INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Q FEBRUARY 1993 - by Mat Snow
BRYAN FERRY: MY INDECISION IS FINAL...
Once he was the prolific matinee idol of spaceglam, the original Earl Of Suave and the king of luxuriously lined lovelessness. Now Bryan Ferry takes decades to make an album and everyone thinks he lives in a castle. Not true, he says. His new record - all covers! - only took five years. "I'm still a workaholic," he tells Mat Snow.
Last Year, in the Radio Times, Bryan Ferry let it be known that he is a Libran with Scorpio rising. Only someone very interested in astrology takes the trouble to discover his rising sign. This is not the hip, modern Bryan Ferry we thought we knew. "Glad to have broken out of the constraints of whatever," he chuckles. "I'm always looking for some pattern to life, I guess. Frequently I find I can guess some-body's sign from their characteristics. Though," he hastens to add, "I don't go around trying it out."
"Indecision is the classic Libran characteristic," he sighs philosophically. "Often I think I'm right because I've weighed it up more than you would ever dream of doing. It can be maddening, but generally we're fairly honest when we're not sure. These walls would be nice white," he pronounces, sweeping an arm around the boardroom in Virgin's New York office where he is holding somewhat diffident court this overcast Sunday afternoon, "but then, on the other hand, off-white would be quite good too. It can go on forever, can't it? I'm not Mr Together at all; I'm totally the opposite. I need to be helped getting through the day, for God's sake..."
"Going on forever" is a concept familiar to those entrusted with the stewardship of Bryan Ferry's creative processes. It is over five years since his last album, Bête Noire, and when word first surfaced of a new LP of Ferry originals, to be titled Horoscope, the consensus in the music industry was that it was long overdue even by the achingly slow standards of the man once jestingly nicknamed Byron Ferrari. But that was well over a year ago, and the record about to hit the shops is the fruit of a different project altogether.
Produced in a fifty-six-track studio with the collaboration of former Procol Harum Fender-bender Robin Trower, Horoscope was finished last year. But even within the Ferry camp the feeling was that he had worked on it too long, that it had suffered because Ferry wouldn't leave it alone. "I love starting songs but I have difficulty finishing them off. I probably over-indulged myself in terms of recording too much music and trying to make it too complex, which therefore made it impossible to mix. Everyone who heard Horoscope liked it very much, but there wasn't a single on it, a radio play record. Both friends and the record company said this, and having worked so hard on it for such a long time, I'd reached the same conclusion myself," the master of well-tailored melancholy explains.
"So, hey, enough already, I've got to try and focus and make things simpler. What I resolved to do was choose a couple of songs that might have some radio appeal, otherwise the record might not be heard by anybody, which would be tragic because I'd put my heart and soul into it as I tend to do, and it just snowballed. This was fun after the difficult time I'd had working on my own songs, and I did more and more. I decided, hey, I'll make this into an album in its own right."
Recorded in a modest twenty-four-track studio in Woodstock, New York, Taxi collects nine cover versions and is thus the first entirely non-original Ferry album since his 1973 solo debut, These Foolish Things. Making Taxi seems to have refocused Ferry on the Horoscope project. Without being quite sure whether another remix or perhaps a more radical rejig is in order, he promises release later this year. Or maybe next.
"Technology can get you by the throat, but I think I've come out of it now. It's been ten very hard years wrestling with all that, and whether I'll find it easier next time writing my own things or whether I'll write anything else again, I don't know. I wouldn't actually care much at the moment whether I did write another song. I really enjoy remaking other songs and taking huge liberties. I like having a kicking-off point."
• • •
Fred Ferry won medals for horse-drawn ploughmanship in County Durham until the 1930s slump forced him to look after the pit ponies in the nearby mining town of Washington, where Bryan was born on September 26, 1945, the middle child between two sisters, both now teachers. He fondly recounts that his father courted his mother, Polly, on a cart-horse with a hedgerow flower in his buttonhole. "He was a bit of a throwback, which is why I loved him so much. But my mother was modern and understood what I was doing. She would watch Top Of The Pops and say, 'You must get something out. This is all rubbish, you know. All rubbish!'" he giggles. "She was the one who really pushed me to do anything at all, to do my homework despite Libran prevarication. My mother was very sentimental - she liked ballads. But my Auntie Enid was really responsible for getting me into the music business," he continues. "She used to baby-sit and play 78s of Nat 'King' Cole, The Inkspots and Billy Eckstine, the first real music I ever heard."
On Taxi, Bryan Ferry pays tribute to those times with a version of Nat 'King' Cole's Answer Me, remodelled to incorporate the expensively funky, widescreen rock talents of drummer Steve Ferrone, bassist Nathan East and supplementary keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, all veterans of stints with Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton. Other tracks include The Velvet Underground's All Tomorrow's Parties, Screaming Jay Hawkins's I Put A Spell On You, the Fontella Bass hit Rescue Me, and the much-covered Amazing Grace: "I saw The Deer Hunter on television one day, where Meryl Streep sings it. I thought it was an American song but apparently it isn't, which slightly spoils the American theme of the album," he sighs, two yards-plus of fidgety swoon-god whose odd combination of jeans and tailored jacket, denim shirt and discreetly dotted black tie suggest an art student togged up for a family wedding. "Most of my clothes I buy at army and navy stores - three checked shirts for ten dollars or a tube of white socks, twelve for $11.95," he says, revealing an unexpected sartorial frugality. "It's cool. K-Mart is my tailor."
In 1964 Bryan Ferry won a scholarship to Newcastle University to study under the British pop artist Richard Hamilton. Like many contemporaries, Ferry's attentions became divided between his course and making music. His first band, The Gas Board, were a soul covers act whose repertoire also included Bobby Bland and Freddie King. In the horn section was Mike Figgis, who has since found fame as director of the films Internal Affairs and Stormy Monday. Figgis claims that The Gas Board fired Ferry after two years with the band "because he wasn't a very good soul singer; he had that tremble." Told of this allegation, Bryan Ferry gets rather cross: "The reason I left The Gas Board was because I wasn't doing any work, since I was organising it as well as singing, which meant I was going into college less and less. The rest of the band wanted to drop out and go professional, and I wasn't prepared to do that at that time. How dare he say that! It's fucking rude, isn't it? I think he was jealous of me."
After finishing his degree in 1968, Ferry moved to London and taught ceramics at a girls' school, drove a van and restored antiques. "I also auditioned for King Crimson. I thought their first album was really powerful. Although I was influenced by black American music I'd had all this art school training and art world sensibility, and King Crimson stuff was pretty artistic, inventive musically. Then I started learning to play the harmonium, and I'd pedal away at these dirgy songs which became the first Roxy album. When Roxy Music first happened, I didn't like rock music very much. It seemed very conservative and dull, so anybody who did something new seemed like a revelation."
Roxy Music were a revelation to many with their image of '50s rockers from Planet X, their camp contrast of nostalgia and futurism. Both 1972's self-titled debut album and first single, Virginia Plain, were hits, and the following year Ferry found the energy to make the solo album These Foolish Things ("done in three or four weeks and people still like it, because it's so graphic, I guess. It's clear-cut and hard-edged, almost like a cartoon, a Roy Lichtenstein, as opposed, to continue the analogy, to a Robert Rauschenberg. My children like it: Please, Daddy, give us a cassette of that to take to school") sandwiched between two excellent Roxy Music albums, For Your Pleasure and Stranded. "I had two tracks back then: one for the vocal, the other for the piano," Ferry remembers those palmy days when recording technology concentrated the mind wonderfully.
"The career was your whole life. There was nothing else. I'm still a workaholic, but back then at weekends I'd be writing lyrics because the band would go crazy if they didn't have the song to sing on Monday. Now at weekends there's the family. Also, now you're always searching for a new formula, whereas with a group you're stuck with that limited palette, which can produce great things but you get bored with it."
The break-up of the band a decade later came shortly after Ferry married Lucy Helmore, daughter of a stockbroker and then aged twenty-two (they now have four boys). "In retrospect I'm sure it's connected. I didn't need the companionship of group life any more," Ferry rationalises. "It was time for a change, and Avalon (1982) was a high point, like I'd felt that For Your Pleasure was a high point, after which Brian Eno left..."
Responsible for electronic noises and treatments, Brian Eno's keyboard inadequacies had kept Ferry stuck to one side of the stage live wrestling with the ivories ("very badly") while simultaneously having to sing. "In hindsight" (a favourite Ferryism), he considers he should have added a proficient keyboardist and retained Eno. But he had other reasons to ditch him. "It was a straightforward ego struggle. I saw myself as chief creator, because I was writing the bloody songs, and I didn't want to share that with other people because I thought I had so much to give," he laughs. "That was perhaps silly of me. And the artwork of For Your Pleasure I thought was really good, but I heard some sniggering behind me. I thought, Is it worth it? I just got peeved, pissed off.
"Brian is very smart, even though he doesn't actually play anything, or at least he didn't used to; he was just very good at being provocative and getting me going. Brian's got it right: he spends about five shillings making an album and though it won't sell a vast amount, it's all profit," Ferry laughs ruefully, "while I'm bashing away on some Cleopatra project."
• • •
"Bryan Ferry insists on luxurious living; he's obsessed with splendour," declares his old friend, fashion designer Anthony Price. "I made the white lounge-lizard jacket for the sleeve of Another Time, Another Place (1974). It was his idea. He wouldn't be satisfied with something unless it was right to the last eighth of a centimetre."
Image-wise, Bryan Ferry has consistently displayed the attention to detail of a '60s Mod and the wit of a pop art adept. Back in '74 the sleeve to the Roxy Music album Country Life caused such a sensation it had to be changed in America.
Anthony Price: "On holiday in Portugal we met these huge German girls on the beach, Constanza and Evaline, who had enormous shoulders like a drag act. Bryan said, Let's use them. We put them against a hedge, and it was shot at night with a flash as if they'd been caught by car headlights at a country house. It could have been a picture of mad hooray girls at a party in their underwear. The typeface was made to look like a Country Life cover, which Bryan subscribed and aspired to - a clue to his bizarre character."
Bryan Ferry: "Country Life is quaint and old-fashioned, preserving itself like a fossil and I like that. I always skim through it, and enjoy the odd piece about badgers. Country houses are one thing that England does well and the whole lifestyle which still exists in places, though I've never lived it - one of the myths about me which is not strictly true at all. I lived in the country for a bit, but I was never a fully paid-up Land Rover driver, though I have Wellington boots, both black and green. It's nice to get fresh air and I like nature."
Bryan Ferry's brother-in-law, journalist Edward Helmore, also rebuts the popular notion, crystallised in a 1985 Sunday Times profile which made Ferry "incredibly upset", that the singer aspires to the tweedy English squirarchy: "I think Bryan would rather die than go to a hunt ball."
Ferry: "I've always been a great fan of good things, a great appreciator. I've collected pictures over the years: it's my one indulgence. It's a Libran trait to have their surroundings to their liking. They feel almost physically hurt in the wrong surroundings. I never had any fancy sports care apart from a second-hand Porsche."
The title track of Taxi is the 1984 soul tune by J. Blackfoot. "I first heard that record on Peel when I was driving home one night to Sussex when I was just starting the Bête Noire album; I remember hastily scribbling the details of the song down while driving at a hundred miles an hour," Ferry chuckles with his customary nervousness. "And for the beginning of my version of Rescue Me I was recording the radio, just going down the dial as you do, and there was Peel's voice. He was one of the people who helped in 1972, and I was so hurt getting a really bad review from him of my last tour in 1988. I thought the show was good, I really did, and I don't know anybody more critical than me. Making fun of the girl singers just because they're funky and he isn't - what's the problem? I think John Peel had the problem with the glamorous image and presentation, which I think is silly and small-minded.
"The incense and smoke was a soulful thing, a churning pot of signs - interesting and very good value for money. You can't just be playing Virginia Plain for the rest of your life; you've got to feel as if you're moving on, even though you might be moving down an avenue where very few people will come with you. But that's the way of being creative - though I've never heard a Charlie Parker record I didn't like."
As for playing live again, "I dread it, really. It's the preparation and commitment to doing it every night I can't handle. I'm not very healthy. I used to have tonsilitis all the time, and now I don't have the tonsils, I cough instead. That's why I stopped smoking four years ago. Every winter I was in such pain I had to stop." Indeed, as the evening has drawn in and the temperature dropped, Bryan Ferry is now pacing around in a scarf, white raincoat and Jets baseball cap. For the first time all day he looks something like his forty-seven years, a man with melancholy memories, the maestro of languid tristesse. But he wasn't always like this. What happened to the playful mood of yore?
"Yes, it's not playful like that any more. You go through dark periods and sometimes they can be really long," he giggles deflectively. "I'd like to think I've come out of it, and turned the corner with this new record. I really do hope so."