Virginia Plain

On 4 Nov 2014, Bryan Ferry performed Virginia Plain on “Later…with Jools Holland”:

Mick Wall wrote for Classic Rock on April 28, 2014:

“It was the song that gave Roxy Music their big breakthrough, and the summer of 1972 one of its defining chart moments. Yet it was a hit single that didn’t so much ignore the rules as simply get them arse-backwards: no chorus, a faded-in intro and a sudden ending – the opposite of ‘normal’ singles. The song’s title wasn’t even mentioned until the final, dead-stop moment, when singer Bryan Ferry suddenly blurts: ‘What’s her name? Virginia Plain!’…

But then Virginia Plain had a lot of things going for it that other bands could barely dream of – not least the sense that someone, somewhere, was having a giant laugh at the rest of the world’s expense.

“There were certainly some odd things in it that you couldn’t hope for other people to get,” allows (Phil) Manzanera (lead guitarist). “For instance, the opening verse…” To wit: ‘Make me a deal, and make it straight, all signed and sealed, I’ll take it/To Robert E. Lee I’ll show it, I hope and pray he don’t blow it ’cos/We’ve been around a long time/Tryin’, just tryin’, just tryin’, to make the big time!’ Most people, understandably, assumed Ferry was referring to the Confederate general in the American Civil War. Not so, says Manzanera. The verse had virtually no symbolism at all.

“Robert E. Lee was – and still is, actually – the name of the band’s lawyer. So when Bryan sang of taking a deal to Robert E. Lee and hoping he doesn’t blow it etc, he was being very literal. As that’s exactly what happened when we were offered the deal by Island Records to sign for them.”

Even then, Roxy Music had a reputation as musical futurists ushering in a new age. But what’s striking about the recording of Virginia Plain is just how old-school it was.

Manzanera: “Apart from Brian’s synths and various tape machines, which he had pretty much assembled randomly from whatever weird toys came his way, everything else was very much done as-live in the studio. For the sound of the motorcycle we actually had to borrow someone’s bike. Then wait till the middle of the night and take it out onto Piccadilly Circus, which is where the studio was, because in those days Piccadilly Circus was fairly deserted at night. Hard to believe now, but true. Then we got someone to start the bike up and rev the engines and finally speed off while we stood there recording it with this big reel-to-reel tape-recorder.”

But if it sounds like Roxy were inured to just how great the end result was, don’t be fooled.

“Oh, we knew how good it was even as we recorded it,” says Manzanera. “We still didn’t see ourselves as a singles band even after it became a big hit and we did our first Top Of The Pops. Which is why neither Virginia Plain nor our next single, Pyjamarama, were ever included on the albums. We were a serious band. I remember standing on the stage at Top Of The Pops, all of us dressed in our glam costumes, and feeling very superior to whoever else they had on the show that week.”

They weren’t the only ones who thought themselves and their strange, kinky single superior. When David Bowie launched his Ziggy Stardust album and tour that same summer with a plush press party at the Dorchester Hotel, the only record he allowed to be played other than his own was Virginia Plain.

There’s just one question left hanging: who or what was Virginia Plain? Some far-out, beautiful fox like the ones that used to feature on all Roxy’s album covers?

“Sadly, no,” replies Manzanera. “Bryan had been an art student and done a number of paintings, one of which was a sort of Warhol-type pop-art painting of a cigarette packet, which he’d called Virginia Plain.”

So Virginia Plain was a cigarette?

Manzanera laughs. “Well, it was a cigarette packet.”

How very Roxy Music.”

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