From his earliest recordings with Roxy Music at the beginning of the 1970s, Bryan Ferry has taken his place as one of the most iconic and innovative artists to emerge in popular music. In his work you hear a vocal and lyrical brilliance that merges the intensity of Lou Reed, the poise of Sinatra and the charisma of Serge Gainsbourg. But then there is something extra - a verve and performance so ultra-modern that it continually breaks new ground.
When Ferry’s group Roxy Music first appeared on Top of The Pops in 1972, performing their debut single, ‘Virginia Plain’, their impact was instantaneous. For here was a group which appeared to have taken the history of modern popular music, from French chanson to Elvis to progressive rock, by way of soul and the avant-garde, and fused their different inspirations into a seamless and glittering pure pop moment. More or less overnight, the band’s audience was secured - from screaming teenage fans to highbrow rock critics. And in many ways, Ferry’s creation of Roxy Music was one of the great statements of Pop Art – with all of the musicians, designers and stylists whom he had brought together combining their talents to make an intoxicating and radically new montage of musical and visual styles.
The revolutionary electronic treatments developed by Brian Eno for the first two Roxy Music albums would join with Andy Mackay’s mesmeric sax and woodwind playing, Manzanera’s dazzling guitar work and Paul Thompson’s thunderous drumming to provide the haunting, futuristic and filmic ambience of the founding Roxy sound. And subsequent to Eno’s departure in 1973, and across the further six epoch-defining and chart-topping studio albums recorded by the band over the following ten years (including Stranded, Siren, Manifesto and Avalon) these co-founding members of Roxy Music would combine their talents with Ferry’s songwriting, vocals and artistic directorship to more or less chart the potential futures of popular music.
Since 1973, Bryan Ferry’s career as a solo recording artist has run in parallel to his work with Roxy Music. His first solo album, These Foolish Things (released that same year) would introduce what Ferry has described as his ‘ready-mades’ - cover versions of recordings by artists whom he admires, which he then interprets in his own style. Like all great singers, Ferry turns the cover version into a form of self-portraiture.
Bryan Ferry’s vocal genius lies in his peerless ability to merge and where necessary mutate musical styles – from hyper-stylized cabaret chanson, through classic soul crooner to hard-edged rock - creating the sheen and pure drama that has become his artistic signature. This was certainly the case with his thunderous, pulsing version of the northern soul classic, ‘The In Crowd’, which became a hit for Ferry in 1974.
It was likewise at this relatively early stage in his career that Ferry was perceived by his vast pop audience to be the living embodiment of the worlds of high fashion, high society and high living that his songs, personal style and performance brought to life with such romantic intensity. In one sense, above and beyond his musical accomplishments, Ferry had ‘become’ his art – a feat shared with performers such as Little Richard, Sinatra and later Prince.
As also defined by his work with Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry’s solo recordings have long achieved a perfect tension between languor and brooding passion, whether in his own songs or in his interpretations of works by other artists. Many of Ferry’s greatest compositions describe the fate of the lonely, isolated romantic - always on the outside, even at the heart of the grandest party or the most exotic city. Ferry has said of himself, “I feel always to be on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in -” – the classic situation of the artist.
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the musical style of Ferry’s recordings acquired a lustrous and pristine flawless sheen that enhanced their darkling mood - well suited to such tracks as ‘Can’t Let Go’ from the album The Bride Stripped Bare, released in 1978. As a lyricist, Ferry combines the language and proportions of classic pop songs with a modern, angular imagery that exactly mirrors his style as a vocalist. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he would further hone and perfect this pared down, glistening refinement of his recordings to produce some of his greatest work in the three solo albums, Boys and Girls (1985), Bete Noire (1987) and Mamouna (1994).
With their high gloss surfaces and dark folds of sound, these albums might be seen to comprise a great triptych of recordings – a musical statement about Bryan Ferry’s founding themes as a lyricist and singer, invoking – like the writings of one of his literary heroes, F. Scott Fitzgerald - the timeless capacity of romance and glamour to shape destiny. In many ways, Boys and Girls and Bete Noire are Ferry’s most consummate achievements as a singer and songwriter, enfolding the listener like a carefully lit film set, and providing the defining soundtrack of an era.
Throughout the 1990s to the present, Ferry has continued his work on both the ‘ready-made’ and his own compositions, exploring specifically the music of the 1930s and 1920s (As Time Goes By (1999) and The Jazz Age (2012)) and the songs of one of his great musical idols, Bob Dylan (Dylanesque (2006). In 2002 Bryan had released Frantic, his first album to feature original material since Mamouna and including tracks with Dave Stewart and Brian Eno, who co-wrote ‘I Thought’ - one of the finest tracks on the album.
Comprising mostly original Ferry compositions, Olympia – like Boys and Girls and Bete Noir before it - was a dark masterpiece, spectrally lit, on the eternal subject of obsessive love. Inspired in part by Edouard Manet’s painting of the same title – and featuring postmodern muse Kate Moss on the album artwork – the album involved many different collaborators and recording sessions while possessing an uncanny artistic unity and defining filmic atmosphere. From the self-penned ‘You Can Dance’ and ‘Reason or Rhyme’, to the Tim Buckley classic, ‘Song For The Siren’, this was an album of rich emotional intensity – its mood at once nocturnal, urban and elegiac. In 2012 Ferry was awarded Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to music, and in the same year the French government decorated him with the honour of Officier des Arts et des Lettres.
Ferry celebrated the 40th year anniversary of his career as a singer and songwriter by rearranging his own compositions and recording them in a 1920's style with his very own Jazz Orchestra, The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, for the instrumental album The Jazz Age. It was after hearing The Jazz Age that Baz Luhrmann asked Ferry to record the 20's music for the film The Great Gatsby. This included rearranging elements of the score and also recording in a period style the contemporary songs that Luhrmann and Jay-Z had selected for the movie, all of which have been recently released on the companion Gatsby soundtrack album Yellow Cocktail Music.
Released in November 2014, Ferry’s fourteenth solo album, Avonmore was hailed by fans and critics alike as a modern classic in the tradition of Another Time Another Place and Boys and Girls. Quintessential Ferry, the musical mood of Avonmore was racing, edgy, brooding, cinematic. The album’s mix of emotional urgency and darkling intensity was brilliantly sustained, in both original compositions such as ‘Soldier of Fortune’ (co-written with Johnny Marr), ‘Lost’ and ‘Loop de Li’ as well as bravura interpretations of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ and ‘Johnny and Mary’ by Robert Palmer. Thrillingly modern, utterly assured, Avonmore demonstrated all of the qualities that have made Bryan Ferry’s writing, arranging and vocal genius so iconic – tirelessly innovative, uniquely enthralling. [Michael Bracewell]