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Trying to make the big time: Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain at 50

You must remember this. Back in 2018, I wrote how Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights ranks as one of the most astounding, audacious debut singles ever made. Well, before that there was a thing called Virginia Plain, and it’s celebrating its half century. This is the story of a 45 going on 50.

Unlike his chameleonic art-rock rival David Bowie — who quickly dashed off Starman when his record label informed him they couldn’t hear any singles on Ziggy Stardust — Bryan Ferry was adamant that Roxy Music records would echo those of bygone acts like Frank Sinatra in keeping material for 33s and 45s totally separate thematic entities*.

But before a song had even been written, a band formed, or music being thought seriously as a potential career, Bryan Ferry painted Virginia Plain. 

Thus, the former disciple of pop artist Richard Hamilton took the title from one of his own artworks whilst an art student at Newcastle University. It featured an image of fag packaging — because Virginia Plain was a variety of tobacco. Ferry later told the author Michael Bracewell:

“It was a watercolour or a painting on paper. It was just like a surreal drawing of a giant cigarette packet, with a pin-up girl on it. I liked that phrase Virginia Plain…so it later became the title of the first single I put out with Roxy Music – with a slightly imponderable lyric.”

Like this pertinent piecette, for instance, dashed off with lashings of unsettling vibrato…

“We’ve been around a long time

Just tryin’ to, tryin’ to, tryin’ to

Make the big time”

With the old canvas on his mind, Ferry moved towards a new vehicle or mode of expression that he could hang impressions on and indulge his interests and influences in art, music, theatre, pop culture, and design, and, what the hell, even get a bit of cash, flash, and wham bam, thank you man.  

Luckily for Bryan, this way forward was already embedded in the band’s collective DNA: Key members of Roxy were art school heavy-hitters, the front line of Ferry, Andy Mackay and Brian Eno would have enjoyed exceptional avant-garde careers no matter what media they worked in. Ferry again, from 2009:

“We had just released the first Roxy Music album and the record company (Island Records) seemed as surprised as we were by its amazing instant success. Their only problem was that there was no single there – so they asked me if I had any other songs knocking about. I did have an unfinished song lying around called Virginia Plain, which we quickly recorded at Command studios in Piccadilly and this seemed to do the trick. I vividly remember our roadie driving up and down Piccadilly outside the studio as we tried to record the sound of his motorbike.”

“I was interested in stream of consciousness writing, and since the songs on the first album hadn’t been very wordy, I felt it was time for a bit of verbal dexterity. I suppose nowadays any song with this title would be banned.”

Released on August 4, 1972, VP is a mad glam gallop of a song that acts as a snap-shot of BF’s pre-fame self, alone in his room, imagining a life beyond Geordie shores, of American cars and girls, travel and sex, stardom and glamour: “So me and you, just we two/ Got to reach for something new.” 

The sound of Virginia Plain is the sound of a musical locomotive racing through a dark tunnel. Listen to the first 15 seconds of the song and you can hear the approaching train; Phil Manzanera’s improvised guitar-treated notes providing the get-outta-the-way warning. The band’s producer Pete Sinfield observed: 

Bryan was playing eights in the studio as he was wont to do. He said, ‘I can hear this bass part going braaam like a train.’ Then he launched into these wonderful lyrics. It was obviously more catchy than anything on the album.”

VP isn’t interested in staying on terra firma, or trifling pop conventions like a chorus either. Heaven forbid! Oh no, this track has wings: It’s the aural equivalent of a three-minute supersonic airplane ride, zooming off the runway, cramming in an impressionistic ramshackle travelogue that takes you to Acapulco, lover’s leap, and midnight blue casinos where you dance the cha-cha thru ’til sunrise. It has flamingoes, too, and stop-starts-stop-starts-stop-starts-stop-starts-ends with a gurgling three-note Moog line and the memorable self-answered question that acts as its fabulous finale, “What’s her name? Virginia Plain!” 

The single announced its own unerring existence in an elegant galaxy all its own, and in a blaze of triumphant glory, zoomed up to No. 4 on the chart announced 12 September just as Mott The Hoople’s Bowie-penned All The Young Dudes and Derek & The Dominos’ Clapton-scribed Layla ran out of steam. 

The band’s masterful appearance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops — just weeks after Bowie’s similarly epochal performance of Starman had propelled him to No.10 — was a lightning bolt out of the blue. With both career defining performances coming so close together, it was like a coordinated art happening. And it worked, launching the thinking man’s glam and leaving Mud, Sweet, Slade, and the rest of the Chinnichap stable looking for new glitter gimmicks. 

Ferry, recalling the single’s success, has often stated that Roxy were flabbergasted by it. They had no great expectation of significant sales. The public, clearly, felt differently. So, too, did a whole host of musicians who would follow in their footsteps, forever in their debt. 

The futuristic manifesto had arrived.

Steve Pafford

*Ironically, the song would be included on later US pressings of the album, which I’m sure displeased the exacting Ferry no end. However, most subsequent editions of the debut follow that augmented track listing, including the 2018 Super Deluxe repackage. With thanks to, my reviews of the Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music catalogue from 1973 – 1994 as published in Record Collector magazine are here


The last time I caught BF live was down under in the Kiwi capital of Wellington, having flown to New Zealand from Sydney at the end of February 2019. As I’m prone to do, I was travelling gossamer light with the minimal of hand luggage. In my accommodation across the quay from the city’s waterfront TSB Arena I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice with the selection of gig wear staring out from my mini suitcase. It must have been some kind of subliminal influence with it being there in the first place, but I opted for a white t-shirt emblazoned with a freaky neon-like shot of Bette Davis smiling garishly, a still from the cult sixties classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

Then it occurred to me. Where was I flying to next? Brazil via a Chilean stopover. It had to be. So if I can paraphrase the opening of the first Bowie song I ever bought and Virginia Plain itself, Do you remember a line that’s been in such an early song?

“Baby Jane’s in Santiago*… we are flying down to Rio!” But first, an acknowledgment of sorts from the man himself. Being slap bang in the middle of the second row, there was one point quite late in the show where I could see Bryan’s eyes lock on to my top. Realising it was Baby Jane Hudson, he seemed suitably impressed enough to give me a knowing wink, nod and a smile.

But then the shocker. Somehow the evening rapidly turned into the first time I’d seen Ferry or Roxy where Virginia Plain was left on the shelf in Acapulco. And, regrettably, Roxy haven’t brought it out to play on their current 50th anniversary tour either. Quelle bizarre.

[*Oh, yes, I’m aware that it‘s Andy Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer being namechecked in Roxy’s glam oddity. All styles served here…]
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