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Bryan Ferry: The Prisoner

Paul RambaliNME, 4 March 1978

The 1978 edition BRYAN FERRY

‘These Four Wall of my Prison I Have Come to Love.'
Byron said that.

BRYAN FERRY'S breakfast has just arrived... at 11pm.

This has nothing to do with slack hotel room service, nor has the former lounge lizard become a creature of solely nocturnal habits, it's simply the result of running overtime at the Montreux Casino studio, and being forced to work the night shift while chart papsters Smokie stay strictly nine to five.

Ferry has been in Montreux for the past three months, working on his new album. He has been residing at the Montreux Palace, Bellevue Suite, second floor, which affords an expansive view of Lake Geneva, surrounding snow-capped mountains, and the town of Montreux.

Montreux in the wintertime is like Brighton in the wintertime, only more so. A ghost town. You walk the length of the town and the impression is one of quiet and dreary local life surrounded by huge ornate, opulent hotels waiting for the next visiting conference or the start of the tourist season.

The Montreux Palace Hotel is the largest of them all. It's like the grandest-sea-front hotel on any crumbling British coastal resort, but bigger, and not yet frayed. It is vast, melancholy, and very empty. Bryan Ferry, his manager, and his 'media consultant' are the only guests.

It almost seems like some grand cosmic joke to find Ferry – whom the media would have you and I believe is a natural for such elegant habitats – alone, and perhaps a little disconsolate. And to find the elegance of his surroundings so utterly empty, and finally worthless.

The irony of the situation is almost unbearable.


AS FAR as reputation go, Bryan Ferry's is not one I would envy. He skyrocketed into popular consciousness with such a fierce grasp on what would capture the listless imaginations of the time that the sureness of his moves seemed almost uncanny.

For a time his incessant flirting with the persona he created was audacious and amusing. Remember, for instance, the famous gaucho outfit he sprang on followers of his dress sense at the Rainbow a few years back?

The bubble grew bigger and bigger. He made the cover of the Men In Vogue and became the watchword of the fashion industry, thanks in part to his record company press officer of the time having worked in the same capacity for various fashion designers, and having, as they say, the right connections.

But inherent in the nature of Ferry's bubble was the fact that many were all too willing to try to burst it.

On a critical level he was accused of abandoning the vision that shaped Roxy Music – bear in mind that it was Ferry and Andy Mackay who started the band, that Ferry always wrote the songs, and that Ferry, for better or worse, always saw the group as a vehicle for his songs, with contributions from the others involved – in return for easy solo pickings with cover versions of songs that were, his critics felt, a little too aware of their own falsity for comfort.

On other levels he was accused of rampant egomania. He supposedly insisted on control of Roxy policy, was a hard taskmaster, and became insanely jealous of Eno's upstaging some of his thunder. His persona grew to be ridiculed as stupid glamourpuss posturing... And so it goes on.


"I CAME INTO pop music from a different angle." He paces, talks, fumbling with the previous night's debris in search of a cigarette. "And a lot of people still resent me for it. That was one of the strengths, and also the cross that I was sort of impaled upon."

Ferry's genial and thoroughly British manner is, at times, stiflingly polite. But the insufferable adherent of the social graces and dilettante wit I had half expected to meet is nowhere in sight. Instead, he talks amiably, if a little nervously, his cultured accent giving way to traces of north country stock, and peppered with Americanisms no doubt picked up during his recent domicile in LA

"It was very strange for me because I'd never lived anywhere out of England for a long period of time before," he begins, his sentences trailing in the way they are prone to when you talk to someone a mere half-hour after they've woken up. "It has some very bad things about it in the sense that.... you get a lot of bad people there, people who go there to make money, which can be a very evil thing when it's allied or involved with artistic pursuits, like movies.

"The whole Hollywood movie business stinks, it seems to me. A lot of people I met out there were movie people and it had a very bad feel about it. The whole product thing, return on investment and that kind of stuff, which fortunately the record business has not yet reached because of the relatively small sums involved."

There are those who would disagree. In recent years the American record business has turned into an industry, which means there is a lot of money to be made. there are big financial corporations ready to invest, and I could go on...

"I know, but the artist still has control because you pay for you own record to be made" – he refers here to the fact that record companies offset recording costs against future royalties – "and I've always just made my records and then presented them to a record company and said here you are – sell that.' Whereas in movies there are millions as opposed to thousands of dollars involved. Because there's all that money invested they want to have all that control."

Has he ever felt the cold hand of investment forecast trying to guide his path? And what about the more insidious pressures of audience expectation?

Ferry, toying with his breakfast but now wide awake, admits to certain minor arguments with companies, "but as far as making a record is concerned, no. You feel pressure from an audience through... As long as you feel they're interested," he intones ominously.

"If you make an album every year, you want that to be an improvement or to build on what you did the previous year. Sometimes I've felt the audience has wanted me to stay in a certain position and repeat myself.

"Like with Roxy. When it dissolved I got some really awful letters from kids who felt I wasbetraying them. They don't realise that in order for you to keep up your own interest, which is so important, you have to keep experimenting and keep moving, trying out different things and working with different people, in different places. When The Beatles broke up, I felt sad, but now I perfectly understand how any group of people who work together on a creative basis have to move, because otherwise they'd die."

One gets the distinct impression that Ferry has delivered the main points of this soliloquy before. The reserve with which he answers most of my questions is gone for the moment.

"I'm really happy about the way things have turned out for me. I feel I've progressed to tell you the truth. Another thing is that when I started doing other people's material, it was a bit misunderstood. People thought. 'Oh no, he wants to make commercial records.' For a start there's nothing wrong with records that are commercially successful, some of the greatest records have terrible failures and others have been smash hits. But the reason was simply that there are certain kinds of songs I can't write, that I wanted to perform.

"If a song has a great tune and/or a great lyric, you think 'I'd like to do that song because I can do it in such and such a way'. I've always had a wide taste, and disliked the thing of musical barriers. That happens in America a lot, and that's one of the reasons why it's so hard for me to get an audience there – because I'm not a country singer, nor an R&B singer, nor a European chanson merchant. I do all sorts of things.

"Another reason is that I do very emotional music, but in America they like to have their emotion smoothed down, with all the edges taken off," he adds ruefully. "In America they cringe, there's something that just doesn't get through. Your average British person will get into it much more because of something to do with temperament. Except your black American can get into emotional music. It knocks me out when I see black people in the audience, but very few of them know my music."


BROACHING the subject of the difficulty both Roxy Music and he as a solo artist have had cracking America – the oddly isolated strongholds of Cleveland and Detroit excluded – seems like a convenient point to mention some of the malicious rumours that have been floating around.

The fact that he was working with LA session stalwarts Waddy Watchel and Rick Marotta had, thanks to some active imaginations, evolved into the notion that he was working on a frantic, last-ditch attempt to make it in America; that he was using Linda Ronstadt's backing band (Watchel is Ronstadt’s guitarist) to made a readily marketable country album, custom cut for FM airplay.

Ferry is visibly taken aback by the suggestion. And also a little affronted considering the remotest concession to Yankee taste on the album is Watchel's guitar. Rick Marotta aside, the remaining musicians are his regular crew and British to a man. But ...

"People wanted me to go to America for this album, to work with one of the big-time American producers and to make an American album," he admits. "But I resisted all of the pressures to do that, which came from several directions. I don't want to appear smug...I just worked very hard for three months under very strange circumstances.

"It's been like the army out here, all these guys bivouacked out. We're here for a long sustained period and out only reason for being here is the record. No distractions, the only thing we're thinking about is the record. It's been a really intense record because of that and because all the people who play on it… they're all nuts. That has all come out in the music. It's odd how records become the emotion that goes into them..."

How important is America to you?

"To go back to the American producer thing. I couldn't think of anyone who could do what I wanted to do, so it's been produced as a teamwork thing; Waddy Watchel, Simon Puxley, Steve Nye and myself, with everybody throwing in ideas."

You didn't answer my question

"Oh Yeah, I'd like to be successful in America... No, I'd like my music to be successful in America. That's the rub."


UNLIKE MOST entrants in the rock arena, Ferry didn't give the idea of becoming a rock star any serious consideration until his mid to late twenties. The Washington, Country Durham born miner's son had always been a music fan but his vocational pursuits had till then been limited to the rarified atmosphere of painting, and to a lesser extent sculpture and art history. Plus, there were certain ghosts to be exorcised....

"I wanted to get my degree – BA Fine Arts – because as a kid I had been conditioned to the whole working class thing of education – or sport – being the only ways of salvation or escape into a better standard of living and a better life generally. Self-improvement was a strong motivating force. I still believe in self-improvement, whether it's on an educational level or.... everything, quality of life, which money can be a part of."

Though he had done some singing with local bands whilst at school and at college, university work made the more pressing demand. Still, after a few years he began to yearn for the sweaty smell of rock'n'roll, and soon found himself by day "doing this very mental work, " and by night "slumming downtown with a R&B band."

"The trouble with the first was that I didn't feel I was putting enough passion into my work. And with the music there wasn't enough intelligence. I wanted to try to combine the two, but I couldn't play anything. So when I graduated and moved to London I got a piano, started learning how to play, writing songs, finding other musicians to play with, then Roxy happened.


ROXY MUSIC didn't just happen, they exploded. The effect they had on a then insipid scene was plainly traumatic. Bowie aside, they were the first to take the overt stylisation of The Sweet, Slade, T Rex, et al beyond the realm of teenybop trivia, to a place where it was acceptable to the rock crowd. They were also the first band to throw precious musicianly credentials clean out the window, and they established the precedent for moving from nowhere to everywhere by keen captivation of public imagination before the media has time to catch up with itself.

But best of all, their no holds barred juggling of abstruse visual and musical elements was so bold and unrepentant that you either went with it, or you bought your copy ofMud Slide Slim and your armchair there and then.

Of the imagery distortion that Roxy used so spectacularly, Ferry has this to say:

"I was a student of Richard Hamilton, who is in a sense a disciple of the surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Hamilton was the first British pop artist, that's why I went to study with him, because he was doing precisely that – working with images, working out their meanings, and distorting them.

"To me it was more interesting than pure abstract painting because he used images from popular culture as his subject matter. To some extent I've tried to do it in music. Sometimes I use other songs, or other kinds of songs, or film themes as subject matter. I just have fun playing with things in the same way as one plays with words. Most people who write in English delight in playing with words because it's a medium where you can play around with double or triple meanings."

...And of the performing flair that Roxy used equally as spectacularly he says.

"It just seemed to me that the music we were doing should be presented with some sort of verve. It's just care," he pleads, "people pay to go and see things. It was the influence of the black people I suppose, who always put on a bit of show. I saw Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and all those Stax people. The music was amazing, the passion was so great, and they looked great. They dressed up because they were onstage, and that was part of it that had just gone by the board. "

... But mention the persona he molded for himself and . . .

"I didn't create it. I created some aspects of it, but people overwrite about things; stress certain things that you'd do because they make good copy. Or they think 'that's good image, we'll write about that because there's no-one else like that.' They don't give credit to the fact that it's only a tiny part of what you're up to."


YET THE promise of elegance that was held forth proved seductive. A Roxy gig during the years '73/'74 was like a parade of peacock couture, with seas of bright young things throwing sidelong glances in admiration of themselves or envy of others. No matter how it was worked, people related strongly to it.

"I think they related to the hipness. If I went on stage unshaven and looking like death warmed up, I think they'd get into that. I think they understand me more than people may be give them credit for. Because they know that I'm playing around with images, and that it doesn't really mean anything."

It may never have meant anything to him but many people took it perhaps a bit too seriously, and when, in the ensuing years, the cold morning light turned it all to worthless trinkets, a sense of desertion was in the air. As though Ferry had whisked off in flurry of cocktails and left his audience to untangle their own illusions.

"I think they've all betrayed me," he laughs, and them no longer laughing." I'd like to think that they're all out there rooting for me but I don't know. I haven't had any feedback for a while and that's important. A lot of new names have appeared in the past year and I don't know how much that means to the people who were there before . . . Although I'm not a '60s musician who's still going . . . "

That's exactly why I'm asking you the question.

"And I don't know the answer, yet."

He should worry though. Three sell-out dates at the Albert Hall last year is hardly the end of the line.

However, about the notion that he squandered his talents in stages, inducing luxury and delusions of self-importance, he is utterly firm.

"That's not true. I know myself too well to let that happen. I just know how much work I've done since I started making records. I love making records; it's my vehicle. I always assumed that people knew I was as serious as I ought to be about making records and that playtime is restricted."

(I'm inclined to believe him. Not counting the live album, Ferry, with and without Roxy, has made nine albums over the past five years – that's one album every seven months until the release of In Your Mind.)

"I'm a sort of explorer socially in as much as I have met a lot of people whom I wouldn't have met otherwise, if we're talking about celebrity games. If we're talking about financial security then that's the only sort of security it does give you," he concludes with sharp irony.

As for his continual gossip column presence:

"I resent it. I say go to hell. That's why it became so hard to live in London. I couldn't go anywhere without people saying, 'Oh he's gone uptown now. Now that he's made it he's lost touch.' How do you lose touch? I could never change because I'm not that sort of person. I didn't start doing it until I was a complete person – most people do it when they're forming and teenagers get spoilt. I was me before I started making records.

Those who consider the most potent expressions of Ferry's oeuvre to be the first two Roxy albums and who think Roxy grew stale and repetitive in their later year, please stand.

"It makes me a bit sad that there are people like that. That wasn't the greatest expression of my talent as far as I'm concerned."

What was then?

"It's all scattered about on different albums, and some of it is on this one. But it gets harder every year as you can imagine."

Harder to what?

"To be able to turn yourself on as much as I have this time. It's this thing of not wanting to repeat yourself, that's really why it get harder. If you look at anybody's work you find that they begin to repeat themselves . . . I don't want to burn myself out.

"I'm more sensitive than I ought to be about it. It hurts me when you say that people think I sold myself short and did merely what was expected of me, because I always felt that I didn't. What am I going to do, a tap dancing record or something? Obviously there has to be some strand of me running through the whole thing.

"I think my work is a varied as most people's working in music at the moment and it's also as interesting. I'll stand by it, you know. I'll fight anybody for it."


IT'S FUNNY how public image tells lies. If Bryan Ferry is a calculating egocentric fop then he hides it well. The Bryan Ferry I met seemed calm, resolutely sure of his personal values, but perhaps a little confused by the circumstances his ambitions have thrown him into.

He likes a joke, and seems to take himself a lot less seriously than popular misconception would have us believe. "Maybe it's because I never relax when I do interviews," he suggests.

Mentioning Brian Eno brought no glimpses of deep-seated jealousy. He says there was talk of Eno playing on In Your Mind, that the balding one would have been happy to do it, and that he (Ferry) would like to work with him again. About Eno's new found popularity he says, "Eno's very clever and he deserves to do well. More strength to his arm."

The following morning – or later that same day for Ferry, who spent the rest of the night working on the final running order of his album – we went to take photos at the nearby castle of Chillon, sited on a rock outcrop in the lake.

Pausing at the souvenir stand on the way out, he picked up a copy of Byron's Prisoner Of Chillon, a poem inspired by the story of a priest who was imprisoned in medieval times in the cold, rock-hewn castle dungeons.

Opening the book at the last page, he read softly to himself the penultimate line.

"These four walls of my prison I have come to love."

And with a slight chuckle he put down the book and walked away.

Knowing Ferry's flair to theatrics I'm inclined to think he was writing the end of this piece for me. But don't take it too seriously.

© Paul Rambali, 1978

Citation (Harvard format)
Bryan Ferry/1978/Paul Rambali/NME/Bryan Ferry: The Prisoner/21/05/2013

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