Adventures In Doors

Press the flashing button
Sliding open hissing door
Sitting in the same place
As every time before…

Emerged from underground at midday as the Waterloo & City line train slammed into the portal that is Bank.
Gateway twixt realities. From then to now.

Walk the tunnels. Follow her, she will do. Anticipate the signs. DLR emergent. A quickening of pulse and pace. Expectant. Excited, gripping hands. He noticed they were no longer cold…

Blinking. Endless chattering. A strange exchange.
Filmscape, landscape. Cityscape. Urban interface. Shadwell, Limehouse, Heron Quay. Evidence of Time Travel. The future’s here and suddenly he is Six again. Wide-eyed in wonder. Like the small boy standing just over there, steadied by his dad, his face pressed against the glass ‘driving’ the train. His mother films it all, through Apple’s eye.
Their guide is Guy Debord: light and sound ideas; metal, glass and water. And in between, glimpses, living on the streets – the ghosts of Dogs. See him there, an earlier man, watching as she runs, panting, on a charity run 25 years or more before? Still haunted. Harken the power of architecture, speaking to us as ourselves.
This derivé will create a permanent spectacle as the day unfolds…

“An exercise in combinatory aesthetics”

Island Gardens.
Island – just for a moment.
Gardens – living our lives on the tides of this city.
Moving me to you
Moving you to me

Twin domes across the river. Nearly there. This morning is a lifetime away.

Another door slides, silent glides.
Oak-panelled lift descending. Leave all your concerns at the door. TARDIS simulator. Another tunnel. White light underground. The lamps are numbered N to S. Walking slowly down and gently up. And up.

By now anticipation is replaced with gay abandon and all that is wrong becomes the rightest thing.
They step out, into huge and blue. Tall ships aground in Tarmacadam. Admission charges now apply.
(It would seem that tea still commands elevated prices!)

But how right it feels that there should be no longer
Clouds to spoil the view

She wants to eat. She wants to please. But everything is already more good that she can know.

Without due caution, they could end up East…

There are choices to be made, and times to spend.
The Red Door is held for them by a couple leaving, laughing
And another couple laughing enters in.
Table by the window. Menu – something wrong?
The door again. Thank you, sorry.
Somewhere else?

Roads to cross and gates to find. People to negotiate, and older trees.
London maple. Just like home.
Except it’s not, even at all.

Once I was walking alone with a friend

 

 

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The Book Of Leaves

My thanks to John Foxx for the wonderful title

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I hold my hand out and the grass
Rushes through my fingers –
I look at window silhouettes
And everything is different;

I turn another page
In The Book of Leaves
It crumbles to dust in my hand
Photographs of distant moments
In The Book Of Leaves
The story of another kind of life
That no-one reads

I walk in silence
Stand in darkness
Talking to the trees

My diary of you and me is called
The Book Of Leaves

I am not the man she loves
No-one really knows me
I’m the album on the shelf
That you have never played –

Somehow changed
Re-arranged
And nothing is the same

She writes another entry
In The Book Of Leaves
Engraves another memory
That no-one sees

Tries to write a different ending
in the Book Of Leaves
An invisible, dead language
Only I can read

Endlessly fascinating…

Earlier this year, I exchanged emails with the abstract painter Andrew Marvick, Professor of Art History at Southern Utah University, on the artwork of John Foxx.

We got talking about Endlessly, and opened up one of the most fascinating and insightful conversations I have ever had on the absorbing subject of John Foxx as a visual artist. It rather became a pretty thorough deconstruction of the record sleeve, which may de-mystify it to some extent. But on the other hand, the essay opens up a million thought experiments and points of entry to a significantly under-appreciated body of work…

I’ve tried to reproduce and order the discussion here.

Marvick’s own paintings explore the effects of age and beauty – an over-riding theme in John Foxx catalogue – and I asked first him how series like A Funny Thing (2011) connected with the songs of those names from John Foxx albums:

There is always at least some sort of visual link between any of my Foxx-entitled paintings and the song or phrase I’ve attached to it. It might be a colour, or an effect of shadow and light; it might equally be a reference to meter or tempo (inasmuch as the principles of design can be seen as corresponding to the principles of musical production); or it might be a quality of composition, or of balance. Occasionally I’ll even make a vague reference to subject matter (the hint of a figure here or an overgrown city there).

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 20.37.18A Funny Thing © Andrew Marvick

I am particularly happy when I can revel in a single John Foxx recording and find its imagery, poetry and music joined so marvelously that none seems possible without the others. [This] series of paintings, for example, was undertaken with the express purpose of showing the depth and richness of a single song. Each painting illustrates one of the song’s 18 couplets.

Marvick’s latest series is called The Peripheral Character and forms an integral part of an exhibition recently held in to present a visual expression of the philosophical ideas of identity and absence in modern abstraction:

The notion of the “peripheral character” – a minor figure in a play or a movie – as the subject of a painting was suggested to me by an odd discovery I made about the work of the British artist Dennis Leigh, who has led two separate careers under two separate names. As electronic musician John Foxx, and as a college professor and graphic designer specializing in book-jacket design and short-form art films.

Central to Dennis Leigh’s art in both music and design is the theme of the anonymous figure, of which the digitally altered composition The Quiet Man (below, black and whiteis an example.

Marvick and I spoke further on how another ‘anonymous identity’ of Mr Leigh further compounds the conundrum, referencing the series of short films he ‘collected’ in 2006 under the pseudonym of Arnold Weiscz-Bryant. The soundtracks to these Tiny Colour Movies were released as an album. In A Peripheral Character by film scholar Evan Parker, Leigh introduces his audience to an intriguing Hollywood character who has appeared in hundreds of major movies and television series as a background extra, or a passer-by, often wearing a grey suit, yet whose identity is completely unknown to the public.

This characteristic further assimilates Leigh’s own alter-ego as The Quiet Man, whose face has yet to be recognisably identified in any of the short films or stolen photographs in which he has so far appeared:

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 21.01.10 bridge 1465856883735  quietman01

Leigh has been compiling these clips over the decades, and Marvick suggests – purely for mystery’s sake – that in their careful composition and incidental presentation (and specifically in the Super 8mm compositional film by Evan Parker), he has placed responsibility for another part of his artistic output at still further remove from himself.

I extended this idea by drawing comparisons with another iconic image created by Dennis Leigh for John Foxx in 1980 – the cover of his fourth single Miles Away:

johnfoxx-milesaway              CoY-bnLWEAA-MgA

The Quiet Man is hiding in plain sight here. Revisiting an idea he first used in promotional material for the Quiet Men single in 1978. On a superficial level, it even “looks” like an artwork. A picture in a gallery, simply labelled. Present, but absent and his identity remains a mystery.
Key to this is Leigh’s awareness of the effect and significance of what Marvick refers to as ‘furtherance of the self ‘, the removal of  the artist from the art by several degrees of subtle separation.  This is an idea that manifests extensively in the work of the abstract modernism of the Surrealists. Leigh thus cleverly crosses over into the world of popular music, a medium in which (especially at the time of the 1980s fashionable New Romantic period) it was becoming increasingly popular for musicians to put their own face all over their records, and to become poster icons in teenage bedrooms.

Marvick describes his paintings as non-representational. They have no clear connection with the secret, aloof world inhabited by the Quiet Man / Peripheral Character / Evan Parker / John Foxx / Dennis Leigh. Yet in his current series  The Peripheral Character he takes his  cue from The Quiet Man composition (above).

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You can see the series here

From this starting point, I asked Andrew Marvick to help piece together the philosophy, details and art historical context of my own personal favourite among John Foxx record sleeves – 1983’s Endlessly:

 

I have been fortunate enough in recent years to have been able to see and actually touch the original collage that was photographed for the front cover image. It’s quite large – 18″ square – and every bit as impressive and fascinating as the pictures I was first enthralled by 30 years ago. The red background is painted board and the other pieces are layered and glued on to that.

Each element contributes something subtle but significant to the whole, and the resulting collage brings together all the elements of John’s musical and artistic output. It is, as Marvick described, a Gesamtkunstwerk – a total or ideal work of art. A work of art that makes use of all or many art forms. The term is also applied to some forms of architecture, film and mass media – making it irrevocably Foxxian when set in the context of his work since Endlessly was conceived.

The centrepiece of the image (a page torn from an exhibition catalogue) is a portrait of the angel from Leonardo da Vinci’s later version of The Virgin Of The Rocks, painted in oil for a San Francescan oratory and completed in 1508, which is now exhibited in the National Gallery in London. Leonardo painted an earlier version in 1486, which now hangs in the Louvre, but it is thought this did not meet with his client’s expectations and the artist himself was not entirely satisfied with the ambiguous results of the composition.

What better image then for Foxx to use for his own re-working of a song that he originally released as a single 12 months earlier and has previously described as rushed and not entirely what he had in mind?
To make this point – admittedly to only a handful of the most keen-sighted observers – Foxx re-uses another piece of sleeve-art for 1983’s Endlessly. He previously used the angel portrait from Leonardo’s earlier painting on the cover of Slow Motion, released with Ultravox in 1978.

I found this intriguing, and contacted another academic, Dr Michael Whitworth in Oxford, when he published a book with the Slow Motion image on its front cover. What was the fascination? How, and why was the image relevant?

slow-motion-and-einsteins-wake

At some point in reworking my thesis into a book, Einstein’s Wake, I imagined the sleeve of ‘Slow Motion’ as the ideal image. A crucial argument both in thesis and book concerns the finite velocity of light, and the way it becomes an image for the belatedness of knowledge in modernity.  Many expositors adopted Camille Flammarion’s ideal that, seen from a distant point in space, the Battle of Waterloo appeared to be happening in the present moment.  The way the image of the woman’s face is spread across space speaks to that idea.  The sequences of numbers in the margins also intrigued me, and touched on the idea that our knowledge is relative to our frame of reference; I particularly liked the way that the sequence at the left has a gap in it, as if the frame isn’t quite as reliable as it should be.  I was contracted to publish with Oxford University Press, and at that date its jackets were typographically conservative (Roman fonts) and tended to include a small framed image centrally in the page; I liked the way that ‘Slow Motion’ would fit that tradition but also break it; modernist fracturing of a settled tradition.

You can read more about Michael Whitworth’s book Einsteins Wake  here

This all suggests that by 1983, John Foxx was perhaps musically where he felt he was going in 1978, having undergone a transformative process with two albums in the intervening five years, each with its own defining aesthetic. He is starting afresh, an established popular musician now, with a budget and the freedom to indulge in his love of art history. And Renaissance art in particular – a period that very few musicians have used to any significant degree.

Andrew Marvick identifies another Renaissance element of the collage and puts this into an historical context, further illustrating Foxx themes of hidden identities:

The drapery study which appears in Endlessly’s back-cover collage is not simply an example of ‘endless’ folds. Like the amgel’s portrait is it “elusively allusive”, as it is very similar to an oil study here that has often been attributed to Leonardo but has more in common, as it happens, with the robes of the Virgin in Michelangelo’s early Pietà. 

Pieta

There are easy comparisons to be made with Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which is perhaps the first example of a direct appropriation with “annotations” added by the later artist; and with some of the more rectilinear “Merz” collages of Kurt Schwitters, which he began during the period of his close involvement with the dada movement in the later 1910s – which serves as an example of the use of unlikely bits of photographic imagery as components of a larger composition.

Schwitters

Schwitters (1930): Mann Soll Nicht Asen mit Phrasen (“One should not eat with phrases”)

Note the CMYK colour bars at the left side of this particular reproduction (not part of Schwitters’ original work) which John Foxx has also deliberately included as picture elements in his own work over the years. That too is referential, at least to the sort of deliberate, celebratory exploitation of the mechanical printing process which became the foundation of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Ben Day” pointillist ‘dot-based’ style during the 1960s.

The placement of the artist at several removes from a clear identity is – as presented above – central to Foxx’s own career-long artistic themes, but just as importantly through the collage technique itself, which places Foxx within the context of early 20th-century modernist collage art, as well as the dawn of what we now call conceptual art.
These connections naturally link Foxx back to Picasso and Braque c1912, simply because collage is a relatively new art form, the first serious exploration of which by any professional artist were the two inventors of cubism.

Marvick suggests there are additional, more recent connections to be suggested, too:

The “woman on a stairway” rebus that Foxx seems to be making in the image seems to me to reference Vladimir Tatlin’s famous 1919 model for the “Monument to the Third International,” as much because of the formal connection it has with Foxx’s spiral staircases as because of its iconic status in the history of radical Russian modernist formalism – here’s Schwitters’ own designed page from an issue of a dada periodical which includes an illustration of the Monument:

Monument

The reason Russian constructivism (and through it, both Dutch de Stijl and Dada layout design) become relevant to this analysis is because Foxx elsewhere has repeatedly “quoted” Vladimir Tatlin’s associate El Lissitsky in other pieces of work.

Here, for example, is a “Proun” collage by El Lissitzky from 1925.
Notice the diagrammatic red and blue lines, which Foxx re-uses in his Slow Motion collage (above):

Proun

Marvick’s reference to Tatlin and the Russian constructivists in this context led me to re-visit a very early piece from John Foxx archive, this advert for the first tour and all the responses to the track I WANT TO BE A MACHINE in which he is quite clearly referencing to photomontage work of Raoul Hausman.

In particular, Tatlin At Home, made in 1920:

 

Further investigation of each element in the Endlessly collage revealed countless moreallusions, references and appropriations.

In the back-cover assemblage there’s a very clear Magritte reference in the use of a cut-out half-circle of blue sky and cloud connected by wire to another bit of cloud lower down. Magritte’s Infinite Recognition (1963) is a particularly suitable example of the source image of placid, banal clouds in a blue sky, so closely connected with Magritte. This one also presaging Foxx’s use of small, illusionistic figures sharing unlikely flat spaces with abstract compositional elements.

These occur throughout Foxx’s ‘collage period’ on record covers up to those released in 1985 from In Mysterious Ways

the-infinite-recognition-19631-magritte-cloud

The carefully cut-out illusionistic imagery of single human figures within the otherwise abstract, flat space of the collage has other precedents besides Magritte’s.
Abstracted figures appear in a similarly enigmatic, diagram-like context in Marcel Duchamp’s collage-on-glass, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), as well as in several Joseph Cornell assemblages. Foxx refers to Cornell in his conversation with Iain Sinclair – and in The Wire Top-10 annotations he also refers to Edward Hopper, the American painter whose hushed, alienated representations of anonymous urban figures are almost a pre-figuration of The Quiet Man

largeglass-big  night-shadows-hopper-whitney-museum-michele-roohani

And instantly we are connecting with artists whose works have inspired and otherwise appeared in later works by John Foxx. In 2011, he released an collaborative album of treated piano pieces with Harold Budd and Ruben Garcia entitled Nighthawks (the title of another Edward Hopper painting). The cover of this further alludes to the anonymous urban figure of the Quiet Man in one of John Foxx own photographs, itself an interpretation of Hopper’s 1942 original:

R-2964833-1309458692.jpeg 187455_3026962

Many contemporary collage artists – among them the American Jonathan Talbot have also referenced the diagrammatic “motion line” that stems from Duchamp’s 1912 cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase .

Here’s Orrery Patrin by Talbot:

Talbot

and Foxx’s use of thread or wire in the back-cover collage recalls not only Lissitzky’s real or simulated use of string, wire or sticks but also connects with László Moholy-Nagy’s constructions of the 1920s.
Like this 1923 collage, made with sticks:

Nagy

This latter piece is especially of interest because it again enables us to draw in other examples of similar from John Foxx own portfolio. Notice how it informs both sides of the sleeve produced for Dancing Like A Gun in 1981:

 

Using his own intuitive understanding of both art history and John Foxx Quiet Man imagery, the specific elements of this were re-visited recently by Jonathan Barnbrook for the cover of the Burning Car album:

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These threads, tangents and connections are vital elements in understanding John Foxx significance as a modernist, abstract artist – but they can distract us from here into other essays and narrow alleyways of fascinating research.

I’d like to conclude with two other intricacies of the Endlessly collage that Andrew Marvick and I discussed in particular detail, which concluded our analysis of the front cover – the disfigured identity card and the ‘ghostly girl’ assemblage:

Untitled

These references to early 20th-century constructivism and to early-stage Surrealism (arguably its opposite, in some ways) are by way of linking Foxx’s personal themes (failure to communicate, to make direct connections between people; and the broad but more evanescent theme [or image] of the extremely modern city dissolving into an abandoned ruin over time) to those art movements’ own modes of visual expression — each in its way was a route of escape from the mundane and familiar into the unknown/unknowable.

The Carte d’identite is of course not just any card. Foxx has specifically chosen to include the one used by the philosopher-economist Albert Hirschman (under an alias), who actually helped to get André Breton and other members of the Surrealist/Dada bunch out of Europe before the start of WWII…

The scratched-out face of Foxx’s mysterious figure fits exactly into the cloak-and-dagger symbolism of anonymity and placelessness that permeates Foxx’s own work.

I suggested to Marvick that the image of the little girl is one I have seen before in John Foxx work, but even now I cannot place it. Neither of us was able to pin down exactly what it means, or the source, but Andrew came up with two very interesting associations.

The first is the iconic painting The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse from 1916

the-piano-lesson  Bladerunner

The second is the famous “live photograph” scene from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (released, interestingly enough, in between the two versions of Endlessy) in which the investigator Deckard inspects a few enigmatic Hopper-like photographs in search of identity.

In writing this piece up based on notes from my conversations with Andrew Marvick (and Michael Whitworth), I became very aware that it wanders all over the place and identifies various tangents that can be more or less explored at a later date. It has proved a very difficult article to conclude, mainly because the subject matter is truly Infinite In All Directions and offers an endlessly fascinating source of artistic and inspiration.

I would love to see other academics study John Foxx in some depth, write about his work and thus help with the greater understanding and significance it deserves.

For now, I will leave the last few words to Andrew Marvick, whose time, knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are an absolute joy to share. I am deeply grateful for his generosity in sharing his time and insight with me, and allowing me to publish our conversations here.

I hope this introduction demonstrates the richness of Foxx’s visual art – and that it’s enough of a defense of Foxx’s appropriation techniques as any skeptic might demand.

From this link-to-link comparison you can quickly see how deep and rich is Foxx’s referentiality. It’s not at all an exaggeration, in my view, to say that there are few, if any artists in the history of popular music whose acuity and erudition (let alone intellectual sophistication and expressive mastery) in the visual arts are as undeniably manifest as John Foxx. 

 

A Man, A Woman And A Machine

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Review of The Machine Stops as experienced at The Point in Eastleigh
June 9th, 2016

Thanks to fortuitous connections between theatre companies and the alignment of geographical circumstances en route to Budapest, Pilot Theatre were able to stage their new interpretation of The Machine Stops at The Point in Eastleigh last week. Four miles from home. Which gave me an unmissable opportunity to experience E.M.Forster’s short story and John Foxx soundtrack up close and personal from a front row seat with which to see how all the elements I have heard so much about work together.

I’ve read the story, but many years ago, and I’ve heard the soundtrack from recordings made in York. I’ve followed John Foxx retrospectively for 40 years now and have a pretty good understanding of the philosophy and context of his music. I’ve seen the posters and read reviews online of the week long run at the Theatre Royal up there – and yet I still didn’t know quite what to expect.

Most of the reviews I have read pass over the soundtrack altogether, and those that do mention it pay homage to Foxx with a couple of sentences about atmospheric soundscapes. Chilling, unerving, dark and effective. Ged Babey describes the use of the music as ‘stunning’, and he is not wrong. Ben Pugh and his colleague mix the soundtrack pieces perfectly to the minimalist action on stage, cutting, looping and timing all exquisitely mastered to bring a vital element to the drama that it simply would not have been the same without.

I’m not a theatre crtic (or even a music crtitic, I’m well aware…) but I do get Foxx, and I have been blessed with opportunitites to talk to people and get inside his work that have not fallen to many others. As such, I wonder if I have a relatively unique perspective on this?

There’s no real need to outline the plot – you can read that here – but suffice to summarise that Forster’s story is probably one of the greatest and most powerful prophecies on the internet and the dehumanisation of society ever written. Vashti and her dissonant citizens have become slaves to The Machine, worshipping its book of rules as if it were the Holy Bible. With technology at hand to provide all the communication with others that anyone could ever need, and all the world’s knowledge aand research at the touch of a button (which also provides cold bath and hot bath experiences, night, day,music and food) we have all become distant and more disconnected from other and ourselves than ever before.

Dislocated.

John Foxx and Benge have composed the music on analogue synths, ancient Moogs and Arps, in an underground studio; on machines patched to each other and synchronised by means of coloured cables. These are clipped, twiddled and otherwise connected during performance to create the trademark bleeps, melodies, rhythms and crashing notes that characterise their brand of formative electronica. I say formative because Foxx was there at the beginning of the UK electronic movement in 1978 and that’s how they did it then.

That’s how they do it now, and we are only just beginning to understand how they actually sound.

And that’s how The Machine works. The Committee Of the Mending Apparatus (COMA) is played by two people in a wonderful example of very physical theatre. They climb, swing and move effortlessly over the frame at first synchronised perfectly with each other and later breaking out in disfunctional fragments as The Machine breaks down. But in the meantieme, they repair The Machine and deliver Vashti’s demands for food, music and ideas by connecting and disconnecting coloured cables to the metal frame. With magnets. I thought they were clips, but learned after they were magnets, that provided the crew with the same temperamental challenges as Benge faces trying to keep his synthesizers in check. It is the unreliability of these machines that makes them so appealing, so ironically human.

Forster’s script talks of imperfect music, of the value and significance of second hand ideas. All very Foxxian – capturing mistakes and repurposing fragments of sound have been his preferred modus operandii since the earliest of days.
So Juliet Forster’s decision to invite Foxx to write the soundtrack to her play could not really have been extended to anyone else, and shows how acutely she to understands his work.

And the key to this is not the dystopian, futuristic metal beat minimalist electronica that characterises John Foxx high profile work. It lies in the way this material and image sits so comfortably alongside the seemingly opposite nature of his choral ‘ambient’ harmonic work. His pastoral atmospheres, whispers, echoes and reverberating loops of richly textured sweeps and washes – the material that makes up Cathedral Oceans, Codex, London Overgrown and the Harold Budd collaborations.

We first hear this when Kuno breaks out from the tunnel into a shaft that connects with the Earth’s surface, and it is a sequence of breathtaking tension and beauty. For the first time, we see one of the cast in a non-mechanical world, determinedly ascending the shaft with enormous physical effort:

“I hung tranced over the darkness and heard the hum of these workings as the last whisper in a dying dream. All the things I had cared about and all the people I had spoken to through tubes appeared infinitely little. I heard voices in the silence, and they strengthened me…”

The voices are provided by Foxx and Gazelle Twin, beautifully gentle, whispering, ghost harmonics, switching channels and filling the space as Kuno makes his way towards the light. And as he emerges, into a fern-filled hollow and a hazy blue sky we are reminded of The Garden and his vision of the Entire City…

There’s a synchronicity to the timing of this production as well that adds to its overall splendour. In recent years, Foxx has written and recorded less original music than we have been getting used to and that which he has released (the aforementioned Codex and especially 2014’s Ballardian B-Movie) bring together many of the elements he has developed separatley throughout his career. The music for The Machine Stops further solidifies these particles, providing a panoramic whole that soundtracks Kuno’s journey from underground provocateur to surface-breathing rebel. It could only be Foxx, as prescient as Forster, and it can only work in this situation.

I found elements of everything Foxx has ever done in the 80-minute sequence – the set, the script, the story and the music merge inextricably and provide one of the most engaging and affecting experiences I can remember. From the COMA patching cables to the half-finished, blurred image of Kuno on his mother’s computer screen. From the crashing breakdown of the machine to the splendid beams of light on the surface.
I saw my map, A New Kind Of Map. I saw Kuno as the missing engineer who found the overgrown Old Street station. I see where this music fits into that network. Both above and below it all.

Yes of course us Foxxheads will want the soundtrack on CD (all 25 minutes of it) but I would advocate more strongly for a DVD release that puts it into the engineer’s context, leitmotifs, loops, fades and all.

In 1909, E.M.Forstor foretold The Machine Stops.
In 1977, John Foxx declared I Want To Be A Machine.

In 2016, through a disastrous series of gemetric collisions and coincidence, everything is illuminated and humanity has learned its lesson.

 

Century after century he has toiled, and here is his reward.

 

THE END.

A Man, A Woman, A City And A River

This tidal city
So quiet, so wide;
My life, my memories
Drift on the tide

The flow of the traffic
The bridges, the sky;
Skyscraper sunlight
And just you and I –

A man and a woman
The dockside, the beach;
Misted horizons
that spin out of reach

Communications
Transport and trade;
Dawn on the river
to shimmer and fade

The buildings,
the boardwalks
The hum of the train

Light on the water
We’re meeting
Together again

A man and a woman
Well, that’s you and me
The trees and apartments –
Your city, my sea

Travelling in taxis
on boats and by bus;
A meal on the quayside
Grey nature, and us

The churches,the carparks
The smells and the signs
Engines and factories
And overhead lines

Low houses, tall pylons
Smoke perfume and clouds
Overgrown pathways
The debris of crowds

The sunshine, the cold air
As time turns around –
You are this morning,
And I am this town

 

Dancing on Thin Ice

Review of The Golden Section, 2008

Well, well Mister artsy fartsy reviewer man. Aren’t you in a spot?

What happens when you are faced with reviewing an album you’ve said you don’t like. How clever are you then, eh? Eh?

Time for some revisionist sampling, some repurposing of a theory. Let’s call it an ‘opportunity for change’. Drums roll, strings soar and tides turn. Opinions come and goes in a kind of wave.

In my defence, the crumbled cliches and over-worked niceties of politeness. All that is golden does not necessarily glitter. A weak and shifting case…

For this re-mastered deluxe edition The Golden Section has been polished till it shines, radiating its light with a new iridescent certainty that I felt has been lacking before. If not lacking, then my excuse is that I simply couldn’t see it.

First time round OK, I was complacent enough to consider myself a ‘fan’ of John Foxx, but perhaps no more so than I was a ‘fan’ of his contemporaries including Marc Almond, whose sublime Torment and Toreros eclipsed my appreciation of something as blatantly ‘commercial’ as Golden Section on an almost galactic scale.

The difference is that now – with 25 years of evolution, revision and research to call on (and some blistering advances in sound technology) I begin to understand The Golden Section.

In fact, its meaning and intention shine so brightly I’m a little embarassed to confess that I hadn’t been aware of it before. Perhaps I was just too young and innocent to fully appreciate the complexity of this album, the mastery of its rhythm structures and the nonchalant bloody mindedness of its daring experimentation.

My understanding and appreciation is enhanced so much by the masterful composition of disc 2 that it casts a whole new shimmering glow on the ‘rest’ of the album proper. Though only one of the tracks is actually ‘new’ to my ears – the twangy, sing along rock out that is “Shine On Me” – most of the rest are early, unpolished untreated versions of more familiar songs. In essence, the grit and the sand, the unpolished stones from which Zeus b Held charmed the sparkle in 1983. Disc Two reveals how things used to be, a year earlier, before everything was changed in a fortnight by the arrival of the ubiquitous Held with his cloth and beeswax.

John Foxx is at his creative zenith, pioneering electronic psychedelia with one hand and exhibiting extraordinary songmanship with the other, hitherto belied in his more familiar technological product. He is a man aflame, burning with creativity, writing with unwavering confidence, urgency and energy and with a reckless disregard for all that ‘pop’ music is meant to be. An Electro Syd Lennon, combining Beatles-esque tape loops, drum patterns and harmonies with Floydian rhythms and overdubs, rich and delicate instrumentation crashed by the trademark groans and squelches that is undeniably and unmistakably Foxx. Lest we forget, he proves himself throughout to be a facile producer in his own right and to my untrained ear, a more than competent ‘strummer’ of the acoustic guitar.

The Golden Section, particularly disc two, contains some of the most innovative, visionary and misunderstood work of his career. I know. I realise the implications. Everything crumbles to dust. The quirky harmonics and delicate instrumentation on the early version  of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, for example, present John Foxx at his most seductive and mesmerising. These glittering fragments of a tangerine dream recur in Dance with Me, A Woman on A Stairway and Sitting at the Edge of The World, all of which exhibit intoxicating spirit and depth. For this, I’m prepare to forgive the funk-infused thump slapping bass that has always irritated me about The Hidden Man and Running Across Thin Ice With Tigers. Even the groaning, roaring tiger noises have a point now, demonstrating a mode of aesthetics that I just didn’t ‘get’ before.

Throughout The Golden Section, John Foxx makes every nuance of sound count, every shiny chord and rhythm sequence, every word and every idea really matters. No one else has ever done this kind of thing with such underplayed audacity before – a genuinely adroit fusion of experimentation, psychedelia and electronic dance music, beguiled and bewitching us with the subtle interplay of clipped, perfectly structured ‘pop songs (A Kind of Wave, the Lifting Sky, Your Dress) that give this album its unifying thread.

So I stand corrected. But more with arms outstretched than cap in hand.

I turn my shamed head to the sunset and someone at my right hand whispers “Can you believe this time?”

I turn around slowly and nod, smiling, no longer afraid of the tigers.

Half Man Half Biscuit

I know I said that I would cycle in
But you can park for free behind the Holiday Inn
And anyway I better not be late
My mate reckons they start at half-past eight…

JD Meatyard shouted northern songs
Excitement building in the merry throng
Lights go down and on stage walks this guy
On seeing who it was I gave a cry:
“Fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s Nige Blackwell!”

He sings of trains, of shopping, maps and birds
With cartographic references absurd
I have loved his nonsense for some thrity years
And seeing him is music to my ears
“Fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s Nige Blackwell!”

All the people here know all the words
One of the finest lyricists I’ve ever heard
It’s hilarious the things that he can rhyme
Ornithology, cake shops and petty crime

Half biscuit!
Half biscuit!

SETLIST

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train
Fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s Fred Titmus
San Antonio Foam Party
Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride
Bob Wilson, Anchorman
When The Evening Sun Goes Down
Stuck Up A Hornbeam
Bad Review
Turned Up, Clocked On, Laid Off
For What Is Chatteris…?
Shit Arm Bad Tattoo
I’ve Been Tending The Wrong Grave For 23 Years
The Bane Of Constance
Paintball’s Coming Home
Fix It So She Dreams Of Me
National Shite Day
Look Dad No Tunes
Joy Division Oven Gloves
All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit
Vatican Broadside
We Built This Village On ATrad Arr Tune
Time Flies By When You’re The Driver Of A Train
Everything’s AOR
………………………
You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory (Johnny Thunders cover)
An Outbreak Of Vitas Gerulaitis
The Trumpton Riots