Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.
After I started with my solo career, doing classic songs written by other people, I think that had a lot of influence on my work. I became more interested in songwriting as opposed to making records.
In October 1973, the two brightest pop stars of the day both released covers albums a mere fourteen days apart from one another. David Bowie’s Pin Ups (October 5th) and Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things (October 19th) entered the UK charts on the same day on November 3rd, 1973. Legend has it that Ferry threatened lawsuits and injunctions against Bowie’s management. Ferry later confirmed the truth was less dramatic – that Bowie “cheerfully” rang him one day and said “Just to let you know, I’ve just done an album like yours.” No law suits, injunction, no bad feelings (we presume). For Bowie, his covers LP was a lark, an excuse to slow down for a few weeks, put out new product with minimal effort – keep the punters happy. But Ferry was going for greater spoils: the death of the cult of originality. Part false part true, it was time to present to his new young audience the idea that the modern personae was a creature defined – formed and informed – by books, poetry, cinema, movies, art, music, magazines, tabloid newspapers, clothes, language and style: “for me,” said 50s pop icon Frank Sinatra, capturing and reflecting the desires of post-war American society – “a tuxedo is a way of life.”
In February 2020, Bryan Ferry released Bryan Ferry – Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1974 an album of solo selections containing nine of fourteen tracks from These Foolish Things. By the time of the live concert in December 1974 Ferry had (co-)written and released Roxy Music’s Stranded and Country Life, and recorded another album of (mostly) standards with Another Time, Another Place, delivering its sublime versions of ‘The In-Crowd‘ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘. The fact that the Foolish Things material was obviously important to Ferry – and still is, given that the Albert Hall album had plenty more live tracks to choose from – its heavy inclusion in the set confirms Ferry was willing to forge a parallel career path that looked self-consciously to the past (Foolish Things), in order to create a fresh European sound that provided a roadmap to the future (Stranded). Whether this corresponds to a demise – or a “d ” of the Roxy aesthetic (as Phil Manzanera put it), is entirely up to you, reader, and your discerning taste and preferences.
Reviews for this month’s release of Live at the Albert Hall have been very strong, which is surprising considering the camp nature of much of the material (viz ve ‘It’s My Party‘, ‘Sympathy for the Devil‘) and the sense of the album as a you-had-to-be-there keepsake. (For a great read of happy reminiscences of those who attended the concert in ’74, see the VivaRoxyMusic forum discussion here). Echoing widespread raves for the release, Pitchfork declared that Albert Hall “captures the prolific Roxy Music leader in top form.” Spill Magazine gave the album a high 4.5/5 rating; and Rolling Stone enthused that the concert “is a must-hear snapshot of one of the Seventies’ finest artists on an absolute tear.”
The Royal Albert Hall solo show was an important gig both strategically – The Royal Albert Hall of the early 70s didn’t put on many rock shows (Pink Floyd were banned in 1969 for shooting off cannons) – and it was a big deal musically, with a large cast of Roxy and solo supporting players to make it all work (“Basically, I’m using the people who played on the albums,” said Ferry at the time, “including the orchestra, that’s 55 people”). The concert also marked an important transition milestone for Ferry: by the time he had put on the now-famous formal dinner jacket and bow tie for the show, the look was already over a year old, the singer having slipped into its skin a year previously as part of another genre-busting visual shift with prime project Roxy Music, away from the strategic glittery appropriation of Glam (1971-72), and into the ‘Gentleman of Style’ formal classicism as demonstrated by the music on The Third Roxy Music Album and the 1973-74 Stranded Tour.
Pitchfork summarized Ferry’s appeal and public personae in 1974 as “being Bob Dylan in 1965, Clark Gable in 1939, and Oscar Wilde in 1895…He commanded his space, he bulldozed the rickety fence between sincerity and irony for a generation of acolytes, and his hair was fabulous.” The hair was fabulous alright, and so was the exquisite taste – Ferry could not put a foot wrong in 1973-74, relying on his brilliant capabilities in art and design to dress and present himself to the public as his own argument for success.
“His ambition was, as usual, to get to the kernel of pop-cultural sensibility,” writes Roxy cultural critic Paul Stump when coming to grips with the Bryan Ferry persona in 1973. Yet ambition only partly reveals the complete absorption of Ferry’s life into his art, for, in spite of the pink flamingos and good taste, at heart of the Roxy machine there is an essential weirdness of presentation, a filtered condition of an artistic sensibility applying English tropes to American ideas and images.
Take, for instance, the beef-cake picture of 1960s hot-rod boy toy Bryan Ferry, tee-shirted, gold-chained, dark-haired and daring. Ferry goes into this pose as a statement of independence: this clearly isn’t Roxy Music (Roxy’s covers are cinematic scenes as sleeve art), this is Bryan Ferry as Elvis or Brando – a solo star performing the standards for you, dear audience, updated with a just a hint of something new to keep you interested. The moment Ferry slipped into the skin of his record though, it changed the trajectory of his career (“through every step/a change”). Absorbing the language and structure of classic pop and the Great American Songbook served to heighten Ferry’s musical sense of himself and what he could perform. “I was there learning all these songs by people I’d always admired like Cole Porter, Smokey Robinson, etc. and it made me want to master the art of writing a good melody,” before adding – “these people had in fact more influence on me than the so-called avant-garde” (NME, May 79).
The stage was set then: in October 1973 Ferry started his solo career wearing the skin of a 1950s pin up model who had been invited to partake in the creative spoils available within the New York City Brill Building hit-making factory to absorb the nuances of melody and composition as written by the great pop composers of the mid-20th century: Goffin & King; Leiber & Stoller; Lennon & McCartney. By the time Ferry got to the end of the recording sessions he had increased in confidence and was ready to move into his real zone of interest: the great jazz standards of the 20th Century – in particular, the Stachey & Maschhwitz 1935 classic These Foolish Things.
Frank Sinatra had covered ‘Foolish Things’ on his last album for Columbia Records, Point of No Return. Ella Fitzgerald covered the song, adding additional lyrics for good measure. Billie Holiday covered it. Nat King Cole cut a splendid version that has never been bettered. Sam Cooke covered it. So did the giants of bop and post-bop jazz – John Coltrane. Charlie Parker. Chet Baker… You can almost see Ferry in AIR Studios salivating at the chance to record the song, the buzz of being in the same company as his musical heroes (“Opens up exclusive doors oh wow!“), gleefully fussing with his new musical prodigy Eddie Jobson over the details – tone, musical arrangement, performance. (“I was the whole orchestra” noted Jobson on those early sessions, “because Bryan couldn’t really afford an orchestra back then”). Taking the arrangement for ‘Foolish Things’ that Jobson and Paul Thompson had so carefully and expertly worked up, Ferry approached the microphone to perform his take on a timeless classic, slipping into the skin of Sinatra as he did so. Finding his form in the first few lines, his enunciation affected and clear, Bryan Ferry transformed himself into an interpreter of standards, an arbitrator of taste for a generation.
Q: On a long-term basis, the idea of doing standards, being a modern Sinatra, is intrinsically appealing?
A: There are many beautiful songs I’d like to do – so why limit oneself?
Bryan Ferry, NME, December 1974
Ferry had two promotional films made in support of the two best cuts on These Foolish Things: ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and title track ‘These Foolish Things‘. ‘Hard Rain’ is genuinely exciting, filmed with energy and verve, with a keen eye on making the Thursday night slot on Top of the Pops, while ‘Foolish Things’ is the unloved and glum double. It’s a matter of form and function: we are in forlorn, emotive territory after all. Broken romance. Fleeting memories. Self-conscious performance, hand-on-brow: “Oh, will you never let me be?/Oh, will you never set me free?”
Ferry not only sings ‘Foolish Things’, he performs it:
The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses
The waiters whistling as the last bar closes
The song that Crosby sings
These foolish things
Remind me of you
On stage at that Albert Hall concert in December 1974, you can hear the audience howl with excitement the moment Ferry adopts his Sinatra persona for concert closer ‘These Foolish Things’. The audience enthusiasm is not based on the song, necessarily, but the opportunity for their hero to step out of his rock star role and act like an actor and matinee idol while performing a scene from what has become one of their favorite television films: the ‘Foolish Things’ promo. Ferry cheerfully collapses the difference between rock star and actor as part of his natural art-background modus operandi, earning the credit bestowed on him by cultural observer Michael Bracewell as being in the “the presence of an entirely postmodern sensibility at work.” True to form, NME scribe Max Bell was at the gig that chilly December night and describes the encore: “Ferry comes back to croon one more number, ‘These Foolish Things’, cigarette drooping Sinatra style. Jobson tinkles the piano in the next apartment while Ferry sings about Crosby singing.” In short, to wrap his show, Ferry performs for his audience a cover version of a song that re-enacts the film he made of himself performing a cover version of the song, which in itself is a enactment of the moment of the song’s composition. (Phew!). Postmodern sensibility indeed.
Clocking Bing Crosby as one of many singers of ‘These Foolish Things’ and also a referenced character in its story (the song that Crosby sings), Ferry invites visions of old Hollywood into his performance, re-creating a popular continuum of male celebrity across the ages – Astaire, Crosby, Bogart, and Sinatra. In the promotional clip Ferry serves up a white piano set against a background of pink flamingo shade. An unscrewed and half empty whiskey bottle sits open beside a burning cigarette. The mood is sombre but heated, the shadow of tropical plants paint prison bars on Ferry’s face, who, deep in performance, raises his eyes to the heavens, chasing down memories that will not settle. He smokes. He drinks. He emotes. The pianist plays the song that Crosby sings. We’re in Casablanca, and we are in Casablanca.
Today, if you feel so inclined, you can visit a simulacrum of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca city (it is simulacrum, for Rick’s Cafe is neither film set or real historical location). The description in the tourist blurb reads like the interior set-direction for Ferry’s promotional film:
…curved arches, a sculpted bar, balconies, balustrades as well as beaded and stencilled brass lighting and plants that cast luminous shadows on white walls…
Ferry did Bogart in 2HB, but the homage was based on literary allusion, while the clothes were still razzle dazzle Glam. Ferry did the cigarette smoking Lonely Man in Do the Strand, but he was standing left-of-stage, while on the other side of the room the jukebox sang Sinatra, not Ferry. And then Eno left Roxy Music and the band re-calibrated into something stronger, not better necessarily, but more musical, fulfilling the prophecy at the close of For Your Pleasure: “Through every step, a change/You watch me walk away.” Foolish Things was a surprise hit and Ferry took command of center stage. (“It was a weird situation to be in, two gold albums which were selling without live promotion”).
Buoyed by the success, but ever loyal to Roxy Music – snapping at one reporter, “You’re assuming that my solo career is more important than Roxy, which is not in fact the case” (Sounds) – Ferry was nevertheless fundamentally changed by the recording of his first solo album. “I consider ‘These Foolish Things‘ to be the third Roxy Music album due to the influence it had on my writing” (2009).
Ferry went into 1973 as a rock futurist, the leader of a demented band of musical personalities and collisions, and came out the end of it as the new superstar of male classicism, the embodiment of new money, a style icon for thousands of kids who understood intuitively that it was all showbiz, a con against authenticity, a kick-in-the-balls against seriousness in a world were a heightened cinematic and a musical self-identity was all that mattered. Ferry went through Alice’s rabbit-hole knowing he was being watched, which was the only way to go, for if you weren’t being watched, you were nothing. This was social life as arch spectacle and love as a foolish thing, mediated through showbiz and presentation, a re-telling of the story of your life in the only manner you felt comfortable with – as a consumer. Ferry capitalized on this zest for distance and irony and, for those that were watching, marketed his image as a man living outside of the narrative of emotion and sentiment, yet yearning for an authentic life lived, just like his heroes Bogart and Sinatra.
FERRY: (Singing) A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces, an airline ticket to romantic places – and still, my heart has wings. (NPR reviews ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall, 1974’).
The dream places Ferry center-stage. He sings the same songs that Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald once sang. He stands under those kleig lights, in the spotlight, on no less a stage than the prestigious Royal Albert Hall.
Ferry appears to be acting a role within the often impressionistic narrative of the songs – and yet the acting of each role is already in itself a stylised caricature.
I love that mohair suit in the spotlight business. [Frank Sinatra] has an immaculateness which I admire. His best stuff is like this … the sort of thing you put on when you get home in the rain. Pour a couple of martinis, sling it on the phonogram, kick off your shoes, put your feet up, and survey your G-Plan furnished apartment.
‘These Foolish Things’ was not a celebration of rock but a subversion of it.
Stranded: left without the means to move from somewhere (Oxford Dictionary).
Titbits: An extra this month for fans of The Albert Hall gig. The original NME review by Max Bell, printed a week or so after the event. Enjoy!
Bryan Ferry: Royal Albert Hall, London
Max Bell, New Musical Express, 28 December 1974
THE ALBERT HALL is teeming, brim-full with the beautiful awaiting the first solo airing of his master’s voice in the Capital.
Onstage an electric-acoustic seven-piece, Bugatti and Muskett, are performing a pleasant warm-up set. Although the material isn’t exhilarating, and definitely sub-Byrds, the playing presence of B.J. Cole on pedal steel and Barry De Souza (drums), establishes their credentials.
The audience are pleased but concentrating on other things. At ten to nine, there’s a momentary hush as the lights dim, then a huge roar announces the emergence of the Group and Orchestra, the former resplendent in tuxedos and looking distinctly self-conscious.
But just as you’re musing the wisdom of that venture, eyes left while a huge spotlight follows the evening star across the marble. Ferry, formally smart in dark dinner suit, and patent leather hair, swaggers to a centre microphone and introduces himself with ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.
Behind him Jobson fiddles and John Porter’s guitar works intermittently though everyone is watching Bryan.
When he reaches those lines about the Kennedys, a werewolf grimace twists his face bringing out the full menace of the lyric.
Straight into ‘I Love How You Love Me’, Manzanera carrying the lead part until Jeff Daley’s alto sax rips a hole in the melody. Ferry’s voice is excellent. Notice how he’s dropped the vibrato now, concentrating on emphasis and tone for vocal effects.
He has maybe the most distinctive white male sound of the moment and adapts it accordingly so that, although he’s an idiosyncratic singer, he isn’t an annoying one.
Time for a quick “Hello, how are you?” and then virtuoso John Wetton trundles the crazy rocking bass into ‘Baby I Don’t Care’. Bryan hangs on to the final phrase, just like Presley, sashaying gently until a right hand cuts the air. End of song.
Porter’s guitar is functioning properly for ‘It’s My Party’, he and Manzanera interlocking neatly on the rhythm parts. Any chances of this being a fag song are wiped out by the butch brass and Ferry’s sardonic gestures on the tear-jerking lines.
It’s obvious that no chances have been taken tonight, everything is polished to a degree, very tight and precision timed.
Martyn Ford, Bryan’s arranger and conductor, brings the strings into action for an exactly faithful ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, sung to a background of muted feminine squeals. The climax of this number is superb live, with Wetton and Thompson rapping out the heart beat under a fading vocal.
‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is a minor disappointment, missing the “wall of sound” drumming which is almost made up for by Porter’s stylish solo. His guitar work improves steadily after the initial mishap, switching to slide for ‘Another Time Another Place’ after which Ferry gives him a name check.
There’s a momentary lapse in the atmosphere with an average rendition of ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ which lacks the frenzy of the original and is unfortunately followed by a plodding ‘You Are My Sunshine’, spoilt by the girl singers being a shade too raucous and the trumpets not raucous enough.
However, Bryan catches the fervour on the upsurge with a very hot ‘Finger Poppin”, removes the mike for the first time, sweating under the lights. Ford twists in time to the tempo and Chris Mercer stands up to blow a turbulent tenor solo. Up-roarious reception.
‘Tracks Of My Tears’ is introduced as one of Ferry’s all-time favourites and he sings like he means it. The girls are good, too, especially on the oo-oo’s, not The Miracles, but good.
The hall is charged now. It’s already a success and getting better.
‘You Won’t See Me’ and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ keep it simmering, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ takes it to boiling point. Ferry needs the lyric sheet for the plethora of verses, but gets away with that by whipping a real fervour into the sentiment, assisted by the power house Paul Thompson.
The first genuine surprise of the night’s entertainment comes with the decision to do ‘A Really Good Time’ from Country Life which is followed by a tremendous ‘In Crowd’ in which Manzanera pulls out all the stops and slicks off his best Sterling Morrison riffs.
Exit Ferry with the band still on, pandemonium down front and a foot-stomping demand for an encore.
He returns to croon one more number, ‘These Foolish Things’, cigarette drooping Sinatra style. Jobson tinkles the piano in the next apartment while Ferry sings about Crosby singing.
Nelson Riddle would approve, and probably Cole Porter, too.
© Max Bell, 1974