Thursday, 20 December 2012
John Foxx - The Marcel Duchamp of Electropop
An underwater kind of silence, humming of electric pylons, "Don't forget me" fades in static, another scene began... Transparent faces from the old school, no-one to project them onto, he drives by 1958 and someone says his name. He waved out of the film again, he turned and he flickered and he walked away, he felt a distant kind of longing, another scene began...
A New Kind of Man - Metamatic - 1979/1980.
As the original singer and main songwriter in Ultravox!, Foxx formed and 'designed' the UK's first synthesizer-rock group, working with producer Brian Eno before David Bowie mixed traditional and left-field influences together on his 1977 Low album. In fact, according to John Foxx, 'Brian got the call from Bowie when we were in the studio together'. Ultravox released a series of pioneering tracks which still sound contemporary today, including 'My Sex', 'Young Savage', 'The Man Who Dies Every Day', 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' and 'Dislocation'. Many of them were featured in the recent British movie Awaydays, based on a novel by Liverpool writer Kevin Sampson.
'The starting point for me was being at a party in the '60s and hearing The Beatles 'Tomorrow Never Knows' which had been released that day', reveals Foxx. He realised in an instant that the taped drum loop on 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was essentially a blueprint for the future. 'I sensed that that song had all the elements for everything that was going to happen for the rest of my life. It was a fantastic feeling'. Further inspired by Pink Floyd's experimental, psychedelic 'happenings' and a growing interest in surrealism, Foxx enrolled at the Royal College Of Art in the early 1970s where he founded Ultravox! ('we used to rehearse in the college dining room until they gave us the push for making too much noise') and encountered the likes of Quentin Crisp who modelled at the college and painter Francis Bacon. 'He would only recognise me when he was drunk', laughs Foxx.
Armed with an old analogue synthesizer and a four-track recording machine, Ultravox! gradually began to fuse together elements of Roxy Music, glam and Krautrock, in particular the bands Can and Neu!. After signing to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in the mid-70s, Ultravox! attracted the interest of former Roxy Music pioneer Brian Eno who worked with them on their self-titled debut. Two of the albums highpoints, 'My Sex' and 'I Want To Be A Machine' previewed the sounds and attitudes later adopted by British electronic pop (this was a full year before Kraftwerk's The Man Machine album) - inspiring the likes of Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Duran Duran.
Ultravox!'s follow-up LP Ha! Ha! Ha! was a new wave classic of manic, mad-eyed paranoia, heavy guitars and lush electronic interludes, especially on the pioneering 'The Man Who Dies Everyday' and 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'. Their final album, 1978's Systems Of Romance, was recorded in Germany with Krautrock guru Conny Plank whose previous credits included Kraftwerk and Neu!. Loaded with great songs ('Slow Motion', 'Just For A Moment', 'Dislocation', 'The Quiet Men') this dark, anthemic electro-rock album pointed the way forward in terms of sound, but also Foxx's sleek, elegant artwork for the LP was almost immediately referenced by designer Peter Saville in his sleeves for Joy Division and later New Order on Manchester's Factory Records. The album has continued to grow in stature over the years with the NME recently commenting: 'Synthesizing late-'70s English pop's two important strands - punk rock and the 'cold wave' electronics of Bowie's Low - the original Ultravox evoked an apocalyptic Eurocentric sci-fi world that veered between the hallucinatory and the monochrome... Systems Of Romance perfectly captures Foxx's doomed, visionary poetry in all its waiting-for-the-bombs-to-fall glory...
By this time Foxx was writing most of his lyrics through the perspective of a new Quiet Man alter ego: 'A long time ago I found a grey suit in an Oxfam shop in London', he explains. 'Over the next few weeks I began to think about who might have previously owned the suit and what kind of life he may have led. I got a few friends to wear the suit in various locations and rooms that I liked and took photographs and films of them, never showing their faces. I began to wear the suit and walk around London and other cities. It gave me a surprising amount of freedom. I attracted no attention at all. I found that I could go into a café or walk into a hotel without attracting a comment. If I sat in a corner long enough people would eventually cease to notice my existence altogether, so I could easily overhear conversations and observe all the small dramas that happen around us all the time. Here was a kind of invisibility and it was very exciting. The Quiet Man is still me, or rather still a part of me', he concludes.
Meanwhile in January 1980 Foxx emerged from the wreckage of Ultravox! (band member Billy Currie was on tour in Gary Numan's band at the time) with the stark, icy Metamatic, home to his most famous solo single 'Underpass' which he says was influenced by his love of dub reggae. 'The bassline on 'Underpass' is dub. Because a lot of the acts signed to Island Records were dub and reggae, I did meet Bob Marley and Lee Perry in the 70s and I was struck with how the music sounded like a living organism. Everyone in the studio sort of melted into it'.
“I deliberately don't define anything too closely, too fast, having learned years ago that's how you kill songs - they might sound OK, but they'll be inbred. You have to let other people walk them. Let them off the leash. See what they run off and mate with”
As Foxx recently recounted, his own work was mostly born out of long hours spent by himself. 'I lived alone in Finsbury Park, spent my spare time walking the disused train lines, cycled to the studio every day and wobbled back at dawn imagining I was the Marcel Duchamp of electro-pop. Metamatic was minimal, primitive techno-punk. Car crash music tailored by Burtons'. Metamatic's fusion of J. G. Ballard, Max Ernst and apocalyptic Japanese horror flicks made Foxx an unlikely chart contender yet he had his first taste of Top 20 success. More importantly it connected with an audience that included the likes of techno DJ Dave Clarke, John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), the Junior Boys, Ladytron, Aphex Twin, Hollywood movie director Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot) and Detroit electro artists such as Juan Atkins and Carl Craig... Read more here.
My Face - Single Sided 7" Flexi-disc - Free with Smash Hits! Magazine (1980)
Film One - B-Side of 'Underpass' 7" (1980-VS 318)
This City - From 'No-One Driving' 2 x 7" (1980-VS 338)
Further information here, here & here.