Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music
By Michael Bracewell
Paperback, 320 pages
List Price: $17.95
From Chapter One
Bryan Ferry, born 26 September 1945 to Frederick, a mineworker and former farmhand, and Mary Ann, a factory worker, in Washington, County Durham. He has an older sister, Ann, and a younger, Enid. Bryan attends the Glebe Infants School in Washington, and in September 1957 goes to Washington Grammar School.
First, a temple in the Greek style. The sense is one of abandonment. On a cold, steep hill of wind-toughened grass, eighteen sandstone pillars (Doric, broad to the verge of squat), blackened with age, weather and soot, support the entablatures and twin pediments — there is no roof — of a mid-Victorian copy, half sized, of the Theseum of Athens. Approached on foot, its immensity drawing nearer, the heroic ideal of the place falls away. Grandeur gives way to mere enormity, statement to silence, substance to emptiness. Sometimes known as the Penshaw Monument, this solid memorial to John George Lambton MP, first earl of Durham, landowner and mine owner, was designed, like stage scenery, to be appreciated from a distance.
Dominating the summit of Penshaw Hill near Houghton le Spring, slightly to the south and west of Newcastle upon Tyne, the foreboding pillars of Lambton's memorial are visible and impressive for miles around — visible from west Durham and north Tyneside, and from as far south as the Stang Forest in Teesdale. The gravitas of classical architecture, its language of straight lines, makes eloquent its superiority; the pillars and pediments add the tone of their imperial style, like the chime of a somber bell. Incongruous within the sparse surrounding countryside, aloof, remote, the Penshaw Monument surveys from one side what once were mines. Stand within it and study the view: you will see a flat landscape stretching away towards the North Sea; to the west, there are the hills of Durham; and further north, towards the River Tyne, the suburbs of Washington — once a village, now a small town.
And so the imperial looks down on the post-industrial; and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, looking back up, was Bryan Ferry, then a boy. Absorbing the rhetoric of this chilly hommage to classical architecture (designed by the brothers Green of Newcastle, and built in 1844), a child of England's austerity years looked up to the Empire style, entranced.
Bryan Ferry: "When my parents were first married they lived in a farmhouse; and there was a hill nearby called Penshaw Hill. On top of the hill was a local landmark — a Greek monument built for the first earl of Durham. This was where my father was brought up; and his family had farmed on the sides of the hill. Years later, when I showed this place to Antony Price, he said, 'Now I know why you're so interested in visual things: it's because of that monument.'
"And it seemed to me like a symbol — representing art, and another life, away from the coalfields and the hard north-eastern environment; it seemed to represent something from another civilisation, that was much finer ..."
We first glimpse Ferry as a child; somewhat reserved, of promising imagination, conscious of a finer world, but taking his place in the raw and shabby landscape of the Peace: the grid of local streets between farmland and coalmines; fog on the allotments, a few shops and cinemas — the Washington Carlton, Regal and Ritz. It is a region which despite its proximity to Newcastle and the sea can seem desolate and remote; a landscape that would enter industrial decline even as Bryan was growing up, to be unkindly described in the 1960s as "the Rust Belt," stilled beneath an immensity of sky.
At the beginning of the 1950s, some rows of new properties were built in Washington, one of which the Ferrys would subsequently occupy (on Gainsborough Avenue: a broad road of low, semi-detached houses, some gabled, ascending a gentle hill, suburban, almost, in aspect, with grass verges on the street corners). Ferry was aware of both inhabiting and being a product of a space between opposing qualities: between the industrial and the pastoral; community and isolation; the modern and the traditional. And aware moreover of being the son of parents who embodied these differences: a shy, retiring father (although a good boxer, on occasion), who loved animals and the countryside, and a vivacious, strikingly attractive mother, more urban, who had worked in a factory and enjoyed conversation and company.
At the infants' school, Ferry showed some evidence of having imaginative gifts — an access to his inner world. He was drawn by temperament to the arts – writing and drawing; he enjoyed football. Aged eleven, he went to the local grammar school. His boyhood and early adolescence would then unfold to be dominated by a particular interest in jazz music, cinema, and, after some initial hesitation, early rock and roll releases in their original American form, rather than British beat boom interpretations. In his early love of film and popular music, Ferry was specifically drawn to the transformative magic commanded by glamour, and to the agency of glamour in personal style. He would also recognise the talismanic energy, itself a vital aspect of glamour, of musical instruments themselves.
Ferry was discerning, by way of his favourite things, the ways in which glamour comprised a rare concentration of character and activity: fluid, exuberant, deft, indelible within the memory once seen, addictive, joyous — above all conveyed with no apparent effort. The coolly aristocratic qualities of the Greek style, transposed to the iconography of modern mass age. Meanwhile, if we could look into the depths of Bryan Ferry's eyes — when he was, say, fourteen years old — what might they have seen?
Bryan Ferry: "My childhood took place in Washington, which at the time was a small pit village in County Durham. It stands about five miles from Sunderland, and five miles from Newcastle, and a few miles from Durham as well — so it's in the triangle between those three cities. It was a typical pit village, in as much as there was a small pocket of quite heavy industry surrounded by very rich farmland; and then there'd be another village which had its own pit, and maybe a factory — and then more farmland. So it was quite strange, with the combination of being close to the countryside yet in this very tough working environment as well.
"My parents were from both places in a sense. My father was born on a farm about two miles away from where my mother lived, and he used to come and see her on one of his carthorses — they courted every night for about ten years. I remember her saying she was embarrassed, when he came along on this farm horse; he was wearing a bowler hat and spats — something from another age, really. Whereas I guess she was more used to motorbikes, and she worked in a factory.
"She had had a very hard life, my mother — they both had. But I got the impression that my dad had enjoyed being in a country environment. Even though they were only two miles from each other, they had had completely different childhoods. Both were from very big families — they both had seven or eight brothers and sisters; and both were very poor in their own way.
"My dad's stories were about chopping the ice in the mornings so they could wash in a big wooden tub outside the cottage; and of getting up at five o'clock to milk the cows before going to school. He didn't really like school, and was always running away – chased by the teachers. All sorts of stories ... They created their own entertainment; they played football with a ball made out of a pig's bladder . . .
"In the 1930s, when the great depression came, the farm that my father worked on went broke — there was no money. Not that they'd ever had any, but they couldn't exist really. So he went and worked in Washington, in the town – just a mile or so from where he was born, but down the pit, looking after the horses. That was all he really knew — looking after the ponies that lived underground. So for him it was quite hard. Someone who loved the outdoors to be working underground. I always felt very sorry for him. He did that until he retired — until the pit closed down. All through my childhood he was there ...
"And so it was a very strange, Thomas Hardy-type existence that my father had had; while she, my mother, was from the town. I guess they were attracted by their opposites. My mother was very vivacious, and full of life — very sociable; she liked to talk and to meet people. Whereas he was very quiet, very thoughtful, and didn't really care about what was going on in the world much. He just smoked his pipe – and he liked racing pigeons. He kept hens, and had a vegetable garden; he used to win prizes for his vegetables; and he used to win prizes for his ploughing — with a team of horses. That was his thing; he was a ploughman really ..."
With regard to his early education and formative influences, Ferry would be constantly studying and absorbing the world as he found it, as well as filtering those impressions through both his own imaginative world and the worlds of music and cinema. What emerges is the picture of a boy entirely focused on the processes of perception and a kind of analytical refinement — coupled with the fondness of his generation for the burgeoning new delights of popular culture.
Bryan Ferry: "I think the first person who found that I had any talent was Miss Swaddle. That was before, even, I went to grammar school. She took a real shine to me. She was the teacher in my final year at infants' school, and I wrote a couple of essays which astounded her, I think. I remember her taking me to one side — it was quite hard for her to concentrate on anybody, because there were fifty people in her class. I think that I was top of the class. She said, 'Where did you get this from?' — and it was just a story, but quite tragic, or heartfelt; I think it was quite moving. And so she thought that I had real talent as a writer. I didn't really feel that again until sixth form, at some point, studying art and thinking: I can be an artist myself. I had a depth of feeling; it was a case of where to channel it ...
"When I was a boy, I had a paper round, and so I used to read Melody Maker before I put it through someone's letterbox. I dragged my uncle Bryan off to see the Chris Barber Band at Newcastle City Hall; and then, when I got a little braver, I started to go into town on the bus to see concerts on my own. I would be dressed in a white trench coat — at the age of twelve. I would probably have seen the adverts for Strand cigarettes; I was very interested in style.
"My sisters and I would sit in the cinema and watch any old rubbish. I started going to the pictures early on — even when I was at junior school. My dad had an allotment where he grew his vegetables, and that was right next door to the cinema — the Carlton. It was a local fleapit really; but it was my Cinema Paradiso from a very early age, because my mother used to make tea for the projectionist — cakes and scones and sandwiches. So he got these free teas, and we got free tickets. There werewooden benches that you sat on ... I saw Gone With the Wind there and all sorts.
"Of course, when you got old enough to have a girlfriend, or to go on a date, the only thing you did was take her to the pictures — that was your date. But that was in the High Street of Washington, where there were two cinemas — which were bigger, and had proper velveteen seats rather than benches. One was called the Regal, and the other the Ritz. None of them are there now. I liked science fiction films ...
"When I went to university I would go to the cinema club, which is where I became aware of cinema classics and film-as-art — all that kind of thing. Up until then it was film-as-entertainment. That was all you did — you didn't have television. We got one in 1955 when Newcastle were in the Cup, but so did everyone in Newcastle. We were very poor, you see — so I think it's fair to say that Roxy Music, from my point of view, would be the reverse of this background."
And of his early interest in music:
Bryan Ferry: "It's always sad when I go back to Newcastle and see that certain places don't exist any more. But it's great that one shop – which was very important for me also — is still there, in a wonderful old arcade, with extravagant tiled floors, rather like the Bond Street arcades. It's a shop called Windows, which is a family music shop and the only place you really go to buy records. The windows are full of clarinets, saxophones, electric guitars — a proper music shop, which sold everything. But just to see a trumpet in the window — a real instrument, to look at it and study it!
"I started being a jazz fan at the age of ten or eleven; and I bought my first records at Windows. You'd go in, and they had about six booths where you could listen to records. You'd go to the counter and ask for a particular release, and could you hear it please ... Then off you'd go to booth number four or whatever, which would be a little cubicle lined inside with pin-board. You didn't have headphones, there was just a little speaker, and you'd stand there listening to your record. You'd listen to it right to the end before you bought it ...
"Those first records were all 78 rpms — I've still got them. I bought the 78 by the Tony Kinsey Quintet, whom I must have heard on the radio. But then there was one, a classic record actually, by Humphrey Lyttelton, called 'Bad Penny Blues' (1956), which was produced by that person who went mad and killed himself — Joe Meek. He mainly produced pop records, but I subsequently discovered, years later, that he produced 'Bad Penny Blues' — and it did have a weird sound, all of its own. Strange."
"Bad Penny Blues" is a record of exemplary stylishness — as slick as it is unusual, its atmosphere memorable. Heard fifty years after its initial release, its vitality as fresh as ever, like many iconic records, it has a quality which jars, an oddness almost, within the context of its times.
As recorded in 1956 at IBC for Parlophone Records by Lyttelton (ex Eton College and Camberwell Art School), and sound engineered by Joe Meek, the structure of "Bad Penny Blues" is carried on a chassis of big, rolling piano chords; dipping in and out of emphasis, paced by drums and bass, the rhythm allows Lyttelton's trumpet to slink about with teasing panache, sliding in mood from playful to sinister to suggestive; there are sudden dead drops into briefly re-emphasised piano playing, accelerations of tone and tempo as the bass and drums maintain their unwavering candour.
In a little over three minutes, the style has touched the swirling hems of skiffle, boogie-woogie, trad jazz, ragtime — at times, almost, rockabilly — yet retained its own singularity. Hence, a UK hit for Lyttelton in July 1956; hence, for Ferry, an early study in the physics of musical style. (The piano introduction to "Bad Penny Blues" would be reprised in 1968 by the Beatles, on the introduction to "Lady Madonna.")
By chance or insight, Ferry's recognition and liking for the "weird sound" on "Bad Penny Blues" also touches upon the qualities of creative incongruity that will later enhance the early output of Roxy Music. From an early age, Ferry assembled a palette of influences, which would then be worked with in much the same way that a painter works with colour.
His selected shades all tend to be distinguished by their intensity; but the phosphorescent presence of Joe Meek – a self-tormented homosexual and future drug addict, who would take his own life in 1967 — provided a touch of formative and telling strangeness to Ferry's colour chart of tonal moods and styles. Meek's best known creations — John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me," "Wild Wind," "Son This is She" and "Lonely City," all produced between 1961 and 1962, and recorded in Meek's tiny flat in the Holloway Road, north London — have an air of racing, eerie melodrama; "Telstar," meanwhile, the transatlantic chart-topper recorded with the Tornados in 1962, sounds like a Pop art hymn to the glamour of the space age. All of these qualities — the Meekian other-worldliness — will find their way, as hues or nuance, into the creation of Roxy Music.
One of Roxy Music's first and most important supporters, the critic Richard Williams, working as a features writer on the staff of Melody Maker in the early 1970s, would make a point of identifying the subtle but undeniable touch of Joe Meek's influence on the second track of the first Roxy Music album, the sensually titled "Ladytron." In his review of Roxy Music published on 24 June 1972, Williams wrote: "Best of all is 'Ladytron': it begins as a little lovesong, with flickering castanets, but soon shifts into a 'Johnny Remember Me' groove, all echoing hoofbeats." A week later, in a short interview for Melody Maker with Bryan Ferry, Williams noted again, "the Joe Meek-style production touches on 'Ladytron'."
Meek's pop futurism was descriptive of the enthusiastic awe with which space exploration and rocketry were regarded in the late 1950s and early 1960s – occupying an enchanted place in the popular imagination where the eerie fables of science fiction combined with a specifically modern kind of glamour. It is an eloquent coincidence, therefore, that in the same year that "Bad Penny Blues" became the first jazz record to chart in the UK Top Twenty, thus catching the attention of the ten-year-old Bryan Ferry, the exhibition "This is Tomorrow" opened at the
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London — itself an address, in part, to the effects of technology and mass media upon the present and the future. The exhibition (of some thirty-six artists and architects, divided into twelve three-person teams) would, of course, feature a spectacular contribution from Ferry's future tutor at Newcastle University, Richard Hamilton, who worked in a group with the architect John Voelcker and the artist and critical theorist John McHale (who would subsequently move to America to become a futurologist). A dramatic visual aspect of the Hamilton team's contribution was the image of Robby the Robot, from that year's film The Forbidden Planet, carrying off in its mechanical arms a swooning, mini-dressed blonde starlet — an early example, in this context, of Pop art's fusion of eroticism and machinery, romanticism and mass media. Thus the heady aura of the space age — its reality appearing in many ways as exotic as its fantasy — could be seen as a significant factor within both the popular imagination and the cultural climate of Britain in the mid-1950s.
Ferry's earliest, barely adolescent interest in music, however, was most heavily inclined towards black American jazz and folk blues.
Bryan Ferry: "My greatest treasure was an EP that I bought, which was the first record that wasn't a single and wasn't a 78. I remember thinking it looked rather flimsy and small, but it cost more than a usual record. It was four tracks – the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis doing four songs. And I listened to that again and again and again, and learned every note of it — memorised all of the solos.
"The first person I actually heard on the radio was Lead Belly. That's the first memory I have of hearing something. There was the skiffle boom, so that sort of music – early folk blues from America — started getting on to the radio. Lonnie Donegan was a big star, doing 'Rock Island Line' [in April 1956] which was actually a Lead Belly song. So I remember hearing a few Lead Belly things on the radio and thinking 'What's that?' — it caught my imagination ..."
For Ferry, the music of Lead Belly (aka Huddie Ledbetter, 1888–1949) would remain a career long enthusiasm. Songs such as 'Goodnight Irene' and 'Midnight Special' have been described as "so central to [American] popular consciousness, that most Americans are unaware of where they came from"; and there is an entrancing, profoundly elemental quality to recordings of Lead Belly, which seems to be drawn from some deep crease in the psyche. The songs recorded in New York during the 1940s by Moses Asch and Frederic Ramsey Junior for the Folkways label (founded as much as an ethnographic resource, to document songs, sounds, spoken word and music from around the world) have an edge and an intensity which makes them sound simultaneously ancient and modern. The more they are heard (the famous "Shout On," for example, or "Governor Pat Neff") the more their seeming simplicity, verve and temper begin to take hold, at once infectiously melodic and touched with strangeness.
Photographs of Lead Belly from the same period show a handsome, white-haired black man, impeccably turned out in a sharply pressed double-breasted suit, white shirt, silk tie and highly polished shoes. One can see how for Ferry, in addition to the emotional and musical vigour of the music, there would be an attraction to Lead Belly that was derived from his almost mystical presence as an archetype — a founding figure in modern popular music, a black dandy, a precursor to Bob Dylan. Above all, a very "cool" figure — of which there were rather few, it could be added, amongst the undeniably cheerful ranks of the British beat boom stars of the middle to late 1950s.
Bryan Ferry: "You'd quite often get the same song coming out twice. An American record would be quickly covered by an English artist. I remember 'Singing the Blues' was recorded by Guy Mitchell in America [also in 1956], and then Tommy Steele did the English version. So whenever there was a good song from America, there'd be a cover version fighting it up the charts. Usually the American ones were more interesting in a way, or had more of a sexual potency about them. It wasn't really until the Beatles that you started to feel the English had something — up until then they had always seemed a bit inferior — quite a lot inferior. The Shadows were interesting; some of their records had a uniqueness about them; and I thought the first Cliff Richard record, 'Move It' , was very good — had a really good sound ..."
All of this, within sight of the Lambton memorial, imperious on the summit of Penshaw Hill.
From Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music by Michael Bracewell (Da Capo Press, 2008).