Arts: Remake, remodel: After five long, lean years, Bryan Ferry has finally found himself again - in other people's songs. It's an old trick, but a day in the studio with him shows that it works

NEW YORK, on an improbably warm afternoon in November. A nondescript street on the West Side, down by the river: women pushing buggies, mechanics fitting tyres, schoolchildren scuffling. A grey building with a stack of businesses listed by the buzzer. Among them, a name that appears in the small print of as many records as any in history: Masterdisk. This is where the stars go, not to record their albums but to have the master-tapes cut. Modern recording is a long-distance run, and Masterdisk is where the runner hits the tape.

Inside the door, there's a security man, big and bored, with a book to sign. Most of the names on the page are a tight scribble, but one is a painter's sprawl, starting with a letter that can just be identified as an F. Take the lift to the fifth floor and you emerge into the strange world of the recording studio: padded walls, processed air, a luxury bunker. The only decoration is bank upon bank of record sleeves, the LPs that have been cut here: jazz on one wall, rock on another. Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen - any name, so long as it's big.

The man who does the cutting is Bob Ludwig. His door is shut and all you can hear is the rumble of a bass. Soon it opens and the music blows through. Rich, polished, discreetly funky, it bears the signature of Bryan Ferry more clearly than the book downstairs. And here he is, popping out to say hello, a tall figure in baggy jeans, white socks, and a big grey jersey, with a tiny tape in his hand. As I get up, I drop my pen. 'Aha]' Ferry says. 'A Razorpoint] The best] I always stock up on them when I'm here. Hockney uses them, apparently.'

For a man of 47, he looks indecently good. It's five years since I last interviewed him, and the great flop of hair is, if anything, thicker, and its owner, if anything, thinner. He seems at peace with the world, but Bryan Ferry didn't get where he is today by being an easy person to read. He is a worrier - 'obsessive, I guess' - and the five years have offered plenty of scope. The album he was plugging then, Bete Noire, turned out to be his closest brush with failure since The Bride Stripped Bare in 1978: it reached the British Top 10, but fell out of the chart after four months, rather than his customary year, and yielded no hits. He had just signed to a new record company, Virgin, one of several signings made before Richard Branson's ill-fated flotation. Virgin responded by putting out a set of his old hits - the second in three years, which smacked of panic.

Ferry changed his manager, parting company with Ed Bicknell, who manages Dire Straits, after only two years, and signing up Martin Kirkup, who manages the B52s. Then he went back into the studio, determined to 'write eight great songs'. That was in 1989. In 1991 his mother died; his father had died in 1984, and he seems to have been close to both, moving them down from the North-East to live in his house in Sussex. Also in 1991, he changed managers again, going back to David Enthoven, who as one of the founders of EG Records had given Ferry his first contract, with Roxy Music, 20 years earlier.

The eight songs took three years. Ferry called the album Horoscope and went to Masterdisk to get it cut. Bob Ludwig thought it was 'one of the best records Bryan's made'. Virgin Records didn't agree. They weren't prepared to release it. 'It didn't really have anything that was radio-friendly enough,' Ferry says. In Virgin's view? 'Mine as well, at the end of the day.' So a singer who had gone straight to the top and stayed there, who had five No 1 albums and many classic singles to his name, who had twice had the confidence to disband his group, who had been as original and influential as anyone of his generation and had seldom had any trouble pleasing the crowd as well as himself, was unable to get a release for a record on which he had spent longer than any other.

And it wasn't just a matter of time. The equation with money is never clearer than in a recording studio. You pay by the day and through the nose. A day in a typical London studio costs pounds 400. Ferry has a small studio of his own, for pre-production; but that's not what takes him so long - it's the latter stages, the fine-tuning, the time for decisions. And it is the singer, not the record company, who foots the bill. Other rock stars have their expensive habits, and Ferry has his.

As stars go, he is not that extravagant. But he has two houses, an office, sundry assistants, and a large family. He married Lucy Helmore in 1982, and they soon had two boys, Otis and Isaac. During the long gestation of Horoscope, they had two more ('the junior division'), Tara and Merlin, born 11 months apart in 1990. When Ferry refers to himself as 'broke', he is not to be taken literally; the possessions that the glossy magazines like to list, the Wyndham Lewis pictures and the Arts & Crafts chairs, are not being sold off. But as a member of his camp says, 'If you're talking cashflow, he has got a bit of a problem.'

Five years is an era or two in pop music. Going that long between albums can cut either way. It may give you rarity value, the lustre of underkill; or consign you to history. 'It's that taxi-driver thing,' Ferry says. His conversation has a bit of a George Bush thing. ' 'Still in the music business, mate?' Yes] I work every day]'

IT WAS Lucy Ferry who came up with a way out. She suggested that Bryan go back to the sideline he had had in the first flush of his career, as a singer of other people's songs. He thought he'd do a couple, to add to Horoscope and spin off as singles. So he went back into the studio, with Robin Trower, a guitarist of the Hendrix school who used to be in Procol Harum, then had some solo success, and eventually became one of the cast of thousands on Horoscope. Trower was to be co-producer. They made lists of songs, and worked on two or three, 'then four, and five, and six,' Ferry says, 'and finally I decided to make an album, and give myself a break from the other one.'

This second album, entitled Taxi, is the one he has come to New York to cut. In some ways, it's not a Bryan Ferry album at all. Not only did he not write it, but it only took him six months, no more than 19 people played on it, it was recorded on 24 tracks instead of 48, and making it was 'real fun'. In most other ways, it's Ferry through and through.

To younger eyes, Taxi may look like a jump on a bandwagon. It comes after albums of cover versions by Rod Stewart, Robert Palmer, Bob Dylan and Sinead O'Connor, and hit singles by anyone you care to name. The other albums had not come out when Ferry made his decision. Even if they had, he would be entitled to a certain latitude, because all this is the culmination of a trend that he helped to start.

In 1973, after two hit albums with Roxy Music, Ferry released his first solo LP. It was called These Foolish Things and it became a landmark. None of the songs was his own: instead he sang an eclectic bunch of hits by other people, some breezy and faithful, others boldly rearranged - notably the title track and Bob Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall'.

The term 'cover version' never appealed to Ferry. 'Sounds like a stallion covering a mare or something. It suggests imitation, like a karaoke record.' He preferred to call his remakes 'readymades', after Marcel Duchamp, and his trick of adding his signature to found objects, such as the famous urinal. Duchamp was a hero of Richard Hamilton, the Pop-art pioneer who was Ferry's tutor on the fine art course at Newcastle University. Usually when pop stars liken themselves to artists, there is a whiff of pretension. This was different. Duchamp's readymades were just an idea, albeit an influential one; Ferry's were more nourishing, offering something for the soul as well as the mind. His trick was to make records that made references, that nodded and winked, but could still get your heart to sing along.

Rock at that time defined itself partly by not being like the popular music of the previous generation - Frank and Ella, croon and swoon, the sound of the supper-club. And if there was one thing that generation had done, it was covers: the rarity was a singer who also wrote songs. These Foolish Things reconciled the two traditions. Ferry didn't see music as a form of teenage rebellion; he had been 27 when he signed that first contract, an art- school boy, like John Lennon and Pete Townshend, but one who had worked as an artist, and who took an artist's baggage - contrivance, irony, ideas - into the studio.

The day These Foolish Things came out, so did Pin-Ups, an LP of covers by David Bowie, Ferry's art-pop rival. Bowie's album was indifferent, and he didn't repeat the exercise. Ferry did, turning out a string of remakes between the songs that made him, next to Bowie, the leading British songwriter of the day. His voice often missed the note; his taste seldom did - amazingly seldom, for someone caught up in the Seventies. Many of the songs he did would pop up again years later, when the urge to recycle gripped the whole business: '(What a) Wonderful World', 'It's My Party', 'Piece of My Heart'.

'He's one of the few people,' Robin Trower says, 'who can take a song that you think can't be improved on, and improve on it.'

FERRY SLOTS in the little tape - little because it's a DAT - and leaves me to listen to it. I'm in a playback room, and the speakers are about my height. The first song is 'I Put a Spell on You', the venerable blues number written by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and covered by Nina Simone, among a hundred others. Ferry turns it into funk, or the urbane variant of it that was the prevailing style on Bete Noire. As a piece of music, it's all right. As a statement of intent, it's better: a famous song, a real standard, gaily taken apart and made Ferry's own.

The second track is another classic, 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow?', by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Ferry nearly recorded it for These Foolish Things but shied away because he was in awe of the original, by the Shirelles. 'It's fabulous, very complete. The voice is plaintive and beautiful, everything you want in a female vocal. And then the solo is this kind of scored string section - da-da da-dah da-dah-da-da da-daah-dlah-da. Very measured. It was the first time a string section ever sounded hip on a record. A bit of uptown and downtown. I thought it was very beautiful and so I was always afraid of doing it.'

He describes his version as 'fairly plain', which is true but misleading. It starts with a shiver of ambient synthesiser, and doesn't look back. While the keyboards mesh with cymbals, atmospheric guitars and more keyboards to form a shimmering backdrop, Ferry summons up a vulnerability that leaves Shirley from the Shirelles sounding businesslike. He puts space between the words ('maybe out of respect,' he says, 'measuring them out'), and sings higher and rougher than usual; the vocal turns out to be a demo, a first stab. The fact that they were written to be sung by a woman adds a twist of modernity. When you hear it, you want to hear it again, and when you hear it again, the Shirelles' version is no longer definitive.

There are several more where that came from. 'Answer Me', the Nat King Cole hit, is set in a sugar-free groove that is blacker than Cole. Doris Troy's 'Just One Look', dinky in the hands of the Hollies, becomes slinky again here. 'Rescue Me', Fontella Bass's Sixties floor-filler, 'a really hot record', is cooled down and given a half-new melody. 'Girl of My Best Friend', made famous by Elvis, renews the blend of reggae and romance that made Ferry's 'Foolish Things' so distinctive. These are songs like they don't make any more, done in ways that they didn't have at the time.

All these are pop numbers. There is also 'All Tomorrow's Parties', by the Velvet Underground and Nico, a cult favourite which Ferry works up into the sort of tapestry that was found on Avalon; admirers of the song may wonder how much this adds. Then there's 'Taxi' itself, an authentic Memphis soul ballad, recorded in 1984 by one J Blackfoot, to which Ferry has only to give some spin and polish. Most unexpectedly, there is 'Amazing Grace', the redemption song handed on from one gospel singer to another since time immemorial, and done by so many other people, including the Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (No 1, April 1972), that its force has long since faded. Ferry chose it after seeing The Deer Hunter on television and hearing it sung by Meryl Streep. His version is dark, dense, compellingly odd.

And that's it. Nine songs, plus a brief reprise of 'Spell on You': an old-fashioned album, lasting only 40 minutes. A slender triumph.

THE TAPE I've been hearing is a 'final mix', made over the past three weeks by Bob Clearmountain, up near Woodstock. Clearmountain is to mixing what Ludwig is to mastering: a supreme craftsman, someone whose taste Ferry trusts - though not so much that he leaves them to it. It's not just anxiety: he likes to watch them at work, feel the craftsmanship.

He beckons me into Ludwig's room. The room is like the flight deck of a jumbo, but not as straightforward. Ludwig stands at the console, a homely figure in trainers. Ferry sits alongside, on a stool, chin in his hands, swinging a foot to the beat. This morning he changed the running order, putting 'Rescue Me' before 'All Tomorrow's Parties' instead of after it, and trimmed eight bars off 'Spell on You'. This sounds to me like the famous urge to tinker, right up to the wire, but Ferry says it shows how relaxed he is. 'If it had been one of my own songs I'd think, 'Oh no, cutting out eight bars at the end, oh God]' ' He laughs. 'It'd be like cutting off your finger.'

The phone rings. It's Lou Reed. He talks business with Ludwig, who then hands over to Ferry. They're about the same age, but Reed got into the business significantly earlier, in 1966. Ferry was a big fan - 'most of my influences were black, but the Velvet Underground were an inspiration' - and he talks to him with a fan's gratitude, promising to send round a copy of 'All Tomorrow's Parties'.

Ludwig is winding down, running off copies of the mastertape for the record company, Clearmountain and Enthoven. He hands them to Ferry: three DATs, and three cassettes of normal size, only more solid, professional. 'They're great, these cassettes,' says Ferry, weighing one in his hand. Then he pulls on a raincoat, puts the tapes in a Ryman carrier bag, and strolls out into the mid-town bustle.

WE MET up again last month, in London. Ferry loves eating out - in the credits of the new album, he gives thanks to Cibo, the modern-Italian restaurant in Olympia. My local modern-Italian is another of his haunts, so we had dinner there. This time he cut more of a dash: black suit, black shirt, black tie, a couple of Razorpoints in his breast pocket. The look of an unusually sensitive gangster.

He ordered a Campari and I wondered if people would notice him. He had his back to the door, but it's a very open room. Soon a woman came in whom I vaguely recognised but couldn't place: late twenties, in a denim mini- skirt, with a shock of short dark hair. Ferry's eyes, which are pale blue, small but striking, kept drifting over my shoulder. Shyness, I thought; though he was talking easily enough. Then I saw the girl go out again. 'I'm sorry if I've been a bit distracted,' Ferry said. 'That was Sinead O'Connor. Good wig.'

He had spent the day in an editing suite in Soho, doing the video for 'I Put a Spell on You', the first single. 'Fascinating business. Very precise.' Before that, he had spent some weeks on the album cover, working with Nick de Ville, who was a friend at college, has helped Ferry with several covers, and is now head of visual arts at Goldsmiths', the London art school of the moment. 'All the aspects, all the details are quite important really.'

There had been time for a week's holiday, with the family, 'well, half of it', in St Lucia. 'Nice and slow.' He bumped into Janet Street- Porter, who had just bumped into Brian Eno. Eno was Ferry's partner on the first two Roxy Music albums: a non-musician, wearing even more make-up than Ferry, and supplying sound effects and ideas. He walked out after what both men now describe as a clash of young egos. For years they didn't speak. Eno became a multi-media artist and a leading producer, for U2 and others. 'I found out where he was and we had lunch. Hadn't seen him for a long time. We talked about the horrors of 48- track recording. We got on very well.'

This was beginning to sound like a Roxy Music reunion. And soon the rumours that have never been far away in the 10 years since Ferry put the group on hold surfaced again. Eno was moved to issue a statement, saying he had no intention of rejoining the band, 'no matter what amounts of money are involved'. Ferry is more equivocal: 'I'd quite like to make another record with them one day - whoever 'they' are, there's about 20 people who've been in it at some point. It's a difficult thing - do you want to revive a dinosaur? So many groups come back years later and they don't add much. I guess I'd just go into the studio and see if anything happened.' Of Eno, he says: 'I can certainly see myself working with him again. With him as co-producer. Not sole producer - he's not musical enough. But he's a very good producer of a certain type - an agent provocateur, and a very good editor of ideas.'

In the public eye, Ferry is fixed, probably forever, as Pop's Mr Smooth. Up close, or as close as you get in an interview, the image doesn't fit. He smiles a lot, and laughs easily - a chuckle that lights up his long pale face. Wary at first, he soon pokes his head out of his shell. He is quick with a riposte, but slows down when speaking whole paragraphs: it's as if he goes off the sound of his own voice.

He is reputed to have joined the aristocracy, on the grounds that his father-in-law is something in the City. But he was quoted recently as saying, 'You realise, sooner or later, that you never fit in', and the line rang true. He rues the day when he told a reporter that Otis was down for Eton. 'I've been persecuted with it ever since. 'Father a miner, son down for Eton.' He's also down for a lot of other schools. If we lived in the North I'd like him to go to a good Northern grammar school, like me . . . But that's England. Always the class thing.'

TWO WEEKS ago the single came out. It was Simon Mayo's Single of the Week on Radio 1 - a vital leg up, apparently - and Ferry was asked straight on to Top of the Pops. The presenter, a young black DJ called Tony Dortie, seemed quite excited. 'Here's a man you have to give a maximum amount of respect to. Welcome the guvnor, Bryan Ferry]'

'Really?' said Ferry, sounding chuffed, on the telephone the next day. He hadn't been able to face watching himself. He sat at the piano - a shrewd touch, enabling him to re- enter the public eye as a musician, and to avoid dancing, which he does in a style best defined as endearingly white. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been on the show. In the meantime, the producers had stopped the practice of miming. He had to sing the song eight times. You wouldn't have known it.

The next afternoon he was photographed by Snowdon, for L'Uomo Vogue. A workman walked through the studio and said to the stylist, 'Who's that? Looks like the young Bryan Ferry.' And he sounded even more chuffed.

The 'buzz' - that elusive thing which involves people talking about people talking about you - is with him. And he seems to have a good team again, centred on Enthoven, an ebullient Old Harrovian who refers to his client as 'the old boy'. They regard Ferry with admiration - two of them use the word 'genius', but don't want their names published - but they also seem capable of saying no.

The single went into the chart last Sunday at No 22. There follows a promotional blitz. He pulls out his diary: 'Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, Spain. Then Japan, Australia, America. Two, three months maybe.' It seems to give him no qualms. He can make an interviewer feel like the dentist, but not this time. He even sounds eager when asked about touring, which can give him agonies. Yes, he'll tour; and he thinks he may do some shows that are all other people's songs.

And then he'll return to Horoscope. For now, he has the air of a man who has emerged from a tunnel. He thinks about this for a moment. 'A tunnel of gloom? Yes.'

THIS OLD ART OF MINE: THE BEST OF FERRY'S REMAKES

Bryan Ferry has recorded about 50 songs by other writers, from the Beatles and the Stones to Kern and Harbach. Here is a Top 10, up to but not including this latest album.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS: His solo debut. A supper-club smoocher to which he brings a reggae beat and a bruised melancholy.

A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL: Dylan's nuclear apocalypse, fearlessly recast as pumping R&B. Over the top, but so are the words.

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES: Ferry has often talked of making an album of pre-rock standards. This shows how it might be: no less affecting for being thoroughly mannered.

FUNNY HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY: Willie Nelson's bitter ode to an ex, done in two halves - a measured lament and a desperate romp.

HE'LL HAVE TO GO: A tear-stained country ballad, remade with urban understatement. Best reason for buying The Ultimate Collection.

LET'S STICK TOGETHER: Wilbert Harrison's R&B stomper. The video captured Ferry in a moustache and Jerry Hall in a tiger-skin dress. She was so busy going ow-ow-ow- owwwwww], she failed to listen to the words.

CARRICKFERGUS: An aged folk tune, done with a reverence that is just short of preposterous. Ferry: 'I never look down on a song.'

FEEL THE NEED IN ME: The Detroit Spinners' disco stormer, effortlessly Ferryfied. An out-take from The Bride Stripped Bare, released on the excellent EP 'Windswept'.

JEALOUS GUY: Roxy Music's tribute to John Lennon, who wrote it. The purists muttered about opportunism, and the way Ferry sang 'I was feeling insecure'; the punters got out their lighters, and made it his only No 1 hit.

ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT: Ferry sings Presley, for the new film Honeymoon in Vegas. A shining soft-shoe shuffle. TdeL

'Taxi' is released on 22 March (all formats).

(Photograph omitted)

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