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Off the Beaten Tracks: The Lives of Bryan

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LOUNGE lizard, crooner, multi-millionaire and self-made toff, Bryan Ferry CBE is one of the pillars of the popular music Establishment.

Just the sort of character ridiculed by Roxy Music when they burst on to the scene in 1972.

Roxy tend to be remembered nowadays for Europop anthems tailored to the disco market. Yet their eponymous debut album was a chaotic, irreverent blast at the pretensions of the rock world. Produced by Pete Sinfield, formerly of King Crimson, it is a satirical blend of prog, pop, jazz and traditional rock and roll, full of Hollywood references and humour.

Inside the gatefold LP cover, Ferry, in tigerskin jacket, sports a quiff to make a surfer swoon. As the picture suggests, this was a band who took themselves far from seriously. Although they were accomplished musicians, with the exception of Brian Eno, this was definitely a comedy project – a sort of rock version of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Ferry wrote the songs and performed them in a totally over-the-top manner reminiscent on slower tunes of the lachrymose 1950s American singer Johnnie Ray.

The son of a farm labourer (or miner, depending on who you believe) from Washington, County Durham, Bryan Ferry was born in 1945 and, after grammar school, studied fine art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he played with several rock bands. He moved to London in 1968 and taught ceramics at a girls’ school while trying to establish a musical career. Roxy Music was formed in 1970 and went through several personnel changes before the debut album.

The eventual line-up comprised Ferry on keyboards and vocals, bassist Graham Simpson, guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson and oboist Andy Mackay. Despite being a non-musician, Mackay’s friend Brian Eno was co-opted in because he had an impressive collection of tape recorders and knew how to work a synthesiser.

Roxy Music, with its kitsch cover featuring the model Kari Ann, was released by Island Records in 1972 to a reception which varied from baffled to ecstatic. Track One, Remake/Remodel, is an extraordinary pastiche, with each group member granted a solo and with references to, among others, the Beatles, Duane Eddy and Wagner. It ends by disappearing down an electronic plughole, courtesy of Eno, whose influence throughout the album is remarkable. As he was to prove over many years as performer and producer, his initial lack of musical proficiency was more than compensated for by his originality and willingness to experiment.

Next comes Ladytron, so good they named a band after it, followed by perhaps the best track of a strong selection. If There Is Something features Ferry turning up the histrionics to eleven, better to accentuate the bathos:

I would do anything for you
I would climb mountains
I would swim all the oceans blue
I would walk a thousand miles
Reveal my secrets
More than enough for me to share
I would put roses round our door
Sit in the garden
Growing potatoes by the score

Roxy Music became a top ten album and to consolidate its success a brilliant new song, Virginia Plain, was released as a single. Its thunderous energy contrasts beautifully with Eno’s synthesised burps and squiggles. Performed on Top of the Pops, it introduced the band’s unique look and sound to a wider audience and reached No 4 in the charts. By then Graham Simpson had left, to be replaced briefly by Rik Kenton. After Kenton’s departure Roxy never again had a permanent bassist.

Although their image was of OTT glamour rather than the rags and safety pins of punk, I think the early Roxy were true trailblazers four years before the arrival of Rotten and Co.

Album two was For Your Pleasure, released in March 1973. The cover girl was another model, Amanda Lear, then amour of Ferry, who was starting to believe in himself as an actual sex symbol rather than a parody of one. The musicianship is tighter and production, by Chris Thomas, more lavish. There are some strong tracks including Do The Strand and Editions Of You, both reminiscent of Virginia Plain’s powerful delivery. There was another non-album-track single release, the intriguing Pyjamarama, but Eno’s anarchic influence was on the wane and he left the band after losing one power struggle too many with Ferry. He was replaced by the multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson, formerly of Curved Air.

Eno swiftly embarked on a solo career, which I hope to cover in future blogs. I had a ticket to see him at Newcastle City Hall in 1974 (a bargain at 40p) but he pulled out, blaming a collapsed lung. Pretty feeble excuse if you ask me.

With Ferry’s ego in full flower the third album, Stranded, was released in late 1973 and went straight to number one. His then current model girlfriend, Marilyn Cole, was on the cover. Although undoubtedly solid and well produced, it is a record I never listen to apart from the first track, the hit single Street Life. This is a remarkable performance from Ferry, as frenzied as any subsequent punk singer, and shows how much his voice has developed.

Album four, 1974’s Country Life, featured two female German Roxy fans in various stages of déshabillé, which proved too racy for the US where a substitute cover was employed. Highlights are the opening track The Thrill of it All and the single All I Want Is You.

The following year saw album five, Siren, with another of the singer’s model squeezes, Jerry Hall, on the cover. By now Eno is a distant memory and Ferry is in maximum romantic mode. Love Is The Drug provided another hit single.

The band broke up in 1976, with Ferry pursuing his solo ambitions, but reformed two years later to record Manifesto, which supplied the singles Angel Eyes and Dance Away. By now Roxy were as smooth and cloying as liquidised chocolate. Flesh and Blood (1980) provided more of the same although the final album, Avalon, was something of a return to form including the wistful More Than This. Months after the 1980 murder of John Lennon, a cover version of his Jealous Guy gave Roxy their only Number One single. It features a Ferry whistling solo, of which there are far too few on record. In fact, I feel whistling should be made a compulsory school subject.

There were several lucrative reunions over the years, always shunned by Brian Eno, while Ferry completed the personal transformation from art school upstart to English country gent. You might detect from me a certain lack of sympathy with the man but there is no denying that he developed into a brilliant singer. This lovely version of Carrickfergus, from the solo album The Bride Stripped Bare, is proof of that. But I still think he would have been better for a regular dose of Eno.

alan@conservativewoman.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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