n a series on cultural icons of our time, the Sunday Times described Bryan Ferry as "a godfather of contemporary style". "The greatest living Englishman to his acolytes," was the Guardian's version. Ferry's role as a figurehead of sophistication spans the last 30 years and doubtless the next 30, but his spirit is also that of the meticulous musical explorer. As the figurehead of Roxy Music's matchless catalogue and on his bespoke series of solo records, Bryan Ferry is truly an icon of 21st century rock, the figure to whom the new bands of the 1980s and '90's have looked to as a muse and benchmark.
The Friday night streets are crowded with boys and girls in their finery, oblivious to the bitter cold off the North Sea. The Animals are playing the Club-a-Gogo, but down the road in a smaller space, a student of Fine Art from the university is belting out Bobby Bland songs with a band called the Gas Board. "I was in the painting school during the day and pretending I was Otis Redding in clubs at night," recalls Ferry, who already wears sharp suits and drives a Studebaker. He immerses himself in the trash imagery of American pop art under Richard Hamilton and in the idioms of black soul courtesy of American imports, twin enthusiasms soon to coalesce into a single new pop aesthetic.
If you're lucky and wander into the right outlandish venue, you'll happen on the future of rock'n'roll. Whether on the wall-of-sound Niagara of 'Re-make Re-model' or the atonal angst of 'Chance Meeting', the songs are unlike anything else that's gone before, weird concoctions of period riffs and open fifths, oboe and synthesiser, past and future, performed with the arrogant bravado and revolutionary conviction. The five remarkably good-looking figures on stage, exquisitely turned out in eye-shadow and outfits that are at once 1950s throwback and 2050s vision, embody a sophisticated and glamorous new look called Roxy Music. They play only a handful of gigs before hitting the big time. By early 1972, Roxy have management and recording deals, and by July their eponymous debut album is high in the British charts.
Virginia Plain, 1972
This first single plunders pop's past for numerous familiar references, but hitches them to electronics and other daring devices into an insistently contemporary conception. Ferry's half-drawled yet urgently breathless vocal glides and snarls over the head-on instrumental backing, his lyrics an alluring mist of images evoking a mythic high-life. By conceiving and executing 'Virginia Plain' purely as a single, Ferry flies in the face of received wisdom that the 45, once the life-blood of rock'n'roll, has turned entirely to bubblegum while 'serious' rock only rotates at 33rpm.
"...is a zone where/...paradise around your corner lies." Roxy Music's brave new world is within the reach of all, because it is the real world glamourised by style and romance. 'Amazona' , from the third album 'Stranded', is Ferry's faraway-land version of this notion. Unlike Bowie's grandiose comic-book fantasies, it is a curiously democratic ideal, and has transfixed a large section of the British teenage population, who turn Roxy shows into fan fashion-parades, even meriting an NME centre spread of their own.
As Roxy Music's composer, arranger, singer, keyboard player, designer of all the artwork and other visual elements, Ferry is on an extraordinary curve of creative energy. Between 1972 and 1975 he produces five Roxy Music albums, each one defying expectations by advancing on the one before, and launches a parallel solo career in 1973. The cinematic cameos and overt '50s atavism of 'Roxy Music' album gives way on 'For Your Pleasure' to a greater tension, moodiness and androgyny. 'Stranded', lusher and tropically dense, is hailed as a masterpiece and becomes Roxy's first UK No.1. In 1974, the equally compelling 'Country Life' appears, the title a tongue-in-cheek allusion to establishment values, the sleeve picture a raunchy subversion of them, the music perversely more urban and claustrophobic than before. Later the same year, 'Siren' anticipates the disco dance vogue and pre-dates rap with Ferry's prickly patois lyric for 'Love Is The Drug'.
Another Place, 1974
Namely, the pool at the Bel Air hotel, with Ferry in the white tuxedo he'd recently worn on stage with Roxy. After leopardskin and black sequins, it defies all precedent and even unnerves his fans, but will become Ferry's most potent look and this photograph, for 'Another Time Another Place', its most memorable image. It's Ferry's second solo album; the first, 1973's 'These Foolish Things', initiated his second major innovation in pop music, the interpretative performance of classic songs. Ferry went beyond the mere 'covering' of standards. A fan of jazz performers like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker and their improvised versions of well-known songs, he uses his solo recordings to give new meaning to his favourite oldies, leading Rolling Stone to declare he "has greater scope than any other contemporary singer".
Christmas, and Ferry is alone after five hectic years, the only guest in the grand hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva. By the end of the 'Siren' tour in 1975, Bryan senses the group has become too claustrophobic, too safe. Restless as ever, he proceeds to make three solo albums quite different in mood and style from each other. 'Let's Stick Together' is a mix of new and old, the title track an international hit, accompanied by an unforgettable performance video. Next is 'In Your Mind', the first solo album to contain exclusively his own songs and very much a transitional work, full of orchestral textures, brass-section riffs and extended song-structures. In Switzerland, he records the raw and urgent 'The Bride Stripped Bare'. In the wake of the punk explosion, Ferry is suddenly persona non grata, a chief representative of what-went-before. It proves a very temporary exile.
When Roxy reassemble to make 'Manifesto' (1979) and 'Flesh and Blood' (1980) the music has undergone a timely sea-change, as complex rhythms and sweeping textures meet in an impeccably crafted modern dance sound. This upbeat melancholia fuels the No.1 single and John Lennon tribute 'Jealous Guy' and the final album 'Avalon', a fitting valediction from a great band. From now on his solo albums would also carry his new compositions. 'Boys and Girls' (1985), with its sweeping soundscapes, is warmly received in the U.S. as well as in Europe, after shooting straight to No.1 in the UK.
Los Angeles, 1988
L.A. was always a Roxy Music stronghold, as was New York, but since Ferry's solo focus, the rest of America has come around. This current tour follows the release of Bete Noire, welcomed by Rolling Stone as "nothing less than the '80s masterstroke Ferry devotees have long forecast." This tour, Ferry's first since Roxy's farewell sortie of 1983, features a largely American band of top-rate players and receives rapturous plaudits from coast to coast. The Los Angeles Times hails "The Sultan of Suave."
Newly voted the "coolest man in Britain" by Arena magazine, Ferry is in full Bedouin headgear beneath a burning North African sun for his new video 'Mamouna', the title track of his latest album. The follow-up to 'Bete Noire', it was to be called 'Horoscope', but in '93 Ferry took a break by switching to another album project entirely: 'Taxi', a set of rock standards ranging from 'I Put A Spell On You' to 'Amazing Grace', from 'Just One Look' to 'Rescue Me'. When he returns to his own songs, 'Mamouna' is the result.
Retrospection is not one of Bryan Ferry's normal modes, but the BBC has by now aired a four-part series on his career, and after the 'Mamouna' tour, a large part of 1995 is taken up by the preparation of two compilations. The first, 'More Than This', selects key solo and Roxy hits; the second, 'The Thrill Of It All', was a four-CD boxed set of essential Roxy Music. Bryan's visual expertise ensures a superlative package and Virgin's best-selling boxed set.
In 2001, Ferry awaits his long-fabled reunion with his fellow Roxy Music adventurers and cherishes a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for 1999's 'As Time Goes By', in which his solo oeuvre comes full circle on a thoroughly urbane love letter to the standards of the Tin Pan Alley era. Individual, unhurried, cultivated and pre-eminent: with Bryan Ferry, the fundamental things apply.
P.S. Ferry's new solo album scheduled for October release.
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