Wednesday 24 August 2011

ROXY MUSIC: Stranded

(#134: 8 December 1973, 1 week)

Track listing: Street Life/Just Like You/Amazona/Psalm/Serenade/A Song For Europe/Mother Of Pearl/Sunset

"The Futurist Official dinner avoids the grave defects that pollute all official banquets:

FIRST: the embarrassed silence stemming from the fact that there is no pre-existing harmony between the table companions.
SECOND: the conversational reserve, owed to diplomatic etiquette.
THIRD: the moroseness produced by insoluble world problems.
FOURTH: the rancour of frontiers.
FIFTH: the low, wan, funereal and banal tone of the dishes."

(F T Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook, 1932: trans. Suzanne Brill; San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1989)

"I am for a life around the corner
That takes you by surprise"

(Roxy Music, "Manifesto," 1979)

There are recipes, and manifestos, and sometimes the division between the two is not as comprehensible as their shared unity. But think. Would it be worth it? It sounds revolting, potentially life-ending, too strange to look at, let alone try to eat. All these different, opposing ingredients. But take one bite, just the one. There will be such momentarily excruciating pain that you will briefly never want to come near it again, wish to run as far away from it as possible. But get past that wall of limitations, squeeze, push, burst beyond it, and you will experience delicacy and joy such as has barely been revealed to you in your years. The taste is catching, not really fatal; but there is a clear road, and two ways to travel - the past, and the future, the notions of nostalgia and consumerism, for your future lies in what you want, or are persuaded, to consume. Anything but to think about or stand in the present, with its awkward need for commitment and alternatives. Because sometimes the present is so unbearable that your feet might burn with the mere thought of living there.

But throwing it all together, and reorganising it into new and enriching shapes, is what it's all about. It? Or is it but a way to avoid thinking about the past, with all its torture disguised as retrospective candy? Or - and better - to look the past squarely in its reddening eye, laugh at it, or rather laugh with it (but why not both?) and nudge a future into existence? What if, like most of us, you're not at all sure where you want to go?

I think by the time of Stranded - and this is already The Third Roxy Music Album - Bryan Ferry had at least sketched out a draft of where he wanted to go. The mixing bowl has settled into a colour next door to concordance; Eno has already left and taken his flaming yellow with him. It's a wonder that either of the first two Roxy albums popped into pop; the eponymous debut laying out its agenda, then eating it into a symbiosis of King Crimson and Mike Westbrook's Solid Gold Cadillac that somehow cut deeper and worked warmer than either; side two of Roxy Music is like a photocopy of pop, muffed enough in the greys for unwary types to view it as "prog" (but didn't Ferry audition for the King Crimson singer job?). For Your Pleasure retains the dirty melancholy but gains more confidence; the vast Tara(ntula) plains of "Bogus Man" and the title track float with damaged Great Learning elegance (for Eddie Cochran was regarded as Cornelius Cardew's equal, and made better people's music into the bargain) while "Do The Strand" and "Editions Of You" spell out rock with a K for Kafka (and Kidd) and "In Every Dream Home" was coldly sweaty enough to christen the plasticity of prog anew.

But the end of 1973 was unjustly cold, dark and unforgiven. Here is where complete dissatisfaction with the present is made bare (if wired) in "Street Life," that least transparent of the season's Christmas hits with Paul Thompson's drums regularly tripping over themselves, finger snaps an oil scare away from The Addams Family and wavy line keyboards (stop feeling fascination?), Ferry growling, snapping, Little Richard wooooo-ing as though half a decade belting out "In The Midnight Hour" in toilets had to be paid back (and note the chewed-up "d"s and "l"s in the Billy Fury tradition). Anywhere - dreams of jet black angel fifties, Vassar debutante perfidity - is better than standing still ("You might be stranded if you stick around...and that's really something," concludes Ferry over a soundtrack that sounds like walking on hot coals).

There were other records around that related to Stranded, and ideally these should be heard in tandem: Ferry's solo These Foolish Things, a canny and canned exercise in emphasising the importance, majesty and continuity of popular song. Did anyone realise that "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" was such a great - and shocking - pop song before Ferry and David O'List got to work on their Spike Jones effects, and how naturally it fitted in next to Eric Maschwitz, or the whole Noel Coward thing? The comedy effects are put to subtler yet more ecstatic use on "Mother Of Pearl" - the single castanet which answers "flamenco," for instance. Then there is Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets. Much like Stranded, Warm Jets hovers lovingly over several differing variations of the same song and has no reserve or lack of wit about bashing different elements into each other, dodgem-style; thus the slo-mo poignancy of "On Some Faraway Beach" breaks straight into the punk sneer of "Blank Frank." "Baby's On Fire" sounds like rock trying to rescue itself from The Towering Inferno, whereas the tenderness of "Cindy Tells Me" meets its opposite, and match, in the determinedly ludicrous Ferry impressions on "Dead Finks Don't Talk."

What I'm trying to get at is that the Roxy Music of Stranded - and most of them were on both these records - walks a remarkable line in between the pop and popped extremes, even as its leader wrestles with his mind and Brylcreem. New keyboardist/violinist/electronicist Eddie Jobson was eighteen and fresh from Curved Air, and actually (or, at least, on this record) makes a better companion to Ferry, mainly because his lack of questions means greater concentration on how to soundtrack this mixture of woe and titillation. Some Roxy fans were disappointed by his work on "Amazona" and while it is true that the song's "weird" sections are clearly constructed with effort and skill, as opposed to the Connect 4 pot luck of Eno's anti-strategies, the interaction between Jobson and Phil Manzanera's guitar (albeit with Manzanera clearly taking the lead), coming out of the rapid 14/8 section, suggests the icy fallacy of the paradise to which Ferry is supposedly taking his partner, or hostage (although, with its references to "hollow sound" and "longings more profound," Ferry, as I think he is doing on "Serenade," may well be singing to, or about, Eno). Flashing blasts are finished by a serene Ferry hiccup and as they approach the drawbridge ("Journey's over - we're almost there!") the drums roll to a funereal stop and electrified bird whistles possess a false memory. "Serenade" flops along like a three-wheeled chariot with its fulminating Spector percussion - Fury doing Bowie's "Silly Boy Blue" sprung instantly to my mind - and Ferry (Ferry/Fury, and the two didn't look dissimilar) growls about G-plan gymnastics being of less meaning than the old mill stream in summer ("From courtly love to costly game"), even if, as any reader of George Eliot will know, the presence of an old mill stream does not preclude drowning. What does he want? "Will you swoon, as I croon your serenade?" he asks himself as much as, or more than, us.

Because this man is stranded; he is not quite undecided, but the tide is coming in, he can't make up his mind. Throughout Stranded he refers repeatedly to wasting time, and "wasting" can mean "in decay" here too (the latter is present in the "party-time-wasting" of "Mother Of Pearl," the more reflective meaning of decline in the "Do you disapprove how we've wasted my time?" of "Sunset"). At the beginning of "Amazona": "No more fall-out." As I said, anywhere and everywhere but here and now; and yet he can't live without it. Who could?

And yet Ferry can play tricks with time. If the transcontinental wanderings of "A Song For Europe" - which really play only in his head - will eventually become the falling-down buildings of "I Travel," if the ghosts of Sylvian are already making themselves feel in both "Song For Europe" and "Sunset," then the resemblance of the chord sequence of "Just Like You" to those of Blur's "Best Days" play like a blue prediction (those chords themselves being decidedly Kentish in the Robert Wyatt/Kevin Ayers sense), while the singer struggles not to fall in love, not to be overcome by it or to fall into it. Every time, fashion is pulled in as the culprit, just as it is on "Psalm," where it plays the role of a red herring. And yet, that sudden emotional eruption in the "How COULD..." section of "Just Like You" shows the momentary dropping of all masks.

Ferry is quite prepared to drop masks when needed (the snarl of "stepthroughthemirrorandSEE?" at the beginning of "Amazona") and to acknowledge that masks are not only needed a lot of the time but can also advance our case for living. "Mother Of Pearl" is a remarkable piece of music because he gruffly turns "pop" onto itself and forces it, and himself, to admit to real emotions, particularly happiness and joy, which the record had previously been doing its best to avoid. It begins waspish, the best Little Richard/New York Dolls jam session you never heard, with Ferry whooping, guitars, saxes and synths flying around his head like the artillery fire which will presently engulf Adam Fenwick-Symes at the close of Vile Bodies. But in comes a booming suburban James Earl Jones voice from nowhere: "HAVE YOU A FUTURE?" Shrieks Ferry in reply, "NO, NO, NO!" before the Voice corrects him with a firm and simple "YES."

And then he opens up, as the song slows to half-tempo, quoting "As Time Goes By," indulging in every sentimental gimcrack of a trope he can dredge up, knowing that this may yet be a dream of the firmest plastic...but he wants it, and her, as he allows awe to take over (Jobson's synth shiver which provokes Ferry's suddenly chloroformed "Steps right into-view"), as Andy Mackay's saxes honk like filled boots, and the Voice ("FU-TURE!") returns, before everything dips away towards Ferry's own voice, in a Newcastle club somewhere in 1964.

Newcastle - while Ferry was serving his art school/Gas Board apprenticeship, the thing was to be the Animals, but Roxy, though of similar instrumentation and talent distribution, appeared as a re-sexified Animals; sex thought of differently, and more colourfully, and more fervently - not that there's much talk of it here, but the breath of it is fetid enough to curtain any notions of overspent grief. As indeed is the spirit of Eno, hovering ambiently over the closing "Sunset," from the pre-ambient waterways which directly presage Another Green World to the unexpected poignancy of the Brian Wilson sleigh bells towards song's close, and the song is a hopeful and discreet closer, a record of a satisfied life closing down (Ferry's voice rises exultantly on "larks," glides effortlessly up and down an octave on the following "will sing"), the depth of his being underlined by Chris Laurence's magisterial bowed bass.

Perhaps the most palpable evidence of Eno's continuing grip on 1973 Roxy comes with "Psalm," which according to some sources was the first song Ferry wrote:

"'...On that occasion you told Bernard Stevens that you got no kick out of High Mass at some church or other in Patis because they went through the ceremonial and the music "as a formality" - those were your words. If you are religious it is your Protestantism, or if you aren't perhaps it's your British Way of Life that prevents understanding a faith which needs no exhibition of fervour.'"

(Constant Lambert, quoted in Arthur Hutchings' 1965 introduction to the former's Music Ho!)

Again he begins with fashion to trip up the unwary, and more importantly to prevent himself from believing, but as the song develops, with its straight piano and not quite straight-faced organ, his voice rises and chews on the second syllable of the word "sublime. A rhythm approximating broken-down R&B is introduced, Thompson drumming like Dannie Richmond, away from the centre. On the word "high," firecrackers explode as Ferry's voice dissembles into a single crystalline spark of electronics, violin, guitar and squealing alto. The drums steadily become more forceful, and even martial, as Ferry's surrender to faith grows more intense, and the London Welsh Male Choir quivers into being behind him. Ferry's "Op-EN-UP-your-EYES!" is simultaneously more exasperated and affectionate than Justin Hayward would have pitched it. At this point we notice how Manzanera, Mackay and Thompson have gradually turned the stately English background into a New Orleans gumbo shuffle, and also that the choir is singing in strange, unsettled tonalities (again there's something similar happening two years hence, namely Gavin Bryars' The Sinking Of The Titanic, which will appear on Eno's Obscure label). Everything boils forth, and Ferry is saved and convinced, or at least convincing us that he's been saved. An OMD drone awaits at journey's end.

Because the journey's beginning could scarcely have been more painful. Over thirty-eight years of familiarity with this record, "A Song For Europe" is always the one for which I reach first, and most fervently, because it spells out so many of the things I regard as essential to what can be understood as music, or even art (as though music weren't art); most tellingly because, if we view early Roxy Music as Al Bowlly trapped in a prog-rock band (the thirties trying to live within, and not merely with, the seventies), then we have to admit base emotion as being as profound as lofty speculation. Yes, it's a pisstake of Eurovision - some even say the song was anonymously submitted to the 1973 committee, although there is no real evidence that this ever happened - but it only uses pastiche as both shield and battering ram, to get through this stupid wall of plastic divisiveness, to admit that banal, crazy pop can quite a lot of the time get to the nub of things more handily than some higher art, but that a concept such as "A Song For Europe" could scarcely be imaginable without its high art carrot-masquerading-as-stick. He's sitting alone in an empty cafe - it could be in the shadow of Notre Dame, but then again it could be anywhere - thinking about someone who has gone, who isn't coming back (if there's any trace of the sixties in this record - potentially the first number one album of the eighties, never mind the seventies; the endless, futile search for "love" - the term "holy grail" even makes a climactic cameo in the midst of "Mother Of Pearl" - then it's in Jacques Brel filtered through Scott Walker) and, as a successor will do in a similarly climactic song of loss nine years hence, breaks down. "There's no more time for us" - a final response to West Side Story? - "There's no today for us," "My oyster [is] only a shell full of memories," "Now, only sorrow, no tomorrow." He closes down every escape route, but what else does the abandoned heart do when it has lost something central? And as mournful saxes, piano and guitar rise behind him, he intones the song's words, first in stentorian spoken Latin, and then in emotional French - his final cries of "Jamais! JAMAIS!" hardly offset or cancelled by his keep-us-guessing fading whistling. The point here is that sometimes you have to immerse yourself in "trash" to get to emotion, to express it directly, with candour and without cover, even if for half the span of a long-playing record you are playing hide and seek with emotion? Stranded, below and above all else, speaks for a future, one where high and low are revealed as two sides of the same, smiling coin, one where nothing is off limits or remote in terms of what can be reached or used; because, like Marinetti (but without his anti-Xenomania tirades), Ferry doesn't want to keep this an unruly mess; it is rather the basis for a new understanding of pop music, a different angle, a saltier taste. A style by which, against most odds, substance can be argued or sung into existence (the Futurism conceals, as it usually does, a Romanticism. Did somebody mention Keats?). The words here are as true as they would have been ten years ago, when I felt it necessary to begin writing in public, and five years ago, when Romanticism found, for me, a new purpose and a renewed meaning:

"never again, no, will I give up my heart
to gamble with fate is my crime
nevertheless love, it's all here in my book
I'd write it but don't have much time"

("Just Like You," Roxy Music)

Which then goes on to "I know it sounds crazy/But what can I do?/I've fallen head over heels over you," sung exactly as Adam Faith would have sung it. Faith, you can really see (all those "yes"es and "no"s in "Street Life"; "Mother Of Pearl" confirming that "yes" is the only final way to travel).