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Issue 80

Splendid Isolation

An interview with Bryan Ferry

BY Michael Bracewell in Interviews | 01 JAN 04

Michael Bracewell: Richard Hamilton was one of your tutors when you read Fine Art at Newcastle University in the mid-1960s. What do you think you gained from him?

Bryan Ferry: I think that there is a breadth of vision in his work that I found inspirational. You get the impression that some artists perfect one particular kind of picture throughout their career. Hamilton is much more diverse, and you get the sense of an intelligence leaping around. Some people found the work soulless but I didn't. My favourite paintings of his are those I find very lush and sensual - celebrating their subject matter in a good way.

For me, it was great for someone who wanted to be an artist, avidly exploring the world of art, studying different periods and styles, and suddenly coming across someone like Richard, who seemed so incredibly modern. It was fantastic to find pictures where the inspiration was the shape of a modern motor car or Marilyn Monroe; it seemed very fresh and of the time that we lived in. And yet there was a sense of great skill there too; he was somebody who could obviously draw, and who was taking pains over something - which means that you take it more seriously - and that is something I quite like. I felt the same about Jasper Johns. Some of the more slapdash of the Pop artists might not have impressed you so much in that way. What I learned from Hamilton, from work such as Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes so Different, so Appealing (1956), was very exciting to me. When I try to analyse my own work, certainly some of the early songs were very collage-like - I'd throw different styles of music into the same song, or try to.

MB: Were the titles of your album The Bride Stripped Bare (1978) and the song 'This Is Tomorrow' (1977) direct references to Hamilton?

BF: To him, and in The Bride Stripped Bare to Marcel Duchamp as well. I remember reading about the 'This Is Tomorrow' exhibition [at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1956] and thinking what a great title for a song it was. Sadly, that particular song wasn't quite up to the title; but the thought was there. The Bride Stripped Bare was just a conceit really. I thought that it was such a wonderful title - very curious in many ways, especially for the mass public - that maybe it would lead them into learning about something more interesting.

When I took a song by somebody else and made my own version of it, I felt that I was adding my stamp to it - my signature. A song as a ready-made; even though it was a sideline of mine - just as Duchamp felt that the ready-mades were a sideline. Something to keep your hand in, as it were, until the next great idea came along. But they're the works he's famous for now.

MB: What was your own work as an art student like?

BF: Well, it varied every year... [laughs]. When I was just about to go to university, I remember doing a whole series of 'Francis Bacons' - screaming heads and so on. I also did a whole series of stained canvases in the manner of Morris Louis, whom I also liked. And of course there was a Richard Hamilton period. Except that none of the pictures were any good, really. I hadn't found myself as an artist, but I really enjoyed doing things. I was fiddling around with music while I was still there, so I wasn't as devoted a student as I could have been or should have been. Maybe my heart wasn't totally in it, although it was at first. But music is a very strong drug, and it became more and more clear to me that that's what I wanted to do - although it wasn't until after I graduated that I really knew. But I had a wonderful time, dabbling at being an artist in the four years that I was at Newcastle.

MB: Roxy Music seemed to emerge in 1972 with its sound and image fully developed. As the group's creator, did you have a concrete vision of what it was going to be like?

BF: Not really - other than that I knew I wanted it to be very eclectic, stylistically. I wasn't conscious of wanting to create a style; I wanted the music to be very emotional - which some people never found it to be, but I did - and to take things from all the different kinds of music I was interested in, which was a completely open book. It ranged from experimental music - people like John Cage - through all the different strands of American music; the development of black music in America mainly: the blues of Leadbelly, R&B, Pop music from Detroit and Motown, the Stax musicians, who I thought were wonderful. And then all the Jazz people, because I suppose the first concerts I went to were Jazz concerts. I was a big fan of Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, all the great Jazz players. I absorbed masses of different kinds of music by a very early age - ten or eleven, which was when I started becoming obsessed by it. I read a lot about music because I used to deliver newspapers - the music weeklies and things - and they were all about Jazz and Blues.

But what makes me different from a lot of the musicians who were influenced by the blues - like Van Morrison or Eric Clapton, who are from the same generation as me - is that I was interested in Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and all the, let's say, 'white music' of America from that period - Tin Pan Alley, Cole Porter, the great musicals - which was a more European-based music. It wasn't drawn from the cotton fields; it was more from Vienna. The Jewish émigrés from Austria, Germany and so forth meant that a lot of wonderful music drifted into New York in the 1930s. There is a whole other Broadway sound - or whatever you want to call it. I liked all that as well. There was a lot of music jumping around in my head, and when I started writing songs all manner of weird influences came up, juxtaposed. The word 'collage' does spring to mind: taking bits from here, there and everywhere, and hopefully creating your own stuff from it.

You have to bear in mind that I had five other people in the band whose strengths I was trying to play to as well; in the same way that Duke Ellington always tried to write to the strengths of his band: he had a fantastic sax player in Johnny Hodges, he had Harry Carnie the baritone player. I thought, great, Andy Mackay can play oboe - and so I can get a sense of Europe, or 'proper' music into some of the songs. Something like 'Sea Breezes' [on Roxy Music, 1972] has a very haunting oboe line and then suddenly the drums come crashing in with all those wild guitars. The thing about Roxy Music is that there was a larger than usual musical range in the group. We might not have been the best players in the world, but the palette I had to work from was quite extensive. I think that that's what made some of the early Roxy stuff so satisfying: there was a richness to it. It wasn't just guitar, bass and drums - which can be great, but I get bored with it after a while; you want other colours. It was wonderful to have Brian Eno there, who was able to transform the sound of all the regular instruments into sounds we hadn't heard before. There was a sense of looking back at previous musics, and also a sense of looking forward and creating something new as well. It was quite unique - and felt so at the time, I must confess. It was very exciting to be part of it, and to be, I suppose, the principal designer of it. But it makes me tired just talking about it ... [laughs].

MB: The staging of Roxy Music concerts has always been imperial, exotic and sumptuous. How did you approach the process of performing live?

BF: The thing with Roxy Music was that the music should be played well, first and foremost, and then that the stage should be lit in an interesting way and the people on the stage wearing appropriate clothes - whatever that was at the time. I didn't really want to make a big deal of it, or have it choreographed in any way - although on the recent Roxy Music reunion tour [2001] there were dancers who did a routine to a couple of songs. I thought it was a great way to present some of the songs - a kind of sideways look at Broadway.

I didn't want it to be like Kraftwerk, with black polo-neck sweaters; or like the anonymity of Pink Floyd, with just shadowy figures - although there's something quite nice about that for a song or two, but not for a whole show. You need to visually carry the mood of the music. A couple of times we have had grandiose-looking stage sets - trying to do something reasonably interesting within the quite strict confines of what you can do on a stage. Because the reunion show was a travelling show, it had to work for 51 stages and fit into the parameters of different venues worldwide. Since we've never had a vast amount of money to play with, it's always been pretty simple and scaled down. But we once had a huge eagle, and we once had a rather De Chirico open plaza. For Country Life there were banners and I wore some military stuff which Antony [Price] had designed - a black tie, and a strap across the chest. The banners seemed to go with this fascistic look, which was tongue-in-cheek but quite good to look at, I thought. I can't remember spending very much time over it, to be honest, other than saying 'why don't we do it like this?' Usually these things are haphazard and done at the last minute. If you look at the calendar of that period [the mid-1970s], there was an awful lot of material being made by Roxy Music, and by myself, and there wasn't really that much time to spend on such things. We did quite well, considering.

MB: How aware were you of the 'rally'-like nature of the concerts, and the heightened image-consciousness of the fans?

BF: Well, for a few years we were very popular. The albums were always Top Three, and the singles did very well considering that we weren't a singles band. There was a very strong following, not only in London but also in the provinces and internationally. Maybe the fact that I come from a provincial town [Washington, County Durham] also struck a chord with the northern, industrial cities where we always seemed to have a really strong following - with boys as well as girls. In later years I think we maybe had a stronger female audience - as the style of the music changed and became more lush. But yes, you did see people in the audience dressing up like us, and therefore each concert did have a sense of occasion. There were devotees out there.

MB: They honed in very specifically on that Weimar decadence meets Glenn Miller look, didn't they?

BF: The 'matinee idol' ... We didn't really dictate a style, so much as favour certain styles. It was a way of playing around style, rather than defining one. Generally, I would favour tailored clothes as a rule - thus ending up looking like a character from a movie or something. We were perhaps the most cinematic-looking band. Apart from myself, Andy Mackay is quite a dandy figure - very interested in clothes - and he developed a particular look that was rather splendid. Phil Manzanera had a certain Latin look with his dark features and white suits. Paul Thompson, in the background, was quite down-to-earth - a genuine musician.

MB: Your own image was seized on quite early as that of a style icon. The picture of you wearing a white tuxedo on the cover of your second solo album, Another Time Another Place (1974), was considered one of the most iconic Pop images since Elvis Presley in a gold lamé suit. How did you feel about having a reputation for supreme stylishness?

BF: I think that most people tend to favour wearing things that they are comfortable in, and which they feel show them off to their best advantage [laughs]. You may also have a certain penchant for a particular period, and therefore you want to emulate it. I liked the way Jimi Hendrix looked - but it wouldn't be something I could pull off! Hendrix lived the rock and roll lifestyle, among rock and roll people - if you're sleeping all day long and only going out at night to a club where you're playing, then you can look like a fabulous troubadour gypsy. In any other circles that's going to attract a lot of attention. I quite like the anonymity of dressing almost like Philip Marlowe. I was always fascinated by men's clothes, although they didn't determine my life. Working in a tailor's shop for two or three years when I was a teenager had some impact on my taste in what to wear and my knowledge of what to wear. I suddenly knew about three-button, single-breasted suits with side vents [laughs], or which buttons you were supposed to fasten and which you weren't, and all the rest of it. Apart from that, there was the interest I had in different musicians from different times - I always liked the cool ones [laughs]. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, the Modern Jazz Quartet or Chet Baker. They all had a sense of being quite chic. I felt that I wasn't doing anything particularly new, just taking bits from here and there that I liked, and assembling my own doctrine.

MB: Was the white tuxedo for Another Time Another Place just one of a list of options for the cover shot?

BF: I can't remember. I just remember sitting with Antony Price and saying 'What do we do next?' He's always loved men in uniform, so we thought there's nothing more of a uniform than a dinner jacket. It can either be black or white, and a white dinner jacket has quite a strong look. In some countries they said I looked like a waiter [laughs], which wasn't the desired effect. But in England and America it brings out connotations of the great cruise liners and a bygone age of people dressed in a very sophisticated way to go out in the evening. It could make you think of casinos, and the movie Casablanca [1942]; a lot of interesting connotations that are romantic, sexy, exclusive - things that we thought were interesting at the time. As you say, it's a very strong image, and it did stick for a long time. I was resentful of it in a way, but now I tend to think it was quite a good thing.

MB: The last line of the first Roxy Music album is 'should make the cognoscenti think'. Is this an apt summary of your artistic ambition?

BF: At the time it was, more than to sell vast numbers of records - I hadn't thought about that, really, at all. It was more a case of just making a record, making a statement, and creating something that could make some kind of mark and make people think. Especially smart people; we thought that if it's going to appeal to anyone, it's going to appeal to people who are bright, smart, with it. That's the crowd we wanted to touch. The first record was exciting to make because it had so many different flavours. I thought, well, it would make me think if I heard it [laughs].

MB: Is it fair to say that you're an artist in the traditional sense, but that you've chosen to work in the medium of 'stardom'?

BF: It's a very strange medium to work in because it's so wide and all-embracing. The art world - the world of picture making, sculpture, video and event-based art - is quite small. I was asking for trouble really, in trying to work in a bigger world than that - one that is less special and where you have to try and sell your art to a mass public. It's quite nice to think of making your work for a small and more discerning kind of audience again. But once you've sold in large numbers to a mass market, it's very hard to go back the other way; because there's also a snobbery of a certain kind that people have about artists - that if somebody is popular, then they can't be any good. I would hope that it didn't apply to me, but I don't know. It would be nice to do something again that was quite demanding to the listener.

MB: Do you think that you've always been interested - since Mod onwards perhaps - in the idea of 'élites'?

BF: Yes, I probably have. I remember that when I left school I very much wanted to go to university rather than art college - at that time there was quite a difference. There were only about three universities where you could study Fine Art, and you felt you were going to be with people who were more interested in the thought and theory of it. Whereas if you went to art school you'd be with people who were good at drawing rather than good at thinking. That's how it seemed to be. It was more difficult to get into university, but I suppose that you'd meet a better class of person [laughs]. I guess I had a fairly élitist view of what I was interested in, and that's a good example of how you're probably right. I suppose I've always been a bit stuck up; I like being with smart people rather than those who aren't. I wanted to be with people who would get me going, and not only at university. When I was living in Newcastle for those four years, you'd want to go to the clubs where the best-looking girls or the coolest people were. There were cliques and élites wherever you looked. I noticed that when I came to London as well. Although I can't say that I ever graduated to becoming a part of any particular group. I've always felt outside, and that's one characteristic of me I suppose: I've always been on the outside looking in. Or the inside looking out.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.