Picture it with me, a second-hand vision, a dreamed-up memory. Settle down in front of the TV on a Thursday evening in 1972, as summer faded into autumn in London, or Reading, or Gateshead, and you’d start to think that popular music might not be the vehicle of anarchic youthful energy, sexual liberation, or mass social consciousness that you’d once hoped, heard, or feared it was. On Top of the Pops, a rotating cast of what we now think of as icons of 1970s drear: the sweaty, permed frontmen of B-list glam rock bands; Donny Osmond and his backing band of balding trombone players; the Bee Gees in their pre-disco balladeer misery. The first sighting of Bryan Ferry on the show, by contrast, survives as a case against both the traditional rock frontman and the coherence of the term “glam” itself: Noddy Holder gurning his way through another shouty anthem with a kookily misspelled title was a world away from this strange, ageless ex-art teacher wearing a black and green sequined jacket, gold glittery eyeliner, and a German Expressionist leer.
When Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” first appeared on British television on August 24, 1972, Bryan Ferry was twenty-six; the song’s line “We’ve been around a long time/Just try to try to try to make the big time” was both accurate and inaccurate. In fact, once the band’s lineup had been finalized, Roxy found success astonishingly quickly. The half a year or so it took after Phil Manzanera arrived on lead guitar (joining Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay the saxophonist, drummer Paul Thompson, and Graham Simpson, the first in a long, long string of bassists) for their debut album to be recorded, released, and to make the Top 10 was hardly anyone in music’s idea of a “long time.” When Old Grey Whistle Test presenter “Whispering” Bob Harris described the band as a mere case of “style over substance” while they appeared on his own show, it was possible to hear in this remark the resentment of an entire genre of authentic, bluesy, pained rockers who’d served their sentence in the small time and deserved this kind of success far more than a bunch of art-school chancers with long hair and animal print shirts.
At the same time, Roxy’s entrance into the pop mainstream marked, at last, the success of Ferry’s attempt to achieve what style expert Peter York has called “the ultimate art-directed existence”—an attempt which had, by that point, been going on for almost a decade. In 1964 Ferry began studying fine art at Newcastle University, where he was famously taught by Richard Hamilton. One of the works he produced during this time was a pop art painting of a cigarette packet with a sketchily outlined pin-up girl on the front—titled, in reference to the brand of tobacco but also to the first of many surreal, glamorized, silent women who would appear in Ferry’s art, Virginia Plain. So Ferry’s almost instant transformation from girls’ school pottery teacher to camera-beloved rock star was also the much longer story of this song’s journey from fine-enough student painting to one of the great British singles. “Make me a deal” were the opening words of “Virginia Plain.” But what kind of deal? What kind of exchange, exactly, was being enacted?
In 2022, Ferry’s reputation is deeply comfortable and quietly unnerving. He’s now the kind of celebrity who gets asked by GQ about his tailoring tips or his favorite watches. Recently, I rewatched a clip of his 2010 appearance on the talk show Loose Women; he was introduced as “the frontman of the über-cool Roxy Music” before a montage of the music videos for “Let’s Stick Together,” “Love is the Drug,” and “Jealous Guy”—one of his most successful, least important songs, released as a “tribute” to John Lennon shortly after he died—and he was fawned over by a panel of middle-aged women making nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to how much they used to fancy him. It’s become semi-obligatory to use the words “suave” or “stylish” when describing Ferry in passing, while to anyone who encountered him first through Roxy Music’s 1970s output, or who is even passingly familiar with this work, the frequency with which he gets labeled seemingly automatically as a “lounge lizard” is somewhat disarming. Which all makes the release of his Lyrics appear somehow quite timely: not because it’s necessarily any more important than the other aging-musician lyrics books released almost solely to fill the shelves of a certain generation of nostalgic music fan—in recent years, Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, Kate Bush, and Billy Bragg—but because if there is a side to him that needs rehabilitation, it’s Bryan Ferry the lyricist, as opposed to Bryan Ferry the style icon, Bryan Ferry the romantic crooner, or Bryan Ferry who did “Jealous Guy” that time.
In general, it’s never been that easy to know what Bryan Ferry is thinking. He has admitted to being shy and uncomfortable with press coverage, and virtually every interviewer reports how softly spoken and reticent he can be. Is this simply his manner, honed to bland perfection through decades of dealing with the music press’s mirror-cold glare? Or something else, something more specific? At times, expressing his actual opinion has caused him trouble: he’s been criticized for supporting his pro-fox hunting activist son, Otis, and in 2007 he had to apologize after describing the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speer as “really beautiful.” Perhaps since then he has simply learned his lesson from the likes of Morrissey or Van Morrison and has wisely kept quiet to avoid becoming just a canceled guy. I’d hoped, though, that the self-penned foreword to his Lyrics might finally offer something genuinely revealing; that, with the time and space to craft his response carefully, this undeniably thoughtful and articulate man might give us some new fact or left-field take on his own work.
Sadly, I’m disappointed. Ferry’s commentary takes up a mere four-and-a-half pages, and that’s allowing for the quite generous font size and spacing. He opens by quoting Charlie Parker, “music speaks louder than words,” which seems a curiously telling way to open a book of lyrics, signaling the pointlessness of the whole enterprise by noting that lyrics merely read, rather than heard, can only ever be half understood. When discussing the lyrics themselves, he more or less defers to a disappointingly therapeutic view of songwriting which regards it as a subspecies of autobiography. We get wisdom like “the right words mixed together with the right music can be a strong medicine,” or “the low points in life so often produce the most keenly felt and best-loved songs.” Of his early work with Roxy Music, Ferry writes that “the lyrics were pretty straightforward”—true enough in the sense that they were not being especially rhythmically complex, but any suggestion that they were standard or expected rock ’n’ roll fare would be completely misguided. From the debut album, the words to “Bitters End” are so odd as to be legitimately funny, though you’ll have to imagine Ferry’s deadpan Noël Coward delivery: “Give now the host his claret cup/And watch Madeira’s farewell drink/Note his reaction, acid sharp/Should make the cognoscenti think.” And “Re-make/Re-model”—an angsty, knowingly melodramatic song about failing to capitalize on a moment of opportunity, a clear early demonstration of Ferry’s defining worldview that the thrill is not only in the chase, but in the missing out—is surely the only song ever recorded with the digits of a license plate for a chorus.
As with so much British music of the 1960s and 1970s, the importance of Ferry’s time at art school can hardly be overstated, and it’s particularly interesting that Ferry should have had Richard Hamilton as a tutor. The obvious place to go looking for clear lines of influence is Hamilton’s 1956 work Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, a disorienting, ecstatic collage of postwar material dreams that is echoed not only in the poly-referential rush of “Virginia Plain”—Jane Holzer, Studebakers, picture shows down at the drive-in—but also more darkly in the later masterpiece “In Every Dream Home a Heartache.” In this song, Hamilton’s media-saturated domestic idyll and litany of plastic fantasies are reshaped by Ferry into a mid-seventies failed consumer dreamscape (“Standards of living/They’re rising daily/But home, oh sweet home/It’s only a saying”) and a creepy romance with a sex doll (“I blew up your body/but you blew my mind.”) And Hamilton’s artistic method was more or less replicated by Ferry, who so often treated a given musical format as a found object or artifact of mediatized culture, a style to be inhabited and then shrugged off. In “If There is Something” alone, he adopts at least three, transitioning, with a deliberate lack of seamlessness, from slide-guitar country music to 1950s rock ’n’ roll pastiche to violin-backed melodrama.
But for all that, the Hamilton work that perhaps best analogizes Ferry’s songwriting is Hommage à Chrysler Corp. In his foreword, Ferry writes that he is “probably best known as a writer of love songs,” and this oblique, fragmented painting of a car with a woman leaning over it, her silhouette marked only by the white space on the canvas and a trace of lipstick her only visible sign, is the blueprint for all of those: an elegy to an absent other, fetishistic and mechanical, inseparable from iconography. Ferry’s “love songs” are all about the same thing, not the barely articulable fulfillment of desire but its infinite deferral, meticulously reframed again and again in words. In “Editions of You” we find him “looking through an old picture frame/Just waiting for the perfect view,” anticipating the arrival, and inevitable disappearance, of “another fine edition of you.” Or take “Mother of Pearl,” which sees him “looking for something/I’ve always wanted/But was never mine”:
With every goddess a letdown
Every idol a bring-down
It gets you down
But the search for perfection
Your own predilection
Goes on and on and on and on . . .
Which is another reason why the framing of the book, the line about the best music being produced by the most acute emotional states, is so suspect; if these words really did come from genuine feeling, then surely we could expect some variation. Instead we get this cold fixation on various mechanical brides, the compulsive staging and re-staging of desire for someone present only as trace or outline. If the defining orthodoxy of modern songwriting has been that it must spring from—or at least create the impression of—authentic, impassioned feeling, then Ferry, pop music’s in-house theorist of deconstruction, manages to unearth a kind of pop song repressed by this insistence.
After the tour for Roxy Music’s second album, For Your Pleasure, ended in 1973, Brian Eno left the band for a career in ambient music, avant-garde conceptualism, and collaborations with U2. The standard line is that he took most of the weirdness that had made Roxy so unique with him, leaving the band to become less and less distinct from Ferry’s solo output and to end up making the kind of polished, meticulous AOR that ended up comprising Roxy’s most commercially successful and enduringly popular record, 1982’s Avalon (“immaculate background music,” as the music writer Simon Reynolds once put it). There’s a certain kind of music fan, eager to show off their educated preference for Eno’s bona fide sonic experimentalism over Ferry’s “mere” pop stylings and perfectionism, who will insist on this point, and there’s something in it—certainly, Roxy would never produce another “Ladytron” or “The Bogus Man” without Eno, and it’s hard to imagine a “Same Old Scene” or “More Than This” with him involved. Then again, watch any number of the band’s early live performances. and you could just as easily conclude that whatever Eno’s talents, his role in the band was essentially as a kind of visual hype man, someone who could be relied upon to wear the weirdest outfits onstage, adopt the most visibly alien demeanor, and theatrically manipulate a synthesizer in gold lamé gloves: Roxy’s Bez, Roxy’s Flavor Flav.
Ferry often gets painted as the insecure frontman in this subplot, jealous of the rival Brian’s own sense of showmanship and the possibility that his role when the group performed—mostly mixing the band’s sound live, giving him the ability to manipulate the music as it was being played—placed him outside of, even above, the rest of the group. (Note, for example, Ferry’s ever-so-slightly less ambitious description of Eno’s synths as “mood enhancers,” and you’ll have some idea of the potential for discord.) The tension wasn’t eased by the fact that Eno had his own novel approach to music to explore—conceptual and art-school-derived in a different way than Ferry’s, more Donald Judd than Richard Hamilton—or indeed the impression that he showed greater commitment to the lifestyle excesses of a touring rock musician than to the music itself.
The Ferry/Eno relationship often gets called a “feud,” though in truth this feels a bit strong. Neither is shy to praise the other, and they’ve reunited multiple times to work on Ferry’s solo albums. Eno’s favorite Roxy album is the one that immediately postdated him: 1973’s Stranded. Roxy in this period really nailed the tacky/decadent, cheap/expensive dialectic that seems to underlie everything that’s aged well from the 1970s; Stranded sounds like something in the back of a magazine advertising itself as being for the discerning consumer. For Your Pleasure, though, seems to have the highest reputation among Roxy fans, something probably not unrelated to the fact that it’s the most acceptable to be seen to like today. Whereas the pin-up covers of the other albums can easily come across as seedy or dated, it’s far less clear whose gaze is at work on who, and how, in For Your Pleasure’s artwork of Amanda Lear walking a panther in a PVC dress, with Ferry dressed up her chauffeur. The back cover of Lyrics is adorned with a few lines from “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the album’s centerpiece track:
In every dream home a heartache
And every step I take
Takes me further from heaven
Is there a heaven?
I’d like to think so
This strikes me as an odd choice. It’s not really a quintessential Ferry lyric (though perhaps better suited than something like “No dilettante/Filigree fancy/Beats the plastic you,” which really is something that no other lyricist on the planet could have written). More to the point, the note of dreamy hopefulness this excerpt strikes couldn’t be further from the actual meaning of the song; it’s not about a wishy-washy existentialism, but about Ferry finding himself bored by “heaven” and its suburban variations: “Penthouse perfection/But what goes on?/What to do there?” This suggests the second of Ferry’s lyrical specialisms, the way he can strip back the glamour of success—champagne and swimming pools; black tie and white lines by starlight—to reveal its blank, hollow center.
This is one of the clearer narratives of Ferry’s career, the interplay between finding exquisite pleasure in not getting what you want, to getting exactly what you think you want and finding yourself left cold by the result. Perhaps this was simply the price of success. If Roxy Music came, to some extent, out of nowhere, then the consequence was a second act that revolved around how quickly all those dreams of success, once achieved, melted away into nothing. But, of course, that’s just what it was: an act. One of the more revealing phrases, or ideas, to scan Ferry’s lyrics for is “the country.” In “Editions of You,” from For Your Pleasure, it’s where ex-playboys go to retire from romance (something that Ferry, of course, resists): “Sometimes you find a yearning for the quiet life/The country air and all its joys.” A year later, it appears in Stranded’s “Mother of Pearl” as the more refined side of the material success that the singer is so jaded with, something that’s supposed to balance out the more dissolute half of his life: “Canadian Club love/A place in the country/Everyone’s ideal” (this is how the line appears in Lyrics, which means it seemingly refers to a brand of whisky—rather than the more risqué “Canadian club-love,” which is how I’d always heard it). By the time of Country Life, it’s become the basis for an entire concept album, or at least a concept record sleeve. Here Ferry takes the name of a prim, well-heeled British lifestyle magazine and pairs it with the record’s infamous glamour-model cover art—two girls caught in the bushes, lit by some car headlights; a sex scandal at a country party. Now “the country” has become just another façade whose latent seediness Ferry delights in discovering.
There’s something going on here: having first been the boring alternative to urban hedonism (not for nothing does the cover of For Your Pleasure take place in front of a lit-up cityscape), then the very thing that lends it a veneer of respectability, the country has now itself become the site of all those thrills and pleasures. Could it be that the imaginative space of the country acts as a finely poised allegory for Ferry’s artistic development, mapping out the fraught spaces of sex, class, and age he would spend a career working through? From this perspective, Country Life marks Ferry’s early-onset late style, a subtle shift in the narrative and emotional currents that had made possible everything prior. It’s certainly Roxy’s most fun album: the soundtrack to the moment that Ferry finds himself rather enjoying his role as the debonair playboy, emerging from the drawing room with his tie askew and a crease in his shirt, rather than creating endlessly complex lyrical psychodramas as he had previously done. In this sense, Country Life was Ferry’s last great record, and the rest is only the lush, exquisite soundtrack of his decline into genuine decadence. When his son was charged with witness intimidation, robbery, and assault relating to his pro-fox-hunting protests, Ferry called it a “stitch-up . . . the poor lad just wants to live the traditional country life.”
If Ferry had grown tired enough of success to stop making music in 1982, he would have been responsible for a decade-long oeuvre more complex and influential than most musicians achieve in a lifetime, complete with its own narrative arcs of breakthrough success, brilliant but fatal mood shift, and series of records whose greatness was possibly only made more acute by the subsequent low points of Manifesto and Flesh + Blood. And Avalon would have been the perfect ending, a return to form that was also a resignation note; an ethereal deathbed hallucination, a sophisti-pop reimagining of something like Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The Roxy lineup by this point consisted only of Ferry, Manzanera, and Mackay, padded out by a long list of session players and studio engineers—the paradox being that Ferry’s increasingly totalizing control of the band’s direction resulted in music in which his personal influence was noticeably less pronounced. This produced (and “produced” really is the word) a portrait of the artist who, like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent.” Whereas every previous Roxy Music album had been recorded wholly or mostly in London, Avalon came into being between the west coasts of Ireland, New York, and the Bahamas, yet it found Ferry tapping explicitly into British mythology to analogize his own career—Avalon being the place where King Arthur was allegedly laid to rest. “Now the party’s over, I’m so tired . . . ”
Except, this wasn’t the end. In 1982, we are somewhere between one and two-fifths (depending on when you start counting) of the way through Ferry’s career in purely chronological terms, and about halfway through in terms of his output (eleven solo albums plus an EP in the years since Avalon). We are, however, more than two-thirds of the way through the Lyrics, and here we run into something of a problem. A huge amount of Ferry’s solo work consists of covers, but the book only contains his original lyrics, which means that rather than being an overdue appreciation of an unusually literate and complex songwriter, it suddenly looks like a slightly ill-fitting tribute to a chameleonic, serial cover artist. Since his first solo album, These Foolish Things, was released in 1973, Ferry has been covering songs from across the landscape of (mostly American) popular music: 1930s jazz standards, 1950s pop, a whole album’s worth of Bob Dylan. It’s also striking how, from a very early stage in his career, Ferry was a frequent reinterpreter of his own work. On Let’s Stick Together, five Roxy tracks—”Casanova,” “Sea Breezes,” “2HB,” “Chance Meeting,” and even “Re-make/Re-model”—are all given the same smoky, slowed-down treatment; and thirty-six years later, he covered a series of his earlier tracks in the style of the 1920s big-band jazz music he grew up hearing, released under the title The Jazz Age, by the “Bryan Ferry Orchestra.”
The result is that entire albums are missing from the book, and you realize by virtue of their omission that the “un-original” parts of Ferry’s solo music actually represent the best of it. His solo career sits uncannily between a Michael Bublé Christmas album and the Joni Mitchell of Both Sides Now, between queasy postmodern slickness and a smart concept sublimely executed. Ferry is the possessor of one of the most unusual, shapeshifting voices in all of music, like a perfume whose exact notes change depending on who wears it; a voice whose closest thing to a defining characteristic, at least as I hear it, is its air of almost agonized performance, how studied and rehearsed, how put on it sounds. Through it, Ferry recreates his personal canon, a selected history of twentieth-century music, and by listening to it we eventually come to understand him as a collage rockstar whose early glosses on modern art, Hollywood cinema, or love-as-mediated-by-the-love-song were always destined to find their continuation as icy, oddly timeless restylings of the once-new sounds of modernity.
It’s difficult to think of a directly comparable figure to peak-era Ferry today—but, although he’s more often compared to Mick Jagger, might it be plausible to nominate Harry Styles? The outsize importance of “style” in both creative output and public image; the maintenance of a devoted younger fanbase as well as the admiration, however grudging, of critics; a journey from regional English upbringing to international accentless stardom; there are enough parallels. In 2019, Styles appeared in an advert for a Gucci perfume with the name “Mémoire d’une Odeur,” a one-minute blur of evocative sunlight and sly hints of hedonism, expensively curated to within an inch of its life, whose soundtrack was . . . Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache.”
If this feels like a tragic betrayal of the genuinely subversive eeriness of the music itself, then it also feels somehow on the money, both as a reflection of Ferry’s slow act of union with his own image, and as a microcosm of the gap between now and the chance meeting between retro Hollywood glamour and postwar British invention that happened to produce him. In our shinily commercialized, individually art-directed lives today, his body of work has taken on the quality of a relic; a rediscovered stereoscope, showing us a world, both as a cautionary tale and a reminder of what we’ve lost, when style, on its own, was enough.