Listening, they were listening. — John Foxx, The Quiet Men
Ultravox! were a band out of time. — My brother
Genres in music, like genders elsewhere, keep multiplying. But there is one which seems particular to England: art-rock. Founder members of bands often met at art college, if they weren’t getting together at Pistols or Bowie gigs (which often meant they were already at art college), and the results of visual arts students transferring their visions to a musical canvas produced a rewarding school of rock music.
America certainly had a parallel: Talking Heads, Television, Pere Ubu — all these bands could reasonably accurately be described as, at the very least, arty. But there was an extra element to the English art-rockers, and it was vitally connected to plastic art. You can always tell an art-rock band by how good their LP covers were. Look at the covers of albums by Roxy Music, Magazine, Queen, Wire, Cockney Rebel, or Bowie. They have style, they look good, and they make it look easy. Something else many English art-rock bands had in common was a career of two halves.
Roxy Music had two very precise chapters in their career. The first five albums are for the purist, who has been known to sneer at the lounge-lizard blandness of the hugely successful comeback albums. Japan were a big-hair band, a funked-up New York Dolls, until they had the musical epiphany of the Quiet Life album. Queen were basically a theatrical metal band until they turned their hands to crafting the perfect pop song. But another art-rock band, unsung and underrated, also had two careers, the first lasting from 1974 to 1979 and producing three albums that still sound fresh and vital today: Ultravox!
Formed as Tiger Lily in 1974 and thus bridging the gap between glam rock – another very English genre – and punk, the band made the curious choice of releasing a cover of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ as their debut. The single’s only claim to fame is that it featured in the soundtrack to a porn movie, but the band consolidated their sound and signed to Island Records — then home of Roxy Music — as Ultravox!, recording three studio albums.
Ultravox! are a good barometer of the punk years precisely because they weren’t a punk band. They could all play their instruments, for a start. There were a number of late-seventies English bands who rode the wave of punk, although they were way too good technically to be described as such, and “New Wave” — after the French school of cinematic auteurs –became a sibling of punk for those who could do more than just roughly tune their guitars and go berserk. Think of The Police, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Squeeze, or Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Too good for punk, but happy to take the sales for being in the right place at the right time. Rightly so, as they were all superb bands, but some had to make adjustments not to the music, but to the look. The first time The Police played in London, the crowd heckled them by yelling, “Flared trousers! Flared trousers!” Sting and company soon learned their sartorial lesson, as well as cutting their hair.
Ultravox! could play, but they had something different, something other. Their songs ranged from amphetamine-charged urban riots to electronic hymns as beautiful as they were simple. There is a curious mix of past and future, with the sometimes raucous musical edge counter-balanced by Foxx’s strange lyrics, more reminiscent of J. G. Ballard than Joe Strummer.
Their first album is usually known as Ultravox!, but was actually titled Do the Mutation. The band featured on the cover as a gang of malevolent shop dummies, like extras from Blade Runner. Do the Mutation was produced by one of Britain’s most-credited producers, Steve Lillywhite, in collaboration with Roxy Music’s Brian Eno. Eno took a novel approach, using a tarot-like deck of cards known as the Oblique Strategies to determine sound, tone, texture, and all the other elements of a musical album. It was not successful in terms of sales — none of the band’s albums were — but you find it mentioned in dispatches by a lot of musicians.
By the 1977 follow-up, Ha! Ha! Ha!, the first side of the album (in the days when you had two sides to long-playing, 33 RPM discs) caught the scent of punk, particularly the speed. Distant Smile and The Frozen Ones rivalled The Ramones for sheer pace. The other side diversified, and three of its four songs are in my top ten, below. The final song, “Hiroshima mon Amour,” was named for the 1959 Alain Resnais movie. Foxx has remarked that film was an early influence on his style and approach to art and music, citing Buñuel’s influential 1929 silent film Le Chien Andalou as a major influence. But Hiroshima mon Amour marked a turning point for the band and for Foxx, as punk guitars and a wonderful, rattling bass made way for synthesized music, and the third album took shape, as well as Foxx’s subsequent career.
Sales had been poor and record companies, as ever, had only so much patience. For the final album of the Foxx years, Systems of Romance, Island brought in Konny Plank, who had worked with Kraftwerk and many Krautrock bands. The album also featured a new guitarist, Robin Simon, whose style was far more clipped and European than the outgoing and clamorous Stevie Shears.
The whole feel of the album was different, with pulsing synthesizers coming to the forefront, and a similarity to a band Foxx admired, Simple Minds. This was far closer to the European dream Foxx had sought, far nearer to Kraftwerk than London punk. Sadly, the album failed to chart again and, after completing his contractual obligations in terms of touring, Foxx left to pursue a solo career.
John Foxx was born Dennis Leigh in Lancashire in the north of England. His background is about as authentically working-class as it gets, his father being a coal miner who bathed in a tin bath which was later hung on the wall, and his mother a milliner. By going to art school, Foxx was transplanted from his working-class roots to the epitome of the louche middle class. Before long he was in north London watching a band then called The Pink Floyd, and becoming fascinated by the possibilities of music which was as far away from rock-and-roll as possible. As well as psychedelia, Foxx cites Tangerine Dream, Neu! (whose name may have inspired the exclamation mark in Ultravox!), Kraftwerk, Krautrock, and film music as inspirations.
Ultravox!, despite their failure to scale the charts — or even to chart at all –were an exceptional live band, one I saw six times, a record for me matched only by The Clash, Joy Division, and The Auteurs. Foxx was an enigmatic front man, sometimes stalking the stage like a mantis, sometimes standing like a statue, eyes closed and as though reciting poetry. As the band’s brief career fizzled out, Foxx moved on to more purely electronic music.
With an encyclopedic knowledge of synthesized music, Foxx makes the excellent point that whereas it is assumed that punk just died and was replaced by electronic music in the 1980s, in fact punk migrated to the new medium. Previously, synthesizers had led to endless solos by Yes’ Rick Wakeman and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, and even the horrors of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Although punk had the odd exception, such as The Stranglers’ Dave Greenfield and his Doors-like arpeggios, it was a time of drums, guitar, bass, and vocals, all to a 4/4 beat cranked up in terms of volume and pace. But electronics would dominate pop music in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, and Foxx was an unrecognized prophet.
When asked who was the most influential individual in electronic music, Foxx replies unhesitatingly that it was Robert Moog, the inventor of the synthesizer which bears his name and is still a much-prized item. Your pub-quiz fact of the day is that the great man’s name is pronounced “Moge” with a hard G, as Foxx discovered when he contacted the Moog Foundation. But Moog’s instrument changed music every bit as much as did Les Paul’s.
The simplicity of use meant that the synthesizer’s important aspect became the sound rather than technique. Foxx quotes Phil Oakey, singer of The Human League, one of the most successful electronic bands of the 1980s, as saying that sequenced electronic music was more punk than punk was, because a guitar is much harder to play than a synth. It is the composite effect of overlaid patterns — what Philip Glass would call “systems music” — that created songs rather than individual virtuosity. Listen to a song that changed electronic music, New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and hear how it is a number of very simple lines sequenced and placed together. Anyone could play those lines, of course, but not everyone could write “Blue Monday.”
One of the defining qualities of electronic, sequenced music is perhaps not detectable by the human ear at first listen, but is a central supporting wall of the genre, and that is quantizing. This is the electronic distribution of percussive beats to an exact mathematical algorithm guaranteeing precise repetition. Listen to any old single from before the 1980s by The Who, The Clash, Creedence — take your pick; play the start and then play the end, and you can hear that the pace has picked up. This does not happen with quantized music, whose tempo remains precise and unswerving. This essentially removes the human element, which certainly appealed to John Foxx’s fascination, long before the current AI fad, with human cybernetics.
Foxx became influential after his time had passed. An early commercial success in electro-pop was Gary Numan, whose eerie single Are “Friends” Electric? and its follow-up Cars seemed both to follow the Ballardian atmosphere of Foxx’s lyrics and the Kraftwerkian stridency of Ultravox!’s third album. There is a reason for that: Numan sees Foxx as his inspiration.
John Foxx’s lyrics were pitched somewhere between Expressionist poetry and the oblique fiction of Czech writers Franz Kafka and Robert Walser. Somewhere among the obscure and puzzling language, there was a story, but one the storyteller only wished to hint at. You listened to Foxx’s lyrics and found them pulling on your coat, teasing you to guess their meaning.
These are my top ten Ultravox! songs, in reverse order, with a snippet of the lyrics from each:
The first track by the “new” Ultravox!, this is strangely bucolic while retaining an air of mystery:
Springtime, there was sunshine
Through the window-panes,
Down all the English lanes
Where they walked again.
The quiet men.
A frantic tale of dysfunctional urban sex played at approved punk-rock speed:
The Jekyll-Hyde of you,
I can’t survive the tide of you.
The vicious style of love, the whining
Pits and pendulums of lying.
Another tale from the urban underworld, and featuring Billie Currie’s violent violin at the double-time outro. It can only be described as punk gypsy fiddle:
Blocked on booze, she talks like a newsreel.
She’ll take up any kind of bleak exchange.
She turned to perfection once
But realized she’d only turned to pain.</em
She ran through divine light, chemicals,
Warhol, Scientology, her own sex
Before she turned away.
This must surely be the only rock song in history to name-check the Church of Scientology.
And even more sex, an erotic lament showing the first green shoots of Foxx’s later dedication to producing electronic music with beauty as its aim rather than dancing:
My sex waits for me
Like a mongrel waits
Downwind on a tight-rope leash.
The Wild, the Beautiful, and the Damned
Again, Billie Currie violin-playing gives an air of grand guignol drama to this vision of a grubby Berlin:
Break my legs politely.
I’ll spit my gold teeth out at you.
Your sores are almost big enough
To step right inside now.
I’ll send you truckloads of flowers
From all the worlds
That you stole from me.
I’ll spin a coin in the madhouse
While I watch you drowning.
The Man Who Dies Every Day
A simple octave bass line and a symphonic synth line support a lyric which partially describes the type of enigmatic figure Cohen and Dylan used to delight in creating:
You always kept a sunset
Behind your lonely shoulder.
You never showed on photographs
And you never grew much older.
I Want to be a Machine
The most obvious statement of Foxx’s interest in human cybernetics, and featuring another rough-and-tumble outro with violin and drums.
Ah, free me from this flesh.
Let the armchair cannibals take their fill
Of every cellar-crossed wilderness.
We’ll trip such a strangled tango.
We’ll waltz a wonderland affair.
Let’s run to meet the tide tomorrow,
Leave all emotion dying there
In the star cold beyond all of your dreams.
Hiroshima mon Amour
This was one of the band’s best-known songs, and a very strong hint that the band — or at least Foxx –was moving towards electronica:
Meet beneath the autumn lake
Where only echoes penetrate.
Walk through Polaroids of the past.
Futures fused like shattered glass.
The sun so low
Turns our silhouettes to gold.
Hiroshima mon amour.
A beautiful song whose 3/3/2 time signature gives it an almost Latin feel. Always my favorite live:
Was I dreaming?
Or did you say,
The empires are fading,
It’s time to be slipping away?
Just for a Moment
This was Foxx’s goodbye to Ultravox!, the band he created and yet which would go on to chart success without him. The bird-song at the start is in contrast to the starkness of the song:
Listening to the music the machines make,
I felt the floor change into an ocean.
We’ll never leave here, never.
Let’s stay in here forever.
And when the streets are quiet
We’ll walk out in the silence.
After Foxx left, violinist Billie Currie took over the band and recruited journeyman — some would say chancer — Midge Ure. I never cared much for him. It seems that wherever a new trend was, he would pop up. He was in a terrible band called Slik at the time of teenie-band Bay City Rollers, clocked in with the New Romantics with Visage, teamed up with ousted Sex Pistol Glen Matlock in The Rich Kids, was Bob Geldof’s sidekick for Live Aid, and most bizarrely of all played guitar for Thin Lizzy on an American tour.
The new Ultravox (without the !) scored their biggest hit with the grandiose “Vienna,” but it always sounded to me like a sham version of the European atmosphere Foxx had created. Foxx himself went on to a solo career which, while being as commercially unsuccessful as that of his band, was still recognized in some quarters. Apart from Gary Numan, as mentioned, Foxx also influenced Jean Michel Jarre, at one time the emperor of European electronic music.
Foxx has since worked in graphics and teaching, as well as offshoot musical projects. He is a softly-spoken, highly intelligent man I met once at a recording studio in north London in 1979. He was mixing his first solo album, Metamatic, and arrived on a beautiful Raleigh bicycle and wearing a sort of hacking jacket. He looked about as English as it is possible to look.
A maverick experimenter, a talented poet at a time when punk didn’t have much to offer in terms of the poetic, and possessed of a voice which always had an air of mystery about it, John Foxx was a man ahead of his time whose first three albums — perhaps given that they were so futuristic — still sound compelling today, maybe because the current music industry is as bleak as some of Foxx’s Ballard-inspired lyrical landscapes.
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