'Royal Albert Hall' Album Captures Bryan Ferry In All His Contradictory Glory

Feb 25, 2020
Originally published on February 27, 2020 8:31 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Bryan Ferry is best known as the lead singer of the British art rock band Roxy Music. But in the early 1970s, he released two solo albums filled with covers of well-known pop and rock songs by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Lesley Gore. A new album titled "Live At The Royal Albert Hall, 1974" captures Ferry singing many of these songs in concert. And rock critic Ken Tucker says it's wonderful to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL")

BRYAN FERRY: (Singing) Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one? I've stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains, walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways, been out in front of a dozen dead oceans. I've been 10,000 miles in a mouth of a graveyard. It's a hard. And it's a hard. And it's a hard. And it's a hard. And it's a hard. And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In 1973, Bryan Ferry released his first solo album called "These Foolish Things." It led off with an extraordinary version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," in which Ferry's tremulous baritone turned folk song into art song, at once elegant and crashingly loud. That radical reinterpretation serves as one of the high points of "Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1974," a marvelous concert album that captures Ferry in all his contradictory glory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES")

FERRY: (Singing) They asked me how I knew my true love was true. Oh, I, of course, replied, something here inside cannot be denied. Oh, no. They said, someday, you'll find all who love are blind. Ooh, when your heart's on fire, you must realize smoke is in your eyes.

TUCKER: As the leader of the band Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry had been making glam rock with pretensions. He liked to come on stage in a tuxedo. He wrote a lot of the band's material, but when he decided to put out a solo record, he resolved to make a different kind of statement by placing hits by Dylan, The Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson side by side. He told Rolling Stone magazine at the time, the solo career is pure style - imposing my style on already-made content.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE HOW YOU LOVE ME (LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, 1974)")

FERRY: (Singing) I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me. And when I'm away from you, I love how you miss me. I love the way you always treat me tenderly. But, darling, most of all, I love how you love me. I love how your heart beats whenever I hold you. I love how you think of me without being told to. I love the way your touch is so heavenly. But, darling, most of all, I love how you love me.

TUCKER: The period during which Ferry was covering these songs was a time when pop music was very much in flux. It was, for the most part, dominated by singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon. Punk rock, a reaction to both the singer-songwriters and to the mannerism that Ferry embodied, was just being born. In this context, Ferry's crooning was a sharp challenge. One reason it worked and still sounds so potent now is because he backed up his posing with a strong band that included Roxy Music members Phil Manzanera on guitar and Chris Thompson (ph) on drums, along with a 33-piece orchestra. You can hear the full force of this combination on Ferry's version of The Beach Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WORRY BABY (LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, 1974)")

FERRY: (Singing) Well, it's been building up inside of me for I don't know how long. I don't know why, but I keep thinking something's bound to go wrong. Then she looks in my eyes and makes me realize when she says...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

FERRY: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

FERRY: (Singing) Everything will turn out all right.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

FERRY: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Don't worry, baby.

FERRY: (Singing) Ooh.

TUCKER: Most pop musicians would say that the recording studio is where the art is made, where a track can be meticulously tinkered with to achieve the artist's ideal version of a song. Live performances are about putting on a good show, letting them see you sweat. Passion takes precedence over perfection. But when it comes to a performer like Ferry, for whom precision and restraint are so essentially part of his persona, it becomes an additional thrill to hear him in a circumstance in which he's not completely in control. His voice may crack a little. He may get caught up in the spontaneous jolt of a guitar riff. It becomes fascinating to listen to his fruity baritone strain to be heard over the roar of the music. The results are strong, burly versions of songs such as this cover of Lesley Gore's (ph) 1963 pop hit "The 'In' Crowd."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE 'IN' CROWD (LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL, 1974)")

FERRY: (Singing) I'm in with the in crowd. I go where the in crowd goes. I'm in with the in crowd, and I know what the in crowd knows any time of the year. Don't you hear? Dressing fine, making time, we breeze up and down the street. We get respect from the people we meet. They make way, day or night. They know the in crowd is out of sight.

TUCKER: I remember quite vividly that when Ferry was making the camp gestures that formed these cover versions, there was a widespread sentiment that what he was doing was merely a stunt, that his solo albums were basically novelty records. But I loved those recordings. The tension they contained sometimes seemed overpowering in its effectiveness. I'm happy to hear how spectacularly well the music holds up now.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Bryan Ferry's new concert album called "Live At The Royal Albert Hall, 1974."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who's now starring in the HBO limited series "The Outsider." It's based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. Mendelsohn plays a detective trying to solve a mysterious murder and resisting the idea that the cause may be a supernatural, evil entity. Mendelsohn won an Emmy for his performance in the Netflix series "Bloodline." I hope you can join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE FOOLISH THINGS")

FERRY: (Singing) A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces, an airline ticket to romantic places - and still, my heart has wings. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.