INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sounds JUNE 9, 1973 - by Martin Hayman
THE VERY PHYSICAL MR FERRY
For Roxy Music the time for re-assessment seems to have come early, like everything else in their meteoric career. The speed of their rise to the top of the bill and the Top of the Pops has brought in its wake the usual backbiting. Bryan Ferry, lately returned from Roxy's European tour last week and taking a day's breather before a holiday - his first real holiday effectively since the beginning of the group - agreed that they had become victims of the "build 'em-up and knock 'em-down" syndrome that afflicts groups whose success seems too easily come by. He also vouchsafed that he was feeling a trifle "antipress at the moment", though he was none the less courteous for all that.
The criticism voiced about Roxy fall into two areas. The first is that they are a hype, a band dreamed up by somebody to vamp on the pre-existing market trends. The second is that musically they are hopeless, their ideas far outstripping their ability. Both come down to the same thing, that success has been too fast and too easy for them; that they have not paid their dues; as all self-respecting musicians must do. And musicians tend to scoff at them because they don't particularly care to gig - though more accurately, one should say that gigging, though in itself a good experience, is a cumbersome way of promoting an album and potentially wasteful of time which could better be spent devising new songs and better presentation.
What then did Bryan see taking the place of the live gig? Bryan - as everybody surely knows by now - is into films, video and TV, and as Roxy had just come from a German TV programme with an extensive audience, his thoughts were not surprisingly tending in that direction. Here is how he assesses the relationship of live gigs to other methods of distributing their music:
"I didn't realise at the start how all-consuming the, whole machine would be. This business of touring seems terribly old-fashioned - in one sense you're advertising yourself in the flesh. I'm not saying I don't like playing, because when you're playing well to an enthusiastic audience it makes sense. On the other hand it is terribly destructive. I think the answer must be more TV and less live gigs. We were playing to ten or fifteen million people the other day on this syndicated programme, which is the successor to Beat Club, and that would save about fifty live gigs. That would give me more time to write stuff, because I can't sit down and write a number like that. It takes time. I like to write a bit and then leave it for perhaps three or four weeks and think about it."
It is for this reason that Bryan is a great admirer of the boundless energy displayed by David Bowie. Roxy on only one occasion have tried to present two shows during a night and the second one was "a musical disaster" according to Bryan. The rehearsals for the TV show had involved three run-throughs, and that he had found exhausting, not least because Roxy, he says, put everything into the performance. "It's impossible for us to hold back - performing for me is a very physical thing. I can't just go through the motions of it."
He admits that one of the big stumbling blocks about being a rock group is that the band itself is "the product" that which is being sold. And he feels that if groups could get better access to the major communications media, not only would there be less work but more enjoyment for more people. "The best thing to do," he mused, "would be to find an ideal venue - like the Newcastle City Hall for example. Then you get an amazing film crew in and beam it over the world by satellite... like that you could fulfil some of your more ambitious projects. It was like that Rainbow show we did where there was more of a production but it's obviously too cumbersome to take on the road."
Roxy had clearly taken off from a slightly different platform from most other groups. Did Bryan still feel somewhat of an outsider in the rock business? "I don't really know that many people in the rock business." Would he prefer to keep it that way? "No, it would be arrogant to say that," he says, sensitive to criticism in advance. "But I think its true to say I don't feel that much of a part of it whereas most of the people who are successful, are now... I suppose people resent that we jumped a few rungs, though I think that the groundwork was hard though in a different way. I think it all relates to what I do now."
Groundwork how? And what was the relationship between his present career as a singer and his background as an art student at Newcastle? "It was quite a hothouse of talented- people very interesting people. "The first two years at Newcastle were strange. I was playing in a rock group at night and I was also managing it and I got so involved with it that I found I wasn't doing art work during the day." There were in fact two bands, the first a straight R&B combo, the second a more ambitious unit utilising three saxes and a trumpet called Gas Board which featured material by Bobby Band, Otis Redding, Lloyd Price and other more obscure artists. At this point Ferry had not started to write any material: he was just the vocalist.
"There was the deadly intellectual climate there by day and the clubs at night, which were very physical. It was like the head by day and the body by night and I was trying to do the two. When I started writing music I found it was like pop art. I was using images... like in the lyrics, throwaway cliches and amusing phrases that you found in magazines or used in everyday speech... stylistic juxtapositions," he says with the aura of a well-turned and oft-used phrase. "But you have to do it properly, you can't just throw them together at random. I like-melodies very much. I suppose that's because I was born on the same day as George Gershwin, not that I listen to him very much... T. S. Elliot too."
What had decided him to be a singer at all? "It was the same as anyone. You walk round the house singing and you like the sound of your own voice so you think you could be a singer. I couldn't play an instrument, that's all. Not that I try and cultivate one way of singing. I'm like an actor, I don't know whether it comes across. Someone like Rod Stewart has a very definitive style. But sometimes I actually think of a particular singer when I'm writing or performing." What were his tastes in singers? "I don't like many of the singers around at the moment, I must say. Smokey, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Loti Lenya, all the greats. Bob Dylan too, he's not a great singer but he sings with a lot of soul. You don't have to have a great voice to sing well. You have to sing with conviction. If you mean what you do when you do it it comes across."
At several points during our talk Bryan mentioned that movie making would be ultimately the most satisfying thing to do, but his present experiences in the rock business tell him that the problems would be just as great, if not greater. I know it's boring talking about thing's you'd like to do but, to do a film musical would be ideal, but with good music instead of lightweight. I'd like to do something with heavier music, like a tragedy," he says, with a slight titter, whether nervous or from a sense of slight absurdity I couldn't say. "The things that appall me are Hair, which actually wasn't so bad, and Jesus Christ Superstar, which did incredible business. The problem is that people must make money... these things seem to me like totally commercial ventures."
Roxy themselves have not been accused of being motivated by very much the same desires, I countered; they too, came in at just the right time to pick up on an existing feeling. "I don't know how you can say that," he responds, looking as near to affronted as you're likely to find. The music - I know everyone says this - is the most important thing. It seems to me that once you've got the music which you think is really good, comparatively speaking, you should try... if you try and produce it in the most attractive way possible, instead of looking embarrassedly at the floor, it's the whole theatrical thing of rock. Just because we've got a couple of bizarre and photogenic characters in the band it doesn't mean that we're a commercial venture. The whole thing is that we change from one record to another. We could have brought out a Virginia Plain Part 2 instead of Pyjamarama, which was very different. I think the first album tried too hard. There was more breathing space on the second album, and I think the standard of playing was much higher. I think it's improved so much in a year of hard slogging. I think the ideas were ahead of the musical ability on the first album."
With his own solo album of other artists' songs coming up for recording after his return from holiday in Corfu, what was the present state of his relationship with Roxy? "I don't want to spend too much time on it. The whole nature of it leaves me open to criticism because it will be all old classics. I don't want to compromise the next Roxy Music album. "I'd just like to use different instrumentation from that of Roxy Music. The great thing about a group though," (and wait for the self contradiction which I feel Bryan should feel entitled to, along with all the politicians and journalists of this, world,) "is that you have to go out, and perform and the more they do that the better they become."