On Thursday, April 1, a reprint of a 1971 letter seeped into some remote corners of the Twitterverse. This correspondence was addressed to “MB Ferry” of London. It was from Hugh C. Smith, director of artists and repertoire for Polydor Records Ltd.
“B. Ferry” is Bryan Ferry, former lead singer of Roxy Music. In his letter, Smith explains, in unusually specific detail, why Polydor refused to sign Roxy Music, criticizing the merits of the demo tape submitted by the band.
Former Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz posted it. In response to a comment, he claimed to have received the letter from the former Talking Heads manager in the UK. The letter was quickly circulated among online music connoisseurs. (Please read it now if you haven’t already. I’ll wait. I have groceries.)
Commenters on Roxy Music’s rejection letter laughed at his remarkable tonal deafness. It is held up as an example of how music leaders could be removed from the reality of the culture they promote. It’s certainly believable that the kind of disconnect the letter betrays is symptomatic of the recording industry at the time (and, frankly, decades later). It’s weird, awkward, and even a little infuriating.
It is also a prank.
The letter is a cleverly crafted April Fool’s joke. And o, how the powerful fell for it. Although Frantz’s Twitter account is the most cited source, I’m not entirely sure he created it. There’s no reason to suggest he didn’t, but none to suggest either.
I cannot say whether online commentators who imagine themselves to be defenders of the kingdom to know it’s a joke. Some clearly don’t. Frantz’s claim of origin is a nice forgery, but he didn’t follow up with further comments. It’s a big wink for me.
To be honest, it got me going at least a little bit. It’s extremely well paced. There’s enough ’70s corporate language to pull the wool over smart people’s eyes. But don’t get me wrong: it’s a joke. Good-almost certainly a joke. I guess, just for the shit and the giggles, we have to leave open the possibility that it’s real.
But me, for my part, I know it’s a gag. However, why it is fooling at least a few people can be difficult to detect. The gifts are very subtle. Two passages of the letter, as well as some constructive problems, ultimately reveal that it was a ruse. Here they are:
“The electronic sounds… fall short of the musicality of Walter Carlos.”
By 1971, electronic music pioneer Walter (later Wendy) Carlos had released two albums. The first, Bach on, was a huge success. It featured electronic covers of Bach compositions. The second, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, also featured electronic renditions of classic themes.
Neither album had any tracks composed by Carlos.
So when “Hugh C. Smith” talks about the “musicality” of Carlos, he is talking about the musicality in the act of interpreting deceased classical composers.
No record company in the world, no matter how many idiots it employed, would have thought that Carlos’ musicianship was a fair barometer to gauge Roxy Music’s. The inherent differences between rock and classical musicality are too irreconcilable (no matter how hard ELO tried), even given the common electronic element between Carlos and Roxy.
Just try to imagine that “departmental audition meeting” gathering at Polydor pooping at Roxy Music’s failure to match Carlos’ level of musicianship. “Well, it’s interesting, but it can’t match the musicality of an electronic rendition of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’.”
This is an example of the granularity the joke artist was willing to achieve. They know their business. They play an inside game. Carlos’ joke has a very subtle tone, like a Brian Eno synth line or a Van Halen contract pilot.
“I enclose a free cassette of James Last’s latest hit album for Polydor, ‘Polka-Party.'”
Oh, damn it, let me count the ways.
James Last (1929-2015) was a German big band leader. He enjoyed great success in the 1960s and 1970s with compositions he himself dubbed “happy music”. That’s exactly what that phrase probably sounds like: schlock.
Last’s albums, and there were about a thousand of them (well, only 234), featured a mix of upbeat covers of popular songs and silly originals. We are talking about mortal Europop kitsch. Much loved by some, reviled by others, enjoyed in an ironic sense by even more. Here is one of Last’s “greatest” works, “Mr. Giant Man.” (Fans of New Jersey freeform station WFMU will recognize this as the theme of the program Strength through failure.)
The music proposed by James Last was not very subtle, brassy and totally devoid of refinement. If you asked a record store owner, “Hey, could you show me an album that is in every way the aesthetic and thematic opposite of Roxy Music’s debut album?”, I wouldn’t be surprised if he looked a joint from James Last.
Last has been exceptionally popular, especially in his native country. He achieved modest success in the UK with five top 10 albums. Polka Party, however, stalled in 22nd place. Maybe that was high enough for Polydor to consider it a “hit” album, but not by much.
Also note the date Polka Party reached number 22 in Britain: April 3, 1972. That’s almost nine months after the date of this letter. This implies that it did not have a UK release until March 1972. While the album has been released in 1971 in Germany (under the title good polka), it is unlikely that Polydor would have been willing to part with a free import copy of such a successful release.
While I guess it’s not unthinkable for a record company to send out a free album as a thank you for your interest, it’s impossible to believe that would have been standard rejection letter protocol. What if a label really Wanted to reward Roxy Music for thinking of them – can’t believe I just typed this – they wouldn’t have given them music so unlike their own. Were they fresh out of King Crimson?
Other telltale structural signs that this letter is, I’m 99.9% sure, a delicious prank:
- Rejection letters from music labels have never been so detailed. Most of them were probably form letters. “Thank you for your interest, after careful consideration, we pass, good luck, goodbye.” In fact, with a few exceptions, letters of refusal to any Sources from the entertainment or media industry are usually brief, short, and straightforward. I know that. I get rejection letters from McSweeney’s all the time. But no one in the music industry has ever spent so much time and work writing a rejection letter (with one glorious exception*).
- “…a record company as prestigious and globally important as Polydor.” A bit exaggerated, don’t you think? A record company wouldn’t describe itself in such lofty terms in correspondence, especially to an artist it rejects.
- “I hope these minor criticisms prove helpful.” An understatement, don’t you think? Unless you consider the description of Ferry’s singing as “Frankie Vaughan in a haunted house” constructive commentary. (Actually, to me, that reads like a compliment. Kind of a description of Lux Interior by The Cramps.)
Sharp-eyed music and linguistics experts will likely find more clues that I don’t have the bandwidth to examine at this time. Nor have I been able to verify that Ferry lived on Eversleigh Road, or if Smith’s title was correct, or if the cassette format was common enough in 1971 to be distributed so casually.
It should also be noted that Polydor ended up do sign Roxy Music, late 70s. If the source isn’t Frantz, one of my unreal hopes is that this prank came from someone at Polydor, or even Ferry himself. The chance of that is remote at best. But a schlub can dream.
As for practical music-related jokes, let me be clear: It’s a big. One of the best I’ve ever seen. It plays on the sensibility of Roxy Music’s work and fan base just enough to fool many very smart people. Whoever is responsible for this, whether Frantz or not, I sincerely want to shake his hand and give him my copy of the classic James Last album Good walk.
Again, I guess there’s a chance it’s legit. Stranger things have happened. But for my part, I’m sure it’s a joke, a trick, a clever lie and an exaggeration. I’m willing to bet the full $50,000 Triplepay me for this article.
Moral of the story: everyone is susceptible to fake news, especially if it aligns with our values. It’s not an ideological thing. It’s based on what we want to hear and believe. The immediate acceptance by True Classic Rock Believers that Roxy Music’s rejection letter is the real thing—fucking april fools– is a prime example of this error. I really like is Drugs.
*I’m not sure this is real either. The dot-matrix font style looks very post-1980. But I’m the only one I’ve met who feels that way, so… Welcome to hell!