Speaking to the Quiet Man: John Foxx Interviewed
On Monday (May 27) John Foxx's Underpass remixed by Oh The Gilt is released on 12" via Metamatic Records - here he speaks to Noisey's John Doran about being a synthesizer pioneer.
It must have seemed like John Foxx was a Johnny Come Lately when he scored his first hit with Underpass in January 1980. In many ways the song is like a condensation of everything that was great about synth pop. It was a picture postcard introduction to what the new decade held in store: endless stretches of concrete, paranoia, disconnection from the past and from nature, a brave new future that perhaps wasn’t the paradise we’d been led to expect. The view it offered certainly stood in sharp contrast to the aspirational glamour touted by the New Romantics such as Spandau Ballet and the gritty Marxist sloganeering of the post punks such as Gang Of Four.
Sonically it was miles ahead of the game as well: it featured synthesizers as the only instruments – still a relatively strange concept but soon to become the ubiquitous norm. But to casual observers of the charts it must have looked like John Foxx – the inscrutable and suave new star in the ascendant - was riding on the coat tails of Gary Numan (who had already had two number ones, "Cars" and "Are “Friends” Electric?" in 1979), The Human League ("Being Boiled" 1978), OMD ("Electricity" 1979) etc. But the truth of the matter is that he was an innovator.
Foxx was an art school fan of David Bowie and Roxy Music (like Bryan Ferry he is the son of a Northern coal miner) who was empowered by punk. His band Ultravox! were signed to Island in 1976 combining strands of electronica, dub reggae, funk and glam into a punk foundation. But by essentially choosing to be a post punk band before barely anyone had even heard of punk, they paid the price of being too far ahead of the curve. What they lost in terms of sales they gained in influence however. In a very astute observation, John Taylor of Duran Duran said: “John Foxx? Class cannot be erased. Foxx's Ultravox! were the Velvet Underground of my generation.” They certainly seemed to reflect the Brian Eno (who produced the first self-titled Ultravox! album) statement that not many people bought their records but those that did formed bands. And one of these people was Gary Numan who has always been disarmingly honest about the debt he owes Foxx: “I was a big fan of John Foxx when he was in Ultravox in the late 70s. Ultravox were like the blueprint for what I was trying to do in the early years and John Foxx was my hero. I thought he was a fantastic, enigmatic front man. I really loved what he did.”
By 1979 Ultravox were poised to blow up big time. In America, they were picking up more fans than they were at home. They made a deep impression on a young Vincent Gallo: “I connected so deeply with early Ultravox, everything changed for me. There’s Lennon and Dylan, but John Foxx is my favourite lyricist of all-time.” But Foxx wanted progression not success. Realising something along the lines of, ‘The future’s bleak – the future’s electronic', he left the band and greeted the 80s with his debut solo album Metamatic and its lead single "Underpass", under the shadowy persona of The Quiet Man and thus started an impressive, if low key, solo career.
After an uncommonly long period (including a lengthy sabbatical out of the music industry) Foxx is now bigger than he ever was thanks to a trio of albums released with The Maths (analogue synth expert Ben Edwards) over the last three years. And "Underpass", his first single, keeps on growing in stature as if it makes more sense now than it did on first release. (Well, I would say that wouldn’t I as my remix of it – produced and engineered with John Tatlock as Oh The Gilt - comes out on 12” on Monday… see the video above.) Anyway, I spoke to John Foxx recently on the eve of a European tour.
Noisey: The first three albums of Ultravox! are incredibly inventive and were years ahead of the curve. It must have been frustrating for you to not get the kind of coverage that Tubeway Army and The Human League were getting.
John Foxx: Well, those bands came along a little later. Initially we were out on our own. We simply didn’t fit with the Alf Garnett punk or the larky pop of the time. I thought I was busy writing about the present, but it actually took a few more generations before some of those songs began to be recognised and regarded as DNA material – mostly by other musicians initially. Better late than never!
You were on tour in America in 1979 with Ultravox when you announced to the band that you were leaving to go solo. What was that tour like and what prompted the departure?
The tour was good – there was a groundswell of enthusiasm, especially in Los Angeles and New York. I really ought to have stayed there and used New York as a base. That city created Art Rock and NY punk – the Velvets, Suicide to Talking Heads, not to mention Warhol. The scene was really interesting at the time – a mix of art and rock. I remember having a conversation with Vincent Gallo about that recently. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t live there after I left the band. Everyone was really into those early records we made. But I guess my focus was still London at the time. It seemed to be a city without its own mythology then, and I felt it might be my job to devise that - as far as I could. As for the band - I’d decided to leave much earlier – during the initial rehearsals for Systems Of Romance. I urgently wanted to get on with a purer form of electronic music that became Metamatic. After all the touring I’d realized I didn’t want to be part of a band – even one I’d created. I had to wait out all the commitments for that album, then when the last gig was over I told everyone that was it. I gave them the Ultravox name and caught a plane back to London and my wee store of synthesizers…
Your first solo album Metamatic was obviously influenced by JG Ballard; what was it about this author that chimed so deeply with people like yourself, Daniel Miller (The Normal/MUTE) and Gary Numan?
He was the first to write about the potentials of the present and map all the psychic violence and illusion that being civilized entails - with the awareness that it can all fall apart at any time, as he’d witnessed in Shanghai as a child. [Ballard was interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for the last two years of the Second World War, as detailed in his novel Empire Of The Sun, Ed]
Underpass has grown in stature over the years from being a modest hit to something of an electo anthem. What do you make of all the remixes and interest in the song given that it doesn’t really sound like much of your recorded output?
Each one of them gives a new life to it. Then the trail leads into the other work - if people care to investigate, and it seems that some do. You know, when you make something in media, it escapes and then has a life of its own and you have to live with it. Even if I wanted to, I can no more retract Foxx, Metamatic and Underpass than David Cameron can retract Rebekah Brookes. It’s like having being on Coronation Street: you are that character forever, no matter what you do afterwards. Fortunately I like Underpass and Metamatic - and The Quiet Man still has some way to go , so there’s no problem. I didn’t do something I eventually wanted to live down. Great relief.
It’s become impossible to ignore over the last few years that you’ve finally been getting the kind of widespread attention you deserve. What do you put this down to and what are the advantages of having such a fulsome second wind at a more mature age?
Oh, I like to think things are finally catching up with the work, but I’m equally aware this may be some self-serving illusion. Whatever the reason, its fun - and good to feel that things I did have finally become part of the DNA. I guess this is the best reward for anyone involved in any kind of art. You can always do with a bit more money, of course, but that’s just a by-product.
Oh The Gilt is a remix project founded in Manchester by John Tatlock and John Doran which has already worked with Factory Floor, East India Youth and John Foxx.