Steadfast in Style

"Nobody cares like I do/What can I do?" Bryan Ferry warbles on "Goddess of Love," from the British singer's new album, Frantic. A bewitched plaint about Marilyn Monroe, the song first depicts her in familiar terms as glamorous but lonely, then addresses her directly, offering courtly companionship.

There's no reason to believe Ferry's pledge of unmatched concern. Singers, like all seducers, are liars. To woo audiences, they disguise their voices, stretching into unnatural, Olympian high notes, or vow that their changeful emotions will survive eternity. Singers are the used-car salesmen of the arts. Often, they can't even recognize their own lies.

In the pantheon of rock, though, it's true: No one cares like Bryan Ferry does. In an era of shape-shifting, he is music's last monogamist. No, he's like a nun, steadfast and obedient to the Order of Eternal Brokenhearts, ministering to the lovesick strays of a musical Calcutta, where every back alley is a boulevard of broken dreams. Nor is Ferry trying to disguise his thematic repetition: On the new record, "A Fool for Love" and "One Way Love" immediately recall two of his best-known songs, his minor 1985 hit "Slave to Love," and "Love Is the Drug," the closest thing Ferry's former band Roxy Music had to a hit before breaking up in 1983.

Bryan Ferry: gentleman of leisure
photo: Jay Muhlin
Bryan Ferry: gentleman of leisure


Bryan Ferry

The irony is, Ferry was a master of shape-shifting 30 years ago. The son of a Newcastle miner, he grew up adoring American r&b and blues, a fixation common to that generation of young Brits. But where Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart loved the rough roar of manly Muddy Waters, Ferry preferred misty girl groups like the Shirelles, and their anxious hit "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." That adoration seems almost to have guided the development of his voice, a fruity baritone he pushes into a high vibrato to show tenderness.

Roxy Music, the magnificent band he founded in 1972, looked like a gang of drag queens and sounded like the future. A morning-after smear of mascara and synthesizers, European art-song and Motown cheer, they proved that men in off-the-shoulder leopard-skin tops could be taken seriously.

Ferry had trained at Newcastle University's art school under the preeminent pop-art painter and theorist Richard Hamilton—a man who had himself been thrown out of art school for being too iconoclastic. Eight years before Ferry enrolled, Hamilton debuted his epochal collage, Just what is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing?, an exaltation of post-war industrial culture, from Hollywood spectacle and girlie magazines to science-fiction tales and ad campaigns.

Like Andy Warhol, Hamilton studied the architecture of fame. "In the case of a commodity like toothpaste or cosmetics the package is of greater importance than its contents in influencing the purchaser," he wrote presciently. "In its efforts to gain and hold the affection of the mass audience a product must aim to project an image of desirability as strong as any Hollywood star." When most art pros still derided design as a tawdry craft, Hamilton praised it as art: "Style is the projection into form of a well-defined attitude," he taught.

Roxy Music, named for a movie theater in Ferry's hometown, had style for miles: The group's peacock-feathered keyboardist, Brian Eno, quickly developed a cult following so large, acolytes would shout his name during Roxy concerts, which rankled Ferry, who wrote and sang the group's songs. After two LPs, Eno left for a solo career, releasing briny albums of art-pop and inventing ambient music.

With each new record, Ferry debuted a new persona—a dinner-jacketed matinee idol or a jackbooted soldier—immediately imitated by British teens. Ferry was the most handsome man in rock (and even more handsome in person than in photos): Rumors persisted that he would be chosen as the next James Bond. Through the '70s, when Roxy ruled hip England, he staged an unspoken competition with David Bowie, 16 months his junior: When Ferry released a solo album of cover songs in 1973, Bowie quickly answered with Pin-Ups, a similar record; when Roxy moved into disco, Bowie soon followed with "Fame" and "Young Americans"; eventually, Bowie even hired designer Antony Price, Ferry's old friend, to make stage costumes. If Ferry had put on the brakes, Bowie would've broken his nose.

Roxy Music recorded eight albums in 10 years. They toured without conviction—a notorious perfectionist, Ferry took to the road like a whale would—which limited their sales. They have only one million-selling album, their swooning swan song Avalon, released in 1982, just as their glamorous influence was emerging in the splashy teen music of Duran Duran. But Avalon made no effort to assert Roxy's avuncular stature: Instead, the music seems made in the image of cigarette smoke, full of soft blue colors, alluring and hazy. Almost comically, Avalon is a notorious seduction aid, the musical equivalent of Spanish Fly: Any bachelor who plays it risks announcing his depraved intentions in neon letters, ALL CAPS.

Post-Roxy, Ferry focused on solo albums, which he'd begun making in 1973. Mostly, he created variations on Avalon, with increasing fussiness, adding paint to the canvas until detail became the whole of the composition. He recorded cover songs as a respite from writer's block. He hired the most expensive bassists and drummers in the world, often several at a time. On one particularly dire record, 1994's lifeless Mamouna, he used 112 musicians. His records were luxurious, exact, distant; Ferry was like a lover who wants to kiss just to develop his technique. His audience seemed to dwindle to a few hundred sophisticates living in Bel Air or Montserrat, his publicity limited to magazine photo spreads with wife Lucy Helmore, the convent-educated daughter of a prominent financier. Last year, he inadvertently made the front page of The New York Times, when his flight from London to Nairobi was hijacked by a mental patient who turned the plane's nose to the ground in a 10,000 foot dive. Amid the chaos, Ferry's hair was perfect.

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