Short Circuit presents
with special guests
June 5, 2010
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Fans tend to think of John Foxx as the original founder and front man of post-punk groundbreaking band Ultravox, Britain’s first ever synthesizer rock band, or the ‘grandfather of synth-pop.’ They’d be right on both counts, but Foxx is much more than that, for by his own admission, he is an ‘artist’, amid a sea of seemingly endless creative possibilities, many of which he experiments with, among them: music, song-writing and graphic art. This show marks Foxx’s 3oth anniversary as a solo artist.
Foxx has always been an enigma whom one might see, and later, try to recall the exact appearance of. Rather than such a thing being a deterrent, in his case it is an asset, for rather than being a chameleon, he’s always been distinctively original, something which, following his departure from Ultravox in 1979, in favour of a solo career, eventually lead him to be rightfully cited as a great influence on many other post punk artists whose music collectively forms Foxx’s satellite legacy.
This unique concert was touted as an analogue synth show, which in addition to Foxx, would feature special guests. However, following two opening DJs, whose sets featured among their selections by both Foxx, and his most famous electronic follower Gary Numan, it was announced that the final DJ, Numan himself, had been delayed, and the incredible Mr. Foxx would take the stage.
Plastic glasses were raised in tribute, like DIY Holy Grails, to Foxx by the long faithful, as his smiling, silver haired countenance appeared in the spotlight, alongside fellow musician/collaborator Louis Gordon. Some of the highlights of this show were to include Foxx and his band’s playing of some of his seminal late ‘70’s Ultravox songs and early solo work on ‘period’ instruments, i.e. moog, etc. and the mixed age crowd reflected those makeshift persona ethics, with some younger concert goers looking neo-punkified, and those who knew Foxx when, donned in arty black or noir inspired gear, with one middle-aged man ducking through the crowd in Bogiesque suit, tie and brown felt hat.
Foxx’s music is distinctive in that it always seeks to explore new territory, often featuring unusual sounds and textures which ripple through your mind when listening and threaten to invade your subconscious thereafter. This expansively ambiguous facet of Foxx’s music is just one of his many hallmarks, albeit, a transitory, ever shifting one, as Foxx has been known to dabble in many musical styles, among them, his self-defined synth-pop/ elecronic experimentations, and sometimes techno influenced pieces during his years of collaboration with Louis Gordon, as well as wonderfully reflective ambient music. There is nothing pretentious about Foxx himself, or his repertoire and it seems there never has been. It’s this frank, but imaginative approach to his art that makes Foxx’s music so accessible, despite its perpetual cult status, from his increasingly more appreciated tracks with Ultravox in the late ‘70’s, and early solo career, encompassing, 1980’s ground-breaking Metamatic (1980), which inspired many other, oft more commercially successful musicians, through his variegated canon, including the beautifully reflective Cathedral Oceans 1 & 2 (1997), a project begun in 1983, Cathedral Oceans DVD (2003) blending Foxx’s pensive 3D digital art and music, Cathedral Oceans III (2006), another DVD combining Foxx’s art and music, and his sublimely realised work with ambient master Harold Budd on the 2 CD Translucence and Drift Music (2003).
Whatever his experimental angle, Foxx’s shows are always nearly as visually intriguing as they are musically, but it’s the two elements in tandem that really make his shows sing. The accompanying projected film is generally shown above the stage as Foxx and company perform below. Cars feature heavily in his films, though they are never new ones, but vintage gas guzzlers hearkening back to a time, (not long ago really), when consumers blissfully consumed with no consciousness of things like global warming. The films are however, dream-like, in either black and white or artful, artificial looking colour; they are, more often than not, archetypal pieces set in deserted urban landscapes of an unspecified, past time, through which a lone young man wanders, and vintage flashes of blurred cars, whirling or jerking past, or intermittent ‘others’ suggestive of memory, in one case, two friends, another, a mother and child, on film seemingly corroding at the edges. The reoccurring cars could be seen as metaphors for the human body – vehicles which take us through the journey of life. In any event, the combination of film and experimental music sends one drifting. But the overall tone for the show and one that is oft revisited by Foxx through his work– that of urban isolation, was set by his short film ‘Parallel Lives’ which was screened for the audience just prior to the concert itself.
There were many musical highlights in this impressive programme, among them, performances of vintage songs, like Foxx with Ultravox classics from their second album, Ha! – Ha! – Ha!, (1977) ‘The Man Who Dies Everyday’ and album single ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ and from third and final Foxx/Ultravox LP Systems of Romance (1978) -‘Dislocation’, ‘Quiet Man’ and ‘Slow Motion’ the latter two of which were released as singles, all of which featured synth interwoven throughout, rather than merely as crowning solo, and the ultra-cool ‘He’s a Liquid’, highly addictive, ‘Metal Beat’, slyly poetic, ‘No One Driving’ and darkly anthemic ‘Underpass’ from the aforementioned Metamatic, Foxx’s first solo album, as well as ‘Glimmer’ and ‘Burning Car’, both bonus tracks from the album’s 2001 reissue. Other memorable moments involving more recent material were the pulsating beats of, ‘Shadow Man’, with its eerie, B-movie undercurrents, which long-term collaborator (since ‘95) Louis Gordon vigorously bounced along to behind his keyboard, as he backed Foxx on vocals, against a B & W backdrop moving us down the vacuously empty streets of NYC. This beaty, but haunting track was drawn from Foxx’s first album with Gordon, and first studio album in over a decade, the influential Shifting City (1997). Prior to that time, Foxx had long been out of the public eye, pursuing other creative interests – art and lecturing in art and design, remaining out of the ever commercialising music scene. Luckily, Foxx’s chance meeting with Gordon resulted in his return to recording and touring. Shifting City contains more classic Foxx tracks, and was reissued in a fuller mix, with a second disc in 2009, as was their second LP, the 2001 release, The Pleasures of Electricity, an album reflecting Foxx’s abiding Kraftwerk influence and appreciation. I was privileged to have seen Foxx perform at Scala in the summer of 1996, prior to his world tour of 1997 and can testify to the power of his performance at that time, so I’m sure his patient fans around the world, some of who would have waited for decades, were more than glad to see him back on musical form too. But I digress...Another Foxx/Gordon performance on ‘Plaza’ a song as quirky as it is oddly elegant, teased the crowd into swaying along with its playful, sci-fi sensibilities. The Foxx/Gordon CDs are musts, especially for fans of Foxx’s early work, as some of their offerings boomerang right back to his post punk, electronic roots. However, streaks of techno rave, infused by Gordon’s influence in their collaboration should be reined in for the sake of keeping Foxx’s music unclassifiable and timeless. That said, for any Foxx enthusiast, essential tracks like strangely funky, in its’ own, uniquely electronic fashion, ‘Walk This Way’ (2008), a real crowd pleaser here, should become instant staples. Everyone around me, grooving little smiles in place, bodies writhing, seemed seriously hooked. There was other, new music performed, some of which Foxx created in conjunction with Paul Daley of Leftfield, and material by ‘John Foxx and the Maths’ – ‘an all analogue synthesizer project with London-based artist Benge,’ whose work has, apparently been ‘described by Brian Eno as ‘a brilliant contribution to the archaeology of electronic music,’ that I was, admittedly, unacquainted with, (as I also am with Foxx’s collaborations with Nation 12 - Electrofear (2005), D’Agostino & Jansen – A Secret Life (2009), and 2009’s Mirrorball with Robin Guthrie), but it was intriguing nonetheless and I, and I’m sure many others who were there, will be seeking it out.
By the time Gary Numan arrived onstage, looking a bit dishevelled but smiling as always nowadays, after Foxx’s comprehensive set, most of the audience was looking happy too, and not wishing to break this collective spell, I left, amid a stream of other Foxx fans, during the second, ear-shattering, bass heavy sampling by him and co-producer Ade Fenton. No offense to Numan, as I too, succumbed to his electronic charms back in 1979 when he and his ‘army’ landed on the stage of the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia for the very first time. It was pure magic, and it was fun remembering that time when I saw Numan performing again, about five years ago. He’s a real ‘star’, by Foxx’s own admission. But I’d much rather have seen him performing his own music, and truth be told, there’s simply no topping Foxx in terms of the sheer strength and variety of his electronic outpourings.
Through eras of increasingly commercial sell-outs, Foxx’s inherent ability to maintain his status as an underground figure is something of a legend. My first potential live encounter with him never actually materialised, when his one night appearance at the tiny, CBGB like Hot Club in Philly in Nov. 1979 turned out to be his only US concert that year and tickets were sadly, sold out. It was, however, still the talk of the town the following year when new Ultravox front man Midge Ure appeared with the group at the Hot Club and murmurings synched to proclaim the group ineffectual without Foxx.
But as Foxx himself has said:
You see, it takes time to tell if you can affect anything beyond your own generation. Most bands and most music will fade fairly quickly, but the more interesting stuff will take time to be seen. It's a far longer game than most realise.
Thanks Mr. Foxx - it’s been a fascinating, inspiring experience keeping company with your sounds through your endlessly experimental undertakings. Here’s wishing you many more years of happy experimenting.
John Foxx circa 1980
The official John Foxx website: http://www.metamatic.com/
Web : http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/
Address : Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8EH
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