As Roxy Music’s frontman, Bryan Ferry brought glamour to Seventies pop, pioneering the art-rock scene. Decades later his eye for style and influence is as strong as ever
Strolling into a lavish suite at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, Bryan Ferry – solo singer, member of Roxy Music and fashion icon – is as handsome, suave and well dressed as you’d expect him to be. But then, he has always looked good. This is, of course, the man who as singer, main songwriter and artistic force behind Roxy Music, became the face of the band. A band that over the course of 10 years released eight albums and injected some much needed style into the British charts. The music spoke of girls, glamour and a lifestyle far removed from the one that most people enjoyed in Seventies Britain. As the lead singer, Ferry naturally became the focus of attention. An iconic, seemingly shy figure, he would famously perform from the side of the stage and, while this has often been put down to his unwillingness to take his place in the centre, it was also, like everything Roxy Music did, an aesthetic decision. ‘Roxy was a very visual band,’ he explains. ‘I’d studied art, so I guess that I brought a lot of that interest into what we were doing.’
Over 30 years later, he is recording again. ‘It’s hard work,’ he says. ‘Harder than people think really, or maybe I make it hard.’ He talks quietly, his voice trailing off into a whisper, his sentences punctuated with long moments of silence while he considers his answer. At first, it is disconcerting and you don’t know whether to stay silent or bring up a different subject, but then just as the pause has passed its natural length, he continues, ‘Maybe you can get away with not making it hard. I’ve never figured it out.’ It must, of course, be difficult, having to improve on that immense body of past work; the weight of all those hits – Love is the Drug, The Thrill of it All and Virginia Plain – on his designer-clad shoulders. He agrees. ‘It’s much easier when you start out because you have nothing to prove and you do it without thinking. It would be great to feel like that all the time. But as years go by, you become very aware of the fact that you might repeat yourself, because people do, all artists do,’ he explains. ‘Then you become concerned that you might do that too much because you want everything you do to be new and fabulous. And that’s what I’m trying to do – be new and fabulous,’ he laughs, his face lighting up, his blue eyes suddenly twinkling.
Ferry’s achievements are impressive, especially when you consider their influence on today’s music scene. And yet, there is none of that diva-like quality that you’d expect from a man with such a catalogue of work – and reputation for ego. Quietly charismatic, he is obviously aware of his appearance, but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed by it. He is pleasant to chat to, but displays little interest in the interview process and even less in being photographed – ‘It’s a drag.’ I never once catch him looking in the mirror – interesting for a man often accused of vanity.
This lack of interest in his looks was reflected in the covers of Roxy Music’s albums, which were as famous as the music they sold. They were artistic experiments that never actually featured the band. Instead, they favoured an assortment of models including Amanda Lear, Lucy Helmore and, most famously, an 18-year-old Texan model called Jerry Hall. At the time, the covers were considered scandalous, particularly that of Country Life, in which two beautiful girls, scantily clad in see-through underwear, stand lit up against a tree. As for the cover girls, Ferry went on to marry one (Lucy Helmore, from whom he is now divorced) and fall in love with another – Jerry Hall, with whom he lived until she dramatically left him for Mick Jagger.
Coincidentally, the day I meet Ferry is also the day after the Brit Awards, the UK music industry’s annual awards ceremony and party. Along with the usual mix of cheesy pop, credible acts and debate over surprise winners and unlucky losers, was the noticeable presence of two young bands: Franz Ferdinand and Scissor Sisters. Over the past 12 months, these two bands have been at the head of an art-rock scene that has dramatically captured the UK’s attention. It’s a scene that owes much to Seventies music and in particular to Roxy Music and, inevitably, Bryan Ferry.
Ferry acknowledges the influence that Roxy has had on today’s scene and, while he can see the parallels between the eras, he’s also aware of the differences. ‘It’s interesting because when I started doing it, there wasn’t so much emphasis on the visual side of things,’ he explains. ‘I guess because of my arts background, Roxy became a very visual band, but it was still way before there was much visual exposure in music.’ Nowadays, pop music is everywhere and image is everything. Ferry agrees. ‘There just wasn’t the huge pop coverage there is now. It’s gone too much the other way, really – where if you’re a young band and don’t look good you have a very hard time, and I think it’s fair to say that the music has suffered a bit.’
Music aside, it is fashion with which he has been most closely associated. Variously described as ‘a fashion icon of the 21st century’, ‘perennially elegant’ and ‘the most stylish man in pop’, his image has always been a strong part of his pull. ‘In everything you do, you bring visual opinions to it,’ he says, looking out over Hyde Park. ‘If you’re buying a car or a picture or a piece of furniture, then you make an aesthetic decision about it – it’s the same with the clothes you wear. I’ve got a fairly well-developed aesthetic sensibility, so I have opinions about things. My style is formed by lots of different elements. By years of looking at movies, looking at pictures, looking at this and that, you develop opinions about it.’
He is certainly interested in fashion. He admires the work of John Galliano and [the late] Alexander McQueen, both creative talents who are as much artists as they are fashion designers. ‘I’ve seen a couple of Galliano’s shows and they’re fabulous, real theatre you know,’ he enthuses. ‘Then there’s Savile Row and that kind of old-fashioned established English tailoring, that’s kind of interesting as well.’
Such quintessentially English style suits Ferry’s image. He is the classic gent, a well-dressed urbanite who loves the countryside, enjoys culture and the arts – basically, the good things in life. This is part of the reason why he likes Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. ‘I spend a lot of time in hotels, so I suppose you get to be quite fussy about where you stay,’ he explains. ‘They’re good hotels, the service is really good, they have great facilities and good staff. I’ve been to one in Hong Kong and have stayed at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok quite a few times, it’s a beautiful place.’ And beauty and glamour are of paramount importance to him. ‘Whether it’s in movies or in photography, I always lean to the more glamorous aspects of life.’
I wonder if he thinks life is glamorous today, as glamorous as it sounded back in Roxy Music’s heyday. ‘I suppose it’s against the grain to be glamorous in England,’ he reflects. ‘But, you know, you do see pockets of glamour – a resistance to the greyness that tends to take over,’ he says. We sit, silent, waiting for him to gather his thoughts. ‘I just like things to be colourful and exotic and visually interesting,’ he says. Rather like the man himself.