July 18, 2004



Bryan Ferry, Saturday, Kenwood House

Well, live music in the open air can be good, if (a) there's no mud and (b) it's at night. Since I came away from Kenwood House with, no kidding, nothing worse than a balsamic vinegar stain on my shirt (very Bryan Ferry) you can count me a satisfied customer.

Kenwood House is an impressive setting, a microterrain within Hampstead Heath (itself an improbably vast stretch of controlled wildness in north London), its natural incline making it an ideal setting for hosting live music. The house, which houses Vermeers and Gainsboroughs, imposes its congenial ambience upon an audience that was never likely to have been lured by the prospect of rock and roll excess. Picnics, Pimms, chilled wine, middle-aged parents and their grown-up children lolling out on the manicured lawn, presentable lavatories, concession stalls proferring free samples (hence the balsamic vinegar), it's all very convivial.

Ferry was always going to find the recline into middle-age less embarrassing and traumatic than would the likes of Jagger or even Bowie. Where Bowie's desperate need to continue to appear relevant has grown more unseemly with each passing year, Ferry, never particularly in sympathy with youth culture in any case, just had to retreat into the classicism with which he has always flirted. A gentle shift of emphasis, from the urgent ephemerality of Fashion to the relaxed insouciance of Style. (And quality, they say, never goes out of style)...

To attain Style, Ferry has eschewed, or at least minimized, Art. The conspicuously advertised fault lines and fissures that marked out his Pop(as)Art in the past, the self-referential gestures that allowed him to conceive, coldly, of songs as (Duchampian) found objects or (Hamilton) collages, these have simply been airbrushed out, so that the not-quite-meant-to-be-convincing illusion of organic wholeness can be sustained.

Bowie and Ferry shadow each other, even now, both cancelling recent shows (and Ferry attenuating this one) because of illness; Bowie's heart attack doubled by Ferry's, obviously far less grave, laryngitis. But, for me, there was never a doubt as to who I was going to swoon for in the Roxy/ Bowie friendly rivalry that divided playgrounds in the seventies. It's a brunette versus blond thing, it's an art school versus drama school thing... Bowie always shucked off his skins rather too effectively, would-be tricksterish mutability playing too much like hollow charlatanry for my liking. By contrast, there's always been something irreducible about Ferry, something (about himself and his sensibility) he couldn't escape.


Ferry's schtick has always been, genuinely, the sublime. Prior to rock and roll, pop had a natural affinity with the sublime melancholy that oozes from Ferry's every quaver and wince. He's always been more Bowlly than Presley.

Rock's priapic certainty knew what it wanted (or thought it did), even if it couldn't get it. The Sixties' drive for satisfaction laboured (or pleasured) under the (pre-Lacanian) delusion, that the only problem for desire was what was blocking it. Always a post-man, the reflective roue after the orgy - or the one who, even as he moved in for the kill, anticipated the coming (or post-coming) state of tristresse - Ferry, really, the Seventies Pop icon - was always troubled by the chilly hollowness of achieved satisfaction.

The bride stripped bare. What then?

As the Pawboy - absolutely, and by some distance, the definitive commentator on Roxy* - put it:

'... and isn't the following lyric fragment just about two thirds of Lacan summed up in three or four lines ?

I've been looking for something
I've always wanted but was never mine
But now I've SEEN that something
Just out of reach glowing, very Holy Grail ...
... and on, and on ...

... into the hinterlands of your every future pop disappointment ... and limpid idealisations based on the merest blurriest evidentiary meconnaissance ... ah!, the triumph of spirited self-kiddology over experience as, once more, you set out to chase that spectacular, specular, mechanical bunny round the curve of Desire's never ending bend ... Ding! And they're off! ... Way off ...

With every goddess a let-down
Every idol a bring down
It - gets - you - down.
But your search for perfection
Your own predilection
Goes on ... and on ... and on
... and ON ...
OH -

Ferry doesn't play that tonight, as it happens. (Perhaps wisely. To give you a sense of where the amiable but inexpert audience was at: 'Do the Strand' received only a smattering of recognition, while 'Slave to Love' was greeted with near-hysterical fervour).

It's because, from the first moment, Ferry understood what the Sixties, with its benign Sadeanism, its take-your-desires-for-reality hedonism, contrived to forget - that beyond the pleasure principle, pain and desire have strange affinities - that he was perfectly in tune with the decade of Glam.

After the unscrubbed earthiness of the Sixties, the inch-thick cosmetics and heady perfumes of the Seventies. Masoch stays Sade's whip hand. Fetishism arrives: a way of avoiding the scandal of female sexuality, according to Freud - a dwelling upon the fabrics and the cuts, on what she is wearing, not what it conceals.

The Sixties colluded with the crudest Freudian reductivism - or reduction of Freud - in insisting that what we really want can be cashed out in biological terms. Glam revelled in desire's complications. Glamour, after all, isn't about sex but seduction. It wouldn't be quite right to say that seduction is opposed to sex, it can include it, but never as a final teleology (no final teleology in seduction). It is the art of deferral, not as ascetic self-denial, but as a means of maintaining the plateau. In the seducer's play of signs, everything - the tiniest micro-gestures - assume erotic charge. Think courtly love, not pornography.


Two of the best received songs tonight - Roxy's 'Love is the Drug' and Harrison's 'Let's Stick Together' - highlight the two sides of the Seventies. Superficially, 'Love is the Drug' would seem to be improbably carnal for a Roxy song. But, listen again: it's all about the thrill of the chase. The camera pulls away just before the money shot. 'Dim the lights, you can guess the rest.' You could hear that as tasteful restraint if you wish, but isn't it really saying: nothing after this is interesting. Who could doubt that love, not sex, is Bryan's fix?

In 'Love is the Drug' you hear permissiveness, still largely an elite preoccupation in the Sixties, percolate out into the wider culture. 'Let's Stick Together' demonstrates some of the consequences of that ubiquitous pleasure. In the seventies, remember, the word 'divorcee' still carried moral overtones. You know we made a vow.... But will they honour it? It's strange that we never seem troubled by that question. Ferry's arrangement of the song, complete with sim-Latino whoops, is so jauntily upbeat that we're distracted from the song's grim deontologic - not, we should stay together because we love each other, but we should stay together because we must.

'Avalon', strangely, may be Ferry's most positive song. Here his customary attachment to pleasure-in-pain, pain-in-pleasure, his lovelorn swooning croon, gives way to something else, something beyond pleasure (naturally), beyond even love. 'Now the party's over', he's exhausted, too tired to do anything but linger in the Moment, her hair, scent, dress, the dance, the sky, the landscape, all of it an absolute superfluity, a more-than-enough, an achingly, necessarily evanescent haecceity. The song, Ferry's version of ambient, is as close to anti-climactic poise as it's possible to be without stopping altogether.

More than that....

there's nothing.

* Read everything here as a footnote to Penman's masterly 'The Shattered Glass'.

Posted by mark at July 18, 2004 03:12 AM | TrackBack

VERY sauve, Mark :)

Posted by: Rob at July 18, 2004 03:59 AM

I completely agree. Listening to Bryan Ferry is like making love to a beautiful woman.

Now I'm just going to get back to my eggs

Posted by: Swiss Tony at July 18, 2004 03:18 PM

Yes, that sounds like a good idea.

Listening to Bryan Ferry is absolutely nothing like making love to a beautiful woman.

Keep up at the back there.

Posted by: mark k-p at July 18, 2004 06:30 PM

hey mark! i was there too. you're right, it was great. it did make me think that ferry (or even better, a re-formed roxy) would be just right for glastonbury, sunday night, the slot bowie played a few years ago. they could even finish with 'avalon' and how perfect would that be?!

Posted by: pete at July 19, 2004 10:00 AM

Pity I didn't know you were going Pete, we could have met up...

Did you go to the Roxy tour in 2001? They were brilliant I thought...

Posted by: mark at July 19, 2004 11:17 AM

yes that is a shame. we had plenty of cherry tomatoes and bbq chicken bits to share as well! i didn't see roxy in 2001 - i've only discovered them in the last 2 years really. obv i'd jump at the chance now, though.

Posted by: pete at July 19, 2004 11:34 AM

Bryan Ferry - Kenwood House - what more could anyone possibly want? He oodles far more sex appeal now than he ever did with Roxy! I have been a fan for many years (not just his music) and now he is mature, his voice is better (even if some think a crooner). I took my 14 year old son to Kenwood and he too now is a Bryan Ferry fan!

Posted by: Janet at August 31, 2004 03:51 PM

Janet, yeh... Ferry just makes me swoon... he just has such sensual languor... have you got the DVD of the last Roxy tour? It's just amazing, Ferry is unfeasibly stylish...

Posted by: mark at August 31, 2004 11:53 PM