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.

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