Yesterday, Bryan Ferry nearly killed me. Lost in the music on my car stereo, I took a sharp corner on the A7 south of Edinburgh at a foolish speed. Unable to turn quickly enough, I lost control of the car and skidded to a stop on the wrong side of a road, nanoinches from the tip of a precipice. Pulling into a layby, I morbidly meditated on what might have happened had I parted company with the road. The sequence I imagined went something like this: a breathy expletive as I helplessly awaited my fate; a screech of aluminium on tarmac; an implausibly cinematic car-roll down the cliffside; and finally, nothing save the distant braying of sheep and the melancholic sound of eerie harmoniums and Weill-esque crooning.
Assuming I would have survived the accident, I began to imagine how I would have accounted for my insane driving to any passing constable of the law. "Its very simple, officer. You see, I was reading Paul Stumps Unknown Pleasures: a cultural biography of Roxy Music and I just had to revisit the Lets Stick Together version of ‘Chance Meeting’. And after that, I quite forgot where I was and what I was doing". Quite how effective such pleading would be, I am unsure; but I like to imagine being thrown into an Edinburgh police cell and charged with driving while under the influence of experimental rock.
Unknown Pleasures is the second book by features journalist Paul Stump. Its assessment of the shape of Roxys and, effectively, Ferrys – career is conventional enough: stratospheric start with Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure; mid-career malaise, culminating in the dreadful In Your Mind; and rocky reascent to Taxi, Mamouna and the smoother nineties schtick. Stump gently scotches the dafter myths about Roxy and emphasizes a number of important propositions.
He rightly argues that Brian Enos contribution to the band – though brilliant – was by no means essential to the bands success; that the Roxy Music vision is comparable in many ways with Bowies (here Stump is very insightful); and that Ferry, despite the aforementioned slump in the mid- to late 70s, produced some great work in that period. He also suggests that one misses the complexity of Roxy Musics lyrics if one makes a simple identification between Ferrys song personae and Ferry himself, as Johnny Rogan tends to do in his book Style with Substance: Roxys First Ten Years. Oh, and along the way, Ferry emerges as a poetic and musical pasticheur of considerable sophistication and integrity.
Regular and transitory Roxy band members are given the respect they deserve and there are separate, rather workmanlike chapters on the solo projects of Eno and of Manzanera and Mackay. Roxy followers seeking new information or gossip about Ferry, Eno et al will find little they didnt already know; but Stump offers refreshing and convincing interpretations of well-known material, skilfully weaving musical terminology and sociological insights into his analyses of the songs.
Unknown Pleasures shows how Ferrys extraordinary artistic vision was shaped by his lifelong curiosity about the workings of popular music and cinema and by his immersion in the work of the Pop Artists particularly his artistic mentor at Newcastle University, Richard Hamilton. Although Stump wisely refrains from grandiose theories, it might be concluded that the former contributed to the deep, romantic streak in Ferrys output ("2HB", "Three and Nine", "Avalon"), the latter to the hedonistic postmodern celebration of superficiality and consumption ("Beauty Queen", "The In Crowd", "The Thrill of It All"). Whatever the causes, Ferry emerges as a divided character, half Honest Northern Lad (there are overtones of reverse snobbery in "SuperGeordie"s comments on his poor origins), half coked-up metropolitan dandy, stranded between 20s loungeroom and 80s boardroom.
Indeed, all the Ferries are represented in Stumps book: Ferry the sensitive Englishman in raffish California; Ferry the parvenue "proto-Thatcherite" snob; Ferry the mercurial self-stylist; Ferry the wearer of the ridiculous "quasi-gaucho ensemble" that made him a critical laughing stock on the Country Life tour and allowed Nick Kent to brutally dub him "the George Lazenby of the Argentinian corned-beef market". Nevertheless, there is a sense that Ferrys creation of Roxy and himself – was incredibly purposeful and visionary; nay, a Nietzschian act of will.
Indeed, our Bri finally emerges as a suitably seedy subject for an Amadeus-style biopic – a flawed and multi-faceted genius whose schizophrenic attitude towards wealth and fame produced the creative tension that underpins his masterworks.
Thankfully, however, Stump is never sycophantic towards his primary subject. He does not shrink from criticising Ferry for his sometimes antedeluvian attitudes towards women and money or to condemn the sloppier of Ferrys solo efforts. Indeed, some of Stumps aesthetic judgements are perhaps a little too harsh (Bête Noire surely deserves better than "relentlessly nugatory") and one or two of the finest Roxy songs get short shrift ("Still Falls the Rain" isnt even mentioned, for heavens sake).
Other minor irritations are the occasional lapses in spelling, the omission of certain words, and Stumps repeated description of the Roxy technique as Pointilliste, which needs further unpacking to be intelligible. But these are trifling objections. Mostly the writing is exceptionally lucid and witty; and the books comprehensive scope will ensure that it is the definitive work on Roxy for many years to come.
One final word of advice: given the density and length of Stumps 372-page book, its probably wisest to ensure familiarity with Roxys output before reading it. So dig out mommas record collection. Better still, invest in the recently released Valentine CD-ROM (Burning Airlines, 2000), which contains stunning concert footage of six of the best early Roxy numbers. And hey, drive carefully