“Mother of Pearl” by Roxy Music
Every so often we will be mixing up our “Review Royale” with not only albums, but single tracks by a particular artist/band. Our first selection for the “Single Track Edition” is the second to last track off Roxy Music’s third album, Stranded. The album was recorded in 1973, just after producer/music legend Brian Eno (Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay) had left the band. Incidentally, Brian himself dubbed Stranded, Roxy Music’s finest work, even though it was after he was even involved in the band. We are not here today to discuss the merit of the album, but what I believe to the best track on the album. A song that takes the listener through a raging party, then sobering up through lyrics that can make you rethink the love, life, and parties forever. The mother of hangover tracks, the mother of metaphorically genius tracks, and a mother for every epic glam rock track in the history of glam rock … “Mother of Pearl”.
The track begins with a frantic frenzy of guitar riffs and overlapping vocals, demanding the lights be “turned down – way low” and the music up as “Hi as Fi can go” (which is just a killer line off the bat). We as listeners have all just been thrown right into the middle of an early 70’s glam-rocker party, and don’t think for a minute you can handle it, you can’t. I’m talking legendary rockers stacked out the door, models piled to the ceiling, and more booze and blow than a Charlie Sheen after party. After a quick two verses, and lots of vocal interplay, it’s black-out mode. Frantic guitar solos whale straight into your skull before suddenly … slowly, drifting off into the night to the tune of a soft piano melody crescendoing into what is now waking the listener into the deepest, most introspective hangover he/she has have ever experienced. (Remember this is figurative, you are probably not actually hung over right now)
The first time I heard this song, I had to pause at this moment to find a cigarette … and I DO NOT even smoke. But there is no stopping this song. If you really listen to it, you really experience it, whether you want to or not. So I did what I had to do. I lit up a cig with Bryan Ferry (lead singer) and let him take me through his philosophy on what his life has become, and the only thing that truly seems living for, this “mother of pearl” he speaks so fondly of. But who or what is that exactly?
The metaphoric phrasing throughout the rest of the song is not only incredibly brilliant, but very intentional and ambiguous. Bryan sings through his painful process of the ups and downs of his life and loves. He doesn’t even know who he is now; he is a pantomime. But this beautiful “mother of pearl”, makes him feel real, and in love, and gives him something to strive for. On the other hand he totally uses “her” as a refuge for self-indulgence and escaping reality. So let’s get down to brass tacks here Bryan, is this “mother of pearl” a chick or is this just straight up cocaine?
To be honest I don’t think it matters. You can pick an interpretation of this song and analyze it for hours, but in the end, the song uses metaphors so beautifully and prolifically, yet leaves so much ambiguity, that I feel there is no “real” answer except in Bryan’s own head. Maybe he is chasing a girl, maybe he is chasing drugs, maybe they are essentially one in the same (most likely option in my interpretation). It still doesn’t change the fact that this almost 7 minute, two-part (party, then hangover), introspective track provides incredible some incredible insight to how this man viewed his rock-star lifestyle, while also booming some of my favorite vocal inflections and in rock history.
Todd I like the party-hangover take on this song. There are far too many slow building songs in rock music, but not many like “Mother of Pearl” that go wild and then crash hard, into essentially a piano ballad.
Instead of getting all philosophical with you (though I will say with Roxy Music’s knack for doing really strange gospel tunes, could “Mother of Pearl” also be some sort of god-figure? But I regress), I will focus on the sound of the song. The first part of the song sounds like a drugged-up mixture of Television and “The Monster Mash”.
As peculiar as the start is, the remaining four and a half minutes sounds like a quirky Talking Heads ballad. Bryan Ferry finds the ability to rhyme the most non-sensical words, rhyming “zarathustra” with “another-time loser” and “dilettante” with “filigree fancy”, which I would be totally lying if I told you I know what three of those four things are. Either way, they sound pretty friggin’ sweet with Ferry’s strange inflection sounding like Fred Schneider from the B52’s, especially in contrast to the graceful arrangement lying underneath.
Though odd, I dig it, especially considering this dropped in 1973 sounding completely unlike anything before it.
I must be frank. I consider “Mother of Pearl” to be one of the greatest songs I have ever heard, and it can only be described as an epic. It is the musical equivalent to Homer’s Odyssey.
I first heard this slice of weird on an episode of How I Met Your Mother, which is a inconspicuous beginning to my love affair with this single song. This track further cemented itself in my psyche after a grueling weekend of partying, which included an arrest (not me), 12 dudes in one hotel suite, one member of our party pissing his pants standing up, and same said member vomiting outside said hotel while wearing a leather jacket with athletic shorts.
The next morning, as we all faced the cold light of day, the members of our party went our separate ways. Wes and some others went to Hot Sauce Williams for some grub, while I began speeding Todd to the airport in Indianapolis (missed his flight). On this drive we must have listened to “Mother of Pearl” at least six times.
But this song is a true giant of the 70’s, even without all the craziness surrounding my repeated listens. First off, as Wes said above, the change of pace from frantic noise to strange ballad is extremely unique, and like nothing I have ever experienced. I highly recommend any first-time listeners to find a pair of high-end headphones with which to listen to this song, for fear you might miss some of the intricacies as the ballad portion builds. Simple piano adds drums and bass, then some atmospheric guitar, and eventually throws some xylophone in there, among other supplementary background noises. The looping nature of the guitar is almost trancelike.
The lyrics themselves are so strange, and the verbiage so intense, that it is hard to really make sense of everything. I tend to agree with Todd to some degree, in the sense that the ballad portion of the song comes out of the gate speaking to cocaine, and then transitions into talking about a woman. The superior line in the track is “But no dilettante, filigree fancy, beats the plastic you”. It really just appears to be cruel backhanded comment. A dilettante is someone who claims to have an interest in something, but is somewhat shallow, and has an interest for appearances’ sake, but no real knowledge. And filigree is just an ornamental covering. I think what Ferry is really saying in this line is that no ornamentally covered faker can beat the shallowness of this plastic someone to whom he is speaking.
In sum, I absolutely love this song. My only regret is that this song is not readily available for karaoke at any place I’ve tried to sing it. This is especially unfortunate because, as Todd can tell you, I do a mean Bryan Ferry impression.
Here is a live treat for anyone interested. Bryan Ferry appears to be wearing a red leather suit, and looks like anything but a rock star.
Hopefully we didn’t overhype this song for any readers out there, although I hope that to be impossible. I personally love multiple-part tracks, and I feel this ranks with the best of them. I also love Wes and Austin’s take on this track and have no qualms to address here. I think this is one Review Royal that we all agree strongly on, and therefore warrants our first “perfect” rating. Flawless, innovative, and supremely executed is, “Mother of Pearl”.