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."
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.
"Obviously, 'It's My Party' was done as something of a tease," he concedes, "but generally, I've always picked songs that I've really just loved. And as much as I've tried to love my own writing, I think it's been very important for me over the years to love other people's writing as well -- and usually they've been songs from an earlier time. You think, 'It would be nice to hear that song done again, wouldn't it?'" He adds that his decision to sing Foolish's title track, penned in 1936 by Holt Marvell, Jack Strachey and Harry Link, and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," a 1933 Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern effort that Ferry incorporated on his second all-covers project, 1974's Another Time, Another Place, helped inspire As Time Goes By: "I remember thinking it would be marvelous to do an album just of this material -- although it took me a long time to get around to doing it."
In the interim, Ferry and a revamped Roxy Music, with Eddie Jobson of Curved Air filling Eno's slot, returned with several first-rate albums: 1974's Stranded and Country Life, and 1975's Siren, whose jacket sported a mermaid as portrayed by model Jerry Hall. (Hall was going out with Ferry at the time, but to the probable glee of her accountants, she soon tossed him over for Mick Jagger.) Jobson left the fold in 1978, but his departure didn't hurt the band financially in the U.S., where audiences were finally catching up with the group; "Love Is the Drug," from Siren, had been its first-ever American Top 40 single. Manifesto, from 1978, and 1980's Flesh+Blood were big sellers in the States, and 1982's smoothly romantic Avalon went platinum, eventually establishing itself as arguably the premier makeout LP of the decade. Ferry continued to build up his solo roster as well, putting out 1976's cover-happy Let's Stick Together, the all-original 1977 salvo In Your Mind and 1978's ambitious The Bride Stripped Bare. After Roxy Music's post-Avalon breakup, he kept doing it for himself and was rewarded with the gold sales of 1985's Boys and Girls, which featured the seductive "Slave to Love," and the success of 1988's Bête Noire, whose track "Kiss and Tell" made the Top 40 as well. But rather than quickly following up on this breakthrough, Ferry let five years go by before offering up 1993's Taxi, perhaps the weakest of his all-covers discs. Mamouna was only moderately better; the production was as sleek as Bête Noire's, but the originals Ferry wrote for it were all pose and little substance.
And then? Not quite silence, but close. Ferry issued a few random tracks, contributing one song to the soundtrack of the John Travolta flick Phenomenon, putting his stamp on a Shakespeare sonnet for the Diana: The Princess of Wales Tribute package and singing Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again" at a charity concert commemorated on the live compilation 20th Century Blues: The Songs of Noel Coward. But for the most part, he says, he's been concentrating on an album of his own material that, as usual, is taking him far longer to complete than he'd prefer. "I'd love to think I'd have it out next fall, perhaps next October. But in the meantime, I thought it might be pleasurable to try something a little different."
Hence, As Time Goes By, Ferry's first all-acoustic album. With the assistance of sizable brass and string sections and a slew of tony instrumentalists such as bassist Richard Jeffries, Ferry employs his keening tenor and swoony vibrato against a backdrop of arrangements that are surprisingly true to this dance-friendly era: Witness "Easy Living," a Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger chestnut that Ferry doesn't enter until after more than a minute of swinging introductory playing even though the song as a whole is just over two minutes long. Equally enjoyable are an exotica-drenched "I'm in the Mood for Love," co-starring guitarist Manzanera; a woozy "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful"; and the delicately melodramatic "Falling in Love Again," which, like most of the songs here, is associated with a woman singer (in this case, Marlene Dietrich), not a man.
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"I really don't have any male role models from the period that I can think of, so that frees me up to find my own way of singing the songs," Ferry says. "And I try to do the same with the songwriters, perhaps using a slightly different persona than might be expected -- like with Cole Porter, who I admire very much but whose songs I'd never done before, funnily enough. Generally his work is rather upbeat, witchy and elegant. But it was nice to do 'Miss Otis Regrets' [also on As Time Goes By] in a very dark and somber way. That way, I was able to bring a little of my own thing to it."
As agreeable as it can be, however, As Time Goes By is more of a curio than a full-fledged Ferry album, and if the fifty-fifty split on his current tour between songs from the new recording and favorites from his solo and Roxy Music albums is any indication, he knows it. But he's not looking back under duress. Over the past several months, his entire catalogue has been remastered by Bob Ludwig for release in Japan, and by participating in the process, Ferry says he was reminded how memorable a lot of his past work was. "The one I suppose that grabbed me the most was For Your Pleasure. I've always liked that record, but it was great to hear it sound so rich and warm again." He adds, "We're doing several of the early songs I rediscovered live -- like 'Sunset,' from the third album, which I don't think has ever been performed before. A lot of the Roxy stuff was only done on the record, never on stage. But now I have these great musicians with me who can play anything, really, so it's a real treat for me."
Such comments tend to rev up the Roxy reunion crowd, as does word that among the celebrities helping Ferry with his new songs (a list that includes Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood and the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart) is Brian Eno. No doubt loyalists will be thrilled to hear that the singer doesn't dismiss prospects for such a get-together out of hand. "I think it's great that there's so much interest in something like that," he says, "and one day it would be nice to get some of the original members back to do a Roxy concert somewhere. I think that would be a good idea."
Meanwhile, it's back to the bus and another long haul to the next tour stop. But if Ferry's enthusiasm for the jaunt is waning, he's not letting on. "If it's a good song, it can be done in many different ways, which has certainly been proven to be the case with the songs from the Thirties -- with many people doing them at the time, and then people from bebop and so on," he says. "And I'm quite fortunate to be doing them as well."