John Foxx

John Foxx is an English keyboardist, songwriter, and producer who first emerged as the frontman of Ultravox, a pioneering electro-rock band that released three 1977–78 albums on Island Records.

In 1980, Foxx debuted as a solo artist with Metamatic, a collection of minimal wave and ambient-vocal cuts on his own Virgin-imprint Metal Beat.

Foxx embraced a lavish sound for the 1981 release The Garden and its Beatles-influenced 1983 followup The Golden Section. After his 1985 release In Mysterious Ways, he left the music scene for twelve years.

He later returned with Cathedral Oceans and teamed with musician Louis Gordon on the titles Shifting City and The Pleasures of Electricity. In 2011, he resumed live and studio work as the frontman of John Foxx & The Maths.


Woolly Fish

Foxx was born Dennis Leigh on September 26, 1948, to working class parents in Chorley, Lancashire. He attended Harris College of Art in Preston, where he formed the psychedelic band Woolly Fish.

In 1970, Woolly Fish cut the instrumental “The Way You Like It” (b/w “The Sound of Thick”), an orange-label single on Plexium, a London small-press distributed by the folk label Transatlantic. Both songs are credited to one “Hodge.”

A. “The Way You Like It” (2:56) opens with brisk strummed acoustic chords overlaid with fuzz, which ushers a moderate four-chord progression of fuzz guitar and flute, followed by slower passages of barroom piano, violin, and sizzling fuzz. Midway, a frenetic twelve-note pattern takes hold on the Hammond organ, which rides out the track in a swirl of fuzz.

B. “The Sound of Thick” (2:47) is a psychedelic chamber instrumental that opens with faint cello and flanged effects, followed by an orchestral snippet that triggers the main theme composed of cello, trumpet, and organ. The track passes through medium-paced and slow, rhythmless sections and lifts its theme from an Ideal Milk commercial.

After Woolly Fish, Leigh performed as a 12-string solo act in Manchester and supported local blues-rockers Stack Waddy. He then moved to London and enrolled at the Royal College of Art.


Ultravox

In early 1974, Leigh teamed with guitarist Stevie Shears, bassist Chris Allen, and Canadian drummer Warren Cann in Tiger Lily. They made their live debut at London’s Marquee Club and welcomed classically-trained keyboardist–violinist Billy Currie. In 1975, they cut the film-commissioned Fats Waller cover “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (b/w the group-original “Monkey Jive”) on Gull Records.

In 1976, they gigged the London club and pub circuit under a sequence of names (Fire of London, The Zips, The Damned) and settled on Ultravox. Leigh adopted the stage-name John Foxx, conceived as a public personae to supersede his mortal self. (Allen adopted the complementary surname Cross).

Ultravox signed with Island Records and recorded their first album, Ultravox!, with Steve Lillywhite. Foxx lone-wrote six of the album’s nine songs, which cover uptempo punk (“Satday Night in the City of the Dead”), trebly hard rock (“Wide Boy”), layered epics (“Life at Rainbow’s End,” “I Want to Be a Machine”), and the reggaefied single “Dangerous Rhythm.” He co-wrote two songs with Currie and Cross: the multi-sectional “Slip Away” and the neo-noir melodrama “The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned.” Brian Eno co-produced the lucid Foxx–Cross closing track “My Sex,” a rhythmless piece of faint piano, glacial synths, and cybernetic vocals.

In mid-1977, Ultravox released “Young Savage,” a strident slice of punk that signaled their second album Ha! Ha! Ha!, a mix of buzzsaw rockers with lurid titles (“The Frozen Ones,” “Fear In the Western World”) and layered pieces, including the Side Two bookends “The Man Who Dies Everyday” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” both pioneering integrations of art rock and cutting edge electronics. The former presaged the alternative dance music of the eighties goth-industrial scene. “Hiroshima Mon Amour” sets lyrical surrealism to ambient music in anticipation of the New Romantic movement.

In 1978, Ultravox swapped Shears with guitarist Robin Simon for their third album, Systems of Romance, recorded in Cologne with Kraut producer Conny Plank. Musically, the songs foreshadow eighties modern rock with a balance of refined guitar riffs and clean synth lines. “Quiet Men” features a ‘whipping’ electro-rhythm that fueled dancers on London’s Blitz scene, where Ultravox became a vanguard act. “Just for a Moment” build on the “My Sex” model of lucid vocals, crystalline piano, and warm, layered synthesizers — hallmarks of Foxx’s subsequent solo work. They titled the album after a then-unrecorded song written late in the sessions (later salvaged by Foxx for his second solo album, recorded with Simon).

Ultravox left Island and self-funded a spring 1979 tour of the US, where their music connected with adventurous new wave listeners and innovation-minded progressive rock fans. At the end of the tour, Foxx left Ultravox to explore pure electro-pop and ambient music in a one-man setting.

Ultravox went on hiatus when Currie accepted a mid-year slot in the backing band of Gary Numan, a newly famous synth-rocker who appropriated the Ultravox sound on his June 1979 breakthrough hit “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and its parent album Replicas. Currie teamed with Blitz impresario Steve Strange and assorted Magazine personnel in Visage, an electro-dance project that included former Slik and Rich Kids frontman Midge Ure, who joined Currie in a revamped Ultravox lineup.


Solo Career

John Foxx secured a distribution deal with Virgin Records for his imprint Metal Beat, named after the hi-hat sound on the Roland CR-78 drum machine. His first three solo singles reached the UK Top 35.


Metamatic

John Foxx released his debut solo album, Metamatic, on January 18, 1980, on Virgin–Metal Beat. It features ten largely self-performed songs with multi-layered keyboards, including ARP Odyssey, Clavinet, Elka Rhapsody 610, Farfisa string synth, Hammond organ, Minimoog, and piano.

Foxx titled the album after Métamatic, no 17: a kinetic sculpture created for the 1959 Paris Biennial by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely.

Metamatic spawned two singles: “Underpass” and “No-One Driving,” both influenced by the writing of English satirical novelist J. G. Ballard. “He’s a Liquid” and “Touch and Go” originated in the early 1979 Ultravox live set, though Foxx takes sole credit for both numbers. The Metamatic sessions produced multiple outtakes, including b-sides and later-unearthed CD bonus tracks.

1. “Plaza” (3:52)
2. “He’s a Liquid” (2:59) Foxx took inspiration from a Japanese horror-movie still in which a bodiless suit appears slumped in a chair, suggesting the wearer melted and drained from sight.
3. “Underpass” (3:53)
4. “Metal Beat” (2:59)
5. “No-One Driving” (3:45)

6. “A New Kind of Man” (3:38)
7. “Blurred Girl” (4:16)
8. “030” (3:15)
9. “Tidal Wave” (4:14)
10. “Touch and Go” (5:33) Foxx performed this live with Ultravox on his final tour with the band. They use a similar arrangement and melody on “Mr. X,” the opening track on Side Two of Vienna, the 1980 fourth Ultravox album and their first with John’s replacement Midge Ure. Neither track co-credits the other party.

John Foxx recorded Metamatic in the autumn of 1979 at Pathway Studios, a London facility noted for its simple equipment and low-cost rates. He self-performed the music apart from the contributions by bassist Jake Durant and supplemental keyboardist John Wesley Barker. Gareth Jones, a young BBC intern, earned his first engineering credit on Metamatic.

Metamatic shows a tilted photo of Foxx with his hand extended to a florescent white screen. The photographer, Chris Gabrin, also has visual credits on 1979–80 albums by Clive Langer & The Boxes, The Edge, The Human League (Reproduction), Madness (One Step Beyond…), and Split Enz.

One week before Metamatic, John Foxx released “Underpass” on January 10 as the lead single backed with the non-album instrumental “Film One.”

A. “Film One” (3:58)

In the “Underpass” video, Foxx’s silhouette emerges in smoke as blue rays beam through shuttered blinds. He dances in the blue and the rays beam across his face. In an alternate thread, he parts from his own reflection and steps into a column of fluorescent bars near two keyboardists and a pair of clutching children. He sways and sings to the camera as film projections and blue–green lights illuminate his face. Dash-cam underpass footage intercuts throughout the clip.

Foxx and his band mimed “Underpass” against a pink tubular backdrop on the January 31 broadcast of the BBC music program Top of the Pops, which also featured winter hits by Azymuth (“Jazz Carnival”), Billy Ocean (“Are You Ready”), Jon & Vangelis (“I Hear You Now”), Kenny Rogers (“Coward of the County”), Madness (“My Girl”), New Musik (“Living By Numbers”), The Revillos (“Motorbike Beat”), Rupert Holmes (“Escape”), and The Specials (“Too Much Too Young”).

On March 21, Foxx released “No-One Driving” as the second single backed with the instrumental “Glimmer.” In addition to the standard 7-inch, Virgin issued two variations with the same catalog number (VS 338): a three-track maxi single with the second instrumental b-side “Mr. No” and a four-song double-pack with the vocal exclusive “This City.”

B. “Glimmer” (3:33)
C. “This City” (3:03)
D. “Mr. No” (3:14)

The video to “No-One Driving” intercuts the “Underpass” blue-ray scenes with footage of Foxx in a dark studio, where his backers play keyboards in spinning florescent blocks while he dances between spinning tubes against a deep-blue screen.

Foxx and his band mimed “No-One Driving” inside a smoky chrome-bar stage contraption on the March 27 broadcast of TotP, which also featured spring ’80 hits by Brothers Johnson (“Stomp”), Genesis (“Turn It On Again”), The Jam (“Going Underground”),  Judas Priest (“Living After Midnight”), Siouxsie & The Banshees (“Happy House”), and The Spinners (“Working My Way Back to You – Forgive Me Girl”).

Foxx also made a video for “He’s a Liquid,” in which he steps into a small blue-lit room and hold out his hand to a fluorescent screen (in emulation of the cover). He marvels at the screen, which teleports a female clone of himself. They lock eyes at arms length and circle the room, then make contact to assess each other’s physical properties. The walls light up with cloudy sky projects and they continue to pace and trade looks. He steps before the white screen and vanishes.

Metamatic reached No. 18 in the UK Albums Chart. Later CD reissues add the four b-sides and subsequent non-album single as bonus tracks. “Underpass” also appears on the 1980 Metal Beat release Machines, a compilation of post-punk and minimal wave songs by Fad Gadget (“Ricky’s Hand”), Gary Numan (“Aircrash Bureau”), Henry Badowski (“Making Love With My Wife”), The Human League (“Being Boiled”), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (“Messages”), Public Image Ltd. (“Pied Piper”), Silicon Teens (“Memphis Tennessee”), Tubeway Army (“Down in the Park”), and XTC (“The Somnambulist”).


“Burning Car”

On July 18, 1980, John Foxx released the standalone single “Burning Car” backed with “20th Century,” both self-produced at Pathway Studios. Foxx plays all synthesizers and the Roland CR-78 rhythm machine on both sides, which infuse the Metamatic style with searing industrial sounds.

A. “Burning Car” (3:12)

B. “20th Century” (3:06)

In addition to the standard picture-sleeve single, “Burning Car” appeared on picture disc.


“My Face”

In October 1980, a new John Foxx song “My Face” appeared as a yellow flexi-disc in the pages of Smash Hits, a British new wave fortnightly. The disc appeared in the magazine’s October 2–15 issue, which features Gary Numan on the cover.

A. “My Face” (3:20)

In the accompanying caption, Smash Hits identifies “My Face” as one of “forty or so” tracks that Foxx recorded in preparation for his upcoming second solo album. The caption (accompanied by a purple-tinted portrait pic) mentions his intended multi-media project (book and album) based on The Quiet Men (the title of a 1978 Ultravox song), which Foxx describes as “the people you pass in the street without noticing them.”


“Miles Away”

On October 31, 1980, John Foxx released “Miles Away,” an uptempo number backed with the psychedelic-tinged “A Long Time.” The picture sleeve recreates the bodiless suit image that inspired “He’s a Liquid.”

A. “Miles Away” (3:16)

B. “A Long Time” (3:50)

In the “Miles Away” video, Foxx dances in a barren windowed room illuminated with bright sunlight. He appears in multiple places (street, phonebooth, running train, puddled underpass) amid frequent sightings of the bodiless suit (chair, train, park bench). The final moments cut between his movements in the dance room and his motionless body upright in shallow water.


The Garden

John Foxx released his second solo album, The Garden, on September 25, 1981, on Virgin. It features ten originals, including the breezy acoustic number “Europe After the Rain” and the spinning uptempo synth-rocker “Dancing Like a Gun,” both released as singles.

In contrast to the icy minimalism of Metamatic, multiple Garden tracks (“You Were There,” “Fusion/Fission,” “Walk Away”) are bright electro-dance rockers with organic rhythm foundations and precision guitar work by Robin Simon, a key component of the 1978 Ultravox album Systems of Romance. The Garden extends on that album’s musical and lyrical themes and premiers “Systems of Romance,” a heretofore unrecorded song from the 1978 sessions.

The Garden features Foxx on guitar, piano, and tom-toms in addition to synthesizers and programmed drums. His backing band consists of Simon, drummer Philip Roberts, bassist Jo Dworniak, and multi-instrumentalist Duncan Bridgeman, who plays synthesizer, brass, piano, sequencer, and assorted percussion (cymbals, toms, bongos). Bridgeman and Dworniak constituted the funk duo Shake Shake!

Foxx and Bridgeman joint-perform the album’s epic title-track: a lush soundscape of synthesizer, percussion, voice, and garden sounds. Foxx self-performs “Pater Noster,” a vocoderized Latin prayer with programmed percussion and synthesized tape loops dubbed the ‘Human Host.’

1. “Europe After the Rain” (3:57) takes its title from a 1942 landscape painting of a post-apocalypse Europe by German surrealist Max Ernst.
2. “Systems of Romance” (4:02)
3. “When I Was a Man and You Were a Woman” (3:37)
4. “Dancing Like a Gun” (4:10)
5. “Pater Noster” (2:32)
6. “Night Suit” (4:26) invokes the ‘Quiet Men’ theme discussed in recent interviews (originated in the 1978 Ultravox song).
7. “You Were There” (3:51)
8. “Fusion/Fission” (3:48)
9. “Walk Away” (3:52)
10. “The Garden” (7:03)

Sessions took place at The Garden, Foxx’s customized recording studio located in a former sculptor’s warehouse in Shoreditch, East London. Metamatic session bassist Jake Durant plays on “You Were There.” Bridgeman, Dworniak, and Roberts played concurrently on the album Funk With Me by Nigerian funksters Danny Offia & The Friks.

Metamatic soundman Gareth Jones engineered The Garden in succession with Desire, the second album by Ralph Records recording artists Tuxedomoon: a Rotterdam-based art rock band (originally from San Francisco) that fused English electro-rock (Ultravox, Tubeway Army) with the French–Belgian chamber style (Art Zoyd, ZNR). Jones plays percussion on “Night Suit.”

The Garden is housed in a black-frame sleeve with white serif typeface by the design firm Ansell Sadgrove, who also designed sleeves for Japan (“Ghosts,” “Visions of China”) and Men Without Hats (“Antartica”). The front and back cover feature long-range countryside photos of Foxx by Peter Gilbert, the former editor of the 1977 punk fanzine In the City, which twice featured Ultravox on the cover.

Original UK copies contained a sixteen-page booklet with lyrics and portrait pics of Foxx in his current attire: white buttoned shirt, double-breasted gray vest, and white pleated slacks. The booklet devotes twelve pages to “Church,” an accompaniment work by Foxx with cathedral photos and text (five pages) that document his experience in the old English countryside between sessions for the album. He includes a photo of the stained glass and writes “Intense colours glow from vast figured windows in the hazy interior. Gold, crimson, azure, emerald, violet.”

In August 1981, Foxx released “Europe After the Rain” as an advance single backed with the non-album “This Jungle.”

B: “This Jungle” (4:40)

Foxx mimes “Europe After the Rain” amid geometric glass fixtures and pink–teal lighting on the September 3 episode of TotP, which also features late-summer hits by Gary Numan (“She’s Got Claws”), OMD (“Souvenir”), The Pointer Sisters (“Slow Hand”), Soft Cell (“Tainted Love”), The Teardrop Explodes (“Passionate Friend”), and UB40 (“One In Ten”). Foxx (gray vest, acoustic guitar) leads a band that features Eddie Maelov (white tux, synthesizer) and Sunshine Patteson (pink dress, grad piano) of the spinoff duo from Gloria Mundi, a prog–punk band that befriended Ultravox on the late-seventies live circuit. Gareth Jones engineered two 1981 Eddie & Sunshine singles (“Times Are Hard” and “Lines”) for the post-punk indie Human Records.

Foxx lifted “Dancing Like a Gun” on October 30, 1981, as the second single backed with “Swimmer 2.”

B: “Swimmer 2” (4:06) The “Dancing Like a Gun” 12″ features “Swimmer 1” in sequence with “Swimmer 2” (8:50).

In the “Dancing Like a Gun” video, Foxx arm-sways amid random characters (suited man with a burning arm, woman with a long scarf) on a windy roadway flanked with burning upturned cars, rock formations, and abandoned furnishings. The characters reappear in 18th-century garb and shower Foxx with confetti.

The Garden reached No. 24 on the UK Albums Chart. The 2008 deluxe reissue contains a twelve-song bonus disc that includes the b-sides and the “Miles Away” single plus three unearthed instrumentals (“Fog” and Swimmer “III” and “IV”) and four demos, including solo piano versions of the subsequent b-sides “Dance With Me” and “A Woman on a Stairway.”


“Endlessly”

On July 16, 1982, John Foxx released “Endlessly,” a standalone single backed with “Young Man.”

A: “Endlessly” (3:51)

B: “Young Man” (2:52)

Foxx’s ongoing soundman Gareth Jones engineered “Young Man.” On “Endlessly,” Foxx employed Joe Dworniak, a soundman on recent singles by Random Hold and the Shake Shake! follow-through I-Level.

In the “Endlessly” video, Foxx rendezvous with a high-styled woman (black skirt suit, gloves, veil, umbrella) and they walk together through a park. She suddenly runs ahead and reappears in a hallway, where she evades his desperate yet ever-slowing pursuit. He follows her up a spiral staircase but the steps and turns get longer by the second. Subsequent scenes cut between moments of them together and apart, suggesting his endless pursuit and their fleeting bond.

Foxx recorded both songs for an intended 1982 album that never materialized due to creative shifts that inspired his next long-player. He scrapped eight songs from the aborted project.> Eleven months after this single, Foxx released a re-remixed “Endlessly” in advance of his third album.


The Golden Section

John Foxx released his third solo album, The Golden Section, on September 26, 1983, on Virgin. It contains a re-mixed version of the twice pre-released “Endlessly” and nine further songs, including the followup singles “Your Dress” and “Like a Miracle.”

Foxx co-produced the album with former Birth Control keyboardist (and recent mastermind of Gina X Performance) Zeus B. Held, who plays keyboards on nine tracks. Onetime Gong bassist Mike Howlett produced and plays on the closing track “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” which features backing vocals by a choirboy named James Risborough.

The Golden Section features Garden bassist Jo Dworniak and session drummer Paul “Wix” Wickens. Thomas Dolby sideman Kevin Armstrong plays guitar on “Sitting at the Edge of the World,” an ethereal track that closes Side One. Haircut One Hundred drummer Blair Cunningham plays on “Ghosts On Water” and “The Hidden Man,” one of two tracks (along with “Running Across Thin Ice With Tigers”) with Garden sessionist and onetime Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon. Two tracks (“Someone,” “Your Dress”) feature Fairlight CMI programming by Art of Noise co-founder J. J. Jeczalik. Foxx himself plays keyboards throughout and guitar on everything but the drum–synth number “Ghosts on Water.”

1. “My Wild Love” (3:45)
2. “Someone” (3:30)
3. “Your Dress” (4:26)
4. “Running Across Thin Ice With Tigers” (5:37)
5. “Sitting at the Edge of the World” (4:23)
6. “Endlessly” (4:18)
7. “Ghosts on Water” (3:12)
8. “Like a Miracle” (5:10) Foxx recorded an earlier version during the Metamatic sessions.
9. “The Hidden Man” (5:44)
10. “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (4:24) The title phrase originates in the second line of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Foxx uses effects dubbed the ‘Magnetic Choir.’

Sessions took place in 1983 at the Garden, where Zeus B. Held co-produced The Golden Section amid work on titles by Fashion, Impulse, and Dead Or Alive. Howlett produced “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” in sequence with singles by Blancmange, China Crisis, The Comsat Angels, Hunters & Collectors, and the 1983 Jive release Listen, the second album by A Flock of Seagulls.

Longtime Foxx engineer Gareth Jones recorded five Golden Section tracks (4, 5, 6, 7, 9) and handed the rest to American soundman Alan Barson apart from “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” recorded and mixed by Corinne Simcock, who co-engineered the third Passions album Sanctuary, on which Armstrong replaced guitarist Clive Timperley (once of Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band The 101er’s). Barson also worked on 1982–83 releases by the Cuddly Toys, Paz, and Monsoon frontwoman Sheila Chandra. At Foxx’s suggestion, Jones became an engineer for Depeche Mode on their 1983 third album Contruction Time Again.

June 17, 1983
A: “Endlessly”
B: “Dance With Me
double-pack version adds “Ghosts On Water”
C: “A Kind of Wave

Aug 1983
A: “Your Dress”
B: “A Woman On a Stairway
C: “The Lifting Sky
D: “Annexe

Oct 1983
A: “Like a Miracle”
B: “Wings And a Wind

2001 reissue bonus tracks
“Dance With Me” – 3:29
“The Lifting Sky” – 4:48
“Annexe” – 3:10
“Wings and a Wind” – 5:15
“A Kind of Wave” – 3:37
“A Woman on a Stairway” – 4:29 


Discography:

  • Metamatic (1980)
  • “Burning Car” / “20th Century” (1980)
  • “My Face” (flexi, 1980)
  • “Miles Away” / “A Long Time” (1980)
  • The Garden (1981)
  • The Golden Section (1983)
  • In Mysterious Ways (1985)
  • Cathedral Oceans (1997)
  • Cathedral Oceans I + II (2003)
  • Translucence / Drift Music (2003 • John Foxx + Harold Budd)
  • Cathedral Oceans III (2005)
  • Tiny Colour Movies (2006)
  • My Lost City (2009)
  • A Secret Life (2009 • D’Agostino / Foxx / Jansen)
  • Mirrorball (2009 • John Foxx & Robin Guthrie)

Sources:

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