Roxy Music 2001


The Life of Bryan
Pop legend, style icon, air-disaster survivor... after a break of 18 years, Bryan Ferry has regrouped Roxy Music for one last tour. Just don't expect tuxedos or tiger-print trousers

Interview Barbara Ellen Portraits Harry Borden
The Observer Magazine 13th May 2001

On Friday 29 December 2000, in the early hours of the morning, the Boeing 747 flight to Nairobi turned its nose to the ground and plunged 10,000ft. Paul Mukonyi, a 27-year-old mental patient, had gone berserk, running into the cockpit and seizing the controls, knocking out the autopilot. The first the passengers knew about it was when the engines started cutting out, lights went off and oxygen masks fell down. In the cockpit, the pilots were struggling to overpower Mukonyi - another few seconds, and the jet would flip on to its back and then nothing would be able to stop it plummeting to the ground.Bryan, Observer Magazine (Photo Harry Borden)

Sitting there in the roaring blackness was former Roxy Music frontman-turned-solo performer Bryan Ferry, his wife Lucy, and two of their four sons. As many around him screamed, wept and vomited, Ferry wasn't slow to offer up his own prayers to God. As the man himself recounts it: `The plane was going to crash. We were all going to die. I just thought: "Oh no, I've got an album to finish. Could we reschedule?"'

I meet Bryan Ferry, pop legend, style icon, and air-disaster survivor, in his suite at London's Hempel hotel. When I come in, he stands up, unravelling from his seat, with a big smile, and clutches my hand firmly. At 56, Ferry remains textbook handsome a Hollywood movie still, in motion. For the interview, we sit at a long table, Ferry at the top, low in his chair, his arms folded, his long legs stretched out rigidly in front of him. I sit at the side, trying as inconspicuously as possible to push the tape recorder that little bit closer to him every 10 minutes or so.

In conversation, Ferry is friendly and animated, frequently rising to his feet to pace and gesticulate as he talks. It's a shy person's habit. When Roxy first started, Ferry had to literally force himself to stand at the front - for as long as he could get away with it, he stood at the side, behind a synthesizer, while the drum kit took centre stage. These days, his shyness is controlled but still there. You know that Ferry is feeling particularly energised or rattled when, still talking, he walks away from the sitting area and into the bedroom part of the suite. When this happens, I don't quite know what to do: follow him, adopt the pose of a secretary taking dictation or simply hang the tape recorder around his neck with string, like a child's mittens. In the end, I sit put and patiently wait for Ferry's return to the table, which is a mistake. Ferry's speaking voice, not particularly audible at the best oftimes, vaporises to a wispy, drawling nothingness.

Saying that, Ferry is entertaining company: in the past, he's frequently been written up as self-absorbed and precious, and you can see how this could be so. As a workaholic and perfectionist, he has a tendency to be entranced, even hypnotised, by himself and his oeuvre. On the other hand, Ferry has a wit as dry as bone and a subtle graciousness. Unusually, for a man, he's unafraid to admit shortcomings or vulnerability. He'll even happily discuss his star sign (Libra with Scorpio rising: `There's a bit of both in me'). When we talk about his brush with death, his dryness comes out in spades. `It was marvellous. A real buzz. I'd do it again.' When he discusses his looks, he becomes modesty incarnate. `I've always hated pictures of myself,' he says with genuine feeling. `Still do. Terrifying. I don't know why. It's funny now. When I see old pictures, I think: "Oh, I don't look so bad at all." But I never had good-looks confidence as some people do. Some people have this real thing about themselves.' He flicks a weary glance at me. `They waltz through life because they just feel they're so great, I suppose. And I never felt that way.' Ferry pauses, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully, seemingly unaware that he's about to make one of greatest pop understatements of all time. `I felt that I could wear a suit all right, but that's about it.'

Some might argue that Bryan Ferry is a bit better than `all right' at wearing suits. The likes of Phil Collins and Robert Plant are `all right' at wearing suits, but to my knowledge they have never, like Ferry, been described as `The Godfather of Contemporary Style', `A Fashion Icon of the 21st Century' and, most memorably, `The Sultan of Suave'. Men genuinely revere Ferry in a way that transcends his musical output. `He's always managed to look cool, whatever the decade,' says one. For their part, women adore him. One friend, a married woman, bumped into Ferry in a restaurant once, watched him walk out, with his raincoat billowing gently behind him, and has never been the same since. 'I always wonder if I should have followed him,' she says dreamily. Is Ferry aware of his continuing pin-up status?

Bryan, Observer Magazine (Photo Harry Borden)'My pin-up status?' repeats Ferry, rolling the words around his mouth and grinning faux wolfishly. 'You mean as an admirer of pinups? Because, yes, that does go on and on. Although I'm not sure it gives me any status.' He guffaws loudly. No really, I persist, what would you have done if you'd been born a short fat person? 'Oh, probably become a movie star,' drawls Ferry, quick as a flash. Not for the first time during our conversation, it occurs to me that Bryan Ferry might be a bit too bright for the murderously dumb rock-star business.

In their heyday, Roxy Music was celebrated for many things, not least the fusion of pop classicism and futuristic experimentation in their songwriting ('Virginia Plain'; 'Love Is the Drug'; 'More Than This'; 'Avalon'; Angel Eyes'; 'Dance Away'), and their hit-the-ground-running productivity (10 hit singles and five hit albums during the Los alone). Then there was the highly stylised modelstrewn cover art for albums such as Stranded, For Your Pleasure and Siren. Amanda Lear, Marilyn Cole and, most notoriously, Jerry Hall all posed for Roxy covers in their time. Hall would go on to ditch Ferry for Mick Jagger, humiliating him to the degree that he still finds it difficult to speak of her, apart from to comment that she is 'addicted to publicity'.

Hall did her bit for the Roxy cause at the time, though. She and the other Roxy It girls reeked of a high-octane, otherworldly glamour never before seen in sloped-shouldered, denim-clad 70s Britain. Which is just how Ferry liked it, and still does. When I ask him if he thinks the world is more or less glamorous now, he replies sadly: 'There seems to be more choice, but less glamour.' Not that everybody always agreed with his vision. Feminists weren't convinced that the Country Life cover (two nubile girls lying in long grass in sheer underwear) was the clever pastiche on the magazine title that Ferry claimed it be. The man himself remains amused and horrified by all the fuss: '[That cover] did not put down women. Nothing I've ever done has put down women. No one admires women more than me. I just like Hollywood glamour. Why else would we choose the name Roxy for the band?'

Ask the average Joe on the street to picture Roxy Music, and they would doubtless veer towards Hollywood imagery. It took a while to get the Roxy look together (early photographs of the band recall the Clangers on dangerous drugs), but once it was underway, it gathered a momentum all its own. In fact, Ferry only wore a tuxedo for one shoot, but this is the way he will always be remembered: brooding away iconically, one hand in his pocket; a lock of soot-black hair falling just so over his pale, elegant features; a Rat Pack tilt to his torso - kind of Heathcliff via 007.

It's a reputation that Ferry seems to view as restricting and irritating as well as flatter-ing and defining. He once spent an interview defensively pointing out how cheap the clothes he had on were. It makes you wonder if the Roxy style-icon thing has become some-thing of an albatross around Ferry's neck.

'Only if you allow it to be so,' he says. 'You can get too self-conscious. It's like, I don't feel any stress about going onstage for the Roxy tour. If people are out there, expecting tiger-print jackets or something, they're going to be very disappointed.' Ferry sweeps imagi-nary fluff from his immaculate, fluff-free trousers, and smiles wanly. ' I don't feel any pressure to do that, because that was all a long, long time ago.' It was a long time ago. So long that you wonder why Roxy Music has chosen now to regroup for a final tour. Is it because it is just shy of 30 years since they formed and 18 since they last played together? Has the legend of Roxy Music come of age, as it were? `That'll do, I suppose,' says Ferry dryly. `Of course, cynics would say that we were doing it for the money.' Do those cynics include himself? It would seem that the answer is no. For Ferry, the reason for the tour seems to lie in the ecstatic reception old Roxy songs got when he performed them on his last tour for his solo album, When Time Goes By. `The crowd was really enjoying the fact that I was playing these songs again. And I thought, "Well, it's a small step away from doing it with the original players in bigger venues."'

Roxy, Observer Magazine (Photo Harry Borden)All the other founder members of Roxy seemed more than happy to get involved except Brian Eno, who left in 1973 - so when a promoter came along and made it all easy for them, that, it seems, was that. To date, the decision looks sound - all the dates have sold out, with more being added. As for the `cynics', guitarist Phil Manzanera pointed out: `It's not about a midlife crisis - we're too old for that. This is about fun, about doing what we do, which is play music.' On a similar note, Andy McKay (oboe, saxophonist) denies that it's `all about money'. Of them all, Ferry seems the most ambivalent. lie once said: `So many bands come back years later, and they don't add much.' Does he still have mixed feelings about bands reforming? `Well, yes,' he says, pushing back his hair nervously. `I guess that's why I never did it before.'

At times, there is a sense of time displacement about Bryan Ferry, as if his early success has left him with the feeling that the rest of his career should have unfolded at the same exhilarating pace. Ferry already had his solo career up and running when Roxy Music split up after 12 years in 1982. It was peculiar timing, as the band was riding high with its biggest-selling album, Avalon, which featured Ferry's wife, Lucy Helmore, on the cover. `Splitting up Roxy just seemed like the right thing, the creative thing to do,' smiles Ferry, adding casually: `I did a couple of weird things around that time. I think it comes under the heading "artistic indulgence".' Another small smile. `Maybe I was wrong.'

Earlier, when I'd asked Ferry if he'd been sorry about flamboyant `effects person' Eno leaving Roxy Music, Ferry had replied quite brazenly: `Not at all, I was really pleased that he'd gone.' They are friends again now (Eno, a solo artist and producer, is working on Ferry's new album), but from this comment I glean that while Roxy Music only had one Eno, there were quite a lot of rock-star egos flying around. Not least Ferry's own. Had Ferry come to resent the democracy of being in a band? `Yes, I've always been a bit like that. I like to be in control.' Most of all, he wanted to put a stop to all the back-breaking touring. `I got fed up with it all,' he says. 'And I got married, of course. I'd never wanted a family, I'd always seen myself as a career person, but I suppose it all made me feel very different. I didn't want to be part of a group any more, so I started my own group, a family group. And that happens all the time - look at the Beatles. Generally, groups split up because they start getting their own lives as individuals.'

Ferry was born on 26 September 1945. He was the adored only son of Fred and Polly, and grew up in Washington, near Durham, in a house with an outside lavatory and a tin bath on the wall. Fred was a farm worker until the Depression, and then he tended pit ponies. It was a background which prompted Ferry to describe himself as `an orchid born on a coal tip'. He ended up going to Newcastle University to study art, where he was taught by pop-art guru Richard Hamilton, another charismatic perfectionist, though Ferry dislikes the word. "`Perfectionist" just sounds so prissy. I prefer to think of it as someone who likes to get things right, and who's prepared to put in the hours to get it right.' He still collects art, but, by his own admission, Ferry was a dreadful artist: `My painting was awful, awful,' he laughs. `The best thing I ever did for painting was become a musician.'

At the time, Ferry felt ashamed of his parents for not fitting in with his arty, bohemian lifestyle, but this phase soon passed. The first thing Ferry did when he became successful with Roxy Music was buy his parents a house. When they got older, he moved them into his home in Sussex, where they lived with him, Lucy and their four sons until they died, his father in 1984 and his mother in 1991. Which strikes me as not bad going for a `Mayfair Geordie' who supposedly couldn't wait to turn his back on his roots. The `problem', so to speak, was Helmore, the daughter of a Lloyd's underwriter, whom Ferry married in 1982.

In the early 90s, Helmore revealed that she had been attending NA and AA to deal with her drug and alcohol addictions, but it was her class, and the Ferrys' country-squire lifestyle in Sussex, which really bugged the press and public. Ferry actually sighs in pain, and politely refuses to participate when I start trying to bring up all the class stuff. 'Of course,' he drawls sardonically at one point, ' I wanted to work down the pit more than anything else, but then they closed them down, so I did music instead.' He's chuckling, but, for the first time, he looks close to grumpy.

Ferry's main point seems to be that his class never defined him, that he defined himself, which seems fair enough. But where's his lovely Geordie accent gone? When I tell Ferry that it's my favourite accent of all, he looks genuinely astonished. 'Oh really, don't you find it irritating?' For my benefit, Ferry mumbles a few lines of Geordie, announcing at the end: 'I don't think I've lost my accent at all. It's still there, and when I'm animated, it comes out very strong.' I don't have the heart to tell him that he sounds about as Geordie as the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.

Maybe it isn't t such a surprise. Ferry is a self made man and, like most self-made people, his personality has to remain mutable, a work in progress, if he is to have any chance of surviving. Looking at it this way, the things that have changed for Ferry - his journey from Durham to Sussex, his transformation from working-class boy to ersatz country squire aren't nearly as remarkable as the things that have remained constant, like, for instance, his love for music. No one could deny that music is 'The Thing' for Bryan Ferry. It's where he lives and breathes. He tells me how, as a boy, he would do his newspaper round, carrying all the papers in front of him, with the Melody Maker on top, so he could read it as he walked along. These days, Roxy Music is name-checked as a major influence by everyone from Thom Yorke and Jarvis Cocker to Suede, Moby and Placebo. Ferry's own heroes were Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Otis Bedding, Jimi Hendrix ('the best-looking hippy there ever was') and Frank Sinatra. However, if Ferry was intense about music as a boy, as a man he became obsessive, particularly about his own work. It's that old devil called perfectionism again, and it has cost Ferry dearly.

Anyone who ever sees fit to accuse Bryan Ferry of being obsessed by money need only to look at his solo recording projects, and the time, effort and money he has been prepared to haemorrhage making them. Most rock stars can't walk across a studio floor unless they think that someone, somewhere, will pay for the shoe leather. Ferry is different, unafraid to squander his own money in the pursuit of excellence. His albums (These Foolish Things; Boys And Girls; Another Time, Another Place; Taxi; Bete Noire; Mamouna) have been credible and popular in their own right, a dizzying blend of Ferry's own material and beautifully conceived cover versions. However, it's the bills that are really interesting.

At one point, Mamouna was costing Ferry £2,000 of his own money a day. How much does he think he has spent over the years? ' I don't know,' he says, wincing visibly 'Millions, millions.' How? Why? 'Vanity, I suppose. Just wanting things to be right.' His voice trails away slightly. 'Wanting it more and more.'

I comment that, considering how much he puts himself through, it's amazing that Ferry hasn't driven himself insane. Ferry laughs and agrees. The nearest he ever came to a midlife crisis was when he was recording Mamouna: 'If there was another midlife crisis, and there might have been, I didn't notice.' His mind, he says, is 'busy' all the time: 'We never close.' Saying that, marriage and family have turned out to suit him, and he has dabbled only briefly in therapy. Indeed, the event that seems to upset Ferry most in life has been the loss of his parents. Talking about them, he paces the room obsessively, keeping his face carefully averted.

'When your parents die, I don't think you ever get over it,' he says flatly. 'Then you do. But you don't. I wish they were around to see their grandchildren, to see how they're getting on, to see themselves in them. Because, as I look at my children, I see my parents more and more, and that's quite weird, but it's also very nice. Very natural, somehow.'

For a moment, Ferry looks so sad, I feel I should say something. Well, I manage eventually, at least your parents saw you become a success. 'Yes, exactly,' he says, brightening. `And that's why I can't complain about anything.' And with that, Bryan Ferry relaxes back in his chair and gives me the most beautiful smile I've ever seen on a man.

The next time I speak to Bryan Ferry, it's over the phone. He's at his studio, recording his next solo project, due out at the end of the Roxy tour and featuring Eno and Avalon producer Rhett Davis. Possibly out of respect for his Roxy Music colleagues, Ferry doesn't want to talk about the new album ('Another time, another time'), and he definitely doesn't want to talk about how much it's costing him. About the tour, he will only drawl: 'A cynic would say that I just wanted it to be over.'

As a parting shot, I ask Ferry if he feels fulfilled as an artist. He hesitates before answering. 'I feel... nearly fulfilled, but not quite.'

How about as a man?

'That's a big question,' he says. `Am I a complete man? I'd say no, not really. But that's good, I think,' he adds quickly. 'I've always had my fair share of doubts, but I think it's good to have a certain vulnerability.' Over the phone, Ferry's voice suddenly seems very crackly and far away. I wonder if he is pacing and has forgotten to take the phone with him. Before he vaporises altogether, I can just about make out the words. `I think,' Bryan Ferry is saying, very slowly and deliberately, 'that, so far, I've been blessed with a very interesting life.'
  Back to the Roxy Music Tour Main Page