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 number one album Boys And Girls and had 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, 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, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and 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.

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Roxy Music’s Avalon: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 1st June 1982

9/10

How do you like your classic album: consistent in tone/texture or mercurial and unpredictable like Sgt. Pepper’s (released on this day 50 years ago)? Avalon definitely belongs in the former camp. Beautifully performed, recorded, mixed and mastered, it maintains its mood throughout.

Through a variety of working methods – some originated on previous albums Manifesto and Flesh & Blood – Messrs Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay arrived at Roxy’s perfect studio swansong and, for many, the peak of ’80s sophisti-pop. Today, Avalon sounds completely different to almost anything else released in 1982. It’s always a shock seeing reruns of Ferry on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming something from the album – the whole package seems way too refined and luxurious for the worldly environs of a TV studio.

Crucial to Avalon‘s success was the reinstatement of the crack Flesh & Blood ‘backroom’ team: producer Rhett Davies and legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Also key was the choice of studios: Compass Point in Nassau and Power Station in New York, whose staircase was put to good use, as Davies told ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine: ‘The main thing at the Power Station was the stairwell. It had an unbelievable sound. You’d put anything through it and you’d just go “Yeah, we’ve got to have that.”’

Davies also brought with him another recording technique developed from working with Brian Eno on Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World. ‘Eno had opened me up to the way of working where you walk in with a blank sheet, stick some white noise down, count one to 100 and then fill in the spaces, and it was great working that way. When I started working with Roxy, Bryan had only known the “Let’s cut the track with the band in the studio” approach. I said, “Well, there is another way of working. We can put down our groove exactly as you want it synthetically, using a rhythm box, and the musicians can then play to that groove.” The musicians came in and responded to the atmosphere that was already on tape.’ (Eno of course also utilised a similar approach on Bowie’s Low and Heroes.)

Accordingly, drummer Andy Newmark was very often the last musician to overdub – most tracks were first laid down with a Linn drum machine backing. ‘The Main Thing’, ‘India’ (which sounds like Ferry was checking out Miles Davis’s On The Corner) and ‘The Space Between’ are the most obvious results of this approach, essentially jam sessions built on one-chord vamps. This painterly, piecemeal style of recording was also meat and drink to Ferry who was struggling with writer’s block at the time.

The title track was apparently a delightful accident, rescued at the eleventh hour after the song had almost been shelved: Davies: ‘We were mixing the album, and the version of the song that we’d done just wasn’t working out, so as we were mixing we recut the entire song with a completely different groove. We finished it off the last weekend we were mixing. In the quiet studio time they used to let local bands come in to do demos, Bryan and I popped out for a coffee and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went “What a fantastic voice!” That turned out to be Yanick Etienne who sang all the high stuff on ‘Avalon’. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band’s manager, came in and translated.’

Some have claimed that Avalon‘s beautiful closing track ‘Tara’ demonstrates a rare example of Ferry’s humour, ‘ta-ra’ of course being Northern English slang for ‘goodbye’ (the track was co-written with Mackay).

Lyrically, Avalon shows Ferry becoming a superb, somewhat surrealist chronicler of intense love affairs, often painting himself as the windswept loner weighed down by desire. Musically, the album is a marvel of ensemble playing – solid but expressive bass (Neil Jason and Alan Spenner) and drums (Newmark – superb), Ferry’s impressionistic piano and synths, colourful percussion from Jimmy Maelen, and spare, tasteful guitar licks placed around the stereo spectrum from Phil Manzanera and Neil Hubbard (who also plays a great solo on ‘To Turn You On’). And finally there’s extra spice from Andy Mackay on various saxes and Fonzi Thornton on vocals, whose uncanny alto compliments Ferry so well.

Avalon was a hit, reaching number one in the UK album chart (though, surprisingly, only #53 in the US) and producing three UK hit singles. Sonically and lyrically, it also set the template for all of Ferry’s subsequent solo projects. Happy birthday to a true ’80s classic, oft imitated but never surpassed.

Book Review: More Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo

51o7o-ad4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_For students of songwriting, there’s been an embarrassment of riches on the book front recently – in the last few years we’ve had the groundbreaking ‘Isle Of Noises’, entertaining ‘Complicated Game’, and lengthy autobiographies by the likes of Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Phil Collins.

And now here comes Paul Zollo’s ‘More Songwriters On Songwriting’, the weighty sequel to his landmark 1991 volume, comprising new, indepth interviews with famous composers from the worlds of pop, rock, country, R’n’B and jazz.

When the book catches fire, tasty anecdotes come thick and fast: Kenny Gamble delivers a powerful statement on his hopes for America’s future; Joe Jackson discusses his love of Duke Ellington and Steely Dan; Bryan Ferry reveals that the lyrics for ‘Avalon’ (the song) were written in no less than four different countries.

Elvis Costello talks about trying (and failing) to collaborate with legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn; Rickie Lee Jones discusses how caring for her sick mother reignited her music mojo; Chrissie Hynde describes in visceral detail how her views on animal rights inform her songwriting.

Ringo talks about how George helped him write ‘Octopus’s Garden’; Dave Stewart recalls the thrill of writing ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ with Annie Lennox in double-quick time; James Taylor waxes lyrical about Paul McCartney; Don McLean reveals the unusual inspiration behind ‘American Pie’.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Zollo always knows the right questions to ask and the conversations flow unpredictably. Highly recommended.

‘More Songwriters On Songwriting’ is published by Da Capo Press.

Winter Music

winter-music

So the evenings draw in, Christmas clogs up the telly and hygge is all over the Sunday supplements. You contemplate your navel and your age and comment on how quickly the year has gone by…again.

And if you listen to music a lot, chances are you’ll probably notice how your tastes change as the season eases from autumn to winter. This may have happened when winter turned to spring too, but something a bit more introspective might be called for when your football team starts sliding and the heavy stuff comes out of storage and into your wardrobe.

Here are nine ’80s tracks that instantly say winter to me, calling at Ambient, Eerie and Lovelorn:

9. Pat Metheny Group: ‘Distance’ (1987)

This is the only track from the Still Life (Talking) album I can listen to these days. Lyle Mays’ composition sticks out like a sore thumb on that 1987 collection, a challenging, spooky piece with a touch of serialism that suggests Very Bad Things… A soundtrack for the movie that never was.

8. Roxy Music: ‘To Turn You On’ (1982)

Ferry’s tale of long-distance love for someone very unsuitable. He’s in London, she’s in New York. She possibly has some kind of ‘ailment’ – drug addiction? Mental health problem? (You may be reading too much into this… Ed). He is hopelessly and rather tragically smitten. One of Ferry’s finest ballads with a crackerjack band (Paul Carrack, Rick Marotta, Alan Spenner, Neil Hubbard) bringing it to life.

7. David Sylvian: ‘Pop Song’ (1989)

I could have chosen any amount of Sylvo tracks but have settled on this stand-alone 12” single, his cheeky response to Virgin Records’ request for one more solo hit (which never materialised). It paints a fairly bleak portrait of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music, featuring microtonal synths, Steve Jansen’s clever drum layering and close-interval piano work from the late John Taylor.

6. U2: ‘4th Of July’ (1984)

Ostensibly a duet for bass (though surely that’s not Adam Clayton?) and ‘infinite guitar’ (The Edge put through Eno’s processing systems), U2’s first bash at pure ambience was a minor triumph. To say one doesn’t miss Bono’s voice would be an understatement. As far as I know, the band have never attempted anything similar since – more’s the pity.

5. The Sundays: ‘Skin & Bones’ (1990, recorded in 1989)

The unforgettable lead-off track from the classic Reading, Writing & Arithmetic album. The Cocteau Twins meets The Smiths? You betcha.

4. Mark Isham: ‘In The Blue Distance’ (1983)

Isham’s plaintive trumpet and atmospheric keyboard playing create a sombre yet uplifting winter masterpiece. Click here for a listen.

3. Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ (1982)

I first heard this nostalgic classic in late 1983 and it was my first exposure to Joni’s music. I’ve never forgotten it and will forever associate it with this time of year.

2. Love & Money: ‘Inflammable’ (1988)

One of many great torch songs penned by James Grant, featuring on the late-’80s classic Strange Kind Of Love. ‘I go looking for what I want in the wrong places’ – there’s a winter mantra for urban singletons right there…

1. Lloyd Cole: ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ (1985)

Let’s face it, winter can also be haunted by ghosts of failed romances, stolen moments and disastrous Christmas flings. This classic covers all that stuff very efficiently with a nice line in black humour.

Check out the playlist on Spotify (minus a few tracks not currently available).

Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker licks. Jazzers loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop fans loved him because he could play absurdly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and also solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes.

He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl. It has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s works like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G.

And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band was diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…