Foxxhunting – Modreno

This essay contains original research.
Link to it by all means, but please don’t copy the text or paste it elsewhere without asking me first. Cheers.

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Having driven everyone at RCA ‘barmy’ within three months of rehearsing in the canteen, Dennis Leigh was keen to find somewhere more suitable for the band. He had already spent his grant on a PA and microphones, and was keen to earn some extra cash.

An opportunity presented itself through contacts with friends of friends from ‘up north’ and he was drawn once again into the company of Showroom Dummies

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Modreno, in Albion Yard, N1 (now part of the six-acre ‘Regent’s Quarter’ behind King’s Cross station) was just a few minutes walk from where Leigh was squatting at the time, just off the Caledonian Road. Known as  the “doll factory”, it was owned by Ronnie Kirkland, a businessman from Manchester who set up the company when invited to leave his job at Rootstein’s to set up a separate company doing repairs and restoration, rather than designing and making original mannequins. Rootstein’s itself was one of the largest suppliers of mannequins in the world in the 1960s, set up in London by the late couturier Adel Rootstein in 1956.

Alongside its professional staff (which included celebrated designer and make-up artist Anne Fontenoy) Modreno employed students from the RCA for pin money painting faces onto restored fashion display models  –  the same kind of work that Leigh had done while studying in Blackpool.

As Anne Fontenoy recalls “A lot of the work was for department stores and boutiques that would send their mannequins for re-spray and new make-up when they got a bit tatty.  They usually wanted quite natural looking, sophisticated make-up but some of the small boutiques wanted something more creative.
It was the days of glam rock, so we could be very creative with colours and designs.
I remember vividly painting the make up on the mannequins’ faces and nails, gazing at rows of shelves of “body parts” while I worked, and being shown how to make perfectly clean, soft brushes to work with.
The make-up was created with oil paint, not cosmetics, and the restored figures were supplied to top city stores like Harrods and Harvey Nichols.”

(Pure Arts. December 2014)

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While painting faces in the factory, Leigh noticed a big warehouse behind the workshop, large enough for a band to rehearse. And in Kirkland – by all accounts a jovial character with an easy-going temperament – he found an aspirational model for his role as frontman and organiser:

“I loved the way he organised people, he was very human about it, not at all the big boss. Every one liked what they were doing and worked well, were happy and excited about it. That was such a change from the factories I’d worked in up North that I decided to try and run the band like that.

The money was quite good too so it meant I could do a couple of days work and keep myself alive for the rest of the time.”

(John Foxx – ZigZag, December 1978)

Dennis Leigh joined Modreno (literally “Model Renovation”) as a make-up artist, and part of the team travelling the country repairing the mannequins in large department stores. Staff would set up temporary work benches on the store rooftops and repair and spray the figures and Dennis would be half a day behind them. He would then do the makeups in a side room before travelling on to the next city.

One of this travelling team of painters was an aspiring musician from Sheffield named Adolphus (Adi) Newton. Along with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, Newton formed The Future in Sheffield in 1977, and left them to set up industrial experimentalists Clock DVA. According to his sleevenotes for the Horology retrospective, it was from snatches of conversation with Dennis Leigh at Modreno in Sheffield that Newton confirmed his ideas as to how music could be used as a vehicle for his existential and dramatic expressionism.

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The band (both as Ultravox! and Tiger Lily) rehearsed extensively in the doll factory for a period of about three years, and were most famously photographed there by Ian Dickson in the closing months of 1976, shortly after recording their first album with Island.
They would set up in the evenings, occasionally overlapping with members of Modreno staff, including manager John Hughes (who now owns Panache Display in West London and supplies mannequins to John Lewis) and his successor Frank Glover, now the owner of one most popular service companies in the USA.

I am grateful to both Hughes and Glover for the anecdotes they have supplied in response to this piece, and both will be acknowledged in the book from which this extract is taken.

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Between March 1981 and October 1983 Modreno was in a state of flux and business was uncertain. It ceased trading under that name during this period, but Kirkland managed to secure a new (though short) lease and continued as a “REPAIRER and RETAILER of FASHION DISPLAY MODELS” under the name Modreno 2 until finally going into liquidation in June 1985.

During the cessation of trade, the premises was picked up a by a location scout and became the setting for a couple of scenes in popular television crime dramas.
Between 11 and 22 May 1981, London Weekend used Modreno to film a scene for Series 4 of The Professionals in which Doyle is subject to a ‘medical exam’ while being checked out as a potential hitman
The fight scene takes place surrounded by mannequins in the office, whose plastic faces add atmosphere to the shooting. Throughout the episodes, there are several other long shots of the premises, clearly showing the warehouses and distinctive entrance. My thanks to Garry Hensey for finding the source.

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Following this, Modreno featured even more prominently in an episode of Thames Television’s ‘Minder’, filmed in October 1983. Arthur Daley arrives in Albion Yard to do business with the doll factory owner ‘Joe Harrison’ and a shoot out ensues in the warehouse, where several of the showroom dummies get blown apart by a shotgun!

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A similar shot to the one in The Professionals (above, from the same viewpoint) shows Daley arriving in Albion Yard, unaware that the place is about to be raided by bullying thugs intent on frightening the owner into paying off his gambling debts.

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It hasn’t proved possible yet to find out what went on in Albion Yard and at Modreno premises in particular in the 20 years since 1985, but the site was extensively developed into apartments and offices in the early years of the 21st Century. According to this piece by Michael Whitworth a flat in the popular area nowadays costs around £925,000.

I visited in April 2016, walking in though an open gate down a passageway to the south, behind the Premier Inn hotel on Caledonia Street. Arriving at the vehicle entrance to Albion Yard, it is clear that the property on one’s right (to the left of the driveway) has not significantly changed externally since the original warehouses were built – sensitively redeveloped to retain the character of the brickwork and windows.

Walking out through the arch and looking back in, the original etched stone remains in place on Balfe Street, describing Albion Yard as WORKS & MILLS, built in 1845. That’s the picture at the top of this post.

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I did notice there are cobbles now, which were not present when John Foxx, George Cole and Martin Shaw made their way across the courtyard…

Looking around, I consider that unfortunately the Modreno premises itself, (opposite the entrance) has been replaced by new apartments, but it felt good to stand on the spot, breathe the hauntology and visualise not only the television scenes of course, but to imagine the music of Ultravox! leaking out of the warehouse windows.

My sex
is invested in
Suburban photographs

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My sex
is an image lost in faded films

More recently, on his 2011 album The Shape Of Things, Foxx includes a short piece of music called Modreno which captures the essence of this place wonderfully with its arpeggiated melody and gentle ARP washes.

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Thank you for reading this (ongoing) piece.

If you have any information on Modreno, or connections with Albion Yard as it used to be please do get in touch.

You will find me at here on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/foxxmetamatic

 

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Infinite in all directions

 

Foxx is right, of course. We can never leave, and we travel towards a destination that we can never know.

Strange how moments last so long, always with us long after they’re gone. They linger, and return. Coming and going on the tide , taking different forms.
We are all ‘several different people, leading different lives simultaneously’ and we step incidentally, unconsciously and accidentally between them.
Our experiences stay with us, as memories, regrets, photographs, notes in journals – becoming more or less tangible according to the tides of situation. It is inevitable.

I am led gently into the city inhabited by an Earlier Man, walking through it as if it were an art gallery, where the smells and sounds are exhibits on the walls in a network of rooms, where sea and sunset become one, the future dipping slowly behind the horizon of the past. I can hear a translucent piano. Delicate notes, hesitant, with the softest of echoes, as if the pianist is cautious of breaking the keys.

She is alongside me for a moment. Almost there. A trace of perfume brings back the memory of laugh. A photograph. Her silhouette moves across the dimness, temporarily cooling me.

The sound of rain and passing cars. Systems of Romance. Dancing, like a gun. Shattered fragments. The Garden. Some kind of miracle.

I am utterly absorbed. The narrative, with its measured tones of frustration, regret and despair is faultless. Repeats my own and reflects my thoughts. There is longing and sadness – a man looking for something that he has convinced himself is there, but you suspect that he really knows it has gone. The passion of a lover perhaps, an empty relationship. A phone call that will never be made. Standing in the dark.

Memories. Ghosts. Rooms. Music.

Ah. Music. More intense now, and somehow familiar. I feel like this and I experience it as he reads – the jolt of reality as if awakening from a dream. Every avenue seems uncertain, though a little more tangible than it did previously. Solid shapes are forming in the dim, underwater light – there is an ocean within and beyond the case I am holding. I can breathe the ocean, and see automobiles slowly sinking down to the sand. Mermaids. Sirens. Lovers

There is an urgency in this story, and I detect now a sinister, more challenging tone. The despair of the earlier passage has been overtaken by movement and a sense of purpose. The balance between reader and pianist is an immaculate judgement – as one swims free of his skin, the other rises, lightens and increases its intensity. He moves towards the surface where the water is thinner, and cleaner, and brighter. Sunlit notes flicker as if made of glass, like tiny fish.

I am sharing the immensity of his story – vast cities, oceans and era. Constructed and carved from living rock. Nature’s concrete. I am no longer aware of whether I am still below the water or above it? The abstract hymn of the ocean, carried on huge, tidal bass notes that form an ever changing current of sound. Architecture and Desire. Merging. Fading…

I have become outside again. I must have somehow drifted here, into a decaying, shifting city, where all has become strangely insular. There is a storyline, a corridor instead of a vast hall. Direction is encouraged.

I’ve been here before. When I was a man and she was a woman, gentle and unassuming. I wore my favoured Grey Suit, and it envelops me again, with anonymity, memory and invisible feelings. I feel relaxed, calm and confident. The fabric of the suit is a map of my Lost City, the place where I began. An Earlier Man in my clothes walked here, through Oxford, London and Paris. The cartography of my lifetime. I have been lost many times, fallen through numerous transparent rooms, lived through a million different scenes, all woven into the tiny coloured threads of fabric that make up this apparently colourless cloth. Lt 030. There will always be, somewhere, Some Way Through All These Cities. Escalators, elevators. Paths, avenues, highways.

And yet I am still here. Someone walks with me, her child fingers twined with mine. Sitting on my shoulders.

“Carry me daddy, take me where you have been. I want to see the world.”

So we return to that city. Buses, taxis, trains and cars. A feeling of dispersal, of fractals. A distant kind of longing, evoking in me a feeling of bewilderment and complexity, and yet I am nagged by a curious realisation. A kind of awakening. A glimmer. Far more than just the geometry of coincidence. Is it, well… what was that. Some sort of… plan?? Phrases are repeated from across the time, which moves around within and beyond us in utterly immeasurable ways. It is neither linear, nor accountable, neither does it move at a uniform pace. I detect a change in the weather, and feel the wind now colder against my hands. There are leaves and litter swirling in doorways and across my shoes – and that is exactly how time moves. In that erratic, swirling, eddying, flickering kind of way. Like Smoke.

Within these minutes are threads and hints and glimpses and huge slabs of the blatantly obvious. Themes that have been woven into the me fabric for the last thirty years. Different genres and medias have become picture frames on the walls of an immense archive, chapters in an ever-changing story. They are here, and there. And then gone. And then they return, taking different form and leading off in new, unforeseen directions.

The realisation I felt as the albums I listen to reach points furthest away from where I started was that, whatever this story is, it must never be published. The journey must not be allowed to end. It cannot become real until it is truly, absolutely, over.

There is an increasing sense within me that everything has been part of some vast cathedral or ocean of design. An experimental lifetime, a living archive.

What will happen if one day The Quiet Man becomes a tangible piece of product? A book whose final chapter was was written long ago, but when its author was uncertain how to lead the plot to its desired conclusion?

A shadowy figure will step out and hand it to us with a distant, knowing smile and in the sudden glare of the shatterlight, the man will dissolve.

We will open the book, in our eagerness to possess, and it will of course, crumble into dust between our fingers.

In the meanwhile, we can only marvel at the cavernous space inside this gallery, the delicate complexity of its layout, and behold the immaculate presentation of the artefacts inside.

Infinite, in all directions.

ULTRAVOX : Sie verwandeln Säle in Hexenkessel

Here’s the next instalment in my quest to nail down Ultravox in Germany between 1977 and 1978

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Thanks to Cazzfoxx for the image

BRAVO (October / November 1978)

German text

Die Szene konnte aus einer der vielen London Punk-Kneipen stammen: Chaotisches Gedränge vor einer fast dunklen Bühne, Typen mit abgewetzten Jeans und Salatgabel-Frisuren schubsen und rempeln sich durch die Gegend.

Mädchen mit giftgrün gefärbten Haaren und schwarz geschminkten Lippen kicken übermütig leere Bierbecher über den Fussboden und strecken den wenigen “straight” (normal) aussehenden Leuten im Publikum – die meisten Ordner oder Pressfotografen – demonstrativ die Zunge heraus.

Aber es sind keine Englander – sondern rund 1500 Fans aus München, die im “Schwabinger Braü” ungeduldig auf den auftritt von Ultravox warten.

Die fünf Jungs aus London sind ein echtes Phänomen. Trotz sparsamer Werbung platzte bei ihrem ersten Münchner Konzert vor rund einem Jahr das “Downtown” aus alien Nähten. Und auch diesmal gingen die Karten in wenigen Tagen weg wie warme Semmeln – der Höhepunkt dieser driften Ultravox-Tour durch 14 deutsche Städte allerdings wär ihr Auftritt in Münster, wo 6000 Fans die Münsterlandhalle in einen Hexenkessel verwandelten.

Allerdings – eine Punk-Band sind Ultravox bei dieser dritten spektakulären Tour nicht mehr.

Sie wollen zumindest nichts zu tun haben mit den Exzessen, wie sie fur die Auftritte mancher Punkbands typisch geworden sind, und die die Musikrichtung New Wave insgesamt in ein schiefes Licht gerückt haben. Und sie lassen das die Fans auch wissen.

Kurz vor der Show kommt eine Durchsage, freundlich, in deutsch : Ultravox sind der Meinung, das die Zeiten vorbei sind, wo man seine Begeisterung mit Auldie-Bühne-spucken oder Bierdosenwerten ausdrückt. Bitte denkt daran, denn sonst konnte das Konzert schon in fünf Minuten vorbei sein…

Die Kids halten sich daran, selbst die wildesten Punks wollen nicht riskieren, das die Show platzt. Und dann hämmern John, Chris, Warren Billie und Robin los – sofort mit voller Power, ohne “Aufwärmnummer”, ohne Schnörkel.

Obwohl alle fünf einheitlich in schwarze, schlichte Kombis gekleidet sind, sticht ein Mann aus der Gruppe heraus: John Foxx, der ehemalige Kunststudent, der die Gruppe 1976 mit musik-begeisterten Studienfreunden aus dem Boden stampfte, und der den ehemaligen Roxy-Music-Star Brian Eno als Co-Produzenten für das erste, bahnbrechende Album “Ultravox” gewinnen konnte.

Obwohl er völlig auf Show-Effekte wie die wilde Körpersprache eines Mick Jagger verzichtet und auch nicht den rauchigen Schmelz in der Stimme wie Rod Stewart bieten kann, zieht er seine Zuhörer doch sofort in seinen Bann. Fast roboterhaft bewegt er sich auf der Buhne, der schlaksige Typ mit dem dunkelblonden Schopf und den scharf geschnittenen Gesichtszügen.

The Man who dies every Day, singt er gerade – der Mensch, der jeden Tag aufs Neue stirbt” ein Titel aus der zweiten LP ha Ha Ha. Viele verstehen den. Viele verstehen den Text nicht, würden ihn nicht mal verstehen, wenn sie besser Englisch könnten. Denn die Ultravox-Songs haben nichts mehr gemeinsam mit den einfachen, mit Stichworten gespickten Texten ihrer ehemaligen New-Wave-Kollegen wie den Adverts, Clash oder Sex Pistols.

Sie behandeln zwar dieselben Themen, die Angste, Traüme und Wunschbilder der Menschen in unserer modernen Gesellschaft – aber sie sind viel komplizierter, voller Symbolismen und versteckter Anspielungen.

“Genau das will ich mit unserer Musik erreichen”, sagt John später in der Garderobe, abgekämpft, aber immer noch voller Energie “Die Leute sollen unsere Musik nicht einfach konsumieren, sondern wirklich spüren, erleben, ihre eigenen Schlüsse ziehen. Sie sollen mich verstehen – selbst wenn sie nicht meine Sprache sprechen.”

Um diese Sprach-Barriere wirklich zu überwinden, plant John für die Produktion der nächsten LP nach “Systems Of Romance” such ein Experiment, er will seine Songs verfilmen. Als gelernter Grafiker – die illustrationen zu den bisherigen Alben stammen von ihm – denkt John dabei nicht an einen Musikfilm wie “The Band”, sondern an Bilder, an Visionen und Collagen, die seine Songs illustrieren und noch besser verständlich machen sollen. “Bilder und die damit verbundenen inhalte versteht man in England wie in China. Dazu unsere Musik – ich glaube, dass das die optimale Art der Kommunikation mit dem Publikum ist” So nehmen Ultravox voraussichtlich im Frühjahr 79 erstmals Projektor und Leinwand mit auf Tour…

And my initial (probably crude) translation:

Transforming halls into cauldrons

It was like a scene from many London punk gigs : a chaotic scrum of fans in jeans and salad-fork hairstyles, pushing and jostling in front of a dark stage.

A girl with bright green hair and black lipstick kicks a beer can across the floor, and throws another at the only “normal” people in the audience – mostly press photographers – while sticking her tongue out at them.

But this is not England – this is 1500 fans in Munich’s Schwabinger Braü, waiting impatiently for Ultravox.

The five guys from London are a real phenomena. Despite little advertising since their first concert in Munich earlier this year, when the ‘Downtown’ venue was bursting at the seams.

The highlight of this tour of 14 German cities, however, would be their appearance in Münster, where 6000 fans turned the Münsterlandhalle into a boiling cauldron. For tonight’s gig, the tickets sold like hot cakes.

However, Ultravox are no longer a punk band on this third spectacular tour. They want nothing to do with the extreme appearance that has become typical of punk bands, and see the New Wave fans in much the same bad light. And they let the audience know it too.

Shortly before the show begins, there is an announcement, friendly and in German : “Ultravox think that the days of showing your appreciation by spitting and throwing beer cans are over. Please bear this in mind, or the show could be over in five minutes…”

And the kids stick to this, not even the wildest punks want to risk stopping the show. And then John, Chris, Warren, Billie and Robin explode with full power – no warm up number, no frills.

Although all five are dressed in simple black outfits, one man stands out from the group : John Foxx, the former art student who started the group in 1976 recruiting music-loving friends with similar taste., like former Roxy Music star Brian Eno who co-produced the first album “Ultravox!”

Although he does not employ the wild body antics of Mick Jagger or the smoky voice of Rod Stewart, he draws the audience immediately under his spell. He moves robotically around the stage, a lanky guy with dark blond hair and sharp-cut features

“The Man Who Dies Every Day” he sings, from the second LP Ha! Ha! Ha! Many do not understand the words, and they probably wouldn’t even if they could speak better English. Ultravox songs are nothing like the simple words of bands like the Adverts, the Clash or Sex Pistols.

Although they deal with the same topics, fears, traumas and ideals of modern society, they are much more complicated, full of symbolism and hidden references. John gets the meaning of the songs across with his expressive eyes, shifting from one mood to the other with his hands – aided by the often bizarre and extreme riffs of new guitarist Robin Simon who has replaced the retired Stevie Shears.

“That’s what I want to achieve with our music,” says John later in the dressing room, exhausted but still full of energy. “People should not simply consume our music, but really feel it, experience it, draw their own conclusions. They should understand me, even if they don’t speak my language.”

To overcome this language barrier, John plans for the next album after “Systems Of Romance” to be more of an experiment, and to make films for some of the songs. As a trained artist – the artwork on the Ultravox albums comes from him – John does not see the films as anything like “The Band” [ED : ’The Last Waltz’ – an account and presentation of the final concert of The Band, filmed in San Francisco in 1976. Martin Scorcese, April 1978] but instead a series of images, visions and collages that illustrate the songs and make them easier to understand. “The images and associated content should be as easy to understand in England as they are in China. I believe that is the best way of communicating the music to our audience.” So we should expect Ultravox to take a projector and screen with them on tour in spring 1979…

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