Bryan Ferry


Bryan Ferry has spent most of his life pursuing – perfecting – his idea of glamour. 

In fact you could look at his life and say that from the early days of his improbably impoverished upbringing in a Tyne and Wear mining village, his interest in glamour and the subsequent search to bring it into his life, has bordered on an obsession or even a fatal flaw. 

Even when he was 12, in a valiant, somewhat outlandish, attempt to define his individuality and transcend his surroundings, he would head into The Big City (Newcastle) sporting a rather fabulous white trenchcoat: a sweet, cinematic fantasy – making himself into a mini-Bogart or his version of the man in the Strand cigarette ads (‘You’re Never Alone With A Strand’). This, pretty clearly, is what he’s been doing ever since. 

Perhaps he did it too well. Now nearing 55 (he was born September 26th 1954), he has a wife and four children, and has written some of the most innovative, exhilarating, and avant-garde, music of his time (Street Life, Both Ends Burning, Do The Strand) and produced some of the most sophisticated (Slave To Love, Avalon, Love Is The Drug). But mention his name and most people are just as likely to think of his image (or one of them).

When they first exploded on to the music scene in 1972 trilling

“What’s her name ? Virginia Plain”, Roxy Music’s wild, thrilling, leopard-skin-and-feather-boa glam became one of the most vivid and enduring images in modern pop, inspiring imitations for nearly 30 years – from the likes of Japan, Duran Duran and ABC to 90s romantics such as Suede, Placebo, and Gay Dad.

Ferry’s follow up professed a different kind of glamour (from street life to the jet-set) as he re-invented himself as a dashing lounge lizard (white tuxedo and cigarette, sharp raven-haired fringe being suavely pushed back from his eyes), an image which has stuck with him ever since. The glamour of the rich, it was assumed, had consumed and claimed him. 

Glamour was, after all, what Roxy Music had been about all along. Even the word ‘Roxy’ was chosen – from a list of 50s picture houses – to convey it and make amends for the fact that his first band had been called The Gas Board. 

Roxy were glamour distilled – so thoroughly that even their songs were about it (Do The Strand for example). The sleeves he designed for the first five Roxy albums (recently re-mastered and re-packaged on CD) were his (semi-serious) attempt to appeal to his ideal audience.

After a series of fantastically sexy, glam, goddesses like Jerry Hall and Amanda Lear, the cover of the fourth Roxy album (titled, archly, Country Life), featuring two semi-naked socialites caught in the headlights, was Ferry’s version of the ultimate, glamorous, party. 

Given the nature of Roxy’s success and Ferry’s high-profile private life (especially the two years with Jerry Hall), the line between fantasy and reality was becoming seriously blurred. 

Even though punk artists like Siouxsie & The Banshees, Adam & The Ants, and John Lydon regarded Roxy Music as idols, by the time of the sixth Roxy Music album, Manifesto, he began to find people had stopped seeing the ironies, and the image he was trying out, or trying on, had stuck. (The NME started calling him “Byron Ferrari.”) It only faded when the third and final image took over. 

With his marriage to society belle, Lucy Helmore Ferry in 1982 and their life in their elegant country house in Sussex, the pit-worker’s son was branded as a sort of arriviste social climber, a faux country squire or dilettante. Out of touch not only with the public but his own roots. (His parents were living on the grounds, helping maintain them.) While trying to explain how fiercely he prized his working-class values and his close relationship with his parents, he let slip that he had put his sons down for Eton, admitting he would not have wanted it for himself if it meant being sent away from home and his family as a boy.

With his attraction to covering tragic torch songs (These Foolish Things, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, I Put A Spell On You) and the melancholy, romantic, despair of Roxy records like Avalon and Boys & Girls, even his conflicts seemed to have a kind of fatal glamour. Very Heathcliffe…

In much the same way that he had lost Jerry Hall to Mick Jagger, his aura as an incurable, doomed, romantic or world-weary lounge lizard, built a theory that he had become a kind of 

modern-day Gatsby: the victim of his own aspirations, the loner who was always at parties, seeking to make himself invisible, using his celebrity and affluence to keep people at a distance. Someone who was lost.  

He and Lucy Ferry were photographed at society parties and aristo events like Ascot, but, as he acknowledged, the marriage was “turbulent.” 

In interviews, he summed her up as “Garbo-esque” or, bluntly “a Virgo – not easy” and in 1993 she revealed that after two years of attending AA and NA meetings, she had been admitted to Farm Place, a detox clinic in Surrey, to be treated for drink and drug dependency. For his part, Ferry happily confessed he was prone to bouts of excessive depression and drinking. 

The Gatsby analogy grew when he admitted he regarded the comparison with Gatsby as “flattering” and talked of “always having this desire to play him.” 

He said his solo album, The Bride Stripped Bare, was less about his break-up with Jerry Hall than “the fear of cracking up like Gatsby does… You never recover from a wound like that. You just learn to incorporate it into your personality.” 

In a profile in Esquire, his close friend Anthony Price was quoted as saying Ferry was “doomed to a prison of his making.”

The realization of his fantasies seemed more like a series of nightmares. 

The temptation to think that the early Roxy Music song In Every Dream Home A Heartache had become a self-fulfilling prophecy was impossible to resist.  

BRYAN FERRY breezes into a restaurant in Pimlico in an effortlessly elegant, anxious, flurry -simultaneously suavely harassed and debonair – ordering a Campari and soda to celebrate a successful day at the races.

He has come straight from Glorious Goodwood where he expertly based his selections by studying the jockey’s form, applying his knowledge of the course, and then – with typically willful style – deciding by the design of the jockey’s colours or, even more amateurishly, the horse’s name. 

Selfish !” he cheers. “I couldn’t resist it !”

As Ferry frets over the menu, I realise the Gatsby theory is probably going to remain exactly that: an unresolved theory. 

I would imagine that even for his close friends, Bryan Ferry is essentially an enigma. Not because he is careful to maintain an aura of ‘cool’ or stay aloof (on the contrary) but because he presents himself as an almost absurd array of contradictions.

He is poised but nervy; rugged but fragile; introspective and isolated but tremendously friendly. He is, clearly, ostentatiously an aesthete (collecting paintings and books by the Bloomsburys like Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Bonnard, Wyndham Lewis in particular) but passionate about sport (particularly horse-racing and cycling).

While Roxy Music were/are a virtual by-word for The Modern, Ferry is steadfastly old-fashioned. (His new album is a record of songs from the 1930s with Ferry singing mostly just to a piano accompaniment.) 

He is scatter-brained and vague but a perfectionist, an inveterate worrier about money but a shameless spendthrift, known to spend small fortunes recording songs (or albums) that never come out.

“I should have double for those records !” he laughs heartily.

Notoriously moody and lugubrious, shy and private about his family, and uncomfortable with the scrutiny of interviews or photographs, he comes most alive talking about his childhood, becoming so animated and entertaining it is almost alarmingly. People are always telling him he’s shouting or becoming over-excited, he laughs.  

Anyone who seriously thinks he is interested in being ‘cool obviously hasn’t seen the kamikaze-like ‘uncool’ that he displays on stage, dancing with all the hapless enthusiasm of a drunken office manager at the Christmas party (tie undone, sweating profusely, miming guitar solos, and so on.)

DESPITE his good intentions to do otherwise, Ferry is notoriously uncomfortable talking about himself and, seemingly, aware of not being the most forthcoming interviewee. So – as if to compensate – he tends to talk enthusiastically about other people instead: his father, the Italians, Eric Cantona…

This seemingly well-meaning habit allows him, expertly or accidentally, to side-step personal questions.

When I ask about Price’s “prison of his own making” observation, Ferry happily starts talking about Anthony Price instead (“Have you ever met him! I wish he were here now !”) and never does get round to addressing Price’s comment. A question about his personal wealth results only in a terrific impersonation of his angst-ridden accountant. 

This combination of stiff, hopeless, small talk and tremendously affable good manners makes him seem like a more endearing (glamorous) version of Prince Charles. 

He is, above all, cripplingly shy – much like the rest of Roxy Music and Eno were – hence the flamboyance of their early outfits/ disguises. 

When Ferry then moved into suits, people interpreted this as something different but, of course, it was the more of the same. 

“The suits had their own kind of glamour,” he reflects merrily. “It’s not so much a picture of yourself. It’s a picture of a suit.”

In a way, the person inside the image has always remained hidden. Just as he says that with “every song, you are playing a character a bit,” you can’t help wondering whether, like the 12 year-old in his white trenchcoat, he has been dressing up as his fantasy version of Bryan Ferry all along. 

He has replaced the famous Elvis-esque fringe with a choppy, spiky haircut, but remains the same tall, dark, suave, figure he has been for three decades. No wonder friends tease him about a rotting picture in his attic and allude to him as “Dorian Ferry” (or Doryan presumably). 

When he swishes in to La Poule Au Pot, he is so much like the way you expect him to be, it’s like meeting the winner of Stars In Your Eyes: “tonight, Matthew, I am going to be…. Bryan Ferry.”

His casual/smart dress sense has the sort of colour combination you usually see only Italians pull off: grey Anderson & Sheppard suit, blue shirt, brown shoes, yellow socks, trademark polka dot tie. All very effortless, of course. 

“I like shabby clothes – jackets with holes, that type of thing. Like this suit looks good now, after five years but it didn’t when it was new.”

He is wearing an old Rolex he picked up in Lucca in Italy but his insecurity is such that he wants to get another (identical) one in case he loses it. 

He has joked about regarding himself as “an orchid born on a coal tip !” 

He is proud of the influence of his gritty Geordie upbringing and

does a pretty passable version of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, telling his children that he and his sisters only ever had twigs to play with (“if we were lucky”). 

“Whenever I tell them to switch the light off when they go out of a room, they always think that’s hysterical.”

At the same time, he has in the past hardly helped his cause by admitting to an aversion to changing nappies, helping with the housework or doing the shopping (“the occasional iceberg lettuce”), taking public transport, or using self-service petrol pumps: “very Howard Hughes I know”. 

“I’m Libra,” he shrugs (although with Scorpio Rising). “It’s easy for me to balance it all.”

His father was “very old-fashioned, very rural” and his mother “much more with it, very urban.” 

He regards himself as “totally comfortable with both.”

He skirts the issue of how he votes, by saying he doesn’t. 

His father managed a farm and, when it failed in the Depression, worked down the mines looking after pit ponies. Ferry seems to have inherited his romantic nature from him, if not his grit. 

“My father used to ride over to see her on his farmhorse, like a Thomas Hardy character !” he marvels. “The country yokel coming over to court her. He courted her for ten years.”

Their deaths in 1984 and 1991 rocked him – especially their absence from his sons’ lives. (Ferry’s youngest sons, Tara and Merlin are only 9 and 8. Otis and Issac are 15 and 14.) The eldest, he says, wants to be a game-keeper. 

“My father used to win prizes for ploughing. Fantastic. Wonderful stories and photographs. It looks like another century.”

It’s no wonder he once said: “there is something glamorous about something you want and can’t have.” 

Ferry was born in the tiny pit village of Washington, and compares it to an old Hovis ad – tin bath, outside lav, “cows poking their heads through the windows. We weren’t normally poor. We were abnormally poor.”

Ever the loner, the fantasist, escape came in the form of fashion, cinema, and sport. (He dreamed of being a great cycle champion.)

“We didn’t have television, so cinema was the thing. A golden, fantastic, world. Everybody looked incredible and elegant and they all smoked and drank wonderful drinks. It was a bit like Cinema Paradiso !”

At this memory, Ferry’s face lights up. 

“My mother used to make tea for the projectionist so we used to get free tickets !” he enthuses still looking tremendously pleased. 

He used to play snooker with the older Teddy boys (“the dandies of the time”) who came into the tailor’s where he worked on Saturdays. 

“Men’s clothes are all about detail. Black collar, blue lining, six buttons, choosing fabrics.”

The same youths also greatly influenced Roxy’s early look – like a Space 1999 version of Rockabillies. 

Even by the age of 11, Ferry’s taste – his idea of glamour – was taking shape. His first loves were Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday. 

“Throw in Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, and that would be my kind of party.”

He has consistently returned to the songs of his youth, on albums like These Foolish Things, Taxi, and Another Time Another Place.

On his new record, he turns to the likes of Rogers & Hart (Where Or When), Cole Porter (You Do Something To Me), or the title track As Time Goes By (in which he gets to renew his Bogart fantasy) to perform songs that could have been written for him. 

His version of the Dietrich classic Falling In Love Again (“Never wanted to/what am I to do/Can’t help it”) is strangely intense. 

“They’re such beautiful things aren’t they, those songs ? Like a major song out of nothing. It’s just perfect.”

After four years at Newcastle University, studying under the artist Richard Hamilton, by the age of 27 he was brimming with so many ideas that when the record company wondered if he had a single to accompany (but not appear on) the first Roxy Music album, he simply wrote Virginia Plain. 

By now, his influences had become avidly diverse: from Marcel Duchamp to John Donne, Laurence Harvey to Guy Boudin. 

“Glamour,” he said, “is the best of its kind,” and even now, he says he appreciates Jermyn Street shirts and Savile Row suits just as much as Las Vegas or Come Dancing. (“I’ll sit and watch that for hours !” he grins.)

One of the things that is likeable about him is that he comes across an enthusiast rather than a connoisseur, with everything from Puff Daddy and Philip Treacy to The Telegraph’s coverage of the Tour de France earning his esteem. 

He has been toying with golf (“it’s like a walk with a game attached”), albeit – with typical Ferry style – in Knightsbridge.

“You go to this place where they film your swing and show you how you’re doing it completely wrong !” he laughs, happily.

For one so notoriously doomy, the only time he expresses any negative sentiment is talking about the design of the modern computer mouse and plastic CD cases – “trying to slot the booklets back in, and always breaking bits” he grumbles, sounding exactly like the Prince of Wales.   

“What I hate most,” he exclaims, actually shouting, “is this thing of releasing a single and they want five tracks on the B-side. I think that’s so sordid !”

He has insisted that As Time Goes By is released on vinyl.

Next year, he will release what he awkwardly calls “a rock album”, working with Avalon producer Rhett Davies and Eno.

Although this is not the much-mooted Roxy reunion album, he won’t rule one out, saying a tour “would be fun.”

Obsessively insecure about his work, he is most upset by the thought that the public stopped seeing the humour in it and his images, or that they might think that he “stopped being interested in good work.”

His personal life remains vague.

At the end of our dinner, hoping that the Pouilly-Fume has had some effect, I press him again about Anthony Price’s comment. Ask if it was in some way a reference to his Gatsby-esque existence and the perception that he had become trapped inside a fantasy. 

Sort of…” he allows. “I think he was just talking about fame in general. The limits of what you can do. People have said ‘oh he’s become a playboy’, but I was always working like a dog…. There was an element like Noel Coward or someone, where I always felt like an outsider. Totally. It is that Scott Fitzgerald thing: the rich are different from us…”

His obsession with his work, he says, pulled him back, though this has taken its toll on his family life. But whereas he made three LPs in one year in 1973, the last three have taken 12 years. 

“I do still the 90s as a very positive period, yes,” he declares. “I sort of consolidated my family and had two more children. I think it’s great having children ! I stopped doing so much touring. In the last 6 or 7 years, things have got much more sorted out in my life. I’m happy now. For a lot of it, there were certain periods where I wasn’t. There was a certain element of turmoil.”

He says all this staring out of the window, distantly but determinedly. 

“I think that is resolved yes. I hope so. My wife hates it when if I ever mention the family in interviews. In every marriage, you just have to hang on and fasten your safety belt. It has been up and down, yes, violently up and down. I’m quite Geordie. Very Latin somehow.”

After 19 years, they are still married. Though he is usually ensconced in his London studio/den during the week, he spends weekends and holidays in Sussex or visiting his wife’s family in Ireland.

“My wife is happy. Things have been sorted out family-wise in the last year or so,’ he mumbles vaguely. 

He doesn’t elaborate on how, taking this as his cue to head for the exit, and in a way, this is how it should be. Fatuous happiness wouldn’t suit him.

The enigmatic series of images he has assembled for himself might seem contrived or hollow to some, but it is still his.

Maybe he just never did fit in, which is what all the images – from the white rain coat and the white tuxedo to the man drinking Campari and soda with me – were trying to do all along: find a role, fulfill a fantasy. 

He is still restless and spends a lot of his time travelling – bits of work in Poland, Paris, Portland; weekend breaks in Morocco, Seville, and Istanbul. 

“I never had any fluency in languages!” he enthuses. “I find it so nice to be somewhere where the language washes over you. You have your own space. That aloneness.”

He hails a cab and dramatically swishes away suddenly into the London night, a dark blaze of nervy confidence, taking whatever torments he has with him, wrapped around him like a cloak. Where all his fantasies really stopped and started is anyone’s guess but he is still moving, perfecting them. 

Yesterday Bryan Ferry was in New York. Today he was at Goodwood. Tomorrow he’s off to Ireland. 

The search for it goes on.

But these days, he takes the glamour with him.