A Really Good Time - Wed 17th Jul

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A Really Good Time
17 July 2002

July 17, 2002, 8:45 a.m.
A Really Good Time
And a touch of conservatism, too.

By S. T. Karnick

Frantic, by Bryan Ferry (Virgin Records, released June 2002)

Rock-and-roll music, like American popular song craft in general since the beginning of the past century, has always been a highly sexual phenomenon. By the late 1960s and the '70s, rock music had taken that sexual content to levels previously unvisited if not unimagined. Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix had led unerringly to Lou Reed, David Bowie, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, and the like, and glam rock, with its overt sexuality and disdain for distinctions between the sexes, was on the rise

Given the pervasiveness of popular music, people holding more normal social attitudes had few options among the most fashionable and talented acts of the time. Unless one abandoned all aesthetic hope and settled for the Partridge Family, the Carpenters, or the Osmonds, or took up the difficult challenge of understanding and enjoying progressive rock, or stuck to country rock or southern groups, the only way to appreciate much pop music by the early 1970s was simply to accept that although it sounded very nice, the lyrics went directly counter to everything you believed. Not a pleasing situation.

That all began to change in 1972, when a strange English band called Roxy Music appeared on the scene. Although some members of the group occasionally dressed in outlandish costumes of the sort then de rigueur, the band's movie-star-handsome singer, Bryan Ferry, sported a well-groomed, glamorous, 1940s-movie-star look, complete with a long shock of dark hair hanging over his forehead. Backed by artful arrangements incorporating strong rock-oriented hooks spiced with avant-garde touches that seldom became annoying or overly pretentious, Ferry sang in a deep, often crooning baritone that seemed equal parts Elvis, Sinatra, Charles Aznavour, and Wilson Pickett.

There was nothing feminine or sexually ambiguous about him or the band's songs (with occasional exceptions clearly meant as satire of rock conventions), and that was a huge difference from his contemporaries. The songs varied widely in style, including straightforward, hard-edged guitar rock, shimmering pop tunes, slick Euro-style ballads, soul songs, country-influenced pieces, and avant-garde experimental passages, but they always included a strong melodic core. The band was highly adventurous both musically and lyrically, and Ferry was the main songwriter and undisputed leader. Ferry's vocal style was simply unique; he nearly always sang with either highly affected languor or exaggerated emotion, hewing a large gap of irony between the songs and their performances.

This irony made great sense, given the silly clothing and sexual fashions of the time and Ferry's roots as a former art student and son of an English coal miner, and it was quite a tonic for those drawn to the musical creativity of glam rock but unsympathetic to its (often deliberately exaggerated) immorality. Ferry's style was innately conservative, and his lyrics were sophisticated and intelligent (even to the point of ironically quoting Nietzsche and including foreign-language passages), and his approach to music was restlessly inventive.

The band immediately generated a large following in Britain and a devoted fan base in the United States. David Bowie soon offered Ferry the sincerest form of flattery by changing his own style to accord with Ferry's, taking on the crooning soul-singer and "Thin White Duke" personae he has largely hewn to ever since. By the 1980s, Ferry's influence was everywhere, in popular acts such as ABC, the Fixx, the Style Council, the Human League, Depeche Mode, New Order, Ultravox, and the rest of the New Romantic movement. That legacy is still observable in current acts ranging from Oasis to Radiohead.

While achieving increasing popularity and influence, Roxy Music underwent numerous personnel changes in the 1970s. Ferry further developed his persona in a series of interesting solo albums, the first few of which mainly presented his eccentric performances of other people's songs. In the early '80s, Ferry disbanded the group to concentrate on his solo career, releasing far fewer albums than during his 1970s heyday, but always seeking new sounds to juxtapose against his still-glamorous, simultaneously passionate and detached persona.

Like the glam rockers, Ferry's major theme was the allure of romance, passion, and sexual freedom, but in his works these thrills, when divorced from love, are thoroughly unsatisfying, bringing on an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction and ennui which he reflects in his disaffected vocals. "The Thrill of It All" and "A Really Good Time," both from the 1974 Roxy Music release Country Life, epitomize this world weariness. Throughout his career, Ferry's voice has usually been either overly controlled and unemotional, reflecting the ennui brought on by empty passion and sexual flings, or overly anxious, expressing the loss of control one feels when in the thrall of passion.

Only occasionally does a sincere tone break through, in songs such as "Three and Nine," "That's How Strong My Love Is," "Kiss and Tell," "In Your Mind," and "September Song," when his characters break through their self-made wall of egotism and reflect on what is truly important in life — real love, loyalty, simple pleasures, and having a strong sense of one's proper place in the world.

Now 56 years old, Ferry has just released one of his finest albums, Frantic. All the major themes of his career are there, and even former Roxy member Brian Eno joins in, for the first time in nearly three decades. The songs are uniformly excellent, including highly creative and evocative versions of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and an improbably pleasing rendition of the blues shouter "Goin' Down." The Ferry-Dave Stewart collaborations "San Simeon" and "Goddess of Love" and the Ferry-penned "Hiroshima" use the singer's world-weary persona in plaints against selfish passion, but most of the album is strikingly direct and sincere. "Cruel," "Nobody Loves Me," and "A Fool for Love" are particularly poignant.

Nearing 60, Ferry has created his most mature album and one of this most cohesive. The closing song, "I Thought," uses both sides of Ferry's personae to highly moving effect. The chorus presents his cynical side in a way rather poignant coming from a man in his late fifties:

All night — out looking for new love
Impossible true love — nothing at all
Looking for new gods — looking for new blood
Looking for you

But he concludes with a hopeful note incorporating a lovely final image:

Hold on — the flower says reach out
The thunder says no shout is greater than mine
Listen and hold on — till the day fades out
Smothered in gold

That is as good as popular music gets.

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