Wednesday, 7 August 2013

ROXY MUSIC: Avalon





(#266: 5 June 1982, 1 week; 19 June 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing: More Than This/The Space Between/Avalon/India/While My Heart Is Still Beating/The Main Thing/Take A Chance With Me/To Turn You On/True To Life/Tara

“She was teaching us about Gatsby, the way he disappeared into his own Platonic conception of himself, the way he followed the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, drunk on the impossible past. But what did I know about the past? I didn’t have one yet. I could only covet hers.”
(Rob Sheffield, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran: London, Penguin, 2011; chapter: “Roxy Music, ‘More Than This,’ 1982)

The past becomes less and less possible the more time goes forward. On Sunday, while preparing this piece, I listened to the final edition of The David Jacobs Collection on BBC Radio 2. Jacobs has broadcast on the BBC since the forties, but is now eighty-seven, and treatment for liver cancer and Parkinson’s disease has taken its toll, such that he has had to retire.

I have no idea whether the final edition was broadcast live, but given that it was going out at eleven o’clock at night, I suspect it was not. The gradual shuntering of Jacobs’ broadcasting to the somnolent graveyard zone had long been inevitable, and it gives me no pleasure to think that perhaps some managers at the station are quietly breathing sighs of relief at his going; like Peel, here’s an immovable obstacle out of the way, it’s our opportunity to change things and, Lord help us, modernise. Russelll Davies’ long-running Sunday show is also set to go in October, and so Radio 2 can continue gradually giving up on its remit of their Sundays as a memorial of what the station used to be, for those few loyal people still listening.

Because, of course, their Holy Grail is the younger listener. This outlook is doomed from the outset; Radio 2 was born at the age of 42, and that has been a major part of its charm. But it is all part of the gradual closing down of history, the banishment of pre-1963 popular music to the limbo-like preserve of a few diehards and specialists. Please Please Me represents the drawing of a line in the sand; anything before that will now be, by definition, prehistoric.

I am, however, sure that I am not alone in my dismay at the prospect of what can usefully be umbrella-termed The Great American Songbook receding into anti-existence. Who will now be left to play these old songs, the carefully constructed mini-musicals, or songs from musicals, with their smart talk, integrated structures, harmonic ambiguities (learned from close study and, in some cases, direct knowledge of the writers’ classical precedents) and historically-gleaned wisdom? Rock threw smart talk out of the twentieth floor window, preferred directness and simplicity, and so it is now a task to re-wire ourselves to absorb the once-popular music which came before it.

What was the secret of Jacobs’ longevity, apart from his being a vital link to radio’s past? It didn’t have anything to do with anything particularly profound or memorable that he ever said, much more to do with an unspoken shared knowledge. He concentrated on old Tin Pan Alley tunes and Broadway numbers because they constituted what he called “our kind of music.” The “we” very pointedly being the few people who would yet venture to listen to him, last thing of a weekend. The few people who feel in their bones that something of their past has died, or been allowed to die, and that this programme served as a kind of aesthetic life preserver.

Jacobs did what he wanted. He’d play the same song twice if he felt like it, break into long anecdotes about sharing a taxi with Lena Horne from London to Blackpool, extol The Good Companions or Mack And Mabel, even sing along with the song. His repertory company was few in number but very select: Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett, Vic Damone, Robert Goulet, the occasional Streisand, instrumental interludes by Robert Farnon or the Johnny Douglas Strings, and others of that nature. It was not quite radio’s last blank page, for he had filled it to his own satisfaction, but it represented one of radio’s last remaining chances to be something other than a formula.

I thought about this while listening to Sunday’s broadcast; this week’s “Triple Common Denominator” was Marni Nixon, and Jacobs played three songs where she essentially ghosted for other actresses; “Hello Young Lovers” from The King And I, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, and “Just You Wait” from the film version of My Fair Lady (where she read Audrey Hepburn’s lips). These are, of course, all songs that I wrote about in the very early days of Then Play Long, and it once again occurred to me that most of those thirty-two predecessors to Please Please Me are in imminent danger of dropping off the edge of the world. It may well be that there is now virtually no audience for this kind of music, with modern audiences repelled by what they see as hammy, loquacious and grandiloquent hangovers from the days of Tales From The Vienna Woods.

So I can state, as I have done before here, that part of TPL’s brief has always been to help rescue this music, prevent selective history from erasing it. My fear is that the lack of understanding of not-so-ancient history may feed into the deliberate ignorance of history which is now eating into whatever is left of the world.

And it has always intended to try to preserve the dream of romance which is latent in all popular music. For his last record, Jacobs, tasked with choosing between Sinatra and Crosby, plumped for Bing, singing “Incurably Romantic,” best known in the version performed by Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand in the film Let’s Make Love – and it struck me that its poise and observations  (“I’m susceptible to stars in the sky”) would fit Bryan Ferry perfectly.

Remember that nearly a decade before Avalon, Ferry had recorded his first solo albums of standards from various ages, These Foolish Things, and although on it he turns Dylan’s “Hard Rain” into glam apocalypse and converts “It’s My Party” to a political statement eight years ahead of Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin, his heart was always palpably with the old, cool days of Cole and Jerome, songs as metaphorical lists, or regretful diary entries. One somehow knew that he would eventually become that which, in 1973, he still beheld with some ironic detachment.

There is absolutely no irony in Avalon, nor any detachment save that of the singer’s continuing efforts to detach himself from the rest of the world. Where Flesh And Blood was still full of grievous ire, there is little to witness on Avalon apart from a cool – never to be confused with “cold” – stillness. Ferry’s heart might still have been beating, but he now seemingly made it his mission to slow his heartbeat right down, to, but not reaching or breaching, the point of non-flutter.

If you stay, or float, on Avalon’s surface, you could be forgiven for wondering why Ferry even needed to bother with another Roxy Music album in 1982. The total running time comes in at just over thirty-seven-and-a-half minutes, and two of its ten songs are short instrumentals; all ten, however, appear to reflect and comment on each other, and the minimal divisibility between individual tracks means that the whole plays like a continuous, cyclical song suite (if indeed it does finish up where it started, of which I am not entirely convinced). Moreover, Ferry’s vocals are frequently so quiet and/or treated that it’s a miracle that he even deigns to open his mouth.

But do not confuse apparent laxity of delivery with having nothing to say. The edition of Avalon that I am using for this piece – editions of “you”? - is the 2003 21st Anniversary DSD Multi-Channel remaster. “DSD” stood for Direct Stream Digital – yes, it does sound a bit Alan Partridge – and its mechanisms I cannot recall at all, despite their being very carefully explained to me at the time by producer and remasterer Rhett Davies. If you had DSD-compatible equipment, there was an eleventh track – “Always Unknowing,” which is much of a muchness with the rest of the record (“Take what you want and go/Just give me time”). Even heard on a simple CD player, it sounded fresh, cleaned up (Canada’s Bob Clearmountain on remix duties) and there was a definite Sensurround feel to the music.

I got this copy at a press launch at the Groucho Club. Yes, I know immediately how that must read, but it was ten years ago and I had a free Thursday. The three main Roxy musicians drove over from Barnes. I do not remember seeing Phil Manzanera. I exchanged a few pleasantries with Andy Mackay, who looked like a prosperous middle-aged Harley Street surgeon in his pinstripe suit and gold-rimmed spectacles. Ferry was there in the same room, and working it, but I didn’t approach him – why, I figured, should he be remotely interested in my miserable and complicated story?

Actually, I spent most of the day with Chris Roberts as my drinking companion, and I’m sure I remember the occasion a lot better than he does (one main consequence of having a stroke and being on Warfarin is that one is compelled to be forever sober). But I took the record home and listened to it, as I had been asked to review it for Uncut. I scribbled some thoughts and emailed them.

Between then and now, I have hardly revisited the record – whereas the first three Roxy albums all get regular replays. But I think that, in the context of a year that was neither 1952 nor 2012, Avalon is one of 1982’s most important albums. Consider the manner in which they performed, or mimed to, “More Than This” on TOTP – in the presence of many important New Pop operatives for whom Ferry was their idol. The song itself presented a very odd but fulsome smoothness and serenity which in 1982 was probably unprecedented in pop (though not to those who knew their ECM); the group appear to be trying to play as quietly and minimally as possible – but “appear” is the key word since Mackay’s high-pitched atonal circular breathing is present, though right at the back of the mix.

Meanwhile, Ferry sings, in a high-pitched croon which doesn’t have much to do with either Bowlly or Faith – if anything, the Adam Faith of this period sounded like Ray Davies – about the sea on the tide, and how it has no way of turning. “More than this,” he sings, “You know there’s nothing.” “Tell me one thing.” “Nothing.”

But it is not a lost nothingness; instead of desolation, there seems to be an air of quietly euphoric calm, as though the “nothing” is everything else that Ferry now needs. There is only this moment, he is saying, and he doesn’t seem to mind; as the song winds into its unusually long instrumental fadeout – Ferry stops singing at 2:45, so it is “Sound And Vision” in reverse – Ferry, miming his keyboard part on TOTP, puffs on a toothpick in his mouth, acting as a cigarette, and doodles his hands like any first year Slade School of Art student; he is dressed in a lumberjack check shirt, polka dot bowtie and leather jacket, and nobody – but nobody – could get away with that combination as masterfully and naturally as Ferry does. The song melts down to its synthesised core; are you sure you want “nothing” (more)?

With its miasma of saxophones and its very precise deployment of angles between percussion and silence, “The Space Between” is everything Spandau Ballet desperately wanted to be; despite its Walker-like haiku lyric (“We better/Close it up tonight”), it subtly skanks; slow it down by a few bpm and it could be lovers’ rock. It is the same story with the title track – hear it and react to it as reggae, and see what I mean – in which Ferry at long last allows himself, even on his last legs and presumably drunk as a skunk at four in the morning, to be overcome and transfixed by the intrusion of beauty into his shuttered world. She appears “out of nowhere,” there is hardly a word (“and your destination/You don’t know it” – she can’t find her way home) and when she dances, he is smitten, I slightly bewildered (“Would you have me dancing/Out of nowhere?”).

The chord changes are inevitable and majestic – and both song structure and arrangement suggest some familiarity with the work of Simple Minds – such that Manzanera’s channelling of Duane Eddy in the middle eight does not sound at all jarring or misplaced. And of course there is Haitian singer Yanick Etienne, discovered by Ferry during recording sessions at New York’s Power Station (although the album was mostly recorded at that most early eighties of recording locations, Compass Point in Nassau), wordlessly articulating the spirit which has entered and entranced the room; by the time of this album’s last week at number one, Ferry had married 22-year-old Lucy Helmore, and there is no doubt whom this song is intended to represent.

“India” is a brief instrumental, though Ferry’s dissonant keyboards suggest that the old Roxy hasn’t been lost but has merely repositioned itself at a different angle. “While My Heart Is Still Beating,” however, is one of Roxy’s finest, with an outraged, protesting vocal and a twirling minor/major harmonic line which places it as an unfunny nephew of “In Every Dream Home, A Heartache,” as well as making it a great lost Bond theme (it out-Durans Duran with insolent ease). Ferry’s piano is as spiky as it was on “Re-Make, Re-Model,” and the final couplet gives the message away: “My heart has flown away now/Will it never stop bleeding?” – their version of “Jealous Guy” may not be present, but this is a fury-filled homage to Lennon. Where to find peace, and why is it so hard to find?

So there are chinks of disquiet irrupting the seemingly calm fa├žade, but still Avalon is an immaculate block, if possibly carved from the finest stone. It is an immovable record and makes great play of its wilful immobility. But if you think of Avalon as a block of stone, then if it were struck by lightning it might sound something like this:




Ferry was so impressed by them on TOTP that he negotiated to get their backing band to accompany the three Roxy musicians on their European tour to promote Avalon. But, though sharing much of Ferry’s casual, verging on reckless, poise, Sulk is as different a record as you could imagine. It is vulgar, full of primary colours, perfervid, disorientatingly psychedelic, lascivious, howling.

And yet both records bear the air of a dream. Both sound as though recorded on another planet; imperfect recollections of pop laid down by earnest Martians. Both are drenched in echo and other mixing desk treatments, and both sets of vocal tracks carry an overall sonic impression which at times supersedes comprehensibility.

Like Avalon, Sulk is made up of ten songs, two of which are instrumentals (and which, on Sulk, bracket the rest of the album like television opening and closing credits). There the similarities end. Billy MacKenzie holds nothing back; Bryan Ferry keeps everything in – but you can be convinced by both of them that they mean it. “No” is a frightening post-Closer shriek-filled aria set to an almost impassive musical march. Ferry would, I suspect, not even countenance covering “Gloomy Sunday.” Whereas “Bap De La Bap” and “Nude Spoons” threaten to jump off the compass completely, layering sound upon prank in ways which not only recall early days Eno-inclusive Roxy, but which also at times threaten to burn through the vinyl altogether; the concluding harpsichord flourish in “Nude Spoons” is not so much euphoria, more a steely dagger of death (I think of Barry Ryan battling with the Birthday Party of Junkyard).

Side two, however, is the relatively calm pop side, and the place where the group loosens up enough to laugh at things; hence MacKenzie’s Churchill impression on “Skipping” set to a sublime synthesised landscape, “It’s Better This Way” as a proto-ambient update of Scott Walker doing “The Girls And The Dogs” and the triumphant pair of hits – although even the Ferry of “Love Is The Drug” was never as uneasy about socialising as MacKenzie is on “Party Fears Two,” and I suspect that he might have found the attack of “Club Country” as biting the 1982 hand which fed him.

Side two of Avalon begins with “The Main Thing,” a Wilson Pickett/Stax workout on Jupiter morphing into an eighties club banger, all clenched fists and “your words of sand/I can nearly understand”; it is sobering and instructive to observe that the sounds on this record, so new and unprecedented at the time, would turn into the bedrock of so much of eighties pop and rock – but rarely did its mimickers carry it off with such graceful ease.

If “Take A Chance With Me,” a Ferry/Manzanera co-composition (I suspect Manzanera is responsible for the Siouxsie-like intro and outro sections and Ferry for the main body of the song), is the record’s most immediately attractive song, it’s because, in the midst of an album where he has been so indecisive, Ferry finally shows his hand, owns up to wanting to be loved and love back – and getting past the forbidding Gothic arches of the introduction, it is such an elementary song (Bobby Vee could have sung it in 1962).

Or maybe not so elementary; “People say I’m just a fool,” Ferry observes at one point. “All the world, even you/Should learn to love the way I do.” The easy pun of “I was blind, can’t you see?” drifts by like so much driftwood.  And so (bearing in mind that “Heaven knows, I believe” and that the video for “More Than This” has Ferry in a church, underneath a cross and watching himself on a screen) he asks her to take a chance with him (as opposed to Abba’s “on me”). As he extricates himself from his self-constructed mire, Manzanera’s playing is a couple of stops past inspired, making me think simultaneously of Simple Minds (“Seeing Out The Angel” in particular) and Johnny Marr (who will later work with Ferry). At song’s end, Manzanera’s harsh guitars clamp down on Ferry like a trapdoor, or perhaps they’re just a disguised question mark. Maybe, as Lena remarks, it’s hard being Cupid (like Austen’s Emma, Ferry always seems to be setting other people up to fall in love with each other, rather than run the risk of have anyone fall in love with him, or vice versa).

And then there is “To Turn You On,” a masterpiece in which the whole world appears to melt and merge into a Norwegian tundra, even down a raining Fifth Avenue. He is in love, is Ferry, and he aches for her; he will, as he says, do anything to turn her on, to get himself out of his single room with its window on “a world.” Perhaps the funniest moment comes when he sings “I could walk you through the park/If you’re feeling blue…or whatever.”

But then, by the song’s final verse, she is the lonely one, and Ferry becomes especially animated and not a little disturbing: “Who cares about you?” he asks, quickly adding “…except me, God help me (is this is the most spiritual of Roxy albums, or was Ferry thinking as much, or more, about Annette Funicello than King Arthur?).” There is a lovely modulation in the middle eight into Manzanera’s solo – so courtly the veneer, so tortured the underside.

And so Ferry begins to rub himself out of our picture completely. Like the other two Roxy albums I have written about here, “True To Life” finds him drifting out to sea. The difference here is that he does not drift alone. He wanders through a lyric which cites “living in darkness” and “agitated in Xenon nightly” and even casts him as Bruce Banner (“So I turn the pages/And tell the story/From town to town”). Deep down he is still that “poor country boy” from County Durham, feeling a little bit of an imposter, but…well, it can’t be avoided, he actually likes this semi-emptiness, walking the world like Prospero striding around his cell.

And, most importantly, he is happy and spoken for (his “diamond lady” or “seaside diamond”), happy enough not really to care about the negative side of things (“Well, she’s not talking,” he notes, “But that’s alright,” unconsciously (?) paraphrasing Presley). He has become what he beheld, and he is waving goodbye, not drowning; having already slimmed Roxy down to its three core members, he realises the group’s imminent redundancy and is content to take everyone and everything away to sea, receding from us, growing dimmer and more distant.

He has got what (or whom) he wanted and managed not to lose what he had.

He believes those foolish things enough to know now that they are anything but foolish.

The last sung lines on the record are: “I’ll soon be home.”

But not like Scarlett O’Hara.

I think of Cliff, leaning against that Brighton lamppost, or ready to embrace those waves. Like Cliff, Ferry is old and experienced enough to know what love is, but unlike Cliff, he is finally ready to embrace it.

“Tara”? It’s an obvious enough pun and Roxy have used it before (the closing vocals on the title track of For Your Pleasure). But who should have the last word?  Why, it’s Andy Mackay, who, having behaved himself throughout the album, now steps forward to give his verdict, or maybe just pay tribute to Jan Garbarek.

One small harmonic modulation, and it is ended. Nothing is audible except the waves.

But wait, what?:



The album appeared at much the same time as Avalon, the difference being that this Brian put most of it together himself, using field recordings of wildlife and nature as well as “composting” his own back catalogue (not that any of the latter is ever readily discernible on the record). These are eight overlapping drone-based pieces which drift towards a faint but determined darkness; people like Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn helped out on the opener “Lizard Point,” which plays like a marooned Shadows, and Jon Hassell’s unmistakeable trumpet slithers into view on “Shadow” – do you see a subtle theme developing here? – but otherwise it’s Eno working his way out of, or through, the world. There is dissonance as subliminal as that on Avalon

…and why, of all Roxy albums, does this one’s cover star have her back turned to us? Dressed as Queen Guinevere, ready for falconry into the unknown…

…on a weightless cover designed by Bryan Ferry lookalike Peter Saville (and we know the other source of buried sadness here, don’t we? I’ll find my soul as I go home)…

…the lady by the lake appears to have turned into The Lady Of The Lake. She has been found, there is no need for any more cover, for Bryan Ferry will have married the cover star by the time this record is at number one…

…and then, on the last composition, “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960,” a commemoration of a town long since eroded by the oncoming sea and its waves, a real hint of mourning, the entry of other people – Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois…

…but then, wasn’t Eno’s intention here to paint a picture of stillness? He has said of the record: “my intention in On Land was to make music that was like figurative painting, but without referring to the history of music - more to a ‘history of listening.’” Whereas Ferry is in the midst of actual stillness, records it faithfully, and is perfectly at home with it.

But go back a minute to “Tara,” and wait for that final chord change…

…and I thought as much – it is exactly the same root chord of “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960.”

“And so the two travellers, after nearly a decade apart, found themselves in exactly the same place. And Brian looked at Bryan, and 6 looked to 1, and Gatsby looked to Carraway, and art looked at pop, and it was now impossible to say which was which.”

*  *  *  *  *  *

He put down his single malt whisky on the dresser.

She considered.

“It’s a happier ending than Gatsby got, at least,” she said.

“There’s still that dire knowledge that once you have reached that frontier there is only the sea,” he replied. “But yes, at least Bryan Ferry got the girl, if that’s how you’d like to see it.”

“So many questions being asked on that first side.”

“And such simple answers on the other side. It’s pretty music all right, but tough with it. That’s what links them to the Cocteau Twins. As do the Associates, through Alan Rankine. Funny how all these voices end up converging on the same place.”

“It’s almost Quantum Roxy Music – they are so peaceable!”

“Yet so profoundly disturbed at the same time. The “poor country boy” line is, I think, important; as if Ferry never quite felt he matched up to the ruling class. Afraid that he might really have very little to say and a relatively limited amount of ways in which to say them.”

“But they loved him all the same. Don’t you think Diana would have jumped at the chance…?”

“Quite. It is sobering to imagine the number of thirty-year-olds who were conceived to the sound of this record.”

“You know who Bryan Ferry really sounds like?”

“Not Faith or Bowlly.”

“It struck me while listening to that last David Jacobs show. Gene Kelly! ‘A Very Precious Love’!”

“Not primarily, or at all, a singer, but yes, I do see your point. And the Percy Faith Orchestra playing ‘Ebb Tide’…”

“Is it all going to be swept away now?”

“It’s almost exactly five years. I think I owe the readers an explanation. Or I would do if I hadn’t already explained it.”

“This music…this life?”

“Why d’you think I bothered with it in the first place?”

They paused for a few seconds. A clock ticked distantly.

She said: “It’s time, then.”

“It has to be,” he replied.

She rose from her seat.

“And so I take it that we’re now ready to meet Number 1.”

“I’ve never been readier.”

He got up, and they wandered out of the room, and offscreen.

Next: The Point (or should that be Thrill?) Of It All.

3 comments:

darrenbeach said...

Absolute joy to read, Marcello. "True To Life" is the one that's always done it for me.

There's a kind of Lennon link in that "To Turn You On" was originally the B-side to the "Jealous Guy" cover. The drummer on "Double Fantasy" and the final sessions that JL was recording the day he died, was Andy Newmark, who I think played on that track.

Re: the length of the instrumental outro on "More Than This" - worth pointing out that "Over You", the lead-off single from the previous Roxy album 'Flesh and Blood', also featured an extended outro, even on the rsdio version, with an extended Ferry piano section followed by Mackay on the sax.

Jane Trubshaw said...

Chris Roberts' review of "Technique" is about my favourite piece of writing ever. Glad to see him mentioned again.

Also I listened to the Benny Green show every week on Radio 2, even when I was a teenager. Not enough line-blurring now between ages and classes.

"More Than This" is a prayer

darrenbeach said...

David Jacobs' Saturday morning show on R2 was an essential part of my teenage years.

My dad used to ride to his shop on a 90cc Honda, but on Saturdays I worked there - so we went by car. We always left home just before 8am so within seconds of starting off we'd hear DJ the DJ saying: "Hello there, and welcome to another two hours of our kind of music.", over the sound of Mack and Mabel.

I certainly used to take the piss out of it at the time - this was 1983 and all that - but I remember so many of the tunes and with far greater fondness than I do the likes of, I don't know, Toto Coelo or Jimmy The Hoover.