Bryan Ferry: Melancholic of Glam

The ultimate lounge lizard's last thought as he plunged to his near-death in an airliner: 'Not now, I've got an album to finish'

Barney Hoskyns
Saturday 16 June 2001 00:00 BST

By his own slightly shamefaced admission, the first thought that raced through Bryan Ferry's mind as he came within a hair's breadth of plunging to his doom on a flight to Kenya last Christmas was not "Oh, please spare me and my wife and sons and all the poor passengers and crew members on this jumbo jet." It was: "Not yet! I've still got an album to finish!"

Such candour will bring smiles to the faces of those who know of Ferry's maddeningly meticulous perfectionism ­ however alarming the circumstances (a deranged giant had burst into the cockpit of a British Airways 747 and was attempting to make it nosedive). For here is a man whose every recent solo album has been a labour of excruciating love bordering on chronic anal retentiveness. Endless hours of overdubbing and remixing account for large swathes of Ferry's past 20 years.

Indeed, the real question for any Ferry fan who has followed his pop journey over the past three decades must be this: how did a man whose first impact on rock'n'roll was as a kind of spivvy futurist Elvis ­ all plastic pop art and avant-garde edginess ­ end up becoming such a neurotic fetishist of the recording arts? (Closely followed by: how did a working-class Geordie art student turn into a Sussex country squire with sons at Eton?) Born in 1945 in the village of Washington, Tyne and Wear, Ferry was the son of a miner, propelling himself out of his humble origins via a four-year art course at Newcastle University and stints in such Tyneside R&B/soul bands as the Banshees (no relation to Dame Siouxsie) and the Gas Board.

From the ashes of the latter was born Roxy Music, a group formed in London not long after Ferry gained a 2.2 BA in fine arts in the summer of 1968. Among Bryan's many inspirations at this point was Andy Warhol, whose pop art love affair with trash was crucial to the Roxy aesthetic.

"I had this whole American dream thing," he later remembered, "living up in Newcastle yet constantly dreaming about Warhol's Factory and Baby Jane Holzer."

When Roxy first exploded on to Top of the Pops consciousness four years later, it was true Shock of the New time. This was a time of glamour in pop, but a time when "glamour" meant the glitter-pop of T Rex and the Sweet: teenage-rampage heaven after the brown rice and patchouli oil years of polytechnic prog-rock. What Roxy did was combine sartorial outlandishness with modish conceptual intelligence, first on the glorious, ideas-crammed Roxy Music and then on the wild hit single "Virginia Plain".

"There was a very strong difference between early Roxy and the glam rock thing," said Nick de Ville, like designer Anthony Price a key part of the group's early Seventies team.

"There were people trapped in glam as a style, like Gary Glitter, and there were others, like Roxy, who adopted it in a strategic way."

"There was a lot of kitsch in there, a lot of Americana," says David Enthoven, then Roxy's manager and now Robbie Williams'. "It was Bryan's dream. Anthony obviously had a hand in realising it, and Nick, who designed the album covers, but the vision was all Bryan's. The whole thing was music and packaging."

But the real key to Roxy Mark 1 was the dynamic between Ferry and Eno ­ the two Br(y/i)ans. The first was a suave, almost vampire-like crooner with a greased quiff, the second a gender-bending Rocky Horror jester coaxing a variety of squiggly noises from a VCS3 "suitcase" synthesiser. (One of the great disappointments of reunion tour that Roxy Music have just commenced is that Brian 2 has ­ albeit unsurprisingly ­ opted to sit this one out. Ferry, saxophonist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera are making do without the services of the dome-headed boffin of Woodbridge, a man who has made a great deal more money from producing the likes of U2 than he ever made from Roxy.)

"I was very impressed by the music," says Eno. "It sounded to me like something quite new and different. I'd never thought of joining a band, but I just thought, this is the most fun I've ever had."

"I think Eno was the strongest person for me to bounce off, looking back at it," Ferry has said. "He was much more opinionated than Andy or Phil. My feeling now is, I wish we'd collaborated longer."

Roxy took the ideas of montage and collage that Ferry had picked up from studying with pop art great Richard Hamilton and grafted them on to a musical base that was equal parts art-rock, cabaret-pop and Andy Warhol kinkiness.

With David Bowie blazing a trail of mutant androgyny across teen Britain, Roxy followed close behind with their swaggering rockers ("Do the Strand") and eerie space-age ballads ("In Every Dream Home a Heartache"), fashioning the definitive statement that was 1973's majestic For Your Pleasure.

"I saw Bryan's songs in the context of pop art," says Eno. "That was the period when pop music became self-conscious, in the sense that it started to look at its own history as material that could be used. We wanted to say, 'We know we're working in pop music, we know there's a history to it and we know it's a showbiz game.' And knowing all that, we're still going to try to do something new."

"We had so many ideas that it was like, 'Christ! Let's get them all down before they go away'," Ferry said in 1997. "Later you start to compromise, for fear of your music going over people's heads. On Roxy Music it was like, 'Let's do this thing right next to that, edit straight in from this to that,' and so you never got bored with it. I mean, there are many flaws on that first album ­ the singing is terrible, and the recording isn't very good ­ but it's also incredibly exciting. I think we enjoyed making For Your Pleasure more, because we felt a little more in control. We still had a producer, but I think Brian had a lot more to do with the sound. And I think I underestimated what a help Brian was to me when we split up."

Ferry was a control freak long before Eno departed Roxy in the summer of 1973; certainly the band wasn't big enough for both Br(y/i)ans. Bryan 1 even commenced a highly successful solo career with These Foolish Things, the first of 10 solo albums that feature some of the most emotionally arid recordings in the history of pop. On these he's called all the shots, unencumbered by the pretence of democracy.

"The reason it fell apart, I think, is that Bryan was doing all the work and Eno getting all the glory," laughs David Enthoven. "It was Eno who got to shag all the girls, and I think that drove Bryan completely bonkers. I mean, Eno was literally shagging non-stop; he was on for it all the time, like a fucking rabbit."

Roxy pushed on without Eno, making the superb Stranded (1973) and the slightly less superb Country Life (1974). Attired in singularly daft GI and Zorro outfits, Ferry became the "Byron Ferrari" of music-press jibes and began squiring leggy Texan Jerry Hall around town. "I suppose that's where the tuxedo came in, and the different kinds of suit and stuff," he has said.

"By that time, people knew who we were, so I guess we'd pushed ourselves as much in that direction as we could and we then felt we didn't have to anymore." But hang on a tick, wasn't that leggy Jerry on the arm of notorious rock Lothario Mick Jagger? Why yes, La Hall did indeed break our Byron's heart, switching seamlessly from one social (rock) climber to another, and later becoming the subject of doleful Ferry reflections such as "Kiss and Tell".

And herein we hit on a fundamental strand in the Ferry psyche: self-advancement. My own feeling is that, notwithstanding his sons' penchants for huntinshootinfishin' and the like, Ferry is actually less of a social snob than Michael, Lord Jagger. An art and fashion snob, yes ­ to this day, our Bry grimaces if you lump him in with Slade or Gary Glitter ­ but a man desperate to move in the exalted sphere of the British aristocracy, not especially.

True, Ferry is married to a prime piece of posh totty, the haughty and highly strung Lucy Helmore, but he's less of a panting puppy around dukes and duchesses than Jagger is. (No one ever wrote a song like "Respectable" about Ferry.) Even the endless languorous portraits of him in dinner jackets have more to do with classic Homme Plus style than with any overwhelming desire to appear in the pages of Tatler.

In any case, Roxy Music were never about violent revolution (unlike some bands one could mention) ­ and never less so than in their blanded-out Mark 2 incarnation as the glacially melancholic pop band of Flesh + Blood (1980) and Avalon (1982). This, in fact, was Roxy's most successful period ­ spawning yuppie-AOR hits like "Over You", "More Than This", "Jealous Guy" and "Avalon" itself ­ and it may be the period that the majority of the fans who venture out to see the Roxy reunion this summer most relate to.

It's not insignificant that on the just-rushed-out Best of Roxy Music, all the great glam-era tracks are stashed at the end of the record.

Ferry claims he'd been terribly hurt when his very good 1978 solo album The Bride Stripped Bare suffered a punk backlash. "I felt it was the first grown-up record I'd ever made," he says. "But people didn't want grown-up anymore. It's a shame because one hit on it would have made all the difference. And the single 'Sign of the Times' actually referred to the whole snarling punk attitude, but the irony of a guy in a suit singing that song totally passed people by."

Undoubtedly some of Ferry's fire went out at this point, prompting him to plump for something altogether safer. "It was time to reform the thing and say, 'Can we have another go?'" he remembers. "And luckily some really good things came out of it, thanks to some of the musicians who I picked up in the intervening years, like Alan Spenner, who was just the greatest English bass player, and Neil Hubbard. They became part of my repertory company, if you like. Andy and Phil were still part of it, of course, but we weren't really friends, which was a shame, really. And all because of money."

Few of the fans who've remained loyal to Ferry since the Roxy split of summer 1983 can have been exactly electrified by records like Boys and Girls (1985), Bête Noire (1987), Taxi (1993) or Mamouna (1994). "I'd suddenly got myself into a position where I thought I'd retired from the stage," he told Jon Savage in 1994. "I thought, 'Now I'm a studio musician: I will create masterpieces in the studio; this will be my life.'" Between Boys and Girls and Bête Noire alone, Ferry jumped from a 48-track recording console to one with 56 ­ and filled all of them up.

Most of the music on these albums conveys the sense of a sad roué, a deposed matinee idol, fruitlessly searching for a moment of musical catharsis as he burrows yet further up his own posterior.

If ever there was a man who needed to let go and have some fun ­ the fun he had on "Virginia Plain" and "Street Life" ­ it's Ferry. Maybe this was why he opted to revisit the distant Tin Pan Alley past on last year's standards collection As Time Goes By.

"It would be very nice to feel dangerous now," Ferry admitted to me in 1997.

"But that's the awful thing about growing up. You can improve your craft as years go by, but there's nothing like being new."

Bryan Ferry: life story

Born: On 26 September 1945, Washington, Tyne and Wear

Older sibling: Ann

Marriage: To Lucy Helmore on 26 June 1982

Children: Four sons ­ Otis, Isaac, Tara, Merlin

Education: Glebe Infant & Primary School. Washington Grammar School. One year at Durham University, then studied art at Newcastle University 1964-1968; taught by Richard Hamilton for one year

Releases: Nine Roxy Music albums from the group's eponymous 1972 début to the live The High Road (1983). Ten solo albums from 1973's These Foolish Things to last year's As Time Goes By

He says: "People don't realise how northern I am, or how shy. I was never comfortable doing television and chat shows. I hate being interrogated on television. Maybe it's because I'm not comfortable with talking. I guess that's why I am a singer."

They say: "I'm not sure what Bryan thought his roots were, but they probably had more to do with Marilyn Monroe than with any musical influences." (Tim Clark, former marketing director of Roxy Music's label)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in