John Foxx on songwriting and lyrics

Once you spend time to listen to the song, you find it can be a vehicle into other areas of imagination and emotion.

“Communicating a message to people that don’t pay much attention to lyrics is always going to be a problem. A lot of people don’t listen to words at all, even when they are speaking to each other! That seems to be just the way we live. At this stage in our evolution we are very visual people… and we like images. What I want to do is make images, but using WORDS. I like to trigger off images and scenes in people’s minds by saying a few words. Once you spend time to listen to the song, you find it can be a vehicle into other areas of imagination and emotion.

“I’ve always liked good words in songs. Ones that give you a new way of looking at something. The lyric is there for people to take if they want it. I wouldn’t do a song with indifferent or bad words. I couldn’t do that. If I can’t get the words right, or if they aren’t necessary, then I will record an instrumental. But if I do write words that I’m disappointed with it can put me off the whole song and I don’t like it any more after that. That’s why I work on things to make them as good as they can be.

“I don’t like to be too specific. If I speak about an island (for instance) someone who is listening will already have a particular island in mind that they have perhaps been to themselves. I would never actually name a place. I want people to remember their own island… their own experience of it. For example, if I mention maybe a blue room, then everyone who listens to it can will have their own image of a blue room in their mind.

“That’s the wonderful thing about words. They seem to be specific, but they’re not really… I especially like to find words that can easily be specific to different interpretations. Everyone brings their own experience to them, and I find that tremendously exciting. For everything you say or refer to, people will bring their own version of it to the song.

That’s why I thing songs are a bit magical. They do things that other mediums can’t do. If you show a blue room or a TV screen in a cinema, that’s it. It’s one particular situation… but in a song, using words and music, it can be a million different rooms depending on the number of people listening to the song. This works with everything or describe in a song. If you talk about ‘a lover’ rather than someone specific then people can imagine their ideal lover, or their particular lover. Again, you can find suddenly that the song becomes about 10 million different lovers.

“That’s one of the functions of songs that I am in awe of.
It almost scares me to think about that kind of dimension to songwriting.”

Extract from IN MYSTERIOUS WORDS by Carlo Adan, 1985

 

Frozen Ones

Marching across our own screens
Our faces form all our needs
The future’s not returning
All bridges built for burning
How can there be anything wrong?
Aren’t we the frozen ones?

One day I’ll just erase the tape
Wave goodbye and fade away
Get lost in the frost again
Leave the ashes of my face
At the bottom of your suitcase
Find a sunset, turn and wave

How can there by anything wrong?
Aren’t we the frozen ones?
The frozen ones
The frozen ones

We walk around inside each other
Visiting the empty rooms
Put me on, I’ll put you on too
You knew I’d have to follow you
Because you saw I’m hollow too
But it’s so nice being ice, ooh

How can there by anything wrong?
Aren’t we the frozen ones?
The frozen ones
The frozen ones

We’re nowhere
We don’t care who led us here
No one will care when we’re gone

The frozen ones
The frozen ones

Too many pictures on my screen
And all of them are screaming at me
Got to have this insulation
The only way to stop the flood
Whenever feelings get too real
Is to cut the information

How can there be anything wrong?
Aren’t we the frozen ones?
The frozen ones
The frozen ones

We’re nowhere
We don’t care who led us here
No one will care when we’re gone

The frozen ones
The frozen ones
The frozen ones

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.

 

“Distant”. “Artificial”. “Frozen” – reads like a summary of press reviews relating to Ultravox! during 1977. Epitomising all this is John Foxx, a frontman who attracted less than favourable attention at the time, fuelled by his own insistence that the band retain as much of their originality and identity as possible, remain true to their hearts and make challenging rather than comically ‘acceptable’ music. As Steve Malins remarks in the sleevenotes to the 2006 definitive re-master of the ‘Ha! ha! ha!’ album, Foxx did cut a ‘remote, rather austere figure’ dressing in black and merging in with the band and the music rather than breaking down the barriers between audience and band that the press were more keen to encourage.

In the context of this song though, ‘Frozen Ones’ stands alongside Distant Smile and Artificial Life in providing the framework of songs around which the rest of the album is constructed. The three songs not only share a common theme (cynical, often bleak observations of the peripheral, disconnected Quiet Man; ego-centric commentaries on norms, cliches and behaviour patterns) but they are also strikingly similar in terms of their lyrical composition and musical structure. All begin with relatively gentle slow instrumental passages on strings, piano and synths that build to an explosive vocal delivery and sonic assault. In each, his first lines are delivered coldly, treated to sound robotic and impersonal.

In the opening verse this time, Foxx expresses the self-reliance of the protagonists. He uses the word ‘our’ three times, not only to clearly establish his position among them but also to exaggerate the separation of them from the rest. They feel no need to associate, engage or comply with management directives. Indeed, the nature of their personalities makes it hard of them to do so and instead they affirm the detachment as a choice. What’s wrong with that? After all, they act and look this way because of who they are, and it is therefore should be expected of them.

He adopts a dismissive tone of arrogant coolness in the second verse, verbally brushing away those that seek to follow. The lines warn off those that may wish to get too close – a reminder that he is in control and decides for whom, and when, the tape can be left to run. And, as a songwriter, Foxx is back to some of the poetic form that is considered lacking in this album compared to the linguistic mastery of its predecessor. While it is true there are considerably less literary and artistic references in these songs, there is no shortage of examples of John Foxx own skill with words and phrasing. That serves to strengthen the statement presented in Ha! Ha! Ha!  that Ultravox! is a band keen to throw off any musical crutches they may have been accused of borrowing from the likes of Roxy Music, the New York Dolls or Bowie and make their presence felt on the own terms. The imagery comes through really strongly in well-crafted couplets in which he threatens to “Leave the ashes of my face | at the bottom of your suitcase” and in verse three when he describes how “We’ll walk around inside each other | visiting the empty rooms”.

The key to understanding why ‘the frozen ones’ adopt this stance and manners is expressed in verse four. Everything is getting just ‘too real’. Sensory and information overload leading to short circuits, stress and malfunction. Perhaps Foxx was expressing this tension and emotional anxiety in the ‘absurdly mannered’ strutting around that he was alleged to perform on stage… with increasing despair, he seeks extreme responses. “Too many”, “screaming”. Stop. Cut.

But before he slams the iron gates completely, he stands beside his friends again, defiantly fist waving. “We’re nowhere | we don’t care”. He is brandishing a double-edged sword, commenting obliquely that the punk movement around them, of which they are now categorically not a part despite the grittier, harsher sound, will soon have passed and left no significant trace. He acknowledges the band don’t “fit” and are proving difficult to market. His vitiriol is also directed at the record company executives with whom he and the band were distinctly pissed off at the time. They knew that the addition of synthesisers to their sound was not going to win them many admirers and would probably do ‘jack shit’ in terms of sales. But they didn’t care, and wrote songs like this on purpose, raising two-fingers at the suits upstairs.

It must have felt, in the press at least (if not even already around the boardroom table at Island Records), that many journalists would have been glad to see the back of Ultravox!
Among them, the outspoken Julie Burchill writing in the NME who claimed disparagingly, on hearing ‘Frozen Ones’, to have met more menacing meatballs than this…

Artificial Life

All the boys are wearing their utility drag
The girls slip identikits from their utility bags

Some refugees from suburbia are laughing
Examining each other’s gags
Vibrate on sulphate when it gets late
And their velocity begins to sag

And it goes on all night, all night
And it goes on and on, the artificial life

Mary, Mary, got so confused
About the fusion game, what a game
Blunt on booze, she talks like a newsreel
She’ll take up any kind of bleak exchange
She turned to perfection once
But realized she’d only turned to pain
She ran through divine light, chemicals
Warhol, Scientology, her own sex
Before she turned away

And it goes on all night, all night
And it goes on and on, the artificial life

I’ve learned to be a stranger
I’ve learned to be a stranger
I’ve learned to be a stranger
I’ve learned to be a stranger

(Stranger still)

I’ve learned to be a stranger
I’ve learned to be a stranger
I’ve learned to be a stranger
I’ve learned to be a stranger

I should have left here years ago
But my imagination won’t tell me how
This whirlpool’s got such seductive furniture
It’s so pleasant getting drowned
So we drink and sink and talk and stalk
With interchangeable enemies and friends
Trying on each other’s skins
While we’re dying to be born again

And it goes on all night, all night
And it goes on and on, the artificial life

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.

We are in some kind of club or bar… there’a band on… a tall figure in a dark shirt is standing just outside the reach, on a kind of shoreline of his own making. He is (at least) mostly humanoid, physically very convincing, but there’s something about him. Perhaps he is lost, or lonely? He exhales an air that many perceive as disdainful arrogance, but could just as easily be confused, shy and awkward. Watching the tide of people moving past him, taking notes in a small, battered notebook:

“No one here is quite what they seem. It seems to be a place at which they gather to be someone else, to stand apart from the actuality of their existence. As they descend the staircase and prepare to disappear into a sea of similar beings, each is given a mask at the door. These masks are curiously identical, like the plastic face of a mannequin…

“To my right, at the end of this long, dark room, there is a bar, and in the corners, partly in shadow are the friends that I left in the hallway. Wide boys, dealing. Chemicals, sulphates and small tablets. Everyone is getting faster, louder, more courageous. Associations are bing made and quickly broken. Fragile, splintered.

“And it goes on all night…”

To those that glance carelessly at him, sharing quizzical glances with those around them, the man could almost be from another planet. For some moments he appears to flicker, to fade slightly, as if he is trying to maintain a presence in multiple time frames. It is almost as if he is here against his will, on some kind of mission for a third party. Reporting. 

“I’ve seen him out with that Mary-Lou y’know? Don’t know what he sees in her. Common girl.”

She drinks too much and he can’t handle it. Can you imagine them, having sex??
Don’t look very happy, does he. Perhaps he can’t handle that either!”

“When they get drunk, they talk a lot more, but it’s all mostly nonsense. Empty promises and empty threats. Everything that lacks any substance takes on an exaggerated importance. There become several different realities in each person simultaneously, and many of them no longer seem to be able to tell one from another or which they prefer.”

Blunt on booze, her senses dulled, she’ll go with anyone. Talk, she can. At length, but with monotonous intonation and incessant repetition. All drama and no substance. Most of them are, in fact. Their craft powered by alcohol, sex and ambiguity – and yet they travel nowhere. Intoxicated. Asphyxiated. 

“I am so like them. Stranded and ultimately alone.”

“I long to be more like them. Trying things. ALL THE COOL THINGS. Seeking something that fulfils the mind and gives live intention and purpose.”

But which is real?
Are we more real and honest now, in this intoxicated state, talking as we do about these ‘other things’? But no-one listens, and our conversations lack any kind of substance. We constantly try, explore, experiment and seek. We seldom find.
It’s like some kind of rehearsed melodrama. A strategy of coping. Do not connect, do not engage.

“My family may be light years away, and theirs may be just outside this room. But we so alike. I find myself among them, yet without”

But it remains critically important that nothing is ever, quite, perfect.

 

 

Distant Smile

Sometimes I find I drift away
Behind a distant smile…

Light years ago I think someone spoke
Quizzical glances behind cigarette smoke
She drew the curtains at the end of the day
And then we laughed because the room sailed away

Glances glitter in the summer arcades
Then autumn leaves fall by a winter lane
Piano echoes and the perfume still lingers
But she fell through my fingers like sand
With a distant smile
A distant smile
A distant smile
Somehow I always seem to be adrift in other times with a distant smile

Take off above the sound of the streets
The city’s glittering like diamonds in heat
A secret destination, touch down in the haze
As the cameraman pans away

Hey, look, it’s a long, lost horizon
A private ocean, you can surface at sunrise in
Hearts well vandalled, dodging logic
But nevertheless still permanently surprised
Behind a distant smile
A distant smile
A distant smile
Somehow I always seem to be adrift in other times behind a distant smile

Proceed…

 

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.

 

We are back at that cocktail party in the Plaza hotel. New York, 1933. A man, a woman and a city. Cut in with observations from a detached state of mind, views from the hotel room overlooking the busy street below.
Foxx is writing as if he has just woke from a trance or a dream, perhaps after the encounter he describes in Slip Away. Two weeks have past in a few moments. It may even have been a lifetime ago. It’s at least two minutes into the song, building up the scene with a treated piano, echoing the crackling tension described in My Sex.
Structuring the song this way creates the ‘absence’ he is conveying in the lyric.

You know when you’re looking out of a window or you’re not quite present?
You’re with someone but your mind is on something else?

“Were you speaking, or did I say…?”

They exchange a quizzical glance. Across a conversation with a dinner party guest less interesting than themselves and each other. What’s he saying? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Its a flirtatious situation, a dalliance. They move upstairs to escape the company and be alone together, laughing at how easy it is to end the recording, erase the tape. Stop the film with the flick of a switch.

He goes on to describe what happens during this indeterminate passage of time. This dream. For the second time in as many lines he talks of glances. Moments, fragments of time, a spark of connection. That split second when you are not quite looking at something but suddenly see things more clearly than you would by staring. Rather like the effect created by Da Vinci, patiently layering years of glaze over the mouth of the Mona Lisa with his finger. Creating the shadow of her smile. Blurring the pigments so that she smiles at you most intently when you look into her eyes, not at her lips.

Summer quickly becomes autumn, and thus to winter in a second. He can still hear her voice, but she maybe long gone, leaving only her laughter dancing on the wind.
Once again he uses words and phrases that describe the fragile, shifting nature of people and relationships, their delicate incompleteness. His lover has crumbled to dust in his absence.

He plays with rhythm and poetic techniques, delivering the lines quickly as the song speeds up and the structure fractures. It becomes a cacophonous, disjointed thing – guitar and piano chords chopping in and out with an almost violent persistence. Images flash past the lens as the cameraman pans across the glittering city outside the window. Familiar places, ambitions, half-realised memories and abandoned thought experiments. It becomes intense, frenzied and confusing. Kind of clumsy, and not quite, well, right. The line ‘hearts well vandalled’ suggests that the lovers are not as romantically innocent as the scene might suggest. Instead, the two are now engaged in the animalistic, strangled tango of ROckWrok. ‘Vandalled’ (presumably) is a Foxxian re-purposing of ‘vandalised’ – cut short to fit. Abruptly severed.

Like the song, which brings us sharply back to the notes of the piano at the beginning.
Instead of the gentle introduction though, Foxx is jerked back to consciousness, to the present. It is a pierced, disturbed waking.

“Sorry. What? You were saying…?”
Ah well, maybe, though…
I guess. Is that so?

I see…

ROckWrok

ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrokROckWrok

Blast off, the walls are down
Cast off, the wolves are out
Come on! There’s no time
I can’t wait!

Rip off my clothes
I’m stripping yours
Harder, we’re starved
Wired and barbed
What a magnificent disgrace!

Come on let’s tangle in the dark, dark
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
When it’s wet and hot you want to ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrokROckWrok

Penetration boys in hotel lifts
Invitations on sinking ships
The whole wide world fits hip to hip

In aircraft, destroyers and cinema foyers
The chastened, the chasers
Amazing the neighbours
Gay, wild and willing
Stripped of grace

A stumble rumba in the dark, dark
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
The population’s got to ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok

Ah ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrokROckWrok ROckWrokROckWrok

A doodlebugger in the dark, dark
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
When they find the top you’ve got to ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok

A nimble mambo in the park, park
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
The population’s got to ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok

An anal sailor in the bar, bar
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
When it’s wet and hot you want to rockwrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok
ROckWrok ROckWrok…

A plucky sucker in the car park
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
There’s nothing left for us just ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrokROckWrok

A willing waltzer in the car starts 
Fuck like a dog, bite like a shark, shark
Austerity makes you want to ROckWrok
ROckWrok
ROckWrok

(ROckWrok)

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.

Ultravox really come spitting off the blocks with this song, the opening track on their second album, Ha!Ha!Ha!. Written in little a little over two weeks and released in October 1977 it comes with a savage intent, rough edges, synthesisers and attitude. All the songs reflect the energy of a popular live band, recorded quickly with  few overdubs in the studio, specifically to capture as much as possible the forceful purpose in the album’s sound and message. The release came pretty much on the crest of the punk tidal wave, when the movement was at its height and its most powerful. It was also at its most clear and defined, which – despite the sound of this track and aggressive delivery of the words – set Ultravox ironically further apart from it.

John Foxx lyrics are still detached and observational rather than participatory. He is writing again about sex here, of sex in many forms – straight sex, gay sex, illicit sex, casual sex – though quite specifically not of the intimate and loving  romance of Slip Away or the poetic melancholy of My Sex on the previous album. ROckWrok is far less subtle than either of those songs – instead this is up front, in your face, euphemising about fast, rough, passionate, good-old fashioned and even crude sex.

And little more than that. So why the title? What does it mean and why is it so, well – inaccessible? Yes it can be shouted at gigs (and the song did prove to be an exceptionally popular part of the live set), but is Foxx actually cocking-a-snook, even a sneer, at those who would have joined in but with no idea what they were actually singing? ‘ROckWrok’ is a nonsense word, made up and misspelled on purpose just for effect. For someone who claimed not to want particularly to impose his own personality on stage too much, this song title at least has that personality stamped all over it. It defies the ‘simple and direct’ punk orthodox in just about every conceivable way, being as it is a play on a Marcel Duchamp exclusive Dadaist art magazine entitled ‘Rongwrong’ produced in New York in 1917.

.cover_280px_rongwrong

Only one copy was ever produced – and a mistake on the press meant what should have been  spelled ‘Wrongwrong’ was published without the first letter. Foxx even alludes to this with the album’s cover artwork which simulates an error in the mis-registration of colour plates on the printing press.
All of this would have been totally lost on most of the live audience and those young savages from the City of The Dead for example, who just appreciated shouting the chorus line ‘Fuck like a dog’ as loud as they could.

Foxx is having a laugh with them here too, by deliberately engaging with them on a fundamental level, and enraging the radio police who would have had some difficulty playing the song on BBC air time!

There is a real urgency about the song, and the impatience of a hungry passion for sex. Now, come on, get on with it. I’m aroused and ready – there’s no time, I can’t wait! It will be an intense, if brief union. Just as punk itself burned ferociously but burned out quickly. And let’s do it everywhere! Here, in the foyer, in the park, in the car park. Everyone’s at it – from the seedy rent boys in hotel lobbies to the nobs on board the Titanic meeting their inevitable end. In the bar and in the dark. Fast paced, rhyming lines, delivered with the same brutal venom as Stevie Shears sharp, edgy guitar sound and the shrieking synths wailing and ‘buzzing like chainsaws’ over the top of the whole thing.

Throughout the song, Foxx uses the analogy of dance to present the intercourse, referencing the samba, the rumba, the tango and the waltz. The order in which you hear these references depends on which version of the song you are listening to – various cuts for different singles, live performance and the album itself are all different. The version above, for example, transcribed from the 2006 UK re-mastered issue. makes no reference to the ‘strangled tango’ that Foxx and his lover waltz in I Want To be A Machine… instead (I think at least) it’s an invitation to tangle. Nice image!

Towards the end of this lyric, he contextualises the song by referencing the economic despair of the time and the some of the political circumstances that punk rallied against. There’s nothing left for us. There’s ‘No Future’ in these anarchic times.

We are being fucked by the fiscal system, so we may as well just fuck off and fuck each other.  

Slip Away

Enter me gently I break in the light
Cover my eyes with the rags of my life
Was I dreaming?
Or did you say:
“The frontiers are falling
It’s time to be slipping away”

Let’s slip away
Let’s slip away”

All things fall from me, the vaults and the veils
All things blow by me, my sorrows have sails
Was I dreaming?
Or did you say:
“The empires are fading
It’s time to be slipping away”

Let’s slip away
Let’s slip away”

What am I to do?
Don’t leave me
What is there to say?
I believe we’re just wasting time
Let the night takes its play
Colour my eyes with the dusk of this wonderful day

Let’s slip away
Let’s slip away

Letters from lovers are lining my grate 
Some came too early and some came too late
Were you speaking?
Or did I say:
“The frontiers have fallen
It’s time to be slipping away”

As you call me
My hands they fall open
My mouth it is frozen
The chrysalis crumbles
I’m falling
Slow motion
Dissolve

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.

 
This is an exceptionally well composed lyric, scanning perfectly with ten syllables to each line opening a verse – classic use of the ‘iambic pentameter’ typical of Latin verse.
Here, pairs of syllables are presented with the stress alternating between them, giving the lines a distinct rhythm and pace.
Foxx changes carefully and regularly throughout the song, introducing variations that in turn lead changes of pace and mood in the music. He maintains the six line verse, two line chorus structure build around the middle verse ‘bridge’. Here, five syllables add a dramatic effect to his pleaful questions.
 
His opening line is one of pleading – expressing a fragile state of being that demands a careful, loving response. The imagery is implicitly sexual, while the language is submissive and romantic. He goes on to write more about ghosts, half-formed, vaporous people, dissolving and fading. Delicate and temporary. There’s an associated, endearing shyness implied in the second line too. The frontiers represent the interpersonal, society ‘barriers’ between a man and a woman – broken for a time during this sexual encounter during which the couple ‘slip away’ from themselves and their inhibitions, just as they may have slipped away quietly from the cocktail party downstairs… They are perhaps a little drunk, intoxicated with a gentle passion for one another, consenting to drift away for a while to some other, dreamlike place.
 
The second verse continues the description of this sexual encounter, during which more reservations fall away. A Gothic element is introduced: the room takes on an exotic, even sinister appearance and the story becomes a historical romance. Foxx uses alliteration effectively in both lines, adding to the rhythm of the lyric. He repeats the technique at the beginning of the third verse too, his mastery of poetic language and grammar coming to the fore as an articulate songwriter.
 
The fall of frontiers, and the fading of empires around the couple suggest an awareness, or at least perception, of decline, decay and disintegration. The precise opposite to their union. It suggests a perhaps a degree of uncertainty about the future, a sense of change which instils anxiety or fear at some level. The idea of running from whatever that is, taking refuge in each other is deeply romantic.
And yet there is also an awareness that the sanctuary of union itself is only temporary.
 
Speaking now perhaps as the woman as first person, Foxx eloquently pleads a melodramatic “what am I to do?” and you can imagine the back of the hand over the brow of his despairing herione. She speaks as Gloria Patch might, the leading female character in Scott-Fitzgerald’s novel “Beautiful and Damned”, or any one of the Hollywood leading ladies, convincing her lover to stay and extend a wonderful evening. Wasting time is a hobby for Gloria, the entire meaning of an otherwise unfulfilled life. What exactly does one do when one has nothing to do? Let’s get away from this, escape the boredom of routine. Find a place somewhere wild and romantic. How your illusions disillusion me…
 
Foxx moves the story on in the last two verses, and one sense he is alone again. Reflective and quietly forlorn. The couplet that opens verse three is among his very best writing. These are very evocative lines. Again he is burning memories, the final and decisive act of separation. He has never quite been in the right place and among the right circumstances for a lasting love, and is drifting off with his memories. The lines break down, fractured. Dislocated. Her voice is still in the room, in the walls, wandering through his mind. The chrysalis crumbles – there is no metamorphosis. Just dust, and light.
He awakens. And the frontiers have fallen. The tense is changing and time has passed.
 
Somehow he drifted off too far…

My Sex

My sex
Waits for me
Like a mongrel waits
Downwind on a tight rope leash

My sex
Is a fragile acrobat
Sometimes I’m a Novocaine shot
Sometimes I’m an automat

My sex
Is often solo
Sometimes it short circuits then
Sometimes it’s a golden glow

My sex
Is invested in
Suburban photographs
Skyscraper shadows on a car crash overpass

My sex
Is savage, tender
It wears no future faces
Owns just random gender

My sex
Has a wanting wardrobe
I still explore
Of all the bodies I knew and those I want to know

My sex
Is a spark of electro flesh
Leased from the tick of time
And geared for synchromesh

My sex
Is an image lost in faded films
A neon outline
On a high-rise overspill

My sex
My sex
My sex

Lyrics © John Foxx.

Thoughts on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
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Dylan famously wrote songs without an obvious chorus, and it is one of the characteristics of two of John Foxx favourite Beatles songs. Both Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966) and A Day In The Life (Sgt Pepper, 1967) have no typical verse chorus bridge structure either. Both pieces are among the most experimental of the Beatles work (featuring complex tape loops, found sounds, backwards orchestra, simultaneous chords on multiple pianos etc), using studio techniques as an integral part of the composition – and oth also happen to close the respective albums on which they feature.

My Sex is by no means as complex as either piece, more in Dylan’s style than Lennon’s perhaps, but it does represent Ultravox at their most daring in 1977 – closing their debut album with a ballad that has no chorus, a title that implies a song about sex, and music composed in the studio using samples and effects lead by assistant-producer and experimental sound-engineer Brian Eno. The gritty treatment of the haunting keyboards and voice gives the track an apocalyptic, yet romantic air – evocative of the Ballardian cityscapes that later come to more prominence in John Foxx solo work. He has repeatedly held up My Sex as an early example of where he wanted the band to go – far beyond the rock/noise blast of the punkier pieces, but not without similar themes of isolation, despair and longing. Perhaps more than any other track so far, it also captures the sense of being a soundtrack piece for a short, poetic film narrative.

Imagine the words above and half-human half-robot vocals playing against the backdrop of Antonioni’s 1964 award-winning film The Red Desert, for example, a thought-provoking commentary on the spiritual desolation of the technological age. Antonioni describes a bleak industrial landscape interspersed with power plants and deserted cottages, factories and electrical towers, among which his disaffected herione (the beautiful Monica Vitti) vaguely wanders, almost but never quite connecting with her lover Corrado, played by Richard Harris. Above this landscape, Foxx suspends a tightrope (powerline) of fear and quasi-romantic dislocation, his sexuality the ‘fragile acrobat’ negotiating its way between the physical obstacles presented by skyscrapers, pylons and that ‘car crash’ overpass…

Antonioni described the narrative of his film as “the split between morality and science” which he considers “is also the split between man and woman. Between snowy Mount Etna and the concrete wall on the housing estate.” In Foxxian terms, read the schizophrenic influences of the blue hills and sunsets of the Forest of Bowland over one shoulder, and the post-war factory towns and smoking chimneys of Bolton-Wigan-Chorley on the other. In typical fashion, Foxx juxtaposes romantic imagery with that of technology and alienation. He is in a state of highly charged readiness for synchromesh – a mechanised transmission system – geared to encounter another in a similar state and make a change. Crucially, that other being is not present, unfound and he is left in a perpetual state of flux and desperate longing.

My sex is a lonely hunter
My sex is a hungry ghost

My Sex epitomises everything that has gone before
My Sex brings it all together

My Sex is a beautiful, haunting, and complex meditation on the spiritual cost of modernity.