The troubled mid-life of Bryan

Still abundantly talented, widely influential and impossibly cool, Bryan Ferry has written enough brilliant songs to fill five Greatest Hits albums but hasn't hit the Top 10 in over a decade. What happened?
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The Independent Culture

Bryan Ferry was the best-dressed Englishman of the late 20th century. His work, both as a solo artist and with Roxy Music, is the audible proof that pop music can be a sophisticated art form. Bryan Ferry has probably had more influence on British notions of style than anyone bar Terence Conran. But Bryan Ferry hasn't had a Top 10 single since 1985.

Bryan Ferry was the best-dressed Englishman of the late 20th century. His work, both as a solo artist and with Roxy Music, is the audible proof that pop music can be a sophisticated art form. Bryan Ferry has probably had more influence on British notions of style than anyone bar Terence Conran. But Bryan Ferry hasn't had a Top 10 single since 1985.

Of course, his back-catalogue continues to be repackaged and re-marketed with consistent success. Slave To Love, an album of his most romantic hits, sits at 26 in the album charts, having sold more than 200,000 copies. A new collection of Roxy Music tracks - The Early Years - is about to be released. The past few months have seen Ferry touring the stately homes of England for a series of typically upmarket concerts. But when are we ever going to hear anything new?

His last solo album of original songs, Mamouna, took five years, on and off, to make. Initially entitled Horoscope, an early version was rejected by Ferry's label, Virgin Records, on the grounds that it was insufficiently commercial. Ferry was burdened both by writer's block and by a working method in which he does not record songs that have already been composed on a piano or guitar, but builds them up, layer by layer, in the studio itself. This is a slow, expensive approach and it caused him such serious financial difficulties that he had to sell his New York apartment.

All would have been well if Mamouna had been a hit. Ferry did everything he could to ensure that it was, carrying out a full round of promotional interviews and playing concerts on both sides of the Atlantic. But the effort was all to no avail. Entering the UK charts at No 11, Mamouna swiftly disappeared. In America, it reached no higher than No 94.

Undaunted, Ferry tried again. He may have the image of being rock's most foppish aristocrat, but he actually comes from an impoverished Geordie background. His father was a farm labourer and the his early years were spent in a tiny house with an outdoor privy and a tin bath hung on the wall. The urge to better himself has left him with a determination and a driving work ethic.

Finally, in 1998, he was ready. According to record-industry sources, he took his new album to Virgin, and - once again - it was rejected. When, last year, I contacted Ferry's management company of the time, IE Music, it agreed that Ferry had been working on a new album of original material, but would not confirm or deny that it had been rejected by Virgin. Virgin Records UK, however, confirmed that Bryan Ferry was no longer contracted to it to produce new material. After more than 25 years of professional music-making, a man who had written enough brilliant songs to fill no less than five Greatest Hits compilations no longer had a British recording contract.

To those of us who were once his besotted fans, the idea of Bryan Ferry failing was almost inconceivable. As the style guru Peter York recalls, the impact Ferry made in the early Seventies was overwhelming. "I made regular pilgrimages to all the early Roxy shows. Suddenly, all sorts of things one knew about but thought private - all that ironic sophistication, the sense of style, the clothes, the Warholisms - were all served up on a plate, and done terribly well. It was a rallying call."

Roxy Music sounded like nothing else on earth: Ferry crooned like a lovelorn gigolo; Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay squeezed bizarre avant-garde noises from their guitars and saxophones, while Brian Eno added synthesised sound effects and extraordinary ideas. Their first single, "Virginia Plain", was released in August 1972. But when, last year, Rover cars wanted to suggest that their 200 range was modern, youthful and groovy, they chose that 27-year-old record as their advertising soundtrack. It still sounds new.

And, of course, Ferry looked amazing. Blessed with matinée-idol glamour, he was the absolute contrast to all the beardy geezers in flapping loons and Afghan coats who dominated rock music in those days. His hair was short. He never wore flares. He posed on his solo record-covers in a simple blue T-shirt, or the perfect white tuxedo. When he played his first big solo show at the Albert Hall, he came on stage in a dinner-jacket, with gorgeous girl backing singers doing doo-wops behind him. It was, in its way, at least as radical an alternative to the conventions of rock'n'roll as anything punks ever did.

Girls, of course, were essential to the Ferry experience. Every Roxy Music album had a new one on the cover, and part of the thrill of a new Roxy album was the first sight of the impossibly glamorous, outrageously sexual model whom Ferry had selected. A teenage Texan called Jerry Hall appeared on the cover of Siren in 1975, draped across a cliff in Wales, her body painted blue and barely dressed in an itsy-bitsy bikini. In her autobiography, Tall Tales, Jerry recalled her first encounter with Ferry: "He was charming. He was a real gentleman, handsome and beautifully dressed. His hair was all black and shiny and slicked back, and he smelled of Floris."

For an entire generation of arty teens, Bryan Ferry was a role model whose influence was equalled only by Bowie. They would go to his concerts like mirror-images of their hero, dressed in his latest image - the lounge lizard, the GI, or even (his only aesthetic mistake) the gaucho.

In the Eighties and Nineties, those Seventies kids grew up to become fashion and interior designers, art directors, magazine journalists - all the people, in short, who dictate the way we look, dress and decorate. "I think he has a huge influence on style," confirms Peter York, "because he was a huge influence on all the people at the helm of the style business today."

That influence persisted right into the early Eighties. Roxy Music's final album, Avalon, was virtually all written by Ferry and it is not only one of the finest things he has ever done, but also one of the most grown-up records ever made - completely adult in both the world-weary subject matter of its lyrics and the gently rhythmic subtlety of its music.

But what else can Bryan do or say now? Unlike his contemporaries - Elton, Rod, Bowie, Jagger - he hasn't kept himself in the public eye. He's not writing songs for Diana, dating busty blondes, or setting off on global mega-tours. His brand-recognition is slipping away. In a reader poll organised by the music magazine Q to find the 100 greatest pop stars of the 20th century, David Bowie came in sixth; Ferry just scraped in at 99.

Young people barely know who he is. Meanwhile, his old constituency already know everything they need to know about him. As one of London's most powerful magazine publishers (a fan from way back, naturally) told me: "Not only do I not want to buy any new Bryan Ferry records, I actively don't want him to produce them. It's too much hassle to get to know them, and you know they won't be as good as the old ones. It's like a very pretty girl still strutting her stuff 15 years after she should be married and living in Gloucestershire."

A decade ago, any men's magazine would have fought to be able to put his picture on the cover. So I asked the publisher, who did not wish to be named, how big a draw Bryan Ferry was to his readers now. "I should say he probably means something to the older 40 per cent of our readership," said the publisher. "They see him as an icon. They became fans years ago and they can never completely forget."

The message for Ferry is painfully clear. Having been a prophet of the future, he is now primarily of interest for his past. He seems to have got the message. When, six years ago, Virgin rejected Horoscope, Ferry went straight into the studio and in a few short weeks knocked out an album of cover-versions of Sixties songs called Taxi. When Virgin rejected his last original album, Ferry went away and, in three months or so, recorded an album of songs from the Thirties and Forties entitled As Time Goes By. It was a more mature, less mannered echo of the elegant young lounge lizard who once crooned "These Foolish Things". Reviews, though, were lukewarm and sales patchy.

This oldies' record was released, ironically, by Virgin Germany, which distributed it through - yes - Virgin UK, the very company that said no to Ferry a year earlier. The latter company, though, demonstrated where its real interest in Ferry lay by producing de-luxe, re-mastered editions of the Ferry and Roxy back-catalogue of albums.Ferry himself may have felt that his career needed a boost. He parted from IE Music, whose founder David Enthoven had managed him since the early Roxy days and whose ability to create stars has been proven in recent years by the success of another client, Robbie Williams. For whatever the reason, Ferry found new management and then a new recording contract with - good Lord - Virgin UK, which seems to have welcomed him back into its fold. Once again, there is talk of a new solo album, possibly early next year.

But does Ferry need to work at all? The music industry's expert on rock-star wealth is an accountant called Cliff Dane, who works from the published accounts of the holding companies used by stars to handle their recording and concert revenues. He confesses that Ferry is one of the few stars whose income he has not been able to trace. "I don't know if he's rolling in it, or broke," says Dane. But, he points out, while Ferry has obviously profited from his many hits, he hasn't recently had the sort of massive pay days that many of his contemporaries have enjoyed.

The really big money is made on the road in America, but the highpoint of Ferry's last US trip was a three-night stand at the intimate Beacon Theatre in New York, which would have generated thousands not millions. And the cost of every unreleased album eats into his capital. As he himself has admitted, "Andrew Lloyd Webber owns one picture worth more than I've ever earned in my life."

All, however, is by no means lost. Ferry still has his estate in Sussex, which would be worth millions should he ever decide to sell. He has, I am assured, been shrewd enough to provide ample pension funds for his eventual retirement. As one lawyer who has known him for many years observes: "Bryan complains that he's short of money. But he's not short of money like you or I are short of money." And, of course, the new album, if it ever appears, may catapult him back to the top. Which is just as well. Because the thought of an unwanted Bryan, unable to afford a smart new suit or keep himself supplied with brilliantine, is more than I could bear.