INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Elsewhere NOVEMBER 28, 2008 - by Graham Reid
BRYAN FERRY: SOMETHING HE JUST THREW ON?
Let's be honest, this is how we think Bryan Ferry spends his days: he rises just before noon after having tea, toast, marmalade and the daily papers delivered to his bedroom.
His manservant lays out his crisply pressed white suit in his dressing room. He'll flick the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair to see what his famous friends have been up to, then later in the day he'll go to a sophisticated club where he has a Singapore Sling, sits on a high-backed bamboo chair under the ceiling fan and discusses matters of the day with Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward.
That sounds about right. So when you speak to Bryan Ferry - born in County Durham fifty-eight years ago, and briefly an art teacher before art-rock seduced him - you just have to ask: is it ever just jeans and a T-shirt around the house, mate?
"I'm not a big T-shirt man," he says. "I just don't like them. I've always worn a shirt. I do like tailored clothes but I do try to mix them up and be vaguely creative.
"But a lot of modern designers do traditional styles which I like: Dior, Dolce and Gabbana, Tom Ford, and Ralph Lauren. I like Savile Row, with a twist."
It is not a burden to Ferry to be a figure of poise and cool detachment in a rock'n'roll culture where a dishevelled appearance and paparazzi shots of bad behaviour seem obligatory. It comes naturally, he says with a mild laugh of bemusement.
"I'm quite reserved and people assume that means I'm cool, but of course I am quite emotional otherwise I wouldn't be a musician. And I've always been interested in cinema so I like that idea of projection of an image."
So the image is the man? Not really. On the cover of his last solo album, Frantic - a much overlooked return to rocking Roxy Music form - he appears unshaven and smoking.
"Oh, I haven't actually smoked for twelve years but that was a nice old photo so... "
And of course he rises at noon after taking breakfast between the silk sheets?
"Actually, I'm in the office here most days. I've been on the road so much in the past three or four years so I have to be here to sign the paperwork.
"I try not to get involved too much in the business side but the longer your career the more stuff you accumulate. I've got a new manager whom I've only had for a few weeks, so in the overlapping period I have been quite busy here."
Good Lord, Bryan Ferry as office boy? Where's the glamour for us, man?
"Well, I've just come back from China and the Miss World competition. I wasn't appearing, just sang a song. We're all a bit blase about these things in the West but over there it's a kind of new thing for them so it was a lovely show. I didn't see anything of China though, it was on Hainan which, from the air at least, was a very beautiful island resort."
Ah, this is the Ferry we want: jet-setting, surrounded by beautiful women in an exotic Asian resort, singing languidly then leaving sighing breasts of longing behind him.
How Ferry got his image is easy to trace. At the height of glam-pop in the early '70s, and while hairy bands like The Allman Brothers stalked the planet, Roxy Music appeared out of Britain with a kind of alien art-rock image and music which was ironic, detached and yet glamorous.
Their album covers featured icy and overly made-up models. Roxy Music pulled together arty experimentalism (thanks to keyboardist Brian Eno, who soon had a falling out with Ferry) and old time rock'n'roll, which was a passion of Ferry's. Add Andy Mackay's saxophone, Phil Manzanera's guitar textures, and oceans of pretension and they were made.
Within two years, however, the absurdly padded shoulders were gone, along with Eno, and a more sartorially constrained image came in. Ferry wore suits and bow-ties and looked like some lounge lizard cabaret singer, which made their often gritty rock and acerbic social commentary even more nasty and ironic.
Over time the music changed - Ferry became more mannered vocally - and the trappings became more elegant. Ferry became a crooner, stepping out with model Jerry Hall (before Sir Mick Jagger) and being seen in the front row at catwalks. The transition from well-dressed rock star to cool clotheshorse was complete.
Ferry's solo career - first run in tandem with Roxy albums - was of varying success, but over the years through band reformations and the occasional solo hit (notably a cover of John Lennon's Jealous Guy after the former Beatle's murder), Ferry alternated albums of originals with those of classic '30s songs and standards, and became an iconic figure in pop culture.
It is a position he inhabits today with varying degrees of comfort. But as he points out, he is a musician first, and that part of his life has had a considerable kick along in the past two years.
Yet another Roxy reunion with Mackay and Manzanera brought the band back into the spotlight, and the subsequent Frantic album was a remarkable return to form.
He interprets Leadbelly's Goodnight Irene with Cajun musicians and offers Ja Nun Hons Pris (written by Richard the Lionheart) with medieval instruments, but mostly the album digs in with guitar grit, which some have suggested was prompted by the Roxy reunion.
"I didn't have to be seduced into doing that reunion. I'd just done a long tour doing the '30s album and I got into the whole touring thing again. And for the first time, playing some of those [Roxy] songs live seemed to make sense.
"It was an arena tour on a bigger stage so it was a shift of gears for me. I had to listen back to the old songs and that was a painless experience. I'd actually started recording Frantic before the Roxy tour but when I came back I toughened up some things.
"Actually some of the songs I had done eight years before for the Taxi album, but they didn't seem to mix in right so I put them aside. I don't worry about having songs hang around. An artist in a studio may have a canvas for ten years and it is a work in progress... you always try various things in the studio."
On his recent Roxy tours have been his guitarist Chris Spedding and drummer Paul Thompson, which means they can play a mix of Ferry's solo material and Roxy "favourites" such as Love Is The Drug and Do The Strand.
"I always enjoy doing that, although you can't do Jealous Guy too many times. But an audience would be disappointed if you didn't do it."
He reflects on the writers who have influenced his long life in music. Elvis obviously made a huge impression, when he was ten ("the first person I heard who interested me") but he also had a great love of Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle sound. Then came The Beatles and Dylan, whose material he has often turned to. Twice on Frantic.
"I've always done covers and I love Dylan because of his lyrics. As a singer you like to find interesting words. In my own writing I like to suggest things and create moods and my songs have become more abstract over the years. They are vaguely poetic and allude to things."
He refers to San Simeon on Frantic as an example. The name comes from the stately home of American newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the source for Orson Welles' central character in Citizen Kane, but there is no coherent narrative or even lyrical centre.
It is simply a place of mysterious dark doings and brings to mind Roxy Music's In Every Dream Home A Heartache - which is hardly surprising, Ferry admits some of the lyrics of San Simeon were left over from Dream Home and now find their place some thirty years later.
"The place was just a starting point and hopefully anybody listening would bring something to it. It's best not to be too specific and I love songs which are a composite of ideas."
These days he doesn't write much, and has never been able to write on the road. But the road is better these days. With improved sound systems and lighting possibilities which weren't there thirty years ago, he feels he has a better possibility of reproducing the sounds of the albums.
We talk about Roxy Music's place in the rock pantheon. Although every musical style that ever existed seems alive and practised somewhere, you don't hear too many bands like early Roxy Music.
"Well, Radiohead for a little while were pointing toward it," he says, as we note in passing that their guitarist Jonny Greenwood appears on Hiroshima on Frantic. "But really you're right, not many do. I think because Roxy had so many colours: there was the synth things from Brian, Andy would play oboe and various saxophones, and it did sound unusual.
"If you listen now it doesn't sound so crazy but I guess it is still a little unusual. Rap is rhythm-based and there's not much tune, and the guitar bands thrash away. There's not a lot of finesse."
And does this suave and sophisticated man - who cites a Nirvana song as one of his favourite songs alongside Hendrix's Hey Joe and Sister Sledge's We Are Family - have any advice to those about to embark on a career in music as he did all those years ago?
"Always follow your own way rather than look to others. And get very good lawyers - if you can have them as part of your family that's even better.