When Roxy Music fans first heard that cofounder and lead singer Bryan Ferry had recorded a batch of 1950s and 60s rock hits, the news must initially have seemed as surprising as Bob Dylan’s decision decades later to tackle Christmas standards and the Great American Songbook.
The year was 1973, and Roxy Music had so far released two avant-garde LPs that straddled a line between glam and punk. Now, all of a sudden, Ferry was reimagining pop hits on the solo These Foolish Things—and not just the sort of contemporaneous “hip” material that showed up the same year on David Bowie’s covers album, Pinups. Ferry did include songs by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, but he also featured such pop oldies as Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” not to mention decades-old standards like the title cut. He repeated the concept in 1974 with Another Time, Another Place, which offered such fare as Ike and Tina Turner’s “Fingerpoppin’” and “The ‘In’ Crowd,” a 1964 hit for Dobie Gray.
Some of Ferry’s radically rearranged covers sound almost like Roxy Music outtakes; other times, he seems to simply be paying tribute to music he admires. Elsewhere, such as on the Gore track and a discofied version of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” it’s hard to tell whether he’s playing it straight or spoofing. At any rate, both albums have their pleasures, and more than a few of the tracks seem on these discs as if they were made to be sung by Ferry.
Nearly half a century after the release of these LPs, along comes Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 (which was issued in February but only recently reached me). The album, which gives us a chance to hear how this material sounded in concert, includes nine numbers that also appear on These Foolish Things, four from Another Time, Another Place, and Ferry’s own “A Real Good Time.” In addition to all the songs mentioned in the above paragraphs, the set features such covers as Buddy Holly’s “Baby, I Don’t Care”; “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach standard that gave the Platters a smash hit in 1958; and Smokey Robinson’s classic “The Tracks of My Tears.”
Like the earlier albums, the live set contains far more hits than misses. The renditions vary little from the studio ones (the playing times of many of the tracks are nearly identical), but most of the concert versions pack a bit more punch. Ferry is backed by a crew that includes four of his Roxy Music cohorts—guitarist Phil Manzanera, pianist and violinist Eddie Jobson, bass guitarist John Wetton, and drummer Paul Thompson. (Andy Mackay is missing but Chris Mercer, a veteran of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, contributes excellent sax work to every song.) Highlights include a guitar-heavy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby” and a gorgeous “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” that winningly features Jobson’s instrumentation and sounds as if could fit comfortably alongside Roxy’s “Sentimental Fool.”
John Fusco and the X-Road Riders, John the Revelator. When this blues rock album arrived, I Googled John Fusco, a name I didn’t know. Up came the bio of a screenwriter, TV series creator, and novelist. “Must be a different John Fusco,” I thought. Nope. Turns out that Fusco—whose screenplays include Crossroads and who created Netflix’s Marco Polo series—finds time to moonlight as a singer/songwriter, and a damn good one.
This more than 90-minute double CD, his second album, benefits from his first-rate vocal work, a band that prominently features trumpet, and a program that is all self-penned with the exception of the traditional title track and Oliver Sain’s “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing.” Highlights include “Applejack Brandy,” a passionately sung love song; the harmonica-spiced “Bad Dog,”; “Ophelia (Oh I Feel Ya),” one of several numbers that sound reminiscent of Dr. John; and “Snake Oil Man,” which targets a certain American president.
Phil Ochs, The Best of the Rest: Rare and Unreleased Recordings. Greatest Hits—the sarcastically named last studio album that the unforgettable topical folksinger Phil Ochs released before his suicide—ended with a number called “No More Songs.” At the time, that title seemed as true as it was tragic, but then came the Farewells and Fantasies anthology, which incorporated previously unreleased recordings, and several albums that consisted entirely of such material, including The Broadside Tapes 1, There and Now: Live in Vancouver and Live in Montreal, 10/22/1966.
Now, nearly half a century after Ochs’s death, there’s at least a little bit more: The Best of the Rest, which Ochs’s brother Michael produced, features a trio of songs from 1967–1970 plus 17 well-recorded and noteworthy demo tracks from 1964 and 1965, among them such well-known numbers as “Canons of Christianity,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Three of the mid-60s demos (“Sailors and Soldiers,” “I Wish I Could Have Been Along,” and “Take It Out of My Youth”) are previously unreleased as are all of the later songs, which include a radio performance of “War Is Over” with dramatically altered lyrics; and a number called “All Quiet On the Western Front,” in which Ochs sings, “I guess I’ll join the American Liberation Front.” Like Greatest Hits, the album ends with a version of “No More Songs.” This time, perhaps, that title conveys a truth.
Rick Berthod, Peripheral Visions. This 10-track collection is only the eighth album from the West Coast–based Rick Berthod, who has been performing and touring for three decades. It’s a soulful set that features honkytonk piano and, most notably, the consummate guitar work by Berthod, who penned all of the catchy, upbeat songs (three with cowriters). He lists influences that include Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck; other progenitors appear to include Albert King, Mike Bloomfield, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. On infectious numbers like “Treat Her Right” and “One More Chance,” the band cooks the music up to a boil while Berthod’s guitar licks deliver ear candy.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.