There used to be this ad (in the Fifties, I suppose) for a cigarette: You’re Never Alone with a Strand! A guy alone in the street; belted raincoat, turned down hat brim; fog, drizzle, blurred neon lighting; three in the morning and he’d just left a party or come to the end of an affair or arrived off a train; down but cool (cigarette cool) and romantic, weary — a private eye at the end of a case. I always thought it was Frank Sinatra.
That was one role Bryan Ferry had figured out for himself.
Something else there used to be was two artists called Gilbert and George whose work of art was themselves. They exhibited daily in a classy gallery. Elegant, suited, disdainful, they’d stand there all day while people paid to look. Later on a little song and dance act became part of the picture.
That was something else Bryan Ferry wanted to be — a work of art.
The cover of the new Roxy Music album is credited to eight people, two more than made the music. It shows a siren on the rocks, perfectly posed down to her last blue fingernail, but the lurid lighting gives the game away — it’s another Fifties ad. “Come hither,” she’s saying, “and buy Johnson’s gin.” The song about her isn’t the sea drama, “Whirlwind,” but “She Sells”: “Your lingerie’s a gift wrap — slip it to me.”
By all my usual criteria Roxy Music is decadent. Ferry deals with images of emotions rather than with emotions themselves. Music is only a means to his end, and only one means among many (who else gives their hairdresser equal billing?). For a Pete Townshend or a Bruce Springsteen, the expression of their imagery is their imagery; for Bryan Ferry, the act of making music is as uninteresting as the act of combing his hair — it’s the product that matters. And the reduction of rock to a means of achieving quite other entertainment end is the hallmark of decadence. No doubt about it, and Roxy Music goes into the back drawer, alongside Alice Cooper and David Bowie and Bette Midler.
Well, some doubt about it, because every time I play Siren, the first track is “Love Is the Drug,” which has all Ferry’s calculations, all his cool, and it’s in the Top 20 here in England and a wonderful record to dance to. The story is an old one:
Late at night I park my car
Stake my place in the singles bar
Face to face, toe to toe
Heart to heart as we hit the floor
Lumbered up, limbo down
The locked embrace, the stumble round
I say go, she says yes
Dim the lights, you can guess the rest
Oh — catch that buzz
Love is the drug I’m thinking of.
The rhythm is the military stomp. Ferry barks out the words like some demented sergeant major; the atmosphere is tense, the band excited, the audience frenzied — and these aren’t the usual poseurs, these are rock & roll kids, dancers all. Not so decadent after all.
Two things redeem Roxy. The first is that the image Bryan Ferry is after is a part of rock culture even if he got it from advertising posters and the movies. The romantic loner, world-weary, is one of the self-images of every rock fan — Philip Marlowe, in the Seventies, would be playing the dial with the rest of us. And Ferry’s so sincere about his disillusion. The man who walks by himself, regretting lost love. The siren keeps calling, tempting, “Try again!” and he always does and she’s always faking — the heart in the billboard is empty:
Though it’s all in vain
I’d do it all again
Just to believe one minute.
Let us sing of the tortured heart.
And the lonely soul in his world apart
As he plays the field — takes a little pain
Then move our separate ways again.
(“Could It Happen to Me?”)
I’m just another crazy guy
Playing at love was another high
Just another high.
(“Just Another High”)
This theme runs through the album from beginning to end and it’s all a fake, every word. Ferry’s going steady like the rest of us but, boy, don’t we wish we could do it — play the field, take a little pain, move our separate ways again.
The second thing is that Ferry’s just the singer in his band and he may be using Roxy Music, but they’ve got their own gig going. With the single exchange of Eddie Jobson for Eno (on synthesizer, keyboards, strings) the band has been together for five albums and numerous tours, and there’s a limit to how long you can be part of someone else’s dream. So, while Ferry keeps the words and the tuxedo, the band has written half the music and they do enjoy playing it.
The essence of Roxy’s music is the tension between the band’s drive (Paul Thompson must be singled out as an extra fine drummer) and Ferry’s restraint. The songs are built around short, sharp, lyrical bursts; the music consists of repeated riffs rather than melodies and one of Roxy’s skills is tension building, more and more insistent, while Ferry drones on about his lonely nights.
Siren is the simplest album Roxy has put down. Ferry’s imagery is focused — “Jump up, bubble up — what’s in store,/Love is the drug and I need to score” — and there’s less synthesized clutter, fewer sound effects, more straight solo trading. It’s make-your-mind-up time. In England, Roxy is a major group and people buy them or they don’t — this album’s going to make no difference, just a must for all Roxy fans. With you lot in the States I dunno, but I doubt it. You’ve never really gone for seedily good-looking Englishmen, even with a good rhythm section, and Ferry’s great achievement has been to frame Roxy’s unique sound round just one obsession — himself. He’s made it as a work of art, he’s made it as a product, but I guess he won’t make it as an export statistic — you’ve got enough fetishes of your own.