Once upon a time I lived in a flat next door to Bryan Ferry’s west London recording studio. It was a basement apartment with high ceilings, and enormous windows facing the sidewalk. All day long I’d sit at my desk, watching an endless succession of legs swish by, my eyes at knee level, like a pervert.
I first heard about the studio, hidden in the pretty redbrick Victorian townhouse next door, because a girlfriend tipped me off. She’d been at school with Ferry’s girlfriend (now wife), a gorgeous twentysomething publicist named Amanda Sheppard, whom the former Roxy Music singer reportedly met while she was dating one of his sons.
I was then (and remain) a big Bryan Ferry fan. His new record, The Jazz Age, a cover album of his old Roxy Music hits refashioned as jazz numbers, is nothing short of delicious – an audible glass of Champagne. Who’d have thought Avalon set to orchestral trumpet-led bebop would work as a piece of music, let alone sustain an entire album as a concept? But it does. And like the rest of Ferry’s artistic output, it manages to be marvellously inventive and pleasantly comforting at the same time.
That fine balance is Ferry’s way. British interior designer Nicky Haslam once commented that Ferry was much more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it. And I suppose it was this sense of elegant restraint, combined with musical genius, that made me so delighted to have him as a neighbour.
I used to see him out my window from time to time. I came to recognize his collection of snappy leather brogues, which invariably led up to a pair of slim-cut wool trousers, tailored just so. If I moved close to the window, laid my face against the glass, and looked up, I could sometimes see the whole man. Usually it was just a glimpse, as he jumped into or out of a black cab; but occasionally he’d linger on the corner, sharing a cigarette with one of the young sessional musicians or backup singers who always seemed to be coming and going.
That was a year I buried myself in work, and as a result, I rarely left the flat. For a time, Ferry – and my imaginary adventures with him around London – were my main contact with the outside world. I started playing Roxy Music’s greatest-hits album over and over, the soft-focus saxophone and synth tracks transporting me back to the early-eighties suburban dreamscape of my childhood. Sometimes I opened the windows in the hope he might overhear his songs and strike up a conversation. But if I saw him coming, I’d get embarrassed and run around the room slamming all the windows shut. This is the psychological conflict of having a pop star next door: You want to be cool and blasé about it, but at the same time you’re dying for them to invite you over for tea and a round of Guitar Hero.
With Ferry, that never happened. But listening to his new album, I am reminded all over again of the magic he creates. It is not the magic of sex and drugs and danger that characterizes much of the pop music from his time, but one of gentler, grown-up pleasures: a crisp white Burgundy sipped in a well-designed armchair next to a crackling fire. Dinner jacket optional.
As a fundamentally bourgeois person – I enjoy every aspect of dinner parties, and have never seen a countertop I didn’t want to wipe – I am comforted by the existence of Bryan Ferry. He is living proof that it is possible to be simultaneously tidy and proper and artistically cutting-edge at the same time. His career is the embodiment of the famous Gustave Flaubert instruction to “be regular and orderly in your life… so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
I no longer live in that basement flat. Like a typical bourgeois, I myself have moved on. But I think of him often: Those Roxy Music hits – original; and new, jazz covers – are still the soundtrack to my humdrum (and occasionally creative) working life.
There are those in Britain who consider Ferry a class traitor (he grew up working-class before sending his children to Eton, and now campaigns for the fox hunt and supports David Cameron’s Tories), but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to agree with Ferry’s stance on welfare reform to enjoy his music. His concerns, both creative and aesthetic, are essentially ephemeral and apolitical.
He is, in a sense, the modern-day Mrs. Dalloway of pop music. You won’t hear a Roxy Music lyric slagging the Queen or constructing a naive vision for world peace. Avalon, in particular, is the musical equivalent of a truly successful dinner party: pleasurable, relaxing and stimulating to the senses, without being in any way difficult or challenging. This is not music that’s trying to change the world, and yet it does so, if only by making it incrementally lovelier.