Zealous Guy 'VOX' magazine (UK), issue #49, October 1994. - Sat 1st Oct

Zealous Guy "VOX" magazine (UK), issue #49, October 1994.
01 October 1994

By Adam Sweeting

Managerial divorce, marital problems, writer's block... Times have been hard for Bryan Ferry, but the "artist who makes records" has entered his Arabic period with a fresh passion for his muse.

Suffering from lack of style? Is your life blighted by unsightly bad taste? The antidote is at hand. Simply uncork a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet, dim the lights and administer Bryan Ferry's new album, Mamouna. You'll discover a hitherto unknown inner you! Or you might just doze off. Either way, it can't do you any harm.

Ferry found himself inspired to compose the disc's little tune while seated at his piano in his modest basement recording studio near Olympia in west London. He'd draped the walls with an Arab tent-hanging he'd bought in Marrakesh ten earlier, and something about its minaret shaped and faded Saharan colour-scheme whispered in his ear as he plonked away at the keyboard. He found out only after he'd given the album its title that Mamouna means "good luck" in Arabic.

Perhaps Mamouna is a sign of a change in Ferry's fortunes and a quickening of the sluggish pulse of his career. It comes just over a year after he released Taxi, the languid collection of cover versions that spun off a couple of respectable hit singles in 'I Put A Spell On You' and 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow'. Ferry reckons the Taxi project helped break a prolonged period of creative paralysis. He'd begun work on an album of new material in 1989, after he had completed his Bete Noire tour. Originally, he planned to call it Horoscope, though any decent astrologer would have been able to predict that the project was doomed.

"After three months of songwriting in a tiny room in a studio in north London, we started recording, and that went on all the way up to Taxi", he recounts, as we sit round the table-tennis table in the cooling-out room adjoining his own studio. Bryan is looking stylishly dishevelled in a white cotton shirt, stacks and slip-on shoes over bare feet. "Then it was shelved for a year, really, while I made Taxi and promoted it. It was effectively turning the canvases to the wall; that's the metaphor I use, and it's apt, really. A lot of painters do that - work on things, and then if they get stuck, just turn it round, and then turn it back and say: 'Oh yes, this is what I need to do.'".

Bryan will habitually refer to favourite artists like Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon, Picasso and Matisse, though when he makes remarks like "I've never really thought of myself as a regular musician, I always thought of myself as an artist who makes records", one is tempted to laugh. Bryan's arty past - studying painting with Richard at Newcastle University in the '60s, for instance - has been well documented. A recent profile contained the exquisitely precious announcement: "We had spent the morning at La Fondation Cartier Pou L'Art Contemporain", all part of reinforcing an enduring image of Ferry in which he is aesthete, connoisseur and upmarket clothes-horse as much as (or more than) a pop singer.

Meanwhile, back on the musical trail, I queried whether the new album is in effect Horoscope revisted? "Yes, it's halp of Horoscope, say. I went back to the songs and started working on all of them again. We did some mixes before I made Taxi, and they sounded too fussy for me, too complex, too dense. I needed a few more months, which is what it took.

"By the time I'd got it to where I like it and got to the mixing stage, I thought the title Horoscope didn't seem appropriate anymore. I'd got fed up with it, anyway, it seemed like a curse. It was the first time, I think, in my career that I'd ever told anybody what an album was called befire I finished, so I vowed never to do it again. The most appealing of the new tracks was called 'Mamouna', so that seemed to be a nice evocative title for the whole lot."

Much credit for Bryan's increased work-rate must go to his producer, the erstwhile guitar hero Robin Trower. As the original Horoscope has creaked forwards with agonising slowness, Ferry eventually realised that he had to bring in someone to provide fresh impretus and objectivity. "Rather foolishly, I'd begun working on it without a producer, and never again, really," he winces.

"I'd missed having somebody to oversee me or produce me when I was having to be an artist. Robin was fantastic at pushing me out there to sing and play. I tend to hold back on my own albums. You don't have any need to prove yourself because the record's got your bloody great name all over it. Whereas on Roxy Music records I'd push myself forward and say 'Me! Me! Me!', on a solo record I tend to say, 'After you, old chap.'".

During the Horoscope period, Ferry's resolve had also been sapped by management problems. He split from his manager and close friend Mark Fenwick in 1988, and ended up being sued for breach of contract. "I'd had a bad, messy management divorce, and then I had two different managers, and that hadn't worked out," he recalls. "So I was sort of a managerless person for several years, and really spinning round a little bit without an anchor."

Help arrived in the shape of David Enthoven, who'd originally signed Ferry to EG Management at the start of the Roxy era, then had taken a ten year sabbatical from the music business. When Enthoven reappeared, he and Fery promptly struck up a productive rapport.

"If I'd had a manager and producer when I started Horoscope, they would have pulled back much earlier. I probably would have listened. It was very interesting to me that in the '70s, it seemed to work very well for me to do a covers album in between each self-written album. Taxi really took the pressure away of having to create a new repertoire. It was extraordinary; after I did Taxi, all the new songs and the lyrics I was finishing off for the old songs worked much better. I suddenly found the creative block was gone."

Rumour had it that Virgin Records wasn't happy with the original Horoscope material, but Ferry is adamant that this wasn't the case. "Oh no, that's absolutely untrue, you can ask any of them. They would have been within their rights, but it would have hurt my pride if I thought they had. They seemed to like it, from what I remember. Warner Brothers in America didn't like it as much."

Following the pattern set by Bete Noire and its predecessor, 1985's Boys And Girls, the new disc is discreet and intricately woven, featuring limpid, melancholy grooves. Ferry's old Roxy Music sparring partner Brian Eno dropped by to add some of his mysterious "treatments". "The great thing about Brian Eno is that he laughs at my jokes," chortles Bryan. "It was very exciting. Brian would throw a lot of ideas down and Robin and I would sort it out later. We only did two Roxy albums together, which people tend to forget, so I felt there was still unfinished business."

But where are the hits, Bryan? "Obviously the record company loves to have radio-friendly hits, and I'm not particularly good at that," he murmurs self-depracatingly. "I have done one or two in the past. I suppose 'Love Is The Drug' had a shot, and so did things like 'Dance Away'. The biggest of all were 'Let's Stick Together' and 'Jealous Guy', probably."

Oh, come on. What about 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall'? "Oh. 'Hard Rain', yeah, that was quite big."

Or 'Slave To Love'?

"Oh yeah, that was good. That did well. But I never think they're my best things."

As his career has gone on, Ferry has edged further away from anything resembling commercial pop. This has been both an advantage and a source of concern. It has helped Bryan to keep clear of anything resembling a trend or a fad, so that he hasn't suffered a calamitous plummet to obscurity. But his lack of chart block-busters has also meant his sales have fallen wildly short of recouping the absurd costs. Had he, for instance, totted up the combined costs of Horoscope/Mamouna and scrutinised the balance sheet?

"No, it's too horrible! Heaven's Gate, was it, the film?" he asks. "I haven't really produced much in the past few years but I'm working on it." He chuckles.

He doesn't seem especially concerned by the ominous shadow of debt, though financial worries played their part in the personal crises that have rocked the Ferry household recently. HIs wife, Lucy, entered a rehab clinic last year, seeking treatment for drug and drink problems. Ferry has always tried to keep his private life out of the newspapers, for the sake of his four children, so the information that Lucy was now "back on track" and that Mr and Mrs Ferry have reassembled their marriage had been carefully leaked via "friends".

But in person, far from appearing snooty or superior, Bryan is modest and delightfully vague. He treats questions about his family with restrained flippancy. "It's unbelievable the things that they've written about her, or about us. The funniest thing was when she was a 'mayonnaise heiress'. Lucy's maiden name is Helmore. Helmore's mayonnaise!" Bryan guffaws. "I'm a great subscriber to Hellmann's, actually. I use a lot of it. I should get them to sponsor the tour. No, sadly, she didn't have any money. No dowry at all. Not a bean."

This flies in the face of the way the Ferrys are habitually portrayed in the media, where they appear as dyed-in-the-wool scions of the squirearchy, forever attending hunt balls and society weddings. Ferry is loath to go into intimate details, but his life for the past few years probably hasn't been the opulent, independently wealthy bed of roses of popular legend. Maybe Ferry succumbed to the myths about himself, forever running up massive recording costs as if the day of reckoning would never come.

"I've made some stupid moves, I think, mainly in the '80s, when I basically thought I was more profilic than I was; at writing, that is. After the Avalon album [with Roxy Music] I nearly did an old-songs album, which I think would have been refreshing for me, and somehow I didn't. I'd like to shoot the person who advised me! I'm sure it was my own fault."

Ferry's London studio is a part of the drive for a new realis. "I guess I should have had this place a long time ago, somewhere I can come and record so I don't have to work 12 hours a day. If you're paying 1,200 quid a day in a studio, you feel obliged to put the time in. You stop going to movies, you stop doing anything else, and it becomes a bit of a drudge."

The studio is a basic 24-track, which curbs the multi-track madness that afflicted Boys And Girls, Bete Noire and the orginal Horoscope sessions. "With Horoscope, it got to where you could mix three different songs within what was on the tape," Bryan marvels.

Commercial requirements have become so pressing that Ferry is going to follow up Mamouna's release with some touring, beginning in the late September, kicking off in Athens, Greece. "This will be the first time I've toured an album since the Avalon tour. The last one I did was miles away from the album release, it was about a year after Bete Noire came out. But the last six years have just whizzed by, it's unbelievable. At least I've got a lot of work in the can, and I could easily foresee another album coming out before Christmas next year."

Frenzied activity needed. If he's not careful, it'll be Bryan Ferry Unplugged and a whole new career.

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