Real to reel

By JAMES PARKER  |  April 1, 2008

In Bracewell’s account, this derives from the cross-breeding of three complex artistic traditions: Bryan Ferry (vocals, son of a coal miner), Brian Eno (noise, son of a postman), and Andy Mackay (keyboards/saxophone, son of a gasman). As a student in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Newcastle, Ferry was tutored and mentored by Richard Hamilton, the artist sometimes described as “the English Andy Warhol,” who would go on to design the cover of the Beatles’ “White Album” (all white, as you may remember). At Ipswich Civic College, Eno got an existential retuning from a former Royal Air Force officer named Roy Ascott, whose controversial “Groundcourse” involved the destruction of received ideas including from time to time that of personality itself. (There was rather a high rate of nervous breakdown among Ascott’s students.) At Reading University, Mackay pursued what Bracewell calls a “pupillage within the avant-garde,” studying Dada and John Cage. And of course everyone was very big on Marcel Duchamp.

The role of education in the history of rock and roll has, one might reasonably argue, received insufficient emphasis. Darby Crash of the Germs attended West LA’s cult-like Innovative Program School, where a brain stew of Scientology and new-age self-actualization left him fully equipped for suicidal punk-rock messiah-hood. The seeds planted by Hamilton and Ascott, and by Mackay’s instructors at Reading, were perhaps more productive. By 1971, the young Roxys had become convinced that the proper vehicle for their ideas was not high art but pop, and so they set about creating a musical environment wherein Ferry could croon about advertising, leisure, and celebrity while Mackay’s sax slithered in circles and Eno made his emergency sonic interventions. (Bracewell has Eno playing “his stack of electronics rather as though he was bringing a light aircraft in to land in turbulent weather.”)

Bracewell is meticulous in his coverage of the many æsthetic inputs that made up the Roxy world. His interview subjects — apart from the band members themselves — are mainly non-musical: artists, designers, hairdressers, haberdashers. They speak at great length, and that makes Re-make/Re-model an odd hybrid of scholarly treatise and oral history. The analysis-resistant quantity at the heart of it all is Bryan Ferry himself, whom we are no closer to understanding at the end of the book than we were at the beginning. Eno of course went off to invent ambient music and guide U2 into the stratosphere, but Ferry’s progress has been just as extraordinary in its way. Watching The Thrill of It All, one sees the slow, deliberate mutation from glam provocateur to enigmatic smoothie, something between a successful young politician and a strip-club proprietor. In the late-phase Roxy live material, the refracted rush of “Ain’t That So” or “Flesh and Blood,” he is not so much dancing as shifting languidly between the frames of a private show reel — a cocked hip, a draped hand, that wincing smile. The eyelids flutter as if in a light trance; there seems to be, as if in a dubbed foreign movie, some lag or dissociation between the shaping of the mouth and the words being uttered. Ferry was experimenting with this sort of evaporated cool even as the germ of early Roxy came popping out, distorted but alive, in Joy Division, Pere Ubu, across the post-punk movement.

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