(#329: 26 April 1986, 5 weeks)
Track listing: Virginia Plain/A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall/Pyjamarama/Do The Strand/These Foolish Things/Street Life/Let’s Stick Together/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes/Love Is The Drug/Sign Of The Times/Dance Away/Angel Eyes/Oh Yeah/Over You/Same Old Scene/In The Midnight Hour/More Than This/Avalon/Slave To Love/Jealous Guy
The thing I loved most about “Virginia Plain” when it went into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops was how funny it was, how much fun the band seemed to be having performing it. I was eight years old in 1972, and so my principal pop principle was: if it made me laugh, it was great. Therefore I discerned no difference between “Double Barrel” and “Ernie,” saw T Rex as a more swinging version of the Archies; to me it was all colourful, daft and precious (and maybe it should still be my principle; I’ve just heard Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 describe how Steve Jones came up with the riff to “Pretty Vacant” by playing around with the keyboard riff of Abba’s “S.O.S.,” which he’d heard on the pub jukebox one night and was taken by. So much for Abba being the “enemy” of punk. So often, punk has ended up its own worst enemy).
If the Roxy Music of “Virginia Plain” reminded me of anybody, it was the Bonzo Dog Band; the same strange assemblage of trans-stylistic art school no-marks fronted by an ironic model of elegant decadence, with a reserved aesthete to intermittently useful hand (you question Neil Innes being the Eno to Ferry’s Stanshall? Hear 1969’s “Noises For The Leg”). It was a cartoon love thing; I loved Ornette Coleman’s “Rock The Clock,” from the same year, for exactly the same reason. And “Virginia Plain” is as hopeful and propulsive an introductory song about trying to make it, hitting a rut and then striking out again, as Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” and a good deal lighter and more adventurous.
On TOTP Ferry is seated at the piano, but face and body hunched towards the camera, dressed in a ridiculous feather boa construction and even more absurd feathercut hairdo, clearly having a ball (“We-are-fly-ing-down-to-REEE-OOOOOH!!!” he hiccups, and shakes both hands in the air, Al Jolson-style, while hiccupping it). Eno minds his own business at the other end of the stage, and the camera team do their best to avoid him altogether; the producer presses the Quantel button to accentuate the particularly weird bits, which to me, still ignorant of The Great Learning and suchlike, just sounded like Chicory Tip caught up in a particularly inexplicable episode of Bright’s Boffins. For decades I thought “Far beyond the pale horizon” (at the beginning of the final verse) was “Throbbing on the televisor,” which I thought an impressively Futurist reference (I still prefer it to the actualité).
What matters about the early Roxy and Ferry stuff collected here – as opposed to the generally rather more sombre albums from which most of it stemmed – is the overriding feeling that they are having an arty laugh, and we can laugh back with (not at) them. So it is that “Do The Strand” sounds like the fiercest, yet warmest, manifesto for…well, as “Manifesto” the song impiled six years later, it could be for whatever you liked, but it sounded rounder and livelier than the square death of what it was superseding. “Strand” is a list song with no central purpose other than the celebrating of itself, and so stands midway between “The Intro And The Outro” and “Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3” – a study on the differing, parallel strands of British art school and their respective influences on music is still awaited.
Moreover, “Plain” and “Strand” now demonstrate to me – as do “Re-make/Re-model,” “The Bogus Man” and other works – as model examples of getting the balance between art and pop right; the noise and the catchiness complement each other perfectly, as opposed to the many hamfisted and awkward attempts made during this period by certain British jazz musicians to “go pop”; other than Andy Mackay having graduated from first alto in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Roxy, I think, benefited from not being burdened by “jazz”; they were able to recognise and aim straight at pop’s heart (whereas, as too many others found out, because they felt that pop music was beneath them, writing a “simple pop song” was one of the hardest things to do).
Something of this spirit carried over to Ferry’s first solo album These Foolish Things, a history of pop music interpreted as though the primary purpose of pop was to fit into the singer’s life. Actually that’s being over-facetious; Ferry commits himself to these thirteen interpretations in ways I think he subsequently mislaid. I think that his “Hard Rain” works so well, falling just the right side of ludicrous and camp, because he doesn’t just mean what he is singing, but because he arranges the song, or the song is arranged, as Spike Jones or Bobby “Boris” Pickett might have done, with comedy sound effects on cue – not only does this undercut the assumed solemnity of Dylan’s original, but it also reinforces the point behind Freewheelin’’s segue of “Bob Dylan’s Blues” into the original “Hard Rain,” the intentional absurdity of one strengthening the apocalypse of the other. Add to this that in the late autumn of 1973, when Ferry’s “Hard Rain” was in the top ten – a time when it really was a matter of guessing whether there’d even be a 1974 – the record sounded scarier because of its comic cuts.
But the title song, which closes the original album, sums up the essential dilemma of, and dichotomy within, Bryan Ferry. He sings it as straightfacedly as he can, adhering to the original lyric as performed by Dorothy Dickson on stage in the 1936 musical comedy Spread It Abroad; but as his wistful recollections of times and people now vanished are gradually subsumed by a reggae-lite backing track, we see a conflict. Ferry begins with the original prelude (“Oh, will you never let me be?/Oh, will you never set me free?”), and although this is as much of a list song as “Do The Strand” (with differing arrangement and approach, the latter could have easily made it into any thirties West End musical), its intentions are very different; this is a recollection of bitter, perhaps bereaved, memories (although the song’s principal composer Eric Maschwitz wrote it while pining following the end of a shortlived Hollywood affair with the actress Anna May Wong).
Through his interpretation of the song, we see how Ferry regards popular culture, and I suspect that he does so with an eye that has been somewhat disappointed by what it sees; he craves the old Europe (if such a chimera ever existed), the old art, the old eloquence and elegance, the economy of the essayist, and yet is also driven by an incurable obsession with the newer culture which he knows in his bones is eclipsing the old, principally fifties and sixties rock and soul – although he does “You Won’t See Me” on These Foolish Things, not to mention “Sympathy For The Devil,” he sounds as though he was happier in the days before the Beatles, or Charlie Parker, or electric recording systems, had come on the scene to dispel simple (minded) enjoyment.
And yet his “These Foolish Things” also tugs at the present with its reminder – as Ferry keeps impaling himself on the crystal banister of clinging ghosts and singing hearts - that such feelings are older than rock and roll, perhaps even older than anything we might now recognise as having been popular music. As the song gradually disappears, leaving only ethereal, wordless female voices which might have emerged from a work by Tavener, there is also the subtler hope that pop music, and British pop music in particular, does not have to possess a stinkingly rotten and corrupt heart, that innate goodness can still be extracted from what may yet prove to be an irrevocably evil core.
It is a struggle with which Ferry has perhaps continued in the intervening four decades. “Pyjamarama,” the second Roxy single, sounds unfinished, hesitant, all build-up and no release. “Street Life” sees Ferry getting positively angry as the noise and art steadily dissipate around him. It is as if he is intent on cutting everything down to its emotional core. By 1974, his “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” has become merely mannered, as if he is allowing himself to be slowly sucked into the middlebrow culture that he so professes to hate (although he has plenty of time for both highbrow and lowbrow). In the midst of this milieu, it is perhaps surprising that “Love Is The Drug” works so well, or perhaps that is the song’s least surprising factor; its introductory sound effects are from Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Bump,” and the song places itself squarely in the centre of the mid-seventies Abigail’s Party crisis; cruising the singles bar, looking for fleeting sensations, discos bumping up and down, no lasting satisfaction, nothing but emptiness; quiet wine bar Armageddon. It was maybe the truest statement Ferry made in the whole of the seventies (and his best use of the Picardy third), and the fact that in Britain it was only kept off number one by a reissue of the six-year-old “Space Oddity” says an awful lot more, with the accent on “awful,” about late 1975 Britain than it does about Ferry.
After that, he began to drift; he reworks Wilbert Harrison as a stern, finger-wagging Sunday Post lecture about fidelity (despite the yelps which may or may not have been yelped by Jerry Hall), to no obvious effect, since 1978’s break-up album The Bride Stripped Bare, half covers, half doleful Ferry originals (including a courageous rearrangement of “Carrickfergus”), saw the singer at the bottom of the emotional rock, yet perhaps never more candid or telling; “Sign Of The Times” plays like a final snarl of the old Roxy spirit, in a punk-doesn’t-scare-me sense (and it worked; in its end-of-year critics’ poll, the NME placed the single tenth).
On side two Ferry smooths himself out to the point of oblique strategizing. In 1979 Roxy were “back,” and although the “East Side” of their comeback album Manifesto might be the best side of music on any Roxy record – including a noticeably rockier mix of “Angel Eyes,” sent to the eighties and bitonal electronica on its superior 45 mix (included here) – “Dance Away” indicates that things had not really changed since “Love Is The Drug”; still the singles bar, the hopeful dancefloor, the loneliness of the crowded room, the absence, the darkness, now sounding quieter and darker. As with “Love Is The Drug,” the single peaked at number two, held there for three weeks behind Blondie’s “Sunday Girl.”
The Flesh And Blood and Avalon material has already been written about; enough here to say that if Ferry were set on rubbing himself out of the picture, i.e. the world, entirely, then he made a pretty thorough and expensive job of it; still the pull of the old, though, in that “Over You” could have come out of a neighbouring Brill Building cubicle to “Virginia Plain” – at least until the Harold Budd piano interlude drifts into the picture midway – that “Oh Yeah” could be Roy Orbison or, more pressingly, Adam Faith (complete with synthesised pizzicato strings). But “Same Old Scene” continues to want the rest of the eighties to happen – remember that at the same time Eno was busy in New York, working with Talking Heads, and consider “the same old scene” as set against “same as it ever was” – and in this setting “Avalon” may actually represent something of a happy ending; at last Ferry meets somebody at four in the morning, and there is an abstract female voice throughout the song’s second half which is markedly less frantic and more philosophical than “Let’s Stick Together.” That being said, this is the fourth number one album in less than a year to include “Slave To Love”; but then it is the record’s, and Ferry’s, McGuffin; look at me, I love the idea of love, the notion of art or music, but the reality? Too much work, darling…
But then the album ends marooned in the past, if not encumbered by it, and with their, and his, only number one.
It is true that, when considering Ferry’s comparatively recent (autumn 2006) incarnation as hugely willing leading man for the underwhelming Marks and Spencer range of gentlemen's clothing, it is hard to imagine him ever having done anything other than "dreaming of the past." Did all the futurism, the 2001 Eddie Cochran/Eric Dolphy shotgun scenario, depart from Roxy along with Eno? Did the unparalleled mongrelisation of mischief and adventure which characterised everything from "Virginia Plain" to "The Bogus Man" mean nothing to Ferry other than a passport to the fuller life he so clearly desired, to become the kind of gleaming Establishment crooner whom Roxy were originally/supposedly set up to displace forever? Was he only ever the aesthetic great uncle to Calvin Harris?
Few artists, however, have perfected the art of disappearing seamlessly into their art as the post-1974 Ferry has done. If he can squeeze as little but as indelible of himself into his records or his menswear advertisements, then he is satisfied. And the 1981 Ferry - still hurting from Jerry Hall's abandonment - was the perfect man to make Lennon's memory vanish into the Avalonian mists of nevermore.
I have written about Lennon's "Jealous Guy" before, and perhaps Ferry was the only other performer who could convert the song into an elegy of apologia before he disappears forever. The music's surface is as "perfect" as late period Roxy ever was; no bullets can disturb the serene stream, which seems palpably akin to the Styx - crossing over to non-existence. Manzanera's guitar and Mackay's saxophone, such efficient musical detonators in Roxy's past and elsewhere, are restrained and dignified.
Finally Ferry himself vanishes into an unspecifiable distance, whistling, hands in pockets, a mind an eternity away, as the synths swell behind him (in a manner not dissimilar to the end of "Decades," just to remind us that he and they might be thinking of somebody else who died in 1980) and the camera pans out to...the memory of a memory, Bryan Ferry's diplomatic goodbye to someone he wanted to be fifteen years previously. Were this a painting by his art tutor Richard Hamilton (“Virginia Plain” having in part been inspired by one of Ferry’s own paintings), his face would lengthen the further back he stepped from the foreground; and yet it is an apposite tribute and ending to this TV-advertised compilation which was the ideal length for handy compact disc - unsentimental, not of this earth, a life-goes-on-somewhere shoulder shrug whose motion never really stops pulsing, like a star in the farthest galaxy, still shining but now unreachable, and untouchable. Listen to the Vivian Stanshall of 1974, and specifically to “Strange Tongues” (“When the world was young moons made smiley faces/Stars: angel eyes, we know better”), and you might come to the conclusion that things stopped being funny for both gentlemen fairly early on. Ferry, however, proved stronger, and has survived; “It makes no sense, you’d think of me,” he notes in 2010’s exquisite “Tender Is The Night,” “When I’m out of place in your society.” That square he may never circle.