Stay Cool Is Still the Main Rule
The Profound Allure of Bryan Ferry's Stylish Substance
At his peak, Bryan Ferry possessed the charisma, sleazy-aristo looks (despite being a coal miner's son), and emotive pipes to turn heterosexual men temporarily gay—well, at least this straight dude. Gaze in awe at the Old Grey Whistle Test clip on YouTube of Roxy Music's "Ladytron." In it, Ferry's donning a gold-lamé tiger-print jacket and playing organ as he heavy-liddedly croons about seducing a woman. You may want to take birth control before viewing—yes, even you, tough guy.
It's hard to call any one Roxy track definitive, but "Ladytron"—which comes from Roxy Music's 1972 self-titled debut LP and is one of the greatest songs ever—comes close. It's an interstellar ballad with frisky castanets, Andy Mackay's morose oboe, Brian Eno–ized analog synths, and Phil Manzanera's flamboyant guitar supernovas. The song established Roxy's astonishing convergence of throwback sentimentality and futuristic sonic thrust, their fruitful tension between accessibility and experimentation, and their exquisite affinities for memorable choruses and feral freak-outs. The next composition on Roxy Music, "If There Is Something," is aural schizophrenia par excellence. It begins with twangy, old-time-rock-and-roll jollity, camping and vamping up a Rolling Stones parody. But 99 seconds in, "Something" shifts into one of rock's most heartrending melodic downers, reeking of profound old Europa melancholy, as Ferry vibratos and shreds larynx in his most gripping vocal turn. All because bro's gotta get that woman back. The inamorata of this song must be out of this fucking world.
Roxy Music began a formidable five-LP creative streak that encompassed For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life, and Siren. During this time, nobody in rock was crafting tunes as voluptuous and decadent as Ferry. His songwriting could coyly coax you to ecstasy or brashly plunge you into existential despair. Roxy Music were as artful as the Louvre—prog-rock heads especially dug the first two Eno-enhanced albums—but they also regularly appeared on the telly playing their elegant, rush-inducing UK hits ("Do the Strand," "Street Life," "The Thrill of It All," etc.) while dressed like outer-space dandies or, often in Ferry's case, in white tuxes. Not incidentally, Roxy Music achieved a peak of rock-oriented sonic/sartorial synergy. Style banged substance, and timeless music was born.
Those first five Roxy Music full-lengths proved that Ferry's debonair, intelligent Casanova persona had few rivals, and his legendary quaver communicated layers of meaning and poignancy beyond the range of his peers. Concurrently with Roxy Music's tenure, Ferry cut a series of solo albums that showcased his idiosyncratic interpretations of other people's songs, with a strong interest in standards, American soul and folk music, and classic rock numbers like the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." But it will be the material from those first five Roxy albums that many hope Ferry will air on his Can't Let Go tour. The man may be 68 and heavier around the jaw and gut, but his songs and voice remain in rude health. DAVE SEGAL
Bill Murray's Karaoke and Perfect Pop Moments
I feel like this is a judgment-free zone, so I'm going to admit something to you that I wouldn't say in front of my music-aficionado friends: I pretty much forgot about Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music from, say, 1986 to 2003. Those were the years between Ferry's easy-listening solo hit "Slave to Love" and—you guessed it—Bill Murray warbling Roxy Music's "More Than This" in Lost in Translation.
I spent a lot of quality time in the '80s perched in my grandparents' Barcalounger glued to MTV, so naturally my introduction to Ferry was via Roxy Music's final album, Avalon, and specifically the single "More Than This," a great song with an era-appropriately laughable video. Luckily, it sidestepped the dewy New Romanticism of the title track, "Avalon," which—although Ferry's voice is in fine form—is kind of atrocious, or at least hopelessly dated. I blame the fretless bass. And the synthesizer(s). Where was I?
Right, so Lost in Translation led me all the way back to Roxy Music's self-titled 1972 debut and the string of fantastic albums that followed. There are few missteps on the first four Roxy Music albums, and all of their '70s work deserves a listen, if only to pick out gems like "Love Is the Drug" and "Angel Eyes."
Without question, Roxy Music's—and Ferry's—greatest song was their very first single, "Virginia Plain." (Really. Before you present your argument, go listen to it again.) Ferry's bizarre vocal delivery, everything Brian Eno touches (note to the '80s: That's how you play a synth), the goddamn saxophone, the dry vocals at the very end: These are some of the most perfect moments in the history of pop music. Also, it's worth noting that this song has no chorus.
Unfortunately, I can't say that any of Ferry's more recent work has stayed with me as much as the old stuff. (2010's Olympia, which has its best foot firmly planted in the '80s, is the only one I'd recommend.) However, there are precious few artists whose body of work is so significant that you are required to take notice when they come through town, even 40 years into their career, and Bryan Ferry is one of them. AARON HUFFMAN