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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… John Foxx February 23, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to..., Uncategorized.

John Foxx was an oddity, and no mistake. At least he was in the early 1980s, ploughing a furrow parallel to that of one G. Numan. And yet Foxx had got there first with Ultravox – when they were good, or at least not that bad. All that anomie, all that new wave take on cod-detachment by way of Ballard had largely been copyrighted by him [albeit originally patented by one D. Bowie] and the others in that band. Yet it was Numan who, heavier on the Bowie than Foxx (no small feat), heavier still on the synths, managed to combine the sounds into something entirely unique (for an indication of just how unique consider the Tubeway Army album, still infused with the tatters and remnants of guitar and punk and then contrast that with the mechanical purity of the first Numan solo album).

There’s No One Driving and Underpass were convincingly alienated for all but the most jaded sixteen year old music fan at the time. And seeing as I’ve mentioned him above, it was all Ballard all the time in Foxx’s world – from the titles and lyrics to the sounds – Plaza, Metal Beat, He’s A Liquid. But it wasn’t just that. I’ve read that Foxx was interested in Catholic mysticism. Perhaps so, certainly there’s some interesting stuff at work in all this. And there was also quite a speedy dynamic to his output that belied the subject matter. Tracks like Burning Car and 20th Century moved along at a rattling pace – and with hints of one J. Lydon here and there.

Still, listening back now one wonders did Foxx tire rapidly of it. If that first tranche of songs are futurist classics then the next lot, while no less good, seemed to take a slightly different direction. Europe After the Rain is vastly more commercial – and oddly reminiscent in tone of post Foxx Ultravox, or perhaps less worryingly mid to late period Roxy Music. As is Miles Away and Endlessly, though the pop direction is undercut (or perhaps supported) by some oddly abrasive keyboard sounds – that on the chorus of Miles Away is a good example with a keening sound that works oddly well or some tape trickiness on Endlessly.

Subsequently he carved out quite a career in music (as well as being a graphic designer) producing solo albums that shifted as time progressed towards ambient and collaborations with Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie and others. And I have to admit I’ve found those to particularly interesting and enjoyable. While always able to produce the spaciousness that characterises ambient his way with melodies is perhaps more astute than most.

But as if that weren’t enough for at least two posts in this series he then returned in 2011 with a new incarnation – John Foxx and the Maths, a collaboration between himself and producer/musician and synth specialist Benje and a new album, Interplay, which surprisingly, but to great effect, link right back to the approaches of the earlier synth pop phase of his career (not least because it uses analogue synths from the period of Foxx’s solo work).

So on this one will hear hints of EBM, electronica and so on but all reshaped to produce something that is up to date and yet also referential. But then Foxx has never been one afraid of the experimental or discordant during any phase of his career, even if the tendency has generally been tilted towards the melodic.

Catwalk has a chord progression we’ve heard a million times before and yet the vocals sound utterly world weary in a way one doubts his 30 year old incarnation could quite pull off. Evergreen has a simple yet memorable melody line and and fizzing away in the mix are the spiky keyboard sounds and lines which characterised his earlier work.

It’s not perfect. There’s one or two moments one would have to wonder about. Destination is a great track, but those of us who have heard Future Sailor from the Mighty Boosh will hear certain resonances (and googling it I find I’m not the only one who had that thought). But that’s okay, Barratt and Fielding have never made any secret of their love of all things synth and glam so let’s chalk that up to convergent musical evolution. But these are minor issues. There’s been no end of 1980s synth pop stalwarts releasing albums over the last few years, but to me this is perhaps the most credible and effortless one I’ve heard so far, perhaps in part because it’s so easy with its original sources but also willing to experiment with more contemporary styles, or perhaps more importantly because Foxx has never really stopped making music. In the year and a half or so since that first JF and the Maths album was released there has been another album proper and a sort of compilation of outtakes and such like. Sounds like there’s no dearth of material there…

Hiroshima Mon Amour (with Ultravox)

There’s No One Driving

Europe After the Rain

Adult (Foxx and Harold Budd)

Evergreen (John Foxx and the Maths)

Catwalk (John Foxx and the Maths)

Interplay (John Foxx and the Maths) – Video by Jonathan Barnbrook using analogue equipment.

Running Man (John Foxx and the Maths)

And let me throw in this excellent Church cover Hiroshima Mon Amour


1. Phil - February 24, 2013

consider the Tubeway Army album, still infused with the tatters and remnants of guitar and punk

ITYM “the first Tubeway Army album” (of which I’m still rather fond, I should say – “Listen to the sirens” is magnificent, and (although it was obviously placed first for a reason) it’s not the only highlight.

and then contrast that with the mechanical purity of the first Numan solo album

ITYM “the second Tubeway Army album”.

When Tubeway Army made it big in 1979, Gary Numan would always mention Ultravox (who had only just split up) when interviewers asked about influences. Reactions ranged from “what, them?” to “who?”. When Foxx brought out Metamatica year later lots of people detected a Gary Numan influence.

Personally I thought Systems of Romance was quite possibly the best album ever made by anyone anywhere – the two Ultravox! albums were good, but this was something else. (Still sounds good, too.) But for me very little of Foxx’s later stuff hit the same mark – even the albums which seemed to be in the same area, like The Garden. Perhaps it’s a band thing – Warren Cann’s recollections (which I think I saw on the current band’s Web site) bring out how those albums were made by five musicians, and in the case of Systems of Romance five musicians working flat-out.


eamonncork - February 25, 2013

Good to see this, I’ve always been very fond of Metamatic. The tune, video and lyrics of Underpass pretty much capture a particular post-punk mindset which might be characterised as Gollancz yellow covered sci-fi, the musical version. But there’s nothing wrong with that all.
Somebody, the name evades me right now, wrote an article or maybe even a book on how rock music made young people brainier by dint of cultural references which they then or later followed. I think he called the bands involved ‘portal bands.’ It was perhaps typical of post-punk more than anything else and Foxx is a prime example. Europe After The Rain brings you to the Max Ernst painting and very good, if difficult, novel by Alan Burns. Hiroshima Mon Amour leads you to Alain Resnais. And so on. Underpass might lead you to Ballard if you hadn’t already got there via Warm Leatherette. It was a time I think when rock music seemed connected to a certain sub-culture which some of us swotted up on assiduously, something which had its benefits.
Anyway, nice to see this up. Coincidentally I was listening to Tangerine Dream this morning and wondering how is it that early model much less sophisticated synthesisers still sound more futuristic than their more advanced heirs. Something to do with the age at which I first encountered them. Or maybe something to do with the fact that The Future isn’t really a hot topic anymore. My kids don’t seem to be encountering any equivalents to those Look and Learn articles which predicted we’d all be eating dinner pin pill form while whizzing around in our hovercrafts under a giant dome by now.


WorldbyStorm - February 25, 2013

Phil, you’re right, I was thinking of the second Tubeway Army album… bah! Systems of Romance still holds up I think. Sure, they were v. Roxy/Bowie influenced but there was something else going on in there.

I actually agree with you re the ‘band thing’. Generally I’m none too fond of solo outfits for precisely the reason you articulate.

Thanks EC. I think that’s incredibly important about that music. It wasn’t just the scribes at the NME but the actual groups who were aware of and willing to namecheck and use a broader cultural palette. That’s so important and I wonder is there anything analogous.

Re Tangerine Dream, I went through a seachange some years back about them. A fine band.

The future? It’s past! 😦

Look and Learn, Speed&Power and a raft of others, TV21 (in a more commercial context), depicted what was meant to happen. I think the horizons have narrowed considerably and for the worse.


eamonncork - February 25, 2013

Saw a very good documentary a couple of days ago you might be interested in Wbs. Alchemists of Sound, about the BBc Radiophonic Workshop. It’s ten years old so you might well have seen it already. It’s also full of that optimism about the future as well as that old BBC model where you funded something like this in the belief that intelligent people were allowed to experiment and would probably produce something interesting.
When you think about it the disappearance of all that optimism about the future, so prevalent in the fifties, sixties and seventies isn’t all that explicable. You could say that these days there’s all the worry about Global Warming etc. but there was the worry of a far more imminent global destruction in the shape of Nuclear War back then. And the thing is that nothing all that bad happened in the eighties or nineties or noughties compared to what those fifties and sixties optimists had experienced, some as adults and some as kids during the Second World War.
And perhaps it’s not that optimism about the future has been replaced by dread of the future so much as the fact that the zeitgeist at the moment seems driven by a worship of the present. Now is what’s important, now and me.
Anyway good choice. Can I do Hauntology and various associated stuff some week?


WorldbyStorm - February 25, 2013

EC Yes, re Hauntology etc… most definitely.

Oddly I was thinking about how the nuclear threat coloured life in the 1980s. I remember being in the UK and thinking that if a war broke out that was it I was a goner, and that has more or less lifted.

Worship of the present it is. And in a curiously unreflective manner. In a way the real future was far away from space travel, it was in telephone boxes and enormous computers waiting to be unleashed. I know for all that I thought there’d be miniature communicators and personal computers they seemed in the 1970s as if they could be centuries away and the sheer ubiquity of them and how they linked into media simply wasn’t a factor.

Sorry meant to ask, where did you see that doc? It’s on Youtube isn’t it, but the quality doesn’t look great.


eamonncork - February 26, 2013

Wbs, the documentary was on Sky Arts which is a treasure trove of all kinds of interesting stuff. There was a very good documentary on avant-garde music in the fifties and sixties, Here’s A Piano I Prepared Earlier on lately as well and also All You Need Is Love, Tony Palmer’s big seventies documentary series on the history of popular music which, despite its many idiosyncrasies, and perhaps to a certain extent because of them is utterly fascinating.
Thanks to Michael for the tip off on that Sussex stuff. And I must get the Tracey Thorn book too. My memory of London in the eighties is a long way from Hoorays chugging Champagne to the sound of Club Tropicana as well. It seemed a much more feral city then and a considerably more interesting one.
John Harris’s book Live Forever is very good on how the whole Britpop thing led to an attitude that success was all that mattered, something which would have been anathema to Tracey Thorn and her comrades back in the eighties. And also of how it valorised various dumb rock myths, the whole drugs, groupies and arrogance thing, which were actually seen as pretty stupid by the generation which came directly after the rock dinosaurs. Not so many jocular quips about under-age groupies post Saville of course.
Then again it’s not just music. I’d imagine the biggest change in the intervening three decades is the extent to which money, and its cousin fame, have become the measure of all things in society. That and the hero worship of business. All that Apprentice, Dragons Den etc. stuff would have been unthinkable back then.
As would the whole idea that the office was a site where you could display your individuality with dress down days, water cooler moments and fun internet memes to be passed from one to the other. The attitude in the eighties was more likely to be that work was something to be endured while your real life took place elsewhere. I’m inclined to think this has more resemblance to reality. Of course I’m generalising wildly.
One other thing. Tracey Thorn’s comment about ideological intensity is interesting. Back then young people, or at least the clued in ones, seemed to agonise quite a lot about what they said. I remember worrying if what I said might reveal some latent bigotry, ignorance or naivete. Now, normally this is portrayed as a crippling thing from which young men were liberated due to the power of Loaded. But wasn’t it better to be a bit pensive rather than open your mouth and spew forth the old sexist racist garbage which had gone into retreat after the seventies and subsequently made a come back in the guise of being Not Very PC? Your man McFarlane’s song at the Oscars was a classic example of this. Bob Hope wouldn’t have got away it in 1971.
I can remember, not all that long ago, chortling away with a few people about the fact that in our youth BBC ran Come Dancing as a primetime show. Imagine. Next thing they’ll probably revive the Black and White Minstrels.
It’s interesting that all this big, brave insistence on being ‘non PC’ which largely means having the courage to tell the truth to the powerless is counterbalanced by the grossest kind of sentiment, the general public sensitivity towards any perceived insult in the direction of Kate Middleton being the most laughable example.


eamonncork - February 26, 2013

John Harris’s book was The Last Party. Live Forever is the film about Britpop.


Michael Carley - February 25, 2013

Re broader palettes:

[Tracy] Thorn recalls her fixation on remaining politically “authentic” with a mixture of fondness and bafflement. When asked by the teen pop magazine Smash Hits in 1985 about the last book she had read, she told them: The British in Northern Ireland: The Case for Withdrawal. When, she wonders, did this ideological intensity disappear and everything had to be seen instead through an “ironic tinge”?


The archive Moran mentions looks good:


and includes a couple of interviews which many here might find interesting:


(Subjects, Northern Ireland troubles)


Michael Carley - February 25, 2013

The document section looks good too:


including an RCP pamphlet on the Brighton bombing by Mick Hume (whatever happened to him?)


WorldbyStorm - February 25, 2013

Nice one Michael, loads of stuff there to consider.

Re HUme isn’t he linked to the Spikd crew?


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