John Foxx, 2008

In 2008, John Foxx, Ultravox founder and one of the pioneers of electronic music, brought his vision of urban life to Australia in both music and film. Here is the preview chat I had with him:

THE city has always been there for John Foxx, right back in the day when, as an art student in London, he began tinkering with tape recorders and synthesisers in pursuit of new sounds.

In 1973 that interest became a band, and that band became Ultravox. In the six years and three albums he was with them, they helped lay the groundwork for not just the New Romantic era but the electronica movement as they evolved from a punk-influenced outfit to synthpop progenitors (with 1978’s Brian Eno-produced Systems of Romance).

Foxx left his creation in 1979, to be replaced by Midge Ure, who famously fronted the outfit when they struck it big in 1980 with their album and its eponymous single, Vienna.

“If I’d stayed, we certainly wouldn’t have written that song, so the pop thing never would have occurred and the world would have been one hit poorer.

“Having a hit was essential for the guys at that point – it was what they needed, some real affirmation.

“We were really good by the time of Systems, but enough was enough.

“You can still hear us in the gene structure of most new bands. I like that. That’s more than enough.”

Watch a video of Foxx’s Underpass

Foxx’s solo career hasn’t produced a single to match, but he has enjoyed a varied career in both music and visual art that has continued to explore the urban environment and inspire generations of musicians. Highlights include the Metamatic album, remastered and re-released last year, and the ambient, epic Cathedral Oceans.

That career will be brought into focus when he tours Australia in May, accompanied by one of his most recent projects, a film collage that in large part celebrates the urban environment, and his frequent collaborator in musical exploration, Manchester’s Louis Gordon.

“I came over in the Eighties to do radio and look around,” says Foxx of his previous journey Down Under. “Thoroughly enjoyed it. You lot don’t know how lucky you are. A real new world. Clean as well. Enjoyed swimming in February and eating those bug things that look like huge woodlice. If you tried that in Britain you’d be under observation behind lead walls. Can’t understand why Barry Humphries shifted to the UK. Bit hot for aesthetes, I guess.”

Brisbane will be one of the Australian cities to see Tiny Colour Movies, Foxx’s soundtrack to a collection of found film segments ranging from cityscapes to surveillance footage.

“I decided to get involved in my own small way as a musician, after I couldn’t get the images out of my head and began to record lots of short tracks very quickly.

“Super 8 really has a kind of raw beauty, like a distorted guitar or an old record. This is true underground cinema, from an unrecognised, parallel world.

“I was also mighty impressed by one of the collector’s views – Arnold Weiczs Bryant – especially on how digital technology allows large-scale projection of this stuff, making it possible to view it in an entirely new way – one which couldn’t have been predicted when the original film was shot.

“This reveals what were previously considered to be imperfections – scratches and bleached out sections, etc – to be part of the intrinsic beauty of the medium.

“It struck me as a direct parallel to the way analogue synths have been rediscovered through sampling and listening through better sound systems.

“I guess that’s why the movies seem to work best with raw analogue sources – which have inevitably been digitised too.”

Gary Numan talks Ultravox

Cinematic references dot an exhaustive list of Foxx’s inspirations that range widely from the literary (Kerouac to JG Ballard and TS Eliot) to the musical (Roxy Music, Eno, Edith Piaf, John Lee Hooker) to cities themselves, not just as experienced in the flesh but as represented in literature, music and film.

“Most of the people on the planet now live in cities. Yet we don’t really know what cities are, or how they alter us,” he says of his ongoing fascination.

“Cities are also a myth land, like The Wild West or Outer Space, or The Romantic Past. Unlike these, they exist here and now, and we live in them, but we haven’t quite learnt how to see them yet.

“The only way to begin to understand it is to go out and meet it all. Walking is the best way. Things happen.

“We also use the city to self program – you identify specific places with events and people and memories. Every time you revisit, you lay down another layer of association. So the city gets richer and seems more beautiful and resonant with each journey. Remember how bleak it all seemed when you first got there? And how warm it seems now? And how you can’t leave anymore after a certain point? That’s your associative investment calling.

“Meanwhile, I just walk around in my wee grey suit and watch it all. Reporting back occasionally. Making the soundtrack. That’s my job.”

Footnote: Tiny Colour Movies was a fascinating presentation at the dear old Tivoli, with Foxx playing the soundtrack for each of the pieces of footage. Some were more evocative than others. It’s a shame the collection isn’t available (the soundtrack is), but there are some pieces floating around on YouTube. The gig was simply amazing, with Foxx and Gordon shaking the theatre to its foundations. It proved just how two performers can put on a hell of a show. Foxx’s Australian tour is reflected in part on the Metatronic release, which features the Sydney gig.

I resurrected my review of the Brisbane gig:

JOHN Foxx, Ultravox founder and pioneer of electronica, played Brisbane’s grand old Tivoli last night, and what a night it was.

Sound and lighting were superb for what turned out to be a showcase performance.

Brissy’s Tycho Brahe, with Stephen Birt standing in for usual drummer Francis, played one of the best sets I’ve seen them do. A shame it was limited to a half-hour. Birt was as sharp as a tack, infusing the band with extra energy as they played a brief, virtual ‘best of’ set culminating in the instrumental Delos.

Next, Foxx laid down a synth soundtrack to a fascinating collection of found film grouped under his Tiny Colour Movies production. It was probably overlong, given the esoteric nature of some of the footage and the repetitious soundtrack for some works. But some segments were thoroughly fascinating — burnt clothes on London streets, an unknown film extra cropping up in the backgrounds of various movies, LA freeways, excerpts from family holiday films…

And then came the highlight, Foxx and collaborator Louis Gordon either side of a big screen, thumping the venerable theatre with percussive synths and some insightful comments on society and urbanisation. It’s no mean trick to get a Brisbane audience out of their seats, but by the end of the encore, Foxx — dignified but relaxed — and Louis, bouncing around like a mad thing behind his rig, had drawn almost all the disappointingly small crowd to the barrier.

A lot of ebm leaves me cold with its metronomic qualities, but Foxx’s music was vital and layered, his lyrics provoking. I found my imagination afire, making the experience far more engaging than I might have expected. Bravo!

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