John Foxx: An A – Z

A is for ‘ADULT’

ADULT is Detroit couple Adam Lee Miller and Nikola Kuperus, whose 2013 single TONIGHT WE FALL features a remix by John Foxx and Benge. It’s a mutant electro- pop song with a catchy hook, the first taken from the band’s fifth album The Way Things Fall. Prior to forming ADULT, Miller released music as Le Car – an outfit he named in homage to Foxx’s inspirational 1980 single, Burning Car.

ADULT is also the fourth track on John Foxx’s 2003 treated piano album with Harold Budd, Translucence. It is an elegant, fragile piece evoking longing and delicate romance. The kind of ‘adult concerns’ that passed the young Dennis Leigh by at the Saturday morning picturehouse in Chorley, watching films and making up his own narrative from the images and futuristic music.

B is for ‘BALLARD’

Many writers have affected and influenced John Foxx music and film work, but perhaps none more so than dystopian novellist J G Ballard. Ballard wrote in particular on the ‘reality’ of science fiction, from the perspective that everything around us is an imagined reality of one kind or another. Metamatic is heavily influenced by Ballard’s stories of concrete, cars, and his perverse logic is rooted in the kind of disconnected, surreal urban landscape that Foxx has explored this throughout his career.
Foxx gave two of his most interesting interviews on this to Simon Sellars for Ballardian.com, and 2014’s album ‘B-Movie (Ballardian Video Neuronica)’ was premiered at a film festival evening in Brighton dedicated to the author’s work.

A Whirlpool With Seductive Furniture

C is for ‘CR-78’

The Roland CR-78 was the first popular and affordable programmable drum machine. Its preset rhythms characterise the soundtrack of the emergent 1980s electronic music scene. John Foxx has used the instrument extensively and it determines one characteristic of his sound, from 1980’s Metamatic to 2014’s ‘Evidence Of Time Travel’ with Steve D’Agostino. It was the clattering ‘metal beat’ setting on the CR-78 that inspired Foxx to write a track of that name and use it for his own imprint on the Virgin label.

“As soon as you hear that, you’re right into an alternative sonic universe. Always feel very gleeful whenever I switch it on.”

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D is for ‘DANGEROUS RHYTHM’

Dangerous Rhythm was Ultravox! first single, released on Island in February 1977. It was an interesting choice for a debut, being (relatively speaking) fairly unrepresentative on the band’s sound. However, both John Foxx and bassist Chris Cross were heavily influenced by and attracted to the deep bass rhythms and dub concepts of Jamaican reggae, and the single was recorded in the same studio as that in which Bob Marley and Lee Perry recorded material for the Wailers. The early punk movement in the UK at the time came from similar social and economic roots. Hence the symbiotic relationship between the two sounds as characterised by The Clash, Pere Ubu and Generation X and the continuing appeal in 1977 of Island’s heavyweight signature bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse.
Punk too of course was regarded itself as ‘a dangerous rhythm’, challenging the status quo, in much the same way as Throbbing Gristle’s industrial sound was regarded with suspicion. Both were accessible to non-musicians, reflecting a similar ‘threat’ posed by the explosion of independent record labels and home-produced music of the same period.

 

E is for ‘ENO’

John Foxx was already a fan of Brian Eno’s work when he formed Ultravox! and has on many occasions referred to ‘Another Green World’ in particular as one of his all-time favourite albums. After several peripheral encounters at the RCA in Kensington, Foxx was delighted to meet Eno at Island studios in 1976, and invited him to assist with production of the debut album. Eno was present again at Conny Plank’s studio in 1978 when Ultravox recorded Systems of Romance there, while Eno was working on his ambient album ‘Music For Airports’.
Foxx wrote an appeciation af this album for The List when it was re-issued in 2011, describing it as “A prefiguring of digital sampling replay, years before it happened.” It was in works like ‘Music For Airports’ that Foxx found the encouragement to explore his own fascination for music without ryhthm, drums and melody, using tape loops and long delays as an intrinisc part of the organic recording process.

F is for ‘FOXX’

Dennis Leigh first ‘invented’ the character of John Foxx in 1976 as a vehicle for his creative expression and a smokescreen behind which he could walk unrecognised as The Quiet Man. ‘Foxx’ takes its cue from the futuristic double-X spelling used by the American rhythm and blues singer Charlie Foxx; the association with product names of the 1970s like Airtex and ReVox; and the adaptable character of the fox – a native of the countryside becoming increasingly comfortable at home in the urban environment.

‘John’ was most likely chosen simply because it is a nice, ordinary name. Unassuming and anonymous. Easily overlooked, like a grey suit in a crowd.

G is for ‘GLIMMER’

GLIMMER is a two-disc compilation presented as ‘The Best of’ John Foxx, released on Edsel in 2008. It is the first (and to date most successful) attempt to bring together not only Foxx’s metal beat and ‘ambient’ works, but sets these alongside collaborations with Louis Gordon, Metamatics and Dubterror and thus traverses mosts aspects of a 30-year career. The title comes from one of John Foxx own earliest solo pieces, an instrumental released as the B-side to No-One Driving in which he provisionally explores techniques and themes found in work by Philip Glass, Brian Eno and classical composers.

 

‘Glimmer’ is a neo-romantic word of Middle English origin, meaning a trace or an intermittent flicker – very Foxxian. So too, by synchronicity, is its use in the 21st Century acronym for a system used in genetic science to study microbial DNA…

H is for ‘H-MEN’

The H-Men is a 1959 special effects movie from the celebrated Toho Studios in Japan, made in the style of Godzilla and The Mysterians. It tells the story of a ship passing through a nuclear test zone and picking up a contagious radioactive liquid that turns people into gelatinous, green blobs. In one scene, a police officer comes into contact with an H-Man and dissolves away, leaving only a trickle of liquid and some vapour in an otherwise empty suit and shoes. A still was used to promote the film, and came to the attention of the young Dennis Leigh in a favourite magazine “Famous Monsters of Filmland”. He later used it as a point of reference for the song ‘He’s A Liquid’ and the iconic ‘empty suit in an armchair’ photographs that appear on the cover of the ‘Miles Away’ single and as part of ‘The Pleasures of Electricity’ series.

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I is for ‘IMPOSSIBLE’

IMPOSSIBLE first appears on the ‘From Trash’ album (2006), later re-purposed by Foxx and Louis Gordon as the title track for their 2008 album of new recordings and different interpretations. The song, along with Another You and From Trash, deals with recurrent themes of re-invention, aspiration and re-incarnation – challenges Foxx himself faced as an incomer arriving in London in 1973. He recognises patterns of immigration throughout human history and identifies replicating phenomena common to all situations on different scales. Whenever migrants to a society arrive they bring with them a way of life and ideas that challenge the way things are, in much the same way that children dream and imagine ‘impossible’ things that are repeatedly quashed by conservative adults. At the same time, it is precisely these impossible dreams that keep us going – aspirations that we cannot live without and which drive our creativity.

J is for ‘JORI HULKONNEN’

Finnish electro-DJ and techno-producer Jori Hulkkonen has been a fan of John Foxx since Metamatic, and wrote the song ‘Dislocated’ specifically for Foxx to sing on his 2005 album Dualizm. The success of Dislocated led to a more contemporary, dance-oriented follow up single ‘Never Been Here Before’ in 2008 and a relationship that developed into a full collaboration on 2013’s atmospheric and elegant EP ‘European Splendour’. This in turn attracted a remix from film-maker David Lynch. Hulkkonen has collaborated with many artists throughout his career and now records with some of them in different styles via groups like Villa Nah and Processory.

 

K is for ‘KARBORN’

KARBORN is the visual moniker for John Leigh, a prototype artist and designer who assembles industrial and impressionistic works through distinct processes. He first worked with Foxx on the images for Cathedral Oceans, subsequently assembled the associated DVD and has since produced numerous composite films for Foxx’s work, many of which have been presented and mixed live at gigs. In 2009, Karborn worked with underground ‘sonic assassin’ Dubterror to produce dissected remixes of Burning Car and 20th Century – an audio visual project that included hand-lacquered plates, prints, posters and painted canvasses. In 2012, Karborn began work on Evidence of Time Travel, a composite of online visuals and printed booklets that traces “the poignant tale of a man who falls in love with a recording”… Along with Steve D’Agostino, Karborn produced the film which soundtracks the John Foxx album of that name for which he edited thousands of frames by hand.

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L is for ‘LONDON’

Since first visiting with his parents as a boy, London has become a core part of the DNA that is the John Foxx genome, and he has spent nearly 40 years writing about, filming, photographing and assembling a travelogue of the city. His music has become a map of London, from Regents Park squats to recording studios in Islington and Shoreditch, from Highgate to Holywell and from futuristic city of light to a post-apocalyptic jungle of abandoned buildings and overgrown streets. Against this backdrop, his work tells the story of a man and a woman – loving, longing and living in the city, transcending time and media. Foxx’s catalogue has become a key source of reference for London’s leading hauntologists and psycho-geographers, featuring in the written and film works of Iain Sinclair, Mark Fisher and the musical underworld of the Belbury Circle.

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In 2015, Foxx released his long-considered album London Overgrown expanding these ideas and wrote extensively on his vision for London as a the world’s first genuinely Post-carbon city.

M is for ‘MANCHESTER’

Second to London in terms of UK significance to John Foxx work is the northern city of Manchester where he spent much of his teenage life, from Art College to Northern Soul venues like the famous Twisted Wheel on Brasenose Street. He grew up in the satellite town of Chorley and still has friends in that area. Foxx returned as an incomer in the mid 1990s, setting up a mobile studio with Louis Gordon in the city’s derelict Ancoats region where they recorded most of the Shifting City album.
Interviews with Foxx on urbanism, regeneration and the affect of city life on the human population are characterised by his reference to Manchester as an abandoned and forsaken place, from which money and people migrated south, exemplifying his postulations on immigration, colonisation and ‘impossible dreams’.

N is for ‘NATION 12’

In 1989, John Foxx met Bomb The Bass DJ Tim Simenon at a Brixton nightclub, and they recorded the acid-house dance single ‘Remember’ together as Nation 12. Along with Simenon’s friends Simon and Kurt Rogers, Nation 12 released a follow up single ‘Electrofear’ in 1991 on the Rhythm King label, and an album of that name which stayed unreleased for 15 years after the record company folded. Label boss Martin Heath introduced Simenon to the Bitmap Brothers who, under the name Renegade Software, wrote several successful computer video games. With John Foxx, Nation 12 wrote the soundtracks to the award-winning ‘Gods’ and ‘Speedball 2’ for the Amiga and Atari platforms.

 

O is for ‘ORPHEE’

Throughout his career, John Foxx has released a number of tracks exclusively on little known and often rather obscure compilation albums, enjoying an underground status as a cult figure among the experimental and electronic avant-garde. Among these is an ‘extra’ Cathedral Oceans track called Splendour that appeared in America on the 2000 ‘Orphee’ album on Projekt Records. Taking the story of Orphée, who descended into hell to save the one he loved, and including dreamy liner notes by graphic-novellist and film writer Neil Gaiman, the compilation bills itself as “an introspective descent into the male soul”. Alongside Foxx, Orphee features similarly ethereal, abstract gothic tracks by David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Tones On Tail and Peter Ulrich.

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‘Splendour’ was mistaken for ‘Quiet Splendour’ (Cathedral Oceans II) for many years until it was released on the “20th Century : The Noise” compilation on Metamatic Records in 2015.

P is for ‘PATER NOSTER’

PATER NOSTER is the fifth and closing track on Side One of The Garden album, released on Virgin Records in 1981. It is one of the first examples of ‘The Human Host’ in action, a series of reverberated harmonics and long loops that Foxx started experimenting with at the time, and features Latin vocals set to what has been described as an ‘ecclesiastical disco’ rhythm track. The lyrics are a version of the Lord’s Prayer and the title literally means ‘Our Father’ in the context of the Roman Catholic mass. Foxx was brought up as a Catholic and learned to sing in the choir at school, where he appreciated more the music qualities than any of the religious elements.
Similar examples of this kind of work in his catalogue can be found on the ‘My Lost City album (Barbican Brakhage and Scene 27…) as well as ‘Lumen de Lumine’ from the ‘In Mysterious Ways’ period.

Q is for ’THE QUIET MAN’

THE QUIET MAN is the central character in a story that parallels John Foxx own career, and around whom many pieces of music, stories and artworks have been constructed. Like ‘John Foxx’ himself, The Quiet Man was created as a vehicle for Dennis Leigh to disappear within, to walk anonymously in a grey suit around an abandoned and overgrown London. On the 2009 album that features several spoken word chapters of the book, he is voiced by Justin Barton whose clipped ‘BBC’ Received Pronunciation ideally suits the inconspicuous man made of shadows…

 

R is for ROBERT ROUNCEFIELD

ROBERT ROUNCEFIELD acquired a Super 8mm camera capable of filming underwater from his parents on his 17th birthday in 1972. He used it to film his friends swimming in the lakes near his home in Montana, in particular one which had been regularly used to dump abandoned cars. Rouncefield filmed his girlfriend swimming naked among the automobiles on many occasions, and the beautiful, shimmering footage eventually found its way into the collection of Arnold Weizcs-Bryant in Baltimore. John Foxx has been a life-long collector of Super 8mm film, and was delighted to be invited to see the Weiczs-Bryat collection for himself while assembling the visual elements to 2006’s album ‘Tiny Colour Movies’. A contact sheet of stills from Rouncefield’s film ‘Underwater Automobiles’ was retitled ‘Swimmer’ by Foxx and displayed as part of the Cinemascope exhibition.

S is for ‘SYSTEMS OF ROMANCE’

SYSTEMS OF ROMANCE is John Foxx third and last album as the frontman with Ultravox, released on Island Records in September 1978. A song of the same name (written at the same time) was recorded in 1981 and appears on The Garden. The phrase is borne out of John’s fascination with ‘intangible elements running through mathematical frameworks’ as expressed in the paintings of Francis Bacon and Giacometi, or books like Arthur Koerstler’s 1967 philosophical text ‘The Ghost In the Machine’. The title came to Foxx one day while discussing this concept with Conny Plank, and seemed a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the music he was creating – relatively nebulous ideas held in the structured framework of organised music.

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T is for ‘TALK’

TALK first appeared as the third track on THE SHAPE OF THINGS, the second album recorded by John Foxx And the Maths and released in 2011. It is a sinister, brooding track in which a whispering Foxx addresses the ghosts that haunt his sleep and follow him through streets in the city. Within a few few months of release, Foxx recorded a different version of the song for the Evidence album, this time featuring experimental producer Matthew Dear as the voice of the ghost. Dear wrote his own lyrics and added some intense percussion effects to the vocal response.

A re-purposed and re-assembled version of Talk by Tara Busch (the I Speak Machine remix) appears as a bonus track on the third Maths album ‘Evidence’

U is for ‘ULTRAVOX!’

A glam-punk new wave electro-rock band founded by John Foxx in 1975 as Tiger Lily. Drummer Warren Cann, violinist and keyboard player Billy Currie, bassist Chris Cross and guitarist Stevie Shears made two albums together in the original line-up, using an exclamation mark in the name both to make an impact and in homage to the German experimentalists Neu! that they all liked. Shears left the band in February 1978 and was replaced by Robin Simon, who was recording session work with Magazine when the opportunity to join Ultravox arose. They dropped the exclamation mark and travelled to Germany to record a third album with Conny Plank. Following disappointing record sales and internal disagreements about the musical direction of the band, John Foxx and Robin Simon left after an intense tour of America early in 1979. At the end of that year, Foxx was replaced as singer by ex-Rich Kid and Slik vocalist Midge Ure and Ultravox signed to Chrysalis to record their next album, Vienna…

V is for ‘da VINCI’

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is widely considered to be one of the most diversely talented individuals to have ever lived, and he is often described as the best painter of all time. His most famous paintings are masterpieces of design, landscape and figure composition. Several of his best known works (including Mona Lisa, Virgin Of The Rocks and Annunciation) have provided John Foxx with image sources for his collages and various sections, pieces and cut-outs appear on the cover of the singles Slow Motion, Europe After the Rain, Endlessly and Your Dress as well as in various other references and allegorical pieces of artwork.

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W is for ‘WALK’

In the early summer of 1981, John Foxx undertook to walk most of the length of the M6 motorway, determined to get to know a little better the English countryside a that he had previously only seen from cars or train windows. Inspired by his travels in Europe (particularly France and Italy), Foxx explored some of England’s celebrated lost gardens and country houses, including Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, Rivington in his native Lancashire, through Oxfordshire and down to Scotney Castle in Kent. He took many thousands of photographs along the route, and was himself photographed by his colleague Peter Gilbert, some of whose images were used to create artwork for The Garden album.

John Foxx - The Garden

X is for ‘X-RAY VISION’

X-RAY VISION is one of several examples where John Foxx has used the same (or at least similar) titles for different pieces of work; either songs, pieces of music or photographs. It is a fascinating, futuristic concept with an especial appeal to a science-fiction obsessed, comic loving schoolboy intent on seeing the world ‘differently’ through layers of film, dreams and ghost stories. The first example is the deep, haunting cityscape soundtrack to one of Arnold Weiczs-Bryant’s Tiny Colour Movies – a collection of ‘secret’ films recorded on security cameras and public surveillance in apartments, offices and streets in New York. An entirely different, gritty upbeat song of the same name recorded with Louis Gordon appears on SIDEWAYS, which was later stripped down and re-purposed for IMPOSSIBLE in 2008.

Y is for ‘YOUNG SAVAGE’

One of the most popular songs in the band’s live set, YOUNG SAVAGE was the second single released by Ultravox!, in May 1977 when the UK movement was at its height. Despite not being a ‘punk band’ this song was styled to fit into that moment – a full-on, high-tempo thrashing shout-along that had the Marquee crowd (and most others on the circuit) pogoing and spitting as much as at any other contemporary gig. The urgency and passion in this short song characterise John Foxx observations on the whole punk movement. Intense and glorious. Born 1975, died 1977.

Thirty years later, Young Savage was among four Ultravox! songs to feature in Kevin Sampson’s ‘Awaydays’ film which tells the story of a young man’s fatal obsession with The Pack – a stylish but vicious gang – and his search for identity through his ill-starred adventures with them.
Awaydays is a film that is as much about the soundtrack as the images, and includes similar contemporary tracks by Joy Division, The Cure and Magazine.

Z is for ‘ZEUS B HELD’

After John Foxx initially abandoned over 20 pieces of new material in 1982, he was encouraged to revisit it and made an album with the help of producer ZEUS B. HELD.
Bernhard Heldt [sic] had achieved major success in his native Germany producing, arranging and playing keyboards on three electro-dance albums for Gina X, then came to the UK where he worked with Dead Or Alive and Fashion. Gina X single ‘No GDM’ was covered by Erasure in 1989 and mixed by Zeus at Andy Bell’s invitation. Zeus was living in London in 1982 and very much in demand when he came to The Garden studio and added his shimmering touch to what became The Golden Section.

Solo albums by Zeus B. Held are hard to find but worth checking out.
His latest release is 2015’s Logic Of Coincidence, which features extracts of Luke Rheinhart reading from The Dice Man and a collaboration with former members of Tangerine Dream.

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