The space allowed here dictates simplification: Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry has a voice that has helped induce more pregnancies than any other singer in contemporary pop. It’s true. His is, in short, the waterline of coital inspiration for post-Sinatra pop romanticism. Hence Ferry’s innumerable comparisons to Sinatra.
But Ferry is way cooler than Sinatra could ever have hoped to be. Besides, Ferry is a better singer. Want proof? Just look to his 1999 solo album of ’30s standards, As Time Goes By — particularly his take of Anderson and Weill’s “September Song,” which a betters Sinatra’s by a kilometer.
Sinatra, like Ferry, had a proclivity for good suits, a look and sound of unrestrained sexual tension, and a croon that could drop the most stubborn prom dress. Yet Sinatra — who had ballooned with booze bloat and lost his looks in his 40s — raised the low-rent rank of a first-rate thug to a Hollywood high art.
So comparisons to Ferry are odious: Sinatra was at heart a kind of misanthrope, and in his dealings with those he thought beneath him (particularly women), old red eyes had the etiquette of a boar.
Still, like Sinatra in his day, Bryan Ferry is a full-on rock ’n’ star in the most streamlined yet exalted sense of the word.
At 57, Ferry’s rep is that of a man who is wholly unaffected, soft-spoken and kind, and pleasingly self-deprecating. Ferry was all that during a recent phone conversation from the Mercer Hotel in Manhattan, where he was taking a few days’ rest before his solo North American tour starts in Montreal.
Ferry’s relationship between the chanteur and his couture borders the mythical. His shabby-art-school-pastoral-meets-dapper-glam is certainly unparalleled. And what can be said about art-glam-cum-soul of Roxy Music and Brian Ferry that hasn’t already been assigned to the annals of rock ’n’ roll history?
Ferry came up in the wan light of Brian Eno; they both sprouted from U.K. art-rock seedlings in 1970. Roxy Music mixed pop art, film and avant-garde. Eno and Ferry’s ideas yanked the band in opposite directions, and their relationship was an incendiary one.
The band managed to combine the big-band sound of Sinatra with the linear lines of the Velvet Underground and Warhol. Roxy Music was arguably the first U.K. rock ’n’ band to use attire as an essential part of the show.
The Eno/Ferry version of Roxy Music recorded but two albums — Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure- — and inspired scads of copycats. After Eno’s exit, Roxy Music continued, working a sort of gentle Euro-disco into its glittery arty pop. The band was huge overseas, and finally hit U.S. pay dirt with the 1975 hit single “Love is the Drug.”
Sure, the style and musical aesthetic of Roxy and Ferry have been nicked by everyone from Mott the Hoople and Bowie, David Sylvian’s Japan and ABC to Duran Duran and even the Psychedelic Furs — all of whom (except the latter) went on to greater fiscal return. But like all imitations, none had any of the soul and were often plagued by artifice.
“Yeah, that happens all the time, people take something and they go and popularize it,” Ferry laughs. “That’s just life. That’s the problem with trying out new stuff … you sometimes don’t get it quite right, and somebody can lift it and do something better with it in some ways.”
Was there a time, particularly when both the glam and new romantics lifted so much from Roxy that he found himself blurting, “Hey, that’s mine?”
Ferry takes a breath and laughs slowly, “It’s a natural human reaction, I suppose, so occasionally … Not so much now.”
In fact, Roxy’s ninth and last studio album, 1982’s Rhett Davies-produced Avalon, is a gilded thing of elegance and spectral movement, the zenith of graceful pop music. The record — Roxy’s crowning glory pushed by the songs’ “More Than This” and “Take a Chance With Me” — is the group’s only album to go gold (and later, platinum) stateside.
Ferry’s latest solo record — this year’s Frantic — finds Ferry close to Avalon. The record’s highlights are sophisticated and restrained (“Cruel,” “Hiroshima”), power poppy and Byronic (“One Way Love,”) and trimmed with burnished covers (Dylan’s “It’s all Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”). The disc features co-writes with Eno and Dave Stewart.
Without slipping into unconcealed reverence, it can easily be said that there is a timelessness to a Bryan Ferry song, one that transcends studio technology of the time, one that rises above the disposable. And in line with what was good about Sinatra, whenever Ferry chooses a cover, he manages to infuse himself, put a gust of life into the original with a healthy appreciation of origin. The man is fan of song, and the song in his hands becomes a thing of invention.
“It’s nice to do stylistic variations of things,” Ferry says. “I mean, it’s like when you hear Charlie Parker or somebody do the same song several years apart. They’ll do it in a completely different way maybe. That’s quite a good thing, being able to explore. I obviously hoped that I’d be able to sing them [my songs] 10 years later.”
Ferry’s rendition of Goffin and King’s lovely “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” on 1993’s Taxi was, literally, breathtaking.
“I just love Goffin and King songs and that was their greatest one, I think,” he says in a tone that nears a gush. “The original version by the Shirrells was just so plaintive. This beautiful voice and this beautiful music combined together with this great string part. That song is just a masterpiece, really, and it just caught me as certain things do. It becomes the song of the year for you and it lasts really for many, many years.”
As a fan of modern songwriting, Ferry cites Mary Jane Blige as someone to be reckoned with. “She did this thing with Dr. Dre called ‘Family Affair,’ which I think is very, very good indeed. I think that will sound good in a few years’ time also.”
Roxy Music basically called it quits after the 1983 Avalon tour. Was that a time when he absolutely hated touring?
“Yeah, at the end of the Avalon tour in ’83. I just really didn’t really want to tour at all after that. I don’t know, I think the schedule must have been very hard. … I can’t remember what it was exactly.”
At a Roxy Music reunion show in Los Angeles last year Ferry — reunited with Roxy Music mainstays Andy Mackay and Phil Mazanera — strode on stage with that presence, that look in his eye, that one essential element of inherent cool. It was Dylanesque — total command.
Ferry laughs when asked what he considers his strengths as a performer. “It’s probably passion. It’s probably commitment to the song, whatever it might be at that particular moment.
“It was great last year on the Roxy tour to pick up songs that we hadn’t done in a really long time. In fact, the whole show felt as if it had a currency about it. It didn’t feel like you were doing something that was too dated. Certainly last year’s tour was a highlight for me because it was great to find that there was so much warmth and enthusiasm for the songs from the audience.”
But in these days of naval-gazy indie irony and ill-conceived angst-pants suburban ego, there would seem to be little room for a Versace-suited crooner in the most classic sense. If Faye Dunaway is the last of the classic Hollywood stars, then Ferry is the Faye Dunaway of rock ’n’ roll.
Ferry says he’s “enjoying singing more now. It’s very bizarre. For years I wasn’t doing very much touring at all, you know. Just two or three years ago when I did the ‘30s album, I went on tour with that. I’ve been enjoying the whole performance thing more than before.”
Ferry says three-quarters of his live set on the current tour will be culled from his 12 solo albums and one-quarter will be Roxy Music songs. With him will be a 12-piece band.
“On this tour it’s quite interesting ’cause there’s such a wide range of songs,” he explains. “It means you don’t really get bored because you’re going from ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ to ‘Thrill of it All’ and all sorts of things. It’s a really bizarre mixture. More of a mixture than you’d probably find in most shows, I guess. I’m very fortunate to have people in the band who can double up on completely different instruments. I mean the violin player, she plays synthesizer as well in the rock numbers. The harp player plays percussion in the heavy numbers. The sax player does keyboards. Musically, we have a lot of different colors on stage.”
Ferry, of course, says he’s glad to return to Detroit, a longtime Roxy Music radio mainstay in the United States.
“Detroit is very musical city, and it’s similar to where I came from in Newcastle,” says the son of a coal miner.
“I remember Detroit used to play our music when other cities didn’t in the early days.”
Bryan Ferry will perform Monday, Nov. 18 at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor). The show is all ages. For information, call 734-668-8397.Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]