T is on occasions like this that you realise that pop music has lost a lot of its former pomp. Three founder members were present to announce that Roxy Music were to re-convene for a 50-date tour, getting on for two decades since they had unplugged the amps on a glorious career. The venue was the ballroom in the Savoy Hotel, and the event had attracted well over 100 journalists brandishing cameras, microphones and even, in a touching nod to the good old days, notebooks.
Questions were fired at the threesome and, in the way of events such as this, the questions were mostly blanks. There was great interest in Bryan Ferry's attitude towards air travel after his terrifying experience, captured on camera for every newspaper in the world, when a lunatic went berserk on his plane and broke into the pilot's cabin. Ferry, needless to say, kept his cool. These press conferences used to be commonplace, now they are rare. It is true that no information of interest has been gathered at such an event, but I am nostalgic for them all the same.
After most of the Press had melted away, I was awarded my 15 minutes of vicarious fame. Ferry, together with Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay, had retreated to a room behind the ballroom's stage where they were holding court in a corner, which was closed off by black curtains. Ah, the mystery!
I was greeted by three tall men, immaculately suited and booted, two of them sporting correctly knotted ties. They looked as relaxed as could be expected given the extraordinarily artificial manner of the encounter. The first question suggested itself immediately, even though they had probably heard it 100 times that afternoon: why have you decided to get back together after all this time?
Ferry sucked reflectively on a throat sweet before giving his considered reply. "Well, the cynics would say it was for the money, of course." The three of them seemed to find this idea amusing. "Actually, some body did come up to us and make us an offer, and it was the first time anyone had done it in a properly organised manner," he continues. "When they put it like that, we couldn't think of any reason not to do it." It seems that the idea may have taken root in Ferry's mind a while ago. Last year he played around 70 gigs as a solo performer, and decided to include some old Roxy Music numbers in the set. "The resonance from the audience, the warmth that came over from them for these songs - not only the hits, but some of the more obscure stuff - made me aware at first-hand of how much public interest there still was," he recalls. "Another factor was that this year seemed to be the right time - it is 30 years since we got together."
Phil Manzanera agrees that there is a lot of goodwill out there waiting to be tapped. "We suddenly thought that there were all these Roxy songs and many of them would never be heard live again, which seemed such a waste. There's lots of great songs on the albums apart from the famous ones, and the majority of younger people probably wouldn't be familiar with them. There's a lot of curiosity simply because we've been mentioned as an influence by so many groups over the years people like Radiohead, Pulp and Moby."
The mechanics of touring, needless to say, do not fill them with enthusiasm. Ferry mentions the problems of touring when families are involved and Mackay trumps him by mentioning that his youngest child is three. Manzanera views the prospect philosophically: "I don't think you could indulge in the silliness you did before, because you can't physically do it."
Knowing them to be veterans of the touring game, I ask them if they will have any special requests for backstage treats, a phenomenon known as the "rider". Mackay laughs and confesses that he can never think of anything in the way of an exotic tit bit or special bottle. "The problem with riders," he confides, "is that one night you might feel like a bacon sandwich and note that down. After that, for every night of the rest of the tour, a bacon sandwich appears before every show." "Perhaps we could have 50 different riders for 50 different shows," suggests Ferry. He pauses to think about it. "I think I'll settle for a bottle of mineral water."
The three rockers don't know who else will be with them on stage, to play the bass and drums. But they are confident that this will not be a series of tired retro-shows performed by men going through the motions. "The songs are there," insists Manzanera. "If we play them well and get the right textures and atmospheres, the magic will be created. Once you get on stage, you can't hold back, it's all or nothing. We are not going out there to try and conserve our energies. We are all committed musicians. This is what we do."
One final question which demands to be asked of such a bunch of committed sartorialists is this: what are you going to be wearing, what is to be the look? "Well, what about this?" laughs Ferry, motioning towards his smart shirt, jacket and tie. "Oh, I don't know. We'll think of something."
But there is no doubt that the announcement of a Roxy Music tour this summer, 18 years after the group played its last gig, has been executed with immaculate timing. The band is probably at the peak of its mythic status, while even the fates conspired to put the singer Bryan Ferry on front pages across the world little more than a month ago, when he was photographed on a British Airways flight moments after a madman had attempted to seize the controls, sending the plane into a near-fatal dive.
"I should have announced the tour that day," Ferry jokes. "That would have been the sensible thing to do."
With his tan, manicured hands and shock of mysteriously windswept black hair (he's been sitting in a hotel for the past hour), the 55-year-old Ferry is every inch the style icon of all those upmarket glossy magazines. His movements are languid but slightly fluttery as he reaches for a white napkin with which to twist open a bottle of fizzy water. So is this reunion a high-minded artistic statement or one last throw of the dice? The collaboration with core Roxy Music members Andy Mackay (54, saxophone, oboe) and Phil Manzanera (50, guitar) is limited to a 50-date world tour, ending in September after which Ferry plans to release and promote a new solo album almost immediately. The electronics wizardry of Brian Eno will be absent from the mix, as it has been since the stage-shy sonic innovator left the band in July 1973.
There is no plan to write, record or play any new songs, and it would seem that the tour is primarily an exercise in nostalgia. Does Ferry know how much money he stands to make from it?
"I hope we're going to make some money from it," he says. "We will be playing arenas, rather than the smaller theatres I've been playing. 1 thought it would be nice to get up on a bigger platform again. But it's not as though I've turned to it in desperation. My last solo album [As Time Goes By] actually did very well. But Andy and Phil are both keen to do it, and I can't think of a reason not to do it this year."
The problem with reunions, as everyone from the Velvet Underground to the Eagles has discovered, is that even if you are successful in recapturing the musical essence of a bygone era (no mean feat), the tensions or dissatisfactions which split the band up in the first place never take long to re-emerge. Ferry is candid about why the group broke up in the first place.
"I suppose it was me being difficult. I'd just got married and I didn't want the touring lifestyle any more. And I wanted to experiment with working with other people. But it's different when you're playing in a proper group in which the responsibilities are shared, because then other people feel free to debate the merits of the music a bit more. If you're simply hiring people, you don't get that frisson from playing with your equals in a band. A little bit of creative conflict can be a good thing."
Apart from Eno, virtually every musician who passed through the ranks (about a dozen bass players alone) has applied to rejoin the band, and it is rumoured that there has already been a little "creative conflict" between Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay over who should be installed on drums: the hard-hitting rocker Paul Thompson from the first line-up, or the fiddly funkmeister Andy Newmark from the more mellifluous Avalon era. But isn't Ferry himself in danger of blowing his middle-aged cool by returning to some of the more explosive material from the first two albums?
"It's great doing those high-energy things. Virginia Plain is still a lot of fun to do now. And the For Your Pleasure period I'd have to say is my favourite era. I just seemed to write some of my best songs at that time. It doesn't feel odd singing them now, at all. From an early age I loved Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, so I don't equate good music with youth or youth culture at all." "It's not about the money with those guys," says John Giddings, who is promoting the tour. "They are the rock aristocracy. They just want it to be done right. They don't want to look stupid."
As the hits multiplied, the concept matured: Ferry was more likely to be seen in a snowy tuxedo than the tiger-prints, lurex and sequins which had once led Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter to compare him to "a Dracula-type Presley". His quasi-Continental croon developed into one of the most distinctive vocal imprints in all of postwar pop. The group's album covers depicted beautiful women in intriguing circumstances, and Roxy Woman -incarnated by, among others, Jerry Hall and Amanda Lear - became the thinking ironist's equivalent of Bond Girl. The music grew less jagged, spiky and proto-punk, its primary discourse being the hollowness of luxury, the insidious attractions of ennui and the pitfalls of the search for a new set of relationships to feeling.
The original sextet consisted of Ferry, saxophonist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera alongside the powerhouse drummer forever known as The Great Paul Thompson, the playfully enigmatic Brian Eno, with his burbling synths and arsenal of pre-recorded tapes, and a succession of bass players who came and went as rapidly as Spinal Tap drummers. Here was, as Roxy announced in Do the Strand, "a new sensation! A fabulous creation! A danceable solution to teenage revolution!"
This week, the band's core triumvirate assembled in the Savoy Hotel's luxurious ballroom off (where else?) the Strand to announce a three-month, 12 nation reunion tour, which kicks off in Dublin on June 9. The three principals took the stage to swap urbane banter and deliver their basic sales pitch. The most obvious question "Are you doing this for the money?" - went both unasked and unanswered, though Ferry did drily confide that "an offer was made, and we had some time free".
Manzanera, at 50 the youngest member of Roxy's Central Committee, was tieless and rumpled, with in-progress beard and wraparound sunglasses by Man At CIA. By contrast, Ferry, 55, and Mackay, 54, with their sharp suits and vestigially funky haircuts, could easily pass for slick New Labour MPs. All three have been active since Roxy ceased transmissions after 1982's Avalon.
Mackay has assembled a formidable CV of film and television scores, written a highly respected treatise on electronic music and, more recently, acquired a mature student degree in divinity to place alongside his BA Hons in Music. Manzanera has served as musical director for a five-day Guitar Legends festival in Seville, and pursued his early interest in South American music through a wide variety of performances and productions, including a live album recorded with Grupo Moncada in Havana. However, it is Ferry, who has enjoyed a high-profile solo career, who remains the hub of Roxy Music. It is his distinctive taste that will dictate the final form of both the tour and of any further activities which may follow in its wake.
One wonders if the recent movie Billy Elliot carries any resonance for Ferry, the one-time soul boy who named his sons Otis (after Redding) and Isaac (after Hayes), and then put them down for Eton. Like the film's young protagonist, Ferry grew up as a dreamy aesthete - albeit focused on film, music and painting, rather than ballet - in a tough pit village. He has easily outpointed Sting to claim the title of "world's most upwardly mobile Geordie", but it is nevertheless instructive to compare these two Toon ex-teachers turned pop superstars: Sting broadcasts "sincerity" and 'sensitivity" on all channels while remaining emotionally flat; Ferry signifies the presence of depth of feeling behind that celebrated world-weary mask, rendering emotion more poignant by seemingly trying, but failing, to conceal it.
There are no current plans for an all-new album - "ask us again in October" - but a live album is a foregone conclusion and, through one of those spooky coincidences, Ferry's latest solo album will be released just as the tour comes to an end. If the venture is as much of a success in artistic terms as its backers expect it to be on the financial level, fresh new work: will undoubtedly follow. It will be fascinating to discover if there are still new sensations and fabulous creations to come.
I wish I did. I actually live quite an urban existence. My dad worked on a farm and my mum was a town person so I knew from a very early age the contrasts and I guess I've inherited both sides. I work in an urban easiness and I prefer the pulse of a big city. I don't mind a cup of tea at five o'clock, but s fatal to mix drink and work. I don't do cubs or late nights anymore so restaurants have become very important to me. If I'm in eland I like to have a Guinness, and I do like Martinis. I also like Campari, that's a nice yammer drink. It's not too strong. Bloody Marys and all kinds of cocktails in fact. But I'm not a great champagne drinker.
Do you hear Eminem creeping from your kids' bedrooms?
Well they're ten and 11 so he's very popular, though I've never got close enough to hear the language. I don't feel censorious at all because every movie they see which has any potency is filled with swear words. If they were using the language themselves as a spin-off I might be a little upset. They know those words exist but they don't use them in my Victorian presence.
You're about to embark on a Roxy Music reunion tour playing songs you originally performed in sequined boots and silver catsuits. Will you be rummaging through the chest of drawers?
God no! Old age stops me. Certain things just don't look right anymore. Most of the clothes you're talking about were so extreme they were out of date almost as soon as I wore them. After a few months the look became over-used and looked hideously wrong. You'd see lots of bands wearing versions of it and you wouldn't want to be associated with them. The original look was trying to say: 'We are unique.' We didn't want to be part of a glam rock school or lumped with anybody else, so I switched quite smartly into tailored clothes. I'm not so sure men look good in heels anymore. But boots will make a comeback. I quite like cowboy boots.
The 'military look' is back in...
It will never really go away. Men always look good in uniform. Anthony Price, an old designer friend of mine, always said that. We did a 'GI look' for one tour with jodhpurs and boots, motorbike cops-that sort of thing. But it's all a bit camp and Village People now.
Aesthetically, even idealistically, you all but invented the Eighties. What do you think about that period being fashionable again?
Yes, and isn't the stock market about to crash again? The Eighties are back but with softer shoulders. I actually enjoyed the Seventies more. Work-wise, it was easier.
How did you feel when you heard that Jerry Hall had left Mick Jagger, the man who 'grabbed' her from you then made disparaging comparisons between you and a standard lamp?
Oh nothing whatsoever No interest at all. We didn't really stay in contact or move in the same circles. Sorry to disappoint you.
Could you live without television?
Easily. I don't really watch television - just sport and nature. Don't know what Frasier is; I don't know what Friends is. I've heard of Seinfeld and I remember Coronation Street when Ena Sharpies was in it. For some reason I just drifted out of watching television, and I find that incredibly liberating.
How many real friends do you reckon you have?
Probably about six. Making new friends is difficult once you leave university. English people are quite cliquey. But I do like making new friends.
Few of us have had a 'near death' experience like yours. In the light of the Nairobi incident, will you stick to-sorry, can't resist it - 'Flying out to Rio' in future?
Ha! Oh that! Well, I couldn't really make out what was going on at first. I just had a certain confidence that it would be all right. Everybody was asleep or just waking up. I was dozing and was woken up by the plane going through this incredible shaking and diving motion. I remember thinking it didn't feel like the normal turbulence drop. The plane was going down and then going up as the pilot and this crazy man struggled with the controls, but I didn't see the fight until they actually spilled out of the cockpit. Then I was thinking: 'Should I get up and get in there?' I was about one row away from having to get involved-which I would have been quite happy to do. There were three bodies grappling, it was like a movie. Your senses slow to take it all in. All of a sudden, they had him pinned down on the floor.
What were your thoughts when it was all over?
That the crazy man's socks weren't very attractive. They were kind of striped and I didn't really care for them much at all.
Did it affect you spiritually?
Yes, now I'm very holy and I've promised never to do anything bad again! No. I wasn't really shaken by it. It makes me wonder if it means my number won't come up again. But it could be like being called for jury service. Maybe they'll get me next time round.
When he's on the ground, does Bryan Ferry' do supermarkets'?
I do but not in London. I tend to enjoy it more when I'm abroad as I don't get recognised so much. I like looking at all the things racked up. It's like looking at editions of things. Though I prefer the whole notion of small shops.
What's your spending vice? Mondrian paintings? Faberge eggs? Those thousand-pound-a-go-poolside candles?
I suppose if I've got too much of anything it's razors. I'm not looking for the perfect razor but if you see something that you like they usually stop making it, so I end up getting three or four of the same one at a time. It's a recent thing. I'd like to think I'm neither stingy nor extravagant. One vice I could get into is extravagant cars. I'm not really a car buff but I do like to surround myself with things I like the design of. I have a black Corvette. It's a 1989 model, the last one that had a good shape and the last one where the taillights were round. They made them oval after that and they didn't look quite as good. I never drive it though, I just like looking at it.
You're known as a 'suit man', how many do you reckon you own?
I've never had that many. Over the past couple of years I've got back into British tailoring. I felt I had to build up a new set of clothes. I have about 20 or 30 suits. I've grown out of some of them. There's a few more I'm passing on and some I'm waiting to shrink back into.
You have 30 seconds on the phone to the Prime Minister. Go ahead...
Oh no. Do I have to? I got a lot of flak recently for talking to Country Life [the anti-foxhunting lobby seized on Ferry's pro-countryside comments as proof he was pro-foxhunting]. My comments got placed in a weird context and I had people threatening me. It all got very sick. OK, I suppose I would ask him to give people who live in the countryside a bit more of his time, though I'm sure he thinks he's doing a good job and doesn't see himself as a bad person. I actually met him on a tennis court. I was working with Dave Stewart in France and Blair was staying next door. It was me, Dave, Rory Bremner and Tony Blair No, I didn't beat him. We played doubles. I pulled a hamstring and hobbled on but lost. I don't remember much about his game, only that he was very determined to win.
Can you ever be too old to fancy Britney Spears?
Probably yes. I'm not really an expert, but even if was younger and unmarried I wouldn't be making enquiries there. It's a 'taste thang'. MAT SMITH Roxy Music are on tour from June 12-24
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