IT is the ultimate question, the one to which everyone wants to know the answer. OK, it’s stupid, but it’s worth a laugh. It has nothing to do with his years with Roxy Music. Nor the solo career, the hair care, the suit style, Jerry Hall or nutters on planes. The question is.... just what is Bryan Ferry’s favourite ferry?
We had, up to that point, been getting on pretty well. The gentleman scholar of popular music had answered all the questions with grace and charm. He’d told me about his connections with Nottingham; the former Post journalist who helped launch Roxy’s career, the Nottingham-born bass player who lent his skills to Virginia Plain but lasted less than a year. And Nottingham violinist Lucy Wilkins, who has become an integral part of his show, last year’s Roxy reunion and his future plans.
The silence suggested I had asked one question too many. I could almost hear his brow cracking in to a frown.
For a moment I thought he’d put the phone down. Then he breaks the tension. “My favourite ferry journey? Erm...” He’s in.
Bryan Ferry, God bless him, is playing the game.
“Let’s see. I don’t really know many of them.”
Have a go!
“Probably the one from Portsmouth to Le Havre. Quite a nice one, that. I’ve been on that a few times.”
I offer that years back while at college I travelled the same route on a “booze cruise”.
“Oh, right,” he says, unimpressed and quite clearly sending the message “right sonny, I’ve answered the stupid question now let’s move on!”.
Softly spoken but jovial and really rather posh as he is, it comes as a surprise to find Ferry’s upbringing was in the north-east and very working class. So where’s the Gazza accent?
“I come from Durham (Washington, County Durham). I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a Durham accent before? It’s a bit softer than your strictly Newcastle. And I have lived in London since 1968. You know, it’s rubbed off a bit.” Though he insists: “Whenever I speak to Paul (Thompson), my drummer, we very often converse in a very strong Geordie accent. He’s from Jarrow.”
So, we march on. Ferry, now 56, grew up with two elder sisters (both history teachers), “softly spoken” mum Mary Ann and dad Fred. What was his upbringing like? “It was like, erm, poor.” he says, laughing. “My dad was brought up on a farm and worked as a farm labourer. He was a ploughman really, then in the depression he worked, still looking after the horses but, down the pit. It’s an interesting part of the country there. It was the North-East/Durham coalfield where you’d find a pit village and farms all around. He was from the farm, my mother was from the town. “They were an interesting combination. He used to court her on a plough horse for ten years before they got married. It was very old-fashioned.”
The young Bryan was a bit of an oddity, he admits.
“As soon as I discovered art and English literature in the sixth form at the local grammar school, it changed my life quite radically. I began doing very much my own thing. When I went to university I met a lot of people like myself. I had a great time. That’s when I started doing music. It was very unusual to do that. You were considered very much an oddball. Even if you just went on to further education it was a bit unusual because a lot of people wanted to start work at 16, as soon as they could.
“Frankly I wasn’t very keen on that.”
While studying Fine Art at Newcastle University he played with local bands The Banshees and Gas Board. He put Roxy Music together soon after reaching the capital, the initial line-up including Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson.
Their second bass-player, one of more than a dozen over the years, was Nottingham-born Rik Kenton. Lasting just eight months, Kenton played on the group’s first hit, Virginia Plain.
“I don’t what’s happened to him. I haven’t seen him for many years,” says Ferry, who admits he can remember little about Kenton.
“He was No. 2 in a long line of players. He was very good.”
Last year I tracked Kenton down in Leyton Buzzard, where he writes music for television and film.
“He’s doing well is he? Oh good.”
Another Nottingham character played a significant role in the group’s success. Richard Williams, a former Post journalist from Burton Joyce, was a key music writer in London in the seventies. He went on to edit the Melody Maker and was the first presenter on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
“He was very important in Roxy’s history really. He was very much a leading rock columnist. I liked the things he wrote so I sent him a tape of the first Roxy demos and he called me later that day and said it was the best thing he’d heard since... God knows when. He was very positive, very enthusiastic. He was fantastic. Really helpful.”
Roxy Music became one of the most influential groups of the decade, combining glam looks with rock, electronic and dance music. Virginia Plain, a No. 4 hit in 1972, was the first of a total 17 hits before the group split in 1982. They included Over You, More Than This and their only chart-topping single, their cover of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. Ferry continued with the solo career he’d been running alongside Roxy Music and scored hits Let’s Stick Together, Slave To Love and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. Last year, Ferry, Manzanera, Mackay and Thompson came to Nottingham Arena as part of their first tour in nearly 20 years.
“It’s probably the best Roxy show we’d ever put on,” he says. “I was very proud of it. Visually I was very pleased with the way it worked. The band played great. It was an entertaining show. Every night the audience were electric and that helps an awful lot.”
Among the Roxy band last year — and now an intergral part of the Bryan Ferry tour — was Nottingham musician Lucy Wilkins.
“She’s a real find, a great player. I’ve worked with her for two years now and she has become a really important part of the band.” Wilkins, who has also played with Paul Weller, Martine McCutcheon and Marc Almond, plays on Ferry’s latest solo album Frantic, which reached No. 6 in the chart.
The album also features Roxy Music co-founder Brian Eno who left the group in 1973 after a falling-out with Ferry. The enigmatic producer was not part of the Roxy reunion last year. “I get on well with him,” says Ferry, matter-of-factly. He is similarly vague about the possibility of more Roxy, er, music. “Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. We haven’t got any plans for it. This year’s all full up with solo projects. But who knows in the future? If we’re all in the mood for it. It would be nice.”
Frantic also features Jonny Greenwood “from that fairly new group Radiohead”.
“They’re very good and he’s a great player. He’s very much in the Roxy tradition of being adventurous and trying out new sounds.”
Ferry has kept his private life behind closed doors in the main. He is married to Lucy with children Otis and Isaac. Though he did once date Jerry Hall, the only recent time he has been splashed on the front pages was two years ago when a fellow passenger on a flight from Nairobi went crackers, broke into the cockpit and tried to grab the controls. The plane nearly crashed and Ferry feared for his life. But hopping aboard a plane these days does not bother him, he says.
“If there had been a mechanical failure it would have worried me much more. I can’t see it happening again. With any luck.”