The accepted line about Bryan Ferry is that his is one of the greatest reinventions in English pop culture: Peter York said, in 1976, that his life was ‘the best possible example of the ultimate art-directed existence’. But watching him at the Albert Hall, I couldn’t help thinking of my father. That’s not to diminish the show — which was a lush and all-enveloping pleasure, like getting into bed in a very good hotel — but I couldn’t help wondering if there was actually something very specific about Ferry that tends to get ignored: his generation.
He’s 74 now, though from a distance you might put him in his mid-fifties, especially in his beautifully cut suit. And he is a product of postwar Britain, specifically of the Butler Education Act of 1944, which opened up grammar school and university to the likes of him (and my father). That alone enabled the son of a farm labourer from County Durham to transform himself, and it’s often struck me how the working-class children of the postwar years felt no shame about their upward mobility — my dad never did — while today you can’t move for the prosperous and well-educated claiming to be horny-handed children of toil.
Ferry didn’t stop at getting a job in management and a Rover 2000, like my dad. Instead he became a piece of living art, using pop music as a means to portray himself as a minor aristocrat. But the music he played at the Albert Hall was not smug or self-satisfied; beneath the richness of the 11-piece band, often joined by Ferry on electric piano, there always lurked a feeling of isolation. Songs that were ostensibly about heartbreak — ‘Dance Away’, ‘The Thrill of It All’ — sounded as if they were coming from a narrator outside the room, looking in at the nobs in black tie. For all the easy opulence of ‘Avalon’ — what an edition of Vogue would sound like, if it could sing — there’s an immense musical unease in Ferry’s catalogue, too: ‘Out of the Blue’s out-of-kilter chords actually felt anxious.
Huge credit goes to the band, especially to saxophonist Jorja Chalmers and guitarist Chris Spedding, who gave every song precise and apt ornamentation. Ferry occasionally glanced at them appreciatively, a Jay Gatsby gratified that no one was going to reveal his secrets. Most shows are too long, with too much filler; I could have watched Ferry and his band play for twice as long.
Lewis Capaldi is exactly what Ferry never wanted to be: Another Bloke. British pop is replete with Another Blokes at the moment, and almost as much work goes into it as went into Ferry passing as a 14th Earl. At the Brit Awards a few years back, Ed Sheeran — patron saint of Another Blokes — carefully changed from the suit he was wearing at his table into T-shirt and jeans to perform in front of the TV cameras. Another Blokes don’t wear suits.
It’s worked for Capaldi, whose song ‘Someone You Loved’ was one of the biggest hits in the world last year (inevitably, it was the last of the 12 songs he performed at Wembley. You don’t want to give the part-timers an excuse to leave early). One advantage he has over the other Another Blokes is that he is funny: an overweight Glaswegian who can’t help but draw attention to the absurdity of the fact that he has become one of the world’s most popular singers.
He has a big, rich soulful voice, great at belting it out, though on ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ — an elegant country-soul waltz — the quietness and control required didn’t suit him so much. He’s located a spot on the Another Bloke continuum that the other commercial giants haven’t colonised: Ed Sheeran drifts into R&B; Rag’n’Bone Man tries to be a bluesman; Tom Walker gets a little glitchy and electronic; but Capaldi takes the Coldplay approach of throwing out huge, melancholy-but-uplifting choruses that were duly thrown back to him by the crowd.
He rather overplayed the comedy; there were some long gaps between songs for his monologues, which were funny by the standards of pop singers, but hardly Lenny Bruce (though he swore like Bruce: between ‘Forever’ and ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’, he contrived to fit ‘fuck’ into his speech 26 times). I’m just like you, was the message (albeit, he conceded, a lot richer now). But sometimes you want pop to be utterly unlike you, to be magic. Capaldi is an illusionist, but Ferry is the magician.
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