative is frequently portrayed as one of conflict between rigid and exclusive clans, whether political, social or aesthetical, then Roxy’s manicured mastermind asserts his position as that era’s glamorous go-between, a one-man movement of revisionism and unprejudiced appreciation for the entire pop panoply.
It was bold for Ferry to select ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to open the second side of These Foolish Things. Not only was the Stones song a non-negotiable rock n’ roll epic – with dobs of violence to stoke the legend – but it was also Mick Jagger’s signature track: how do you sing Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste without thinking about the man and personae behind the song (Jagger, man & myth?). When DavidBowie covered ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together‘ on Aladdin Sane (issued only a few short months earlier in April 13, 1973), his version merely propped up the Stones myth and replaced it with his own (Bowie’s cover is a bump-and-grind-affair presented against a backdrop of cocaine-addled sex and impending physical violence). Part of the appeal of These Foolish Things (today and yesterday) was its humble intentions, its desire to entertain. It was neither naive in its approach, nor overly calculating in its delivery: but it was calculated by design, and in deciding to shed ‘Sympathy’ of its voodoo, Ferry lifts the song from its sordid associations and brings it back into the realm of the purely musical. In addition, Ferry provides a structural framework by opening the second side of the These Foolish Things in the same way he opened it – with a mythological epic.
The cover of Bob Dylan’sA Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall opens Foolish Things in spectacular fashion, as Ferry invents a new way of expressing Dylan’s poetry, producing a glam version of a mind traveling through human history, climbing across those twelve misty mountains and graveyards, the lyric unflinching in its honesty and poetic light (I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children). It’s a form we recognize from ‘Do the Strand‘ – observing across human history (The sphynx and Mona Lisa/Lolita and Guernica/Did the Strand) – and so it is with ‘Sympathy for the Devil‘: interviews show that Jagger wished to write an epic in the form of a Dylan song, his ambition likewise molded by the French symbolists and poets (Rimbaud, Mallarme, Baudelaire): “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s…It was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” (Jagger). Rampaging across time, the poet-mind shape-shifts as Lucifer observes and comments on human history – the trial and death of Jesus Christ (Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate); the violence of the Russian Revolution (I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change); World War II (I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank).
Compare this to Dylan‘s “I met a young woman whose body was burning” and we begin to see Ferry’s game plan: opening each side of the original record with somber observations on the nature of history, murder, and human frailty provides context for what follows – pop music as just another “foolish thing“, a few wasted moments of escapism that help us move through time, adding to our collective, though limited, mortal experience. It’s a great set-up and does not intrude on the enjoyment of the album, as we make our way through stories of love won and lost, car races, Elvis and Beach Boys, and rivers of tears.
Draft track list, These Foolish Things.
Cutting through the stale dope-smoke fug of the hippie hangover, Roxy were the first true band of the 70s. But they also prophesied the 80s, their celebration of posing and artifice anticipating postmodernism, the new romantics, the Face, pop video and self-reinventing superstars like Madonna.
Popular music got ahead of itself in the late 60s, burning out on endless Cream solos, Altamont, and the paranoia brought on by the Manson murders (name-checking Manson is always risky, but investigate the 60s music industry & Beach Boys Dennis Wilson relationship with the homicidal and delusional Manson, Tex Watson, etc). If you want to get a sense of how drab and depressing the early 70s were, watch the Beatles at work on Let it Beand feel the cold seep into your bones. Our heroes – Bowie,Bryan and Brian – saw the 70s in a much different way, of course, cutting through the “fug of the hippie hangover” to produce in Europe what was known as Glam rock – or, as John Lennon accurately called it, “rock n’ roll with lipstick” (Lennon). Ferry was keen on stripping his tunes to their basic universal musical message, to produce, as music critic Ian MacDonald observed, “as a light-hearted and positive an album as you could expect from anyone in these turbulent times” (MacDonald). For Ferry, the groove and the lyric were the thing:
I recorded a version of Sympathy For The Devil on my first solo album, These Foolish Things, in 1973. I always try to pick songs with lyrics that interest me, and those might be Mick’s best. Sympathy is a really outstanding song, it’s lyrically surprising and it gets going and grooves along. The percussion is great on the Stones version, that was what really stood out to me first. Jimmy Miller produced it and he always liked lots of maracas and tambourines going. I added women’s voices singing the “hooh hoohs”, whereas they just did it themselves, but it’s very effective like that. We had horns and lots of things going on, quite a big band, fun times.
Musically, the original ‘Sympathy’ really hits the money. The steady Brazilian beat, the slow build, the guitar solo: quite possibly my favorite solo ever: crisp, contained, an inspired clarity of attack and creativity on display. It’s a really savage 17 measures, and much credit here must go to Keith Richards’ innate musicality and taste, compounded by his thrilling and expressive bass run that chases down the track and does not let go. Wisely, Bryan Ferry does not take on the weight of the original recording, but chooses to expand and modernize it, re-purposing the song as a Glam teen anthem, a ‘Hard Rain‘ to open the second side of the LP.
Ferry’s cover wears its glam heart on its sleeve – over-baked and over-the-top, a synthesizer fart in the opening bars introduces the modern touch, while a series of carefully-separated drums bully to get on the soundscape at 0-10s. The first power chord arrives at .11s, announcing this is glam – obtrusive, over-fed, self-aware. Throwing out the trade-mark congas, maracas, piano and bass, Ferry’s ploy is to fill as much space as he can right off the mark, leaving behind the slow-build of Jagger’s original as a mere 60’s footnote. Ferry’s arrangement skills are particularly sharp here as he brings forward the “woo-woos” to the beginning of the song at .20s, nailing down the vocal trademark early in the track to ensure brand recognition for a vocal line that does not show up in the original until around the two minute mark.
Anticipating his audience’s lack of patience, Ferry throws in a surprising manipulated vocal at .28s – a technique Iggy Pop would deploy later in the late 70s (see: New Values @ 1.56). In spite of the Darth Vader sound effects, Ferry carefully enunciates each word, respectful of the original, yet the effect is schizophrenic, verging on the comic. [Question – sternly]: I shouted out who killed the Kennedy’s? [Answer – with conviction]: well after all,it was you and me (3.20). The heavily processed vocal has trouble cutting through the noise, and the changes in tone and emphasis demands too much of the listener: you’re either surfing on top of the imagery or you’re inside it, and we’ve already seen what being inside ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ entails..
Nevertheless, Ferry cackles convincingly throughout the song at 3.00 & 4.00, though sometimes treading a little too close to ‘Grimly Fiendish’ territory. Whether the bombastic approach is ultimately successful probably depends on what kind of mood you’re in: do you prefer the blow-dried and perfumed ‘Sympathy’ as seen in the live Stones movie Shine a Light (come on kids – “woo-woo!”), or do you hanker for some authentic French New Wave burn-down-the-studio mise-en-scene, as Jean-Luc Goddard delivers the goods in Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One). Either way, Ferry’s guitar and keyboard overload does not discriminate, nor will it allow lazy criticism. And this in its own quiet way is revolutionary – as Ferry commented at the time of the album’s release: “I hope the general point will be understood. Its amusement value, I think“ (Viva).
This would have been music to Mick Jagger’s ears: wanting to leave behind the Satanism and diabolique, opting instead for safety (for his band and for his audience), the boy from Dartford could see an opportunity to re-invent himself again, and take on a fresh move towards something “not so dangerous”:
The [new] feeling was you were having a good time. It was more kind of fun. But, it was more colorful and produced and it wasn’t supposed to be taken totally seriously.
Jagger, commenting on the Steel Wheels tour, ’89/90.
The Manson clan gets a hearing from the unwittingly sympathetic media; The Stones, mid-60s hit-makers; Book cover, The Sixties: The decade remembered now, by the people who lived it then (a Rolling Stone publication), 1977; KafkaDie Verwandlung; Altamont pics; Rolling Stone magazine ground-breaking article on the after-math of the Speedway concert; Ferry in the studio, These Foolish Things; Ferry solo ‘Hard Rain’ Top of the Pops, and interview 1973; Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour inflatable.
Released May 11, 1964 as the ‘B’ side of ‘I Get Around’, the Beach Boys minor classic ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was an unabashed homage to Phil Spector‘s ‘Be My Baby‘ by the Ronettes. Coming off the back of a series of teenage angst songs (Don’t Ever Change/Baby I Don’t Care/It’s My Party) Ferry recalibrates These Foolish Things by re-writing some of the lyrics for ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘ and wisely rejecting the drag-car teen drama in favor of an expression of love that is more in tune with Brian Wilson‘s music than the original lyric ever was.
It’s easy to see why Bryan Ferry would include a Beach Boys song on his first solo album, as both band and subject matter personified for the singer an ideal American Dream of the 60s, brimming with potential and pleasure in equal measure. “At least 50 per cent of the things that influenced me were American,” Ferry explained to Disc magazine: “The best films were American films, the best stars were American stars… and the best music was American, until The Beatles came along.” At this stage of These Foolish Things – 7 songs in – the source of the music belongs to America and the great hit-making factory of The Brill Building in New York, with the subject matter veering towards the lovelorn and the heart-broken – ‘River of Salt‘ and ‘Piece of My Heart’ both originally sung and made famous by female singers (Ketty Lester and Janis Joplin, respectively) and presented by Ferry in a straight-forward fashion (if a man singing a song as a woman in a quivering European accent can be seen as straight-forward). Nevertheless, at this juncture of These Foolish Things Ferry avoids the American vistas of ‘Virginia Plain’ with its images of classic Hollywood, Route 66 and James Dean, and steers instead towards the universal – love lost, feelings squashed, narratives spun. That is until we get to The Beach Boys ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – a song that strives to re-state and confirm the American Dream, with its hyperbolic ode to California, Chevy Impalas, ice-cream floats, and illegal hot rod racing.
‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was co-written by early Brian Wilson‘s collaborator/lyricist Roger Christian. Wilson, the gifted yet troubled singer-songwriter and co-founder of the Beach Boys (and composer/arranger of one of the best pop songs of all time – ‘Good Vibrations’ – even Paul McCartney was in awe of that one), was obsessed with Phil Spector and the sound Spector created with The Crystals (‘Da Doo Ron Ron‘) and The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), in particular ‘Be My Baby’ – the song of which ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is an attempt to emulate and eulogize.
Salon magazine paints a pretty good picture of Wilson’s obsession with Spector, with Wilson eagerly awaiting the opportunity to provide Spector with a self-penned song (‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister‘): Spector invited Wilson to play keyboards on the backing track, whereby Wilson was cut off after only a few bars, and was told by Spector that his playing was not good enough and he should be on his way. Weeks later Spector sent the head Beach Boy an official American Federation of Musicians paycheck for the few seconds Wilson performed on the track. Ouch. (The Beach Boys eventually recorded ‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister’ – it’s a decent song, embodied with the Spector sound). This act of disdain did little to dissuade Wilson that Spector was mecca, and with typical obsessiveness – see the Roxy entry Strictly Confidential for an overview of Wilson’s mental health struggles – Wilson records his thoughts on his home tape-recorder (“Hour after hour of stoned ramblings on the meaning of life, color vibrations, fate, death, vegetarianism and Phil Spector…” according to Beach Boys biographer David Dalton). Wilson keeps copies of Spector’s ‘Be My Baby‘ everywhere inside his home, in his car, in his studio: “Brian locked in the bedroom of his Bel Air house in the early ’70s, alone, curtains drawn shut, catatonic, listening to ‘Be My Baby’ over and over at aggressive volumes, for hours” (Dalton). The result of this extremism is the birth of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – a song that conclusively beats Spector at his own game.
Bryan Ferry’s first album of covers (or “readymades” as he prefers to call them), These Foolish Things is not known for its radical re-interpretation of classic songs (barring the breath-taking opening cut A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall). What is radical about his arrangement of ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘ is his decision to re-write some of the lyrics. While keeping the song-writing credit intact (Wilson/Christian), Ferry tackles and removes the song’s greatest flaw: the tediousness of its original Girls & Hot Rods storyline. Writing in 1964, with The Beatles already penning ‘And I Love Her‘ and ‘A Hard Days Night‘ (and hurtling at astonishing speed towards ‘Eleanor Rigby‘), ‘Don’t Worry’ is sung from the point of view of a teenager who agrees to a street race after bragging about his car. At root then ‘Don’t Worry’ is a reiteration of the classic cars and Beach Boys idea – getting a bit old in the tooth by ’64 – but Brian Wilson’s wonderful music for ‘Don’t Worry’ works against the constraints of its lyrical narrative, taking the track beyond previous Wilson/Christian car-obsessed curios like ‘Little Deuce Coupe‘, ‘Ballad of Ole’ Betsy‘, ‘Car Crazy Cutie‘, and ‘Cherry, Cherry Coupe‘. Although a car-lover himself, Ferry successfully clocked the lyrical deficiencies of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ before taking the decision to re-write the lyric and change the emotional sentiment and point-of-view of the original.
The primary lyricist of the original ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was Roger Christian, a member of the California Hot Rod & Surfin’ Set and a prominent Los Angeles DJ during the 50s. In addition to his day job, Christian was a car-and-surf song composer, and ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is a standard template of the genre:
I guess I should’ve kept my mouth shut When I started to brag about my car But I can’t back down now Because I pushed the other guys too far
No threat to Shakespeare, but well within the frame of reference for the writer of ‘Car Crazy Cutie‘ and ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘:
Well its been building up inside of me For, oh, I don’t know how long I don’t know why But I keep thinking Something’s bound to go wrong But she looks in my eyes And makes me realize And she says don’t worry baby
Rhyming looks in my eyes with makes me realize does not qualify Mr. Christian for any literary prizes, but interestingly, Bryan Ferry keeps this line and the entire first verse intact – a hint that Ferry’s concerns in re-writing the lyric was not poetic fussiness but a desire to secure the emotional and gender-sensitive tone of Brian Wilson’s original music without the clutter of Roger Christian’s hot girls/hot cars balladry. Here’s a comparison of Christian‘s and Ferry‘s lyric for ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ (Ferry’s changes in blue):
In Ferry’s version the car race is removed entirely, and the song is turned into a mediation on what the woman’s love means to him. The change is effective as it allows Ferry to write a romantic poem (“Each morning I awake to find…”) and find a tenderness (“there’s magic in her eyes“) that was never in the original, which suffered such banalities as “she makes me come alive/and makes me wanna drive”. The song shifts out of writer Roger Christian teen-male zeitgeist and expands into a mature song that shows the male narrator discovering – or at least responsive to – his inner feelings, fulfilling the musical vision that Brian Wilson intended for the song, with those gorgeous trademark Beach Boys harmonies and group interplay.
And so side one of These Foolish Things comes to a close after providing an entertaining mix of radical re-interpretation (Hard Rain), expressions of heart-break beautifully rendered (River of Salt), and a re-working of a Beach Boys classic that provides a lyric worthy of a Brian Wilson original. The effect is captivating and moves beyond Ferry’s original intent of the album, which he hesitatingly stated was “for amusement value. I think”:
It’s a very catholic selection, I’ve given up trying to please all of the people all of the time. Some will like it for one reason, some for another…I hope the general point of it will be understood.
Credits: James Dean memorial junction – some interesting reading out there, I was surprised to learn that a car pulled in front of Dean resulting in the crash (Dean’s speed obviously a factor – he was training for a car race); Beach Boys promos; Phil Spector walks past his competitor Brian Wilson (again); Bryan Ferry recording these Foolish Things, June 1973; Bryan Ferry Foolish promo.
Next: Foolish Things takes a darker turn with ‘Sympathy For the Devil‘ – woo-woo!
It’s My PartyBryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973) It’s My Party Lesley Gore (original, written by Gold, Gluck, Weiner, Gottlieb, 1963)
Arguably, Bryan Ferry’s purpose in including Lesley Gore’s ‘It’s My Party‘ in his collection of song favorites My Foolish Things, was an opportunity to go full camp and stir up his record buying, Roxy-worshiping public. In this goal Ferry succeeded in spades: “For weeks I’d been hearing how bad this album was from people whose judgment is usually reliable” noted one negative review at the time of the album’s release (Shaw). “A curious production” observed another (MacDonald). Even Ferry admitted he was “freaked out by all the bad reviews” (“beside the fact that I’m really sensitive to criticism anyway” he added, without irony). And while Bryan would enjoy swift vindication – “Then I read the first week’s sales figures and that alleviated the situation!” – there is little doubt that hearing the greatest mind of a generation count-in the story of a jilted teen romance is a little unnerving.
Going back a bit, the original ‘It’s My Party’ was a hit single for amateur teen singer Lesley Gore, reaching No. 1 for two weeks on June 1, 1963 (Billboard). The story of the song’s creation is one of those oddities when chance seems determined to set a path irrespective of logic or intervention. According to Tim’s Cover Story, New Yorker Steve Gottlieb, a restaurant owner-operator with a penchant for amateur lyric writing, was planning a party for his teenage daughter when he insisted her grandparents be invited to the celebration. With typical teenage overkill his daughter Judy burst into tears, and when asked to stop, blurted “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!” from which Gottlieb crafted a lyric of teenage innocence lost. Even though Gottlieb had a full-time job with his Manhattan restaurant, he wrote obsessively (“My dad’s real love was songwriting,” recalled Judy, years later. “He wrote on napkins, he wrote on cakeboxes, he wrote on everything he could find”). Gottlieb gave his lyric to his songwriting partner Herb Wiener – whom he had met at the famous songwriting Tin Pan Alley Brill Building in Manhattan – and promptly forgot about it. The next time Gottlieb heard the lyric was on the radio: he didn’t know Wiener had passed on the lyrics to a composer who had scored and recorded ‘Party’ with the Lesley Gore and novice producer Quincy Jones (‘Party’ is likely Quincy Jones’ first production job, certainly his first #1 hit). According to Gottlieb’s daughter Judy: “Dad said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s my song!'” and preceded to track down his songwriting partner Herbie Wiener to get a share of credit and royalties.
At this juncture, there had been several hands involved in creating the song (credits read: Gold/Gluck/Weiner/Gottlieb), yet what Gottlieb did not know was that the recording had been rushed onto the market: immediately after Lesley Gore recorded ‘Party’ for the aspiring Quincy Jones, Jones met Phil Spector at a concert. There, Spector announced that he intended to record It’s My Party with the girl group The Crystals, and that Spector anticipated it would be a smash hit. Jones, fearing that his own version might be scooped by Spector, skipped the concert, rushed to the studio, and immediately made a test pressing of 100 copies of the record, which he promptly mailed to DJs at major radio markets across the country. Lesley Gore’s recording of It’s My Party began to receive air time on pop music stations the next week. Within a month, the record was officially released, and just four weeks later it hit #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 Pop songs list and the rhythm and blues charts.
These circumstances reveal the capricious nature of the music business – lyrics passed over to song-writers who did not always credit their original sources – and the “factory-like” mode of production of songs coming out of such hit factories such as the Brill Building in New York. Indeed, what is striking about Ferry’s selections for These Foolish Things is, of the six tracks we’ve reviewed on Side 1, five of the six have been associated with the Brill Building song-writing factory. Strictly speaking, Lesley Gore’s magnificent ‘You Don’t Own Me‘ would have been a grander artistic choice for Ferry to cover, but was not a product of Brill Building song-writing partnerships. In choosing songs produced by the Brill Building hit-factory was Ferry concocting a covers concept album? It ain’t Quadrophenia but the choices and sequencing are compelling.
While contemplating how to record his album of other people’s tunes, Bryan Ferry intended to do a “totally different treatment of each song”, but found himself pressed for time (Kent). Taking on a considerable work-load in 1973 – For Your Pleasure, These Foolish Things and Stranded all recorded within several months of one another – Ferry came at the Foolish Things tunes square on, in some cases not even changing the gender specification of tracks like ‘It’s My Party’: “Party’ was done dead straight”, Ferry confided to the NME in January 1974, “but that was the beauty of it.” As a result, how much you enjoying the tune’s inclusion on Foolish Things ultimately relates to how you feel about Lesley Gore’s original: while hearing a new interpretation of a song provides ample opportunity to seek out and explore the work of an artist (ergo, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall‘), you’d be hard-pressed to find a version of ‘It’s My Party’ on our own Saturday night playlist. In 1973 however, choosing to cover ‘Party’ on a covers record was radical – playful and ironic, brave (certainly), and unquestionably catering to the crowd that Ferry was running with at the time: while acknowledging to the press his cover of ‘It’s My Party’ was “a hurried knock-off”, Ferry offhandedly pointed out it was “one for the boys anyway” (NME). Ah, the boys. The boys exerted considerable influence upon Bryan Ferry as a solo artist and Roxy Music as a cultural phenomenon – the ‘boys’ were prime movers and members of the “the Roxy Machine” – fashion designer and image maker Antony Price; photographer Karl Stoecker; and art director Nicholas Deville – others included those “attractive people” Ferry noted who would forget about him the moment his career dipped (he was right). The front cover of These Foolish Things is one for the boys then – pure beefcake. The boys are also present at party at the beginning of ‘Mother of Pearl‘ (all the gang’s here). And the boys walk shoulder-to-shoulder with Ferry as here surveys all before him as a one of ‘The In-Crowd‘. It’s his party…
If all the hairdressers are playing my album, then I suppose it must be alright! Bryan Ferry ‘It’s My Party’ when delivered by gay icon (Stump) and style kingpin Bryan Ferry is a camp in-joke for the stylists and art-crowd that Ferry hung out with in the early 70s. Roxy Music were a decadent band, stylistically speaking, with gayness and androgyny being the stuff of sex obsessed, scandal-ridden newspapers The Sun and News of the World. While Andy Mackay confirmed that “rock music has been a reaction against accepted standards” (ibid 88), Ferry acknowledged that his audience enjoyed the camp nature of Roxy’s decadent pose less for a revolutionary purpose and more to express teenage sexual awareness: “when the boys in the province are making up to attract girls they think that’s what the girls are going to like” (ibid 88). Certainly, it had worked for Eno – why wouldn’t it work for them?
Ferry took his fuel from gay and peripheral life-style language and style to forge and promote the Roxy Music ‘state of mind’: “I [find] gays more simpatico…a year ahead of everyone else. Being so close to the art world my friends have always nearly been gay. Most of the people I really know or see at all now are in fashion because they’re attractive people, personality-wise” (Burns). Admitting that he was “fairly camp” on stage, Ferry already used camp and gay symbolism to thrill audiences who basked in the illicitness of it all, marveling at the sexual ambiguity of Amanda Lear; the bisexual, homosexual riffing of Ferry’s own sexual identify underscored by fashion design and friend Antony Price’s comment that the Roxy star was essentially “gay in every respect – sensibility, style, taste, humour – except for between the sheets” (Reynolds, 352). This was camp on a scale not seen in pop music before, with identity and role-playing a critical component in this early postmodern mashup of playing with and against expectations.
As a result, rather than being a misguided knock-off a teenager’s jilted love affair – we’re still in ‘Puppy Love‘ territory, after all – Ferry chooses ‘It’s My Party’ as a fabulous in-joke, as a means of highlighting identity and role-playing games, as way to show the wonderful slippage of language as it envelopes both pop theory and pop culture. Susan Sontag wrote of camp that is a mode of enjoyment…it wants to enjoy: “camp delights in the artificial, in the melodramatic, allowing something to become good because it’s awful“(Sontag). And here we get to the heart of the matter: pressed for time, straddling a line between natural entertainer and musical visionary, Ferry took a gamble on expressing both in the same season – for in the end the critical response to These Foolish Things wouldn’t matter – he was doing the record for himself and his gay and marginalized pals, and all those hairdressers that bought the LP in droves. Love or it or loath it, Ferry’s version of ‘It’s My Party’ plays a postmodern trick as neat as anything on For Your Pleasure – the artist as signifier, a collision of things written, heard, and seen, the artist, who, like the Wizard of Oz, plays behind the screen gleefully manipulating scene, set and character:
Playin’ my records, keep dancin’ all night But leave me alone for a while Till Johnny’s dancin’ with me I’ve got no reason to smile
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.
Credits: Print – Some great reviews and articles informed this entry, particularly Nick Kent, New Musical Express, 19 January 1974 interview with Ferry; Alan Smith, New Musical Express, 14 June 1963; Dave Marsh, Let It Rock, July 1975; highly enjoyable also was the music blog Tim’s Cover Story; Paul Stump‘s excellent book on Roxy Unknown Pleasures informed the camp and gay threads of the story. Photos: New York Dolls invite you to their party; teen queen Lesley Gore and her initial hit ‘It’s My Party’ (Gore went on to become a feminist icon by publicly announcing she was a lesbian, and of course by recording and promoting ‘You Don’t Own Me’); Brill Building New York (see also: Don’t Ever Change); promo materials, These Foolish Things, 1973.
Few tracks on Bryan Ferry’s first solo album These Foolish Things announce the high spirits and intentions of the record better than the cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.’ Originally recorded in 1957 by Presley and performed in the career-defining film Jailhouse Rock, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ was written by the song-writing partnership of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, and constitutes the fourth track on These Foolish Things to employ New York’s Brill Building sound and songwriter/producer teams. This is pop music as product, written to order and demonstrating a high water-mark of speed, ingenuity and craft – no doubt an attractive quality to Ferry, an artist for whom Roxy Music songs were often written and recorded with tortured self-analysis and intensity.
Ferry wasn’t alone in wanting to re-record ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ – the list of bands covering the song is impressive and diverse: Cliff Richard, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Buddy Holly; the Beatles had a go, as did solo John Lennon; Queen recorded a bloated version in 1990; even The Glitter Band gave it a shot. The reason for the song’s appeal is surely due to the pedigree and influence of the original – ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care‘ is an Elvis Presley song, and always will be.
‘Don’t Care’ comes from the same batch of recordings that produced ‘Jailhouse Rock‘ and from the same writers that gave the world ‘Jailhouse’, ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Stand By Me’ ‘On Broadway, ‘Love Potion Number 9’, ‘Yakety Yak’ and even ‘Santa Clause is Back in Town’ (ah, now you know). A formidable output, even by legendary Brill Building standards. Writers Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller came into Elvis’ orbit – as all who met Elvis did – under the careful watch of Colonel Tom Parker (Parker was not a Colonel and never served in the army. He was born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, jumping ship to come to America at the age of 18). Parker’s past and influence on Presley is shady (accusations of murder followed Parker to America from Europe), and he was by most accounts a controlling and egotistic bully who had a gambling habit that dwindled 50% of Elvis massive earnings to a mere $1M at the time of his death in 1997. (Elvis’ extended stints at Vegas begins to make more sense in this context). Certainly, it is a loss that Elvis was not given wider artistic control of his career, for the boorish Parker jettisoned the Elvis/Leiber & Stoller partnership (Elvis called them his “good luck charms”) on account of the writers composing a ballad and giving it directly to Elvis. They were blocked from future direct contact with The King for not “following procedure.”
The attraction of covering ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ can be found in the version Bryan Ferry taped in 1973 for These Foolish Things: it’s a fun song that has no spite in its bones – even though the love-object is out of step with the times (you don’t like crazy music/you don’t like rockin’ bands), they have charms that’s hard to find in other girls (You just wanna park where it’s nice and dark/You just wanna hold me tight). Unlike the mean-spirited ‘Don’t Ever Change’ (see: Goffin/King) ‘Don’t Care’ is as breezy as the scene from which it is plucked in Jailhouse Rock – all innuendo and classic early Elvis feel-good energy. And here, perhaps, we find the reason for artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Bryan Ferry wanting to cover the song: ‘Don’t Care’ offers an opportunity to pay tribute to Elvis at a time when The King of Rock N’ Roll was at his youthful best, interested in the music, full of charm and as sexy as hell. Surely those scenes from Jailhouse Rock printed themselves onto the minds of a generation. There is the sense too that Elvis was fully engaged, deeply appreciative and understanding of the music. Writers Leiber & Stoller, schooled in the blues at a technical level far beyond many of the time, were surprised to find out Elvis was deeply understanding and knowledgeable of the musical form:
Stoller: Elvis knew the blues. He was a Ray Charles fanatic and even knew that Ray had sung our song ‘The Snow Is Falling’. In fact, he knew virtually all of our songs. There wasn’t any R&B he didn’t know.
Lieber: When it came to the blues, Elvis knew his stuff. He may not have been conversant about politics or world history, but his blues knowledge was almost encyclopedic. Mike and I were blown away. In fact, the conversation got so enthusiastic that Mike and Elvis sat down at the piano and started playing four-handed blues. He definitely felt our passion for the real roots material and shared that passion with all his heart. Just like that, we fell in love with the guy.
Elvis was, at this time, a perfectionist, doing multiple takes to get the recording the way he wanted it. “It pleased me no end” notes Lieber, “that even when I thought we had a perfect vocal take, Elvis would want to do another – and then another. Each one would be better. He was digging deep and coming up with great new ammunition” (Lieber). When the session musician couldn’t get the fabulous bass line to ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ right – the new Fender electric bass had just come out and stand-up bass players were transitioning to electric – Elvis picked up the bass and let rip with an outstanding opening riff. The recording still stands today.
Bryan Ferry’s cover of ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ updates the 1958 recording to a fuller and warmer 1973 production. Demonstrating extreme control and affection, Ferry pulls off the neat trick of applying his conspicuous vocal quaver to the rich tones of an Elvis Presley classic: no mean feat. The key is here is restraint and Ferry wisely pulls back and lets his hot back-up band do the talking. Not keen to go head-to-head with The King, Ferry allows a small amount of echo to be applied to the vocal to give it that authentic Elvis rock n’ roll sound – unlike The Beatles version were Paul McCartney sounds like he’s discovered echo and reverb for the first time – Ferry’s vocal take is unhurried and submissive, yet containing enough bite to make the song work in its own right. “I haven’t got much time for men’s voices,” Ferry said in 2013, “except for a few: Elvis, Sinatra, Lennon, Otis Redding” (Pitchfork). The fun completing the vocal track can be heard at the song’s close (1.47-1.50): “haha – ok!” Ferry laughs.
At the time of release, with two ground-breaking Roxy Music albums under his belt, These Foolish Things carried an unfair weight of expectation. “The album is one man’s choice for a history of pop music” noted one scribe, which may be true, but suggests that each record that Bryan Ferry touches must carry the weight and expectation of that history, whether it be Roxy Music producing “new modes of expression” (Gross) or radical interpretations of old songs (‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’). With Elvis’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ Ferry’s reply was none of the above: just like that “haha – ok!” there really are days when words mean what they say, and songs simply deliver on their promise of a joyous good time.
Everyone in rock ‘n roll including myself was touched by Elvis’s spirit, I was, and always will be a fan.
Credits: Pictures and background information is taken from the excellent Elvis resource Elvis Australia (The Official Elvis Presley Fan Club). In-depth and informative, this is a treasure-trove of Elvis information. Presley with Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller; Presley recording ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; promotional label for These Foolish Things; a part of the team, Presley with guitar, ‘Don’t Care’ session.
Next: It’s summer and it’s time to party! Ferry tackles 1963 and Lesley Gore and Quincy Jones with ‘It’s My Party’ – can he pull it off? See you in July!
Bert Berns – one of the greatest songwriters of all bloody time, it’s as simple as that!
By the time Bryan Ferry recorded Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns’ ‘Piece of My Heart’ in 1973 the song was already a classic – producing hits for Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sister), Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin. Taking on a woman’s song can never be easy, especially when one version – Joplin’s – is probably the defining track of a short career – but Ferry may have felt he could deliver a more soulful version than the throw-away delivered by Scottish all-male group Marmalade in 1968 (he could, and he did). By the time Sammy Hagar covered ‘Piece of My Heart’ in 1981, the legacy of Erma, Dusty and Janis were calling for a moratorium on men covering the song (Marmalade fared better their mega #1 hit cover of The Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. So much for originality in pop in 1969!).
Ferry does a surprisingly excellent version of ‘Piece of My Heart’ on his first covers album These Foolish Things – surprising in that, negating the quirks of his quavering vocal style, he sweetens his voice to a degree that releases him from the narrow vocal canvas of Roxy Music and points the way towards the fuller sound heard on Stranded and 1974’s solo hit ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. Certainly, the opening line of ‘Piece of My Heart’ is stunning in its affectation as Ferry allows himself to be close-miked and vulnerable (hear the echo of the studio standing between him and the words):
Didn’t I make you feel (pause) like youuuu (hold) are the on-ly (hold) one (hold)?
Ranking as some of the best phrasing of his career to date, Ferry’s vocal is so considered and melodic in these opening lines that you, the cruel lover, cannot doubt the sincerity of the question being asked regarding actions towards the tender and broken heart. From here though, the success of Ferry’s recording really depends on how you feel about the song, for the upcoming shift in mood relies on the sudden call-to-arms of the jilted lover, an approach most successfully realized by Janis Joplin’s raspy and impatient ‘Co-o-ome on, come on, COME ON, co-o-o-ome on and TAKE IT!/Take another little piece of my heart now, baby‘. Suddenly ‘Piece’ shifts from imploring sweetness – which suits Ferry’s delivery to a tee – to brokenhearted antagonism, a style better suited to Joplin’s in-your-face Texas blues, and a reason surely why Joplin’s version is the standard for the song and not Erma Franklin’s more sombre (even glum), take. To my ears ‘Heart’ loses melody and purpose at this point, and Ferry’s version does little to change the outcome. Similiar to that perennial yet irritating 60s chestnut ‘Take a Load Off Fanny‘, you can either live with it, or you can’t. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Designing his version of the song to be more Erma Franklin than Janis Joplin, Ferry has in the end to deal with the legacy and weight of the Joplin version. In order to do so he applies a three-prong attack: beef up the female contingency via the all-girl harmony group The Angelettes – who do a fantastic job on ‘Hard Rain’ and indeed on the entire album (see entry ‘Hard Rain‘); beef up the horns – courtesy of Average White Band founder Roger Ball, a multi-talented composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, songwriter and arranger; and be sure to beef up Ferry’s vocal reach and range of expression – listen to the line ‘You’re out on the street (looking good)/And you know deep down in your heart that it ain’t right‘ at 23-32s and you’ll see that performing other people’s songs gives Ferry an opportunity to have some fun and stretch his range outside of the classic Roxy Music mold, with the benefit that he returns to the Roxy state of mind rejuvenated and focused.
All the same, none of this handsome attention to detail and fine vocal delivery really gets to the heart of the song – nor does it add much to the song’s presence in the world. Part of the reason is that the origin and history of ‘Piece of My Heart’ carries a heavy burden of illness and breakdown – the song’s key associations stemming from composer Bert Berns traumatic physical heart ailment that killed him at age 38 and Janis Joplin’s traumatic emotional life that killed her at 27. Too young, in both instances.
For many people The Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’ is a Lennon/McCartney number, famously belted out by a flu-struck John Lennon to complete the legendary twelve hour recording of The Beatles debut album Please Please Me. Yet it was Bert Berns who co-wrote the song with Phil Medley (Berns later credited as “Bert Russell”) and was originally a hit for the Isley Brothers in 1962. A monumental track in the Beatles catalog – performed at the critical Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Royal Command performances (“the rest of you just rattle your jewellery”), and for the February 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – this brush with Beatles mega-fame was not the only example of Bert Berns originality. Bert created Bang Records in 1965 with Atlantic music giant Ahmet Ertegün (Ray Charles, Stones, Zeppelin) Nesuhi Ertegün and Jerry Wexler. At Bang Berns wrote and produced a string of influential hit records, including ‘I Want Candy‘, ‘Hang on Sloopy‘, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (Van Morrison’s first single), and other Van Morrison/Them hits like the amazing riff-heavy ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, and ‘Here Comes the Night‘. As the movie tie-in proclaims – “Though not as widely known as his contemporaries, Bert Berns ranks among the most significant and influential of his generation” (Wiki) hardly sounds like an exaggeration.
Despite the success, Berns life was marked by frail health: as a teenager he suffered from a rheumatic fever so virulent he was left with a permanently weakened heart: he was told he would not live to be 21 (HoF). When he died of heart-attack at 38 years old on December 30, 1967, he was building a house for his family, and it is here that the emotional weight of ‘Piece of My Heart’ can be found both in song title and the weight of its compelling history. As metaphor, ‘heart’ plays a significant role in Berns writing, particularly the love songs that evoke tender emotion – titles such as ‘Cry to Me‘, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love‘, ‘Cry Baby‘, and of course ‘Piece of My Heart’ – all speak to a melancholy and sensitivity sometimes lacking from other song-writers of the era (see: Gerry Goffin, ‘Don’t Ever Change‘). ‘I cry all the time‘ Berns writes in ‘Piece of My Heart’ and it feels like time is closing in, unmistakably love-lorn and companionless: ‘When you’re all alone in your lonely room/Don’t ya feel like cryin’, don’t ya feel like cryin‘ (‘Cry to Me’). Overtly sensitive, Berns played the music game like he was short on time, clock ticking, combining both hit-making savy with feelings of approaching loss and melancholy.
In general terms then, much of the Bert Berns catalog requires a degree of emotional weight in order to be told with insight and sincerity – the performer does not necessarily have to have a life of discord and strife – certainly Bryan Ferry would presumably not have too much to complain about as his career rocketed in those few short years between 1971-1973 – but the ability to get inside a crying Bert Berns song with the necessary gravitas is crucial. This is where Janis Joplin scored so highly with her cover of ‘Piece of My Heart’ – taken from the band’s album Cheap Thrills, their version peaked at No. 12 on the U.S. pop chart, but the song became associated with Joplin long after the pop charts lost their relevance. By the time it was a hit for the hippie generation Berns was dead, and Joplin was beginning her very brief fifteen minutes in the limelight. Janis Joplin adopted ‘Piece of My Heart’ like it was her own off-spring: a wounded heart-sick woman who had only three years to live from the day of the song’s release.
In David Hepworth‘s book “Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of The Rock Stars” Hepworth provides an extremely sad set of details chronicling Janis Joplin’s life: she came from hard working class environment in Texas. Puberty – especially the torments of acne – produced a self-conscious sensitivity about her looks, a wound she spent the rest of her life trying to shake. One student University poll cruelly called her the “ugliest man on campus”. On route to fame, she drank too much and became addicted to heroin (“I wanted to smoke dope, take dope, lick dope, fuck dope”). In spite of her fame, she never stopped trying to get acceptance and validation from those who had hurt her back in her home town. In 1970, she received an invitation to attend her high school reunion. Announcing her intention to attend on the Dick Cavett show (no less) she told the nation-wide television audience “They laughed me out of class, town, out of State, so I’m going home.” On another occasion: “Man these people hurt me…It makes me happy to know I’ve made it, and they are just still plumbers like they were” (Washington Post).
Unsurprisingly, it was not a good home-coming, doing little to settle old grudges. She clashed with the towns folk, who did not take kindly to being slagged on national TV. She clashed with siblings. Her parents left town to go to a wedding. She even volunteered to the television crew filming the event to re-visit the most painful incidents of her teenage years. “By the end of the visit,” Hepworth writes, “when the booze and pills had worn off, she looked broken and heart-sick. No vindication. No triumph of life over the little people.” (Hepworth). Two months later she was found dead in a Hollywood hotel room, alone, victim of a heroin overdose.
Heart-sick is the primary metaphor for the two people most closely associated with ‘Piece of My Heart’, writer Bert Berns and singer Janis Joplin. Other singers – notably Erma Franklin and Dusty Springfield – have gotten close to the emotional pulse of the song, but did not bring the ultimate sadness that the tune seems to demand of its singers. For Ferry, it was a genre piece – much loved and respectfully rendered – but his version is, by design, all dressed up and professionally delivered, drawing its strength and interest as much from a wish to acknowledge the great songwriting factories of the Sixties (Goffin/King; Leiber/Stoller) as opposed to portraying an emotional impact per se. This is of course in keeping with the stylistic and ironic distance found in the songs of Roxy Music. And while the solo covers & standards albums provide an opportunity to claw in the distance with a knowing wink, Ferry does have to deal with the fact that the passage of time renders the anthems of the 60s golden oldies (after all). Ferry re-invented ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ and delivered ‘River of Salt’ straight, and produced credible, enjoyable successes. When it came to ‘Piece of My Heart’ though the song stood before him like a slab of unbearable sadness, unmovable, beyond reach.
Few people outside of New York or the music business have heard of the Brill Building. Located at 1619 Broadway in New York City, just north of Times Square, the Brill was the place a great chunk of American pop music was written, arranged, recorded and sold, including ‘Don’t Ever Change‘ written by (Gerry) Goffin & (Carole) King, recorded by The Crickets (sans Buddy) in 1961, providing a Top 10 hit in the UK. ‘Don’t Ever Change’ confirms Bryan Ferry’s assertions that These Foolish Things was intended as a break fromFor Your Pleasure‘s darker themes and mood. Having cracked ‘Hard Rain‘ and the rare ‘River of Salt‘ (“I’m probably the only person in England with a copy of that”), Ferry decided next to go to the Classic Songwriter’s Songbook and pull down a cut from the famous writing team of Goffin & King – the jaunty ‘Don’t Ever Change’ comes up next and it’s a nasty piece of work, despite its early 60s jaunty beat. The music suggests sunny optimism but the lyric delivers tyrannical rule.
‘Don’t Ever Change’ was written on the top floors (“on the roof”) of the The Brill Building, a stunning art-deco masterpiece that stretched along Broadway between 49th and 53rd streets. A mecca for songwriting talent, the Brill contained 165 music businesses at its peak in 1962. The songwriters worked to order, crafting melodies and lyrics that would define the late 50s and 60s: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (Phil Spector, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil); Don’t Be Cruel (recorded by Elvis, written by Otis Blackwell); Do You Know the Way to San José? (the brilliant Burt Bacharach/Hal David); and so many more. Before Carole King become the mega-selling Carole King of ‘Tapestry’ (and the subject of the Broadway show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) she was the teenager Carol Klein, married at 17 to 20-year-old lyricist Gerry Goffin. They got their break through their connection with Neil Sedaka, who knew Carole at High School and, in a last-ditch attempt at writing a hit before he was dropped from his contract, had composed and recorded a song called “Oh! Carol” (desperate, Sedaka studied the top singles of the day, mapped their melody, chord progression, lyrical styles and developed the ingredients of a hit single – he nailed it). Soon Goffin & King were writing compact, minor-miracle songs that sold by the truck-load – “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (The Shirelles); “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva); “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin), and the fantastic “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (The Monkees). In 1963, at the beginning of The Beatles rise to fame, John Lennon was quoted as saying that he and Paul McCartney wanted to become “the Goffin-King of England.”
‘Don’t Ever Change’ is one of Goffin & King’s lesser known songs, made to order like egg salad sandwiches at the local deli. Lesser-known in both status and (to be honest) tunefulness – The Crickets version did not chart in the USA – the song is nevertheless an interesting selection by Ferry who, presumably, had the budget and freedom to choose other Goffin & King songs, say, ‘On the Roof’ or ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ (but not, thankfully, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’). Choosing to cover ‘Don’t Ever Change’ makes good sense in terms of These Foolish Things – it’s a breezy sing-along three tracks in – but there is something wrong with the song at root that Ferry cannot fix. His version is faithful to the original, with the benefit of being better recorded with deeper, fuller sound, but it neither detracts or adds to the original. The problem is not with Ferry’s take but the dishonesty of the song itself – ‘Don’t Ever Change’ pretends to be upbeat and idealist, but in truth it’s a mean song hiding behind a breezy disguise.
Carole King wrote in her memoir that her ex-husband Gerry Goffin – who she divorced in 1969 – suffered from mental illness following ingestion of LSD, eventually undergoing treatment with lithium and electroshock therapy, and later diagnosed with manic depression. Post-marriage Carole wrote her own lyrics, of which the mega-hit ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (1971) is in character with her thoughtful and warm work. Contrast this with ex-hubby Goffin’s lyrical mauling of male/female relationships and you get the sense that long-term matrimony wasn’t in the cards, not with Goffin writing songs like ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’ or ‘Chains’ or even the party-ending ‘Everybody Go Home’. Goffin was talented, to be sure – his writing on the number 1 hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” show a sensitivity to the complications of sexual maturity, and ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ has a killer lyric (“The local rockgroup down the street/Is trying hard to learn their song/They serenade the weekend squire/Who just came out to mow his lawn”) – but lyricist Goffin typically informs his songs with a controlling hand that sets an uneasy tone that ‘Don’t Ever Change’ cannot escape and Ferry does little to interfere.
The premise of the ‘Don’t Change’ reminds us of ‘Chance Meeting‘ – male menace thinly disguised. You never wear a stitch of lace, we’re told – And powder’s never on your face / You’re always wearing jeans except on Sunday – you’re a tomboy in other words. Oh please don’t ever change, he continues, I kinda like you just the way you are. The narrator ‘kinda’ likes you, so be sure to swear allegiance to his idealized view of you for all eternity.
You don’t know the latest dance
But when it’s time to make romance Your kisses let me know you’re not a tomboy
In other words, I like you to be uninformed, awkward and sexually unthreatening – except when I’m having sex with you. And the final kicker: I know you would rather die than ever hurt me. ie. I know you would rather slit your wrists and bleed out instead of telling me what a jerk I am. And less we think that picking on songs written in the late 50s/60s is easy targets in 2019, we can hardly avoid the fact that the final sentiment of the song as a declaration of ultimate control. And for the tune itself – it would take the edge off perhaps if the music provided some respite from the high-handed rhetoric, but instead of sweetening its chorus, ‘Change’ hangs its hook on the descending riff “Sooo pleassse don’t everrr chaaange” that is in the chord of C#minor which in music theory contains the harmonic characteristic of despair, wailing, and weeping: “A passionate expression of sorrow and deep grief. Full of penance and self-punishment” (Ledgernote). Isn’t this supposed to be a love song? Run a mile girl, and then run another mile.
The Beatles recorded ‘Don’t Ever Change’ as part of a BBC session in 1963, and was not released until 1993 (just as Anthology was being compiled and the insatiable appetite for all things Fab Four was gaining force). Instantly forgettable in the Beatles catalog, ‘Don’t’ is notable only for the fact that it takes a rare Harrison/McCartney lead vocal. Perhaps we can see the song as an influence to solo-Lennon ‘Jealous Guy’, with its frank recognition of the failings of its controlling author John Lennon, and which Ferry, much to his credit, made his own in 1980 (“I guess I can relate to it”). You could never see the narrator of ‘Don’t Ever Change’ admitting that he never meant to hurt you, never meant to make you cry.
What is intriguing about ‘Don’t Ever Change’ is its pedigree as a production from the golden-age of late 50s early 60s song-writing partnerships. While ‘Change’ may not be the best of the Goffin & King canon – compare it to the uplifting ‘One Fine Day‘ – its appeal to Ferry during the selection process, in part, may be attributable to it being a part of America’s legendary Brill Building productions, and the idea of song-writing as craft, as a specialized art that required an apprenticeship and learned expertise.
Below Carole King describes the atmosphere at the “Brill Building” publishing houses of the period, a world perhaps that Ferry obviously wanted to acknowledge, promote, and – in contrast to his own brilliance-at-the-last-minute writing practices (see: ‘Mother of Pearl’ / ‘Love is the Drug’) secretly yearned for a Tin Pan Alley discipline of craft and professionalism that had been lost in the individualism of the singer/songwriter 1960’s and early 70s. ‘Don’t Ever Change’ – by the very nature of its title – may be a plea to never change, to return to a level of discipline that focused on the art of manufacturing hits for the youth market, a value and enterprise that Ferry himself discovered in 1973 with These Foolish Things and is still very much with us today as he recorded Bitter-Sweet (2019) with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, an album that re-makes Roxy and solo Ferry songs in a style that re-creates the nostalgia of the past in a manner that makes it feel ever more potent in the present:
Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano, a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific—because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: “We need a new smash hit”—and we’d all go back and write a song!
River of SaltBryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973) River of SaltKetty Lester (original, You Can’t Lie to a Liar b/w ‘River of Salt’ )
One of the lesser-known cuts on Bryan Ferry’s first solo album These Foolish Things, ‘River of Salt‘ was an obscure B-side single sung by American singer and actress Ketty Lester, written for her by Bernard Zackery, Irving Brown, and Jan Zackery. Never released on an album or as a single in its own right, ‘River of Salt’ is a miniature miracle that never found the audience it deserved. Lester had hit gold previously with the brilliant ‘Love Letters‘, a song that went to the top of the charts in both the US and the UK in 1962 (and one that David Lynch picked up for Blue Velvet). Chasing another hit single, Lester recorded and released three more ballads in 1962 but failed to repeat the success of ‘Letters’. That such a fine song as ‘River of Salt’ could be buried and forgotten as a B-side is testament to the quality of Lester’s output.
In choosing ‘River of Salt’ for the album, Ferry was in many ways drawing attention to his skills and appreciation for pop as a continuum, similar to the Art world reaching back into the (not so) distant past for its raw materials. Choosing well-known tunes was one thing – every one knows The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin – but branching out into jazz and Motown, and giving the nod to artists like Nat King Cole, Ketty Lester, and Smokey Robinson was risky, especially for a working-class English boy from Newcastle. Expressing his love of the form, Ferry had very distinct ideas and tastes about music pre-rock: “The difference between then and now is that where you once had two almost clearly defined categories – singers and songwriters – you now have a situation where all song-writers have to be performers … and sometimes it doesn’t work very well” (BF, 76). While rock-stars enjoyed referencing their rock roots – David Bowie’s Pin Ups/John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll – Ferry was reaching back to an earlier musical milieu. While not exactly singing The Great American Standards yet (that would come next in Another Time, Another Place) there was nonetheless an emphasis on classic singer/songwriter partnerships juxtaposed against the titan and preeminent standard These Foolish Things which, by choosing it to title the album, provided Ferry with a new mask: that of the lounge-lizard Romantic, the unrequited lovelorn personality whose confessions are framed by a writer’s self-conscious awareness of his own misery (and charm).A cigarette that bares a lipstick’s traces..
After the literary maelstrom that is Bob Dylan’s highly allusive and poetic ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘, Ferry pulls a fast one and gives his audience a 1 minute 48 second love ballad. As metaphor, ‘River of Salt’ is as basic as it gets:
River of salt Flowing from my eyes Seems as though I can’t realize My love is gone She’s left this town River of salt Keeps flowing down
Metaphors can be exaggerated so much they become comical (as in, “Her tears were a river flowing down her cheeks and beyond”), but ‘River of Salt‘ has an innocence similar to Ferry’s cover of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘ with its root metaphor of a lovely flame that dies, creating smoke, then tears (They said someday you’ll find/All who love are blind). In ‘Salt’ the bereaved lover also sheds unending tears while mourning the absent sweetheart. Although simple, the lyric may be onto something – there are no pure salt rivers in the world (according to Earth Science) and so the song taps into the Romantic idea of a bitter loss stretched across eternity, the Artist (hand on brow) writing reams of poetry à la climbing mountains, swimming oceans, walking thousands of miles to prove nothing less than everlasting love and commitment. Ferry knows the pulse of the song is earnestness tinged with a knowing wisdom and delivers it as such.
The musical set-up on ‘River of Salt’ is fantastic, and the track can be seen as a breakthrough in romantic sincerity for Ferry, a writer who in his own work prefers distance and irony to get to the heart of the matter. Richly recorded, bass and drum set the pace and are framed by a lovely electric piano chord introduction, laid down by professional session player Dave Skinner (who played for Roxy on the 1979 ‘Manifesto’ tour and solo Manzanera and Ferry records). By contrast the Ketty Lester recording is a bit stiff in these opening bars, with the double bass prominent but not particularly well-recorded, and the corresponding drum accompaniment sounding like it is being played with cutlery. In contrast, Ferry’s cover version is like hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire and white tiger rug. His vocal is (almost) stripped of its trade-mark quiver, and is delivered straight: Bryan Ferry the lounge-lizard/troubadour is born here, in this track, and in under two minutes he has set the stage for the appearance of his white tux and dickie-bow, glitter eye-liner be gone.
In most respectsThese Foolish Things is a love album. Songs like ‘Tracks of My Tears’; ‘Don’t Ever Change’; ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever;’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’; ‘River of Salt’ strive to capture and represent love’s sentiments in all its various colors and Ferry is keen to present them to a young 70s audience. What is telling is that he tackles these originals from a vantage point of sincerity and eagerness to please, as if covering a track like ‘River of Salt’ note-for-note is the purest form of flattery. After dealing with love as a postmodern game of signs and signifiers – ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’; ‘Ladytron’; ‘Editions of You‘ – Ferry shifts his writing towards regaining (or finding) love in its full range of emotions. He does so from two directions: writing his own songs and covering the songs of others. While For Your Pleasure is cold to the touch, purposely distancing love in favor of a blow-up sex doll or bogeyman sex,These Foolish Things tackles love as an emotion lived and experienced by other people – in its 1 minute plus Ketty Lester’s ‘River of Salt’ has all the emotion it can handle – and so in his musical arrangement Ferry chooses not to mess too much with the established formula, as if by not doing so he might spoil a song that had once provided a lifeline to his personal feelings and experiences. For Ferry, Foolish Things was only “half successful” (NME) because he felt he did not experiment enough on the source material. If he had done so with ‘River of Salt’ it is very likely that the Third Roxy Music album Stranded would have been a very different recording – mature, yes, but insulated and aloof, instead of warm and tropical, full of emotional heat. Without ‘River of Salt’ it’s possible we might not have had ‘A Song for Europe’ … and where, dear friends, would that have gotten us?
It often seems that Ferry is using his music, not as an end in itself, but as an attempt to create an identity for himself, a reality beneath all the style.
Next: The template for ‘Every Breath You Take’: Ferry covers ‘Don’t Ever Change‘, the same team that brought you hits from The Partridge Family, The Hollies, The Cookies, and Rod Stewart – Ladies and Gentlemen, Gerry Goffin and Carole King!
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.
Pics: Detail of the 1672 sculpture Entombment of Christ, showing Mary Magdalene crying; RMS composite, ‘River of Salt‘ original pressing & original Love Letters LP; signed BF Foolish Things; below, it’s tough to make a living in the music business: Ketty Lester in Blacula (1972).
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I. Where Have You Been?
There is a moment at the beginning of Ken Burns heart-rending documentary The Vietnam War when Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall provides the soundtrack to a chilling and moving prophecy: something dreadful and abhorrent is on its way, and the blue-eyed sons of a generation are going somewhere they may never return from, and if they do return, they may never be the same again.
Another blue-eyed son – Bryan Ferry – takes Dylan’s anti-war anthem and turns it inside out, downplaying and de-emphasizing the poetry while heightening the music and tunefulness of the original. It’s a fair trade, and one that still stands as an astonishing cover version of a folk classic. Strikingly original and as tuneful as hell, Bryan Ferry chose to re-record the song as the lead track on his first solo album These Foolish Things, and in doing so scored a surprise hit, reaching number 10 in the UK charts in October 1973 (Viva). Success came at a price however: the single was controversial for its stomping (literally) on sacred ground, and it also created a schism in Bryan Ferry’s writing – a trend towards minimizing lyrical density in favour of cover songs and a heightened mainstream sensibility – an inclination, thankfully, still far away on the horizon as 1973 unfolded, they year that delivered two classic Roxy Music albums (For Your Pleasure, Stranded) and a surprising, even innovative, “one-off” solo release in These Foolish Things. As Ferry drily noted, 1973 “was some year of work.”
As Brian Eno left the band in July 1973, the Roxy Music band-members felt the pain of losing their original line-up and their hard-earned musical identity. Andy Mackay felt angry enough to come close to quitting Roxy and joining Mott the Hoople (with whom he had played on their single ‘All the Way to Memphis‘ during the recording of For Your Pleasure). The saxophonist even insisted on creating a solo personae in the vein of a Ziggy Stardust alter-ego, as if to hedge bets for the future. (“I’m changing my name to Eddie Riff,” he told the NME in the same issue that Eno’s departure was announced). Phil Manzanera recalls the period as being, understandably, highly contentious and difficult: “When Eno left we were in danger of imploding completely” (Rigby, 86). After some breathing space and tempered negotiations – Manzanera and Mackay would receive writing co-credits on future Roxy Music recordings – the band decided to continue, Manzanera for one observing that “I hadn’t had my fill of being in a pop band yet” (Stump, 99). Band members also felt that doing solo albums would be a good way to relieve creative tension and so followed the two Brians on their solo album path, while retaining the Roxy Music brand as their raison d’être:
What’s interesting about Roxy is that most people in bands don’t do solo albums until they’ve been together for years. We all started doing solo albums almost immediately. We always had our own agenda, and as long as there was enough common ground we stayed together. There was always a possibility I could have left when Brian Eno did. I felt very loyal to him.
For his part, Bryan Ferry still felt that Roxy Music was the main thing, yet considered the Roxy ‘state of mind’ as malleable and applicable to other art projects. So he set upon the idea of recording an album of pre-written “ready-made” songs, some standards, some well-known classics, all of them personally important to Ferry as they spanned several decades from the 1930s through the 1960s, re-creating in spirit the set-list of his previous R ‘n’ B band The Gas Board. Confiding to Melody Maker that “The people who did the best songs were pre-Beatles” Ferry was keen to surprise his audience, so much so music writer Hal Norman maintains that by its very contradictory nature These Foolish Things “remains as much of a revolution in the head as the great LPs of ’67 or ’77.” While this errs on the side of hyperbole – The Beatles and Sex Pistols be damned! – there is little doubt that Ferry was in new territory in 1973: for the post-60s generation originality was King, and anything less than an artist writing, recording and playing songs of striking originality was met with suspicion. Covering other people’s tunes demonstrated a lack of talent, a throw-back to Frank Sinatra‘s generation and the jazz standards of the 50s. No matter that John Coltrane had savaged the old Broadway chestnut ‘My Favourite Things‘ to create a be-bop revolution, the current thinking was that a Neil Young or a James Taylor wrote from their own observations – meaning and expression was a gift to the audience by Artist, who toiled in everyday experience to bring the fruits of their insight to the masses. Even Ferry was initially cautious in his ambition. “It wasn’t that I wanted to have another career,” he explained, “I saw it as a one-off album”:
I must have been encouraged to do [a solo album] by Mark and David [Enthoven]. I thought it would be great to do a different kind of album to For Your Pleasure, one which wasn’t as dark and had a lightness in the way that, say, Picasso does ceramics which are fun, and also does dark and mysterious work as well. I’m sure the album had good and bad repercussions. It opened Roxy Music up to a more mainstream audience. On the other hand, I might have pissed off the purists.
Moving fast then – ‘Foolish Things’ was recorded in June 1973, with single and album released in September and October (at the same time Roxy went into the studio to record ‘Stranded‘), Ferry wisely stayed within his comfort zone by working with the members of the established Roxy Music machine – Paul Thompson was invited to play drums; Phil Manzanera played guitar on the Beatles cover of ‘You Won’t See Me’; For Your Pleasure musician and friend John Porter played bass and co-produced with Ferry; AIR Studios was re-booked; John Punter was back for co-production and engineering assistance; and as per the previous two Roxy albums, cover design was by Nicholas De Ville and photography was by Karl Stoecker. Andy Mackay and Brian Eno did not participate – which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one given the subterfuge and fall-out of the summer.
Utilizing Marcel Duchamp‘s idea of ready-mades or ‘found-objects’ – a pop-art trick Roxy Music had used so well on ‘Virginia Plain‘ and ‘Editions of You‘ – Ferry was keen to stick to mentor Richard Hamilton’s credo that art should be “Popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business” (Hamilton). This opened the way to throw another brand into the mix – that of the solo star, a beefcake teen idol called “Bryan Ferry”. The message to his audience and fellow Roxy band-members was clear: damn the torpedoes, I have ideas to burn, I can make it on my own. In doing so Ferry hit the nail on the head: the record sold by the bucket-load. II. Who Did You See?
‘Hard Rain’ starts with the plaintive and familiar sound of Bryan Ferry’s electric piano tapping out a D-chord intro: it’s telling that the rhythm is slightly choppy, irregular, a human touch – until four short seconds in, when the sound of violins slowly creep into the mix, precise, panning across both speakers. Ferry takes a breath at .09 and the voice is introduced, mid-range. Paul Thompson kicks in at .16 with a deft double-stroke roll and we’re off to the races, the rhythm catching fire for an extremely original and entertaining 5.19 minutes of pop perfection.
The introduction and selection of ‘Hard Rain’ for this, the opening cut on Bryan Ferry’s first solo album, is inspired and provides context for much of what follows for Ferry and Roxy Music in the 70s. Take innovative song selection and album sequencing for starters: in its original format Dylan’s track is a brilliant, if musically repetitive, question-and-answer poem that was ten minutes+ plus live, and six minutes fifty-five recorded – influenced by French Symbolists Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme, and others, Dylan took the question and response format from multiple sources, some religious, one of them in the style of a centuries-old Scottish border ballad called “Lord Randal” with its question-and-answer format: “Oh where have you been, Lord Randal, my son; And where have you been my handsome young man” (FT). All sources helped imbue his song with striking images of conflict and apocalypse. The effect was a rain-driven “surrealistic downpour” (Riley) that became increasingly important and prescient for a country who, in 1963, was incubating hostility in Vietnam. (In another world, in some faraway galaxy, it is nice to imagine a society that heeds the warnings of the poets and assigns the Generals and war-mongers the noble job of grocery shopping and child-rearing). Intensely cinematic, Ferry’s choice is inspired – so wrong it’s right – and the sequencing on the record surprises as we move from ‘Hard Rain’s five minutes plus (the longest track on the record) to Ketty Lester‘s ‘River of Salt’ (the shortest).
The first few moments of ‘Hard Rain’ also introduce a significant moment in the history of Roxy Music: the debut of new band member, the fantastic and compelling multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson.
“Who can replace Brian Eno?!” Andy Mackay fumed to the NME when the split was announced to the music papers in July 1973. The answer to Andy’s question is, Eddie Jobson can.. Or, to be more precise, no one can. But Eddie Jobson was not a replacement for Brian Eno – he wasn’t hired to mix sound at live concerts, or manipulate Phil Manzanera’s guitar in the studio; he wasn’t hired to provide theories of being in a rock band or explain the role of ‘non-musician’ – quite the opposite, the gifted and multi-instrumentalist Jobson was hired to enhance and strengthen the musicianship of Roxy Music, to provide a wide breadth of support for live concerts, where keyboards, synth, violin and more could be supplied as the songs required, while Bryan Ferry took center-stage as singer and centerpiece of the live Roxy line-up. This view of Roxy as a professional and much sought-after viable recording & live music entity was what had kept Bryan Ferry awake at nights during the writing and recording of For Your Pleasure. Now the message had clarity – the goal of all marketing initiatives – resulting in no audience confusion on how to receive and enjoy the b(r)and. Glamour. Style. Pop and rock perfectly captured and presented – the best integrated guitar, drums and saxophone in England, and not an earthworm in sight. Now the parts were in place, Ferry began to extract the spoils of war and put the (very young) 18-year-old Eddie Jobson to work.
“Did you know I was the entire orchestra on Bryan’s first album?”
Whether by grand design or sheer luck – Bryan Ferry was familiar with Eddie Jobson via a close family connection, both men hailing from North England, County Durham – Jobson was an incredible find for Roxy Music, enhancing the band’s sex appeal via his youthful presence (he was eighteen when he joined Roxy) and musical skill, topped off with a visually arresting translucent plexiglass violin that was as thrilling to look at as it was to listen to. Moreover, Jobson contributed immensely in the studio, not only honing and applying an exquisite taste in musical embellishment, but also bringing his creativity and skill to some of Roxy’s best recordings (‘Song for Europe‘, ‘Out of the Blue‘ and ‘Sunset‘ among many). And so too is the case with Ferry’s first solo outing – if you ask most people about Ferry’s cover of ‘Hard Rain’ it is the strident and multi-layered strings that are most remembered. “I came up with the choppy strings,” Jobson recalled of the sessions:
My credit on [These Foolish Things] casually says “strings” but I don’t think people realize that I not only wrote all the string parts, but I individually over-dubbed the violins, violas and cellos until my fingers were blistered. I also added the double bass parts by playing them on viola at double speed and then slowing down the tape (Jobson, 141).
The intensive string over-dubs changed the music beyond recognition – the Dylan original was a classic finger-picked ballad/protest ballad in the vein of folk icon Woody Guthrie (with whom the unknown 19-year-old Dylan visited regularly during the famous folkie’s final years). The finger-picking style – with thumb picking out the base line and middle fingers picking out the rest of the chord – is a great vehicle for writer/poets who prefer to place emphasis on sound and alliteration, the steady rhythm serving to unclutter the poetry and message. John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero‘ is a classic of the genre, where the beat is steady and simple throughout, yet the message is barbed and to the point. In this regard, Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’ is designed to be listened to. Indeed, Dylan took the question and answer format in part from the sacred text Child Ballad No. 12 Lord Randaland it does carry a sense of religious fervor that one suspects Ferry responded to – he didn’t care much for the political aspects of the song (“I can’t be bothered with all that Cuba Crisis stuff” (Viva)), but the devotional format would have made sense with Roxy recording the evangelical ‘Psalm‘ from Stranded almost concurrently with ‘Hard Rain’s’ release.
Lyrically, Ferry largely keeps to Dylan’s word choice, dropping only the repeated personal pronoun – instead ofI’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, Ferry’s version go straight to the verb form as in “stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains”/crawled on six crooked highways and so on. These minor edits keeps each line moving at a fair clip. Ferry’s cover of ‘Hard Rain’ also adopts the Q&A format, with each verse the narrator asking a specific question, with answers coming from the young son. Verse 1 asks Where have you been? (Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?). Verse 2 asks What Did You See?Verse 3 asks What Did You Hear? 4 asks Who Did You Meet? And the final verse asks the most important question What Will You Do Now? Ferry used this call-and-answer format to maximum effect in his famous (and very early) promotional video for the single: sitting at his Grand white piano, squeezed between the instrument’s cover and soundboard, Ferry looks directly to his viewers and asks his questions. A separate camera picks up the dialog as he turns his head dramatically to answer and describe what he sees/hears/meets (Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter/Met a young woman whose body was burning/Saw a etc). An important aspect of Dylan’s song is retained and dramatized in the promo video as we, the audience, become the ‘blue-eyed’ son making our way through this tangle of poverty, ignorance and violence. III. What Did You Hear?
By the time the first verse is underway, Ferry, Jobson and Thompson are inter-locked, moving swiftly towards twelve misty mountains and six crooked highways. At .44 we hear the winning sound of The Angelettesaffirming Ferry’s conclusion that “it’s a hard (hard!) hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” The Angelettes – Pat, Jan, Sue and Julie – were a harmony girl-group from Manchester, and along with Eddie Jobson, serve as a North England talent coup for Ferry, as he hired them for the AIR studio recordings and for his (now lost) appearance of the song on Top of The Pops. This is the first instance in a long career that Ferry uses female singers for vocal accompaniment – an attribute used extensively for future solo and Roxy Music recordings. While the commercial fortunes of The Angelettes never matched their skill for harmony and innovation, the fact that they contributed so much to ‘Hard Rain’ is often over-looked due to the humorous rag-tag chorus of the promotional video (complete with cross-dressing Coronation Street alumni), yet they shine on the album, particularly on ‘Hard Rain’ and the successful Beach Boys cover, ‘Don’t Worry Baby‘
If Verse 1 sets the ball rolling with heavy rock, strings and dynamic drumming, then Verse 2 builds the sound picture with the introduction at 1.05 of John Porter’s guitar. In an effort to paint pictures in words and music, the guitar is the first instrument that sonically responds to the horror of the lyric, recoiling with a shake and a twang at I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’ (1.21). Intending the song to be heard (before it was seen) Ferry applies sound-effects liberally: “The sound of a thunder” produces thunder-claps at 2.02; “Heard the roar of a wave” and we hear the sound of waves crashing at 2.08; Heard many people laughin’ brings forth studio laughter (2.17) and so on. In fact, it may be the effects and laughter that got up the noses of hardcore Dylan fans and critics – how can laughter be appropriate in such an apocalyptic song? – but this is both the attraction and ultimate success of this cover version – it’s grand, crass, pompous (in the best 70s sense), ironical, inspired, and above all, reverential. Taking on the mantle of the poet who “died in the gutter” new poet Ferry assumes the role of Dylan the Clown (who cried in the alley) only to be mocked by the chorus – announcement of his death is met with a sarcastic “awwww” at 2.21. Sounds like everyone in the control room – including the Angelettes – had fun with that one.
Over the course of the five verses in this six minute song, music and effects are carefully added to build a tapestry of ominous visual images and puns. The question and answer effects continue (black dog: “howwwl“/rainbow: “sprinkkkle”), yet there is a sense at the half-way point that we could conclude here and all would be fine, slow fade. A good cut for the BBC and the singles market. But the story is not over: we have been, seen and heard, but have yet to absorb the lessons of human history, so the young one volunteers to “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” Ferry is up for a-goin’ back out, and carries the second half by beefing up the instrumentation and vocals for the remaining two minutes 40 seconds of the song.
Facing an emotional challenge – the young son will most certainly face death if he goes back out into the black forest (Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden) – the chorus and guitar build their lines to a harmonious climax. But the song is designed for Ferry by Ferry, the new solo star, so he creates room in the final verse to highlight his vocal performance and power, raising his naturally odd inflections across several closing lines:
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Ferry sings brilliantly here as he spits out Where the people /Where the pellets/Where the home/…/ culminating in a fantastic staccato rhythm that requires an (audible) sharp intake of breath to get through the climax:
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Here Ferry declares his right to sing Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘ and re-interpret this classic folk song, turning it away from its acoustic roots to the world of foot-stomping teenage-rampage Glam. It matters not a wit, the message is the same: he will tell it, speak it, and continue to breathe it, for truth never goes out of style. A song re-made without compromise, Ferry gives a giant to-hell-with-you to the snobs and critics, and climbs to the top of the mountain streamline as a beacon of light, a reflector of the new modernity.
In Memoriam: To all the men, women and children killed and injured in New Zealand, March 2019. To the families of those left behind, we are sorry for your loss.
You may have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you. New Zealand Prime MinisterJacinda Ardern
Next month: Brian tackles a sad-song metaphor – ‘River of Salt’
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973. Various different versions of ‘Hard Rain’ release potent emotional energy – The Staple Singers engage in a powerful 1968 call-and-response that maintains a steady beat, and intensifies before the final verse; so too with Joan Baez, her unmistakable voice holding us in rapt attention. By far the most emotionally charged and profound take on the song, building to tears by the final verse, is Patti Smith‘s Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Noble Peace Prize. At 1.54 Smith completely freezes (her word), and there is stunned silence from the Nobel crowd as she tries to get back to the verse lines. With a disarming “Sorry…I’m sorry.. Can we start that section.. I’m sorry…I apologise.. I’m so nervous” and a wide smile, she gains a well-earned round of applause. Emotion and good-will fill the room. It’s a profoundly moving moment, and Smith tackles the tough last verse cleanly with her frailty acknowledged and her humanity intact.
Pics: BF close-shot cover These Foolish Things; RMS composite Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry (in studio recording TFT); various editions of the single; Eddie Jobson; EJ and BF making boogie at the old Grand piano; RMS composite from ‘Hard Rain‘ promo video plus some Bob Dylan shots pinched from the internet; RMS composite the magnificent Angelettes; RMS composite official BF ‘Hard Rain’ promo vid.