May 2007

Essays

Bryan looks back

By Robert Forster
Bryan looks back
Bryan Ferry’s ‘Dylanesque’

Many years ago there was a show on ABC Television called GTK. The initials stood for the rather quaint phrase ‘getting to know'. The broadcast ran from 6.30 in the evening and, from memory, lasted somewhere between ten and 20 minutes. For adolescents such as myself who could occasionally wrestle the television from their parents, GTK offered a briefly glimpsed window into youth culture, rock 'n' roll in particular. It was an odd program, in the light of the format-driven, all-information-in-advance entertainment culture of today. Anything could pop up. The show came from Sydney, and could swing through fashion, international bands currently on tour, counter-cultural stuff, and local rock news and bands. It was a quick, idiosyncratic and enlightening report that also featured a skilful selection of overseas music clips and films.

Three of these clips remain in my mind. David Bowie in a startling combination of make-up and suit, singing ‘Life on Mars' on a white set. Ry Cooder in a recording studio with a live band, playing Paradise and Lunch era funky blues - one of the first occasions I'd seen a group of musicians playing great music together. And Bryan Ferry doing ‘A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', seated at the piano in profile, with jet-black hair and black T-shirt, three female backing singers behind him in 1930s/'40s garb. It was probably the first time I'd ever seen him perform, although I owned two albums by his band, Roxy Music, and These Foolish Things, his first solo album, from which the cover of Bob Dylan's ‘A Hard Rain' came.

Ferry doing Dylan in 1973 seemed a strange proposition. Through his slick and flamboyant Roxy persona, Bryan Ferry was at the absolute peak of his influence. In contrast, and at the time in an artistic wilderness, Bob Dylan was the '60s but the wrong kind, not camp or plastic but earthbound and a bit grubby. Ferry, though, pulled off a stroke of genius. With ‘A Hard Rain', he took one of Dylan's greatest and most revered early works, a stark and compelling piece of protest-era song-writing, and put it into the glam-rock blender. And by God, it worked. ‘A Hard Rain' being a three-chord folk song, Ferry not only saw the possibilities of pounding it into a fantastic three-chord rock song, but the opportunity to add all the touches so characteristic of his work at that moment: grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take.

What also got Ferry, beyond the pleasure of completely reconstructing a '60s classic, was the chance to sing its words. Here was the primary connection. In his own work, and shown in his hip appreciation on These Foolish Things of everything from Cole Porter through to Lesley Gore's It's My Party, it was obvious Ferry valued the lyric and had a particular take on its history in popular song. So he was drawn to Dylan. He also knew Dylan's supreme gift as a songwriter and a singer, dipping into his catalogue again for ‘It Ain't Me, Babe' on Another Time, Another Place (1974), his second solo album. And from then on, it's been appreciation from afar, Ferry noting in interviews that he'd never met the great man nor heard his opinion on Ferry's cover versions. But even given this initial fruitful crossing back in '73, it still came as a surprise to hear that Ferry, notoriously hesitant in releasing albums and always mistrustful of anything approaching spontaneity, had recorded a complete album of Dylan songs in a week.

First off, nothing succeeds on Dylanesque as well as ‘A Hard Rain', and to give Ferry his due he doesn't really put himself in a position to try. This is the record of an older man, knowing that he has already recorded one of the greatest cover versions of Dylan ever, and who is happy to revisit the songwriter's work but in the glow of that achievement. It's not an album that sets out for total engagement, to collar you and scream or whisper its pain or prophecy, as albums of original material often do. Ferry's coolness as an artist comes into play here, too. This is an album you can let play in another room, wander in on and smile appreciatively when he gets it right, and leave on the occasions he gets it a little wrong.

The record begins strongly and surprisingly with ‘Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues', off Highway 61 Revisited (1965). It's Dylan in his wildest and most fantastically poetical period, the time when he let his hair explode in curls and wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone'. Two other songs on Dylanesque also come from this era: ‘Gates of Eden', from Bringing it All Back Home (1965), and the single ‘Positively 4th Street', also from '65. These are big songs to go at, not only because of their monster status in the Dylan catalogue, but also because of the first-time authority Dylan whacked on them. Plus, they are druggy, weird and evocative of the mid-'60s milieu they vividly portray. But Ferry gets under their skin, his trembling voice and the stripped-down instrumentation revealing a vulnerability in the lyrics that the original recordings had hidden. ‘Positively 4th Street' is no longer a caustic kiss-off but the rueful pleading of a former friend; ‘Gates of Eden' is not a strident song-poem but a gliding, spooky hymn. It is the turning of these songs - from familiar conceptions to something fresh - that is the album's triumph.

One other highlight is ‘Make You Feel My Love'. Ferry's atmospheric tears-in-the-rain treatment of this, highlighting the song's latent romanticism, eclipses Dylan's original version on Time Out of Mind (1997). On that album the song is a little buried, and for once not helped by a Dylan vocal that fails to fully reach the beauty of the melody. Ferry steps in and gives the song the tenderness and the arrangement it's always needed. His more commercial approach to recording, which he's always had, is a kick against the norm for artists tackling Dylan. Bar bands, singer-songwriters and big rock guns love Dylan and usually mimic his rough-and-ready approach to the studio. So it's interesting to see what Ferry brings to these songs, and it's amazing also how often in the first ten or so seconds you can tell whether or not his treatment will succeed.

In general, the quieter numbers on the album work better than the rock ones. On the more subdued songs Ferry brings the sophisticated Roxy touch, and this makes for an effective and seldom-heard contrast to Dylan's recordings. The louder approach, with Ferry's love of '70s guitar licks to the fore, and the presence of the celebrated '80s mixer Bob Clearmountain and his crashing snare, lands ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down' and ‘All Along the Watchtower' straight in the bin. The inclusion of the latter is bizarre. Dylan's stripped-back original is magnificent; Hendrix's inspired rock cover definitive. Where else can you go? ‘If Not for You' also suffers from its Velvets ‘Sweet Jane' chug, and anyway, who is ever going to top Olivia Newton-John's gorgeous pop rendering from 1971?

Greyer areas are ‘Simple Twist of Fate', ‘The Times They are a- Changin'' and ‘Knockin' on Heaven's Door'. ‘Simple Twist' is the most overtly commercial turn on the album, and initially the slick treatment it receives - up against Dylan's bittersweet acoustic original - has you gasping. But you find yourself won over; a little like Ferry's hit version of John Lennon's ‘Jealous Guy', the song describes a private moment, and laces its melody with radio-friendly production. ‘The Times' gets the guitar chug again, and is reminiscent of ‘A Hard Rain' in its attempt to remake and remodel an early, dry folk song. It's not bad. And the oft-covered ‘Knockin' on Heaven's Door' Ferry stretches to six minutes, with female singers and a good arrangement; the minutes glide by and it's affecting.

This is no earth-shattering record. It's for Ferry lovers and Dylan people - and more importantly, perhaps, for an audience in between. You'll be in a lift somewhere and Bryan Ferry singing ‘The Times They are a-Changin'' will come on, and it will seem kind of funny and appropriate. You'll be in a bar in Lisbon and there'll be a radio playing and Ferry's soft croon of ‘Gates of Eden' will float to you. In those moments, this record will seem perfect.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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