Spring-summer 1973: The Band were up in Woodstock, David Bowie was in France, and Bryan Ferry was in London, and they were all engaging in some form of archeology. That October, Moondog Matinee, Pin Ups and These Foolish Things were released, and together they signaled that what was happening was a momentary pause. The thematic rock covers album as a thing itself — not that albums in the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t dig into the archives for repertoire — was formalized that autumn.
What The Band, Bowie and Ferry agreed on wasn’t much, although there are spots of convergence: there are Bert Berns songs on both the Bowie and Ferry albums, Leiber & Stoller songs on Ferry’s and The Band’s, and although there was no Motown on Moondog Matinee, anyone who’d seen The Band live back then knows that they shared Ferry’s affection for “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever.” And if you think of “Mystery Train” (from Moondog) as an Elvis cut, you could put that next to Ferry’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” from Jailhouse Rock.
There are some fine rock albums from ’73, the debut by The New York Dolls, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Countdown To Ecstasy, Mott, Quadrophenia, Raw Power, Houses of the Holy, A Wizard, A True Star, Skynyrd’s debut, Brothers and Sisters. Some would put Dark Side of the Moon on that list, and you can include Catch A Fire if you like, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, so it doesn’t look so bad on paper, but that’s not how it felt.
The Stones had delivered Goat’s Head Soup; Creedence had splintered; Van put out Hard Nose The Highway; Mind Games, Red Rose Speedway and Living In The Material World weren’t exactly Lennon, McCartney or Harrison in peak form (a year where Ringo could have released the best post-Beatles solo album is one where things are slightly askew, but Band On The Run snuck in that December). Dylan wrapped up his first tenure at Columbia with the Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid soundtrack, and then the label punished him with an album of discarded scraps.
And much of what the rock critics (I was a brand new one then) were championing (Mott, the Dolls, Iggy, Todd, even Bruce) wasn’t exactly setting the charts ablaze. It was an amazing time for R&B (Innervisions, Let’s Get it On, etc.), but the big Summer of ’73 pop event musically might’ve been the release of George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which asked “Where were you in ’62?,” but didn’t answer that question with the records Wolfman Jack spun: it was wall-to-wall oldies, like the ones The Band were cutting in Bearsville (“The Great Pretender” shows up in the movie and the album). It was the tail of a back-to-the-roots moment. In ’72, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson all had giant hit singles, Elton put out “Crocodile Rock,” and Loggins & Messina came with “Your Mama Don’t Dance (and Your Daddy Don’t Rock and Roll).”
The Band went back to roadhouse rock and R&B, to the New Orleans of Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Lee Dorsey and Fats Domino. Bowie zeroed in on mid-‘60s England with selections from the songbooks of The Pretty Things, The Kinks, The Who. But Bryan Ferry was unconfined by time or genre or geography. When I saw an ad for These Foolish Things in Let It Rock magazine, I was stupefied. What was this?? I was sort of aware of what Roxy Music were up to, but not in any serious way (I caught up later), but the Ferry photo gave nothing away, and the list of songs was insane: “Sympathy For The Devil,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and…”It’s My Party”? The Greatest Motown Song (“Tracks of My Tears”) and The Greatest Beach Boys Song (“Don’t Worry Baby”) on the same album as “These Foolish Things”? You can look at this album as a unifying philosophy of pop, putting forth the idea that a Dylan protest song has every right to sit beside a girl (Ferry doesn’t do a gender switch) insisting on the right to cry at her own party.
Smokey, Goffin & King, Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, Berns & Ragovoy, Leiber & Stoller, Dylan, Jagger & Richards…you could make the argument for that nearly comprising a list of the 10 best songwriters of their generation, and with Barry Mann and Stevie Wonder chipping in on two of the other cuts, that’d round out the list nicely. I hadn’t listened to These Foolish Things in a while, but after buying tickets to see Ferry at the Beacon, I was in the mood to check it out, and it still sounds odd, and bold. It’s like he’s singing in some sexy cabaret and taking requests from an audience of drunk music obsessives. “Sing ‘Don’t Ever Change’!” OK: a minor Goffin & King song recorded by the Buddy-less Crickets, picked up somehow by The Beatles for a BBC session, and you can hear the connection between that and John and Paul’s “You Won’t See Me,” which could have been a Holly (or a Goffin & King) song.
Ferry’s cabaret doesn’t sound like The Band’s juke-joint, or like Bowie’s evocation of London’s Marquee c.’66, but they all spring from the same impulse to take a step back, rummage through their song collections, regroup and remodel. 1973 was a year when the rock machine needed an overhaul. Post-‘60s fatigue, a pre-punk itch. It was a weird time to start writing about music, but especially here in NYC, things would start to shift soon enough.