For Your Pleasure

A song-by-song analysis of the lyrics and music of Roxy Music and the solo work of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera in the 1970s


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You Won’t See Me

Screen Shot 2019-11-29 at 1.51.51 PMYou Won’t See Me, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
You Won’t See Me, The Beatles, (original, Rubber Soul, 1965)

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.Screen Shot 2019-11-29 at 12.50.37 PM

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-/ me etc. 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…

Paul McCartney

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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.

Credits: Alan Aldridge, Beatles illustrator extraordinaire;  rare Beatles Rubber Soul shot, LA Times; Paul and Jane Asher, Beatles Bible.

Next: ‘I Love How You Love Me’ – Phil Spector returns with a classic!


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The Tracks of My Tears

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The Tracks of My Tears
, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
The Tracks of My Tears, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (original, Going to a Go-Go, 1965).

Teenage dreams, so hard to beat
The Undertones

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.

Bryan Ferry

I. The Kingdom

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.

Bryan Ferry

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” Screen Shot 2019-11-16 at 9.04.51 AMthat 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

II. Windows

“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 Roberts interviewing Bryan Ferry, thirty-seven years after the release of These Foolish Things.

Titbits

My favorite Screen Shot 2019-11-28 at 5.59.21 AMmusic 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.

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Next: Ferry tackles the greatest: The Beatles. December 2019!


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Sympathy for the Devil

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Sympathy for the Devil, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Sympathy for the Devil, Bryan Ferry, (cover version, Live at the Albert Hall, 1974)
Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones (original, Beggars Banquet, 1968)

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.

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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.

Charlie Watts

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.

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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.

Mick Jagger

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’.
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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.

Hal Norman

Still, I much prefer their version to mine.

Bryan Ferry

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 David Bowie 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’s A 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.
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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.

Simon Reynolds

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 Be and 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.

Bryan Ferry, 2012

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.

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Credits:

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; Kafka Die 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.

Next, November – ‘Track of My Tears’ – Ferry records a classic!


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Don’t Worry Baby

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Don’t Worry Baby, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Don’t Worry Baby, Beach Boys (original, Shut Down Volume 2, 1964)

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.

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‘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.

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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.
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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):

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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.

Bryan Ferry

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Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.

CreditsJames 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!


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It’s My Party

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It’s My Party Bryan 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 camp the record up and piss off many of 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 Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 12.39.44 PMBuilding 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
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‘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.

CreditsPrint – 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.

Next: It’s summer, so time to join The Beach Boys on the beach –  ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ everything’s going to be alright!


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Baby I Don’t Care

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Baby I Don’t Care Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Baby I Don’t Care Elvis Presley (original, written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, 1957)
Baby I Don’t Care Buddy Holly (cover, Buddy Holly, 1958)

I just got bored with the idea of always doing my own songs.

Bryan Ferry

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.

Bryan Ferry
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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!

 


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Piece of My Heart

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Piece of My Heart Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Piece of My Heart Erma Franklin (original, written by Jerry Ragovoy/Bert Berns, 1967)
Piece of My Heart Big Brother & The Holding Company (cover, Cheap Thrills, 1968)

Bert Berns – one of the greatest songwriters of all bloody time, it’s as simple as that!

Keith Richards

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.

Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.

Credits: Poster for the stage musical The Bern Berns Story: Piece of My Heart; roxymusicsongs photo-composite left to right – BB in the studio/BB with Van Morrison/poster for the film Bang! The Bert Berns Story/BB with singer Solomon Burke; Pearl album cover out-take, Janis Joplin photographed by Barry Feinstein in Hollywood, Los Angeles in 1970; Janis foreign film poster for Janis: Little Girl Blue, 2015.

Next: Ferry takes on Elvis with ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ – and nary a karate chop in sight!