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Features

In praise of Bryan Ferry

Not all youthful obsessions age well. This one has

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

Francis Lee, the barrel-chested footballer who banged in goals for Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City, was my first idol. Billy Wilder, Johnny Mercer and Philip Larkin rank among the heroes of my maturity, though nobody will ever displace Chekhov and Schubert at the head of the table. But the vicar’s son who went up to public school in 1972, hoping to find a pop group he could call his own, stumbled upon the man who lit up his adolescence 40 years ago this month: Bryan Ferry.

On the first day of November that year, during the half-term break, I walked into Rare Records in Manchester and handed over £1.75 for the first LP by Roxy Music. I hadn’t heard a note, yet it seemed the right thing to do. The group had just made the top ten with ‘Virginia Plain’, a song of eye-popping originality, and I had grown tired of the endless wailing of guitars and ‘prog rock’ the older boys enjoyed at school. It was a grim year, 1972, until Ferry came along and changed pop music for good.

That he changed it is not in doubt. Although David Bowie had released Ziggy Stardust that summer, he was working within the conventions of what was known. Bowie may have looked odd with his crimson barnet but he had been around a while, and bagged a couple of hits. Roxy came from nowhere, and sounded like nobody else. I was all ears for this extraordinary sound — and eyes, too. Others were less certain. Back at school my study-holder peeped inside the LP’s cover, where members of the band were pictured pouting in exotic costumes, and declared: ‘Look at this, everybody. Henderson’s bought a record by a bunch of homos!’

Occupying the territory where ostentatious cleverness gives way to self-mockery, this pick-up collection of art students looked nothing like Yes or Led Zeppelin. And when my elders listened to the music, they were no wiser. What, their pained faces seemed to ask, was this peculiar sound? Here was a band that gave as much prominence to an oboe as the guitar, led by a singer who had a vibrato wider than the Trent, and featuring a -weirdo called Eno who made whooshing noises on tape machines that you never heard on a Wishbone Ash record. Even my housemaster, the most fair-minded of men, joined in. ‘Decadent,’ he called it.

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Well, we won the battle in the end, and I have the scars to prove it. Roxy Music were, for 18 months, the most extraordinary group of all, and although I haven’t listened to him for three decades Ferry will always remain a hero. He’s a grand old man now, yet still going strong. Next week he brings out his latest record, The Jazz Age, a potpourri of Roxy songs arranged in the style of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Imagine: ‘Do The Strand’ as a jaunty 1920s number! As Larkin wrote in his great poem about that other golden figure from the jazz age, Sidney Bechet: ‘Oh, play that thing’!

‘Do The Strand’, what a song that was. The first track on the group’s second LP, For Your Pleasure, released in March 1973, it was the number all Roxy fans wanted to hear: ‘If you feel blue/ look through Who’s Who/ See La Goulue/ and Nijinsky/ Do the Strandski!’ For an impressionable teenager, who was fortunate enough to see the band twice, it was almost a call to arms. Roxy played it as an encore at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 28 October 1973, and it was the last song at the Floral Hall, Southport, on 5 April 1974. Eno had left the group by then, Ferry having tired of his show-boating, yet some of us, out of loyalty, attended his first solo performance at King’s Hall, Derby, on 13 February 1974. We were martyrs to the cause.

In March 1974 I wrote to Ferry, one of only two fan letters I ever sent. Returning to school the following month, his reply was waiting for me. In his own hand he thanked me for taking an interest in his career and encouraged me to buy his next single, ‘The In Crowd’, which would be in the shops in May. And that, I now see, marked the end of my infatuation with Roxy. I bought their next two records but they had moved on, and so had I. They broke up in 1976, only to reform four years later as a very different group. Eventually, as I no longer listened to the records of my youth, I took most of them down to a charity shop, where I trust they found a happy home.

But you never entirely get over those early enthusiasms. Having moved to London I took up residence in Albertine, a Shepherd’s Bush wine bar where a delightful Scotsman, Hunter MacDonald, now late of that parish, liked to tie a few on. In a previous life he had been Roxy Music’s road manager when the original band was being put together. ‘Ferry was so nervous back then,’ said Hunter. ‘There were nights when I had to push him out on stage, literally.’ Hunter was closer to Eno than Ferry but on Friday nights, his tongue loosened by something pleasing from the Rhône, he would admit: ‘Bryan did all the work, you know. Eno did the shagging.’

You were there, Hunter, I said. That first record was a belter, yet it was so poorly recorded. It sounded as though it had been knocked out in somebody’s front room. ‘Aye’, he said. ‘It was. Mine!’

Later, when the Sex Pistol Paul Cook became a drinking pal down the road in the Andover Arms, ‘where the customer is king’, it was interesting to hear another view. ‘We loved Roxy,’ he said. ‘In fact it was my idea to get Chris Thomas (record producer) to work with the Pistols because he had worked on those Roxy albums.’ It is fashionable now to sneer at Ferry for his supposed affectations — the son of a miner from County Durham buying paintings! lock him up! — but it is worth bearing in mind what Cooky said: ‘We loved Roxy.’ We certainly did. It was a high-wire act that could easily have gone wrong, yet for two years they never took a false step. And those of us who were 13 in 1972, and sought deliverance from gurning guitarists, had a ringside seat.

Now, 40 years on, as Ferry prepares to revisit those early days which caused so much bewilderment, I am happy to step back with him. I’d like to hear ‘Remake/Remodel’ again, in the style of Bunny Berigan, and that wonderful Bogart tribute, ‘2HB’, performed à la Harry James. It will bring back those teenage memories when Ferry’s songs offered a walk into the paradise garden. These days I prefer the songs of Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern, but then so did he, clever man, all along.

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