Running down an empty street
Perhaps it was a railway station
The smell of Eau de Cologne
And the sound of a celebration
Just a swimmer
In the glimmer
Of a summer
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
In the glimmer
Of a summer
Lyrics © John Foxx.
Thoughts on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
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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…