Remembering Bryan Ferry’s expansive vision of pop
When Bryan Ferry’s debut solo album, These Foolish Things, was released in the U.K. on October 5, 1973, it was in the midst of a period when pop was in a nostalgic, reflective mood.
It’d been going on for a little while by that point: Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Rick Nelson had, a year earlier, returned to the singles chart; Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and Loggins & Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” were planted in the musical past, as were the films American Graffiti and Let the Good Times Roll. But even with all that as backdrop, even surrounded by vintage-covers albums by Nilsson, the Band and David Bowie, Bryan Ferry’s time-traveling was head-turningly oddball. There was an ad for These Foolish Things in the British magazine Let It Rock, and it caused me no small amount of confusion: There was Ferry, the lead singer of the ultramodern band Roxy Music, stripped of his usual swanky attire, and the only ad copy was the titles of the tracks: Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” Smokey and the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears.” Songs by Goffin & King and Leiber & Stoller, by Brian Wilson, Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards. And the ’30s standard “These Foolish Things,” which I associated mostly with Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. What was going on here?
Initially, listening to it didn’t clarify the situation all that much. Ferry sang everything in a stylized, burnished croon, giving the same slightly detached feeling to “Sympathy for the Devil”—what chutzpah to cover that one in a voice that is not so much demonic as self-amused—as to the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” The album begins and ends with “list” songs: Dylan’s portent of the apocalypse—I saw this, I heard that, I met so-and-so—is side one, track one, and “These Foolish Things,” an inventory of items and events that trigger romantic memory, ends the album, and in between are songs (all from the ’60s, with one exception) that range from the profoundly poetic to the sweet and simple. It’s an expansive, open-hearted theory of pop, and while I might not forgive Ferry for taking the drag race out of “Don’t Worry Baby” (what is the point, then?), he manages over the course of the thirteen tracks to uncover the pleasures in even the most inconsequential material (no one, I think, would count the thematically linked “Don’t Ever Change” and “Baby, I Don’t Care” as among the top-drawer Goffin & King and Leiber & Stoller songs). If you believe, as I do, that “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” is one of the most ingenious examples of pop phrase-making ever, These Foolish Things is an album that was designed for you.
After a while, it all makes sense. If much of flashback-pop treated previous eras with a wiser-now wink at faded innocence, the Sha Na Na/American Graffiti approach, or like Ringo Starr’s hit take on Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen” (a song featured in Graffiti), These Foolish Things is more like Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which came out at the same time, October 1973. Scorsese’s cinematic jukebox is wildly, dizzyingly eclectic: The Ronettes, the Stones, Motown and doo-wop, Cream and Jimmy Roselli. That’s the kind of zingy feeling Ferry’s album has. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes he picks a song seemingly at random (like the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me”), sometimes he takes on a daunting assignment (like “Piece of My Heart”). These Foolish Things is bracketed by a pair of Roxy Music albums, For Your Pleasure (with the faux-dance-craze song “Do the Strand”) and Stranded, and although it looks like a creative off-ramp, it fits the Roxy Music remake-remodel mission, and uses some of the same players (John Porter, Paul Thompson, Eddie Jobson).
Other cover albums in 1973–and there was a whole bunch of them–took a narrower focus. Harry Nilsson recruited arranger Gordon Jenkins and his sea of strings to dig deep into pre-rock ballads. John Fogerty, under the name the Blue Ridge Rangers, became a one-man country band, doing Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams (Glen Campbell cut a whole album of Hank songs the same year). On Now and Then, the Carpenters devoted an entire LP side to an oldies medley (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “One Fine Day,” “Our Day Will Come” … you get the idea). The Band solved the problem of writing-fatigue by recording Moondog Matinee, a collection—often spirited, but occasionally enervated—of songs that inspired them. And the same day that These Foolish Things popped on to the U.K. LP chart, so did David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, a visit to a specific time and place: England in the mid-’60s (Bowie and Ferry overlapped on only one songwriter, Bert Berns). Bowie stayed away from the Stones and the Beatles, and found gems by the Pretty Things, the Merseys (itself a cover of a McCoys cut), the Who, and the Kinks. Bowie was coming out of Aladdin Sane (which did have “Let’s Spend the Night Together”), and the premise of Pin-Ups was very promising, but if anything, the album is over-reverent and polite. Most of the arrangements stick close to the originals, and you wonder what this kind of album might’ve been if Bowie had been in a more playful, anarchic mood.
Ferry wasn’t out to capture one moment; he wanted to weave disparate threads together, to break down ideas of which pop music was “artistic” and which was trivial. “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives says, and there are people, I suppose, that would put “Don’t Ever Change” and “It’s My Party” in that category. Or the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me.” Of all the artists excavating the pop past in 1973, Ferry is closest to Bette Midler, whose second album, released in November of that year, didn’t flinch at including Bob Dylan and Phil Spector along with Brecht & Weill and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Like Ferry, she broke down the snob-barrier, along with generational and genre divisions.
At the end of These Foolish Things, Ferry goes back the furthest, to the 1930s, to the title song, which is about being haunted. “Still those little things remain that bring me happiness or pain,” he sings, and among those foolish things, along with a lipstick-stained cigarette and dance invitations, are musical triggers: “A tinkling piano in the next apartment,” “the waiters whistling as the last bar closes,” “the song that Crosby sings.” Layers on layers: Ferry, his voice faintly echoing the sound one would have heard on the radio in the first half of the 20th century, doing a song that Bing Crosby sang during WWII, with a line about how songs, like ones by Crosby, like the one Ferry is singing at that precise moment, linger with us through time and distance.