Bryan Ferry: Dandy of the Bizarre

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In London, working as van driver, art teacher and antique restorer, Ferry "saw the gap in music: It was a dull time in 1969," and began casting around. By the end of 1970 the foundations of Roxy Music were laid: Andy Mackay, another university man, a classical oboist, on sax and oboe; Brian Eno, a sculptor and an inspired dabbler in electronics, later involved in the Portsmouth Sinfonia's embryonic experiments in cultural havoc, on synthesizer; David O'List, late of the Nice, on guitar (he was replaced by Phil Manzanera just before the band broke); old Gas Board bassman Graham Simpson and another Geordie, Paul Thompson, made up the rhythm section.

Even as the grapevine first began to tremble, in late 1971, the package was complete. Not just the music – Ferry's mannered, allusive lyrics and poised melodies, the mixture of sassy rock, eclectic styles and electronic overlay – but also a whole visual style: camp, bizarre, nostalgic, a kind of futuristic Fifties look. Everyone wore leather, leopard skin and glitter. Ferry sported a quiff that a unicorn would have been proud of. "When we started nobody was into dressing up at all. I've never had any time for this theory that if you go out onstage wearing denims, you're for real. Now it's different. If we went on wearing casual clothes, everyone would be saying 'Wow! What a statement!' "

After some exclusive party gigs and some enigmatic posters, they scored a contract and in two weeks during March 1972 recorded their first album, Roxy Music, at London's Command Studios, under ex-King Crimson Pete Sinfield. With its release in June came instant success: gigs with Alice Cooper, Bowie and at the Lincoln Festival, album and singles chart hits, voted in all four British music press polls as Brightest Hope of the Year, an across-the-board teen and intelligentsia appeal. Looking back on that first album, its range is remarkable: tight, spunky and deadpan, full of unusual sounds, rich ironies and hard, ornate melodies like the early classics "Ladytron" and the Bogart-inspired "2 H.B." There was so much to miss – it was the album we weren't ready for. "It was a bit conventional, I think. We wanted to put across an identity, but also we wanted to make it as eclectic, as full of contrasts as possible. It's a series of possibilities, paths that could be followed."

The path led, after an autumn British tour and a lukewarm debut in the U.S., to For Your Pleasure, March 1973. Kari-Anne, the impeccable cheesecake odalisque who adorned the first cover, transmuted into Amanda Lear and panther, smoldering against the Las Vegas night sky. The band's visual style moved from futurismo Fifties to an outrageous, droogy luresque. The music had a new clarity and confidence to sustain its paradoxes. On one hand, contemporary mythology like "Beauty Queen" and "In Every Dream Home a Heartache." "Inflatable doll my role is to serve you/Disposable darling can't throw you away now/Immortal and life-size my breath is inside you." On the other hand, the dandified nostalgia, the "Before I die I write this letter" pose. All held together by the music's insistence, the voltage that Ferry's songs need to power them beyond quirkiness.

In retrospect, Eno's departure was more a release for Eno than a loss for Roxy. His subsequent solos, Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and his supergig with John Cale, Kevin Ayers and Nico, show a talent that must have been cramped by his role in Ferry's musical theater. Roxy's Stranded was released in November, featuring Eddie Jobson of Curved Air as Eno's replacement, and ushered in a new motif for their second British tour – jungle trees and ruined arches, the band urbane and elegant against a backdrop of primitive, luxuriant decadence. Ferry gave the white tux its first outing, the audiences now reaching fanmanic proportions. "Our visual style is very eclectic," Ferry explains. "I like to borrow and mix images. The clothes are redefinitions rather than rehashes, they differ subtly from the originals. The average Joe doesn't see it. But musically our main development has been becoming more genuine. There has been no hoax. It could have gone incredibly gimmicky – cheap electronics, cheap ideas. We're getting more musical. We're still interested in surprising people." And so Ferry does, always a jump ahead of his public, outmoding each version of himself, a planned obsolescence that is the keynote of his mystique.

Though some would say their fourth LP, Country Life, shows some signs of wear and tear, Ferry doesn't think his solo career is dissipating Roxy Music. "Songwriting is still the most important thing. The solo career is pure style, imposing my style on a ready-made content. I have two careers now, I extend myself in different directions. But it's still me. Each album, each song, is 100% how I feel at the time. The essential thing is be yourself." For a moment it sounds like he's talking about sincerity. The icy charm, the dandy's loll, suggest otherwise. Evening is falling. Soon he will be delving into his psychic wardrobe, slipping into someone more comfortable.

This story is from the April 24th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.

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