Bryan Ferry: Dandy of the Bizarre

Roxy Music's frontman dresses up for his musical theater

Bryan Ferry
Anwar Hussein/Getty Images
Bryan Ferry
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All the young dudes were at London's Albert Hall for Bryan Ferry's first solo outing this past winter. Some wore the full regalia – white tux, carnation and cummerbund, smiles as sleek as teak. The majority were hard-core teenage acolytes of Roxy Music, the formidable punk/glam ensemble which Ferry launched three years ago and which, four English gold records later, is now described by David Bowie on American TV as the only British band worth watching.

Ferry has clearly broadened his audience via his two solo albums, These Foolish Things and Another Time, Another Place, with their stylish and cryptic reworkings of standards ancient and modern. Roxy's appeal has never been exclusively teen oriented – the keen intelligence behind the razzmatazz has always been apparent – but the Albert Hall audience even contained a smattering of mums and dads, snared perhaps by Ferry's sinuously debonair appearance on the Cilla Black Show, a peak-viewing BBC-TV potboiler.

With the lights dimming to a velvet red glow, the mufflers high above the Victorian amphitheater looked like giant boiled eggs cruising across the firmament on some strange Daliesque mission. The audience was past all hope of affecting ennui. Enter the 33-piece orchestra (conductor Martyn Ford, Ferry's arranger). Enter the band – Manzanera, Jobson, and Thompson from Roxy, John Porter, guitarist on Ferry's solos, and John Wetton, late of King Crimson. The band was resplendent in white tuxes, but those with sartorial stakes in the occasion were still agog for the master's latest manifestation.

Ferry is a man of many manifestations. During Roxy's September '74 tour he blew everyone out at the Rainbow with an unprecedented Gaucho Look. "Romantic, swashbuckling, Valentino, Hollywood tarted up gaucho," is how he describes it. Then there is the Military Look – "With a monocle it's Third Reich, with shades it's American motorcycle cop." Recent photos have sported the Country Life Look, but tonight, snaking up onstage between the two guitarists Manzanera and Porter, it's the Blue Mohair Manifestation, impeccably vulgar and Sixties, a punky highroller out on the town, jet black hair viciously slicked back, brilliantine machismo. "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste . . . "

"Sympathy for the Devil" was messy: The Albert Hall acoustics, airborne eggs notwithstanding, are notorious. Perhaps Ferry's ego is not quite distant enough from Jagger's to function properly with the song. But the voice began to flex with "I Love How You Love Me" and "Baby I Don't Care" and a brassy, sardonic, gay-edged "It's My Party" ushered the evening's persona in. The songs he handles best are songs of loneliness, pain and collapse – "The Tracks of My Tears," "You Won't See Me" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" were all stunning – the plummy, vibrato-heavy, deceptively supple voice appearing in the strangest places, the emotion oblique and convoluted, the pain a shrug. "Nice place you got here," he told us, and eased into his long, funereal rendition of "You Are My Sunshine." The feel of "Sunshine" is decidedly cloudy and full of menace, in the same way that Dylan sings, "It was very, very painless" in such a pained way. Ferry gives old songs a new dimension, treats them with such austerity and detachment that they become something quite different.

Sometimes it sounds like parody. The London Times disliked the concert, speaking of "self-satisfied parody" and "material regurgitated without respect or affection." The first time I heard his version of Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (a single release in late '73, the first hint of his solo direction) I nearly broke the radio in two. It seemed a travesty – his voice sounding like a kind of goose step. Now one sees his songs as essays in style and nostalgia and as such they court a certain bleakness. There is an obvious glamour parallel with people like Bowie, but a better comparison would be with stylists like Dan Hicks and Lou Reed. "They aren't cynical renditions at all," he says. "If you read great writers you find that their language has layers, double meanings. You take a great song and you can transform it, add some sort of twist to it."

The concert climaxed with "a little numero called 'The In Crowd.'" Back for the encore, mohair shimmering and cigarette adroop, a creamy version of "These Foolish Things." The audience was wild, the Albert Hall aquiver like a vast Victorian auntie. Another incarnation successfully launched, Ferry went back to the dressing room. I would have said another mask, but talking to him the next day in his apartment in Earls Court – a bastion of the London gay community but otherwise an unfashionable "bedsit" area – he balked at the word. "It's not a question of hiding behind masks. I'm very much myself all the time. I'm not that good an actor, I couldn't pull it off, I don't know . . . everybody's very complex. You can move in different directions. Have an adventure with yourself."

Offstage, Ferry is quiet, incredibly polite, wry, articulate, composed but not quite relaxed, not quite warm. Like Baudelaire's dandy, he lives his entire life in front of a mirror. He glazes out occasionally, seeming to absent himself from the conversation. He is clearly tired after the concert; it is well known that when he parties, he parties hard, keeping the company of artists, actresses and gays rather than regular rock figures. The TV is on, silently. He absorbs images constantly and loves the cinema. "I've drawn most of my inspiration from the cinema. I'm interested in fantasy, things which are slightly unreal. Like the cover of Another Time. It's a very bleak kind of cover, it tells a story. It has a sort of Last Year at Marienbad feeling."

The room is littered with copies of Vogue, Country Life, Queen – shiny magazines devoted to grace and money. Also: mirrors, plastic roses and carnations, a grand piano, three guitars, kitschy postcards, a series of prints by Nicholas de Ville, his cover designer, called "Five Simultaneous Possibilities." Mr. Ferry is sporting his Country Life possibility today – Burberry's tweed, cavalry twills, striped tie on lightweight white shirt. Elegant in an elegant white room, steel-tube furniture offset by tasty chintz, ambiguous in the way his songs are ambiguous. "I'm a self-destructive person in some ways," he confides, "but I'm very careful about certain things. I never blow an interview or anything like that."

His conversation and crammed bookshelves confirm the intellectual. The svelte, bequiffed matinee idol is nowhere to be seen, though the anonymous cream front door bears four kiss-shaped lipstick smudges. Outside it lies a pile of letters, mostly addressed to Mr. B. Ferry in the pillowy handwriting of a lovelorn 14 year old. But Roxy Music always was a smart idea as well as a handsome band of rockers. Duke Ellington used to say his orchestra was his instrument, and Ferry talks of Roxy as his instrument – an embodiment of his intelligence, an extension of his wardrobe. There has never been any doubt who was boss, and when Eno left the band in July 1973 the clash was clear, not so much a clash of egos, like the Jagger-Jones battle of the early Stones, but a clash of intelligence. He doesn't see Eno anymore. "It all got soured up."

"It's a bit embarrassing really," he admits. "I must be ultimately in control. I have to say, 'Yes, those songs are good, but these songs are better.' It's a difficult group to be in. I suppose it would be better with people who could play as well but were less intelligent." After total composing credits on the first two albums, Stranded did at least feature a track each from saxophonist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera. A touch of diplomacy, perhaps. "I don't know if you're into-astrology-man. I'm the perfect Libra. Diplomatic, hate aggression."

Roxy Music was chiseled and honed in a small rehearsal room off Kensington High Street during 1971 and launched in summer 1972. Ferry had left his native North-East in 1968, a slick young Geordie with a degree in fine arts, down to seek his fortune in The Smoke. He was born 29 years ago in a Durham mining village called Washington – named after George, whose family hailed from there, it bears the Stars and Stripes in the town crest. His father looked after the ponies at the local pit, classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning stuff. Starring at the local grammar school, Ferry was all set on "being an artist with a capital A," but in the heady days of 1963, with Eric Burdon and the Animals blaring out their Bo Diddley in nearby Newcastle, he did what every thoughtful 17 year old did in 1963: He formed the school R&B band. At Newcastle University in '66, when everyone was into Otis, Joe Tex and Tamla, Ferry was fronting an eight-piece soul band called the Gas Board.

The other essential influence was Richard Hamilton, founding father of Pop Art, who taught Ferry at Newcastle. "Everyone was very involved in popular imagery. We all went around in custom-built T-shirts, sneakers and jeans, Beach Boys sort of thing. Style was of the utmost importance." The two styles – pop music and pop style – had not fully converged. "Singing was still a fun thing. I wasn't projecting any intelligence into it. By day it was the heady intellectual climate of the university, by night down into those smoldering clubs. I hadn't found anything to incorporate all of me."

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.

From The Archives Issue 185: April 24, 1975