Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week.

He was fresh from a UK #1 album Boys And Girls and had pretty much cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’.

Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths.

And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface.

His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves.

The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Marcus Miller, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, an irresistible post-Cupid & Psyche groove and cool rhythm guitar from David Williams.

‘New Town’ is a witty, late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour.

‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire.

‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows?

The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.


7 thoughts on “Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

  1. “Seven Deadly Sins” remains one of my favorite songs ever. Your take on “Bete Noir” is your alone. Just as I prefer Roland Orzabal freed from the influence of Curt Smith, Bryan Ferry by himself is far superior to Roxy Music. That’s my take.


  2. I saw the tour of this album at Wembley Arena I think, I was a bit gothy at the time, hair a bit Robert Smithy; and it was a seated affair.
    But surely -17 year old me thought- Roxy Ferry are meant to be grooved to? The place was SO ungroovy, bright almost surgical or interrogational lighting.
    So I stood up and tried to dance and some older guy, agressive, ‘ taps’ me on the shoulder.
    ” I paid 60£ for these seats sit down! ”
    (I don’t know where he’d got his tickets from cos I certainly hadn’t paid 60£ this was Ferry in the 80s tickets were cheap!)
    Anyway, I’m a weedy goth, he’s bigger than me, I sit down.
    Tapped on the shoulder again…
    It’s another older guy:
    ‘ if you wanna dance dance ‘
    I don’t really feel like dancing any more, but I’m a weedy goth, and this guy is bigger and older than me, so I dutifully get up and start dancing again.
    I didn’t blame Ferry, but I didn’t play him much after that!

    Liked by 1 person

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