Icons / August 2016

The Thrill of It All: Bryan Ferry

The Rake explores Bryan Ferry’s innate artistic curiosity and how it became his defining feature in everything he approached from music to romance.
Bryan Ferry with backing singers Jacqui Sullivan (left) and Doreen Chanter in London, England in October 1975. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Even amongst the pantheon of musical frontmen, it’s fair to say that Bryan Ferry represents a masterclass in charisma. Across a career spanning half a century, he has come to embody a kind of vie de luxe. Crucially, from the very inception of his career, he has sought to use his music and it’s intersection with fashion and with art, to create a world his audience could escape to with him; a demi-monde where futurism, romanticism and sensuality collide. A ‘state of mind’, as he described it, for his audience to cohabit with him. Once asked how would he describe his average fan; Ferry quipped back “none of them are average, darling.” Your Stones et al have arguably ‘never stopped rocking’, but Ferry has truly written the book on maturing with eclat.

Ferry grew up in Washington, County Durham, his mother a factory worker and his father a ploughman. Although not initially interested in music, the young Ferry discovered jazz - Miles Davis, specifically - and the early American blues and rock and roll acts, such as Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf. These became foundational texts for his appreciation of music, and also signalled the beginning of what would become a defining trait: a magpie-like appreciation for new points of influence. Ferry also became friendly with the Teddy Boy gangs around his town, fitting them for suits while part-timing at a tailor’s shop.

After high school, and following a few short-lived stints in bands, Ferry enrolled in the Fine Arts department at the University of Newcastle in 1964. It was a particularly auspicious time to attend. For artist Richard Hamilton was part of the faculty, and through him Ferry was introduced to, and became enamoured with, the American pop art of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and their contemporaries. Hamilton described his view of pop as ‘a mixture of reverence and cynicism’ - a philosophy that would prove influential to Ferry’s career several years later.

In 1970, after auditioning unsuccessfully to be the lead singer of (bizarrely, in hindsight) prog-rock band King Crimson, Ferry, along with his fellow art school students Andy Mackay and Brian Eno created Roxy Music. Roxy was expressly designed as an outlet that would combine their loves of music, art and fashion - the first truly multimedia band. Ferry saw music not as something to be divided into genres and approached with a kind of reverence, but rather as a palette of colours to be combined and recombined to create the endless new - pop music as pop art. Describing an early performance of ‘Remake/Remodel’ - their self-described manifesto - music critic Michael Bracewell said that “it seems almost as though, in fact, Roxy Music - as a group, and as an artistic activity - are in one way Ferry’s artistic alibi for carrying out another, less quantifiable creative act: that of turning oneself into a work of art.”

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Ben St George

Ben St George is The Rake's Head of Buying