I Want To Be A Machine

I found the bones of all your ghosts
Locked in the wishing well
While birdsong gourmets dragged empty nets
I slumbered in my shell
Im mitternacht, die mensch-maschine kissed me on my eyes
I rose and left the fire ladies glowing lonely in the night
With all the pornographers
Burning torches beneath the sea

I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine

I stole a cathode face from newscasts
And a crumbling fugue of song
From the reservoir of video souls
In the lakes beneath my tongue
In flesh of ash and silent movies I walk dead boulevards again
A nebula of unfinished creatures from the lifetimes of my friends
My, how your innocence
Has depraved me

I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine

Broadcast me, scrambled clean
Oh, free me from this flesh
Let the armchair cannibals take their fill
In every cell across wilderness
We’ll trip such a strangled tango – we’ll waltz a wonderland affair
Let’s run to meet the tide tomorrow –
Leave all emotion dying there
In the star cold beyond all of your dreams

I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine
I want to be a machine

Lyrics © John Foxx.

Thoughts on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
Link to the post by all means, but please don’t reproduce the content without permission.

 

While the sentiment expressed in the title of this anthem to detachment (one of the earliest songs John Foxx wrote for Ultravox! c1975) is easy enough to understand, and tracing the source of Andy Warhol’s quote is straightforward, the lyric itself remains one of John’s most complex, surreal and accomplished.
It reads like a classic English poem not far removed from the style of Longfellow and the neo-Romantic Manley-Hopkins (another Foxx favourite). See in particular Hopkin’s 1876 epic work The Wreck of the Deutschland, upon which the eight-line stanza is loosely structured.

As a poem, it works beautifully to stunning effect, though it’s precise meaning as a complete text is very difficult to ascertain. It’s a catalogue of oblique references to other classic literature, reads at times almost biblical, and yet is – in the most part – entirely original. Even the most well-read among us would struggle to source literary references for phrases like ‘birdsong gourmets’ and ‘armchair cannibals’…

The simple phrase of the title is a direct quote from Andy Warhol, when describing his taste for technology and gadgets and his increasing fascination with the mechanisation of art. Warhol sought to establish ways to reproduce a preconceived image – he saw silk screening as an easy way to create a painting. He amplified this approach in an interview with controversial art critic Gene Swenson in 1963 :

“The reason I am I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine… Life hurts so much. If we could become more mechanical, we would be hurt less – if only we could be programmed to do our jobs happily and efficiently.’

But this is not an original idea and there are many examples throughout history on the concept of man as a machine of some kind. Foremost among these, and perhaps on Warhol’s reading list if not Foxx’s own, is the essay “L’Homme Machine” written in 1748 by the French philosopher (and atheist) Julien Offray de La Mettrie. After presenting the idea that the happiest man accepts that he knows no more of his destiny than he does of his origin, and worries himself with neither, La Mettrie concludes boldly that “man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified”.

Foxx is attracted to Warhol’s wish, both in its simplicity, and in the way that becoming a machine offers release from the “pain” and emotional complexities of life. Or is the opposite true? Foxx is crafting his lyrics carefully to leave interpretations open. While flesh maybe ‘sinful’, vulnerable and unstable – it is also organic and therefore , in mechanical terms, prone to weakness and decay.  A mechanical self would have limitless stamina and energy. Desperation and frustration both, in equal measure. He simply has fun with the idea of being able to distance himself and remain ambiguous – interesting that he wrote this song so early in fact, given that it became the anthem he was to live by three years later and the direction in which he launched his solo career once physically removed from the band situation. At the time of writing, however, he was very much enthused by the possibilities on offer with Ultravox! and saw the band as a vehicle for expression rather than a stepping stone on a journey to mechanisation.

The sentiments expressed in the poem, and some of the phrases used, reflect also the essential elements of the Futurist manifesto, presented in La Figaro in Italy in 1909 and, allegedly, read by John Foxx at the tender ago of nine years. The Futurists encouraged poets to write with courage and audacity, to exert themselves with ‘ardor, splendour and generosity’ and to ‘sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness’. In the context of ‘I Want To Be A Machine’, Foxx effectively delivers on all these principles, albeit perhaps with a pastoral elegance rather than ultimately aggressive expression. Witness how, in the fifth line, the man-machine kisses him on his eyes – an intriguing juxtaposition of technology and gentle humanity. And the phrase is curiously in German, written some two years before Messrs Hutter and Schneider conceived Kraftwerk’s ‘Mensch-Maschinen’ album – visualising the ultimate fusion of man and machine. Why is it in German, and spoken in a cold, treated voice? To exaggerate the polarity against the gentle verb that follows, perhaps, or to translate La Mettrie’s romantic French into something historically akin to English? In a more Foxxian way, the use of German here introduces his observation that the music and vocabulary of English psychedelia is growing in Germany in a way that it should have done in England, who adopted Glam Rock at the expense of more experimental and progressive work of bands like Can and his beloved Neu! Following this on, are the ‘fire ladies’ and ‘pornographers’ characters from that Hippie movement he left to one side in favour of the grey suit and short hair of the mod culture?

In verse two, a grandiose Foxx effectively just lists his source material – television, music and film – different types of media. The ‘cathode face’ he stole from the newscasts is used to great effect on the front the cover of the debut album on which ‘Machine’ was released in 1977. According to Wikipedia, a ‘fugue’ is a musical term for a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition. Foxx does exactly this throughout the song with his delivery of the chorus – repeating each line with different stresses to effect variations on the sentiment.

He adopts a more desperate, pleading tone in the third verse. Who can resist his emphatic plea to be freed ‘from this flesh’…?

Is he making a request of television? To create millions of ‘ghosts’ of himself, to go out there into people’s homes and entertain them while he slumbers in his shell? Like Warhol, seeking to create hundreds of copies of the same image in a technological, rather than artistic way? Ghosts which he can hide behind, which distract his audience from the vulnerability of his real self?

I feel it is at this point that his language is at its most biblical. Being brought up a Catholic (albeit not a very good one, he confessed in an interview with NME) Foxx would be well-versed in the liturgy and scriptures urging resistance to the sins and temptation of the flesh. Rather than promote a more righteous lifestyle of self-denial in line with the teachings of a priest however, Foxx advocates that it would be preferably simply become ‘a machine’ and not face these temptations in the first place. A strangled tango indeed – dancing the steps without feeling the passion.

The ‘armchair cannibals’ are those who receive their information through media rather than direct experience, forming opinions and making judgements based on a version of the truth that has been filtered through a layer of editing and selection. Those who are quick to condone or condemn from the comfort of their own homes, without necessarily being aware of the whole story or directly connected with those on whom they sit in judgement.

Is Foxx oblique political reference here to the case of labour MP John Stonehouse, who faked his own death in 1974 to seek a better life for himself and his secretary lover? Leaving behind a pile of clothes (emotions) on a Miami tideline, Stonehouse flew to Australia, where he was arrested for fraud, theft and conspiracy and imprisoned in London six months later.

I wonder what the armchair cannibals made of that one. Certainly not that Ultravox were a foxy adolescent punk band, that’s for sure…

 

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Avenue

There is silence in the city
You can almost hear it breathe
Behind the hum of the milkman
And the hum of his van
Here comes a wave…

Did you say I used to work here?
Are you sure?
It’s hardly changed
But what does that matter now
Without you and all your
Seventeen years beside me
Let them stare
I cannot dare not care
For you can sing
And they can hardly read
It’s good of you to come
You’ve put on weight since we last met but
I remember those shoes

Why can’t I love you?
Is it because the trees stand like pillars of rock
Pitted by the tide
Or is it (more likely) because you are
My daughter’s sister?

See that bench opposite the lab?
I held you there
Underneath the summer trees that burn with secrets
Secrets which hang like fruit between the leaves
Purple and full
Soft as poison

Inside plastic blue chairs
Stacked in seeing rows
Remember when we pushed them over
And they fell like dominoes?
We broke in one night
In April drunk
Beyond compare
You had those yellow sandals
And flowers in your hair

Concert halls and galleries
Theatres and bars
Tidal streets like rivers
Now dry without the cars
They’ve called this place “Lovers’ Walk”
I almost laughed out loud
Cash points gape like baby birds

Between these quiet buildings bathed in orange
I feel an early rain upon my face
Or is just another memory
Your tears, this place?
Pigeons occupy in the eaves
Where your laughter used to hide
And I’m drinking Cider with Katherine
On the other side of time
An deserted swimming pool
With no scars
And no public right of way
There’s scaffold all over The Chaplaincy
So where have they put God?

Wide Boys

I took a walk down Rue Morgue Avenue
Wearing my latest disguise
Enjoying the perfume of utter dismay
I was effectively anaesthetised

Starving so elegantly in jumble-sale pearls
Evangeline hires out my throat
We’ve got the streets of London mapped in our beds
Nagasaki under our coats

We’re the…
Wide Boys – up from the streets
Wide Boys – ah, come on and meet me
Wide Boys – delightfully unpleasant
With our foxy adolescent sneers

Tired of being put down
Broken-hearted, my life not started
Tired of being cut down
All your illusions disillusion me

(Chorus)

Open-sore music plays the wrong side of nightmare
Jukebox mongrels collide
The saint on the fire escape
He bleeds into the sun
Embracing the old suicide bride

I spent a few lifetimes making spinal connections
Down on Einstein Boulevard
I’m proud to walk a tightrope, now the gravity’s so high
I swagger like a neon guitar

Lyrics © John Foxx.

Thoughts on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
Link to the post by all means, but please don’t reproduce the content without permission.

One of the earliest examples of John Foxx referencing sources from outside music in his songwriting, citing  and drawing his inspiration from film and literature – a habit that was to become characteristic of his work. The ‘Wide Boys’ of the title, those seedy characters that inhabit the City of the Dead on Saturday nights, comes originally from  London-based author Robert Westerby’s 1937 underworld novel ‘Wide Boys Never Work’ about gamblers and fraudsters. It’s a term used to describe wily and evasive petty criminals; characters like Jagger’s Jack Flash, St Trinian’s Flash Harry, or Cockney ‘spiv’ Harry Robinson from the 1955 Ealing comedy ‘The Ladykillers’. Westerby’s novel itself provides the screenplay for the 1956 American film noir  ‘Spin A Dark Web’ – both titles almost certainly among the Saturday morning fare at the Plaza cinema in Chorley, well-known for its controversial showing of films that were often banned elsewhere.

Blurring the edges between fiction and reality, Foxx takes the ‘wide boys’ (among whom he includes himself in this song) and transposes them to Paris and the fictional street called ‘Rue Morgue’, the scene of the brutal and notorious murders in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 novel of that name. It’s no coincidence that this macabre street is also referenced by Bob Dylan in ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ from Highway 61 Revisited…

By wearing his ‘latest disguise’ (suggesting a chameleon-like nature, perhaps again like Bowie?) Foxx would be unrecognisable, and thus able to see things around him from the point of view of observer rather than participant. He often writes from this stance of distance and detachment, effectively ‘anaesthetised’ – both immune from the trials and  tragedies of his contemporaries, and numb and unsympathetic to their condition. Thus the ‘wide boys’ present themselves as somewhat superior and aloof, arrogant and alienated. There is a general atmosphere of arrogance in the whole structure of this lyric, a contemptuous disregard for the conventions of society, encompassed in the oxymoronic ‘delightfully unpleasant, adolescent sneer’ characterised by Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols – a charismatic, violent icon whose music and attitude spoke to the disaffected punk generation. Ironically, what Foxx achieves with this somewhat pretentious stance is the effective ‘alienation’ of his own band from the punk movement, ultimately leading to their being disenfranchised in the popular press.
For the moment though, Foxx is strutting Jagger-style down the avenue in his ‘jumble sale pearls’, an Oxfam outlaw (bony in a Zodiac) re-imagining the Blues and quoting from Henry Longfellow’s tragic poem Evangeline. The despairing heroine spends her life traversing America in search of her betrothed, the exiled Acadian Gabriel. Foxx offers himself as a vehicle for her mournful search – an idea he returns to in later songs, most notably ‘Use My Voice’ (to call him) in 2006.

 

We see exemplified in ‘Wide Boys’ another characteristic style of the articulate and well-read Foxx – that of using two or more themes in the same song, making them difficult to interpret as being ‘about’ any one subject in particular. Instead, they become works of literary art themselves, open to interpretation, cleverly structured and intricately woven. Note how Foxx references the Japanese city of Nagsaki, for instance – the last city to experience a nuclear attack, confession to which is shamefully hidden ‘under our coats’.  Twinning Nagasaki with London, Foxx instantly connects east and west. From Ealing Studios to the Toho creations of H-Men and Godzilla. All part of  his long term ideal: an unidentified, timeless ‘city’ filmscape that could just as easily be 1950s Britain or America as Germany, France or Japan in the 21st century. A city whose streets (including Einstein Boulevard) are ‘mapped out’ in his body of work – the first appearance here of an unexpected affection for cartography that becomes integral to his grammar and vocabulary.

The vocal delivery on ‘Wide Boys’ (heavily treated in the studio by Brian Eno) is as important as the words; it enhances the arrogance and contempt in the phrasing. The know-it-all Boys are spoiling for a fight: ‘ah, come on and meet me’ – if you dare; swarming ‘up from the streets’ like insects. A plague of pests, a rebellious counter-culture at home among the dirt and shadows.

In the bridge, the song’s third verse, Foxx encapsulates the disaffected attitude of the punk youth, disillusioned and apathetic. The empty promises of the politicians mean nothing to them, facing as they do lives of unemployment and lack of opportunity in which their voice has no platform to be heard. The ‘open sore music’ of bands like The Damned, The Clash and The Pistols effectively gave voice to this grievance, not to mention the sounds from the ‘other side of nightmare’ in the form of Throbbing Gristle and The Velvet Underground.

The mood of the song, the jagged guitar riffs and punchy arrangement are all encapsulated in the last line – a statement of intent in the persona of these slick, swaggering street ‘traders’ dealing in cheap trash and chord sequences stolen from a neon guitar.

Satday Night in the City of the Dead

Fat guy zips by
Bony in a Zodiac
Picking up trouble
Maybe looking for a heart attack

All-night boys in the Piccadilly Arcade
Boozy losers cruise tricks
Trawling for some rough trade

Satday night
Satday night
Satday night in the City of the Dead
Can you feel the time bomb ticking in your head?
Too many memories are buried in your bed
Satday night in the City of the Dead

Stand in the dole queue
Face like a statue
Laugh like a maniac
Walk like a king too

Spike hair, don’t care, Oxfam outlaw
Rat band rips it out
You’re buzzing like a chainsaw

Satday night
Satday night
Satday night in the City of the Dead
Can you feel the time bomb ticking in your head?
Too many memories are waiting in your bed
Satday night in the City of the Dead

High-rise reptile
Sucking on a cigarette
Ripped suit, zip boots
Dancing like an insect

Tottenham Court Road litter skitters in the wind
The city’s pretty dead
But the nights are still alive!

(Chorus)

Satday Night…
Satday Night…
Satday Night…

Lyrics © John Foxx.

Thoughts on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
Link to the post by all means, but please don’t reproduce the content without permission.

Foxx reflects – at least in the title – on his perception that London in 1973 was ‘virtually dead’. He arrived in the capital towards the end of 1973, clutching copies of Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ and Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ at a time when very little was happening underground and the mainstream pub music serving was ‘as dull as ditchwater’.

He wrote this song deliberately in the style of an imagined Americana – the scene described by Bowie in his lead single ‘Jean Genie’ and Dylan on ‘Tombstone Blues’ and the ‘Highway 61’ title track. A downtown New York populated by dealers, users and gangsters – night time doorways and darkened alleys home to the living dead. The structure of the lyric and style of writing is homage to Bowie and Dylan in this respect.

By 1976 when the song was finished, Bowie had become known as the ‘thin white duke’ (for the Station To Station album) and could perhaps be the icon to which the ‘Bony’ description refers in Foxx’s second line. Tying in perfectly with Dylan’s own reference to Bowie (Mr Jones) in the Ballad Of A Thin Man. There’s another clever cut-out in this song too that ties it in with Ultravox! first single ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ – Dylan observing in his song that ‘something is happening here, but [Mr Jones] don’t know what it is…”

Also zipping around New York at this time was Johnny Thunders “Jet Boy” – another reference by Foxx in the opening couplet of ‘Satday night’. But he cleverly sets the Dolls of his story very much in England, referencing the cruisers drifting around downtown, via a deserted Tottenham Court Road,  in a Ford Zodiac. Picking up ‘litter’ in the shape of the discarded and hopeless?
It’s a seedy image, hustlers cruising around the city streets picking up ‘all-night boys’ for sordid encounters (‘rough trade’) , dealing drugs in S&M clubs and gay dungeons.

Foxx makes an oblique parallel here with another emergent ‘trade’ on the streets of London in 1976 – the distribution of home-produced, low cost independent records from the back of vans and private cars. Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer etc, consummated in the operation of Rough Trade Records from Geoff Travis shop in West London, and latterly Stiff records featuring The Damned and Ian Dury.

Satday (a colloquialism; deliberate carelessness to speed the pace) Night in the City of the Dead goes on to personify some of the characters observed on the streets and in some of these clubs. Bowie is referenced again ‘dancing like an insect’, among the punks on the Kings Road in their ‘ripped suits, zip boots’ and ‘spiked hair’. The punk fashion was to destroy, alter and change – second hand clothes were made for this purpose. Cheap to buy and easy to customise with pins, paint and razor blades. Notice the alliteration in the phrase ‘Oxfam outlaw’, cleverly rhyming with the ‘buzzing like a chainsaw’ effect of recreational drugs. Foxx includes contemporary political phrases too, like ‘dole queue’ and ‘high-rise’ – painting a picture of the forlorn hopelessness, despondency and all round physical and economic ‘greyness’ that he encountered in 1973 London.

In its own way, punk was an assemblage of all these influences, events and sub-cultures – held loosely together with safety pins (Jon Savage ‘London’s Outrage’ interview 2002) and spawned from the unseen creatures that inhabit the City of The Dead. Ultravox! themselves evolved from the same soup, while steadfastly standing apart and observing, rather than becoming enveloped in the scene around them.

The cultural, literary and musical references in this song alone are enough to isolate the Art School boys from the dole queue statues, never mind the articulate song structure and musical competence that accompany the lyrics.

Dangerous Rhythm

Stranger to stranger
We’re both dressed for danger
Something is generating here

Oh, take off your halo
For the all night inferno
Something is happening in the air

It’s not like anything I’ve ever known before
And I don’t care

Dangerous rhythm
Dangerous rhythm
Dangerous rhythm in the air

Surging and merging
Urgent and urging
Soft as a footstep on the stair

The red light is on now
My gravity’s gone, and how…
I can feel something in the air

And it’s not like anything I’ve ever known before
And I don’t care

Dangerous rhythm
Dangerous rhythm
Dangerous rhythm in the air

Lyrics © John Foxx.

Notes on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
Link to the post by all means, but please don’t reproduce the content without permission.

Written in the latter half of 1976, at a time when the London punk scene was ‘happening in the air’. The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols were beginning to articulate the dissatisfaction of British youth with the political and economic situation, surfing the wave of resentment, despair and frustration that  the generation was feeling. Summer of 1976 was a time when everyone who was everyone on London’s underground  had a sense that something was ‘generating here’.

‘It’ was just beginning to take shape. Power pop pub bands were getting edgier, sharper. Cruder, perhaps and simpler. A fashion statement was being written on the toilet walls in clubs like The Marquee and the Roxy in Soho, the 100 Club and the Nashville Rooms.

Taking his cue, like his contemporaries, from the emergence of and controversy surrounding bands like the New York Dolls and Velvet Underground, Foxx succinctly presents this half-formed, threatening tidal wave of change as the ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ making itself heard in these crowded venues.

Venues where strangers meet and find kinship in the appearance and attitude of those around them. Places where you can forget who you are, your situation and your lack of opportunity perhaps; or shake off any pretence and inhibitions represented by the ‘halo’ required by regulated society; analogous too of the rather more ‘perfect’ image that many parents would like to have of their emerging teenage offspring. Rejected by society and treated with impunity. Protected by their dignity…

At the same time, Foxx contextualises the song with references to similar ‘all night infernos’ that he would have experienced ten years earlier, such as the 14-hour Technicolor Dream ‘happening ‘ at Alexander Palace in 1967, Pink Floyd’s Christmas On Earth, or any number of sessions watching avant-garde experimental films at the Arts Lab on Drury Lane. A  parallel underground ‘scene’ that emerged in a rather more peaceful way.
He selects the phrase to maximise the threat implied by the imminent, uncontrollable and intense fire that is about to be unleashed. Interesting to note that within two years, and certainly by the early part of 1979, the ‘inferno’ had all but burned itself out. Punk ultimately burned with a fierce but short-lived aggression. It was more of an expression than a movement – a knee-jerk response that had, longer term, ‘no future’ of its own.

Many critics have written on the symbiotic relationship between reggae and punk. An affiliation that was nurtured by Jamaican born DJ’s in London like Don Letts. Black music was (and Letts would argue, always will be) ‘rebel music’ and therein lies a common ground between the two genres. Many skinheads were into reggae, particularly Ska. Joe Strummer and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) were famous Marley fans. Both John Foxx and Chris Cross, the bass player in Ultravox, were big fans of Reggae and dub music, and were present at the sessions in Basing Street when Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded the ‘Exodus’ album.  It is not by chance that Ultravox themselves signed to Island Records – reggae heavyweights like Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear and Third World were label mates. By the release of Dangerous Rhythm in February 1977, Ultravox had just returned to London after touring the UK with Eddie & The Hot Rods, sharing the support duties with Brinsley Forde’s ASWAD.

Not just a Dangerous Rhythm – a Dangerous Fusion…

The ‘red light’ of warning was switched on. The Rock Against Racism movement was born out of this mutuality in August 1976, uniting punk and reggae bands on the same stage in the interests of racial harmony and respect. The Clash covered Junior Murvin’s Police & Thieves (and had Lee Scratch Perry from the Wailers produce their Complete Control single), and Marley himself wrote ‘Punky Reggae Party’ in recognition of what he saw on the streets while visiting England early in 1977.

 

 

Further to the punk ethic, Foxx throws in a sneering ‘I don’t care’ – punk’s iconic war cry, delivered from the battle’s front line by Johnny Rotten on the Pretty Vacant single.

Which suggests of course that it doesn’t really matter what I think it means, or that any particular analysis is either valid or worthwhile…

Paul Simon (AjantaMusic) – Part 3

Part Three – Fiachra, Foxx, Philistines and the future

© Martin Smith, May 2014.
There’s a lot of work gone into this. Please do not copy without permission.

Former Ultravox and Magazine guitarist Robin Simon and his brother Paul (both of Neo) have recently released their third album’ The Secret Door’ as AjantaMusic on Paul’s label Stratotester Records.

Both musicians share a hidden history of influential associations and peripheral infiltration that spans over 30 years.

I caught up with Paul Simon recently at his home in West London to talk about his journey through the independent music scene, their recording history and his latest projects.

 

How did Robin get back involved with John Foxx (once he returned from America)?

John got back in touch with us when he was recording ‘The Garden’ album. Robin had left Magazine by then so he went to work with John again. The problem with Magazine had been that McGeoch was a large part of the group, and he left a big hole. So there was a lot of pressure on Robin to come up with a lot of material quickly and that just didn’t work out for him. He got on very well with Dave Formula, though, who later came back for us and played on the second AjantaMusic album.

 

What happened to you after Happy Birthday Records?

While I was recording with Cowboys International, I met an arranger and composer called Fiachra Trench* who had come in to do strings for us on ‘Too Much Too Little’. That track has recently been released on the ‘Cowboys International Revisited’ album. Ken re-released the first album and added that song to it.

Fiachra and I struck up a friendship. When I left Happy Birthday I started a group with him called Pleasure Pack. I was the singer and principal writer; Fiachra played keyboards and arranged. Our guitarists were Robin and Rob Dean (of Japan). We demoed most of an album at George Martin’s Airedel Studio in 1982. Fiachra was one of the staff writers there, so George Martin gave us free studio time for the project. We carried on recording together until ’84 or ’85. We had a production partnership, and worked very hard to get those recordings released, but we couldn’t get a deal for Pleasure Pack.

During this time, Fiachra was involved in the start of the ‘Hi-NRG’ genre, which was a derivative of disco. I sat in on a lot of these sessions. Along with Ian Levene, Fiachra released ‘High Energy’ by Evelyn Thomas, an enormous international hit, which actually sounds very similar to a Pleasure Pack track I’d previously worked on with Fi.

Fi worked with Paul McCartney, arranging for Wings, and taught Linda McCartney to play keyboards. He also worked with James Brown, and he used to do strings for several Irish acts, including Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats and Van Morrison. He still works with Van Morrison. Fiachra was famously offered the job of string arranger on ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, but he had another booking so he gave it to his friend John Barham. That’s one to turn down, isn’t it! Years later, I met John Barham and he confirmed this story to me.

* Fiachra has scored and composed music for films that include Pearl HarborThe BoxerThe Tailor of Panama and The Ring and is credited as having written the string arrangement for “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues,  “Love is All Around” by Wet Wet Wet and “Old Town” by Phil Lynott.

 

Was Robin still working with John Foxx at this time? 

Yes, he was. As you know, he played on several of John’s albums in the 80s and had toured with him in support of ‘The Garden’ album – the only live work John did until he began gigging with Louis Gordon in the 90s.

Eventually Robin and I did some recording with John together, around the time of the ‘In Mysterious Ways’ album. I remember John saying he wanted to try doing live backing tracks again. (Most of his 80s albums had been recorded using a drum machine.) He asked me to bring in a bass player? So I got in touch with Matthew Seligman. In the event, unfortunately, Matthew let us down. So we ended up doing that session with just drums and a guitar because we had no bass player. We just went into the studio and did it on the spot; John didn’t give us anything to prepare. There’s an extra track on the re-issue of ‘In Mysterious Ways’ that sounds like us, and it’s one of the songs we recorded that day.

I also saw a lot of John socially, from around 1983 up until about ’96, when Robin and I left the UK. We went to see a lot of bands together: Kraftwerk, 808 State, Erasure, A Guy Called Gerald. After the Virgin deal ended, John worked with Tim Simenon for Rhythm King Records. Neneh Cherry was around. It was the beginnings of rave and acid house and John was really interested in that scene. We did a bit of clubbing around town with Tim. But nothing much came of it all. John was being used a bit I think. Rhythm King had used John’s name to front up their label, but they didn’t follow through on any of the promises they made him.

 

During this time [1986] I joined The Sing Market with Carrie Booth, who’d been in The Thompson Twins and Shakespeare’s Sister. I did an EP with her and a bassist called Andrew Bodnar who played for Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Brinsley Schwarz played guitar on the tracks.

 

http://www.plasticdreams.co.uk/the-sing-market-via-tv-12-80s-indie-brinsley-schwarz-p-10593.html

 

I did session work as a drummer and programmer, notably with a group called Bliss on EMI. I brought Carrie Booth into that line-up. The standard rates of pay then were about five times what they are now, unbelievably. I also sessioned for numerous other bands.

I was also doing bits of production work. I produced an album for Dave Roberts from The Sex Gang Children. Dave played bass and sang, with me on drums and Colin Minchin on guitar. We were called The Children. I produced one of the tracks at John’s studio, The Garden. Dave later took this track to the States, finished off the album there and it was released under the name ‘Carcrash International‘ on Cleopatra Records.

Ahh… now John Foxx is credited on that album I think? 

Yes, John is credited as ‘executive producer’ for his generosity in giving me the studio time for free.

R-566567-1147407727

http://www.discogs.com/Carcrash-International-Fragments-Of-A-Journal-In-Hell/master/175592

 

What can you tell me about the mysterious Blitz line-up? with John Foxx?

Ah, fast forward to 1993. John rang up one day and said, “Do you and Robin want to start a group with me?”. So we started rehearsing in London up on Kensal Road, in one of the rehearsal room I used with Glen when we were doing The Philistines. (I’ll come back to that later). We worked on ten or eleven songs. It was a bit of a departure for John as he cited The Velvet Underground as his major influence for this project.

The line-up was John on rhythm guitar and vocals, me on drums, Robin on lead guitar and Sue Rachel from Robin’s then-recent band with Billy Currie, Humania, on bass. Interestingly, Sue had also previously been involved with Dead Or Alive, which gave the rhythm section a punchy 80s kind of feel.

After some time spent rehearsing John suggested we cut an album, so we went up to Foel Studios near Powys in Wales.

Why Foel? That’s a bit out of the way isn’t it?

It’s a residential studio, so it gave us a chance to work without distractions. It was also very good value, for a 24-track analogue studio anyway. We didn’t have a record deal at this point; John was funding it all out of his own pocket. The recording room in Foel is a converted barn. Ozric Tentacles and quite a few other name acts were regulars there. The owner and engineer was an ex bass player called Dave Allen.

What about the name ‘Blitz’ – whose idea was that?

We didn’t really have a name. We were in the kitchen at my house in London one evening and John suggested it.

Was it anything to do with the New Romantic club, Rusty Egan and all that?

No, I don’t think so. I think he thought more in terms of the bombs. The war over London, more that kind of ‘Blitz’.

So we went up to Foel Studios and started the album. We completed five tracks and things were looking promising. John then asked us to play a live gig with him at Leeds College of Art, where John was a tutor. I was on tour with Glen Matlock at the time and, for logistical reasons, it never happened.

John met Louis Gordon a short time later and abandoned the Blitz project to join Louis in a more dance-oriented synth-based direction.

So what happened to the this material?

Nothing happened to it. John re-invented himself for the EDM market and that stuff doesn’t fit in to his new history. However, everyone who’s heard the Blitz recordings has said they’re really good. I played it to Glen Matlock and he was knocked out by it.

Did you co-write any of it?

No, John wrote all of it but we created our own parts and the band’s sound evolved organically. John was a fan of Neo, so I think he was quite interested in having Robin and me playing together with him. It stands as the closest musical link between what he’s done since and the original Ultravox! There are no synths on it and the two guitars sound of John’s rhythm behind Robin’s lead guitars is unique.

John Foxx has always championed Rob’s guitar work. He still speaks very favourably of working with him.

Yes, he does, and it’s very supportive of him. He acknowledges that Robin was a pioneer of ‘treated guitar’. Robin worked with Conny Plank, adding effects and treatments to his guitar sound during the recording of ‘Systems of Romance’. This was long before U2’s The Edge adopted similar techniques for his sound.

 

Tell me about the band you had with Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols

They were called The Mavericks when I first joined them. The original line-up featured my old friend Keith Levene on guitar, but he had since been replaced by Paul O’Brien. The vocalist was Gerry Foster. Glen changed the name to The Philistines when we went into the studio to record our album ‘Hard Work’.

hardwork

http://www.philjens.plus.com/rattle/glen_philistines.html

Although we toured the UK several times, our most successful territory was France, where the group was on another level altogether. We headlined several major festivals and, even for club gigs, we were on at least four times the fee we could command in the UK. We were offered a deal by a French record company, but decided to release our album independently.

I began working with Glen in 1993 after Blitz  and we toured, recorded and co-wrote until 1995. After ‘Hard Work’ we needed a major recording contract to take the group further but it didn’t happen. After the group broke up, Glen signed a solo deal with Creation Records. I was also involved, playing and co-writing on his early releases.

One of the high points of my time working with Glen was when, as The Mavericks, we played the Mick Ronson tribute concert at The Hammersmith Odeon in London. Mick Ronson had produced Glen’s earlier band with Midge Ure, The Rich Kids, so Glen knew him well.

 

But the music you are making now is very different from all that you’ve done before?

It is and it isn’t! As you know, Robin and I travelled extensively between 1996 and 2001, working as jobbing musicians. We landed on Ibiza in 1999 and began AjantaMusic there. It wasn’t intended to sound like a re-hash of the various bands we’re known for. It doesn’t sound like, for example, Ultravox meets Thomas Dolby.

I think it contains all the musical influences I’ve absorbed over the years, but after funk, rock, and the 80s synth scene, I got heavily into G-Funk and hip-hop. So that’s in there, too, along with the hybrid music Robin and I came across in Ibiza, where there’s a kind of ‘hippies meet chill-out crossed with dance’ thing going on.

People became interested in us because they like the story around Robin and me. The internet effectively revived our careers. I think, though, that some of our original fans find it hard to accept that our music has moved on. They actually want you to stay the same. Our approach has always been to break new ground.

Our first album, ‘And Now We Dream’, released in 2006, was the closest to our time in Spain, although it’s also a travelogue. The following year we added Gina Watson, an opera-trained vocalist, to the line-up so our second album ‘Above The Cloudline’, is more song-based.

The group has since evolved into a series of writing partnerships, between me, Robin, Matthew Seligman and Ibiza-based Jürgen Graf (formerly with German metallists Udo).

We’ve also been helped along the way by other former colleagues, including Dave Formula (Magazine) and Bruce Woolley (The Buggles, Grace Jones) and Pete Jones (Cowboys International, Public Image Ltd).

We left Ibiza to work in London and throughout the life of AjantaMusic, I’ve also worked professionally as a DJ. The urban environment and the music I’ve been exposed to have also influenced my writing and production. On our latest album ‘The Secret Door’ I attempted to create something different again – music for the future!

We’ve released all three albums independently on my self-financed label Stratotester Records.

 

Apart from AjantaMusic, what’s going on now at Stratotester Records?

I recently released a remix of the ‘Dream Soldiers’ single that I did with The Fallout Club back in 1981. The release is actually an EP, featuring the original ‘Dream Soldiers’ cut, plus two remixes and Trevor’s original demo of his song. It features Thomas Dolby, Matthew Seligman and Trevor Herion. The remixes feature Robin on guitar and Gina Watson on vocals; I’ve rearranged and remastered the tracks, with the help of Tony Bywaters and it’s been very well received. There are some amazing guitars from Robin.

I’m also going to release two Civilians albums featuring Trevor Herion. The first consists of various recordings we made before the end of the Arista deal. It includes the Arista single and another track with Hans Zimmer on keyboards. The second is a live album of the very last Civilians gig, in December 1979, at The Camden Palace.

There are also some Pleasure Pack recordings, featuring Robin and me with Fiachra Trench and Rob Dean, which I plan to release later. I am also doing an electronic rock project with Colin Minchin (One the Juggler, The Children), and we are about to start recording our first album.

I also have six completed tracks for the fourth AjantaMusic album and am working with Robin on a further six for possible inclusion.

 

Great news that. I look forward to hearing all of it. It’s been fascinating talking to you.

All the best with the album, and the re-issued stuff you’re working on.

Thanks very much.

 

‘The Secret Door’ by AjantaMusic and ‘Dream Soldier’ by The Fallout Club are out now on Stratotester Records, along with the first two AjantaMusic albums.

They are available from iTunes and http://www.ajantamusic.com