Bryan Ferry evokes a touch of Old Hollywood with a tribute to the home of William Randolph Hearst. It sounds both sexy and slightly haunted. With the ghosts of movie stars past, of course, and the energy of the god-knows-what that went on at Hearst Castle before it became a museum. Extravagant luxury makes a great cover for filthy proclivities, and lest we forget, that’s been what makes Hollywood what it is since the days when people like William Hearst helped invent the concept of Hollywood. That’s a great fit for Ferry, who took a lot of inspiration from Hollywood sophisticates and their louche ways. In glamour lies danger.
Bryan Ferry is hardly a blues singer in any conventional sense. He is, by most standards, barely inhabiting the same universe. But Ferry pushes the emotion buttons for a very specific audience: continental white people too effete and art-damaged to admit that they still have emotional functions at all aka me. I can’t really relate to real blues music – it’s too real! But I can relate to a man who wears a tie with a leather suit jacket. Nobody is pretending this is actually a blues song. It’s a ‘mope and smoke on the balcony gazing out to sea’ song, which is a very particular feeling to evoke.
If nothing else, it’s appropriate that the first song of the new year begins with the sound of a door creaking open. I’ve always that sound – it’s so full of promise. Other than that, there’s not much here that’s relevant to where we are now. Except, I guess, that Bryan Ferry provides some much needed grace and style, which are things we can only pray for in our lives.
Insert ‘mind blown’ reaction gif here. This here, this song right here, is the straw that broke up The Smiths. Apparently – and somehow I did not know it until just now – this is a rewrite of song by The Smiths. Not a proper Morrissey/Marr Smiths song that you would have heard of, but an instrumental B-side that Bryan Ferry handpicked as a potential hit, wrote some lyrics for, and then hired Johnny Marr to play session on. (Marr also played on the tour, and is prominently seen in the video.) Marr’s original composition, Money Changes Everything, does in fact sound exactly like a mid-eighties Bryan Ferry song without the vocal. Ferry has a bit of genius touch with picking unexpected things that suit his style, and Johnny Marr’s playing is perfectly suited for a Bryan Ferry album. Now that I think about it, having Marr on board might be part of why Bete Noire was so damn good. Ferry was right about the hit potential too; this was Bete Noire’s biggest single. Not-in-any-way-coincidentally, this was also right about the time that Marr left his day job for a less-illustrious but also probably way less stressful career as a journeyman session player. Obviously, Morrissey was in paroxysms of jealousy that Bryan Ferry would requisition one of the few Smiths songs that he’d had nothing to do with. He doesn’t directly say as much in his autobiography, but it’s heavily implied; he broke up the band because he felt ‘cheated-on’ by his songwriting partner for appearing in a Bryan Ferry video.
Show of hands, who still remembers what Morse code is? It’s that cool beeping noise that WWII movies use to underscore tension when something exciting and/or scientific is going on. Right? Right. So Bryan Ferry made an excellent production choice in using that sound effect to literalize a song about loneliness and longing. He’s like a ship at sea, you see. He needs a hero to save him from drowning in his ocean of solitude. It’s basically just a booty call, but the SOS makes it sound serious and important. And sophisticated. But you know what? Booty calls deserve to be dignified. There’s not much heavy lifting we can do for another person, in terms of rescuing them from themselves, but we can at least occasionally rescue them from being alone and horny.
I have no way of knowing, of course, if Bryan Ferry wrote this one for Jerry Hall, but I’d like to think so. If anyone makes me intrigued by the idea of romances and broken hearts, Ferry does, and if anyone makes for a muse too elevated in glamour for this world, it’s Jerry Hall. I’m not entirely immune to the tragic love story, you know, especially if by ‘tragic’ you mean being made cuckold by Mick Jagger. Most devastating thing that could happen to a man of such wealth and taste. A possible step down for Jerry, from being Bryan Ferry’s great muse to being Mick Jagger’s third or fourth best one. (As if the idea of musedom were anything but a male-gaze fantasy anyway!) Anyway, I’m way too invested in decades-old rock star romances, and I like to say that I’m fascinated by the intersection of love and creativity, but it may just be prurience.
Spoiler, the only face Bryan Ferry sees is his own. And what a face! But seriously though, I highly recommend this live performance. It’s nice to hear Ferry stripped of his usual lush orchestration. We all know and love the production values that are his comfort zone, but all that atmosphere doesn’t always let his voice shine through. What a voice, though! With just the croon and the piano, it’s an entirely different level. I haven’t loved Mamouna as much as some of Ferry’s other albums; a lot of the songs just feel kind of forgettable (and it inexplicably has a horse on the cover instead of the usual ornamental semi-naked woman.) Which is why I love the intimate presentation here. It makes the song so much fresher for me.