A chronology re-telling the career of John Foxx.
One short chapter each month on the 40th anniversary of the events described.
Written, researched and ‘translated from birdsong’ for metamatic.com by Martin Smith. All opinion and inference is my own and none of the narrative described has been endorsed by John Foxx on any agency acting on his behalf.
Any factual inaccuracies are entirely deliberate.
Feel free to reference this page, but please don’t copy and paste any content without agreement and permission
It’s a full on endless schedule of interviews and media ‘appearances’ now to promote Metamatic, currently sitting at Number 39 in the UK album charts – coincidentally the same position to which Underpass slipped on the first chart this month.
Interviews with “The Quiet Man in The Market Place” and “Twentieth Century Foxx” appear in NME and Smash Hits respectively in the UK, and there are the first signs of attention from overseas press too. In the US, celebrated journalist Lester Bangs presents a retrospective feature on Foxx and Ultravox; Ingeborg Schober (a committed advocate of the band) reviews Metamatic favourably in Germany and there are advertisements in Italy, Yugoslavia and Spain.
Nick Kent’s interview with Foxx for Record Mirror is especially interesting, because the author confesses to being less than impressed with the ‘cringingly crass’ material produced by the band on their last album. Here, Kent suggests that their use of synthesizers on Systems Of Romance is what brought the ‘kiss of death’ to their career. But, he opens with a slice of humble pie and on meeting Foxx is immediately stuck by his mild, unprepossessing air and ‘nice manner’.
When voicing his feelings about the predominant coldness in the songs on Metamatsic, the overall sound that “seems only to reflect a numbness, making the record sound like aural novacaine”, Foxx, instead of taking offense, considers the point a pertinent criticism.
“It’s a good point, that, because I do worry sometimes that the bleakness I’m depicting has no redeeming qualities beyond providing the listener with a numbing, desolate feeling. I’m obviously trying to project more than that.
“I’m going to have to develop things. You’re right about the coldness. I want to make dancing music. That one-dimensionality has to be given something extra.”
In Smash Hits, Foxx is a litle more guarded when he is asked more retrospective questions about the band and their place in electronic music. In particular, how he feels about how artists like Gary Numan and the Human League ahead of him in terms of chart success and commercial appeal. John’s gracious and considered reply speaks volumes for his generous and visionary nature:
“I am very pleased that the ideas I’ve put out aren’t being wasted, and that I haven’t wasted my time. I’ve always been interested in ideas more than anything else.”
In terms of realising those new ideas, Foxx wasn’t ready quite yet for that and didn’t presently have the opportunity to do so. Metamatic might have been canned six months previously, but he was still exploring sounds and sequences based around those sessions.
And there was the business of a follow up single to address now that Underpass was falling down the chart.
The track chosen was “No One Driving”, and it was to be a release into which Virgin were prepared to invest different formats. This wasn’t yet the time when everybody was putting out extended versions on 12-inch vinyl, and instead it was decided that a ‘double-single’ would be issued. Foxx had a few tracks in the vein of Film One that were suggested as a B-side, but to offer greater value for money than re-presenting album tracks, two other new pieces were to be included.
The lead song was re-recorded for 7” format by Foxx with John Wesley Barker and Jake Durrant at Camden Studios, using a 16-track tape machine. Jake Durant’s guitar bass part is replaced with a synthesizer (played also by Durant) and the lyric is altered for a more ‘radio friendly’ audience. Whoever it is that went ‘liquid’ in the sheets on the album version, has instead gone ‘missing’.
Out of context, I guess there are too many interpretations of that original line…
Foremost among the supporting material is the instrumental piece called Glimmer, one of the first pieces in this style conceived by Foxx and now regarded as one of his most iconic compositions. Music in similar vein may not have appeared immediately after this release, but the idea and the style is woven through much of his more recent and ambient material.
”I’d been listening to a lot of Philip Glass, a lot of this systems music, but I found it rather boring to listen to so I tried to make it more lyrical. That struck me as something nobody else seemed interested in doing, and originally Glimmer was going to be the first in a whole series of things. It was interesting, because Philip Glass then did something more lyrical himself, though I’m sure he never listened to anything I was doing! If you listen to Glassworks, that’s probably the first thing he did that has got more than one tune in it.”
(E&MM, November 1983)
The second single in the gatefold double pack features another instrumental, a surreal, dark soundscape enigmatically entitled Mr No, and “This City” an upbeat vocal track that fits comfortably with the parent album.
The package was released on March 21st, and John Peel played all four tracks in the previous week when promotion copies were issued. Speaking of Glimmer, he quipped dryly “that should have got you staring moodily out of the windows”
Unlike its predecessor, the artwork for No One Driving continues the Metamatic theme and features Foxx in his grey suit, variously lit and appropriately detached. He can be seen wearing probably the same suit (different grey shirt) on Top Of The Pops a week later.
Introduced by Peter Powell as “a guy who left Ultravox about a year ago today” (someone did some reasonable research!) Foxx appears with Eddie Maelov and Sunshine Patterson again, accompanied by John Wesley Barker but this time joined by (unknown) artist and model Hiang Kee. All four musicians are set up behind Yamaha CS80 keyboards hired in, probably at significant expense, for the performance. Worth the investment – No-One Driving charted at Number 32 on the last day of the month.
Of course, No-One Liked It:
“too clear cut to be of any interest” said NME;
“unbelievably old fashioned” said Record Mirror;
“so frigid I’m surprised it’s got a hole in the middle,” said Smash Hits.
“Music to collect bottle tops to”…
Can anyone else smell burning leaves…?
A figure of major importance…?
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Having arrived in the shops and on the pages of the music press with some force, Metamatic defied the cynical attitudes of Ultravox critics by doing rather well. Large format, striking adverts for the album stood out a mile from those around them. Minimalist and classical, considered and well-designed – the promotional material was as distinct and outstanding as the album itself.
The striking cover image of a suited John Foxx reaching coolly into a glowing screen was futuristic and daring, just as individual and ‘different’ as the music.
Reviewers and editors set aside, for the most part, any reference to whatever ‘issues’ they may have had with Ultravox and gave John Foxx the fresh start he was looking for:
“valid, alternative rock ‘n’ roll” wrote Mike Nicholls in Record Mirror, “which won’t be obsolete in the near future. For effort, integrity and ongoing determination, I’ll give it 5-stars. And, thank God,” he went on, “you can’t dance to it”. Writing in NME, Paul Morley described Metamatic as “an LP of great sound, colour, tv theme melodies, deadpan voices, daft words and deadly speculation”.
He admittted to being “pleased with it a great deal.”
In Smash Hits, Red Starr hailed the ‘restrained and melodic album’ as an “impressive step forward”, and Melody Maker’s Steve Taylor described it as “an arresting testament to the benefits of a clear and able imagination in powerful control.”
Reviews in Germany, France and USA (Billboard) were equally affirming, leaving the only contradictory voice in the room being that of Dave McCulloch in Sounds. “Detached and unconvincing”, he declared. “[Foxx’s] voice isn’t up to much” and it “lacks depth through its drip dried smoothness”. This lead to a backlash in readers letters published the following week, when McCulloch himself was taken to task for his negativity and making unnecessary comments comparing Foxx to “Big Gaz”…
Two weeks after its release, Metamatic entered the UK album charts impressively at Number 18 and went on to spent seven weeks in the Top 100.
It remains John Foxx best-selling and benchmark album forty years later and has never been out of print, having been released at least six times with various extra tracks, artwork and ‘new’ packaging.
Check out, for example, this particular review by postmonkmonk:
Not bad for an artists who, at the time of its original release, told the Lancashire Evening Post that he didn’t know anything about music. “I can’t read it, I don’t understand notation. I’m not really a musician at all,” Foxx quipped. “I am more a sort of organiser. Most of my ideas come from other people, that’s what everybody does. There are startlingly few original things.”
There’s a case here for an argument that Metamatic actually is more original than most other things, and its longevity is testament to that. But of course, like Dave McCulloch suggests, that’s all a matter of opinon…
It was of course busy time for John Foxx himself, with all the interviews and public appearances that go with promotion of new material. He spoke at length to each of the UK papers about the process of making the album, its systematic construction and the inspiration behind it. Ballard and Burroughs. “Carcrash music. Taylored by Burtons”:
“I really could never reject machines because most of the things I enjoy are really only possible because of machines, so it really needs a new way of looking at them. There’s the perverse (but feasible) idea that a factory is as natural as a forest, because a forest in itself is a highly efficient machine.” (NME)
“Machines are instruments, and you can make them very emotional because there is no essential difference between a guitar and a synthesizer. You can make them both talk, or cry and you get all kinds of emotions out of both. It’s just getting over the initial hurdle of thinking ‘Oh, machines, it’s cold and robot-like. I lived like that for a while, like a ghost that had been switched off. But actually machines can be romantic and gentle too.” (Record Mirror)
Reading these interviews again now, it is interesting to see that Foxx is already setting a precedent by seizing the opportunity to talk about new ideas and other things he is working on. Experimenting with cameras, making video. Home movies with Super-8mm film. And even his next album. “That will be much more song-orientated,” he explained to Chris Bohn in Melody Maker.
Under the moniker of ‘Technological Man’, Foxx talks about how he intends to continue working ’mostly with machines’ but intends to sing a lot more, simply because he enjoys the phyical process of it.
There is no published reference to this, but hindsight informs us now that Foxx already had at least Systems Of Romance, Fusion / Fission, Walk Away and Like A Miracle lined up for this project…
And what of his own movements?
The day after filming the video for Underpass (1 February 1980), Foxx was an invited guest in the audience for a one-off Ultravox gig with Midge Ure at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. NME reported that Foxx attended the gig wearing the same suit as featured in the video, and that he declined an invitation to join the band on stage.
As well as their own new material (including the iconic ‘Vienna’) Ultravox were still performing Foxx material in their set at this time, as they had on their recent American tour, encompassing Hiroshima Mon Amour, Quiet Men and Slow Motion.
And bookending the month (on 29th) he and his Belgian girlfriend were at The Lyceum, watching Joy Division.
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John Foxx debut single, Underpass, was the first release on the Metal Beat label, and distributed by Virgin across the UK from Friday 4 January 1980. The A-side is an edited version of the album track, reduced by some 40 seconds, and an even shorter ‘airplay-friendly’ edit (leaving out the second verse) was sent out to the UK media. There are others that are far better informed than I about the different versions available at the time – and since – and no doubt many were among the excited listeners that first heard the single on John Peel’s Radio 1 evening show the night before.
Peel had always championed Ultravox and attended live shows at Reading and the Marquee, and had his ear more firmly to the ground than anyone when it came to identifying future sounds. He recognised the Underpass came at a time when several other artists were releasing material that ‘sounded like Gary Numan’ and even acknowledged that this was another in that genre, before adding “that this is unfair though because it’s a very good record”.
The song starts with a long droning sound that fades in, recalling the approaching flight of the Luftwaffe over London in September 1940. The Blitz was about to begin. Devastation. Confusion. Despair. Not unlike what Foxx felt when he arrived in London himself in 1973. Bleak and helpless. “Like Bucharest with a hangover” suggests J G Ballard in ‘A User’s Guide to the Millenium”. This introduction captures the spirit of the electronic music now bombarding the prevailing UK music scene.
“Something is about to appear…”
People emerging from air raid shelters the next morning were lost. Houses destroyed. Nowhere to go, no-one they knew. Similar, Foxx felt, to the experience of soldiers returning from the War themselves five years later. The lyrics in part, refer to a story related by one of his uncles in that situation:
Lifting the receiver
Nobody I know
“He was talking about how when he came back from the last war. Everyone’s phone number had changed. What do you do in that kind of situation? How do you contact anyone?”
[Record Mirror, 5th February 1980]
In the video for the soung, Foxx is seen to walk away from a public telephone, leaving the receiving dangling from its cord. Click-click, drone…
Underlying this is the displacement and dislocation, loss of identity:
Well I used to remember
Now it’s all gone…
World War something…
We were somebody’s sons
There is also a thematic reference to the time travel experience described in Chris Marker’s classic film “La Jetée” – in which the survivors of Paris destroyed by World War III research time travel, hoping to send test subjects to different time periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” War threw Foxx own uncle back to his past.
The meaning and interpretation of Underpass is not as simple as that of course. Foxx demonstrates a familiarity with Burroughs ’cut-up’ technique of writing, and merges two ideas together in Underpass. Among them, his own anxiety around cars:
“The main idea for] the lyric came about after driving in London, negotiating some of the underpasses. Travelling through one in particular I suddenly wondered if I’d ever come out again. I mean, what happens if you break down in an underpass?
I was damaged in a lot of ways and exhausted. I just felt like a shell. I remember walking around London trying to feel things, anything, and I couldn’t, it had all been burnt out…”
The structure of the lyric is unconventional in that sense, just as John Foxx delivery of the words is not conventionally what the pop charts would consider ‘singing’. It is another idea inspried by William Burroughs. I was very wrapped up in living a kind of automatic way of life and living and I wanted to be like that. I was interested in the way William Burroughs used to do his speech things, in a flat monotone, and I was reading too much J.G.Ballard as well. I was getting very interested in certain aspects of identifying with machines.
Speaking in Sounds, published later in January, Foxx explains the unconventional sound of Underpass too:
“It was a challenge to get away from those conventional instruments, because that meant the form of the music had to change. You can’t imitate guitar and drum functions. You can take the principle and then see what you can do with the new sounds on a synthesizer. As a consequence the whole feel of the music shifts, just like it did when the electric guitar came in.”
True to his minimalist intentions for the new material, Foxx and Gareth Jones recorded Underpass using only five of the eight tracks available in the Pathway studio. A remarkable achievement. The opening is the ARP with the flanger
“I’ve always liked drones and working with drones. The drum pattern is from a drum machine that was impossible to play and that’s what I like about drum machines. I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious, but Bach was very good at making four note riffs. His pieces are far more complex but he’d have these rhythmic riffs. I wanted to choose one like Bach and build it around that.”
(Future Music, 2010)
The track chosen for the B-side to the single was carefully considered by Foxx, insisting that he present value fo rmoney to his audience and include a track that would not otherwise be available on the forthcoming album.
The instrumental piece, Film One, was recorded in September 1979, allegedly in response to an invitation from a film company to submit a piece for the soundtrack to the Al Pacino movie, Cruising. Foxx was experimenting with Music For Film outside the Metamatic sessions, and gave a piece to Jake Durrant to add basslines. It may have been set aside by the film producers, but Film One is a wonderful example of the kind of work Foxx was interested in ‘behind the scenes’. He would create all kinds of sounds and small ‘electronic lifeforms’ (thanks Garry Hensey!) that didn’t quite fit anywhere, diligently recording to tape fragments and phrases that could never be reproduced on the same equipment, in case they might be needed later for something else.
Starting points for new material…
The artwork for the sleeve is the result of a collaborative fusion between John Foxx and graphic artist Malcolm Garrett, to whom Foxx was introduced by photgrapher Chris Gabrin. While it resonates with the iconic design of Systems Of Romance, Garrett takes the artwork into his own ‘cut-up’ punk style, connecting it with other designs for work by emerging bands like The Buzzcocks and Magazine. John Foxx chose the iconic image on the back of the sleeve from a film still he had seen among the magazines he collected. It gave him the original idea for his alter ego a couple of years earlier:
“I got the idea for the figure of The Quiet Man from an old Forties photograph I found of a man walking across a bridge in the fog.”
In Europe, a different sleeve carried the single to the music store shelves. Almost as an incidental aside, Steve d’Agostino recently advised the author that John Foxx ‘got’ Peter Saville to make the design for him, based on a German road sign? And if so, then surely echoing Kraftwerk’s UK vinyl sleeve artwork for the Autobahn album in 1975? Nice…
The single did remarkably well, despite the music press reluctance to acknowledge that it was any good at all. “Turgid” said Record Mirror.
“It must be hard being an alienated robot”, argued NME, “especially when buying milk or going to the toilet.”
Yawn, cough, splutter…
Nevertheless, Underpass slipped quietly into the UK charts at Number 67 on 26 January and rose to a very respectable Number 31 over the next few weeks.
A Top 40 hit, no less.
While it may seem initially incongruous that Foxx should be in the charts, on television and even made a video to promote the single, it must be remembered that he was well aware of the advantages of TV and video as mediums for mass communication. The broadcast enabled him to reach millions of homes at once, sending out ‘ghosts’ into homes all across the country. The visual equivalent of radio, and extending a thought he first had as a child marvelling at his mothers wireless set bringing American rock ‘n’ roll all the way across the Atlantic. The medium is the message.
Flickering television sets, redolent of the Ultravox! album sleeve, feature in the video to Underpass – itself a montage of post-apocalyptic Ballardianism, urban psychedelia, noir and neon.
Airplay was sufficient to earn John Foxx his first appearance on Top of The Pops – ironic for someone so keen to make sure he kept firmly out of the commercial spotlight and seemingly (at least according to his various interviews while in Ultravox) at odds with his principle of avoiding chart success at all costs.
He appeared on the show – broadcast 31 January – with friends Eddie and Sunshine alongside John Wesley Barker, drafted in to ‘pretend’ to play synths during the ‘live’ performance. In the studio, all three musicians behind Foxx are standing with Yamaha CS80 synthesisers – an enormous commitment from the BBC to source and meet this expense.
At the time, the BBC was conditioned by a contract with the Musicians Union to ensure that all songs were re-reocrded prior to the show, especially for that performance. Foxx and Barker did Underpass at Air Studios in Oxford Circus, with Gareth Jones overseeing the sound in the television studio the next day.
Barker recalls: “we nearly had to book a string section because an MU representative saw ‘strings’ written on the track sheet of the tape box. But this was simply a name John & Gareth had given that sound.”
Underpass made it onto Round Table a week after its release, drawing favourable reviews from Joe Strummer and journalist John Tobler, and inevitable comparisons with Numan from host David Jensen.
Despite himself, Foxx was a ‘hit’ and lined up for a whole series of newspaper interviews ahead of the album. Technological Man. Meta(matic) morphosis. Ghost In the Machine.
The Quiet Man arrives in Market Place…
METAMATIC (18 January 1980)
My sincere thanks to Garry Hensey for permission to reference his extended unpublished essay “Blackpool Neon Tango” on the Metamatic album
One of the few exceptions to the claim by Gareth Jones that there were ‘hardly any’ tracks recorded during the album session that haven’t at least been subsequently released was the song ‘Young Love’, initially laid down specifically to it being the first single. With its catchy, danceable beat, minimalist keyboards and chorus hook (Ah rock-rock, shock-shock, crack-crack…), it is strong, if incomplete, track. Virgin even assigned a catalogue number (VS303) to this potential release, initially scheduled between Local Operator’s ‘Law and Order’ (a reggae-infused Clash affected post-punk band from Denmark) and former Wailers guitarist Peter Tosh’s dangerous ‘Stepping Razor’ single from the 1977 Equal Rights album.
On Foxx’s insistence (?) that it didn’t represent the rest of the material (it also identifies quite strongly – and perhaps uncomfortably – with Ultravox ‘ROckWrok’ phrasing), Young Love was never quite finished, and shelved in favour of A New Kind Of Man – the title of which at the very least was an indication of what Foxx had become and the type of sound he was now making.
This track is one of the strongest on the album, and has stood the test of time as well as the lead singles. Even 35 years later, the song still features in Foxx live set, and is one of his personal favourites. There seems to be more going on than in some of the other tracks too, and Foxx’s main Odyssey lead is all over it. Jake Durant added a bass overdub at a much later stage, again playing along with the sound rather than leading it.
Supporting this statement of intent, ‘Metal Beat’ was chosen for the B-side and the lead track itself was remixed for 7” format. However, and this time for reasons that are even less clear, plans changed once again and this time in favour of ‘Like A Miracle‘, listed by Virgin potentially under the catalogue number VS318. This goes round in indefinable circles, and presumably for stylistic reasons (and perhaps because it was not featured on the album) ‘Like A Miracle’ too was put to one side at the last minute and the decision was made to run with ‘Underpass‘…
Some of this indecision could be laid at Foxx own door perhaps. He has subsequently affirmed several times that he has always been “unable” to choose appropriate singles, and even less interested in them as routes to commercial success. As a debut though, it must be said that a track that represented the parent album was surely one of the priorities for selection?
The indecision mirrors the change of mind regarding the album title too.
Although it is not known exactly when he came up with the working title for the project, right up until the master tapes were cut (at Strawberry in London on 10th December 1979) the album was scheduled for release as ‘Fusion / Fission’. As we have seen, artwork was prepared with this title, and an advert appeared in Sounds on 22nd December announcing the album ‘coming early in the next decade’ alongside other projects [on Virgin] from The Flying Lizards, Captain Beefheart and Sparks ‘Terminal Jive’.
And then there’s Christmas… no doubt the album was ready to go before the festive favourites dominated the airwaves. But Virgin would have chosen to hold it back, rather than launch a new artist at this time. Especially one with such risk attached as the minimalist drones and beeps of the seasonally ambivalent Metamatic…
So perhaps Foxx had more time than he bargained for…?
Having decided not to include the would-be title track on his album after all, Foxx was on the lookout for a more appropriate headline. He wanted a term that suited his concept : musical artworks, sound cameos made by machines. A word or phrase that summarised his idea that the synthesizers were speaking for themselves, that he was recording unique and new sounds. The concept and process behind the music was as important to him as the sound itself. Drawing on his knowledge of art history, Foxx was attracted to the kinetic sculptures of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, the inventor of a series of self-destructing painting machines in the 1950s built on a process known to the earlier Dadaist painters as ‘meta-mecanique’.
Given his declaration in 1977 that ‘I Want To Be A Machine’ (of which this debut solo album is indisputable testimony) it follows that Tinguely’s “Metamatic” painting machines should provide the perfect answer to his quest. Not for the last time, Foxx aligned himself with visual art and literature as much as (if not more than) music. Like ‘ROckWrok’ before it, ‘Metamatic’ is a ‘made-up’ word of some integrity and with artistic etymology. It works perfectly as an adjective to describe the sound of what has been described by the artist himself as “carcrash music, tailored by Burtons”, but also and more significantly, the ‘meta’ prefix cements the album’s identity as an abstract concept, with all its allusions to psychology, philosophy and epistemology.
The 22nd December issue of Sounds (as well as announcing the new album) includes with a news item proclaiming John’s signing to Virgin, and releasing material on his own ‘Metal Beat’ imprint, intending to use the label as a vehicle by which to to sign bands on a one-off basis to give him and them the freedom to move. Dates are listed for a single release: (Underpass) on January 4th and an album (Metamatic) two weeks later on January 18th.
However, even the most diligent fans will not have taken the opportunity to hear solo John Foxx material ahead of this. In Germany, an interview was published with Foxx on December 12th, entitled Dance of the Robots, in a feature about the emerging genre of electronic music. Alongside this feature, a compilation album called New Wave (Who’s Afraid Of the 80s?) includes the track Metal Beat alongisde post-punk favourites by The Skids and The Members.
German avant-gardist Holger Czukay also finally released his album Movies in December 1979, some 18 months after meeting Foxx at Conny’s studio in Cologne. Holger had been touched by John Foxx encouragement during a difficult time in the recording process, and thanks him in the album’s sleevenotes for “pushing [him] forward when [he] was about to give up.”
As the sun set on the transient, ill-disciplined decade of psychedelia, glam rock, disco and punk punk so the stage was set for a new era of popular music to emerge that was set to have more longevity than any of these.
“Synth-Rock is here!” announced Record Mirror. From the underground world of Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, the Human League and OMD a new breed of mavericks armed with noise-machines stood ready to assault the UK charts. Keyboards were becoming as affordable as electric guitars had in the 70s, and were even easier to play. Foxx observed that you could make a record using one finger and there was no need to even learn chords.
Here for years now
Coming next month
The UK pop charts *eek*
October/ November 1979
With the album tracks committed to tape by “late October” (…maybe, not sure…), the reels were packed off on a wobbly bicycle to Strawberry Mastering in SW1 where the disc was to be cut, using a Neumann 70 lathe. Nice pun that…
The studio, in Strutton Ground, was opened early in 1978 as a satellite of a larger company based up in Stockport. Owner and manager Mel Abrahams had a good reputation for the finest quality mastering, and installed state of the art equipment in the Westminister premises. Abrahams considerate approach and depth of experience had earned him a good reputation among sound engineers and recording artists. He exemplified a Foxxian ethic too – considering the cutting engineer to be as much a part of the production team as the sound engineer in the recording studio. “I like to spend a good deal of time playing tapes through and getting to know the aims of the producers”, Abrahams told Studio Sound magazine in July 1978. “The test cuts are then considered attempts and soon lead to a prime cut.”
With the audio in Abrahams’ safe hands, John Foxx set about creating the visuals, looking for artists and photographers to put together a suite of images in line with the minimalist, futuristic, film soundtracks recorded in Pathway. First in that line was 23 year old graduate designer Malcolm Garrett – a fellow student and associate of Peter Saville, at the time playing in the emerging Factory scene up in Manchester. Like Saville, Garrett admits to being significantly impressed and influenced by John Foxx design for the Systems of Romance, which he discussed at length with Foxx when they were set up together by Virgin records. Garrett was already himself an influential designer, most noted for his iconic work with the Buzzcocks and other punk bands on the United Artists label, and was introduced to Foxx after Virgin staff recommended he work on the album.
Through Garrett, Foxx was introduced to photographer Chris Gabrin and they all worked together in the latter’s Camden Town studio bringing together ideas and images to progress Foxx’s concept for the sleeve art.
In the same way that he worked with John Wesley-Barker and Jake Durant to realise his musical ideas, Foxx already knew what he wanted when he arrived at Gabrin’s studio – a white screen idea that he was to be photographed as if either materialising from or walking into.
[The song “A New Kind Of Man] was a continuation of the ‘Quiet Man’ theme – I’d begun to write the stories, and in one he steps out of and into a film screen.”
(Electricity Club interview, May 2018)
Echoing his days at Preston Art School (when he and fellow students presented a series of black numbers on white cards instead of oily slides, dressed in suits rather than kaftans, and cropped hair in place of longer locks) John Foxx chose to wear a suit for these photo sessions as well, setting himself firmly apart from the preceding punk movement and a step to the left of where his former colleagues from Ultravox were headed, into the New Romantic fashionista world of the Blitz club.
As he was in the studio, Foxx was firm and focussed, efficient and effective: all the pictures taken by Gabrin were done so with the final outcome in mind.
The resulting iconic image was positoned on the sleeve by Garrett, cropped deliberately to avoid it being a square format, with the grey strip positioned above for the typography. Modern No. 20 typeface, chosen by Foxx. It represents a progression from Systems Of Romance, but ties in with all that imagery rather neatly. And in the first instance (though it is doubtful either Garrett or Gabrin were aware of this) that wording originally titled the album FUSION/FISSION. Some promotional images of the sleeve were printed with that in mind and made their way into one or two of the music papers, ahead of any formal announcement that the album was ‘forthcoming’.
But by this time, although a recording of the ‘title track’ was made during these sessions, it was among a handful of tracks set aside by Foxx when he compiled the tracklist and running order. They were either considered unfinished, or simply didn’t fit with the rest of the chosen material. They may have been recorded too late – others ‘archive material’ includes versions of Like A Miracle and Young Love, dated on master tapes as being recorded on 28 November 1979. Such was the pace of change during the recording sessions that ideas (and moody instruments!) changed every day and Foxx was determined to stick firmly to his original design aesthetic.
He and Jones were already experimenting with new ideas too, instrumental pieces, generically titled Music For Films (recorded 14 November 1979, for ‘Island Records (??) and – speculatively – destined for B-sides of the ‘forthcoming’ single releases:
We made brief reference above to the rest of Ultravox.
What happened to them…?
Guitarist and singer Midge Ure (formerly of The Rich Kids and Slik) officially joined Warren Cann, Billy Currie and Chris Cross on 1 November 1979 after his time with Rusty Egan and Steve Strange (and Currie) in Visage, re-formimng Ultravox. Before the band signed to Chrysalis records they went back to the United States on an extensive tour, playing at most of the same venues they visited in February with Foxx, and adding lots more besides. Their first gig without Foxx was an inauspicious event at Cascades in Shrewsbury, followed by three other warm up shows before they crossed back over the Atlantic. As before, they opened their account Stateside at the Hot Club in Philadelphia (on 9 November) in a set which featured quite a number of ‘original’ songs, casuing some confusion among expectant fans.
Having seen the band again, Record Mirror’s Tim Lott and Chris Westwood included them in a special new feature on ‘synth-rock’. They were impressed with the new sound, concluding (somewhat reluctantly perhaps) that “the band were not as bereft of talent as they were made out to be”…
The debut single, other peripheral characters …and why ‘Metamatic’?
While Foxx was bunkered in Pathway, recording what he intended to be the first UK all-electronic synthesized album, Gary Numan led the charge towards the mainstream with his best-selling single Are ‘Friend’s Electric?, and took this new kind of this sound further into the public arena with the release of his debut solo album on September 7th. Recorded in Marcus Music Studio from June onwards, The Pleasure Principle was Numans’ third release in a year, and marks his pioneering transition from the punk ethic of Tubeway Army to his own statement of intent to be at the forefront of the next big thing. Numan is defiantly proud that the album has no guitars on it at all. He has always been equally determined to acknowledge that John Foxx was always one of his major influences and it was largely down to hearing how the use of synthesizers enhanced Ultravox sound that Numan knew what he wanted to do, and that he wanted to get there before anyone else.
But, he was nervous of his move towards the kind of sound he knew John Foxx was wanting to make two or three years earlier, and felt a little guilty that he might be stealing ideas. To this end, he apologetically sent a copy of four demo songs to John Foxx while he was till working on the album. Speaking to Sounds in January 1980, Foxx expressed his rather unexpected reaction:
[Gary] was very open about it. He said [Tubeway Army] hadn’t used some songs on the previous album [Replicas] because they were almost exactly like some of the things I’d written for Systems of Romance, and he was worried about that! But I don’t mind. I’m glad all that happened because all the work I’ve ever done is for other people to listen to. I do it for myself, obviously, but the whole idea of it is to put things out that other people listen to, and become excited by it, and use it – and use it ruthlessly, as much as they like.”
Foxx found the songs, including an early working of ‘Cars’, to be so interesting that he went along to the studio to meet Numan and see what he was doing. Numan met him anxiously (wearing a Systems of Romance T-shirt for the occasion!) and the two have been friends and mutually appreciatve of each other’s work ever since. Speaking of Gary to Stephen Roper for “Backstage” (A Book of Reflections, 2012), John Foxx recalls affectionately:
Back at the time, in Sounds, he continues:
“People take ideas that excite them and adapt them to their own use. It filters through their personality, their needs and the angles they see it from. So even if you do get something that’s almost a pastiche of the original idea, it inevitably has interesting differences…”
Among those differences, the dub influence on what was to become Metamatic is perhaps one of the most significant. Both John Foxx and Gareth Jones had a liking for reggae and especially dub. With Chris Cross back in 1976, Foxx had been in the Island studio alongside the Wailers, watching Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry manipulating the band recordings with the studio mixing equipment. An experience in the (very busy) Pathway environment triggered this memory:
When we were making [Metamatic], there were a lot guys coming in with stolen Channel One tapes and making dub mixes of them, quickly – because they were playing as little hourly rate as they possibly could. But they were making fantastic dub mixes, and using the studio like another instrument, all live stuff with the faders and switches. Gareth and I used to watch and listen and think ‘that’s great’, and we used that, a lot, in the mixing of my album. Because it’s a different genre, it’s not necessarily that recognisable, but it’s dub – a lot of Metamatic is dub. We were trying to get that kind of separation and abstraction between the sounds that the guys used to get. They used to delight in having this isolated sound and having one thing at a time going in each speaker, and then firing an echo across, it was all manual panning, a delight to watch.”
(FACT Magazine, May 2010)
While tracks like Plaza and 030 in particular use these dub techniques, things were moving very quickly during the recording sessions for the album and other pieces recorded at the time were left aside because they didn’t quite fit the final design. One such piece is a track called Young Love, which was laid down especially to be the first single. Two acetates were produced at different mastering studios (The Sound Clinic and Strawberry which was preferred and chosen for the album) but the plan to use the single was set aside quickly when the rest of the material started to take shape and it was felt to be unrepresentative. Not before NME featured an advert for a mail order company offering the single at the princely sum of 79 pence though…
Foxx and Jones were experimenting all the time, both at home and in the studio. Foxx laid down sonic ideas and sound samples on his ARP Odyssey Mark III (purchased from the London Sound Centre at St Pancras), creating a library of bleeps, drones and ‘swooshes’ that were to set him in good stead for many years to come. Grammar and vocabulary. Developing the language.
Minimalism was the order of the day. The design principle around which the album (under the working title Fusion / Fission) was built:
“I deliberately wanted eight tracks, to leave out as much as possible. With unlimited possibilities, you produce rubbish. With limits, you become an artist, rather than a magpie.”
(Future Music, 2011)
Two weeks after the release of the Pleasure Principle, Gary Numan set a new British record by being the first artist to have two consecutive simultaneous Number Ones in the UK album and singles chart. He launched his first major tour in Glasgow on September 20th, and played London’s Hammersmith Odeon on September 28th. John Foxx was in attendance, and was photographed with Numan afterwards in the Green Room.
Also in the audience was a 21 year old synth enthusiast named Ben Edwards…
Designing Metamatic. Chris Gabrin, Malcolm Garrett and the album cover
Please do get in touch if you can add anecdotes, corrections, sources or otherwise inform the story for the official John Foxx archive at foxxmetamedia.
“We had to invent all of the sounds as we went along as there were no presets then, so we used written cards and sketches to memorise all the sounds”
(John Foxx, November 2009)
So it happened. At Pathway, Foxx had a place to put all the little things he’d been accumulating for years. With Jones and Barker on board, many of the notes, ideas and bits and pieces suddenly became as real as slabs of concrete. “I was beginning to make stuff I hadn’t heard before,” said Foxx, speaking to Garry Hensey in 2010. “Cheap Blackpool-neon tunes that seemed as big as Europe, as lost as a service station on the Berlin corridor. Bits of movies, stuff I’d heard in passing while hitchhiking around Europe in the 1960s. Gently poisonous, achingly romantic.
“I was especially interested in the ‘overlapping loops’ thing and got John [Wesley-Barker] to build up pieces of music like that” continued Foxx. “Everything was touch and go at the time – whether it would work or not; whether I was throwing th baby out with the bathwater. Things like that. [Touch & Go] was how I was feeling at the time, that it was easy to fail or succeed.”
Barker recalls the amount of gear he used in recording this sparse Philip Glass-style minimalist piece: ‘Arp Odyssey, Hammond Organ and Hohner Clavinet D8: bass, offbeat stabs, flanged chords and then same with interweaving melodic figures during systems type faded coda.
Many will be interested to learn that no sequencers were used to create the systems music loops of “Touch & Go” and in fact all the loops were played by hand by Barker: ‘It surprises me to think that we only had monophony although we could utilise the amazing feature of the ARP Odyssey of playing two notes at a time! The sounds that the ARP could make were so powerful though. There was no MIDI then although we could have gone into CV interfacing, we only did so in a tiny way. Everything was played manually. The sessions presented fiendish technical challenges.”
Before he started recording this first album, and crucial to his publishing deal with Virgin, Foxx was keen that his vision of owning and managing his own label should also become a reality now he was operating independently.
With a desire to help other artists avoid going through what he had gone through with Island, Foxx originally intended to sign other acts to Metal Beat: ‘I’d like to involve people who also want to make records but who have found no sympathy with the larger companies…It’s all pretty embryonic, but I’d like to set up a studio or workshop, since I found one of the biggest problems was the expense of getting into a studio. So really I’m also using the label to help and guide other people.
“A number of kids have sent me tapes of stuff they’ve recorded usually just to get some kind of reaction or to get some advice from me as to the quality of what they’re doing. And in fact a number of the tapes are very, very good and I feel they deserve releasing. So that’s one function I’d like Metal Beat to deal with.”
(NME, March 1980)
However, once Foxx settled in to the serious business of recording an album, and experimenting in the studio at home with other pieces, his ideal for managing other artists on his label quickly became unsustainable.
“Pretty soon I realised there’s a lot of responsibility involved and it wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to do, so I didn’t pursue it. Slightly deluded, brave and daft.”
(Metal Beat 2007)
The label lived on to cover John Foxx own releases of course, and the name defines one of the album’s most remarkable tracks
Discussing the ‘classic album’ Metamatic with Future Music in 2010, Foxx recalls:
“I used to like the way old ‘70s Funk lines would lock in with overlapping grooves – very hard to do… It was like working with loops before loops. I wanted to make that interlocking thing with just three elements. I used the ARP for the metallic noises with its ring mod. I cheated using a Clavinet which I put through a flanger – actually what turned into the lead line. It was doubled up with an ARP and then put through the flanger again.”
John Wesley-Barker concludes: “One of the first sessions I did with John Foxx was recording the bass line for “Metal Beat”, which as some people may know, is the name of a drum sound found on the Roland CR-78 drum machine. I also played the main melody of that track, and the noises, using an ARP Odyssey. The bass and tenor lines line were recorded with the Odyssey too’.
Apart from all that, there’s this.
An interview with Foxx, recorded during the Ultravox gigs in Toronto, was published in August 1979, in Issue 5 of ‘Shades’ magazine. Speaking to Peter Nobele, Foxx talked not only about the live shows, but also prophesises about his future with the band. He already knew at this point that his life was going in a different direction:
“I’ve sold quite a few pieces of art, partly to keep alive when Ultravox first came together. I sold things to people like milk advertising executives and film directors. It was very funny and rather bizarre (laughter), I’ll never stop doing any of my work ‘coz I’ve been doing it since I was seven years old. In fact, it’s probably more important to me, or just as important as the music is. 1 consider it part of the same thing really. I don’t like to separate them because it’s just part of the same body of work.”
Foxx references ‘film directors’ here and the importance of artwork alongisde and complimentary to, his music.
Next month, we’ll look at the artwork designed and produced to accompany the album, and discuss the film score pieces he was writing at the same time.
Some of which took over 30 years to be heard…
Young Love, dub mixing and Gary Numan
My sincere thanks to Garry Hensey for permission to use his essay ‘Blackpool Neon Tango’ and make reference to unpublished interviews carried out for that work
Please do get in touch if you can add anecdotes, corrections, sources or otherwise inform the story for the official John Foxx archive at foxxmetamedia.
You can more read about this period from John Foxx himself here:
He awoke and focussed, a dream or two waving from a couple of corners, quickly fading. Out of the crisp, clean sheets into the bathroom, quite blind (still on auomatic), chose the clothes from the wardrobe – slacks with a crease, brown shoes in a long gone style, the woolen shirt she bought to keep his heart warm. Pleased with the reflection he passed into the living room, surfacing slowly all the time. Outside it was green June, and raining. Crowds of little leaves were adrip around the windows overlooking a garden ending in shared poplars, against a sky where jets glinted and sunsets sometimes roared, leaving with a long light…”
(John Foxx, the Quiet Man)
But where to walk? Lost in London, living like a ghost. Disused railway lines, parks. Finsbury Park. His guide – Richards Griffiths, former A & R man at Island who left when Ultravox did, unhappy with the direction the label was taking and himself seeking a more flexible, independent business model.
Foxx had demos, crude but competent 4-track recordings made on his own TEAC A3340S in the front room at home, using an ARP Odyssey, CR-78 drum machine, Elka String Machine and an MXR Flanger. He also had a small loan, acquired by Griffiths, afforded on the strength of the original recording of A New Kind Of Man. Griffiths had connections and experience in the industry, and persuaded Foxx that he should find a recording studio and do the songs he had ‘properly’ with professional sound quality and more appeal to major labels:
“I was going to go to Rough Trade originally,” said Foxx to Sounds in May 1980 “simply because I liked what they did; they seemed to be the most organised of those groups of people, and they seemed to have enough distribution to cope with what I wanted to do as well, but Richard had other ideas. He said that I’d be much better advised to form my own label and get a bigger company to distribute it so I could keep hold of the side of it I wanted, the making records part of it. That way I could also release music by other artists on my own label, which is something else I was really interested in at the time.”
Negotiations followed, meeting with company execs and all the people Foxx had come to dislike after his experience at Island. It was at Virgin that he met the only person genuinely interested in the music he had, his reputation, and crucially his idea of forming his own imprint. Trusting the instinct of his cousin Simon Draper (Virgin’s ‘accidental’ A&R man) Virgin founder Richard Branson made Foxx an offer and he walked away with Metal Beat, a self-finance label, and secured distribution rights with the parent company.
Richard [Branson] realised he was dealing with something he didn’t quite understand’ recalls Foxx, ‘Simon sort of understood it because he was enthusiastic about it, and enjoyed the whole process a great deal. You always got this feeling from him that he enjoyed every minute of what he was doing. Some of it must’ve been tedious beyond belief but he always enthused about things – not in any shallow way – you felt he was an informed, intelligent character. He was a bit like a Tony Wilson figure in London. It takes that kind of character – someone who just loves doing the thing – and has an enthusiasm for the medium and the possibilities of it. And just plays, it’s playful, it’s a lovely playful attitude. I really like it, you don’t come across it that much.”
But within a couple of weeks, Foxx was to meet another of London’s creative mavericks when he walked into Pathway Studio in Islington. Ultravox had recorded a couple of demos themselves in the converted garage “the size of a broom cupboard” and Fox xlike both the opportunities presented by the studio and the limitations of its 8-track desk. The studio’s history held a significant appeal too. Punk was ‘born’ in Pathway when Nick Lowe produced The Damned’s first single there, and more recently Squeeze, Dire Straits and Madness had crammed in to make their debut recordings. Foxx had immediately just liked it, and had no hesitation returning to make his first solo album. He immediately liked Gareth Jones too, the studio’s young engineer, in whom he found a kindred spirit with a passion for emerging experimental independent music in general, and The Normal’s Warm Leatherette in particular:
‘Gareth is an instinctive Avant-Garde-ist; if anything either hasn’t been tried before or is taking things to an extreme he loves it, he’s straight in there’ says ‘He has that reputation of being the ‘human-blur’ – which is because he moves so fast and so constantly, that you think there are three or four of him around. So, he will surround you with versions of himself – all working in different corners of the studio, it’s like having a team. He’s a fantastic guy in that respect and a pure enthusiast. He used to just love sounds, when he got a sound that he was happy with he would play it and play it, really enjoy it, so did I. He was exactly the kind of accomplice you needed on that kind of mission, which was a two-man mission to reconstruct pop music as we saw it for ourselves!’
(Metal Beat interview, 2007)
Jones was equally enthused, as he expressed when speaking to Garry Hensey in 2015:
He was a great mentor for me, and I’ve always said this at many lectures and things, because his idea was so brilliant: to make a minimal record as a proper conceptual artist. it was just so clever, that he had this vision to do something minimal and therefore he limited himself, it’s something that’s so hard to do now. There was two 8-track machines but you couldn’t sync them together. So you could fill up all the 8 tracks on one machine – we didn’t do it on every song – because many of the songs were completed within the context of 8 tracks. But some of the songs that were bigger in vision, production-wise – you’d fill up 8 tracks, and you’d put it on the second machine that was playback only, and then you’d sub-mix the 8 tracks perhaps back down on to 4 tracks. And that way you’d have four more tracks, so then it would finish up being like a 12 track. But they didn’t run together you just had one 8-track tape full, put it on a playback machine, mix it back – you might mix drums and bass together – and so 2 tracks would go down to 1, and that way you’d win some extra tracks. But you could never go back though, and if you got the bounce wrong, it was wrong, so you did the best you could. You committed with the artist and said ‘okay that’s the sub-mix’ and move on.
‘Often it was six tracks’ affirmed Foxx, ‘six tracks was the least amount we used, four or five at some points. I was really pleased when we only used six!’
Working on the material for what was to become John’s first solo album, Foxx confided in Jones that he had considered using a bass player, and could do with another keyboard player to fully realise some of his ideas. Jones was ideally placed to suggest some names, including his flat mate Alan (Jake) Durant and their mutual friend John Wesley Barker. Durant initially laid down some bass parts for Plaza when John Foxx wasn’t even in the studio, and such was the trust between Foxx and Jones that the tracks were enthusiastically woven in. Similarly, in the expert hands of Wesley-Barker, some of Foxx’s more complciated melodies and arrangements began to take shape.
For Barker, this was a welcome opportunity to further explore his interests in systems musics outside the stricter discipline of his classical training.
‘I was asked to play parts John had made up but he explained that he wanted a very precise machine-like rhythmic feel to the parts. I was thrown in a deep end, trying to please John and at the same time needing to interpret his verbal instructions into musical phrases and ideas. My listening at that time included Kraftwerk, Philip Glass and Steve Reich so I locked into the drum machine and we tried to make very accurate parts. It meant both John and Gareth scrutinized every note I played and I’m human, so I learnt how to do drop-ins and drop-outs with Gareth. I did feel under a lot of pressure at times but the trade off for me was that I felt I was learning a lot about studio techniques and working with John who has a very strong vision of his intentions. It was a whole new world for me.’
From these initial recording sessions, material was laid down to master tapes that form part of the extensive John Foxx archive, plundered variously in recent years for each re-issue of the debut album. Dated June 1979 (and listing “Island Records” as the client), these include
BLURRED GIRL (Backing Track)
NO-ONE DRIVING (LONG) (Backing Track)
TOUCH AND GO
NO-ONE DRIVING (SHORT) (Backing Track)
LIKE A MIRACLE (Backing Track)
The titles show how the 8-tracks were used to create backing material that was recorded on one machine and sub-mixed onto another, and how the more familiar final recordings were initially conceived.
Despite having these dates recorded on the master tapes, it is not known how long it took to record the album, or precisely why it took six months for the finished product to finally appear. Sessions were booked for between three and five days at a time, and a lot of additonal pieces were played around with but never used or even recorded.
Gareth Jones again:
I wish I’d kept a set of notebooks but I didn’t. But it was a very cost-effective studio for John’s vision because he wanted to have the time he needed to realise the work. And that was the atmosphere that I came away with, even after all this time – I remember. I don’t remember a mad panic, I don’t remember studio profligacy – wasting time – not at all, it was very workman-like, but I don’t remember a mad panic to get everything done in three days or anything because he was, as I keep saying – he was massively experienced at that stage, very thoughtful and thought ‘ok, a cheap studio gives me the time I need to develop the vision I want without stretching myself out too much’.
Metal Beat mastered
My sincere thanks to Garry Hensey for permission to use and reference his unpublished essay on “Blackpool Neon Tango” on the making of Metamatic, especially the interviews with Jones and Durant.
You can more read about this period from John Foxx himself here: