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.
Those lines are from Simon Frith’s review of Roxy Music’s “Siren,” which appeared in the January 1, 1976 edition of Rolling Stone. The first time I read those words, I was an impressionable 15 year old, who wanted nothing more than to be on the vanguard of what was considered “cool” music. I had no idea who Simon Frith was; as it turned out, he was one of the best critics from what I still consider to be the golden age of rock criticism. At the time, my favorite singer was Elton John, which may sound silly to some – but 36 years later, I’d still argue that few artists have released two albums in the same year as good as “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “Rock of the Westies.” But even with that, he was hardly the vanguard.
The review made it sound great, but in those days I was a teenager of limited means, so I didn’t buy it. Among other things, I would have had to ask my dad to drive me to the record store, and if he’d gotten a look at the album cover (featuring a very young Jerry Hall as the “Siren” in the title), it’s just as likely that the record would have gone right back in the shelves.
A couple of months later, I remember laying in my bed on a Sunday morning, listening to “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem. The countdown had reached #28 or so, and all of a sudden, this really weird but very cool song came on…turned out, it was called “Love is the Drug,” and sure enough, it was by Roxy Music, off of “Siren.” And at that point I knew – eventually, I would own that album.
In the spring of 1982, Roxy Music released what would turn out to be its last album. And by that time, it was clear that there were really two phases in the band’s career. The first began with the debut in 1972, and ended with the release of “Siren” in 1975. The second began in 1979, with the release of “Manifesto.” And while this second phase may not have been as adventurous, it was no less brilliant. Ferry had perfected his approach, and with “Manifesto,” “Flesh + Blood,” and especially with “Avalon,” had become the work of art he always wanted to be.
“Avalon” is a perfect album, from start to finish. It establishes a sound and a tone from the first song, “More Than This,” and manages to sustain it through the last, “Tara.” Like all the greatest albums, each song gains something from the ones that come before and after it, so that the work becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. And of those great parts, none was greater than “True to Life.” I can remember the first time I truly appreciated the song, listening to it in my dorm room shortly after I’d finished my last final before graduation. At that time I had no idea what my life would become, but listening to that song, all I cared about was that it would wash over me.
Bryan Ferry’s new album, “Olympia,” begins with a few bars – almost identical – from “True to Life” before it segues into a much harder edged song, “You Can Dance.” Apparently, Ferry considered making this a Roxy Music album, but even though he didn’t, for all intents and purposes, it is the Roxy Music album that fans have been waiting for, for almost 30 years now. It’s not as if Ferry disappeared during those years – making albums every now and then, including one I enjoyed a great deal which consisted of nothing more than Dylan covers – but this is the first time that he’s really tried to recapture the scope and the depth of those Roxy years.
And amazingly enough, he’s succeeded. Only time will tell if this stands up to “Siren” or “Avalon,” but I think it’s got a shot. It’s got all of the elements of a classic Roxy Music album, and it’s even got many of the old hands – Phil Manzanera on guitar, Andy MacKay on saxophone, Andy Newmark (Roxy Phase II) on drums…and even Brian Eno on a few tracks, for crying out loud. It’s got at least one song (“Reason or Rhyme”) that sounds like it will stand up with the best that the band has had to offer, and it’s got another (Jeff Buckley” “Song to the Siren”) that stands as one of the best in a long history of great cover versions that Ferry has managed to pull off.
And now, Ferry is back on the road, at age 65, on the first Roxy Music tour in many a year – one that even has the great Paul Thompson back on drums. And that, my friends, is a good, even great, thing. And I hope they play a lot of the new album on the tour, because even if it isn’t a Roxy Music album in name, it is most definitely one in spirit.