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The Independent AUGUST 12, 2006 - by Guy Adams
BRYAN FERRY: BACK IN STYLE
At sixty, the enduring 'face' of Roxy Music provides an object lesson in growing old elegantly.
Bryan Ferry enjoys playing the role of "coolest living Englishman". He's even won awards for it. Women swoon at his lounge lizard suits; they rejoice at his floppy fringe and broad shoulders. At sixty, the enduring "face" of Roxy Music provides an object lesson in the art of growing old elegantly.
So it goes that Marks & Spencer this week unveiled Ferry as the star of its autumn advertising campaign. In a series of David Bailey posters, he will endorse the high-street retailer's upmarket range of Autograph suits and shirts. That brooding forehead is coming soon to a billboard near you.
Like most of Ferry's work, the M&S gig will divide public opinion. To some, it can only underline his status as the epitome of raffish urban chic. As the press release puts it: "He's a real British style icon and looks amazing... What man wouldn't want to look as cool as Bryan Ferry."
Others aren't so sure. For Ferry's critics, his commercial relationship with M&S is about as rock'n'roll as the socks and Y-fronts the retailer sells to middle-class hordes of a Saturday afternoon. The old crooner stands accused of selling out.
It shouldn't be like this. Ferry is one of a select generation of rock'n'roll survivors. His career spans thirty years, and accounts for some of the greatest songs of modern music. He's entitled to be called one of the greats.
Without Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, there would be no Virginia Plain, Avalon, More Than This. We wouldn't have Love Is the Drug, Do The Strand or Let's Stick Together. Neither could Roxy Music's 1973 hit A Song for Europe have managed, in the words of one pundit, to make whistling cool.
Yet since the 1980s, Ferry and his bandmates have struggled to reach their former heights. They have endured more unlikely comebacks than Lazarus. Only last year, Roxy Music re-formed again; 2007 brings their first new album since 1982.
Today, Roxy Music tend to pop up on the country house rock circuit, or at lucrative corporate gigs. In July, they performed at a pavilion erected outside London's ExCel Centre for the duration of the motor show. Critics snobbishly noted that the trade fair crowd comprised several hundred stressed-out owners of Hyundai dealerships. In truth, it's Ferry's private life, rather than his music, that generates the real headlines nowadays. Being a style icon takes hard work, and glossy magazines are rarely short of pictures of him striding effortlessly up the red carpet towards another upmarket bash. "Bryan is very keen on upper-class people, in a way that perhaps only Mick Jagger has been, among other rock stars," says an acquaintance. "If you like, he's moved full circle from café society to proper society. His diaries would be utterly fantastic, if he's ever kept any."
Ferry's man-about-town status was boosted in 2002 when it was revealed that Lucy Helmore, his wife of twenty years, had filed for divorce. Shortly afterwards, he was photographed with a twenty-one-year-old backing singer, Katie Turner. She remains his "significant other," but it's been an on-off relationship, and other reported squeezes have included style journalist Rita Konig, and a twenty-six-year-old socialite, Lady Emily Compton.
"Bryan can be a real charmer," says another friend. "His humour is very arch and arid, and that gets lost on a lot of people. They think he's rude, or brooding, but for all the pretentiousness, in fact he's quite a joker, and likes a laugh. It's just very dry, that's all." Away from the choppy waters of his love life, Ferry owes many of his recent appearances on the news pages to the antics of the eldest of his four children, Otis, who dropped out of Marlborough College aged 16 to become a Master of Foxhounds.
Otis has since made a name for himself as a prominent opponent of the Government's plans to outlaw hunting. In 2002, he was arrested for plastering Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency home in protest posters. Two years later, he gained notoriety after breaking into the House of Commons chamber while MPs debated the issue.
Yesterday, the twenty-three-year-old was back in trouble. He appeared at Stroud magistrates' court in Gloucestershire to plead guilty to a drink-driving charge.
Bryan Ferry has supported his wayward son all the way, despite opprobrium from the rest of the music industry. In 2004, he was booed at the Q Awards in London, for dedicating a gong to "my brave son". This summer, he fronted a Countryside Alliance fundraising gig at Highclere Castle in Berkshire.
Those upper-crust circles are a world away from Ferry's humble background. Born in 1945, in the village of Washington, Tyne and Wear, he was one of three children who grew up in a terraced home with an outside lavatory, and a tin bath that hung on the wall. Ferry's mother Mary is said to have spoiled him because he was the only boy. His father Frederick was a miner who grew prize-winning vegetables. "We were poor, in that we didn't have a car, or a telephone, or things like that," he once recalled.
The young Bryan's big break, so to speak, came after he was accepted on a four-year course at Newcastle University, studying art. He took up music, dabbled in a few local soul bands, and made a name among contemporaries as an able student who took an almost obsessive interest in visual arts. He graduated in 1968.
Soon afterwards, Ferry moved to London and started writing songs. Graham Simpson, a former colleague from a student group called the Gas Board, helped to form Roxy Music, a six-piece outfit fronted by the dynamic Ferry, and his bizarrely attired, synthesiser-playing bandmate Brian Eno.
They hit pay dirt in 1972, with a self-titled debut album that remains a quintessential record of the early 1970s. Michael Bracewell, whose history of Roxy Music, Re-make/Re-model, comes out next year, attributes the group's runaway success to its revolutionary marriage of conflicting musical styles.
"Bryan was very much the author of the idea of Roxy Music. He had a very specific idea of the band he wanted to create, and invited people into it to fill the roles he had in mind," says Bracewell. "The thing that then made them so extraordinarily successful was this collage of elements that shouldn't really have gone together.
"You had a white soul singer (Ferry), avant garde electronics (Eno), French chanson, and a sort of rockabilly element. They resolved this into an montage of styles that completely blew people away."
Both on and off stage, it was the start of a turbulent period. Ferry and Eno enjoyed what are traditionally described as "creative differences". In 1973, Ferry stormed out of a gig vowing never to work with Eno again, after his lyrics were drowned out by an electronic wall of synthesiser sound.
"There were two huge heightened creative imaginations, with very distinct voices, and they found it impossible to co-exist," recalls one insider. "People forget that Brian Eno is more than just a musician. He's an artist and a producer, and was always going to want to move on."
Either way, Eno left the band after two albums, missing their biggest commercial hit, 1982's Avalon. After a twenty-year feud, Eno recently returned to Roxy Music and will appear on their forthcoming album. He and Ferry appear to be reconciled.
The same cannot be said of Ferry and Jerry Hall, his girlfriend for much of the 1970s. She appeared in several of Roxy Music's videos, only to leave him for Mick Jagger after almost three years. Hall later chronicled the affair in her autobiography Tall Tales; Ferry, for his part, has refused to discuss it.
Despite his colourful social life, those who know Ferry best describe him as a guarded, inward-looking character. His attitude towards music mirrors this element of his personality, according to people who have worked with him.
"The great thing about Bryan Ferry, which you wouldn't think given the social life he needs, is the fact that he is incredibly fastidious," says on acquaintance.
"People say he's shy, but in fact he's just utterly, utterly fastidious. If he doesn't get something right, then he'll go on and on and on trying to perfect it. You can see it in his choice of clothes, but it's actually most obvious in Bryan's music. It can take him years to finish an album. As a result, he's never made as much money as he might have."
Today, Ferry lives mostly in rural Sussex, where he devotes a decent portion of time to collecting Bloomsbury art, playing the country gent and looking after his four sons. His recreations in Who's Who are listed as "tennis, reading, shooting".
Maintaining his status as England's foremost style icon remains an important part of his raison d'être. Former photographers describe Ferry as "very fussy", and say he insists on choosing his own venues for photo shoots.
Yet friends report that he has entered his seventh decade in a state of only mild contentment. "He's actually a private and complex character, and utterly obsessive about music," says one friend. "He really is far more of a complete and troubled artist than most people think."
Either way, it's difficult to escape the feeling that the clothes horse in Bryan Ferry most defines the man. A few years back, he came within a whisker of death when a deranged passenger burst into the cockpit of a Boeing 747 in which he was flying to Kenya, and caused it to plummet ten-thousand feet.
Asked shortly afterwards if he'd sensed trouble brewing, Ferry replied soberly that he'd always known something was wrong with the assailant. "I didn't like the look of his socks," he said.
A LIFE IN BRIEF
BORN September 26, 1945 in Washington, Tyne and Wear, to Frederick Charles and Mary Ann Ferry.
EDUCATION Newcastle University (1964-68); BA Hons in fine art
FAMILY Married Lucy Helmore (1982, divorced 2003); four children: Otis, Isaac, Tara and Merlin
CAREER Founded Roxy Music in 1971; debut album (Roxy Music, 1972) followed by more than twenty-two solo and group recordings (including For Your Pleasure, 1973; Country Life, 1974; Avalon, 1982); new Roxy Music album (currently untitled) due out early next year.
AWARDS Q magazine Lifetime Achievement Award, 2004; GQ magazine Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005
HE SAYS "I think I am often regarded as a bit aloof, rather snooty, serious and humourless. Which is a shame."
THEY SAY "You can't really regret things but I must say he has aged beautifully. He is one of the all-time great crooners." Jerry Hall, former girlfriend