Sunday 13 January 2013

ROXY MUSIC: Flesh And Blood

(#231: 28 June 1980, 1 week; 23 August 1980, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Midnight Hour/Oh Yeah/Same Old Scene/Flesh And Blood/My Only Love/Over You/Eight Miles High/Rain Rain Rain/No Strange Delight/Running Wild

“So this is hell
Not so hard to tell”
(Roxy Music, “No Strange Delight”)

“We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in”
(Joy Division, “Decades”)

At the time of Flesh And Blood’s first run at number one, it was still a few weeks before Joy Division’s Closer would be released, but it’s not just the involvement of Peter Saville in the cover design for both that suggests a kinship, and Closer and Ian Curtis are better written about in this context than that of the album that actually was at number one at the end of July. This as well as the high probability that Peter Gabriel banished cymbals from his third album because he wanted to achieve a Joy Division/Comsat Angels-type sound.

Listening to Closer, then as now, it is difficult to imagine that any music could follow it (although Stephen Morris gives us plenty of cymbals); had Joy Division not pushed what you could do with “rock” music to the limits of life itself? There’s no avoiding the terminal nature of the record; in “Isolation” and “24 Hours” – indeed, on pretty well all of the tracks – Curtis spells out his pain, why it exists and why he perhaps no longer felt like existing, and it is a tribute to the other three musicians, not only that they were able to develop rock, let alone post-punk, to the point that “The Eternal” and “Decades” sound as though being conceived and performed on a different planet, but also that, bereaved, they were able to carve out a future for both themselves and for pop music.

The week that Closer debuted on the album chart was also the week Peter Sellers died, when his heart gave up on him after decades of pummelling, and perhaps some of that sense of finality, the end approaching in an anonymous international hotel lobby, peering at terrible film scripts and feigning interest, seeps through to Flesh And Blood.

The album did not get a tremendous critical reception at the time; what was it with these cover versions – did Bryan Ferry not have enough new songs? Why this navel-gazing at a time of global crisis? But I don’t think either of these assumptions comes close to the deeply troubled heart of Flesh And Blood. A lot of the residual indifference stems from received critical thinking, which states that Roxy were an avant-circus of noise n’ roll until Eno left and the group became Ferry’s musical walk-in wardrobe. Well, the last time we were with Roxy Music it was 1973, and Ferry was floating on a boat in the middle of the ocean, lost and stranded but curiously happy about both.

I think the stock critical picture also undervalues all the records released in the interim; Country Life isn’t the bland-out disaster it’s conventionally painted as being, and Siren is substantially more than very good. Of Ferry’s solo releases, 1977’s In Your Mind tries its best to match the sceptical futurism of Bowie’s Low, and 1978’s The Bride Stripped Bare – clearly the first of two Jerry Hall break-up albums – is a craggy, funereal affair with strong performances (“Sign Of The Times,” “Carrickfergus”) even if Ferry sounds on occasion as though he would rather the audience of listeners weren’t there.

Roxy’s Manifesto (1979) was one hell of a comeback – in all senses - with a flawless first side and, in the title track, the best and most disturbing thing they ever recorded. The artful attack of “Dance Away” and “Angel Eyes,” however, seemed the best way for the group to proceed, towards a dignified quietude.

By the time of Flesh And Blood, original drummer Paul Thompson had left, meaning that Roxy was effectively reduced to Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay with various reliable hired hands. Indeed the guest players on the album, including Andy Newmark, Paul Carrack and Gary Tibbs (keep an eye on the latter; we’ll be meeting him again in a very different but related setting), are rather more than reliable – always there is the feeling of a coherent group playing.

The songs themselves, though, are not comforting. Why begin with an ambient lounge reading of “In The Midnight Hour” (author’s note: on the rear sleeve of the 1999 CD reissue the song is credited as “The Midnight Hour”; the “In” is added on the lyric sheet) complete with a doomy Ferry count-in (all the way to 8)? Memories of “A Day In The Life” and parallel count-ins (“Turn It On Again,” “Games Without Frontiers”) aside, one thinks of a boxing count-in when one is lying prostate on the floor, knocked out, or the count administered by doctors before the patient goes under anaesthetic; and actually it is a key song on this record – a song Ferry certainly would have belted out in his mid-sixties R&B club days.

But this “Midnight Hour” isn’t a String Of Hits-style bland update for a more neutered age. I think it serves as a framing device for the record itself, since if we assume – as from the overwhelming evidence of the accumulated song lyrics – that Flesh And Blood concerns itself, still, with the split from Jerry Hall, or Hall’s split from Ferry, then “Midnight Hour” acts as a prelude to Ferry’s internal nightmare; it is a memory of a time before he ever knew Hall, maybe a time when he wanted to be Mick Jagger, let alone Wilson Pickett. But Ferry also knows that it isn’t 1965 anymore, that the song has to be escorted into the “now,” even though everything about his reading is polished and smooth, unlikely to offend the most casual of listeners.

“Oh Yeah,” however, is a song Roy Orbison could have sung, in terms of subject matter, vocal range and performance. There Ferry is, perhaps in one of those black limousines, “driving alone to a movie show,” reminiscing about how once he was with someone, and they went to the drive-in together; the car and radio are now the same, but so is the music, with the band’s “rhyming guitars,” and although we never discover the identity of the song that moves him and drowns the sounds of his tears, we sense that he has really gone nowhere since their affair ended (“But where I am? Where can I go?”). Carrack’s synthesised string plucks suggest that Adam Faith is really not far away from the song’s picture or Ferry’s mind. The music goes back to a time maybe preceding the Beatles, but as with several other songs on the album, the song drifts, worked up by Mackay and Manzanera’s locking high-range saxophone and guitar lines, into static ambience, and takes a long, patient while to do so.

Even as the luxurious dungeon of Flesh And Blood was being built, however, Ferry knew exactly wht time it was. “Same Old Scene” is one of Roxy’s most perfect songs – quite an achievement for a band whose aesthetic centred on perfection – with every delayed synthesiser chord change and stuttering beat sounding completely interlocked and logically assembled. Did Ferry have the nascent New Romantic scene in mind, and was he already dubious about it (“Young loving may be/Oh so mean/Trying to revive/The same old scene,” although Ferry sings the word “revive” with enough ambiguity to make you wonder whether he is really singing “survive”)? But the song and performance are so strong that they almost obviate the need for New Romanticism in the first place; certainly neither Duran nor Spandau offered anything as saturninely dread-filled as Ferry’s numb “Nothing lasts forever.” Note also the reappearance of the drum machine pattern from “Games Without Frontier.”

But the title track suggests that this is the best album Duran Duran never made; the line “My friend’s flesh and blood” can properly be taken as a friendly dig at Gary Numan (as the accompanying musical arrangement underlines) but the emptiness is hollower; the idealised Other turns out to be ambitious and tricky – not the love Ferry desperately needs. Meanwhile, the music thrusts along like “Girls On Film” never quite did, complete with a good counterpoint between Ferry’s ominous bass synthesiser drones and an insistent, clamorous two-chord guitar riff (also played by Ferry). The song’s propulsion indeed is so reminiscent of “Nite Flights” that one wonders whether, if he hadn’t been so stubbornly uncompromising a perfectionist, Flesh And Blood is the record Scott Walker – only two years Ferry’s senior – might have ended up making in 1980.

Side one ends with the monumental “My Only Love,” whose melody revisits and reshapes that of “Same Old Scene” – yes, it’s all linked – and features a demurely wracked and very passionate Ferry lead vocal against the kind of exciting futurist musical backdrop that makes one impatient for it to be 1982 (note how Ferry’s piano suddenly and madly descends behind the final notes of Mackay’s sax solo). He meaningfully namechecks “Fool To Cry” in his lyric – there really is no doubt what and whom this record is about – and offers a bitter Nelson Eddy-cum-Perry Como ode to a life never to be regained, or even recaptured. Musically it is like “Save A Prayer” at double speed and with double purpose, with a high-pitched wordless vocal exit resembling an ambient Gregorian chant remix.

“Over You” finds Ferry admitting to pretending that he’ll keep his countenance and be strong, although the six syllables he takes to declaim the “ro” of “No more romance” suggest the precise opposite. Manzanera’s lead guitar is manifestly Byrdsy, and Ferry’s piano verges on the melodramatic – but there are unattributable falling and crashing noises throughout the instrumental break. Again, the instrumental components break up into their own atoms, before meaningfully segueing into “Eight Miles High” done in the style of Chris Rea circa “On The Beach.” And before you sneer, it weirdly works; as the song was written about London in the first place, it’s not a big stretch for Ferry to fit it into his own view of grey, rainy London with its black limousines and people standing alone. Manzanera doesn’t attempt to recreate McGuinn trying to recreate Coltrane, but there is an eerie snatch of reverb at song’s end which suggests that Ferry wants to be anywhere except on the ground, or even Earth – preferring to get high.

“Rain Rain Rain” magnifies some of these themes, as well as revisiting the protagonist of “Flesh And Blood” – she, whoever she is, remains unsure of what she wants and maybe who she is (“Lust For Life” gets the paraphrase here). Allan Schwartzberg’s drumming is extremely pronounced – one step aside from Phil Collins’ gated crashes – while Alan Spenner’s bass grumbles. Ferry gives an ironic whoop after the line “getting high” (what a contrast to somebody like Rod Stewart, whose extended lament on “I Was Only Joking” is undermined by his non-ironic “Whoo!” during the guitar solo – is he, you wonder, even listening to his own song?). There is an ambiguous, unprinted last lyric line: “You can live and love,” as the song abruptly cuts off, or should that be “leave”?

“No Strange Delight,” wherein Ferry’s projected Other finds herself in hell, driven there by her slavery to obsession, is an unsettling musical study where the singer wonders whether her “strange delight” which “better men than I” have tasted even exists. More lament than damnation, the music turns the ambient Roxy model inside out; as with Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember,” guitar, oboe, bass, drums and keyboards become more and more tangled before the song culminates in a free-for-all pile-up.

The record ends with “Running Wild,” a revisit and remodel of “Oh Yeah,” where that elusively remembered melody is now, by Ferry’s admission, doing his head in, and he slowly regains consciousness (“Drifting out of time, now I’m in/Underneath you’ll find I’m just the same”) and realises that the game is up; the sixties are no more, and neither is his relationship with Jerry Hall, and so once again he finds himself in opulent isolation; he’s really drifting away, and knows it – a desert island in which there is a huge lake in the middle of which is another desert island.

Going slowly to nowhere; contrary to the last line of the album, he will fall in love again, on the last day of 1980 at that, but nonetheless the journey towards complete stasis and suspension will continue. It seems to be the case, though, that this whole sequence of records, by virtue of their “going nowhere,” are heading somewhere, toward some sort of settlement, or explosion. They are all linked in more than a superficial sense, and one would be justified in asking: where, and how, will this story culminate? In the meantime, however, the narrative continues, and it cannot be purely coincidental that the next album in the sequence is performed by a group whose singer is the man for whom Jerry Hall left Bryan Ferry. One wonders how his side of the story will be told.