In these days of a new Bryan Ferry solo opus, [“Olympia”], thoughts turn to the smaller fish that follow, like pilot fish, in the wake of the great grey whale of art that is Mister Ferry. Like his contemporary, David Bowie, the twin glam rock suns of Bowie and Ferry have many smaller planets trapped in helpless orbit around their gravitational pull. Today, we’ll examine a few of the best.
Though it may seem outlandish to the uninitiated, Simple Minds owed a lot to the influence of Roxy Music on their early, seminal albums. These are worlds away from their eventual stadium fodder albums of the mid eighties, on which their [literal, not artistic] fortunes rest, but know ye that Kerr’s singing on the likes of “Empires & Dance,” “Sons + Fascination” and “Sister Feelings Call” represent the fullest expressions of vintage ’73-’75 Ferry. Back in the day when the man sang like a desperately strange glam rock Bela Lugosi. You older kids know what I’m talking about!
Almost every singer fronting a group I loved in the late 70s took their cues from either Ferry or Bowie. One of the best was David Sylvian, of Japan. After beginning life as late-blooming glam-rock-come-latelys with their New York Dolls sound on their debut and second album, Japan managed to effect a dramatic reboot on their third album [“Quiet Life”] and came out smelling like Roxy Music at their most sedate and glacial.
At the time I first heard them, I’d never heard someone who sounded more like Ferry. The occasion was their fourth album, “Gentlemen Take Polaroids.” The song was their completely alien cover version of Smoky Robinson’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.” When I finally heard the full album, it sounded like the best album that Roxy Music had never made. That’s a thought that is still valid thirty years later.
Not all Ferry wannabees were from the United Kingdom. Iva Davies of Icehouse began his career playing oboe at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music before switching to vocals and guitar when his band Flowers sprang to life in 1977. All the better to position himself as a one man Roxy Music triple threat with vocals, guitars and oboe all in his capable hands! Flowers kicked around for a few years playing Roxy Music and Bowie covers before they recorded their debut album in 1980. By that time, they had managed to forge an identity that wasn’t completely reliant on sounding so much like Bryan Ferry and company.
Nevertheless, on the second album by the now renamed Icehouse in 1982, Davies managed to craft what is perhaps the single finest Bryan Ferry pastiche I’ve ever heard. Don’t take my word for it. A couple of years ago my Bryan Ferry loving wife asked me what Ferry/Roxy album contained that song that went “Hey Little Girl.” I guffawed at the transparency of her assumption. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Bryan Ferry’s work can be excused for making that gaffe, since the resultant song truly is a classic Bryan Ferry single in all but name.
In 1984 the most amazing Ferry clone emerged in the least likely place. After Roxy Music split again following the “Avalon” album, what else did Phil Manzanera and Andy MacKay do but form a new group, The Explorers with one James Wraith, singing. They must have looked high and low to find a singer who sounded so much like Bryan Ferry that all of the other competition absolutely paled in comparison. Mister Wraith has every trick of phrasing and inflection of Bryan Ferry’s down cold. One needs just to imagine that sort of singer let loose on a collection of songs that sound like Roxy Music’s Greatest Hits from a strange parallel universe to appreciate that this particular artistic furrow could not be plowed any deeper.
“Ship of Fools” begins the album with a stormy intensity that was unheard in Roxy Music post 1974. The appearance of Tony Levin on Chapman Stick and Jerry Marotta on drums [classic Peter Gabriel rhythm section] adds even more to the lurching, fevered opener. Had this been an actual Roxy Music song, pundits would have wilted from the praise, but hearing Manazanera & MacKay turn themselves into a tribute act meant that most listeners just shook their heads and moved on [except for myself, who glommed onto this album with a vise-like grip]. A second album went unreleased and no one has ever heard from Mr. Wraith ever since. Still, he wins the gold star for taking Ferry emulation literally as far as it could go.
There were others I could name, but time is short and we must move on. Still, I have held in the back of my mind the notion of Bryan Ferry releasing a cover album featuring the likes of “Hey Little Girl,” “Gentlemen Take Polaroids,” “New Gold Dream” or “Venus De Milo.” It would be incredibly cheeky and proof that Bryan Ferry indeed has the sense of humor he’s always complaining that no one knows about. At the very least an EP. Please?
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