Britain’s most elegant man releases his new album, Avonmore, on November 17 – in this piece from the Uncut archives (January 2013, Take 188), Bryan Ferry discusses impending Roxy Music boxsets, his missing Antony Price suits and his never-ending energy: “I think I’ll go on ’til I drop!” Interview: Michael Bonner
Bryan Ferry’s studio is located in a small west London mews. Inside the foyer, a stack of framed photos of Kate Moss from the cover of Ferry’s 2010 LP Olympia lean against a wall. A row of Warhol Marilyn prints hang above stairs that head down to the studio. To the left, a door opens onto a spacious office-cum-lounge, split into alcoves by bulging bookcases. We meet Ferry sitting on an elegantly upholstered sofa, wearing a dark blue corduroy jacket, an Oxford blue shirt, dark trousers, polished tan shoes and a thick scarf looped round his neck. At 67, he has a patrician air, like a senior arts critic on a broadsheet, perhaps. He’s about to release his 14th solo LP, The Jazz Age, which reinterprets songs from his back catalogue in the style of the ’20s. And now he fields your questions, with topics ranging from the aborted Roxy reunion album to memories of growing up in the North East. “I had nothing,” he says. “My parents had zip!”
You started out as an art student, very serious about painting. Is there any similarity in your approach to writing songs?
Yeah, I’ve always liked to try to create pictures with songs. I see them in textures and moods. Sometimes there’s a story, too. It’s very, very similar. If you’re dealing with something intangible like sounds rather than something you can touch, it can drive you mad, trying to structure all these sounds, but when it works it can be fascinating. But the great difference between being a painter and musician is that you make music with a whole bunch of people. I find it more interesting to share it with other people than be on my own.
There’s talk of a boxset of the first Roxy album coming out. What can we expect from that and will you be following it up with other boxsets of the rest of the Roxy Music catalogue?
Chris Harper, Croydon
We’re doing boxsets of the first two albums. They’ll have deluxe vinyl, and lots of bits and pieces that relate to the records. But that hasn’t been designed yet. We’ve just finished the boxset of the Roxy catalogue and various bits and pieces were on the final disc, like B-sides. People really enjoyed that. I think it was quite a limited edition. They should reissue it. It’s a good doorstop. Or headrest. Or Chinese block. There’ll be loads of extras in the Roxy boxsets.
You struggled with writer’s block, but managed to get two albums of material with Dave Stewart. Would you consider other longterm collaborators, or do you prefer to write alone?
Traditionally, I’ve always written alone. Until in Roxy, Andy [Mackay] and Phil [Manzanera] started bringing ideas to the table, and I’d say, “Oh yeah, I can work with that.” So that’s how I started collaborating. But I would write the tune and the words and the title and they would generally provide the basic chord sequence. Then I’d try and do what I could do to turn it into something that was unique. We did some good collaborations, especially with Andy. “Song For Europe”, “Love Is The Drug” stand out. Dave Stewart would come up with a riff and I’d take it away and work for three years on it and turn it into something. Dave is great. He probably writes a song a day. I wish I could find a lyric writer. If I had, I’d have written twice as many albums. I don’t really know anyone who writes lyrics that I like, apart from Bob Dylan.
Would you like to finish the LP we started in 2006?
Not sure. Was there quite a lot of work done on it? Not really. I didn’t get excited about it at the time. I tried to, but then I ran out of enthusiasm for it. The big tour we did in 2001 was one of the best tours I’ve played on. We hadn’t played for 18 years, and you felt this wonderful excitement every night. We did a lot of shows, but taking it into the studio is a different thing. A lot of the onus is on me. Over the years, I got so used to making what we call solo albums – but they’re not really solo albums, they’re where I choose who plays on what, and I wanted to do that again. So the songs I had kicking around then I ended up using – certainly “Reason Or Rhyme” – on Olympia. My heart wasn’t in it, and it was pointless doing it. If one of the guys in Roxy came to me with a fabulous tune, then I might change my mind.
Whatever happened to your Antony Price suits?
Martyn, Kingston upon Hull
Most of them I still have. A couple of things disappeared. One turned up at auction a couple of years ago. It was the one from the first Roxy album cover. Antony was a huge part of getting Roxy together and making it what it was. I still see him socially, but we don’t work together much. He came down when we did the Olympia cover shoot. I just wanted him around. He’s so funny, he said, “Oh you don’t need me here,” while there’s 20 assistants running round. It was this huge production, and we were used to doing things just him and me, and one other person. We didn’t know who to take in the pictures, we were all taking turns behind the camera, doing those album covers.
A few years ago, you recorded a version of the old Durham folk tale, “The Lambton Worm”, for a tiny North East-based label. You still did the accent very well. Do you still have an inner Geordie?
Of course, yeah. My uncle Brian still helps me at home. He’s in his ’80s now. I’m sure I sound much more Northern when I’m with him, or with Paul Thompson. “Aye, Paul, how’s it doin’, like?”, “Aye, canny, man.” It’s more about grunting when I do the accent. I’m very proud of coming from the North, but I don’t think people up there think of me as a Northerner, which is a shame. But I go back… my parents are buried there, and I’ll be playing there next year so I shall go and visit my mam and dad. People think that you reject your working-class roots, but it’s not that. Although I might not appear so, I always wanted to be a free spirit and create my own life. I have quite a controlling instinct, which is why sometimes being in a band isn’t the best place for me. I tried when I was at school and university to become the best person I could be. But that meant getting away from the North and being in London or wherever.
You seem to have a never-ending amount of energy and drive. Will you ever stop touring/recording or go on ’til you drop?
I think go on ’til I drop. I’m planning to go out next year on tour. Will I be touring the jazz album? We’re trying to devise a tour where we’ll include some of that, otherwise it’ll be instrumental and I’ll be sitting in the wings with a cigar like Diaghilev. We just did a photo session the other day with the jazz band. They don’t need electricity, so they just started playing their instruments. It sounded incredible and people were dancing around. But, yes, there’s the idea of the rock star embracing old age. It never seems unusual to me, because jazz players and blues singers always had long careers. Same with artists like Picasso, who went on doing really interesting work until they were very old.
What do you remember about the music scene in Newcastle when you were young?
Paul Parker, Dulwich
I used to go to The New Orleans Jazz Club. They had a great be-bop band who played there with a great trumpeter called John Walters. He later became John Peel’s producer at the BBC and he was also a graduate from Newcastle University’s Fine Art Department where I’d been – he was an abstract painter. They had a sax player called Nigel Stanger, who later played on one of my things. Great characters. I sat there as a schoolboy, nursing a small glass of beer all night hoping they wouldn’t chuck me out. Eric Burdon would get up and sing blues songs and it was fantastic. There was a great venue that I played at myself with my college band called the Club A Go Go. I spent half my life in the Club A Go Go when I was a student. You heard all the best records there, all the Motown things, Stax, it was a really cool place. Beautiful girls, cool guys, great bands. Captain Beefheart played there one night. Wilson Pickett. The young Spencer Davis Group with Steve Winwood. They were amazing. Great scene.
Did you ever have any part-time jobs when you were growing up?
Martin Sperl, London
I’d have to work during the school holidays in a local steel factory, or a building site, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford any records. Even when I was at school I had a paper round in the morning and in the evening. I worked all the bloody time. My dad only had 15 pounds a week wages. He’d keep a pound for himself to buy tobacco and pigeon corn. He spent all the time in his garden growing prize vegetables, with these racing pigeons flying around. My mother looked after everything else. I got two shillings pocket money, so the rest I had to get from selling papers. I’d sell them in pubs on a Saturday evening. “Football Echo?”, “Here, lad!” You’d get a 10-pence tip. All these drunken people buying football papers. It was a great job, delivering papers. Melody Maker. Jazz Monthly. I’d just be walking down the street reading about Charlie Parker and dreaming.
What are your memories of Roxy’s early, provincial tours?
Bryn Jones, Cardiff
It was exciting, travelling around in a van. We were on that first provincial tour and we heard “Virginia Plain” on the radio for the first time. It was the first this, the first that. It was a laugh, playing places like Scarborough, sleeping in the van. Eno was a laugh, we got on very well. And Andy Mackay was very amusing, very dry. So we spent a lot of time laughing. Paul was a character… they were all characters. I was proud of that band.
Is it true that the chorus of “Remake/Remodel – “CPL593H” – was taken from a car number plate?
Yes, it was a very cool Mini that I saw at the Reading Festival. I went with a friend and I was very attracted to this girl backstage who was wearing a fluffy jacket. Anyway, I then saw her when we were driving home in the terrible slow queue to get out of the site, and she was in the car in front. And I memorised the number of the car. So it was a kind of cry in the wild… I never met her.
Why didn’t Paul Thompson play on Flesh + Blood?
Peter Ingvarsson, via email
He didn’t like the direction the group was going in. He played on Manifesto, didn’t he? Yes. He played on half of the album and the other half was played by Andy Newmark. I’d been living in America for quite a while and I drifted away from Paul. I think he fell off a motorbike, broke his arm, and he was out of action. And then he didn’t like… I’ve never talked to him much about it. But he drifted away. There were certain songs at the time that I wanted to have this other kind of feel. Paul was a fantastic rock drummer, he hits the snare harder than anyone, but there were things I wanted which weren’t his forte, so Andy Newmark came into the band and did Flesh + Blood and Avalon.
Can you tell us about the Banshees and The Gas Board?
Mark Pinks, Somerset
The Banshees was the first band I joined. I bumped into this guy I’d known in the cycling club and he said, “We’re looking for a singer, can you sing?” So I went to his dad’s hairdressing shop where they practised. The band were playing furiously, and I joined in. I was very, very shy, but I managed to grit my teeth and do it. I had a great summer working with the Banshees before I got to college. That was my baptism by fire. I put together a couple of bands at college, the best of them being The Gas Board. That’s where I started working with Graham Simpson who became part of Roxy.