‘Stranded’ moved us into different territory.
In early Fall 1973, just before the recording of The Third Roxy Music Album Stranded, the members of Roxy Music were reviewing career options: continue working under the successful group banner (highly recommended), or disband and pursue solo careers (recommended only if your name is Bryan Ferry). Phil Manzanera voted to continue (“I hadn’t had my fill yet of being in a rock n roll band yet”). Andy Mackay was skeptical and considered joining Mott the Hoople (not recommended). Bryan Ferry knuckled down and said Roxy would only continue “on his terms” (“I’d been nursing the idea for Roxy since 1964-65,” he told the NME, confirming authorship). The outcome was a mix of compromise and creative fiscal necessity: management pointed the lads in the direction of Brian Eno and Basing Street Studios in order to kick-start solo careers (Mackay didn’t waste a second, recording In Search of Eddie Riff at the studio with Paul, Eddie, Phil and Eno). They were also encouraged to work with Ferry on composing and recording the new Roxy album. Manzanera offered the music for ‘Amazona‘ and received a co-credit and solid reviews. Mackay offered the music for ‘A Song for Europe‘ and created an instant Roxy Music classic. (Oh, and a co-credit too). Compromise, evidently, had worked.
During our review of ‘Serenade‘ we noted how, without a vocal, melody line or lyrics to play to, the typical Stranded backing track of drums, bass and keyboards was carefully layered and recorded by producer Chris Thomas (“we’d build up these backing tracks to flesh it out, and that was always tremendous fun. Then Bryan would come in at the end and put his vocals on”). Imagine then Andy Mackay offering up the music for Song #6 (original working title for ‘A Song for Europe’), and Ferry jotting down impressions and ideas on first hearing: “Andy came to me with the basis of ‘Song For Europe’. It’s so much more musical than any of the things that I’ve written” (Ferry). And while the music sounded “very European” to Ferry, the resulting track is less a direct ode to the city and more about the sensory impact of Andy’s original music: in short, ‘A Song for Europe’ is Ferry’s lyrical expression of love to the beautiful composition that Andy Mackay had presented to him.
I. Moments Lost in Wonder
Scratching the idea of logical narrative such as had been seen in ‘In Every Dream Home‘ or even ‘Serenade‘, Ferry chooses to tell a different story in ‘A Song for Europe‘, one that is self-consciously sensual and direct. With its elegant piano and haunting atmospherics, ‘Europe’ defined for audiences the template for the Roxy Music ‘State of Mind’. A marked shift from the more difficult (for some) and esoteric aspect of the Roxy canon – as found in ‘The Bogus Man‘ or ‘For Your Pleasure‘ – ‘Europe’ neatly dove-tails Ferry’s ground-breaking recent solo work – most notably the jazz-tinged lounge lizard treatment of ‘These Foolish Things‘ – into a more accessible and inviting (warm, romantic) elegant musical tapestry.
Musically, ‘A Song for Europe’ is built on the European folk tradition of sentimental crowd-pleasing ballads and, at face value at least, presents a conventional song structure. Indeed, in his excellent book on Roxy Music, “Unknown Pleasures”, Paul Stump identifies the track’s structural pattern as the typical ABABCB (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus). Yet if you read the full lyric (posted in its original 1973 format at bryanferry.com) and recall your own experience of the track, you may agree that ‘A Song for Europe’ is in fact more nuanced this. Based on a i–ii dim–V–i chord progression, and set in the key of A-minor (musical characteristic: “tender, plaintive, graceful in character, capable of soothing”), ‘Europe’s structure is closer to Ferry’s verse-only preference for songs that contain a build-and-release strategy, with the release – when it comes – typically coming from Manzanera and Mackay band solos (with heroic efforts from Eno on earlier Roxy recordings). Bearing this in mind, ‘Europe’s structure therefore contains a typical Roxy bait-and-switch maneuver, closer to an irregular AAB-C-ABAA structure:
Verse I (A): Here as I sit at this empty cafe, Thinking of you
Verse II (A): Though the world is my oyster, It’s only a shell full of memories
Chorus I (B): Now only sorrow no tomorrow, There’s no today for us nothing is there
Bridge (C): [instrumental]
Verse III (A): These cities may change but there always remains, My obsession
Chorus II (B): I remember all those moments, Lost in wonder that we’ll never find again
Verse IV (A), Latin: Ecce momenta Illa mirabilia/Quae captabit In aeternum
Verse V (A), French: Tous ces moments perdus dans l`enchantement, Qui ne reviendront jamais
In short (if we’ve got this right), the AAB-C-ABAA structure provides tension but no relief sing-along chorus as in ‘Hey Jude‘s fade-out). No resolution then for the considerable build-up of emotional angst, so distraught in memory that the English language cannot express the intensity of the emotion expressed. Andy Mackay does justice to his composition by wailing acute pain on saxophone, responding in kind to the heightened emotion, forever trapped in time like the Napoleonic palaces of Paris or the ancient cobbled streets of Rome. Not exactly conventional as advertised (typical Roxy), but certainly attractive and inviting nevertheless.
While Andy composed the music, the band justifiably cited Eddie Jobson as a key contributor to the ‘A Song for Europe’s success (really, a perfect blending of Mackay, Ferry, Thompson and Jobson’s peak-Roxy musical skill and taste). Ferry’s judgement of Jobson‘s musical skill as a replacement for Eno cannot be faulted (despite the cloak-and-dagger drama of his replacing Eno), as it is the classically trained Jobson who provides the symphonious attention to detail needed to pull off the conservative yet keenly felt film-noir atmospherics of ‘Europe’, a fact duly noted by Roxy Music band members:
Eddie Jobson did a great job, playing synths, violin, and even some piano, bringing a different kind of musicality to the project – for instance, his superb, classical-style piano-playing on ‘A Song For Europe’.
You know, Eddie’s a very good musician, obviously things like ‘Song For Europe’ benefited hugely from having Eddie play keyboards on it.
You know, having Eddie Jobson was fantastic, so we were sort of stretching our musicality and of course, ‘Song For Europe’, now that’s the sort of track that couldn’t have been done in the previous years.
And Jobson‘s own recollection of the performance provides insight into the measure of importance he brought to ‘A Song for Europe’s birth and recording:
I played the piano alone. Everything else was overdubbed to the piano, including the drums, timpani, and the electric piano, which I also played. Andy came up with the basic chords. Phil added some nice George Harrison guitar. The piano approach was European classical mixed with a little Charles Aznavour lounge. Remember, this is only two years after I was a strictly classical player: I hadn’t quite figured out how to play rock yet.
Roxy Music has constructed the modern English equivalent of the wall-of-sound. Added to the thick mix is the unique voice of Bryan Ferry, who sounds alternately tormented (“Psalm”), frantic (“Street Life”)… He delivers his consistently clever lyrics in the most disquieting baritone in pop.
Paul Gambaccini, ‘Stranded’ Review, Rolling Stone
II. The World Is My Oyster
“Roxy songs are not easy to cover” said Andy Mackay with typical insight in 2012. “Whether that’s because we make them very distinctive and there’s nothing left for people to sort of drag out of them, or whether it’s because Bryan’s lyrics are kind of so wonderful and sort of important, without Bryan singing them, maybe they just don’t work.” Wise words indeed. If you did want to cover a Roxy track, ‘A Song for Europe‘ would seem a safe bet: the pacing and sentiment welcomes the jazz lounge guitarist or the pub playing piano populist, allowing lots of room for emotion, vocal emphasis, for expression of personality. Until you get to the drama. And the angst. And the poetic exaggeration (“and the bridge.. it sighs”), the French, the Latin … And then you realize you better have some heft, some balls, to pull it off (so you choose to play ‘Yesterday’ instead).
In sharp contrast to the freaks and schizophrenics presented on previous album For Your Pleasure (‘Strictly Confidential‘/ ‘Dream Home‘/ ‘Bogus Man‘), with ‘A Song for Europe’ Ferry jumped at the chance to fully inhabit a character that was graceful, stylish and elegant, manifesting an erudite sensibility that was comfortable with cultures from around the world and great architectures from the past. As a result, the world of ‘Europe’ is instantly attractive to the listener even though the narrator is consumed by romantic despair. The first twelve seconds of the song introduce a new mood and setting for Roxy Music listeners – “Here as I sit at this empty cafe / Thinking of you” – the musicianship is gentle and precise, haunting and haunted (0.0-0.12):
The musical expressiveness of these opening bars (beautifully played by Jobson) is matched by a stirring yet world-weary vocal introduction by Ferry, who establishes himself one of the greatest pop baritones of his generation – a Matt Monroe or Frank Sinatra – and also one of the finest English lyricists working in England in the 1970s (a remarkable achievement for the time as few popular singers also wrote their own material. See: ‘These Foolish Things’). With a ‘A Song for Europe’ Ferry paints a picture as vivid as it is unbearable:
Here as I sit at this empty cafe
Thinking of you
I remember all those moments
Lost in wonder that we’ll never
The feelings are sober and clear (“empty cafe”) and the emotional state is underlined by the phonetic stumble on “Thin-k-ing”, while the yearning is conveyed by the consonant stretch in “rememmber”, “momments”, “wonnnder” and “nevvver”. From cold introspection to astonishment (“lost in wonder”) to despair and back again – all executed in five concise and perfectly chiseled lines. (“The best lyricist in Britain,” said producer Chris Thomas of Ferry. “I’m certain of it, I mean who else is there?”). And who are we to argue..
Though the world is my oyster
It’s only a shell full of memories
And here by the Seine Notre Dame casts a long
Now only sorrow no tomorrow
There’s no today for us nothing is there
For us to share but yesterday
The enunciation and expression of each word is teased out by Ferry and dramatized to fully capture every drop of hard-won emotion. “Lonely shadow” paves the way for the internal rhymes of “sorrow” / “tomorrow” while other verses rely on a two syllable emphasis (“to-day” / “noth-ing“) before resolving to a dramatic three syllable punchline, such as the classic “but yess-ter-daaaaaiiy” – which Ferry knows is so good that he uses “yesterday” twice to conclude two different verses, as the memory soars into the lonely shadows, with no one to hear the emotion but us listeners, the fully engaged audience.
Since the age of 10 I had loved music so much, and had absorbed so many influences from so many genres, that I was bursting with ideas, and now I felt I had an audience who was willing to listen to them.
“I often see a song in the same kind of structure that one sees a drawing,” Ferry explained to interviewer David Tipmore in 2019, drawing shapes in the air by way of example. “Our first single, ‘Virginia Plain,’ was based on a watercolor I once did. Ideas for songs come very quickly to me, very easily. The thing that takes all the time is refining the idea.” (Village Voice). Upon hearing Andy Mackay‘s chord structure for ‘A Song for Europe‘, the ideas clearly came thick and fast for Ferry. On the one hand there was the jokey idea of Old Europe as portrayed by the balladering pop stylings of Charles Aznevour (“France’s Frank Sinatra”), a singer who had considerable success in the UK for the song “She” (which enjoyed a head-shaking fourteen week run in the charts). With typical dry wit, Ferry was also calling out a major TV show of the times – The Eurovision Song Contest (Concours Eurovision de la chanson) – a yearly held music competition whereby European regional juries decided a song and performance winner from entries across Europe. The punchline for Roxy fans was that in its early incarnation the show was known as “A Song For Europe“. In addition, Britain was considering membership into the European Market around the same time (a membership that was recently just given away on a whim) so punning on songs about Europe was particualry au courant. It would take Bowie a further three years to state that the “European canon is here” (1976), but Roxy were already projecting (and playing up) the European zeitgeist in 1973/4.
It also made sense to pay homage to the locals as Roxy Music enjoyed a large and loyal following in Europe (see: Roxy Mania), having failed in their early days to secure an audience in the American market. As Andy Mackay later observed: “Roxy always were and to a large extent still too weird for mainstream American touring…We chose to make things happen in Europe where we built big following really quickly and spent our time there” (Quietus). By 1973 Roxy had already toured Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, France and England with only a few dates in the USA. (E.G. records founder David Enthoven: “the Americans didn’t fucking get it at all”).
More compelling as a source of European influence for Roxy Music is the fact that that Mackay‘s chord progression provoked a typically artisan response in Ferry, inspiring an outpouring of European cultural influences and moods. Roxy observer Michael Bracewell cites this approach as the “musical and stylistic epitome of modern cool – the term ‘cool’ being used here in its old jazz sense as the possessor and purveyor of a personal style” (Bracewell). Thus Ferry hears Mackay’s chords and melody and conjures the image of an ex-pat American in Paris and in doing so retraces the steps of his heroes, the American jazz legends of the 1950s – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sony Rollins, Art Blackey, Ella Fitzgerald – all of whom gained regular employment in Europe when Chicago and New York couldn’t always pay the bills – and who recorded some of their greatest live recordings at European venues such as the famous Club Saint-Germain and the Paris Olympia Theatre. To our ears ‘A Song for Europe‘ conjures the mood of Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue, or more specifically – the 1957 Miles Davis French recording Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), where, in the words of jazz critic Michael G. Nastos, the recording strives to evoke the smokey haze and “Sensual nature of a mysterious chanteuse and the contrasting scurrying rat race lifestyle of the times, when the popularity of the automobile, cigarettes, and the late-night bar scene were central figures.”
The words ‘automobile’, ‘cigarettes’ and ‘late-night bar scene’ had better strike a chord with Roxy Music listeners or we’ll send you directly back to Spandau Ballet starting school. And so Ferry invites us into this jazzy European milieu and does not let go:
Though the world is my oyster
It’s only a shell full of memories
And here by the Seine Notre Dame casts a long
My ‘oyster’ (cunnilingus in all but name), enables Ferry to give shape (head?) to his “shell full of memories” while Notre Dame – the ‘Lady of Paris’ – sits eternal and stony faced, surrounded by her fortress of crypts, bells, clocks and gargoyles, overseeing the endless inadequacies of her city’s inhabitants. This striking metaphor – one of Ferry’s best – provides ‘A Song for Europe‘ with a shot of gothic darkness – a throwback to the darker corners of For Your Pleasure – that ultimately saves the song from falling into cheap melodrama, as Ferry equates the failed romance of “no tomorrow” with spiritual and creative death. Charles Aznavour, take note..
For all of its hip puns and cultural references, mood-making and film noir atmosphere, ‘A Song for Europe’ is, in effect, a gift for the fans. Yes, the song and the Stranded album overall established Ferry’s career image as a man who personified “the classic European notion of the doomed romantic” (NME) and who perfected the “elegant…seductive croon” (Allmusic) that would ultimately lead to the global success of Avalon and the singles ‘More Than This’, ‘Take a Chance with Me’ and the title track ‘Avalon’, with its pop video farewell to grand European eloquence, the white tux and Roxy Music itself.
What makes ‘A Song for Europe’ so special for the Roxy Music fan-base, though, is this sense of the track being a gift, a shared experience – and a farewell to the first phase of the band’s development. Working towards their first co-credit, Ferry listened to the music Andy Mackay composed and in turn painted for us his own private movie. The objective – as always with Roxy – was fantasy projection: you see on the picture screen a fantasy of your grander self and your engagement with the sensations of your stylized, heightened emotions. “Here as I sit in this empty cafe” you fantasize, for this is your story, your own projected self flushed with emotional sensitivity, exaggerated romantic despair (“And the bridge, it sighs..”), as you become the poet you always knew you would be…
I remember all those moments
Lost in wonder that we’ll never
On a final note it is worth noting that the “we” in the second line is important: Ferry often gets knocked for avoiding emotional depth due to his work being filtered through an ironic set of signifiers, allusions and puns. Be that it may, he is also brilliant emotional dramatist who takes pride in reflecting back to us our own greatest desires, moments, and failures. And he gets it right too: when my own failures stare me in the face I seek out an alternative world, a world of heightened emotion and drama, for in my loneliest moments I too am dying of endless, eternal heartbreak – in Latin and French, of course..
Next: Party time! Peak Roxy and ‘Mother of Pearl‘
Credits: Firstly, a big thank you to Fly Garrick over @ glamazonaroxymusic for applying just the right amount of red tinge to our gargoyle friend over at Notre Dam; Stranded promo; a song for europe art and music exhibition curated by Thibaut de Ruyter, designed by Büro Otto Sauhaus in Berlin (see the exhibition’s song listing below); Eddie Jobson 1974 with uncredited photo Notre Dam; sheet music shot ‘A Song for Europe’; amazing uncredited picture found at BableColour (will track that down and provide more details); old Eurovision Song contest poster BBC; nightshot Notre Dam with Miles Davis and the cover for Ascenseur pour l’echafaud
‘A Song for Europe’ exhibition tracks:
– Holly Johnson, Europa (Spoken Word), 2014
– Kraftwerk, Europe Endless, 1977
– Steve Reich, Different Trains: Europe During the War, 1989
– Asia, Countdown to Zero, 1985
– David Sylvian, Café Europa, 1999
– Phantom/Ghost, My Secret Europe (Piano Version), 2003
– Kate Tempest, Europe Is Lost, 2016
– Allen Ginsberg, Europe! Europe!, 1959
– Serge Teyssot-Gay – Georges Hyvernaud, Leur Europe, 2000
– Nena, Das Land der Elefanten, 1984
– Randy Newman, Political Science, 1972
– Gianna Nannini, Ragazzo dell’Europa, 1983
– Europe, The Final Countdown, 1986
– Noir Désir, L’Europe, 2001
– Max Richter, Europe, After The Rain, 2002
– Roxy Music, A Song for Europe, 1973