I would really be missing the point if I didn’t mention Bryan Ferry, because I thought he was the most exciting singer that I’d heard. His voice had limitations, but what he managed to do with it was beautiful, I mean, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. For me it covered the whole emotional spectrum, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.
I’d sooner have somebody drive nails through my scrotum, generally, than play a live show
Remarking on his Roxy Music and solo career to the New Musical Express in 1977, Brian Eno didn’t care very much for ‘Grey Lagoons’, citing it as “a very trivial track – our Fifties gesture type of thing.” There is some justification to this view as Roxy had already recorded a 50s homage on the first album, leading one band-watcher to remark that ‘Lagoons’ was revisionist, in both subject and execution: “it’s ‘Would You Believe?‘ all over again!” (Rigby). Certainly, the 50s revivalism in British pop music in 1973 was suffering from over-exposure – topping the UK charts were a multitude of I-IV-V hits along the lines of ‘See My Baby Jive’, ‘Tiger Feet’, and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. Bands like Showaddywaddy, Alvin Stardust, Mud, even the great David Bowie (‘The Jean Genie‘/’Drive-in-Saturday‘) was using the looks and hooks of 1950s rock n’ roll culture to generate sales. Yet for Roxy – who had celebrated the 50s Teddy Boy look most effectively via Andy Mackay’s heavy eye-shadow and rocker quiff – the insertion of ‘Grey Lagoons’ as the penultimate For Your Pleasure track made perfect sense: as part of the album’s conceptual song-cycle, ‘Lagoons’ provided important passage from the sleek and disturbing night-time hauntings of ‘Strictly Confidential’, ‘Dream Home’ and ‘The Bogus Man’ to the tentative optimism of 50s doo-wop cultural nostalgia as represented by grey lagoons – grey being the the transition shade from dark to light – before settling finally on album closer ‘For Your Pleasure’, the brilliant postscript track that summarizes and assesses all that comes before it, sign-posting and ushering Ferry and Roxy towards the sunnier (though still ship-wrecked) world of Stranded.
Arguably, the key to ‘Grey Lagoons’ is to hear it in the context of the overall fabric of the record and less as a stand-alone piece. While ‘Lagoons’ has sometimes been identified as the second-part of ‘The Bogus Man’ – the title ‘The Bogus Man Part 2‘ was a last minute throw-in for the BBC live performance of the song in 1972, well before the title ‘Grey Lagoons’ had been nailed down or the track even recorded. Indeed, ‘Lagoons’ had a long gestation period – it was on Ferry’s Roxy Music demo tape shoved through the letter-box of Melody Maker‘s Richard Williams in 1971 (Viva), and then it was passed over in favor of 50s pastiche Would You Believe? on the first album. Nonetheless, Ferry was right to finally include ‘Lagoons’ on For Your Pleasure, in spite of Eno’s reservations. The song provides relief from the dense and disquieting tracks that come before it, particularly the final death-sigh of ‘The Bogus Man’, as the track reaches its sordid end and the gentle piano notes of ‘Lagoons’ are introduced. Lyrically though, events remain largely pessimistic.
Album reviewer Kevin Orton perhaps sums it best: “While the band aren’t shy about plumbing the depths of misery, they never commit the cardinal sin of being dreary” (Soundblab). Musically, the track evokes the retro sensibility of Glam by mashing up 50s rock n’ roll, blistering West Coast lead guitar, folk harmonica, and a convincing run at honky-tonk piano in the spirit of Mott the Hoople‘s ‘All the Way from Memphis‘, a track that Andy Mackay played on at AIR during the FYP sessions. (Mackay was friendly enough with Mott the Hoople to seriously consider joining the band after Eno’s departure from Roxy). The brightness of the Eno/MacKay barber-shop choir during the introduction (“Blue sunsets and grey lagoooons…”) lifts us from the conundrum of the groove-inspired yet terminally dying ‘The Bogus Man’ into a brighter world, nostalgic perhaps for a time before bogus men and dream home heartaches. Paul Thompson’s drumming is simply superb as it kicks in at .23 and then maintains a typically solid yet buoyant beat throughout – a toe-tapper perfectly in time with the humorous 50s doo-wop evocation of fake alibis and morning sickness on Friday nights.
This optimism is throttled over the course of the song as Ferry uses a classic three-part dramatic structure to slowly reveal ‘Grey Lagoons’ secrets:
Blue sunsets and grey lagoons
Silver starfish with honeymoons
All these and more to choose
Satin teardrops on velvet lights
Morning sickness on Friday nights
Heaven knows what others I might bring
Broken partings making strange goodbyes
Hopeless cases with fake alibis
Even hoping we’ll be there to share
Blue suns and grey lagoons
There three stanzas can be said to be observations on (I) Courtship; (II) Marriage; and (III) Break-up. This can be seen if we substitute the words “marry me” after the closing phrase of each stanza:
Heaven knows what others I might bring
If you (marry me)
Heaven knows what others I might bring
To you (if you marry me)
Even hoping we’ll be there to share
With you (if you marry me)
For this vantage point context is everything: the first verse presents the lovers with the fresh optimism of Silver starfish with honeymoons; the second verse offers the sordid domestic realism of Morning sickness on Friday nights; and the third, the pessimistic and relationship-ending Broken partings and strange goodbyes: All these to and more to choose/ If you.. While he may have had aspirations to be a romantic crooner and lounge-lizard, no one can accuse Bryan Ferry of being a sentimentalist…!
The ‘Lagoons’ love story is similar to second Roxy single ‘Pyjamarama’, that entertaining domestic comedy of manners and the first song recorded at the FYP sessions, where the narrator’s declaration Oh how I’d love to hold you tight is reduced by song’s end to How could I apologise for all those lies. We hear again this apology in ‘Grey Lagoons’ where the narrator admits his alibis are fake – cover-ups, presumably, for what will be relationship-killing affairs. The narrative arc is the same as ‘PJ’ but as ‘Lagoons’ was written over a year or more earlier, Ferry was still interested in setting up a rich set of classic romantic couplets and imagery to convey the desired sense of promise followed by collapse. In ‘Lagoons’ the writer stands outside the relationship, composing for the listener the story of failed love at a distance, as a work of narrative poetry. For the next set of songs – ‘Pyjamarama’ and, say ‘Mother of Pearl’ or anything on Country Life or Siren – the writer is smack in the middle of the party, desperate to score. This is in part one of the reasons over time Ferry de-emphasized the importance of his lyrics – as his career with Roxy progressed, the initial position of being outside of events looking in (Roxy Music; ‘Virginia Plain’; FYP) gave way to him being at the center of the action (Stranded/Country Life/Siren), then somehow moving beyond it all – with no solutions found – towards the crisp idealized soundscapes of Flesh and Blood/Avalon. (Manifesto is the transition record, the shift clearly marked by its East and West sides). Too pat a summary perhaps, but the general drift away from lyrical density is clear by the time we get to Avalon.
And so for early cut ‘Grey Lagoons’ Ferry was still interested in the tropes of romantic language, similar to those found in another early song, ‘If There is Something‘. Instead of growing potatoes by the score or swimming all the oceans blue, the singer-songwriter presents the hyper-romantic images of Blue sunsets, Satin teardrops, Velvet lights and Silver starfish, all establishing an intricate poetic scheme that paints broad strokes of blue, silver, grey, and velvet across the romance color spectrum. For Roxy Music biographer Johnny Rogan this emphasis on romantic diction in ‘Grey Lagoons’ showed Ferry at his most lyrically trite: “it certainly displayed Ferry at his most impressionistic, glibly combining meaningless couplets.” While Rogan is a welcome and intelligent critic, he’s off the mark here, as the lyric is far from glib. (Rogan is notable also for calling final track ‘For Your Pleasure’ “trivial” (56). Is he listening to the same record we are?). In fact the imagery in ‘Lagoons’ is carefully and scrupulously composed to demonstrate how romantic language can be glamorous yet contain opposite meanings – a favorite Ferry approach.
To begin with, our suspicions should be raised by a love song that sounds sincere – the music is warm and inviting after all – and by a writing style that looks like pure love poetry. Ferry intentionally selects a rich tapestry of romantic diction to put us in the context of time-honored romance balladry – there are sunsets, honeymoons, and teardrops in abundance, but they come at an odd angle – the sunsets are blue (when does that happen?) – the lagoons are grey (not emerald green?) – satin teardrops come with morning sickness and so on. Something is left deliberately amiss here, but the music is so seductive we do not catch it – the “ohhhhhhhhs” of the Eno/MacKay barber-shop choir alone are virtuous enough to put us off our guard.
The wreckage continues if you consider the meaning of the words themselves. For instance, a lagoon is a body of water separated from other bodies of water by a natural barrier. Hence, a lagoon is always stand-alone or separated or cut-off from its source, and in some instances this isolated body of water can become so self-contained that it becomes putrid due to lack of fresh water, and turns into a swamp. A grey lifeless quagmire – hardly the stuff of togetherness, courtship and romance. Indeed, the somber greys and blues in the song all serve to highlight a lack of connection or human contact: blue sunsets, for example, can actually only happen in one place – on planet Mars. (I’m not making this up!). The difference between Earth and Mars’ nightfall is due to atmospherics (see here) but while Earth traditionally has lovely red sunsets, Mars has a sunset that is truly blue. In other words, Ferry offers his lover the promise of a blue sunset but it can only be had on another world, on Mars, the red planet, the warrior planet.
I don’t think a group so much into advanced music has ever used these old sources so obviously before.
And what about grey as a guiding metaphor: there’s those silver starfish and satin teardrops – both favored by jewelry designers across the ages as emblems of love and courtship. (Starfish tend to be necklaces, teardrops earrings). Sterling silver starfish charms, besides being aesthetically pleasing (the “star” is key), are also purchased and worn as a symbol of rebirth. The quality of rebirth is easy to understand; a starfish can easily regenerate a missing limb. But given this is a Roxy song we suspect this efficient replacement may not necessarily be a virtue – and so it turns out that we have met this narrator before, here and in other songs, particularly ‘Editions of You‘, where every new lover is a replaceable copy, endlessly substitutable like issues of a weekly magazine. This starfish will move forward alright, to live and feed, effortlessly replacing limbs at will as the need arises.
Another set of subverted romantic images comes to us courtesy of the cinema: Ferry situates the narrator and his audience within the flickering lights of the silver screen in order to tell his story of warning and vulnerability. Flush from visions of starfish and honeymoons, our narrator gushingly promises his lover Satin teardrops on velvet lights, which, all things considered, is a pretty seductive offer, as it carries with it the luxurious sensory evocations of satin and velvet to wrap our dreams in. It is interesting aspect of the song that the term “velvet lights” is emphatically cinematic – a widely read film magazine from the early 70s titled The Velvet Light Trap was essential reading for a generation of film-makers and cinema enthusiasts. The journal’s name originates from a specific part of a film camera that keeps the light out where the magazine is attached (wiki). A part of a film camera that keeps the light out – separation and concealment again as predominant image. And so too with the sweeping reference to movie-going and cinema, watching the drama of a failed romance unfold before us – the sights and sounds of Friday night’s satin tears falling against a background of flickering velvet lights before the reality of Monday morning sickness sets in. An un-love story for the ages.
The use of 50s doo-wop makes perfect sense in a song that subverts the language of romance and turns it on his head to reveal the sordid truth beneath the glamour. Ferry’s story is told by a charlatan remarkably similar to the voices we have already heard on the record – ‘The Bogus Man’ is an imposter both to himself and to others (a dangerous one at that) – the narrator in ‘Dream Home Heartache’ is an unhinged fantasizer – yet we are inclined to see the track as softer, lighter in touch as it tunefully reaches back into the past to recall an American Graffiti style idealism, an idealism recalled through our collective desire for nostalgia. Ferry’s voice cracks at the end of the song (Grey lagoons/Grey lagoons/Grey lagoon-oooun-oonanooos) sounding if he can’t really take seriously the song or story he has just told. He loves the words, loves the music – as we all do – but this is the story of a courtship gone wrong, a bill and coo designed to frighten off any potential sweetheart. The narrator starts from a position of self-loathing – or, if you prefer, personal insight – but he cannot bring himself to tell the truth to his loved one, so he tells his story the only way he knows how – through the well-worn tropes of love poetry, of romantic symbolism, of cinematic reverence. Yet all this does is demonstrate the distance inherent in language, and perhaps love itself, that unobtainable object.
‘Grey Lagoons’ belongs on For Your Pleasure alright, for it is every bit as dark and subversive as the songs that precede it, perhaps even more so, for it is presented and packaged as something it is not – like a sterling silver starfish given to a sweetheart, or a single satin teardrop shed at the movies on a lonely Friday night. To you..
Recorded: AIR Studios, London February 1973
Credits: Art work “B-Movie” by the brilliant John Foxx (early Ultravox), a true heir of Brian Eno’s ambient music; John Foxx again, Quite Man II; ; Two Worlds One Sun, from https://blog.briankoberlein.com/two-worlds-one-sun/; Velvet Light Trap magazine; and, keeping in theme, John Foxx’s the Projectionist 1
Next – January 2019: we come to the end of this particular journey next month with the track ‘For Your Pleasure’ – part false, part true, like anything. The culmination of this amazing record.
Happy New Year! and thank you all for continuing to support the blog and the writing – readership has increased substantially each month for the past three years, and for that I am thrilled and indebted to you. Muchas gracias!
I’d like to thank John O’Brien and his excellent site VivaRoxyMusic as the go-to place for Roxy Music news and info. A gentleman and a scholar. Cheers John.
And finally, though I never knew I cared about these things, congratulations to Roxy Music on getting into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. The email campaign was a hoot, but more importantly the recognition was good for the band, “the musicians, engineers, producers, designers and numerous people behind the scenes…and of course our loyal fans” (BF.com). Perhaps the band, after thinking they’ve been on the outside all these years, will now feel more part of it all – something we have known all along – it just took the world longer to catch up! 🙂