Bryan Ferry At Home - Sat 1st Jun
Bryan Ferry At Home
03 January 1991
I'm not a snob..." Bryan Ferry maintained his gaze on the television screen, where helmeted giants were bouncing off each other like nine pins, "I mean, some of my best friends are musicians, But I think my mind is more in art or something ...
It is a Sunday night in west London, and Bryan Ferry is musing on the role of pop star as artist. This being Sunday, it means the musing
takes place to the silently flickering accompaniment of televised American football - a game which Ferry follows avidly "The work of Jasper John or Richard Hamilton - I feel a great kinship with those people," he continues, replenishing his glass with red wine. "Maybe that sounds pretentious, because people always think that music is a kind of low-class thing, a lesser art, I don't know why. It can be, I suppose, although there are some awful painters around as well. Maybe it 5 because music is on popular radio, the taint of commerce, or something.."
We were sitting in what Ferry refers to as his office, but which is more an apartmentcum-studio, carved out of a converted dairy in west London. Ferry has spent the last few months here, every day (except weekends), writing songs, composing music for his forthcoming album. He works very slowly: fastidiously, painstakingly, agonisingly slowly - a pace which infliriates his friends and colleagues, taxes the patience of his record company, and racks up an alarming number of zeros on his recording budgets.
His last album, Bete Noire, was recorded on a schedule which rambled across four countries, deploying dozens of musicians and countless man-hours. It went astronomically over budget. The new project, to be called Horoscope, has been effected more modestly, written in "the office", and recorded at a studio a short walk away.
Ferry's office would be a nice place to work:
it is comfortably flinctional, The white walls are hung with cover art from early Roxy Music albums, there is an Alessi kettle on the hob, an exercise bicycle, sofas, a king-size Sony TV, design magazines are stacked on tables and an enormous wicker basket, of the kind used by theatrical companies to store costumes, stands in one corner; it once belonged to the surrealist Edward James.
Such an inventory of effects seems almost obligatory when writing about Bryan Ferry. In fact, looking back over the press-cuttings of the past two decades, his career can be read on one level, like a chronology of domestic interiors and appurtenances.
1976 - Chelsea flat: large studio sofa; metallic art deco ashtray on a metallic stand:
1982 - Chelsea pied ~ terre: French marble chimney piece; English mahogany desk; piles of hardbacks by William Golding, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh; Victorian paintings on the wall, radio tuned to Radio Three:
1985 - Country house in Sussex: gardens by Clough Williams-Ellis, architect of Port Meirion; arts and crafts flirniture; art deco ornaments, paintings by the Bloomsbury group. Radio still tuned to Radio Three.
All of this is interesting, of course, not only because it reflects Ferry's style and taste -which are, after all, very much part of his business - but also because it seems to some implicit index of the social possibilities of pop music success; Bryan the working-class lad, up there with the toffs and the intellectuals. It intimates a particularly English set of assumptions and prejudices.
The metaphor of rock performer and visual artist is easily pursued, the recording studio as canvas; the sounds and instruments as paints. This is how Ferry describes his own work, building up his tracks layer by layer to a meticulous finish. But it is tempting to see Ferry's most adroit artistic achievement as the recreation of himself All that was required was for him to put on a white tuxedo, and blow cigarette smoke into an arthil halo to be sanctified as the patron saint of sauve sophistication; the high priest of urbanity All that was required was to go shooting in Scotland and put his son down for Eton. The media have done the rest.
Ferry, proclaimed a profile in the Observer, in 1982, is "the first rock star to join the English aristocracy". It was an odd claim to make as if you "joined" the aristocracy in the same way you joined the Boy Scouts or the Tory party; nor, on any level, is it true.
"People want him to be a sophisticated snob," says one of Ferry's friends, the fashion designer Antony Price. "They want him to be a poseur. In fact, he's an educated, very charming, old-style gentleman with plenty ot money and taste."
A flicker of weariness passes across Ferry's eyes when he considers all this social controversy "I hate this class thing in England, don't you? It kills so much; it's so bad. I believe people should be judged for what they do, not where they're from. What I want is to be Bryan Ferry, who is a unique thing in this world for 50 years or whatever. I'm not going to be lumbered, as society was ready to do, as a son of the working class, born to do what my father did. No way! I have dreams. My imagination took me beyond that, so whenever people try to knock me back to that.. I'm so far removed from where I was born it's ridiculous. But I don't think it's a false position to be in, you see?
"I've worked on a building site and in a factory. So if people ever accuse me of being spoilt I can say hey - shut up! I have a grounding in life; I know all about working-class stuff; I've been there. And people might say, come on Bryan, bonny lad - back you go. But no, to me, you can become whatever you want to be; do not allow anybody drag you down."
There are few things about which Ferry becomes agitated in the course of conversation, but the class system is one of them.
Ferry is not comfortable under scrutiny. His conversation is marked by a particularly English sort of diffidence. Pointed questions are greeted with a quizzical glance; a moment's reflection, then deflected with a shrug. "I'm not sure.." He seems at his most eloquent, and most at ease, talking about his family, and his days as a student.
"Bryan is extremely proud of his background, and extremely attached to his past," says Simon Puxley, Roxy Music's first publicist - who was effectively the sixth member of the group - and he has been a close friend and confidant of Ferry ever since.
When you ask Bryan Ferry who his closest friends are, he names Puxley, Anthony Price, LordJohn Somerset (who works as his assistant producer), Neil Hubbard and Andy Newmark - musicians he has worked with for the past ten years; and the handfiil of friends from his days as an art student at Newcastle University. Most university friendships have evaporated by the age of 45, but Ferry makes a point of keeping in touch, turning up at his friends' shows.
Ferry grew up in the mining community of Washington, County Durham. "A lovely place", he says, "tranquil, and then it was developed and completely spoilt I remember going to visit my parents years after I'd left home, and couldn't find my way to their house; I came off the motorway and there were signs to Sector B - it was like Brave New World. There were no corner shops. People like my parents, pensioners who didn't have cars, would have to wait hours for a bus to be taken to a shopping mall. It was so sad, I brought them down to live with me straight after that"
His father Fred was a countryman
- he won medals for ploughing with horses - but when the farm he was working on failed, he took work in the mines, looking after the pit-ponies. "He was much liked; very special; very quiet. He was a Thomas Hardy figure; he'd courted my mother on a plough horse, wearing spats and a bowler hat and a sprig of lavender in his packet lapel. He courted her for ten years before she finally agreed to marry him. I loved him more than anybody, really."
Ferry was prone to enthusiasm: racing-bikes, mountain-climbing, then jazz and painting. From grammar school, he gained a scholarship to study art at Newcastle University. "My parents' attitude was 'What are
you studying that for? There's no fliture in art ,' It was the same when I was about to graduate and decided to go into music instead. They couldn't understand it at all. Nothing in their background had prepared them for that. We weren't the sort of family to have intellectual discussions, but I think that helped me an awfial lot, because it gave me a real earthing... it made me want to go way beyond that into something really weird. So surrealism, Dada, Jack Kerouac... it was all waiting for me. Anything Bohemian or different from that attitude of'We have no money, but were honest people ...' After that, everything was exciting."
Ferry arrived at Newcastle in 1964. His foundation year tutor, Richard Hamilton, already had a reputation as one of Britain's leading pop artists. Hamilton's ideas were to be a formative influence not only on Ferry, but on the generation of young painters who were his contemporaries - Mark Lancaster, Stephen Buckley, Tim Head.
"If you ask me whether Bryan was a great painter I would have to say no", says Hamilton. "I always thought his interest in music was always greater than in painting. Newcastle had a great social life and he was always the life and soul of the party. So in a sense I was more conscious of him in a social way than as an assiduous artist.
"His painting suffered as a result of his music, but then general development had become one of the flinctions of the art school by then - exploring an individual way of life. We were very conscious of style at Newcastle, and Bryan was a great exponent of style - he had a very good understanding of what were the current social mannerisms."
Newcastle was spared the more extreme manifestations - and idiocies – of psychedelia, in both fashion and music. The mod/stylist school remained resolutely supreme; the mentholated cocktail of preppy hutton-downs and mohair; Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye - the heartfelt, crying voices. Ferry sang in a soul ~and, and shopped around. "Fourteen inch suit-vents?" I ask - the south London style. "No, no!" The recollection for detail. "It was three inches in Newcastle; three-button jackets, narrow lapel ... And tab-collar shirts, kind of like William Burroughs wore ..." He chuckles: "It's important, stuff like that It's like the trainers thing now - the size of the tongue. And fashion - high fashion -is just a super-deluxe extension of that. I go to shows now, from time to time. To me, it's great seeing anybody at the pinnacle of a certain area of activity; seeing a St Laurent show, it's the equivalent of watching Mike Tyson box, or Bruce Springsteen play a stadium show - the state of the art. You should always look for the best, then through your life pick out the areas that interest you; is it Michael Jackson or Billie Holiday?"
"Bryan was always very much a mover and shaker - but in a quiet way," remembers friend and contemporary Tim Head. "He had a sort of cool flamboyance." Head recalls one occasion when Ferry put on a show of his paintings at a small gallery in the University of Durham; the poster showed Ferry leaning casually against the old, rusting Studebaker car he owned, photographed in the back streets of Newcastle, made to look as if it were the halcyon climes of Southern California.
"I always liked convention kickers," says Ferry, making it sound like an exotic brand of shoe. "I liked the Beat Poets, loved Jack Kerouac. A friend gave my son a belated Christening present, a first edition of On The Road, which I've been reading. And it stands up, it's still great. Francis Bacon, Duchamp, Matisse ... And I always had a dream ofhaving a loft in New York, like Jackson Pollock..." The most commonly used word among Hamilton's students - and one which frequently infiltrates Ferry's conversation 25 years on - was "cool": cool as in detached, laconic, knowing. "What I was trying to instill was the principle that anything you did in the way of art you should think about," says Hamilton, "which was going against the trend of that time, which was very much towards the art from-the-gut style of abstract expressionism. I took the opposite view - that you had to think about things, like Duchamp
"So maybe what Bryan got out of that was the idea of the inventiveness of modern art, from Duchamp to Picasso, which gave him a mind of his own about art."
"Newcastle opened up a whole world for us," says Tim Head, "and you could see Bryan just absorbing all of that, taking from that and feeding it directly into Roxy - that impetus to do something crazy or different and create a visual style; it was all very tongue-in-cheek"
After graduating, Ferry came to London, and mooched around a variety of odd jobs: he worked as a van driver, an antique restorer and taught ceramics at a girl's school in west London - less than a hundred yards away from where he now has his office - biding his time, mulling over what he had learned. Roxy Music emerged in the summer of 1972, a concept torn from the pages of the pop art handbook Grown-up rock music was in a state of apathy, still absorbed in clinging on to the residual, and woolly, sense of community that had prevailed in the Sixties (Roxy's first performance was at a rock festival in Lincoln). Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd were among the bestselling album acts of the year; David Cassidy, Donny Osmond and Gilbert O'Sullivan among the best selling singles artists.
In such a climate. Roxy were a gust of irreverent, idiosyncratic, existentialist fresh air The Lurex and fake-leopard skin outfits, the grotesque quifis and space suits, the honking sax, banshee electronic squeaks, and Ferry's tremulous vocal mannerisms were all a collage of cuttings from glamour mags, record collections, rock music's must beloved traditions. Along with David Bowie (whose transformation into Ziggy Stardust coincided with the first Roxy album), their influence was enormous. Roxy prefigured not simply a sartorial, or even a musical style, but an attitude: it was not only groups like Japan who owed it all to Roxy; so too did the coming generation of smart, pop ironists - ABC, Heaven 17 and the Pet Shop Boys with their knowing winks and nods to post-modern theories of romance and success - the power of implied meaning. "What was interesting to me," says Ferry, "was doing something hot and very emotional while coming from somewhere cool; this combination of parts of it being very thought out, and parts of it very felt; on the one hand a very white sensibility and on the other a very black one. To me, it made something extremely interesting, but it was something that a lot of people never got ... like it was too contrived or something."
What everyone agrees on is that Ferry always knew exactly what he' was doing. "I think Bryan was prepared for success," says Puxley. "And he always had a more objective view of it He had the distinct advantage in that he hadn't been a musician. He'd spent several years getting educated. So if there was any area in which he was uncertain it was in music and musical technique itself, not in how to conduct himself. But in every other area he was much more assured than a professional
In Every Dream Home: Ferry and his wife, Lucy, spend most of their weekends away from London at their Edwardian house in the Sussex countryside replete with Bloomsbury group paintings.