A chronology detailing 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 opinions 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
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: