On Thursday—April 1—a reprint of a 1971 letter infiltrated some remote corners of the Twitterverse. This correspondence was addressed to “Mr. B. Ferry” of London. It was from Hugh C. Smith, Director of Artists & Repertoire for Polydor Records Ltd.
“B. Ferry” is Bryan Ferry, former lead singer of Roxy Music. In his letter, Smith explains, in unusually precise detail, why Polydor is passing on signing Roxy Music, critiquing the merits of the demo tape the band submitted.
Former Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz posted it. In response to a comment, he claimed he got the letter from Talking Heads’ old manager in the UK. The letter was quickly circulated among the online music cognoscenti. (Please read it now if you haven’t already. I’ll wait. I got errands.)
Commenters on the Roxy Music rejection letter have laughed at its remarkable tone-deafness. It’s being held up as an example of how extracted music executives could be from the reality of the culture they promote. It’s certainly believable that the kind of disconnect the letter betrays is symptomatic of the record industry of the time (and, frankly, decades afterward). It’s weird, awkward, and even a little maddening.
It’s also a prank.
The letter is an expertly crafted April Fool’s joke. And o, how the mighty have fallen for it. Although Frantz’s Twitter account is the most cited source for it, I’m not entirely sure he created it. There’s no reason to suggest he didn’t, but none to suggest he did, either.
I can’t tell whether online commenters who fancy themselves Defenders Of The Realm know it’s a joke. Some clearly do not. Frantz’s claim about the origin is a nice fake-out, but he hasn’t followed up with further comment. That’s a big-time wink to me.
To be honest, it had me going at least a little bit. It’s paced extremely well. It’s got enough ’70s corp-speak to pull the wool over smart people’s eyes. But make no mistake: It’s a joke. Well—almost certainly a joke. I suppose, just for shits and giggles, we have to leave open the possibility that it’s real.
But I, for my part, know it’s a gag. The reason it’s fooling at least a few people can be hard to detect, though. The giveaways are very subtle. Two passages in the letter, along with a few constructive issues, ultimately reveal it’s 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 one, Switched-On Bach, was a huge hit. It featured electronic covers of Bach compositions. The second one, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, likewise featured electronic renditions of classical themes.
Neither album had any pieces composed by Carlos.
So when “Hugh C. Smith” is talking about the “musicality” of Carlos, he’s talking about musicality in the act of interpreting dead classical composers.
No record label in the world, no matter how many dullards they staffed, would have thought Carlos’ musicality a fair barometer with which to evaluate Roxy Music’s. The inherent differences between rock and classical musicality are too irreconcilable (no matter how much ELO tried), even given the common electronic element between Carlos and Roxy.
Just try and picture this gathering of the “Departmental Audition Meeting” at Polydor pooh-poohing Roxy Music’s failure to match Carlos’ level of musicality. “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 how granular the joke artist was willing to get. They know their stuff. They’re playing an inside game. The Carlos joke has very subtle tonality, like a Brian Eno synth line, or a Van Halen contract rider.
“I enclose a complimentary cassette of James Last’s latest hit album for Polydor, ‘Polka-Party.’”
Oh, geez, let me count the ways.
James Last (1929-2015) was a German big band leader. He found great success in the 1960s and 1970s with compositions he self-coined “happy music.” It’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 jolly covers of popular tunes and silly originals. We are talking about lethal Europop kitsch. Much beloved by some, reviled by others, enjoyed in an ironic sense by still more. Here’s one of Last’s “greatest” works, “Mr. Giant Man.” (Fans of New Jersey freeform station WFMU will recognize this as the theme to the program Strength Through Failure.)
The music James Last proffered was unsubtle, brassy, and utterly refinement-free. 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 they reached for a James Last joint.
Last was exceptionally popular, especially in his homeland. He achieved modest success in the UK with five top-10 albums. Polka-Party, however, stalled out at #22. That may have been high enough for Polydor to consider it a “hit” album, but not by much.
Also, note the date Polka-Party reached #22 in Britain: April 3, 1972. That’s almost nine months after the date on this letter. That implies it didn’t get a British release until March 1972. While the album was released sometime in 1971 in Germany (under the title Happy Polka), it’s unlikely Polydor would have been willing to part with a free, imported copy of such a blockbuster release.
While I suppose it’s not unthinkable that a record label would send a free album as a thank-you gift for your interest, it’s impossible to believe that would have been standard rejection-letter protocol. And if a label truly wanted to reward Roxy Music for thinking of them—I can’t believe I just typed that—they wouldn’t have given them music so contrary in style to their own. Were they fresh out of King Crimson?
Other tell-tale, structural signs that this letter is, I’m 99.9% certain, a delicious prank:
- Music label rejection letters were never this thoroughly detailed. Most of them probably were form letters. “Thank you for your interest, after serious consideration, we’re passing on it, good luck, goodbye.” In fact, with few exceptions, rejection letters from any entertainment or media industry source are usually curt, brief, and unfussy. I know this. I get rejection letters from McSweeney’s all the time. But nobody in the music industry ever spent this much time and labor crafting a rejection letter (with one glorious exception*).
- “…a record company as prestigious and globally important as Polydor.” Bit of an overstatement, don’t you think? A record label would not describe itself in such lofty terms in any correspondence, especially to an artist it’s rejecting.
- “I hope these minor criticisms prove useful.” Bit of an understatement, don’t you think? Unless you consider the description of Ferry’s singing as “Frankie Vaughan in a haunted house” constructive feedback. (Actually, to me, that reads like a compliment. Kind of describes Lux Interior from The Cramps.)
- This can’t be the official Polydor Records letterhead of the time. There’s no company logo. If a corporation in 1971 didn’t have its company logo on every piece of correspondence it produced, it was either close to bankruptcy or a government contractor.
Keen-eyed music and linguistic experts will likely find more clues that I don’t have the bandwidth to look into at the moment. I also couldn’t verify that Ferry lived on Eversleigh Road, or whether Smith’s title was correct, or whether the cassette format was mainstream enough in ‘71 to be so casually distributed.
It should also be noted that Polydor eventually did sign Roxy Music, in the late ’70s. If the source isn’t Frantz, one of my pie-in-the-sky hopes is that this prank originated with someone at Polydor, or even Ferry himself. The chance of this is remote at best. But a schlub can dream.
As far as music-related practical jokes go, let me be clear: this is a great one. One of the best I’ve ever seen. It plays just enough into the sensibility of Roxy Music’s work and fan base to trick many very smart people. Whomever’s responsible for this, whether Frantz or not, I sincerely want to shake his or her hand and give them my copy of James Last’s classic album Happy Marching.
Again, I suppose there’s a chance it’s legit. Stranger things have happened. But I for one am sure it’s a joke, a ruse, a clever lie, and an exaggeration. I’m willing to bet the entire $50,000 Treble’s paying 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 True Classic Rock Believers’ immediate acceptance that the Roxy Music rejection letter is the real thing—on April Fucking Fool’s Day—is a primo example of this fallacy. Love really is the drug.
* I’m not sure this is real either. The dot-matrix font style looks very post-1980. But I’m the only I’ve come across who feels this way, so…Welcome to Hell!
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.