Surrealist British comedian Bob Mortimer seems like an interesting place to start a guide to Bryan Ferry, but he once posited his adoration for the former Roxy Music frontman by saying: “I love Bryan Ferry because he’s a great rock star, but he could also be a bus conductor.” Perhaps this notably humanised edge to Ferry is the reason that his pioneering stardom isn’t viewed as quite as celestial as some of his peers.
Hailing from Newcastle, England, Ferry went from a fairly normal childhood to being the peak of the art-music scene, helping to influence an entire generation, not just musically but with his smartly sartorial style too. In fact, the author Peter York even went as far as to say that was an “art object that should hang in the Tate.” While the wording of that hopefully doesn’t mean that York hopes to curtail the precious addition to our daily dismal lives that Ferry represents, in a figurative way, he was certainly a cutting-edge canvas. And as a former student of fine art, this perhaps makes sense.
A mark of this trailblazing force comes from the fact that Roxy Music are the quintessential ‘Guess the Year Quiz’ trip-up merchants. You hear ‘Virginia Plain’ and instinctively the sound, production and avant-garde performance takes years off its actual age. With the help of Brian Eno in this department, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music helped to release the shackles beginning to form on turgid rock ’n’ roll at just the right time. Thereafter, Ferry has journeyed through various genres in a diverse career that has never seen him lose his style or seeming to break his stride throughout.
Below, we’re looking at six brilliant tracks that define him best.
Bryan Ferry’s six definitive songs:
Helming from an art school background, Ferry once said: “I like that music is more abstract [than most art].” With this keen eye for creativity and where it stands in society, it is no surprise that Ferry takes inspiration from an eclectic pool and unleashes it upon the abstract canvas of music.
Considering ‘2HB’ features the line “Here’s looking at you, kid,” there are no prizes for guessing that the ‘HB’ in question, from whence he drew his inspiration, is not a pencil but Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart.
More than just an ode from Bryan Ferry dedicated to the late actor and his work on the iconic Casablanca, the musicology is equally influenced by the film. The song features an Andy Mackay sax solo—based on the melody of ‘As Time Goes By’ a tune performed by Dooley ‘play it again Sam’ Wilson on that old piano in the corner.
‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ by Roxy Music’ (1973)
This is the sort of song that drives the getaway car itself. Somehow within Roxy Music’s gilded back catalogue, this masterpiece gets left out.
The song teeters to a crescendo akin to heist movie heights. The guitar work is scintillating and the lyrical philosophy that gets you there is a piece of brilliance that often gets overlooked once the swarming tail-end really gets going.
A rollicking maelstrom of sound that slowly builds from humble beginnings is very much akin to Aphrodite’s Child’s ‘The Four Horsemen’. And similarly, this Roxy Music classic is just waiting to feature on-screen to deliver and adrenalised dose to a visual pairing.
‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (1973)
Brian Ferry once said, “When you get music and words together, that can be a very powerful thing,” but later added, “I find them difficult.” While his discography seems to imply that lyrics came easier to him than he lets on, leaning on Bob Dylan is a great crutch if they were a strain.
Dylan himself once borrowed the following Hoagy Carmichael quote to explain some of his songwriting: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”
Therefore, with Dylan’s Promethean pluck from the ether and unbeatable one-take recording accounted for, a prize has to go to anyone who dares to reinvent it but returns that all-important rafter lingering mandate that Dylan correctly identifies as key. Ferry’s manic sui generis reinvention is a great example of his eye for the arts and daring approach to imagination. And what’s more, he deserves kudos for identifying that his sonic innovation that was bound to blaze into the future, ought to be carrying some of the introspection of a master along with it. It’s also a mark of how prolific he was in this era that this stands aside ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ by Roxy Music’.
‘Angel Eyes’ (1979)
During a tempestuous period for Ferry personally and indeed Roxy Music as a band following the departure of Brian Eno and a few other adjustments, the pioneering electronic troubadour aimed to produce a record that reflected this and also acted as a salve to it. The album works with an epic mantra laid down on the masterful ‘Virginia Plain’ and twists with a new cognizant edge.
What Ferry essentially pulls off here is an unflinching turn at a fork in the road with just enough of a wing mirror check to the past and his place in the art world to ensure it is a skid that ends safely. Boldness in music is very common, but it takes a lot of tentative behind-the-scenes posturing to pull it off effectively. Ferry didn’t bluster into the disco chapter unthinkingly and that shows in the quality of songs like ‘Angel Eyes’ no matter how brilliantly out of the blue it seems.
‘More Than This’ (1982)
With Roxy Music’s eighth and final studio album, the band went out in a blaze of glory and delivered one of the very best synth-pop records of a genre that they just about created in the first place. Of all the songs in Ferry’s back catalogue, this is also the one that disavows the notion he found lyric writing hard more than any other
With a melancholic but visceral melody, Ferry creates a brooding backdrop for poetic fatalism to breeze upon. He wrote this on the West Coast of Ireland, and you can almost picture him etching the lyrics and crafting the elemental sound as he looks out to sea while you listen to it. This is an image that Ferry mirrored once more, in a very art school fashion, by choosing Dante Rossetti’s picture of a listlessly downtrodden musician as the cover for the single.
‘As Time Goes By’ (1999)
Later in his solo years, Ferry entered a more mellowed and jazzy soundscape, eschewing the glossier side of music that he kicked down the door for. Covering Herman Hupfeld’s 1931 track also allowed him to show off how great he had become as a song interpreter in a performative sense, displaying something a bit Frank Sinatra-like in this crooning vocal take.
Naturally, this is less innovative than his early Promethean efforts, but he has earned the right to slink back to the end of the bar these days like his hero Bogart and let others do the talking. What remains beyond the gloss is his eternal class and his keen eye for spotting it elsewhere.