From his earliest recordings with his group Roxy Music, at the beginning of the 1970s, Bryan Ferry has taken his place as one of the most iconic and innovative singers and lyricists to emerge in popular music. In his music you hear an original vocal brilliance which merges – with effortless, breathtaking elegance – the poise of Sinatra, the charisma of Gainsbourg and the intensity of Johnnie Ray. But then there was something extra – a quality of nuance, verve and performance which seemed so ultra-modern, and so refined, that it seemed to break wholly new ground.
Born in Washington, County Durham, Bryan Ferry would show exceptional promise as both a creative writer and as an actor during his school years. But his principal passions were music and fine art, and he finally opted to study Fine Art at the University of Newcastle. Here he would come into contact with the artist guru and founder of British Pop Art, Richard Hamilton, whose influence and inspiration would become an important informant of Ferry’s artistic vision. Bryan Ferry would later say that his earliest writings and recordings with Roxy Music were a direct attempt to combine his love of music with the creative possibilities and ideas that he had learned from fine art.
Having formed and fronted two student bands, The City Blues and The Gas Board, and taken a good degree in Fine Art, Bryan Ferry would be awarded a travelling scholarship by the Royal College of Art and soon move down to London. Here he began writing the songs which would be recorded on the first Roxy Music album, and recruiting the other members of the group – as well as putting together every detail of the group’s image, from stage clothes to the design of their debut record’s sleeve.
‘SHOULD MAKE THE COGNOSCENTI THINK…’
When Roxy Music first appeared on ‘Top of The Pops’ in 1972, performing their debut single, ‘Virginia Plain’, their impact was instantaneous. For here was a group which appeared to have taken the history of modern popular music, from Elvis to progressive rock by way of soul and the avant-garde, and fused the different inspirations into a seamless, glittering pure pop moment.
So assured was the Roxy Music sound, that the group seemed to have been born fully formed, with no false starts or creative timidity. Rather, their first television appearance was a flawless display of musical virtuosity, lyrical brilliance and breathtaking style. Above all, Roxy Music seemed to have combined the energy of complex rock music with the sheer emotional rush of a three minute pop single. More or less overnight, their audience was secured – from screaming teenage fans to serious students of modern music.
It was typical of Roxy Music’s originality, grand gesture and rejection of pop conventions, that they should have released their first album – ‘Roxy Music’ – before their first single rather than after. The first ‘Roxy Music’ album has now been acclaimed by successive generations of critics as one of the most important records in the history of pop and rock – an album whose influence would be compared to that of ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ by the Beach Boys. As founded by Bryan Ferry, the group would be comprised of some of the strongest and most original musicians working in modern music – all of whom have gone on to pursue highly distinguished solo careers, in addition to their work with Roxy Music.
In many ways, Ferry’s creation of Roxy Music is one of the great statements of Pop art – with all the musicians combining to make an extraordinary, intoxicating montage of musical styles.
The revolutionary electronic treatments developed by Brian Eno for the first two Roxy Music albums, would join with Andy Mackay’s mesmeric sax and woodwind playing to provide the haunting, futuristic, filmic ambience of the Roxy Music sound. Added to this was the dazzling virtuosity of Phil Manzanera’s guitar playing and the sheer dexterity and power of Paul Thompson’s drumming. The combined effect was a musical energy and eclecticism which more or less described the potential futures of popular music.
As the group’s singer, lyricist and principal composer, Bryan Ferry defined the Roxy Music style in a way which was at once iconic and artistically profound. The opening track of Roxy Music’s second album, ‘For Your Pleasure’, was the epoch-defining ‘Do The Strand’ – a song whose lyric remains unequalled as a pop update of Cole Porter. At the same time, the song evokes a dizzying vortex of pop fashionability, and could just as easily be describing the world of contemporary pop fashions as it has called up teen-beat dance crazes of the 1950s and 1960s. Tellingly, Bryan Ferry has described his idea for ‘Do The Strand’ as being that of the ‘dance of life’ – thus bringing to mind earlier dance phenomena, such as the avant garde passion and exuberance of both The Ballets Russes and the controversial Jazz Age dance craze, ‘The Charleston’.
‘READY MADES’ – THE SOLO RECORDINGS
1973 would be a year of extraordinary creativity and punishingly hard work for Bryan Ferry. In addition to his work with Roxy Music, he would record his first solo album ‘These Foolish Things’, which would showcase his founding love of classic rhythm & blues and rock & roll classics, but in a way which was entirely his own. The emotional intensity of Bryan Ferry’s vocal style can be heard to great effect on his epic interpretation of the Bob Dylan classic, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. This spectacularly theatrical, artistically defining opening track on ‘These Foolish Things’, released in 1973, would introduce what Ferry has described as his ‘ready-mades’; cover versions of recordings by artists whom he admires, which he then interprets in his own style. Like all great singers, he turns the cover version into a form of self portraiture. In the case of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, Ferry creates an astonishing fusion of racing energy and high sophistication – turning Dylan’s political allegory into a bravura display of snarling, swaggering cool.
Bryan Ferry’s vocal genius lies in his peerless ability to merge musical styles – from French chanson, through classic crooner to hard edged rock – creating that sheen of pure drama which has become his artistic signature. This was the case with his thunderous, pulsing interpretation of the northern soul classic, ‘The In Crowd’, which became a hit for Ferry in 1974. Once again, Ferry takes the existing style of a recording and then creates an amplification of its entire tone and meaning. In this case, the effect of such interpretation is to create a cover version which has the sensuality of pure pop and the emotional sophistication of cinema. Indeed, Ferry’s interpretation of ‘The In Crowd’ has become an iconic statement about high fashion, high society and high living – the mythic soundtrack to the legend of the Jet Set.
Bryan Ferry’s second solo album, ‘Another Time, Another Place’ would feature on its sleeve a photograph of the singer taken by Eric Boman. Dressed in a classic white tuxedo, during the blue light of the early evening cocktail hour, against a backdrop of sophisticated party goers gathered beside a swimming pool (one of whom was Ferry’s friend, Manolo Blahnik, the legendary shoe designer), this portrait – a modern update of the mythic glamour of The Great Gatsby – would become one of the defining images of not just Bryan Ferry’s career, but the history of popular culture.
Throughout the middle and later years of the 1970s, Bryan Ferry recorded an unbroken series of aggressively modern, intoxicating cover versions – including two of his best loved tracks, ‘Shame Shame Shame’ and Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Let’s Stick Together’. Both of these tracks took strength from their pounding, mesmeric beat – which became the perfect chassis for Ferry’s vocal. More than any other singer of his generation, Bryan Ferry performs a song in such a way as to make it entirely his own. His vocal style brings a whole world to life, making each song a dramatic performance. ‘Tokyo Joe’, released in 1977, is a perfect example of Ferry at his most filmic. Inspired by a Hollywood musical from the 1930s, this track maintains a high energy, subterranean night club feel which often distinguishes the potent atmosphere of Ferry’s recordings.
As also defined by his work with Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry’s solo work achieves a perfect tension between langour and melodrama, the results of which become a classic definition of high romance. Many of Ferry’s greatest songs describe the fate of the lonely, isolated romantic – always on the outside, even at the heart of the grandest party or the most exotic city. Ferry has said of himself, “I feel always to be on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in…” – the classic situation of the artist.
VIVA ROXY MUSIC! ROXY IMPERIAL!
Success for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music had been immediate and triumphant. For the rest of their careers the group were always at the top of the charts, with both their albums and their singles. Roxy Music concerts became legendary as rally-like gatherings of their vast, devoted fan base – many of whom, obsessed by the high romantic glamour conjured up by the group, would treat these occasions as full dress affairs – arriving in elegant costumes of their own, inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood as much as Weimar decadence.
This would also be a time of change for the group. As Brian Eno had left after the recording of ‘For Your Pleasure’ to commence his own career as a supremely successful pioneer of electronic music, electronic arts and producer, Eddie Jobson became the new group member on keyboards and violin – an instrument well suited to Roxy Music’s unique brand of artistic time travel between musical styles. As ‘Roxy Music’ and ‘For Your Pleasure’ had explored filmic soundscapes as much as futuristic rock and roll, so the third Roxy Music album – the phenomenally successful ‘Stranded’ – would consolidate the group’s musical style. At once deeply urban and richly romantic, there was a bewitching, elegaic romance to even Roxy Music’s most energised and soaring tracks. ‘Street Life’ had all the pulse and pose of Roxy Music’s avant-cocktail classic sound – a track which brought to mind the adrenalin rush of the city.
‘Stranded’s successor, the richly textured, erotically charged ‘Country Life’ would also deliver two of Roxy Music’s most intoxicating tracks, ‘All I Want Is You’ and ‘The Thrill of It All’. These were compositions which became immediate classics in Roxy Music’s legendary live performances – whirlwinds of sound, through which the high romance of Ferry’s lyrics and vocal style could dip and soar with operatic effect.
The group’s following was always fanatical in the big northern industrial cities of Britain, such as Glasgow and Newcastle, where some of the tracks for ‘Viva’ – the first ‘live’ Roxy Music album – were recorded in 1974. ‘Out Of The Blue’, from ‘Viva’, captures the heady excitement of these shows, with Andy Mackay’s swirling woodwind seeming to add a layer of enchantment to the surging drama of the performance. Here too, the impressive physicality of Paul Thompson’s drumming can be heard to spectacular effect.
The release of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry solo albums has always been regarded as a major event in terms of the artwork and packaging of the records, as much as for the music. Bryan Ferry’s vision as a musician has alway encompassed the notion that a record brings to life an entire world – the spirit and excitement of which is also communicated through the visual elements of the record. In the case of ‘Country Life’, with its two barely clad cover stars, photographed in harsh, paparazzi style close-up, the record’s packaging became as immediately iconic as it was controversial – earning a ban in America, but also the status of a classic rock sleeve.
In October 1975, one of Roxy ‘s best loved tracks ‘Love Is The Drug’ – the opening track on ‘Siren’ – became an immediate hit. With its suave yet mechanistic sound, the track was instantly seized upon as a pronouncement of high cool. Describing romantic and sexual obsession, the song was a further exploration of the urban underworld – a place of dark bars and addictive predatory romance. ‘Siren’ was a bravura statement of Roxy Music’s endlessly intensifying musical and stylistic ethos. At once swirling and vertiginous, filled with a nervous, exhilarating rush, it was a record which seemed to sum up an epoch. As the American novelist F.Scott Fitzgerald had described the ‘wild spree’ of the 1920s, prior to a sudden crack-up, so ‘Siren’ seemed to catch and define the mood of hedonism in the zeitgeist, as the moment tilted towards darker moods and a colder sensibility.
SHADOWS AND LIGHT
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the musical style of Ferry’s recordings acquired a rich, melancholy lustre – well suited to such tracks as ‘Can’t Let Go’ from the album, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’, released in 1978. Once again, the tone of this song is filmic, with Ferry’s lyric describing a collision between the glamour of Hollywood and an emotional collapse. Musically and vocally, the track is breathless, racing and urgent, conveying the sense of nervous exhaustion – “all in the dark and afraid tonight, nowhere to run or to hide…”
The late 1970s would also see a fundamental maturing of Roxy Music’s sound, moving the group nearer to the high gloss, musical perfectionism of their later recordings such as ‘Flesh & Blood’ and ‘Avalon’. In this creative process, ‘Manifesto’, released in 1979, would be pivotal, with ‘Ain’t That So’ and ‘Dance Away’ marking the shift towards a slick, dark style which was at once luxuriant and melancholy. ‘Dance Away’ would be a huge hit for Roxy Music, and would seem like the soundtrack to the flamboyant New York disco decadence which had flourished around such art stars as Andy Warhol and Truman Capote at Studio 54.
As a lyricist, Ferry combines the language and proportions of classic pop songs with a modern, angular imagery which exactly mirrors his flawless style as a vocalist. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he would hone and perfect the pared down, high gloss refinement of his recordings – producing some of his greatest work in the three solo albums, ‘Boys and Girls’ (1985), ‘Bete Noire’ (1987) and ‘Mamouna’ (1994). With their high gloss surfaces and dark folds of sound, these albums might almost be seen to comprise a great triptych of recordings – a musical statement about Bryan Ferry’s founding themes as a lyricist and singer, which describe as well as invoke the timeless capacity of romance and glamour to shape destiny.
In many ways, ‘Boys and Girls’ is one of Bryan Ferry’s greatest achievements as a singer and song writer. The album enfolds the listener like a carefully lit film set; and there appears to be a seamless sequencing to the tracks, in which both ‘Slave To Love’ and ‘Don’t Stop The Dance’, take their place as mesmeric, richly romantic classics – steeped in a bewitching filmic ambience. Equally, ‘Boys and Girls’ became a defining soundtrack of the 1980s, its musical sophistication marking the consolidation of Ferry’s achievements to date.
Its successor, ‘Bete Noire’ is an album steeped in an eerie yet sensual atmosphere. Featuring a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of contemporary musicians, its sophistication lies once again in its refinement of absolute minimal effects – a record which seems so taut with feeling, that the slightest inflection of music or mood appears massively amplified. ‘Limbo’ is a track which sums up ‘Bete Noire’ – a heady cocktail of voodoo rhythms, calling up steamy night club scenes which are caught between eroticism and the supernatural.
Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music have always transcended fashionability, setting trends rather than following them, and often predicting the various shifts in popular culture. ‘Flesh + Blood’ would be an album that more or less invented the sleak, deep sheen of new music in the 1980s. But true to the founding style of Roxy Music, the album would also mingle classic love songs – ‘Same Old Scene’ being a great example – with the airbrush perfection of the arrangements. Thus ‘Flesh + Blood’ ushered in the design conscious opulence of the 1980s, with irresistible, enchanting love songs which could count amongst the group’s finest work.
Roxy Music would produce their last studio album (to date) in 1983 – the triple platinum ‘Avalon’, which sealed their reputation as musical pioneers and as a global super-group. Seldom had a group seemed more musically and stylistically assured, delivering such classic tracks as ‘More Than This’, and ‘The Main Thing’, as though with effortless ease. And seldom had a group not only maintained the extraordinary promise of their debut recordings, but exceeded their initial burst of brilliance. As their sold out reunion world tour of 2001 went to prove, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music have always been possessed of a restless musical genius, forever refining their astonishing merger of cutting edge modernism and classic pop languor.
Throughout the 1990s to the present, Ferry has continued his work on the ‘ready-made’; those songs which he covers in a way that makes them entirely his own. ‘Girl of My Best Friend’, from the ‘Taxi’ album of 1993 is both a tribute to the original by Elvis Presley, and a classic Ferry track in its own right. Given Bryan’s background as an art student, with a specific interest in American Pop art of the 1950s and 1960s, it seems particularly apt that he should have paid this musical homage to the star – Elvis – of so many pop-art paintings.
Bryan Ferry is an artist who endlessly refines his work, through recording and performance. Each new release is both an advance and a consolidation of what has gone before. Since the early 1970s, with his first recordings with Roxy Music, he has described the emotional theatre of romance – often from the position of loneliness, nearly always from the perspective of a loner and an outsider. On ‘Mamouna’ he seemed to describe the thoroughfare of loneliness in a way which brings to mind another Presley classic, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Ferry’s opening song on ‘Mamouna’, entitled, ‘Don’t Want To Know’, conveys all the hope and hopelessness of a person searching for love. Featuring Ferry’s early collaborator in Roxy Music, the electronics wizard Brian Eno, this richly atmospheric track establishes a mood of haunting melancholy which pervades the whole album.
It seems only fitting that such a student and fan of Hollywood’s Golden Age as Bryan Ferry, should record a selection of classic show and musical numbers, ‘As Time Goes By’. (1999), including a song made famous by Fred Astaire, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. One of the great love songs of all time, this lyric might well have been written by Ferry himself, and here his interpretation seems to mirror all his themes as a writer and performer. For as these recordings prove, Bryan Ferry has achieved the rare distinction of bringing a world to life in his songs. He describes love and loneliness, luxury and isolation. He is the great anatomist of glamour – always modern and instantly classic.
In 2002 Bryan released ‘Frantic’, his first album to feature original material since ‘Mamouna’ seven and a half years earlier. The album was put together from various sessions and projects that Bryan had worked on since 1992. It is a mixture of original material and interpretations of other artists songs, some of which were written with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, and one song (“I Thought”) composed with Brian Eno.
In September 2006 Ferry returned to the studio to record ‘Dylanesque’ – an artistic tribute to the songs of the American singer songwriter for which Bryan Ferry has always had enduring love and respect. Hard hitting and fast paced, ‘Dylanesque’ included Ferry’s haunting interpretations of ‘Positively Fourth Street’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and was released and toured to critical acclaim and packed audiences.