On Bryan Ferry: "Ferry Across The Tyne" - David Wise

Bryan Ferry in white suit and black bow tie in front of a lake

A Revolt Against Plenty article on musician Bryan Ferry, "cool", class and Tyneside in the 1960/70s.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 22, 2023

'Ferry Across The Tyne' On Bryan Ferry and the Newcastle/London Art Scene:
A revolt and subsequent aestheticisation


Re-make Re-model a book on Bryan Ferry by a guy called Michael Bracewell and published by Faber & Faber is broadly about the ambience that made the creep. The publisher had to be reputable even inclining towards the posh end of the market because nothing else could be suitable for a subject and content that tended towards the snooty identifying finally with some of the worst aspects of a traditional, largely north Tyneside elite extending into Northumbria ending up as part of THE SAME OLD SHITE.

The only good comment is the frontispiece where a line from Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night serves as frontispiece:

"Rosemary had the detached and ' exalted feel of being on a set and guessed that everyone else present had that feeling too."

But of course they didn't, well, not quite like that. And how we hated that pretend world that in the next forty years or so was to try and claim itself as ultimate, all-encompassing reality. We were never part of it nor wanted to be. Nay more that that: We loathed it. No wonder we immediately loved and immediately understood Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle when first reading it in late 1967. At the time what was to become a ubiquitous feeling of not being yourself but an actor, continually posing, false and staged was a something feeling that was still in its relative infancy corresponding to pre-nuptial patterns of consumption which had hardly emerged, even seeming fresh-faced which later laced with Marx, we reinterpreted the concept of Dept Two in Capital - The production of the means of (trivial - our emphasis -) consumption living among the seemingly overwhelming might of heavy industry, the coal, steel and shipbuilding of Tyneside described as Dept One: The production of the means of production. (Ferry, accurately for once referred to Newcastle in the early 1960s 'as a lively, lively place "a lot of fighting, a lot of blood on the streets") Yet amazingly it was the former (Dept Two) that was to cloak and envelope not only Tyneside but almost the whole of Britain, moving ever farther a field laying waste to ever bigger swathes of the rest of the developed world even finding a welcoming embrace among the growing middle classes of the economically poorer parts of our planet corresponding to the rise and rise of the bubble of fictive capital. Only now with the sixty year long wave of accumulation and ensuing economic crises can we begin to see the end in sight of its dominion. It foretells a nasty end of war and famine followed possibly by social revolution as desperate hedge fund speculation having crashed on company takeovers and property, like a cancer, now enters the very lifeblood of the food and energy chain.

Ferry hated us. By the mid to late 1960s we wanted to see a quick demise to the trajectory outlined above even though it was only at the time infecting the limited coterie of the dedicated followers of fashion, though you could sense the illness was beginning to really travel. We had by then had (or thought we had - how wrong we were!) quite enough of this stylistic posing, of this playing (and paying) with personae. We wanted the fire and brimstone of our freshly found selves, of our confident passions as we strove for authentic life knowing that 'authentic' had become a dirty word lanced from the vocabulary of 'cool'. We were hot, very hot, desiring the flames of revolution as we journeyed from Icteric through to the creation of King Mob.

It wasn't as though fashion in the early 1960s was remaining exclusively for the well off. Growing mass 'democratic' consumption had put paid to that particular apartheid as fashion was redefined by those at the sharp end. For sure, we all know about that as it's been explained to us by so many sociological, historical, essentially academic tomes spearheaded by the likes of Jonathan Green and Jon Savage. What interests here is just how all these developing sub-cultures playing with imagination also tended to go hand in hand with some kind of lop-sided, phantastical, even crazy take - though hardly a transcendental vision - of how life could be very different and how so very different from previous working class yearnings because it involved a massive cultural clash between the generations. These were experiments which, at their best searched for a newer life praxis that at times collided heavily with all the necessary and ugly prerequisites involved in the accumulation of capital. On an extremely broad though abstract level it could perhaps be said these experiments were in pursuit of a greater negative coherence if that doesn't sound too portentous or pretentious. Nonetheless, that confused though vital negativity was to last little more than two or three decades at most the more edginess was capitalised and finally trashed by a rampant free market that sucked the very life blood leaving nothing but a rotting, stinking carcass. It could be said that Bryan Ferry fed off some of these working class sub-cultures, especially Ted & Mod, growing up in and among them which - via the ambience of Roxy Music - turned them into the very opposite of what once held such promise.

Re-make Remodel is prefaced with a photograph of Penshaw Monument on top of Penshaw Hill, the Athenian-like, neo-classical temple just south of Newcastle and a monument built to the requirements of a 19th century Lord Lambton which, travelling by train, you always looked for out of the carriage window speeding towards the great bridges across the Tyne. Lord Lambton: Land owner and coal owner - and how the two really over-lapped in the north east - almost becoming inseparable. For Ferry brought up in the pit villages of Washington and Shiney Row beneath the monument: 'It seemed to me like a symbol ' representing art, and another life, away from the coalfields and the hard north eastern environment; it seemed to represent something from another civilisation that was finer.' Thus becomes the tone of a future grovelling little bastard and would that the region's famous Lambton worm, wrapped three times round Penshaw Hill have scoffed him up "wi' graet big gob and graet big googley eyes". Instead, the Lambton worm in the early 1970s morphed into a media penis as a young off-spring of the Lambton dynasty got caught out with a hooker. And for Ferry, the miner's son, why he had attained the 'finer' world of art hadn't he?

And how anti Jack Common could you be? Common, that earlier, then unrecognised mighty man who picked up on and honed the intelligent anti-art ambience of the region which periodically manifested itself throughout the 20th century. The problem was, Ferry despised his background and couldn't connect with the transcendence secreted within it. And although unlike a Ralph Rumney from farther south in West Yorkshire, the guy also couldn't leave the region behind as it was too much in his blood, he could only return firmly ensconced in an aristocracy having in the meantime become something of a more ersatz and estranged aristocracy that once traditionally brutalised the area in its sheer hatred of those below and whom it presumed to own lock, stock and barrel. (See introduction in this recent collection to the proposed Spanish Black Mask/Motherfucker book1 ).

And true to a despicable type in Re-make Re-mouldy Ferry never mentions the great miners' strike of 1984-5 and an equally great no-no to him, Ferry, in fact can be cast in traditional terms, as a natural bosses' man; 'a dirty black leg miner', a scab to his very black-as-coal heart; a guy merely interested in style rather than content and a disposition unswervingly centre to him even from his childhood as he moved ever onwards and upwards. Although you can identify with some of the earlier things Ferry liked such as Humphrey Lyttelton's Bad Penny Blues with its weird, even ethereal sound, his picking up on the 'cool' of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue which we all were crazy about too, how could you then go on to describe Leadbelly, than man of passion and spontaneous violence, as 'cool'? Ferry's take on music wasn't as good as that of John Dennis, the miner who combined the deep aggro of the best miners' traditions with a rock'n' roll craziness which Ferry just couldn't even begin to get a handle on. And JD writing on carnival evenings in Kiveton Park pit village, South Yorkshire (see elsewhere on RAP [Revolt Against Plenty] web) with that gift of 'wonderful destruction' as he called it placed the pop world in a light Bryan Ferry could never remotely equal:

"In the local church hall many of the famous rock bands of the sixties would raise the emotional temperature to boiling point. Freddy and The Dreamers would create the adolescent nightmare of unrequited love. The Seekers would be lost forever. In pubescent orgasms, as young girls threw their soaking underwear at the stage, young men would seethe. Gene Vincent would slink onto the stage, clad in shiny black leather, and promise covertly with his index finger to stimulate places in the female anatomy that young Yorkshire miners had yet to discover. We seethed, being the rough-arsed rednecks that we were. Instead of burning down the church and church hall, stuffing Gene Vincent's digit up his own arse and giving the Dreamers and The Searchers a nightmare to remember, we would turn around and fight each other".


Elites and uber-elites

From a very early age Bryan Ferry liked elites and not only the new elites he fondly imagined he was crafting. In his teens working on a Saturday in a traditionally reputable menswear shop in Newcastle he referred to his manager as 'a fabulous piece of work' simply because of his sartorial grooming. Later in life he was to say: 'I have probably always been interested in elites'..so I suppose I've always been a bit stuck up; I like being with smart people rather than those who weren't'. (Well, it could have fooled us as the guy was so grovelling stupid we stopped him coming to our parties in the mid 1960s as he was such an embarrassment in front of all the ignorant people we were friendly with).

Though a fair number around what in the early 1960s came to be called the 'in-crowd' came from poor, working class backgrounds - the same was true of Roxy Music of which it was a later addition - there was a strong tendency to despise that fact feeling it had hampered your ability to begin life on the 'right' foot as it were. It was an appallingly dire sentiment but one that was to get stronger as the years rolled by. (Cf the Swinburneian figure of Simon Puxley and Oxford University in relation to Roxy Music and as we said before it was on, on and upward to the well off and above them the aristocracy. The bottom line is the 'in crowd' loved - I mean really loved - careerism nearly all of them ending up with top positions in a revamped educational establishment). At first it was a new classless aristocracy, an "invented aristocracy" as someone had called it because these people were setting a kind of pace, a fashionable pace as the likes of clothing designers like Ossie Clarke and Anthony Price were part of the northern 'making it' working class scene in a 'so hip it hurts' London. Even by 1969 as the world was still burning with uprisings, Bryan Ferry was seriously bedding the daughter of a wealthy Newcastle family who later would marry a high ranking CIA guy who became one of President Reagan's advisers. Ferry just loved playing croquet on her parent's vast lawn. Friends in high places were from now on to figure prominently, not just lawyers but old Harrovians handling Roxy Music's PR as the 'in-crowd' had quickly become an imagined aristocratic elite with an 'inner court' around Roxy Music. The first phase of the in-crowd in the early 1960s was a self-proclaimed elite; the second phase really did incline towards aping somewhat trad' aristos via Hollywood Royalty, finally paving the way for the real aristocracy and Ferry's baronial home as part of the Kings of Northumbria syndrome whereby his appalling son Otis could strut his stuff as part of Oscar Wilde's 'unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable'; i.e. the abominable fox hunting crew. Truly, a Ferry across the Tyne. And remember there's no leftover aristocracy in Britain worse than the Northumbrian scion with their ultra close overlap with the former brutal coal owners. What a trajectory for a coal miner's son so let's hope you can still do the honourable thing Bryan and top yourself.

Ferry couldn't do anything like this because he was always looking towards the cream of society, an elite he encountered in the emerging 'in-crowd' which over-lapped, all too speedily, with the old Newcastle power brokers. One of Roxy Music's personnel - indeed manager - hailed from the Fenwick family, who owned the famous Fenwicks retailing emporium on Newcastle 's Northumberland St. And thus it became a short step for this cool hipness to become the avant garde cutting edge of finance and Newcastle's subsequent astheticisation cannot be separated from the sartorial cut - plus cut-purse accountancy - of Northern Rock, the former building society, with a board staffed with this old time elite, the Fenwicks', the Peases', together (inevitably) with a Lord (Lord Ridley's son, heir of the brute who occupied Mrs Thatcher's cabinet). Now that Northern Rock and the 5th largest bank in the UK has become The Northern Wreck, the old authority structure have again gotten off scot-free having robbed the ordinary punters blind and CEO, Adam Applegarth, still minting it with nary the doors of a people's prison in sight. No doubt the heir to Roxy Music's millions will be with them in their hour of need because Ferry essentially liked 'the cigar-and-mahogany masculinity of the old fashioned, traditional British styles' as his biographer Bracewell would have it.

On Romanticism and the reinvention of COOL as form of cultural repression following May 1968

The identities of Roxy Music around the early 1970s harked back to a quintessentially, fully acceptable, English tradition; "a dream-like Englishness" which they readily quoted - not only that of the late 19th century fin de siecle of Swinburne, Beardsley and Arthur Rackham but what initially was to pass as the quintessentially pale reflection of the modern era too as Ferry, in a telling incident, pinned up poems of TS Eliot as a student on the walls of his rented flat in Newcastle. The guy had an intuitive hatred of radicalism especially the explosive rebellion of form: For him there was no Mallarme, no Rimbaud, no Breton (especially) and, of course, nothing beyond that. He knew like some malign instinct deep inside his very being to keep away from all that. His was an update of Noel Coward having learnt well from one of his Newcastle mentors, the obnoxious creep Mark Lancaster, described by an almost equally obnoxious acolyte, Tim Head as the so-called "King of Cool" - a phrase that could equally be applied to Ferry - in that "everything he said was Cowardian almost" where even forthright self-expression was regarded with disdain. Yet because it was late in the day - and doubly so - for in this phase of 'cool' there was nothing of the restrained, deeply repressed though poignant desire of a 'Brief Encounter' which can haunt but which you also know cannot tell it like it is; of thwarted desire literally as a burning desire like in L'Age D'Or and the terrible destruction - desire having been catastrophically thwarted - as the consequence. Needless to say with 'cool' desire was a disappeared word deleted from the dictionary of 'cool'.

Fondly these creeps around Ferry thought of themselves vaguely as some expression of romanticism though it had nothing to do with romanticism as their pundits, their scribes, their promo blurbs would have it. It wasn't a newly discovered Lakeland with De Quincey, the early Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth with egalite and republican identities slipping towards a social revolution high on the agenda; an insurgency hell bent on turning the world inside out. For this lot - Ferry and co - nothing could be farther from their aims. Passivity was at its core and all the newly discovered sexuality, stimulants, fashion accessories, technological gadgetry, mass media and advertising which they wrought endless nuances on was finally nothing more than a paen of praise to the intensification of the production of the means of consumption marking a new phase in the accumulation of capital.

The artist Richard Hamilton, and perhaps the major influence behind this tendency, willing put his name to this obfuscation in reminiscences entitled Romanticism 1972 a description by then having lost all meaning for how else could you interpret the following: 'I have, on occasions, tried to put into words that peculiar mixture of reverence and cynicism that 'pop' culture induces in me and that I try to paint. I suppose that a balancing of these reactions is what I used to call non-Aristotelian or, alternatively cool'. What does he mean by this, a hidden dialectics? We don't think so because the latter, unlike romanticism - nevertheless romanticism was the moment dialectics as a concept and necessary tool matured - was a word and descriptive process which, after the 1960s was, like desire, to be almost completely disappeared from the dictionary of 'cool' too.

Nonetheless, Ferry having come from the sharp end was a product of a moment in capital's reconstruction/destruction (following the cataclysms of the second world war and the liquidation of huge amounts of fixed capital), of the seemingly classless capitalism of a triumphant social democracy and the new system of educational grants whereby almost effortlessly he could move from a life of drudgery and manual labour and soar ever-upwards into the artistic heavens! Alas, the promised heaven was no longer there in any meaningful sense of the term.

Yet you could make the 'heaven' appear to be so especially if the right terminology was constantly deployed concomitant with developing the right sense of growing self-importance. All of this crew, this in-crowd, grovelled towards 'names', the new names and the old names, the Trevalyans' and the rest of the old elites who were in the process of slightly updating themselves. And Ferry - as we'll say over and over again here - was very impressed with old money. Yet not forgetting the new names to be endlessly rolled-off the tongue like mantras bestowing god-like images which saved like a remedy to cure all ills if intoned enough. How they referred to 'these wonderful people'; 'then I met Paul Morrisey' etc and how it sickened you. Common enough today, back in the mid to late 1960s it was nauseatingly innovative though yet to spread across the entire world.

In their memories these people who made up the 'in-crowd' can still only congratulate themselves (there still isn't an ounce of self-criticism amongst them) about just how remarkable they all were and most likely still are, effulgent in descriptive terms ranging from "the remarkable", "the amazing", "the astounding", "the iconic", "the incredibly successful", "the supremely important figure of" etc. It's all these wretches had/have got; these pieces of nothingness with their eyes still glued on the market and the marketable tendencies that update conformity. None the less, they also initially saw themselves in a deflected 'us and them' situation posed in the art world against the ultra traditionalism of the early painterly modernism of a Picasso or a Matisse, whilst we and those like us were so outta sight as to be the untouchables. Looking to New York it was a Warhol, Oldenburg, Velvet Underground gaze; resolutely and determinedly blinkered never conceding the possibility of drift. Thus the shooting of Andy Warhol by Valerie Solonas was to be passed over in a consumer totalitarian silence as though it never really happened or rather, the incident got in the way of reeling-off further lists of celebrity name calling.

In the first Newcastle 'in-crowd' there was a distinct emphasis on changing personae; a continuous game of mild personal reinvention, though its grovelling essence looked pretty fixed to us!. It was a stylistic playing and posing opening up towards an instant capitalisation as the years rolled by, halfway between performance art and 'dressing-up'; an all-encompassing aesthetic lifestyle of self-recreation, the 'total art work' with personae as central which style commentator Peter Yorke was later to name as 'living the idea'. It was not, repeat not about changing life inseparable from transforming the world through a total overthrow of the existing order. Initially this experiment with style had an aura of rebellion - Richard Hamilton and cohorts had to take on a fuddy-duddy establishment - despite essentially being a fake rebellion that just-to say occasionally had an edge; a drift that as soon as it became observable to them, they were immediately down on. Essentially too it mirrored the drift/rift in the working class between the young and the old - heavily marked in the 1950s and 60s as the old looked on with bewilderment and disgust at the more informal and wanton habits of the young. By the time the second phase of the in-crowd had kicked-in remaking/remodelling was overlapping with mysticism whereby gurus like Gurdjieff whittling on about reinvention increasingly blended with a marketing aesthetic of changing lifestyles. Moreover, come the 1970s and a mild anti art provided the spur to intensified commodification and uber-celebrity. 'Cool' though was to go on to a third phase aided and abetted by the style of early 'New Labour' and PM Blair who cultivated the 'Cool Britannia' of the mid 1990s rock musicians which was then in turn lauded by ex-situationists like Pountain and Robins in their travesty of an analysis in a book called 'Cool Rules'.

Perhaps the best that could be said about these three phrases of 'cool' was they had a tendency to be leaky on the margins precisely because 'cool' touched on concepts that could have a profound edge; that could tip into something bordering on the transformation of everyday life only then to trivialise. There were however, enough escapees in the 'cool' scene too who had welcome breakdowns and bouts of madness that brought about the beginnings of some clarity. There was even occasionally a real hatred of celebrity. An individual around an 'in-crowd' coterie in Reading, called The Moodies - a women's pop group in the early 1970s that was agreeably too OTT - was 'very suspect of being known' etc. And one must never forget that the revolutionary critique of artistic form is the springboard to the critique of reified forms of everyday life - of marriage, the nuclear family, couple relationships, tourism, holidays, organised venues, sport, performance in general and the rest - overlapping and coming together with art's 'promesse de bonheur' - in the fullness and liberation of total social revolution.

Roxy and co was about a response to a large scale social failure that had happened in the interim between the first and second phase of 'cool' Seeing the world for them couldn't be changed by a France May '68 or taking to the streets - facts and reality which couldn't/mustn't ever be given a renewed profile - it was necessary for an expanding pop world of sheer appearances to step into a performing void beginning to recover from having been pushed aside by protest in order to put together (one can hardly say 'create') a substitute world of myriad shadowy nuances, quotations, elegances and plagiarisms; a powerful make believe that must, at all costs, aspire to become reality if it was to be effective as a dense pattern of consumer impulses as the sheer power of credit and money was unleashed in the fulcrum of an emerging neoliberal Anglo/America. It became a celebration of artifice portending a reality where virtually every human dimension was to be eclipsed as the late 60s revolutionary reinvention of life morphed into what was to become the developing nightmare of the ultimate stylised existence.

In 1967 an off-the-cuff comment by the English situationists was very apposite: 'fashion accelerates because revolution is treading on its tail' Yet merely a few years later fashion was to tread on revolution's tail (e.g. the 'Che Guevara' boutique owned by designer Anthony Price that Ferry was to use for Roxy props) as ransacking the authentic became the only game in town as a plagiarism took over minus the essential. Lautreamont's dictum that Debord had quoted approvingly: 'Ideas improve, plagiarism implies it' was applied minus improvement and minus the giant steps that still had to be taken. Post the millennia and the same trajectory has secured something like an outright victory; an intensification if you like of The Society of the Spectacle bringing about a whole new raft of previously unimaginable and insupportable alienations. Our only hopes lies in the fact that it is the most Pyrrhic of victories whose end game is the extinguishing of all life and increasingly more and more people are becoming aware of this.

It could also be said that the backdrop to Roxy Music; the essential fakery; the pretend other world of glamour, was to disguise the reality the real world was beginning to move into permanent economic crises despite the fact that the imaginative edge of the late 1960s protest movement was biting the dust. In the UK this was to some degree compensated by a combative, overwhelmingly wildcat strike movement among employed workers possessing a cavalier attitude towards trade union structures, which was rapidly gaining ground though increasingly without the theoretical explanations that had marked the explosions of merely three years previously. The 'in-crowd' of course had nothing to say on all of this as they were out of their depth on the matter basically hating it in any case. All that a little more aware Tim Head with his Hot Air Company could say - the guy looked on at the latter days of Icteric with a puzzled expression on his stupid face - was that "the trade unions were kicking over the traces" as though the whole country wasn't in the grip of an exhilarating cornucopia of wildcat strikes which more than questioned the sterility of the TU form.

This wildcat activity also went hand-in-hand with great increases in productivity concomitant with advances in technology allowing the law of value to cheapen production. Is it now stretching things too subjectively to configure a role for Roxy Music in this contradictory motion? Though extolling the avoidance of life in a 24 hour lifestyle aestheticism, it could also be said that Roxy seemed to extol a vista of total consumption available to everybody whereby most could buy into a world of fashion. There's no question during the 1970s the group went down big time in the huge northern industrial cities and the youth occupying a factory during the day, even giving lip to bosses and TU bureaucrats alike, could go at night to a Roxy concert dressed in imitative black tuxedo and bow tie.

At the time it saddened us drastically feeling the inadequacies of more coherent critique coming from the sharp end. It could be said these well meaning lads and lasses were preparing themselves like lambs to the slaughter and the glamour of Ferry and co was part of the bait. Over the following years and decades as working class defeat followed working class defeat, cheapened production became more and more the be all and end all of life. Moreover, as de-industrialisation was massively imposed from on top the working class in Britain, formerly combined in massive units of production, was, with a few exceptions, more or less liquidated. Such cataclysmic disappearance has made it ever more difficult for people at the sharp end here - and on top of all of this now suffering an ever-lengthening working day so often referred to as 'presenteeism' and vastly lowered wages - to even begin to envisage what a social revolution and the total transformation of life would be like in an ambience where the very notion of 'workers councils' looks inappropriate to say the least and where the fundamental revolutionary question appears to be what to do with the great swathes of a parasitic financial economy now approaching meltdown. So perhaps it does hold water to say that Roxy Music experimented with a glam rock, total art consumerism long before it was delivered en masse as part of the sweeteners of a parasitic service economy; an aesthetic economy, helping further pacify a subject population in general. If you like the cultural counterpart as part of a Kondratiev-like long wave boom now heading into an equally long wave bust cycle?

Art into life: Duchamp, Picabia, Malevich and a plethora of White on Whites tracking a weightless economy

Ferry was always into the paraphernalia of Americana referring to the School of Paris as 'non-U' which meant that he deliberately shut himself off from the profundities of the best of Dada and Surrealism, Lettrism, International Lettrism and the Situationists. Ironically, it meant Ferry remained forever enamoured of the 'object' by way of consumer products and the selling of style. He had absolutely no critique of the image. Ferry liked cars, huge American cars of the 1950s before retro-chic even kicked-in. Instead we kicked and scratched his fucking cars, particularly his big, colourful Cadillac as we hated them and on the frontiers of King Mob were among the first to really coherently attack these heaps of deadly tin for destroying the shape of our living spaces though in doing this neglecting to give eco-critique the profile it deserved. We were however well on the right lines and the only one that still has a future.

Those whom Ferry respected within the 'in-crowd' milieu were however often brighter. One such person was Rita Donagh, Richard Hamilton's erstwhile girlfriend who when Hamilton went a little 'political' in his art she also followed suit. Responding to the times, Rita Donagh produced works related to the shooting of students at America's Kent State University in 1970, gay revolt in the States and the situation in N. Ireland. It was all a deflection of protest confined within the paradigms of art and very careful not to step on down that road that might lead to losing your way and/or especially your job as college lecturer/artistic image and sales pitch. Apart from vague objections to the repression taking place it was all done minus the real critique that was becoming evermore pressing.

If this 'in-crowd' in Newcastle encompassed Dada it was selectively Dada-lite without the serious thought and negation that was to slowly unravel from Dada's beleaguered and often confused initial stances that were to unfold throughout the following decades, and a process all the while getting clearer. The initial Newcastle embrace pretty much was Duchamp (and a lesser extent Picabia) as founder of American Dada thus avoiding the social explosiveness of a Berlin Dada concomitant with the failed German revolution of 1918-20, the murder of Liebkneckt and Luxembourg, the workers and soldiers councils and the subsequent theories of the German/Dutch ultra left. It was a Duchamp and a Picabia that could be best press-ganged into the services of mass consumption with the ready made anticipating the throw-a-way technical/fashion commodity merely useful for a brief period. Tellingly, in the early 1970s, a pop correspondent for the Philadelphia Daily News referred to Bryan Ferry as "a cross between Marcel Duchamp and Smokey Robinson" as he became the art object, beginning to describe what he was doing as "pictures in sound".

Bracewell in his More-mouldy biography of the Roxy Music clan says that Richard Hamilton's belief that "there are no limits" to the capacity of art and Duchamp's insistence that he was not to be imitated save in further acts of iconoclasm had 'the tang of revolution hung around such heresies'. Yet Duchamp applied was to be imitation on a pharonic scale because 'further acts' implied a transcendence of art and a trajectory opening up towards more coherent revolutionary praxis which for a conservatively inclined 'in-crowd' was again a big no, no.

Escaping some of the more conservative tendencies for a brief moment, Rita Donagh had relocated from Newcastle to Reading University's Fine Art dept where some kind of higher level of revolutionary theorising just to say got off the ground though it was too imitative, too institutionalised and decidedly not on the same independent scale as the higher level achieved in Newcastle knocking the 'in-crowd' sideways though only too briefly. None the less one of the women members of The Angry Brigade came from the Reading milieu though interestingly the hip coolists from that town nearly 40 years later and set in aspic couldn't remember her name or the name of the group! It was a telling detail. Moreover, Michael Bracewell in his Mouldy book seems blissfully unawares he gets the names of so many events and individuals of that time so wrong. It's almost as though researching these things his stomach was churning up with dislike and what truly comes across is his sheer loathing of protest, especially the counter culture phenomenon. More than that; his tone is often one of outright hatred even referring to the rather mild Dialectics of Liberation conference as '(in)famous' and whatever you might think about the failures of the 1960s sexual revolution he disparages as the activities of 'gropers' with the Trocchi influenced anti-university nothing more than a venue for 'dossers' and so on!

The best that could be said about Reading at this time was that within its fringes were some naively pro-situ people who objected to university exams, taking over student newspapers and the like. The central backdrop though was still 'cool' as if deeply programmed though to be put on ice for a while; a camp interlude before re-birth coming back by way of a fashionable Thermidor; a Thermidor beginning, hardly surprisingly on the level of culture, the revolutionary critique of which that had taken the planet's ruling elites completely by surprise in the late 1960s and one they couldn't deal with. In the UK it began as a counter revolution detached from a young working class insurgency which in terms of energy, confidence and experiment was making strong, independent strides. It was also the moment you were to listen with horror as the camp put-ons of The In Crowd and a bowderalised Dylan's A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall put out by Roxy Music, deliberately mocking late 1960s radical passions and smacking you full in the face.

Trouble outside the faculty quickly invaded in-over only to end up inevitably watered down. In the mid 1960s in Newcastle Malevich figured pretty big with us especially The Black Square, White on White etc which we celebrated in a reconstruction of Malevich's white on white coffin in a rather pretentious installation mixed in with a line from one of Rimbaud's Illuminations: 'Why Not Indeed Toys and Incense'. What attracted us? An absolute; an end as well as a new beginning and then, lo and behold, as if this realisation wasn't instantly snatched back from you - instantly emasculated - as by 1968 Richard Hamilton was designing the cover of what became known as The White Album for the Beatles and only too redolent of what we'd been doing years previously - though ours was done minus the money angle. Two years after that in 1970 and for Rita Donagh whiteness became the controlled and useless experiment of The White Room; a Reading university set up designed to breakdown fixed and fast roles - though may it be said in a very mild-mannered way - over a lengthy period. Though our initial return to Malevich much earlier was already, like our 'living sculpture', threadbare it did at least help prepare the ground as tabla rasa for a much greater negation - King Mob and what was to follow - whereas repetitious White on White variations quickly became nothing more than institutionalised commercial vehicles celebrating the new world of intensifying exchange value and a deflected tabla rasa announcing perhaps the gateways of a pyramid of translucent but opaque fictititious capital equally needing a non-objective world outlet, by way of maybe J. Joplin's, post 2000, 'White Cube' gallery in London whereby a once interesting concept became nothing more than a front for hedge funds and an increasingly outrageous exploitation.

Rita Donagh's pitiful experiment in 1970 was essentially a form of recuperation, a mode of prevention containing the fallout from the unmentionable Icteric in Newcastle. Proclaiming process as everything, Donagh and cohorts blocked process; seemingly anti-material and anti end product, they were product as they opted for Californian land artists like Barry le Vie and Michael Heizer perhaps disturbed by the fact that Icteric had lucidly superceded its early 'living sculpture' artifacts (See Land Art, Icteric and Wordsworth, elsewhere on the RAP [Revolt Against Plenty ]web)... But that we'll never know as keeping schtum had by then rapidly become the order of the day.

A Brian and a Bryan: Ferry and Eno. Atonality, Cybernetics, Roy Ascott & Capitalisation

And then it was all over - or so it seemed. But ideas that are of their time simply cannot be liquated like that and the return of the repressed ever threatens as it did a little later in the fraught relationship between Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno which quickly progressed to outright hostility.

Eno, like Ferry hailed from a working class, albeit rural background in Suffolk though what he has to say about it unlike Ferry is interesting particularly when he recalls the impromptu sessions among his Dad's postman friends combining together in whistling quartets with one postie deploying the iron grilles of the sorting boxes as percussion. It's a fact more interesting than the whole of the Roxy Music oeuvre and perhaps even reminiscent of those scratch combos of kazoo playing workers playing such haunting, piercing sounds briefly filmed in the 1930s around the Lancashire clog dances and now lost. What's more Eno's family background displayed an interest in modern art - Piet Mondrian and the like. As a child Eno also recalls dabbling in playful, made-up model fantasy buildings which are interesting (Ironically, three or four decades later these self same workers were also to flock to the portals of Tate Modern in their droves and what are we to make of that apart from saying that the aesthetic economy has really penetrated down over?).

Initially Eno wanted to make music to be heard not listened to by way of electronic effects plus utilising machines like signal generators. Inevitably his notebooks were more interesting than Ferry's but then could the latter even write anything remotely intelligent? Eno's "I never do anything. Nothing's good enough" is a kind of Vache-lite take on things though never by any means going the whole hog always veering and side-stepping at the moment of possible break or breakthrough, Thus Eno after upholding process and refusing the painterly object, knocked out a painting to satisfy his trad style tutors at Winchester college of art. It's always been Eno's way, a final compromise ensuring he will keep within the boundaries of the acceptable and the real valuable protest therefore easily tips into camp: "I don't believe in trying to change the world (except as a hobby)". How very twee. It could be said that Eno and others were among the first of a now massively growing musical tendency - inseparable from image making - which pressed-ganged and capitalised atonalty within the orbit of the circulation of commodities whilst still giving off the appearance of radicalism. Indeed, Richard Williams, one of the first rock critics to promote Roxy Music always played lip service to the end of music bringing free form jazz and electronic-cum-everyday-sounds into play. He knew such referencing implied a lot more than a new art form but wasn't going to say too much about such a conclusion because how would you earn a living after that? Nevertheless a few years ago banging-on about 'spontaneous combustion' in an article in Sunday's Observer you knew it was lifted straight from Nick Brandt's box number without acknowledging the source!

Early in his musical career Eno at least indulged in a little mild subversion and for a short period was involved in the squatting scene. He released a pipette of his own urine into Duchamp's Urinal when on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York though this was nothing like the previous orchestrated attacks by Black Mask/Motherfuckers when a sizable contingent of people rioted outside cultural establishments having got carried away by the initial agitators.2

Eno was an art student under ex-Newcastle's Roy Ascott's basic course at Ipswich Civic College during 1964 or so. He liked the experience and was a proponent of Ascott's 'telematics', an early computer networked creativity which, trying to remove itself from the aura of art, was a kind of crazed induction to cybernetics and behaviourism; a programmatic Rimbaud via an institutionalised "derangement of the senses", half-arsed and finally clueless dragging in Gustav Metzger and the auto-destruction syndrome; a course that could quote Lenin whilst employing a business man at one and the same time. Ascott talked of the need to "create situations" which in practise meant setting up absurd situations far removed from the coherent subversion of a Michel Mourrre or the early situationist intervention. Moreover, both Ascott and Donagh were for an active trans-media never arriving at the simple need to blow-out the media, a concept as relevant now - even more so - as when first mouthed by Black Mask in New York circa 1967.

Experimental music for a short while in the mid to late 1960s did overlap with an ill-defined though real mood of radicalism though nothing was worked out. Indeed, an un-worked out and ultimately crazy fusion become laughable. One of its mentors, Cornelius Cardew became a Maoist not only lecturing students like Eno but doing performances increasingly aimed at workers like those involved in the Clyde Shipbuilding Yards 1972 work-in. We well chortled expecting as Mick Carter said: "Those guys will throw red hot rivets at them". But the joke was finally on us the more over the next three decades the aesthetic economy kicked-in as 'the workers' began to attend in droves avant garde installation experiment like the Newcastle nude-in organised by Spencer Tunick, on a cold Sunday morning on July 17th 2005 as 1700 naked people helped out the ego of the installation artist and which has influenced ever since a massive raft of advertising gimmicks.

The more that rock music and performance in general reaches a massive, massive impasse, if not dead end, the more frantic the performers become casting around for yet more experimentation within the formal status quo. Thus 'sound music', the cadences of everyday life, the murmuring buzzing of nature, the song of the nightingale/steam locomotive/dark matter etc enter on stage as vehicles to keep the role of musician in focus for all to worship because it is a role and form capital instantly recognises as one of its 'eternal' categories. To say: 'I'm a musician' means everything to a world still standing on its head. Having nowhere to go 'sound music' is now bigger than ever and ever bigger and never more lost!

Eno cannily knew how to stop with mild subversion realising he wanted to be accepted in a traditional way too. Finally for him there was a correct way of doing things and, moreover a successful way of doing things - "How do you make a successful work of art on a piece of vinyl" (note the emphasis here on successful). Eno, along with most of the rest of the 'experimental' types bit by bit ditched their youthful free expression with something nearing contempt. Interestingly, Eno mentions a musical event in Portsmouth: "Once a guy turned up and started playing deliberate musical jokes and it just ruined everything". Yet this is exactly what we were doing in Icteric and it marks the vast difference between us and experimenters like Eno. We also tried to smash open the distinction between bad taste and good taste while Eno made a distinction between the pop art atonalism of say Steve Reich's 'good' and 'bad' ways of doing things thus contradicting everything he'd said in earlier years. In talking about total art, the one thing these 'experimenters' left out was the perspective of total social revolution.

It should be obvious by now that Ferry had always avoided any kind of radicalism. Eno, as a fellow Roxy Music cohort didn't, even though his radicalism when push came to shove - again we insist on repeating this - was of a tepid character in comparison to us. What initially kept these two unlikely figures together was the emphasis in the early 1970s on stylistic innovation in an atmosphere where the late 1960s was being hastily buried. It was however enough to keep things ticking over for a number of years but once the general atmosphere began to darken and fashion could be interpreted as a harbinger of a much wider monetarist experiment giving way to the birth (rebirth?) of neoliberalism, things weren't so simple.

It was at this moment that it seems Eno began to return to his radical roots though without the initial somewhat edgy probing and was thus able to fall into the arms of an easier social democratic leftism and a relatively simplistic anti-Thatcherism with an ill-fitting Labour party statist perspective as his anchor. By then Ferry was becoming more determinedly neoliberal, even traditionally right wing. The conflict between them consequently erupted having fallen into trad style right versus left stereotypes though the common denominator was even more striking in that both were now seriously into the multi-millionaring stakes. and that's where it remains. Behind the ideological conflict though lay the real meat. Remember Ferry hated us and everything that Icteric and its revolutionary fall out in Newcastle stood for. Paranoically he saw its face reappearing in the midst of the luxuriant fashion statement that was Roxy Music and his visceral hatred of such a development kicked-in for a second time. What Bryan Ferry never realised was that he had nothing to fear from Eno's mild-mannered rebellion. He had however everything to fear from our ilk. He still does...


As for Newcastle, the financial bed rock may be in rags and tatters but the culture goes on as one of Zola's stories is to be filmed on the quayside as substitute for late 19th century Paris and Viv Westwood opens up another boutique. In Newcastle, as in every other major industrial conurbation in UK plc the working class may have been abolished in order to eventually pave the way for a greater proletarianisation almost everywhere. A 'classless' capitalism dystopia (legacy too of former utopian dreams) may have been realised under a neoliberal guise whereby everybody in theory can become their own capitalist. Only it couldn't be realised: It was a fantasy waiting to happen and not the supercession of a classless society with so many millions at the sharp end foolishly buying into its sales pitch; its on offer dream. Yet ironically, it's turning into a momentous own goal inspired by one of the biggest though strangest victories ever for the American 'working class' - where it all initially stemmed from - as Main St is beginning to take out Wall St the world over.

Were it alas that simple: It may abstractly be true but unfortunately people the world over are now subjectively lost to history, lost to themselves and the response, before any dialectical rationality can possibly begin to come into focus, means there's a mad madness around like we've possibly never witnessed. And just how long will this phase remain with us? How long will there be the last throw of the dice in an eternal casino which will see you there; a millionaring mind-set on the very brink of utter disaster both economic and ecological? And the agony can only intensify as real economic pauperisation kicks-in as po-mo necropolises of steel and glass everywhere become the real 'cities of pain' - and the prelude to an opening?


Let's end where we began: Some critic in the mid 1970s writing for New Society referred to Ferry as a post modern Jay Gatsby, 'hosting a vast and ultimately aimless style party in the face of the modern void'......We had just ironically sprayed on an interior bed sit stairwell: 'Love thy void'.

The last time I spoke to Ferry bumping into him in Kensington High St in 1971 he was standing outside of Anthony Price's 'Che Guevara' store. I didn't want to acknowledge him but he'd button-holed me. For him he seemed proud of the boutique, for me it seemed just another miserable example of how things were turning into their opposite. I know I was elsewhere thinking about a statement of Bruce Elwell's I'd just read that 'Guevara was the last consequent Leninist' having fifty paces previously obsessed about the bombing of Biba's boutique situated close by which anyways I'd gotten a kick out of. I was in no mood for the idiot Ferry. All he could say to me was "I like your beard man" but I was feeling so despondent all I could do was grimace unable to come up with a suitable reply simply walking away. In 2003, when asked about us, 'Wor Bryan' said he couldn't remember who we were: The fucking liar! Stuart's comment was more nuanced, more general: 'He professed to not recollecting who we were, a forgetting which proved we were still unmentionable, for any expression of contempt or derision would have meant he did remember us: That we have been able to disturb this zillionaire's peace of mind is not bad going for a couple of people whose existence has been wiped clean off the slate.

David Wise. May 2008

Text from https://web.archive.org/web/20221213173308/http://revoltagainstplenty.com/index.php/archive-local/54-on-bryan-ferry-qferry-across-the-tyneq.html

  • 1https://libcom.org/article/introduction-book-spanish-black-mask-motherfuckers
  • 2It's worth mentioning Pinnocelli here, that ageing though rather excellent idiot savant French art happener/interventionist who has taken performance art well beyond the permissible taking a hammer and chisel to Duchamp's Urinal, (twice) who robbed a bank gun in hand merely demanding a sou, who dressing up as Santa Claus under the slogan of 'Fuck Xmas' whilst smashing children's toys only to be chased away by irate mothers, and by way of traditional art, making a painting of a seaside summer holiday entitled Auschwitz-on-Sea. Unfortunately Pinnocelli's theorising has never kept pace with his actions and the guy can still be taken in somewhat by the establishment in general. Achieving 'fame' yet again by another attack on the Urinal, galleries rushed to commission him to produce artefacts which could be sold for handsome sums. However, we also realise Monsieur P needed a fair amount of dosh to pay off another hefty fine for damaging the 'priceless' Urinal. (I think we can safely rest assured that Duchamp, even in his later years of sad compromise, would have applauded Pinnocelli's actions.)