BRYAN FERRY – These Foolish Things

By the summer of 1973, Roxy Music had released two fantastic, groundbreaking albums mixing pop and glam rock with a heavy dose of experimentation to produce an art-rock sound which sounded quite unlike anything heard before.  The second of those albums, ‘For Your Pleasure’ – released in March 1973 – captured the early Roxy’s most avant-garde side at its peak.  With Roxy’s career barely out of the starting blocks, frontman Bryan Ferry began work on a solo career.  His first album, ‘These Foolish Things’ – a covers record – was released in June of that year.

Releasing a covers album to kick-start a solo career could be seen as a bad move since – although often popular with the less demanding listener – they’re not always seen as particularly creative.  Ferry, however, already had Roxy Music with which to be as experimental as he wished (after all, rock music in the early 1970s rarely came in a more experimental package than some of Roxy’s best offerings at that time – and certainly not as downright sinister as ‘The Bogus Man’) and with the band’s growing popularity, the time was right for Ferry to branch out and attract a few of those less demanding listeners. ‘These Foolish Things’ could be seen as Ferry’s outlet for something a little more fun; but fun, of course, is a relative concept: although his first solo album dispensed with the oddness of his band set up, as well as any pretence of breaking new ground, Ferry did not approach the project with any less professionalism or intensity.  By his drafting in of various Roxy cohorts to help out musically, there was no fear of his solo record sounding half-baked or rushed in any way.  In short, Roxy’s musical brilliance combined with Ferry’s almost faultless personal selection of cover tunes ensured ‘These Foolish Things’ couldn’t fail.

Kicking off with ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, Ferry’s style is an instantly recognisable one.  His vocal style in keeping with that of the early Roxy recordings, he tackles Dylan’s wordy piece with an assured delivery.  Musically, Dylan’s simple chord structure and sharp vocal tack are re-worked into a world of seventies pomposity (but in a good way). There’s a solid base of piano, which is augmented by a jagged violin, courtesy of Eddie Jobson.  Initially, the presence of a small choir of female backing vocals (provided by The Angelettes) may seem a little cheesy, but in a wholly 1970s fashion, they provide a great counterpart to Ferry’s rather more unusual lead.  Repeated listens increase the enjoyment; once you’ve got to grips with Ferry taking Dylan’s sharp wit and protest and twisting it into a sub-Roxy workout, the finer points of the tune start to reveal themselves.  The lead guitar breaks near the end are impressive without bombast and the string section gets to cut a bit looser.  If you factor in the various overdubs of thunderclaps, telephones and whispers etcetera, it’s a little over the top (in a way which power pop merchants Jellyfish would wantonly embrace some years later), but in all a great opening statement; one which happily celebrates seventies excess without sacrificing general accessibility.

Bringing things down a notch, Ferry indulges his love of soul music on a version Kitty Lester’s ‘River of Salt’.  A brief number, this captures a vocal style which has far less edge – nodding towards the style Ferry would use more on the later Roxy works into the 1980s – but with the softness comes a musical greatness.  While perhaps the harmonica is inessential, Ferry’s electric piano line is lovely and John Porter’s bass line has a real presence – as it does on most of the other numbers.   The Goffin/King written ‘Don’t Ever Change’ falls in a well-judged middle ground; the version here led by bass and an often light-hearted piano.  While Ferry’s Edith Piaf-esque warbling isn’t always warranted, it doesn’t detract too often.  Like the harmonica on ‘River of Salt’, the odd element on this number comes from a slightly odd keyboard accompaniment, which adds very little musically; while not reaching into ugly territory, it hovers in the background as a mild distraction.  Luckily, the bass and piano – and as with all versions of this song, the hard struck piano chords on the chorus are absolutely pivotal – are never far away.

Taking on the Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is a brave move, but Ferry pulls off the task with relative ease and a lot of style.  Following a great drum intro from Roxy’s Paul Thompson, Ferry steps in to deliver that well known opening line: “Please allow me to introduce myself, a man of wealth and taste”; his suave delivery and sinister edge far more devilish than Jagger’s high camp.  Not to take anything away from the Stones – their 1968 recording will always remain the definitive version – but this is magnificent.  Ferry is in fine form throughout, but his band is even better: the drums lay a dominant force throughout, while the guitars have a hefty glam rock clang. Across nearly six minutes, this piece is a veritable tour-de-force; once the mood has been set and Ferry steps up a gear, horns lend a brassy arrogance, The Angelettes “woo-woo” relentlessly and Jobson’s keyboards swell in a seventies abandon.  Individually, these elements could have created a cacophonous racket, but the arrangement is so good, balancing everything almost on a pin-head, becoming ever more intense as it rolls along. As Ferry cackles during the coda, the whole band is unstoppable – almost at the point of combusting.  ‘These Foolish Things’ is loaded with great moments, but if you’ve never heard this version of ‘Sympathy’, that should be enough alone to warrant purchasing this album.  Ferry’s approach to the sixties other most popular band – The Beatles – is just as distinctly his own, without ever appearing disrespectful towards the fab four.  In a superb rendition of ‘You Won’t See Me’, the piano dances throughout playfully interacting with another upfront funky bass line.  Holding the two elements together is a simple guitar chugging out muted chords.  Ferry sounds like he’s in his element vocally; it’s possibly even one of his strongest performances.  In and out in two and a half minutes, it’s an almost faultless reimagining of one of The Beatles’ lesser known cuts; its arrangement much more interesting than the hurried approach featured on their ‘Rubber Soul’ recording.

Ferry’s treatment of Erma Franklin’s ‘Piece of My Heart’ presents what is perhaps the album’s lowest point; due to Ferry being a vocalist as opposed to singer, there’s just so many reasons why he ought to have given this a miss.  For the most part, his vocals never stretch beyond a wobbly croon and naturally this song demands more from its performance.  Luckily, his carefully chosen band ensure this doesn’t fall on its arse – Porter’s bass is rock solid and high in the mix, while the drums also carry a nice tone.  The Angelettes are in good shape too and pull Ferry through with their backing harmonies.  Ferry’s angular voice is perfectly adaptable to a lot of adventurous arrangements – as it is to some softer stuff too – but this kind of big soul music doesn’t entirely suit.  Hearing him hammer his way through rock ‘n’ roll standard ‘You’re So Square’ is far preferable.  Backed with a busy band and rinky-dinky piano, he gives the number his all.  Obviously, he’s not Elvis Presley, but then he would never pretend to be. Within two minutes, the breezy slice of old school rock ‘n’ roll is over, making its exit via Ferry’s chuckle – suggesting that this was not only fun, but perhaps the album sessions’ most spontaneous recording.  Like ‘Piece of My Heart’, Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks of My Tears’ could have gone either way, but somehow Ferry manages not to suck the life from this soul classic.  His voice is relatively strong and the mid-range vocal allows him to throw in a little vibrato without anything sounding too forced.  The Angelettes could have delivered a better performance – one which sounded better than a quick session job – and it’s a pity the horn section sounds like a high school band, but overall it’s not so bad.  In the context of the rest of the album, even the less essential tracks like this (and ‘Piece of My Heart’ to a lesser extent) aren’t entirely without charm, and it’s not like Ferry ever suggested his version of ‘Tracks of My Tears’ would rival the Smokey Robinson take from ’65 after all.

The horn section are in good shape on ‘It’s My Party’ punctuating a piano-led romp through the old Lesley Gore hit.  Although that brass and female vocals push this towards TV variety show territory, Ferry’s choosing not to change the gender of the song celebrates 1970s sexual freedoms and androgyny with a knowing wink.  With a huge amount of reverb on the drums and guitar combined with a slowness of pace, The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is somewhat ominous, particularly once Ferry hits the lower registers. The Angelette’s contribution doesn’t perk things up any – barely a substitute at all for Mike Love and the Wilson brothers’ close harmonies, while a wandering gypsy violin only adds to the impending sense of doom while Ferry and co crawl their way across the four minute mark.  It ought to be terrible, perhaps even deserved to be, and yet, by some miracle, it isn’t terrible at all; its dreariness comes across as irony.

‘I Love How You Love Me’ – a number from the Phil Spector stable – appears in an over-egged rendition, with its fist-clenched emotions swamped by a harpsichord.  On the plus side, there’s a thoughtful and well played tenor sax solo which really reinforces the fifties feel – which lends a necessary sense of balance against the seventies camp. On first hearing, it doesn’t appear as enjoyable as some of the other tunes here, but repeated listens really allow it to shine; mostly due to that impeccable sax, but also some nice piano lines lurking beneath the wall of sound.   Stevie Wonder’s ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ is suitably funky, but not all of the elements work as well as they perhaps could’ve.  Ferry’s piano – at the back of the mix and swamped in echo is fabulous – as is his forthright distinctive lead voice, and there’s yet another brilliant bassline from Porter. The horns are a little less forthright than before, but alone that wouldn’t have weakened the end result; that dubious honour goes to The Angelettes, whom despite sterling work on ‘Hard Rain’, sound no better here than Bananarama on a karaoke machine.  This is perhaps a deliberately styled choice, but it’s not good.  The title track contains some decent elements, but is a little overlong at almost six minutes.  Taking an old standard from the thirties, Ferry croons gently against a piano and muted trumpet, as if he were being played back on an old gramophone – a nice touch.  After a minute and a half, Ferry could have thought about bringing the arrangement to a close, effectively using it as a coda for the album.  Instead, he chooses to give it an extended arrangement with full band in tow, resulting in a mix of seventies pop/rock and cod reggae.  It ought not to work: there are times when the drummer, bassist and rhythm guitarist appear to be playing different tunes entirely, but of course, such a seemingly chaotic (but, in reality, meticulously structured) approach should be expected of the Roxy gang… Ferry’s performance is fine enough; he should also be commended for holding together an arrangement which should never have got off the ground. However, despite best efforts, ‘These Foolish Things’ (the album) still offers more enjoyable works.

The album was a chart success, peaking at #5 in the UK.   Even though Ferry didn’t manage to repeat this winning formula to such a high standard on other solo discs released over the next few years, ‘These Foolish Things’ has weathered the passing decades extremely well.   While time has decreed that David Bowie’s ‘Pin-Ups’ is glam rock’s most popular covers album of 1973 (actually released after Ferry’s debut), ‘These Foolish Things’ is potentially classier; it’s certainly superior in terms of consistency and definitely less disposable.  With this debut release, Ferry makes a covers disc seem as if it were a vital musical statement and not just some contractual filler – a rare gift, indeed.

October 2011