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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One thought on “I Want To Be A Machine

  1. Pingback: ROckWrok | Translated from Birdsong

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