Ten Of The Best

Thanks to Rob Harris and Simon Dell for asking the following question : “List ten albums which have stayed with you throughout your life. It’s not about best sellers or classics, just ten albums that mean something to you.”

Stick to the brief. “Influential and formative albums. Stayed with you. Mean something”

Ten, you say? Here goes

How I’m moved. How you (still) move me…

Let me live in your life, for you make it all seem to matter…

The distilled essence of Cave. God is in the house

Beware Guthrie’s guitar, Elizabeth’s not-voice and Carolyn’s fingers

Minimal, simplistic and scary as hell. My name is Smith…

I know. Fuck it. Read the brief…

Don’t worry, you won’t know this one. It’ll make you cry anyway

Oh darlin’, darlin darlin, I can’t wait to see you. Debbie, I’m there *wink*

Vocal androgny. A singerine. Completely unbearable

Day-glo non-punky punk. Essential, adolescent sax appeal.

Because it’s raining, today



Running down an empty street
Perhaps it was a railway station
The smell of Eau de Cologne
And the sound of a celebration

Oh-oh-oh dislocation
Oh-oh-oh dislocation

Just a swimmer
Growing dimmer
In the glimmer
Of a summer
Waving gladly
Swimming madly
Never ever
Going under

Oh-oh-oh dislocation
Oh-oh-oh dislocation

The sun was going down one quiet evening
Someone came into the room while I was half-asleep
We spoke for a while, I couldn’t see his face
Later on when he was gone, I realised I didn’t catch his name

Just a swimmer
Growing dimmer
In the glimmer
Of a summer
Waving gladly
Swimming madly
Never ever
Going under

Oh-oh-oh dislocation
Oh-oh-oh dislocation

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.

Amid the steam, dust and grit, a stationmaster detects a hint of Eau de Cologne in the cool, evening air. A very specific fragrance, evoking glamorous screen stars from the golden age of Hollywood. Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford and Monroe. Ethereal beauty. Essence of soft flowers. Richness and complexity. A romantic image of silver-screen actresses and women of the period, styling themselves upon their heroines.

John Foxx, enamoured and eternally enchanted, transports them to England, and specifically to Denham Studios in 1945 where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are filming Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, his personal favourite –  and one of the most romantic films of all time.

He sets his opening verse on location with the couple at Carnforth Railway Station in Lancashire, exploiting the powerful link between railways and love affairs. One needs only to hear the slamming of doors and the guard’s whistle to feel the heartache of parting. As the heroine, Laura, Johnson’s voice-over is both anguished and dreamy. Her voice is measured but her eyes are desperate. She internalises her rapture perfectly. The film’s eternal success hangs in Coward’s expression of repressed love. Discreetly gay, he knew enough of middle class sensitivities to avoid upsetting them. By contrast his protegee director David Lean was born and raised a Quaker and was was always in rebellion against restraint.

A delicate, tense cocktail, fragranced with the classic balance of the world’s oldest perfume.

We are introduced to themes of dislocation via the fracture in Laura Jesson’s domestic harmony caused by her brief encounter with Dr Alec Harvey. We share her despair, run with her down the empty street.

I ran and ran, until I couldn’t run any longer. It was raining, and I had left my scarf in the flat…

In material science, the presence of a dislocation strongly influences many of the properties of a material; in terms of a band under pressure from their record label to deliver commercial success and under pressure from their frontman to retain artistic integrity, the occurrence of a dislocation becomes inevitable.

Foxx was already considering his future in the band before writing the Systems Of Romance album, and the strain of constant touring and the differing expectations of the component members was beginning to show. Topological defects become inevitable, particularly at the boundaries of a structure, leading to what mathematicians call a ‘phase transition’ where properties of the medium change as a result of the change of some external condition.

And yet in this case the song structure is strengthened by the syntactic variations introduced by the composer.
The poetics and geometry of the track balance perfectly, the fractal complexity resulting in a beautiful piece of dazzling crystal. Strata of cultural reference and personal observation, held together by the firmly sprung rhythmic meter of the ‘chorus’ written in a style favoured by Gerald Manley Hopkins, the intended effect of which is to reflect the dynamic quality and variations of common speech. The rhythm comes from the stress being placed on the first syllable in each line, and Foxx sets each subsequent foot more gently on the ground as he sings.
He delivers each in time with the click-track drum pattern that runs throughout the song – echoing the same phrasing of the the word “Dislocation” itself. But how brittle that click-track! In no way Shatterproof…
To use the analogy of material science again, a brittle substance typically shows no evidence of deformation before failure. To the outside world and fans queueing outside their gigs, Ultravox displayed no visible sign of stress when they returned from Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne and took these new songs out on the road.

Re-enforcing the fragile, composite structure is a deliberate, extended rhyme in the chorus too – swimmer, glimmer, summer, under… Another subtle film reference. This time the hero is Burt Lancaster, swimming home through all the backyard pools in his neighbourhood. A very literary movie whose success lies in reproducing the feeling of a short story in the medium of film. Ned Merrill (Lancaster) has many strange adventures along the way, during which he learns the tragic nature of life. It’s an epic, allegorical story in the classical tradition of a hero on a journey. The film is directed in a very formal style – there is no familiar ‘flow’ between the scenes. Just as there are no obvious techniques, crossfades or other merging between the written style of each verse in this song, itself both a short story and a film. That exists only in their delivery, as Foxx hangs each word (or each ‘foot’ at least, accounting of pauses and unstressed syllables) meticulously on the click-track.

His narrative moves on to relate the story of a visit from a stranger, to a man resting in his armchair at the end of the day. You get the sense that no-one is listening. That the anecdote is being delivered by a woman, anguished and dreamy, to her cherished husband who would think it nonsense. We look for meaning and reason for its inclusion here, but it could lack either. Or it could be of profound significance – the things that change our lives often walk in unrecognised like this. We pay them little heed at first, these ghosts, though we go on to spend our entire lives haunted by them and regret paying them so little attention.

Foxx is considering moving on. He may not yet have made it known to the others, but the instability has been introduced. Not as visibly or passionately wretched as Noel Coward’s heroine, but at least at a a similar point of variance. A few drops of distilled essential oils have been added to the base compound.
Miracle waters from 1709 have been bottled and waved off on the 1945 express to Churley [sic].
It is already 1978, and Foxx is both troubled and galvanised by that:

I don’t want to pretend anything either to you or to anyone else. But from now on, I shall have to. That’s what’s wrong…


Lost In Wonder (2007)

Its early June, 1985 and John Foxx, cast adrift in the blaze of an English summer, floats ethereally between London and Italy, occasionally taking solid form in The Garden Studio and otherwise demonstrating his preference for being elsewhere.

Despite three singles from his previous offering, The Golden Section, Foxx has by now “drifted off too far”, so far away from the musical mainstream of his contemporaries that he really is not there at all. Which suits his innovative meandering style perfectly. He has by this time given up all hope of satisfying Virgins demand for a commercially saleable product, and by declaring himself totally disillusioned with all that is going on in the world of popular music, dips his fingertips instead into the cool water of artistic freedom.

Disenfranchised, bewildered and without any form to speak of, Foxx is neither one side of paradise or the other. Lost somewhere in that indefinable gap between past and future. Although the artist himself now tends to dismiss this album, his indifference may be a reaction to the prevailing circumstances of its recording rather than any reflection on the album’s musical quality. Far from it, as In Mysterious Ways contains some of his most accomplished work (Morning Glory and Lose All Sense of Time, for example).
And was ever an album titled so aptly to reflect the character of its creator? It’s not for lack of ideas either – compare the delicious sentimentality of the title track with the passionate expressionism of This Side of Paradise, Hiding in Plain Sight and City of Lights, and catch if you can his work with Anne Clarke (Pressure Points) that comes from the same period.

Listening to In Mysterious Ways is like watching clouds. You need to lie on your back somewhere in a grassy meadow and let the shapes drift around over you, taking various forms and hinting at hundreds of others. Lyrically, Foxx is on his best form since Ultravox, and his vocal delivery this time is more convincing. The understated genius of Robin Simons intuitive guitar work, which has become a hallmark of Foxx albums, continues to shine on, despite being criminally condemned to a life of obscurity.

The nine songs on the original release (not including the reprise of Enter The Angel at the end – despite being conceived first) are beautifully structured, almost classically so, in the style of fifties favourites like The Shadow of Your Smile. As so often with works of art, it is what gets left out that provides the key to our understanding. The absence of his cover of this ballad, for example, and his own composition Hanging in The Air from the final pressing speak volumes about where John wanted to go with this project.
He is both writing and singing of love and longing from the heart in celebration of re-awakening and discovery. An angel of one kind or another – in “ruined suit” or gleaming raiment – has certainly entered his life, leading him by the hand into the glimmering sunset. Through some summer door…

If it is difficult to see what John Foxx is trying to prove with this album, that’s because defining his intention is entirely the wrong question to ask.

It is not always necessary to be going in a particular direction, or even to be moving at all. Oft-times in this world we need moments just to stop and to be – even if we do not always know exactly where we are at the time.

In recent years, John Foxx has made something of comeback, riding the crest of a retro-wave on his new electronic projects with Louis Gordon. Reference is often made to the earliest chapters in his cannon, but John Foxx work is best appreciated as a whole, and for its part in that In Mysterious Ways should not be overlooked.

He may have been lost in wonder at the time of its creation and dissolved after its release, but that only adds to its spectral glory.