Not Bryan's Songs

Roxy Music veteran Bryan Ferry sets the way-back machine for the 1930s.

As career moves go, Bryan Ferry's new disc is as quizzical as they come. After all, 1994's Mamouna, his last album, didn't set sales charts aflame, and in the five years since then, his extremely limited public activity has allowed the ardor of even his most fanatical boosters to cool. So what does he do to fire them up again? He releases As Time Goes By, a CD featuring fifteen ditties popularized sixty or more years ago.

This concept is hardly calculated to set the pulses of MTV-generation consumers racing, but Ferry is solidly committed to it -- so much so that this 54-year-old Englishman, who delights in spending his days leisurely creating art and music in his London studio, is uncomplainingly suffering the indignity of traveling by bus across the vastness of the colonies in order to share with the peasantry a little slice of their own euphonious heritage. "It would be very nice for me to feel I was introducing an audience to this material rather than them hearing it in elevators or Muzak or something," he says, his cultured, erudite speaking voice competing for attention with the not-quite-gentle purr of his conveyance's engine. "That is always the sad fate of a standard -- that it will be heard in many bad versions."

On As Time Goes By, Ferry doesn't contribute to this inglorious legacy; his renditions of compositions from the sophisticated side of the Thirties are often inspired and never less than interesting, in part because of the constant tension between esteem and irony in his presentations. He goes out of his way to speak about his fondness for the tunes from this period: "There's a wonderful flair about the lyrics, especially -- and as a singer, you tend to look for great tunes and great words. And they're all there in these songs." But at the same time, he enjoys leaving an audience wondering how much of a given performance is absolute sincerity and how much is cool camp. Laughing, he says, "I'm always for being subversive."

Ferry at your mercy: Bryan Ferry.
Ferry at your mercy: Bryan Ferry.

That's as good a description of Ferry's appeal as any. The son of a coal miner, he grew up in working-class neighborhoods where right was right, wrong was wrong, and never the twain shall meet. But as he came of age, he found himself drawn to the wonderful ambiguity of the music being made across the pond. "I was brought up, you see -- or I brought myself up, I suppose -- listening to jazz," he says. "From my early teens, I was listening to it and going to see jazz artists from America who came to tour in England, like Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie and the Modern Jazz Quartet. And Billie Holiday has always been my idol as far as singers go. To me, she wrote the book on singing."

Visuals were just as important to Ferry as sounds, and he developed his approach to these different mediums in tandem: While attending the University of Newcastle, he studied with Richard Hamilton, a notable pop-art figure, even as he fronted first a rock band, the Banshees, and then an R&B/soul outfit, the Gas Board. While with the latter group, he formed a friendship with bassist Graham Simpson, and in 1971, the pair began assembling the act that became Roxy Music. Lineup changes were frequent (Simpson left after a few months), but by the next year, the band had solidified around oddball synthesist/art sprite Brian Eno, mellifluous guitarist Phil Manzanera, quirky saxophonist Andy Mackay, inventive drummer Paul Thompson and Ferry, who came across as a twisted, frequently tuxedoed lounge crooner caught in a tug-of-war between the past and the future. The result was a strange yet compelling combination with a theatrical edge, a clever merger of art rock and glam that was epitomized by the simultaneously erotic and disturbing drag queen who graced the cover of the band's debut, 1972's Roxy Music. Like him/her, Roxy songs like "Virginia Plain" seemed to show everything but always kept a few secrets to themselves.

For Your Pleasure, from 1973, was an even bolder statement from the band, with Ferry's increasing confidence showcased throughout "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," an almost straight-faced tale of love between a man and an inflatable love doll. But afterward, Eno left for what has turned out to be a fascinating quarter-century as a headlining performer, producer and freelance genius, leaving Ferry in a quandary as to what he should do next. In the end, he chose to cut These Foolish Things, the first of several solo projects dominated by cover songs -- a tradition continued by his new album. Things, though, is clearly the oddest of these platters, juxtaposing a nutball version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (highlighted by boo-hooing background vocalists) with a rendition of the Lesley Gore hit "It's My Party" in which Ferry purposefully neglects to alter the lyrics, thereby giving his droll delivery of lines such as "Nobody knows where my Johnny has gone" a delightfully gender-bending spin. Reviewers at the time were evenly split over whether Ferry was paying tribute to the songs or making fun of them, and he's been dealing with the issue ever since.

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