Bryan Ferry: ‘I did a lot of whistling on my paper round as a lad’

The Roxy Music star answers your questions on his favourite Newcastle boozers, the influential mentors who shaped his thinking, and the temptation to overproduce everything

Fifty years down the line, what does Roxy Music mean to you? Jungtheforeman

A lot. Roxy Music were the first 10 years of my career, so it’s a huge part of my life. Some of my best work was done on those albums and I was lucky to be part of such a unique group. Andy Mackay had a classical background, Brian Eno electronic music, Phil Manzanera a guitarist with Latin American roots, Paul Thompson a great drummer, and Graham Simpson [bass] was a jazz aficionado. They all brought something special and there was a great sense of camaraderie – you get very close to people, making music – and lots of laughs.

The early period, especially, was very exciting, but we were always rushing to finish songs or albums and we crammed a lot into 10 years. Antony Price, who was from Yorkshire, helped me with the album covers and designed some very interesting clothes for us, very ahead of his time. I’ve recently been working on my book of lyrics, and the Roxy songs brought back great memories. I’m looking forward to touring with the band later in the year.

Roxy Music at the Royal College of Art, London, in July 1972
Roxy Music at the Royal College of Art, London, in July 1972 (left to right): Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay, Brian Eno, Rik Kenton and Paul Thompson. Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns

Which Roxy album are you most proud of? Are there any that you feel maybe haven’t aged so well? PugwashCanary

The first album was interesting and obviously pointed to several different directions, but For Your Pleasure was a big album for me. We’d been on the road and were much more experienced and integrated. We recorded in Air Studios with engineers in lab coats, high above Oxford Street, with people running around below. It felt like the centre of everything. The album just felt more mature: darker, with better singing. Today my other favourite is Avalon, 10 years later: very different, a real mood album, very atmospheric. Maybe the Manifesto album isn’t as strong as the others. Obviously it’s got Dance Away but there are tracks – Trash, My Little Girl, Cry Cry Cry – that I wouldn’t listen to now.

Are there any Roxy Music songs that you feel were underappreciated and deserve another listen? DecafAmericano

Sometimes less obvious songs get overshadowed. I thought the opening, title track of Manifesto – with Alan Spenner playing great bass – was very strong. I’d done [1978 solo album] The Bride Stripped Bare with American musicians and was disappointed with how it was received. Punk had happened and I felt out of step, so I wanted to come back more in tune with what was happening. Sentimental Fool [from Siren, 1975] and The Bogus Man [For Your Pleasure, 1973] are also out-on-a-limb tracks that never got played on the radio, but are great if people have the time to listen.

I first saw Roxy Music at Reading town hall in 1972. I made my dad park round the corner because I didn’t want to be seen getting a lift home, particularly not in a Hillman Avenger. Anyway, I came out of that doughty old venue thinking that I had seen the future. That weekend, I dyed my fringe bright green with cake colourant and ordered a pair of cherry-red geisha-style block heels from the classified section of the NME. Overnight, I went from a slightly underage hippy to a startling overornamented sulker. What or who had a similar effect on you? dinahdrew

My road to Damascus experience was in 1967 when I hitchhiked from Newcastle to London to see the Stax/Volt Revue. I didn’t have any money but somebody might give you a lift for 50 miles, then 20 … It was a pilgrimage and a very powerful experience, seeing incredible musicians, one after another: Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper. Really powerful singing, and it was very visual. Sam and Dave came on in canary yellow suits. Otis Redding strode across the stage in a bright red suit, grabbing the audience from the first note. It was like all these great records coming to life in front of you. I’d sung for a couple of years in college [in local band the Gas Board] and had sort of [laughs] retired by then to concentrate on my art studies, but that show changed my life. I thought: “This is something I wish I could do.”

The whistling solo on Jealous Guy has to be one of the best examples in recorded music. Did you have to practise for long? BarryAverage

As far as I remember it was pretty spontaneous, but I must’ve done a lot of whistling on my paper round in Washington [Tyne and Wear] when I was a young lad. I had a round before school in the morning and another in the evening, and on Saturday, after working in a tailor’s shop, I’d deliver the football special. Depending on whether the household you were delivering to were Newcastle or Sunderland supporters you’d deliver a black paper or a pink one. I had the best round: the heaviest bag, but it paid the most money. Thirty shillings a week.

Bryan Ferry
‘A sense of humour is important in the north-east’ … Bryan Ferry. Photograph: Simon Emmett

As a fellow exiled north-easterner, how much do you think the NE shaped who you were and now are? orso

I’m proud of my northern background, and growing up in the north-east gave me a good grounding. As a family we were poor but everyone worked hard, got on with life and had a good time. Washington at that time was a pit village surrounded by farmland. My dad was a very quiet country guy who started life as a farm worker, ploughing fields with horses. He later looked after the pit ponies at the local colliery. My mother was from the town, and full of life. I learned a lot from both of them, especially that strong work ethic. After graduating from art school in Newcastle I moved to London to do what I had to do. I love my trips back north. A sense of humour is important up there and it’s something I have in common with Roxy’s [drummer] Paul Thompson, a fellow geordie.

What’s your favourite pub in Newcastle? Graemel

In my student days I went to the pubs in the Bigg Market, the Lord Chancellor and the Royal Court. That had fairy lights over the bar and a great jukebox. Those pubs were rough – you had to watch yourself and you wouldn’t find many students there – but then we’d walk home to where we lived in Jesmond. I used to go there with the historian Jeremy Catto, who was teaching in Durham. He was one of my great mentors. Very intelligent – medieval history, not my field – but great fun.

You studied art under my great uncle Richard Hamilton. Do you have any standout memories of your time with him? xFallenAngelx

Richard was an important influence when I was a student. He was such a cool and charismatic figure. I remember being quite in awe of him at tutorials, as he paced the room, cigar in hand, intense and eloquent. He was the most intellectual of artists and it was inspiring to be around him in the mid 6os, when he was doing such great work. His enthusiasm for American pop culture had a big impact on me at an impressionable age, and his well-known collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? led to my own interest in making collages of sound.

What is the best use of your music in other media? It’s surely Bill Murray in Lost in Translation? catchy-titled

I’d have to agree. It’s a pivotal moment in the film when Bill Murray sings More Than This and reveals his vulnerable side.

Bill Murray giving his rendition of More Than This in the film Lost in Translation
Revealing … Bill Murray giving his rendition of More Than This in the film Lost in Translation. Photograph: Focus Features/Allstar

You turned down the option to record Don’t You (Forget About Me) for the 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Simple Minds’ subsequent version sold more than 1m copies in the UK and went to No 1 in the US. Why didn’t you record the song? McScootikins

It was just bad timing. We were finishing off [the solo album] Boys and Girls, which was way behind schedule, and we didn’t want the distraction. The songwriter Keith Forsey sent me a demo of the song and it sounded like a hit to me. Simple Minds did a great version of it.

You’ve recorded a vast repertoire of cover versions during your career. Do you have a favourite and have you ever received feedback from the original writer/performer(s)? fairdes

If pressed I’d have to say A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. It was my first cover and I like the energy of it. The one time I remember getting feedback was when two songwriters in Nashville wrote to thank me for my rendition of their little-known song River of Salt, on my first solo album, These Foolish Things. In my record collection I had a Ketty Lester 45, and River of Salt was the B-side. I also released my version of Ketty Lester’s Love Letters just a month ago.

Bryan Ferry: Love Letters – video

Are there any covers of your own songs that you particularly like? Catupatree

Grace Jones’s version of Love Is the Drug is very cool. She worked with Sly and Robbie at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where we recorded some of Avalon. It grooves much better than our version.

Can you explain how Mother of Pearl came about? DecafAmericano

In 1973, while I was working on the songs for the Roxy Music album Stranded, I went off to Greece to do some writing. Roxy’s press agent, Simon Puxley, came with me. Simon was an inspirational character and a great sounding board for my songs; I respected his opinions. He wrote those great sleevenotes for the first album. I’d taken a bass guitar, a keyboard and a cassette recorder, and I wrote Mother of Pearl while I was out there. It’s one of my favourites.

What is your writing process is like? Grant_Thunder

I usually write music at the piano, but lyrics can be jotted down anywhere. There’s no particular formula for songwriting. I’m not a fast writer and sometimes they take a long time to complete. Some of my favourite songs are the simpler ones, like Chance Meeting [from 1976].

My nephew is studying music composition at the Royal Academy of Music. What would be the best advice you could give him to promote his talent and career? LawyerJo

Get a good manager.

What, artistically, don’t you like about yourself? Floraison


The woman saying “You don’t ask. You don’t ask why” at the end of For Your Pleasure is none other than Judi Dench. Was that a sample of her voice or was she booked for the recording session? HugoBarrett

It was something Brian Eno sampled from the radio. It worked so well in the track.

Roxy Music in a publicity shot for 1982’s Avalon album
Roxy Music in a publicity shot for 1982’s Avalon album. Photograph: Courtesy of Brian Ferry

Do you still smoke Dunhill cigarettes, and if not, when did you stop? Bobbio39

I stopped about 20 years ago. I used to smoke a lot of Dunhills and before that St Moritz, and before that Gitanes, Lucky Strike, Camel and, further back, Woodbines. You could buy them in packets of five.

How did you come up with strange intro to the wonderful Remake/Remodel – a brave and fascinating way to launch the first track on your crucial first album? CoimbraSportinguista

It seemed like a good idea to start our first album with a party scene, a kind of celebration. We used sound effects tapes and added our own voices to the party to make it more real.

Avalon marked a sea change in your sound: from that album on, you’ve fairly consistently taken a sleek, precision-tooled production approach. There have been stabs, though (for instance, on Frantic and Dylanesque), at a return to rawer, more spontaneous recording. Do you ever regret the loss of the more eclectic style of the Roxy era? Or do you look back on those records as a journey towards the sound you were after and finally caught? Mazzini

I’ve been lucky to work in a band and as a solo artist. When you’re working in a group situation you sometimes have certain limitations that can make for a rougher, more direct sound. With Roxy we had the best of both worlds, a great range of sounds to play with and we enjoyed experimenting with them. When you’re working as a solo artist you sometimes have too many possibilities and then there’s a danger of overproducing. Nobody wants to make the same record each time, so you try out different things and some work better than others. It’s a musical journey that can take you to unexpected places. There’s always somewhere else to go.

• This article was amended on 2 June 2022 to remove a reference to River of Salt being the B-side of Ketty Lester’s Love Letters; it was the B-side of You Can’t Lie to a Liar.

Lyrics by Bryan Ferry is published on 5 May by Chatto & Windus. Tracks from the digital EP Love Letters are out now or released in May. Roxy Music’s UK tour begins on 10 October at Glasgow OVO Hydro.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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