As rock's elegant stylist reimagines his hits as '20s jazz, he's still obsessing over that hot Super Bowl show
Bryan Ferry’s long been an elegant stylist with one foot in the past and one in the present. As the leader of Roxy Music in the 1970s, he conducted a tempestuous and sexy art-rock swirl that still sounds otherworldly and modern to this day. And as the debonair singer with the romantic post-party croon, he’s created the come-down classics “Avalon,” “Boys and Girls” and several albums of reinvented torch songs and classics.
Ferry’s had an eye for the remake/remodel from the very beginning, dating back to his 1973 solo album “These Foolish Things,” then running through his swoon-worthy cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and later solo efforts like “As Time Goes By.” His latest album, “The Jazz Age” (credited to the Bryan Ferry Orchestra), puts another new spin on the past — it’s a collection of Roxy Music and Ferry solo songs rerecorded in the style of the 1920s. Oh, and they’re all instrumentals. As familiar as many of these songs might be, these versions manage to be fresh and sometimes unrecognizable; Ferry has a way of making even a backward-looking exercise like this seem effortlessly cool and completely irresistible.
In his suite at the Mandarin Oriental hotel last week, Ferry — refined as ever in a dapper blue suit and a scarf — gazed at the Manhattan skyline and reflected on his love of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the allure and dangers of the past, New York in the 1920s and the 1970s — and why he can’t stop thinking about Beyoncé at the Super Bowl.
You have always had a love of interpreting other people’s songs, going back all the way to the “These Foolish Things” in the early 1970s, and your stunning remake of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” But to reinterpret your own songs is an interesting exercise. What made it so appealing to you, and what did you learn about these songs that you’ve been performing for so long through the process of seeing them again through this 1920s lens?
Initially the idea was really just to do an instrumental album of songs that I’ve encountered over the years, and we decided to do it at the start of the 1920s. I know a lot of great musicians, who play in that period who I’ve worked with over the years and they worked with me on “As Time Goes By” [Ferry’s collection in a 1930s style] album, ages ago. Over the many years of interpretations of other people’s songs I knew that you can do a song in many different ways. It was just kind of educational for me and to some extent to my audience because they got to know about other kind of music through me, which I thought was cool. Then they would kind of discover a whole world of music, which maybe they hadn’t been accustomed to. That’s probably a tough one on this album, of course, because there is no singing.
Why did you choose to make these songs all instrumental? Just another part of the exercise?
I wanted to take the spotlight off me as a singer and put it on, I guess, me as a songwriter. It could have been done in a different way, with a lot of string orchestrations, but I thought it would be great to do it in a ‘20s way because then you get a lot of improvisation and freedom.
It sounds like there are three inspirations: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Yes, I think that’s right. I guess Louis Armstrong on the one hand, with his quite earthy New Orleans music, and then Duke Ellington, more New York, more sophisticated, more arranged. Since then we’ve done a few more bits like that, which will be appearing on “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack, the film that’s coming out in May.
Well, that’s a perfect fit.
Fitzgerald, of course, was a great chronicler of the 1920s. The first novel that I really read for pleasure was “Gatsby.” At school we were always given, you know, “great books of famous literature.” I somehow discovered that myself and I said, “This is what I really want to study.” I love that book and all of his writing, actually. Maybe it was that period, but just the romanticism of the writing. It’s a great period, the ’20s …
What was so appealing about it for you? The literature, the music, but I imagine the style as well.
Yes, partially because it was the beginning of modern music, and then also the beginning of so much literature. It was after the war, a period of celebration — a very hedonistic time, which kind of appeals to me. And fashion-wise, there were some great clothes for men and women, but women were especially becoming much more daring in the way they dressed.
The music gave birth to all the dance crazes. It was kind of an evanescent time. And then, once you start looking at the period — that’s when they started flying, that first transatlantic flight. It’s the beginning of radio, T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” – he is my favorite poet, he has always been. We share the same birthday, too.
So I’ve always quite liked the period. I love the ’30s, too, which is different; it’s also interesting where one decade merges into other. I loved all the movies, especially the late ’30s – cinema became the great thing for me in that period. Also music developed. Modern music became more sophisticated, and wonderful people like Billie Holiday came into the scene. But the ‘20s are raw and basic and it’s a very, very interesting time. And based here, actually in New York really. You have pockets in Berlin and Paris, but here in New York, especially as far as the music is concerned, was where it was all happening.
Your music had always kind of kept a foot in the past and a foot in the future.
That’s a good place to be, I think.
So what is it like taking songs that already straddled eras and styles, that incorporated lots of genres and styles in a modern way, and transporting them all the way back to a specific past? How do you capture the energy of that era without turning the songs into dusty antique pieces, without this feeling like it’s a conservative exercise?
I don’t know why it was exciting, but it certainly was. Maybe some of the songs that I wrote were influenced by the music of that time, the blues. The structure of the songs was quite simple musically. Although in Roxy we made them kind of crazy with so many great sounds. Oboes, we had all the synthesizers — at the beginning we treated it as a kind of an adventure, musically, and we liked to play with lots of different styles of music. With Roxy we didn’t try to create one particular style, we just liked to play around, which made the records very interesting, the early ones.
They still sound otherworldly, no matter when you get turned on to them. One style that didn’t inform Roxy Music early on, particularly, was jazz – and yet that was the first music you listened to, then abandoned for a spell.
I guess it was 1955. I was about 10 years old and I was captivated by jazz and some blues things as well. I very much liked New Orleans jazz. It was exciting, and I started learning more about all of the first people — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and then Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, all the bebop players, all the way up to Albert Ayler. There were all those great Blue Note albums. It was a great world.
Those Blue Note album covers were so stylish and cool as well. You took notice of that for Roxy.
And when I went to see the players when they toured England, they always looked so cool. It was kind of a scene where you wear suits and ties; they dressed up to go onstage, and it was a serious business. I was very impressionable, they had a big influence on me.
So why did jazz seem to disappear when you started making your own music?
Yeah, it did. It was the mid-‘60s when I started listening to all the kind of great American rock ‘n’ roll. Little Richard, Elvis, and later the Velvet Underground, in between — Jimi Hendrix, of course, Otis Redding was a huge hero for me.
You saw Otis Redding play as well.
Yes, I saw him and the other Stax artists on their European tour. And that was kind of the turning of the road for me. I was, “Oh, that’s what I want to do” – well, something similar anyway, I wasn’t quite sure. I was studying art, I wanted to be a serious artist, and I thought this was great as well. All of the things I was influenced by had a bearing on everything I’ve done myself, including this “Jazz Age” album. The last few years I went back to my record collection, listening to a lot of instrumental records and going back as far as Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, and the Hot Seven, and then he played with Joe “King” Oliver, and there is something very fresh about that. You said how the Roxy thing sounds fresh; well, they also sound fresh. With this record, “The Jazz Age,” we wanted it to sound like an old thing, as if someone could pull it out and blow the dust off it. I have tricked a few of my friends, when I have played it in the background. Intuitive people, and they thought they were listening to an old ‘20s period record. It was funny.
Were there recording tricks that you used, or special processes, to get that sound? You recorded in mono, not stereo.
Well, first of all, the players themselves play in their period’s style. They kind of live in that period, really. They are real specialists. The trumpet player, when he was 7 years old, he was telling me, his father was a musician and he got to greet Louis Armstrong when he came to play somewhere in the north of England. They come off the plane and there is this 7-year-old boy, who plays on my record, who played “St. Louis Blues” as Louis came down the steps of the plane. He patted him on the head, and had him backstage in his dressing room every night, for the three or four nights he was playing there. And then they corresponded till Louis died. So it’s sweet. So the players play like that and we also use vintage microphones. And then we sort of distress the sound in the studio. We thought it sounded more charming, with a little bit of dust on it, you know? And putting it in mono, we thought that would be better too. It gives it another sort of extra bit of charm of the period.
How did you come to settle on the arrangements? The album opens with two of Roxy’s biggest hits, completely transformed – “Do The Strand” gets reinvented as something you could do the Charleston to, and then “Love Is the Drug” is slowed down into something quite woozy and blissed-out and wonderful.
It varied a lot, because I would sit with Colin Good, the principal arranger and cello player, who is brilliant, who I have worked with for 12 years. He has been on all my touring bands since we worked together on “As Time Goes By” 12 years ago. He did the arrangements for that album, which was kind of more arranged than this one in a funny way. This time, we played the original versions to the band and Colin would work out some charts — sometimes quite detailed ones and other times just very basic chord charts — and then we’d discuss tempo and feel. Do we want to make the same feeling as the original record, or take it somewhere else? And sometimes the song would just be taken somewhere else by one player playing something in a particular way and we’d go with the flow. It’s quite a small studio, my place, but it’s big enough to have like eight people playing, so a mic in the center of the room and they all play around that. It depended on the song, really, some suited being done in a Cotton Club, New York style. Others we just opted for something more basic, like that New Orleans, Dixieland kind of thing. Which is still much simpler to do. My favorite ones are the ones where you have a moody, moaning horn, and so we’d like to hear a beautiful solo over the top.
“Slave to Love” and “Avalon,” from your mid-‘80s elegance era, feel almost unrecognizable at first. How did you select the songs here, and what is it like to re-create these standards of your own, some of which you have been playing for 20, 30, 40 years.
“Reason or Rhyme” was a particular favorite of mine – which, funny enough, was the most recent song. That was from the “Olympia” album, only two years ago. We wanted a selection of Bryan Ferry songs and Roxy things, the whole catalog. Some well-known, some less well-known. You have to have a few hits in there. Because when people get the tune, it kind of works better somehow. What we tried to get to was the variety of moods, but all in that period.
It’s refreshing to hear them done in a different way, without the singing. I guess I just wanted to prove, if anything, that I’ve written some tunes, you know? And melodies have always been an important thing for me, although sometimes that’s been more overlooked by people who are more interested in the lyrics. When I make a record, most of the records I’ve ever made of my own songs, I’ve heard them more as instrumentals than I have as sung pieces. The vocal would be done only at the end of the whole process, and sometimes you’d be listening for weeks or months to the song as we perfected it as an instrumental thing. I would be constantly saying, “Are you sure we want lyrics and we want a song on this? Words?” “Yes, you’ve got to!” And I was sometimes a reluctant bride, you know?
But the vocal stylings lend so much to what is Roxy: that sense of deep emotion and also detachment. To take that out –
It would’ve been a shame, yeah.
But to take the vocals out now definitely presents the songs in a different light – yet your singing is so distinct that you can almost still hear it. How did that style develop? You have this stance toward the words that’s deeply invested and emotional, while also sort of having this sense of reserve and cool and distance. It’s not uncommon now, but when you started, it certainly was unusual.
Well, from the beginning, I always wanted to do music that was kind of passionate, or just very emotional, but then at the same time I wanted it to be thoughtful and to have some – not intellectual, but to have some element of ideas in there. It was always about getting the right balance between the two. So you could have that abandoned emotion, and … emotion is the driving force of music, I think. But then sometimes you want to have ideas there, as well. It came from all kinds of places, and I can’t underestimate, I suppose, my art-school background, and Richard Hamilton being my inspiring teacher, and him being a disciple of Duchamp, who was the most intellectual of artists, and it was all about ideas. At that same time, you’re listening to “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Love You All the Time” on Motown Records and Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and all this passionate American music. So I absorbed all these very different influences: some kind of intellectual and some very basic emotional things.
I could also say that my parents were yin and yang. My mother was a town girl and my dad was a country man. He was very quiet, and she was quite talkative, the life and soul of the party. I feel those opposites in my character as well, it’s interesting.
And yet culture became your ticket out of their world as well. You grew up not particularly well off.
I come from a very – what you’d call a humble background. A very kind of simple – very poor, in fact – and then I guess falling in love with literature and art at school, it led me into complete other worlds, you know? And here we are sitting and talking looking out over Manhattan to New Jersey.
It’s a funny kind of world that can take you to different kinds of places. And I love the contrast that you can find in life, you know? Being a traveling musician has given me a lot of chances to explore different worlds, you know? I used to love being in New York when the Factory was in full swing, and I used to spend a bit more time here than before I had any commitments in life. I had wonderful times.
Did you meet Warhol?
Oh, many times, yeah. And I knew his manager/agent Fred Hughes very well, who was a great Anglophile and one of the smartest-dressed men you’d ever meet. He always had, like, tie pins and he was actually a very ‘20s-looking guy, Fred. He always dressed in that kind of style, hair slicked back. He was the most dapper of men.
I’m going to a gallery opening on Thursday for Jean-Michel Basquiat, I knew him. I remember hanging out with him and Andy Warhol together. I think Basquiat died, actually, sadly, the night after a party we had, after one of our shows. There was a club called MK that used to be, where was it, kind of downtown a bit. The guys had a club called Area and then they moved to this other place called MK. And then we did a show – I remember Jean-Michel came to that, and then the next day he was dead. It was awful. But anyway, it was a fascinating period to be in New York, Studio 54 and all those kinds of things. So then I come now, and I always have quite a sober time. (laughs)
Roxy Music became a little more sober as well, moving from the wild reel of the Brian Eno days through the daring art-rock of “Country Life” and “Stranded,” and finally the lush romanticism of “Avalon.” Are there eras that mean the most to you?
One of the highlights, really, going back to ’73, which was an incredibly fertile period for me. I did “For Your Pleasure,” which is one of our best albums, and then I did my solo album the same year, my first solo album, “These Foolish Things,” and I did “Stranded,” all in the same year.
You talked about those songs starting so simple, which is almost hard to believe considering how ornate and textured they became, how many different sounds and instruments and styles come pouring out of them.
We wanted to have lots of colors, and that was the great thing about Roxy. We did have a lot of colors to draw upon, so it made those records sound interesting for the time. Because so many bands would have great guitar players, just a guitar, bass and drums kind of thing, but that didn’t interest me so much. I loved it with Jimi Hendrix, but he kind of covered all that. I saw him play and he was absolutely fabulous, but I wanted to do something else. So I guess all my other interests like jazz and Broadway and Kurt Weill and I don’t know, you sometimes get flashes of, “Ah, yeah, that would be great,” so there was always something else to do, and there still is. I just wish I had another 50 years to explore more.
What would you still like to do?
Well, I’d like to do an album where it’s just me and the piano, for instance. That’s how the records start. I’d like to do some more orchestral things. I’d quite like to do some more film music, a score or a soundtrack kind of thing, because I like working with strings very much. I like orchestral instruments. I like acoustic instruments, even though most of my career has been with brass and directing guitarists has been most of my life.
There’s a lot of ground to cover. Sometimes, it goes slower than you want to, and other times you sprint and you catch up. It’s a long series of races, I guess.
As you look at the contemporary music scene, where do you see the entire package of fashion and style and sound and intelligence?
Well, the only person I see who has it all is Prince. I love him. I actually met him last year, and I never meet anybody in the music business. He was nice, charming, and he’s a great artist, you know. I enjoyed Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, I must confess. (laughs) It was a good show. That worked.
David Daley is the executive editor of Salon. More David Daley.
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