Tag Archives: John Foxx

…2014 w 39 – Album of the week is “Metamatic” by John Foxx.

People like me, old enough to have a too large record collection knows how a sudden impulse can make you listen to a certain record, inspiring a foray into similar territory that can take days to complete. While mostly a joyous experience it can be taxing on significant others with different musical tastes. Last week´s return to the art-new-wave-rock of Ultravox! was one of those departures leading to repeated listenings to the music made by John Foxx between 1977 and 1981.

MetamaticAfter leaving Ultravox! he started a solo career by releasing “Metamatic” in 1980. Based on synthesizers and drum machines, this was an album that today is considered an early electro-pop classic. At the time, Foxx was cited in interviews talking about the use of synthesizers, early on employed to try to sound like other instruments, very much like plastic initially tried to look like wood and other natural materials. Foxx´s thoughts on synths was to use them as the unique instruments they were, and make new sounds never heard before. Which is exactly what he did on this now over 30 years old album.

Opener “On the Plaza” very much sets the tone with its icy sweeping synths and rudimentary ticking drum machine track. “He´s a liquid” and “Underpass” has slightly more dramatic soundscapes and the clanging rhythms on “Metal beat” heralds later adventures in sheet metal drumming like for example Australian band SPK. “No-one driving” goes into pop territory, while the sound of “Blurred girl” looks back at “Hiroshima mon amour” off the “Ha! Ha! Ha!” album. That said, “Touch and go” (which was performed in concert with Ultravox!) is perhaps the song most reminiscent of his old group.

The overall sound of the record is clean, clinical and without the least hint of the dirtiness of regular rock, something that felt really refreshing at the time. The lyrics are arty and distanced, Foxx later confessing to having read a bit too much Ballard (how is that even possible?!?). I think the songs are still holding up, and the album as such one of the embryos of a whole new direction for musicians tired of the usual guitar-driven music that had dominated the previous 30 years.

It´s sometimes interesting to think about what others were doing at the same time. In 1980 Bob Dylan released “Saved”, Judas Priest “British steel”, The Rolling Stones “Emotional rescue”, AC/DC “Back in black” and Bruce Springsteen “The river”. On the other hand the year also saw the release of “Closer”, “Organisation” and “Empires and dance”. Not a bad year, when you think about it.

…2014 w 38 – Album of the week is “Ultravox!” by Ultravox!.

John FoxxFor those of you remembering the Midge Ure-fronted synth pop band who had a hit with “Vienna”, let´s just at once make it clear that this is not what we´re talking about today. Formed in 1974 as Tiger Lily, this group of musicians went through a series of name changes until finally settling for Ultravox! (the exclamation mark inspired by krautrockers Neu!). With frontman and singer John Foxx they released three records in two years, after which creative leader Foxx quit the band and was replaced by above mentioned Ure, taking a turn into a considerably less interesting brand of pretty anemic New Romantic synth pop. As would be expected, the more artistically accomplished early incarnation of the band was very much less commercially successful than the later one.

The first two albums “Ultravox!” (1977) and “Ha!-Ha!-Ha!” (1977) went from art pop with a new wave nerve to a full blown assault of modernist rock, going through the changes from punk-flavoured intensity to post-punk intellectualism in a single year. 1978´s “Systems of romance” saw the band lose the exclamation mark in their name and again changing, this time into trailblazers of the emerging electronic pop scene. A direction that lead man John Foxx continued to explore on his first solo release, the iconic “Metamatic” now by many considered a modern classic.

While the second album could in many ways be seen as superior to the debut, with its distinctly more mature songwriting and arrangements, “Ultravox!” had the advantage of freshness and the impact of promising something new. This promise was eloquently carried forward on “Ha!-Ha!-Ha!” in the form of a more realized sound and many of the band´s best songs. That said, the debut was and still is an important piece of late 70´s music, heralding a lot of what was to come later.

Ultravox!Everything from the front sleeve to the pictures of the band members seemed modern and exciting, and the photo-set of John Foxx on the back looked like something out of Cronenberg´s “Videodrome”. With production duties shared between Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite it´s perhaps not that surprising that we get some of the same artful intensity that the first Roxy Music albums had.

Apart from the harmonica, “Saturday night in the city of the dead” opens like a song by The Damned (a name used by the group until they learned that a band of the same name already existed). “Life at rainbow´s end” highlights the connection between John Foxx and the new pop of Bill Nelson post Bebop Deluxe. The faux Brian Ferry croon of “Slipaway” joins early Roxy with classic British progressive rock into an entirely new beast.

Every good album has a standout track, and “I want to be a machine” is this one´s. Beginning with something sounding like “Future legend” on Bowie´s “Diamond dogs”, the song continues with emotionally delivered lyrics about living without emotions over a backdrop of  acoustic guitars. Slowly building momentum with toms and violin, adding dramatic booming bass and an electric guitar hopping between channels, before ending with manic violin and an echoed shout. So good it gives me goosebumps.

“Wide boys” is simple rock with a new wave edge and a sound reminiscent of what Bowie would sound a few years later. “Dangerous rhythm” gives a hint of what it would sound like if Bryan Ferry did the vocals for Police, and is together with “Lonely hunter” perhaps the band´s most uncharacteristic songs. “The wild, the beautiful and the damned” is another highlight, pairing the energy of new wave with melodic intensity. Closer “My sex” winds the album down and bookends this great collection of songs.

This is a record that really has aged well and sounds as inventive now as it did then. The first three albums are what´s making this band great, and everything that came afterwards is best forgotten. A widely accepted story about late 70´s music is that punk came along and wiped away boring, self-indulgent music by returning the basic energy to rock. Listening to this album you realize it´s not entirely true.