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.