. . .
I’ve mostly stayed away from the long artier cuts, mostly because I think Roxy Music as an all-time great singles band — at least partially because until the end, all of their singles were absolute bangers — and because most of the long artier cuts were also slow, which I just don’t think they pulled off as convincingly as the fast ones.
There were exceptions, of course: the spooky “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the trippy “For Your Pleasure” and the anthemic “A Song For Europe” all had their moments, but for me, the tie they well and truly nailed it was “Mother of Pearl,” which with 40+ years of hindsight seems like a fractal of their entire career, going from gloriously crazy to gloriously beautiful in the space of 6:53.
And so “Mother of Pearl” starts off with Roxy Music in full flight: Phil Manzanera is playing a big riff that circles back around on itself, Paul Thompson is driving the beat at top speed and Bryan Ferry is singing lead vocals and overdubbed backing vocals stacked on top of each like they’re remaking the Velvets “The Murder Mystery” but instead of a murder mystery it was about a party out of bounds.
Turn the lights down (Way down low)
Turn up the music (Hi as fi can go)
All the gang’s here (Everyone you know)
Its a crazy scene (Hey there, just look over your shoulder)
Get the picture?
No, no, no, nooooooooooooooooo (Yes)
It’s not quite as crazy as the bygone ol’ sourpuss days of — checks notes — eight months prior, because only the vocals stacked on top of each other are truly cacophonous, but they’re still a cool invocation of the wild-ass party he’s singing about:
Walk a tightrope (Your life sign line)
Such a bright hope (Right place, right time)
What´s your number? (Never you mind)
Take a powder (But hang on a minute, what´s coming round the corner?)
Have you a future?
No, no, no, noooooooooooooooooooooo (Yes)
And during that last “nooooooooooooooooo” Manzanera kicks out a wild-ass solo, and you’re probably leaning forward wondering just how fucked-up this song is going to get. And that’s when “Mother of Pearl” pulls the rug out from under you.
As Manzanera finishes the solo, the whole song crashes to a stop, and all you hear is Ferry’s piano for a few seconds, and “Mother of Pearl” starts back up, much slower, with a slinky slow groove, featuring some busy bass from John Gustafon, Eddie Jobson’s organ washes and Phil Manzenara’s guitar ringing and jangling in the background. And Bryan Ferry? He’s gone from wild and wooozy to wan and wistful.
Well I’ve been up all night again
Party time wasting
It’s too much fun
Then I step back thinking
Of life’s inner meaning
And my latest fling
It’s the same old story
All love and glory
It’s a pantomime
If you’re looking for love
In a looking glass world
It’s pretty hard to find
And that’s just the beginning: there are a ton of lyrics in “Mother of Pearl,” all of which are trying to explain why he’s giving up the fast life for a more settled existence: she’s just too perfect. She’s a lustrous lady of a sacred world, who he wouldn’t change for the whole world, and most importantly, he wouldn’t trade her for another girl, which so important to him he stops the music at the end — after it’s built it itself back up on the strength of Paul Thompson’s drums, which get more intense without ever getting faster — to sigh “oh Mother of Pearl I wouldn’t trade you for another girl” four times acapella.
Bryan Ferry has, of course, written a ton of love songs, but “Mother of Pearl” is one of the most pointed and most beautiful, benefiting greatly from the fast-to-slow, Saturday Night to Sunday Morning structure.
Obviously, “Mother of Pearl” isn’t the only song to decelerate from a speedy opening to a chiller second part. That said, it’s also not that common: “Layla” or “Take Me Out” are two of the more famous examples (and eventually, we’ll get to Steve Wynn’s “No Tomorrow”), but it really isn’t all that common, either.
“Mother of Pearl”
“Mother of Pearl” live in Germany, 1974
“Mother of Pearl” live in Stockholm, 1976
“Mother of Pearl” live in London, 2001
Did you miss a Certain Song? Follow me on Twitter: @barefootjim
The Certain Songs Database
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.
Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)
Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page