The Quiet Man

From the shadows of the city, John Foxx orchestrates a cyber-renaissance

During the late 1970s, synthesizers were making major inroads in contemporary music but weren't able to penetrate the suburbs where I grew up. Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore were gods. John Foxx, a chisel-jawed singer with an English accent copied from David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, was an unwelcome interloper.

Androgynous with a capital A, always dressed in a gray suit, sporting an immaculate haircut -- this tall thin guy had to be gay, went the logic of the day. For a 16-year-old living outside Chicago, just looking at Foxx's picture was enough to be considered homosexually inclined. Owning one of his synth-driven albums was the epitome of suburban sexual subversion, given that Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden were the accepted currency of the day. Actually, Foxx may have been music's first metrosexual.

Foxx may be blazing a return to public view but without the spectacle of doddering old farts donning hairpieces and reuniting in another hopelessly mercenary "Remember the '80s" tour. By virtue of his obscurity, Foxx won't have to dodge many red-carpet ambushes or celebrity makeovers as he embarks on a comeback trail that he's turned into a broad modern boulevard. Instead of remaining famous for a hit single or best-selling album (the closest he's come was in 1980 with "Underpass," from his solo debut, Metamatic), Foxx is less known for any of his particular compositions than for his imagination, lucidity, and vision.

John Foxx: a legend
John Foxx: a legend

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A child intellectual from Chorley in Lancashire, Foxx's musically inauspicious origins trace to Tiger Lily (active from 1973-76). Foxx and his bandmates from the Royal College of Art then took the name Ultravox, with the band's debut (produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite) standing as the first example of what was to become electro-punk. On the cover of Ultravox! Foxx was pictured in front of a blown-up television, eyes rolling back in his head in a Diane Arbus pose of apoplexy, the edges of his pinstriped suit burned and charred as if from an explosion. A car crash, perhaps? Ultravox always thought of itself as a harbinger of a twisted future, and Foxx, singing the body (and mind) electric, could scream louder and whisper more quietly than any other frontman before or since.

"I Want to Be a Machine," he declared on that memorable 1977 debut. Over a piano-and-strings background, Foxx sang "My Sex" through a futuristic filter: "My sex is often solo/sometimes it short-circuits, then/Sometimes it's a golden glow/My sex is a wanting wardrobe I still explore/With all the bodies I've known/And those I want to know."

Of course, Kraftwerk had already mandated the use of synthesizers to celebrate the idea of man-machine fusion and its future-shock aftereffects. Foxx co-opted that and put a uniquely British spin on things, in conjunction with his indoctrinated Catholicism -- not its belief systems but its pastoral quasimysticism.

Two more Foxx/Ultravox albums followed -- 1977's Ha! Ha! Ha!, with more of a glam-punk feel, was still capable of unleashing devastating ballads, like the immortal "Hiroshima Mon Amour": "We meet beneath the autumn lake/Where only echoes penetrate/Walk through Polaroids of the past/Futures fused like shattered glass /The sun's so low/Turns our silhouettes to gold/Hiroshima, mon amour."

The miraculous and overlooked Systems of Romance (1978) remains a masterwork that manages to be alienating and mechanical as well as incredibly warm, musical, and human. Moving toward stately ballads, Systems found Ultravox maturing into something resembling the New Romantics movement afoot in England at the time (Duran Duran, et al.). But the album failed to sell, Foxx departed after this record, and Midge Ure took over, propelling Ultravox into the mainstream. But Foxx's pioneering work with Ultravox set at least one other artist on a similar path: Gary Numan. Clash guitarist Mick Jones offered Foxx a slot in his band, but the singer declined.

Foxx is a synthesist in the classic sense; that is, he has never constructed anything truly original, except in the way that he has brought together various source materials in new ways. But his stylistic vision was way ahead of the curve. Foxx adopted a secondary persona -- "The Quiet Man" -- as a way of detachment.

Believing the synthesizer to be the most relevant tool of modern music, Foxx created his masterpiece, 1980's Metamatic, using little else. The shiveringly cold sound of the machines -- and Foxx's voice doing its damnedest to approximate another -- is echoed within songs like "He's a Liquid," "Metal Beat," and "No-One Driving."

Lyrically, Foxx revealed an obsession with the architecture and psyche of the urban landscape. The dimensions of time, nostalgia, dreams, and imagination are stretched until they lose a sense of individuality. Foxx's anonymous tales place the listener at the center of an enormous stage production, a sort of inner reality show where fiction is all around and reality is invented as we go along. Everything about the technological milieu and the endless grid of the city, even the most familiar things, is infinitely mysterious. Foxx developed his own language on Metamatic using symbols of city life: stairways, streets, escalators, elevators, and especially the automobile. Setting the tone for the cyber-punk fiction of sci-fi authors like J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, Foxx's seminal solo debut conjured up a pre-Matrix shadow world.

As obscure and overlooked as Metamatic was, it still set the standard for all the synth-pop that followed. Visually arresting images like "The pooling of the light/Reflecting in my eyes/Pick up the flip-top box from the vinyl seat" (from "Metal Beat") nestle snugly against the post-modernistic and inhuman -- but oddly familiar -- music.

As if in response to Metamatic's clinical approach, Foxx continued releasing records, composing most of the music on a 12-string guitar. The Garden, from 1981, is sleek intelligent new wave, The Golden Section(1983) flirts shamelessly with late-'60s psychedelia, and 1985's In Mysterious Ways, a romantic but oddly distant sonic postcard, sold poorly enough that Foxx retreated even deeper underground, sitting out the next decade in a warehouse loft on the outskirts of London.

If Foxx was responsible for creating any sort of tradition, it was always a tradition of the new. After noticing that, 15 years after he set the pace, electronic pop music was finally catching up, he returned. To the joy of his dedicated but dissident fans, his initial comeback -- 1997's Shifting City-- was set to the simple mechanical sound of Metamatic. In contrast to his cultured aloofness, Foxx partnered with young Manchester musician Louis Gordon and embarked upon an unprecedented onslaught of records and live performances. Young, uninhibited, and unpretentious, Gordon has injected Foxx's music -- old and new -- with vigor.

Shifting City introduced a few instant classics using the familiar Foxxian style and familiar themes, found within the insistent throb of "Here We Go" and the elegiac closer "An Ocean We Can Breathe." The same year, Foxx released Cathedral Oceans, an instrumental accompaniment to installations he has exhibited in botanical gardens and churches throughout England. He's described the effect of the visuals as "a moving stained glass window" that changes gradually. Oceanic, immersive, and architectural, the stream of images always returns to a green ivy-covered statue.

A reissue campaign in 2001 brought In Mysterious Ways, The Golden Section, The Garden,and Metamatic back into print with improved sound and an array of long-lost singles tacked onto each one. That merely primed the pump for 2002 and 2003, his most prolific and productive years yet.

Last year, Foxx released the never-heard tapes from 1983's The Golden Section Tour, which showcase his Beatlesesque pop-oriented side. It came coupled with The Omnidelic Exotour, documenting a 1997 warehouse gig with Gordon. Essentially melding together Metamatic with Shifting City, the 15 years separating the two albums seem to evaporate. Old Ultravox tunes like "Dislocation" are sharpened and resheathed, and Foxx classics like "Burning Car" appear revitalized and enhanced with electro-energy.

Also in 2002 came a new Foxx/Gordon album, The Pleasures of Electricity, an eccentric exercise marked by some of Foxx's strangest compositions, including the quasioperatic "Camera" and the relentlessly repetitive "Invisible Women."

This year, Foxx's output continues unabated. Early June saw the release of a second Cathedral Oceansas well as a DVD featuring the ecclesiastical images. And by the end of that month, Foxx and Gordon unveiled Crash and Burn, their nod to all the new digital-underground acts like Felix Da Housecat, Adult., and Peaches, who have all spoken of their affection for Foxx. He presents a stylized, almost naive take on his contemporaries, always riding on the sharp stainless-steel edge of a drum machine.

Crash and Burn's symbolism of the city manifests itself in the methamphetamine rush of "Sex Video," the turbulent eerie "Dust and Light," and dark seedy songs like "She Robot" that explore the gloomy fringes of the metropolis at night. Modern mythologies abound, Foxx examining modern totems like the cell phone, digital camera, and flat-screen TV with an almost erotic obsession: "I guess you've seen it on the news too/In megapixel multiview!" he observes on "Ray 1/Ray 2."

Last month saw the release of Translucence/Drift Music, an ambient project recorded with iconic minimalist composer Harold Budd. The 76-year-old soft-pedal pianist had long been a fan of Foxx's equally distant emotionless works, and the two albums provide more of the same vapid beauty he's purveyed since the early '70s on albums such as The Pearl. On Translucence, Budd's piano wanders with awkward charm like a lost Keith Jarrett while Foxx adds carefully measured amounts of tinting synth. On the more electronically textured Drift Music, Foxx supports Budd with tremendously low notes. On the somber "Stepping Sideways," he adds depth-plumbing tones that shudder like sheet metal on a massive airship.

Meanwhile, working under his real name of Dennis Leigh, Foxx has established himself as an in-demand graphics designer on the forefront of computer technology. His work even graces the cover of Salman Rushdie's novel The Moor's Last Sigh. These days, when he's not lecturing at Thames Valley University and discussing conceptual design or cyberculture, Foxx probably revels as an unknown, an outsider, spelling out his vision of a retrofitted future, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

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