The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned

Calling cards of madness
Pull the pressmen from their knees
To petrify more images
To dangle just outside the reach
Of the stunted and the dreamless ones who have nothing left to keep
For frozen dawns or nights as cold as these have been

Don’t ask for explanations
There’s nothing left you’d understand
You’re one of the wild, the beautiful and the damned, the damned
The wild, the beautiful and the damned

We read the latest venereal journals
Flicked through some catalogues of fear
You tore some more pages
From your old lovers hearts
Then we engineered a wild reunion in a Berlin alley way
While your New York Führer tore our universe apart

Don’t ask for explanations
There’s nothing left you’d understand
You’re one of the wild, the beautiful and the damned, the damned
The wild, the beautiful and the damned

Break my legs politely
I’ll spit my gold teeth out at you
Your sores are almost big enough
To step right inside now
I’ll send you truckloads of flowers from all the worlds that you stole from me
I’ll spin a coin in the madhouse while I watch you drowning

Don’t ask for explanations
There’s nothing left you’d understand
You’re one of the wild, the beautiful and the damned, the damned
The wild, the beautiful and the damned, the damned
The wild, the beautiful and the damned, the damned
The wild, the beautiful and the damned, the damned
The wild… the beautiful… and the damned

 

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.

 

Along with I Want To Be A Machine and Life At Rainbow’s End, this song forms the core of the Ultravox! debut album – three lyrics written loosely in the narrative style of ‘little epic’ poems known by  classic scholars as ‘epyllions’, vaguely reminiscent of Virgil’s classic ‘The Aeneid’.
This example is the most mournful and elegiac of the three, which are typically compromised of long lines, romantic imagery and both classical and cultural references.

On a more straightforward level, the song is structured in a similar way to Dylan’s ‘Ballard of A Thin Man’ from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – often cited as one of John Foxx favourite albums. That track itself is an homage to David Bowie (‘Mr Jones’) and also references the source of the song’s title.

Like Bowie, Foxx has been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. It is well known that he’s well read. Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ would have appealed to Foxx in terms of its characters’ disproportionate appreciation of their past, which ultimately consumes them in the present.

In his first press interview with Melody Maker in 1975 when discussing Tiger Lily’s first single, a cover of Ain’t Misbehavin’, Foxx is keen to stress that coverng an old, popular song is not an exercise in nostalgia, in the same way that using elements of the past is not the same as reproducing them. Instead, he explains how he likes to assimilate little bits that have gone before and make something new out of them, move them forward in a new form and make them contemporary and relevant.

So he takes the title, loosely acknowledging the fundamental theme, and applies it to describe the emerging punk fashionistas around the Kings Road. Wild people: breaking the rules, challenging preconceptions, causing trouble; beautiful people: head-turning clothes, bright colours, expressive and full of attitude; and ultimately damned people: lacking opportunities, lacking direction and purpose. Kids with no future. The flowers in the dustbin. The stunted and the dreamless ones…
But these are the people seizing the attention of the press and the imagination of their peers, waking them up. Taunting and jeering.

Though the song was one of the first written for the band, demos exist from as early as 1975, Foxx has become known for tweaking and revising lines throughout their development. The first line of the chorus could be an example of this, reading as it does rather like an eloquent form of the Sex Pistols ‘Pretty Vacant’ when “there’s no point in askin’, you’ll get no reply…” conceived in the early months of the punk explosion.

The second verse is full of references to the media of books and literature of various kinds, and loaded with the imagery of sexual pleasure and indulgence. There is a Bohemian, psychedelic undercurrent to the lines – and once again (as in ‘Machine’) Foxx alludes to Germany and the emerging ‘krautrock’ genre epitomised by bands like Tangerine Dream and Can. He speaks of the ‘alleyways’ off the Kürfurstenstrasse in Berlin’s red-light district where a thousand street girls ply their colourful trade. Or is he discreetly nodding towards the Hansa Studio in the Kreuzburg district where Bowie was ensconced recording ‘Low’ with Iggy Pop? Either way, the “wild reunion” engineered in that location surely relates the incident in September 1976 when, during the recording sessions for ‘Ultravox!’, Bowie telephoned from Berlin to speak with Eno, inviting him to help with the ‘Low’ recording.
It is entirely possible that one of these three (Iggy, Bowie or Eno) is the ‘New York Führer’ – or could that be someone else entirely?
Typically Foxx is indistinct on this point, instead giving an identity to an amalgamation of various figures and cultural references.

Don’t ask for explanations…

The lurid wording of the next verse demonstrates another example of Foxx penchant for juxtaposing pleasant and unpleasant images for dramatic effect. The politeness of the torture adds to its sinister threat. This could be interpreted anywhere on a scale from the collapse of the economy perceived under the failing Labour government, exposing gashing sores in the fabric of society, to an elaborate description of simply getting beaten up. Are there Biblical parallels too, an oblique commentary on the passion of Christ?

Either way, Foxx the narrator considers himself condemned and plotting, or at least dreaming of, some kind of romanticised vengeance. While Fitzgerald’s characters lack humanity and honour, and his hero experiences mental, moral and physical disintegration, Foxx instead rather glorifies those he is observing.

One gets the feeling, at this moment, that he would very much like to be included among them, shining as brilliantly meaningless figures in a meaningless world.

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