Roxy And Elsewhere
Nineteen-seventy-two was a year that made music critics crazy trying to figure out what was going on. The "Summer of Love" was long over and hippie culture was dying out fast, despite the efforts of bands like the Allman Brothers and Jethro Tull. Top 40 radio was dominated by the likes of The Carpenters and Three Dog Night. Heavier music wads defined by Alice Cooper and Uriah Heep. Glam-rock found its beginning with Bowie and T-Rex. Yes, Genesis and ELP fell under the umbrella of "art rock."
In the midst of all this, a debut album was released by a band that took a little art, a little glam, some interesting electronics and a few outrageous ideas about songwriting and appearance - and balled it all into an album that took the critical world by storm, Roxy Music. Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, the core personnel of Roxy Music reads like a page out of a who's-who in contemporary music - Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy MacKay and Bryan Ferry all have made a significant mark in pop history.
The Roxy saga wheeled on through the '70s like a rollercoaster. Eno left the band after only two albums, rhythm sections came and went, members released solo albums, but through it all the group blazed a trail defined by a sound and attitude emulated by many but rarely, if ever, attained.
Finally, in 1982 following the release of the landmark Avalon album, Roxy Music announced that it was no more. By this time it was generally acknowledged that the defining force behind all of Roxy's years was the vision of singer/songwriter Bryan Ferry. His distinctive voice takes elements from classic song stylists, borrows heavily from R&B and binds those influences with a devotion to music as an art form. Ferry's songwriting is rooted in themes that have been chronicled in songs for generations, but he explores and presents the subtleties of his subjects in singular ways. From the first Roxy album to the present, Ferry has proven himself a master of combining unusual elements and meshing them into seamless, timeless works of music.
In 1985, Ferry released his first post-Roxy solo effort, Boys and Girls. The album not only withstood the pressure of anticipation, it wowed critics and fans alike, establishing Ferry as a valid solo artist. He followed with the 1987 release Bete Noire, which garnered similar acclaim and seemed to cement his position as one of the premiere recording artists of modern times. After the customary two-year break, fans began anxiously awaiting the release of what was supposed to be his next solo album, tentatively titled Horoscope. Lots of speculation surrounded the album's release; it's nearly done, it's being worked on, it's being re-worked a little. Months and eventually years passed. Still no album. Finally in 1992 when the new Ferry disc hit the shelves, he had thrown a curve. It was entitled Taxi and was comprised of nine cover songs and one original that clocked in at less than two minutes. What happened?
In short, Ferry ran head-on into a creative wall. Horoscope was, in effect, the first disaster of his career, marked by recording problems, the death of his mother and a serious case of writer's block. Frustrated with his lack of creativity and intent upon resuming his career, Ferry temporarily abandoned the project to record Taxi, which was perhaps most surprising for the session's producer, veteran rock guitarist Robin Trower.
In conversation, Ferry admitted that the Taxi sessions were a therapy of sorts. "That was a terrible period for me to go through," he says. "I think we all have to go through low and high periods in life, but that was a tricky moment. Since I started work on the Taxi album, everything has gone great for me. The last two years have been terrific, but I had three or four miserable years. Doing the Taxi album was the start of getting things right. Just getting something done quickly and efficiently was very gratifying. Finishing something I liked and getting back into singing again, getting away from my own writing temporarily was a good thing.
"It's something I used to do quite effectively in the '70s, alternating albums between songs I'd written and songs of other people's material. Sometimes it's very good to get away from your own writing. It certainly worked with Taxi. After that, I went back to the Horoscope tapes. The problem songs I managed to finish off and I wrote some new things as well. Getting away from the writing was very good therapy. It put things back into their proper perspective."
The finished songs found their way to Mamouna, released late last year. The album ranks among Ferry's best, putting to rest any fears that perhaps he was burned out and essentially retired. Trademark Ferry is taken a few steps further, incorporating a fresh outlook into his familiar rhythmic production style. Though some of the material is several years old, it's impossible to discern from listening to the album. In fact, Ferry says that for him, updating an older idea is by no means a unique method.
"The first thing I do when writing material is to put the idea for a song on a cassette, normally just with piano and voice. I tend to kind of stockpile ideas. Sometimes an idea will just sit on a cassette for ages... sometimes ten years, even. I try to review ideas I've had but not finished from time to time, and if one in particular catches my attention, I'll try to work it out. Actually, about half of Horoscope found its way to Mamouna, and I've got half a dozen pieces lying about waiting to be completed, which I might do in late summer. It's certainly nice to have works in progress. I think having something incomplete lying around is a good way to begin working again, just to really get your teeth into it.
"Two of the completed songs from the Horoscope sessions were lost completely," he continues. "I was able to re-create one of them, 'The Only Thing,' which did wind up on Mamouna. Believe it or not, the original idea for that song came to me in 1976! It's not all that unusual for my songs to live as instrumental pieces for a very long time, at least some of them. That's good and bad; the songs tend to become very interesting as instrumental pieces, but if you struggle with it for too long, it becomes difficult to match a lyric to it. The melodies still seem to be flowing very well, still coming to me easily, but it feels like the lyrics are getting harder and harder. I must say though, that after finishing Taxi the writer's block that I seem to have had disappeared. I'm hopeful that everything will still be okay when I get back to writing."
The choice of Trower as producer for both Taxi and Mamouna surprised many, but it's actually consistent with the way Ferry prefers to work. "I love putting unusual things together," he says. "I think that's what keeps music interesting, seeing what you get by combining elements in a way that no one else has. Great things come out of conflict, as long as the conflict isn't too great. I really enjoy working with Robin. He's been so incredibly supportive, a very warm and caring sort of person, which is the sort of producer I like to work with. He's a real gentleman, and obviously he comes from the same generation as me, so even though we've used our musical influences in different ways, we have the same sort of musical education. We have a very similar grounding in black American music, both of us being big R&B fans. He has a lot of attack to his playing, a very passionate musician. I'm really looking forward to working more with him, both on stage and in the studio." Ferry chuckles. "What was really interesting was seeing he and Brian Eno in the studio at the same time. They come from such different polarities. It was great fun watching the interaction between the two."
Eno working with Ferry again is a dream come true for diehard Roxy fans. It happened after more than twenty years and following a breakup that was often reported as less than amiable. Ferry has downplayed the reunion in the media, but one wonders if he was aware of what a monumental event this is for his fans. After pausing to consider the question, Ferry answers. "I guess I really don't know how much it meant to the fans. I do know it was great for me and hopefully enjoyable for Brian. I downplayed it because he came in towards the end of the album being recorded, although we did in fact originate one song together ("Wildcat Days"). Generally, though, all the songs that he played on were 90% or so complete so... although what he did was very welcome, it was also fairly cosmetic."
The obvious question, then... how did the sessions go? "I really enjoyed it," replies Ferry enthusiastically. "It really made me want to work with him again, that's for sure. I think the fact that we'd only actually done two albums together some twenty years ago meant that the chemistry hadn't actually run dry. We both still felt there were things to do. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the chemistry was still there. I was intrigued to find what would be there when we got together, and I was actually very surprised at how enjoyable it was. I'd forgotten how much fun we can have together, sense of humor wise and all that kind of thing. Brian is quite a character." Ferry laughs. "The time we spent together was very amusing, and so I really enjoyed myself, which is good."
So... if he'll work with Eno again and has routinely collaborated with Manzanera and MacKay over the years, will Roxy ever reunite? Ferry is somewhat doubtful. "There was talk of doing one of those 'Unplugged' sort of things some day, so maybe that will happen," he considers. "We'll see. Really, sometimes it's very difficult to know whether it's a case of moving on to fresh things or whether you want to relive your past." Referring to Eno again, "It doesn't feel like what we did was done for the wrong reasons. It felt very positive, like a very interesting thing to do. It felt fresh to me. But in the actual sense of ever reforming the group... I just don't know about that."
Obviously, not having an album of new material for seven years also meant a similar absence from performing live. Recently, though, Ferry and his band completed the first leg of the Mamouna tour. Ferry confided that the second leg of the tour will include some Florida dates, probably in mid to late March. Reviews of the tour have been positive, sometimes to the extreme. After all the time away and the adversity, was he apprehensive about going back on the road?
"Oh, yeah. You always get cold feet about it," he says. "Actually, I wondered more about how I would withstand the stresses of touring than I did about actually going on stage. It's very stressful; I'm giving a very emotional sort of show. There's a lot of songs that I have to feel more than perform, a lot of deep emotional involvement with the songs in performance. That can be a draining experience, especially when combined with some of the physical aspects of touring. I do find that as I get older, I can better pace myself on a tour. Of course, I'm also more involved with family concerns, and now being away from them for an extended period of time is a huge problem.
"But I must say, the audiences have been great in the States. So enthusiastic! I've found it interesting that some of those in the audience have been fans from 'Virginia Plain' onwards," he says, referring to Roxy's first single in 1972. "Then you find another age group who started with Avalon, and still others who only recently became familiar with my work, perhaps with Bete Noire or even the new album. It's very encouraging to see everything from teenagers to parents in the audience." He pauses a moment to reflect, then continues. "It's also tremendous to rediscover my interest in performance. I don't want to have such a large gap between performances, between tours, in the future. All those years is just a bit too much. The success of the tour has given me a lot of anxious momentum. It's great to know that the audience is still hungry for new work. I don't have any desire to do anything else besides music, as far as my artistic life is concerned. I love doing this. I love music, I really do. There's so many different musical projects I'd still like to do, so many different albums that I'd still like to make. So little time, so much to do!"
So much to do, and yet so much already accomplished. Bryan Ferry has combined his gentlemanly ways with an intense devotion to music and formed a successful career on every level. He has been and will continue to be revered for his talents. How much consideration has such a brilliant artist given to his place in music history? Ferry seems almost embarrassed by the question. "Oh, God... I don't know," he replies. "You know what I consider to be musical history? I saw Chuck Berry in the elevator the other day, back at the hotel after playing the Beacon Theatre. He walked on to the elevator holding a takeout hamburger, and all I could say was, 'Wow! You're Chuck Berry! I'm such a big fan of yours!' I was just gibbering away at this historic figure like the fan that I really am. I'd like to be a heroic figure like Chuck Berry, but that's not for me to say if I was successful or not.
"I do know this - when it's all said and done, if I can be thought of as a passionate and caring man by both my family and my fans, I'll consider myself a great success."
I chased an interview with Bryan Ferry for a long time; literally twenty years. I finally got this as part of one of his "media days." These are days when an artist spends a full day doing phone interviews, either from their home or from the office of their record company or management team. This one was done while Ferry was in New York City at the Virgin Records office. When my contact at the label called to let me know that it was time to do the interview, I quickly asked her if Bryan was nice. She gushed, "He brought flowers for all the girls in the office!" • Considering I was talking to one of my absolute musical heroes, the interview went incredibly well. Ferry was personable, friendly and very easy to talk to. I felt we got along well. Media day interviews are generally limited to 25 minutes on the phone, and when the time passed, I told Bryan that I'd understand if he had to move on to his next interview. He asked me to hold for a moment, and when he got back, informed me that he was enjoying our conversation and that he had re-scheduled his next interview so we could keep talking... one of the greatest thrills of my journalistic career! • I had the pleasure of meeting Ferry after his show in Orlando in the spring of 1995; the article had of course already been published by then. When I was introduced to him as the author of the article, he smiled, shook my hand and told me I did an excellent job and that he was very pleased with the article and presentation. I'm sure you can imagine how elated I was! • This story ran as the cover story for the issue of the magazine it appeared in. A little bit of oddball trivia - the photo shown above that was used as the cover photo was actually a promotional photo from his 1987 Bete Noire album. I don't remember the reasoning behind using an eight-year-old photo as the cover shot; I can only guess that we needed this particular pose or angle for the purposes of the cover, and Ferry's look hadn't changed very much in the ensuing time.