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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
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The Telegraph MAY 28, 2013 - by Chris Harvey
BRYAN FERRY: "I CAN IDENTIFY WITH GATSBY"
Bryan Ferry grew up poor, became a symbol of well-heeled excess with Roxy Music, and is no stranger to obsession. Who better to give The Great Gatsby its soundtrack? He talks to Chris Harvey.
By what strange conjunction of planets did Bryan Ferry find himself creating music for Baz Luhrmann's spectacular 3D film of The Great Gatsby? The boy from a mining village who grew up to become one of the twentieth century's most impossibly glamorous figures supplying a soundtrack to Fitzgerald's study of vaulting ambition and the invented self? The gods must appreciate irony, at least, for surely Ferry is Gatsby come to life.
It happened because of the album the former Roxy Music frontman created in 2012 with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. The Jazz Age features instrumental versions of Ferry's songs played in the style of '20s jazz. Luhrmann had almost finished Gatsby when he heard it and got in touch. He persuaded Ferry to add daubs of music throughout the film, including a wonderful backdated update of Beyoncé's Crazy In Love, with Emeli Sandé, and a recasting of the mournful, bluesy Love Is The Drug that appears on The Jazz Age as a stirring up-tempo number, with Ferry's voice floating above it like the ghost of New Orleans.
We're sitting talking about the film the night after Ferry has seen it for the first time. I ask him if Luhrmann's riot of colour and sound captured the jazz age as he sees it in his imagination. "I kind of see it in black and white," he laughs. He's not really a fan of 3D and found himself wanting the odd slower sequence or passage amid the spectacle but looks forward to watching it in 2D, with a rewind button at hand. "I'm quite slow - younger audiences absorb images much faster than somebody of my generation," he says.
Ferry is sixty-seven. It's more than forty years since he was beamed down from the Planet Glam to the Top Of The Pops stage to sing Virginia Plain in glittery green eyeshadow. Yet even now when he lingers on a word, his eyelids flutter downwards and hover for a few moments before he pulls them up again, just as they did in that performance in 1972. He still has great hair. He's wearing a blue shirt, darker blue tie, and leaning back on a comfortable sofa. He talks softly, in a voice that is oddly reminiscent of the Prince of Wales. I'm so surprised by this that afterwards I scour YouTube to try to trace the slow vanishing of his Tyne and Wear accent. But no, it seems he has always talked like this. Does he identify with Gatsby?
"Yes, who wouldn't if you came from a very poor background like mine?" he says. But, as he points out, "it was rich in many ways". Ferry grew up in Washington, five miles from Newcastle, at the time of the slum clearances in the city. "It's a very unsophisticated world I grew up in. I would have fancied a house like Gatsby's," he adds, "big parties and the sea plane. He had it made really, but the obsession will always get you in the end."
Ah, the obsession. Fitzgerald's hero's rise and his downfall are intimately linked to his obsessive love for the socialite Daisy, a woman he met and fell in love with when he was a penniless soldier. Has there been a Daisy in Ferry's own life, I wonder.
"That's a difficult one." He pauses. "Well, yeah, I identify with his position, yeah." This is followed by a long silence. "I think there are always things in your life that kind of slip away. Is it fate? Is it meant to be? I guess it's like that. It's a good reason, really, for making the most of everything that happens to you. If things in your life do go wrong you've got to move on to another thing."
There have been many women in Ferry's life. His four children, all boys, are from his twenty-year marriage to a London socialite, Lucy Helmore, which ended in the early 2000s. In 2012 he married Amanda Sheppard, a former PR who is thirty-six years his junior.
Has he experienced Gatsby's obsessiveness? "Yes, I once had this song, I didn't call it Slave To Obsession but that was one of the key lines. It's called No Strange Delight, it's on a Roxy album." The song is on Flesh + Blood, recorded in 1980, roughly two years after Ferry's girlfriend Jerry Hall, who had appeared on the cover of the 1975 album Siren, left him for Mick Jagger. The album also includes the delicate pop classic Over You ("Where strangers look for new love, I'm so lost in love - over you.")
Ferry has written many eloquent songs about love over the years. What has experience taught him about it? "That it's a bit of a riddle, really. The music that I write is generally quite emotional so it lends itself well to love songs, I don't want to be singing particularly about wind farms or the war going on here, there or anywhere.
"A lot of the tunes are quite sad as well so without knowing it I get sucked into writing yearning, more intimate songs. Some of the lyrics I've done I've been very pleased with. It's by far the hardest part of it but the music that comes out of me tends to be quite melodic, that's what I think I'm best at, writing melody." He smiles. "I'm trying to avoid your question as best I can. I don't know anything about love at all."
Gatsby, of course, is also about class, about the collision between old money and new. With his country house in Sussex, his house in London and his ability to flit between worlds, I wonder if Ferry feels that he has escaped the boundaries of class altogether. What class does he see himself as? "I'd say classless, definitely, I like to think. The class rigidity that some people still beat themselves up with in this country seems a bit old-fashioned to me now. I do think that standards should be high. I hate dumbing down and I hate political correctness. I identify with the Cavaliers rather than the Roundheads, I always have."
In Sussex, does he move in aristocratic circles, with "old money"? "A little bit. I'm very private. I go out to dinner most nights when I'm in London, but when I'm in the country I like to stay in. I certainly know about country living and about town living. My music is very urban, I think. It's always been about cities, people. My mother was very urban, my dad was very rural, and so I have a foot in both camps."
He regrets that his parents weren't around long enough to give his own children "the odd clip round the ear". And he wishes his boys had worked in a factory at some point. What would they have gained? "Discipline maybe. Just the grind of it and knowing every day isn't great, you know, that you can't have what you want all the time. Just common sense, but they've learnt in other ways."
Ferry is proud of his eldest son Otis's progress "in his hunting world" - he's a joint master of the Shropshire Hunt. It was Otis who in 2005 burst into the House of Commons to protest at the ban on hunting and received a jail sentence. How did it feel when his son was... "Locked up?" He finishes my question. "Very, very bad indeed, yeah, but I don't like dwelling on it."
Ferry's father Fred, he says, was "very quiet, smoked a pipe, courted my mother for ten years, walked the five miles through the fields to see her and go back again because he had to be up to milk the cows. He was essentially a farm labourer, a ploughman, with the horses. He was very proud of his medals for winning all these ploughing contests. They were opposites in a way, because my mother was very tuned in to the modern world.
"My mother would do all the organising, deal with the pocket money. As long as he had money for his tobacco and his racing pigeons he was fine. So he'd give her his fifteen quid and get a pound back and that would last him the week, because he never drank. He would have one drink maybe on pigeon day. It was frugal beyond belief."
How was it even possible to dream of an existence like his? "I didn't think I was better than anyone," he says, "but I didn't want to be kept down. I didn't want to work in the mine or the local steel factory, which were the two main sources of work in the area that I lived in."
Ferry spent his holidays working in the factory, on building sites, then a tailor's shop. All the while he wanted to be an artist, which then "kind of veered into music". Encouraging him along the way were his primary school teacher - "dear Miss Swaddle" - who fed his imagination in a class of fifty; teachers at his grammar school after he passed the 11-plus; the uncle he talked into taking him to see concerts when he was too young to go by himself ("Chris Barber, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald - whoever passed through Newcastle I'd try to save up to see them"); and then when he went to Newcastle University to study art, there was his lecturer, the artist Richard Hamilton, who once described Ferry as "my greatest creation".
Ferry continued to dream of being an artist and had moved to London to work as a ceramics teacher when he put together the fledgling Roxy Music. We talk about how the internet age has sparked renewed interest in rock's most iconic figures, and many a high-profile reunion. Does Ferry feel that route is blocked to him, because of the tensions that forced the classic Roxy line-up apart? This is an oblique approach. I want to ask him about Brian Eno, who added the synthesised sounds that took Ferry's classic songwriting into the art-rock beyond on Roxy's first two albums. It's no secret that Eno left Roxy Music in the summer of 1973 because of "musical differences" with Ferry. "I don't want to damage Roxy [by talking about it]," Eno said at the time. "I mean, I really like the other members, and I (pause) really like Bryan in a funny way."
Ferry leans forward. I can tell I've touched a nerve. "What would block it?" There's no turning back. There remains a perception that his relationship with Brian Eno, although cordial, means that they couldn't work together again. Does that block it?
"Well, you know, Eno played on the first two albums but we did have a few albums after that and another eight years of our career. So it's not just him and me, there are others, and we did get together again in 2001. We hadn't played together in eighteen years and we did a reunion tour. You didn't see that one, then?"
Now I can tell he's cross. No, I didn't see it. "We played all round the world, it went incredibly well but it didn't make me really want to go and record a group album again. It's not that odd, though. Because it doesn't seem natural to work with the same people for the whole of your life."
"I've worked with Brian in the studio a couple of times since and that was really refreshing, but I wouldn't want to work with him for a long period of time. We get on very well when we're alone, it's when other people start coming in with expectations and saying, part of you is missing..."
Ferry has continued to collaborate with others, he points out, noting that Nile Rodgers, who provides the guitar on Daft Punk's recent number-one, Get Lucky, has played on all his solo albums since 1985. Of course, Eno, too, went on to collaborate extensively, including with Ferry's equally enduring glam-rock rival David Bowie. I wonder if Ferry has been to the Bowie show at the V&A, just a couple of miles down the road from his west London studio. "I'm aware of it. I haven't been, have you? I ought to go before it closes, actually."
Like Bowie, Ferry grew up to be one of the iconic figures of his generation. He became one of the stars he idolised and dreamt of being. Is he ever surprised that he became one of those people, a Marilyn Monroe? "I always tell myself that the people I did idolise were just people," he says. "Marilyn was a goddess of the screen, yet she's just a poor lonely girl at the end of the day, sad. Even the Sun King, Louis XIV, he was just a guy. I don't wake up in the morning and think I'm an icon or something, that's kind of weird. I like going to work every day and trying to achieve something." And with that Ferry has to leave for Cannes, where he's performing at a party for The Great Gatsby. In my imagination, he arrives by seaplane, in glorious Technicolor.