Reviews / November 29, 2017
London’s Ultravox was John Foxx’s band for three increasingly brilliant albums. Their debut, 1977’s Ultravox!, is an uneven but essential distillation of Roxy Music, art-rock-era Brian Eno (who produced, along with Steve Lillywhite), prog, minimalist electronica, and dub. The same year’s Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, on the other hand—a mere eight months separated the albums—is a focused and unsparing gnashing of teeth, the band’s attempt “to see how abrasive and aggressive we could sound.” While its ties to the nascent punk scene are obvious, vocalist-lyricist Foxx—along with Stevie Shears on guitar, Billy Currie on synths and violin, Chris Cross on bass, and Warren Cann on drums—subverted the movement’s limitations by injecting lingering synth threads, drum machine, and treated violin into his thematic preoccupation: Western decadence, industrial collapse, and “the idea of romance and the machine going together.” Systems of Romance (1978), album number three and the last to feature Foxx, was the consummate expression of that theme, both lyrically and musically, and sold so few copies that the label dumped the band shortly after its release. Naturally, it seeped into the genetic makeup of synthpop, and, with Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, had a substantial influence on nearly every strain of post-punk.
Foxx had been fascinated by Kraftwerk and krautrock from the beginning. The name Ultravox was made up “to sound like an electrical product,” and it carried an exclamation mark on the first two LPs, an allusion to German duo Neu!. Foxx was also—like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis—an admirer of British author J.G. Ballard, who wrote of post-apocalyptic Britain as well as the seemingly ineluctable fusion of man and machine. The idea of cybernetic organisms—the beneficial application of advanced technology to human biology—and “transhumanism” had gained popular appeal in the post-Apollo, post-Vietnam 1970s, and seemed implicit in the advance of electronic music. Foxx talks explicitly of wanting to be “free… from this flesh,” of abandoning “all emotion… In the star cold beyond all of your dreams” on “I Want to Be a Machine,” the most experimental track on Ultravox’s debut. This was before Kraftwerk released “The Robots,” mind you, and before they started replacing themselves with dummy doppelgängers during live gigs. Many of the songs on Systems of Romance—co-produced by Kraftwerk alum Conny Plank—reference vehicular transit and motion, location and speed, which goes back to both Kraftwerk (particularly 1974’s Autobahn and 1977’s Trans-Europe Express) and Ballard (whose controversial Crash was published in 1973). Foxx wanted to embody the mechanical rush of emotional detachment; in a 1970s London shot through with recession and riot and disaffection, it wasn’t a bad policy.
The album itself, though, is anything but lifeless. Opener “Slow Motion” fades in with foreboding orchestral synths and foreshadows the warm, eight-note melody of the chorus before launching into the verse, where synthesizers and guitars duel like wasps under the buzzing bass, and the melody of Foxx’s clipped vocals is mirrored by bright, discrete keyboard notes. The song slides into a dark bridge and resolves into the major key chorus, the theme played by guitar this time (Robin Simon replaced Shears on the album), with Foxx drawing out the title of the song—as if singing in slow motion. You can hear so many artists here, from Gary Numan, Duran Duran (both acknowledge their debt to Foxx’s Ultravox), and OMD to The Teardrop Explodes, the Church, the Cure, and eventually Radiohead. Most of the album follows this pattern: a sublime integration of the traditional rock formula (if it makes sense to call art rock and punk rock traditional, or a formula) and electronica—at turns brazen and subtle—with Foxx alternating between spoken-word machine-tones and unmistakably plaintive melodies. On two of the best tracks, “traditional” instruments are discarded altogether (the band had done it before on Ha!-Ha!-Ha!‘s brilliant closer, “Hiroshima Mon Amour“). “Dislocation” is a dark synth riff run over a proto-industrial machine beat, Foxx crooning about half-remembered dreams of strangers; and final track “Just for a Moment” is even more stripped down, the most poignant moment on the album: cinematic synths, organ, piano, and a drum machine heartbeat combine as Foxx laments late 20th-century alienation:
Listening to the music the machines make
I let my heart break
Just for a moment
Listening to the music the machines make
I felt the floor change into an ocean
We’ll never leave here never
Let’s stay in here forever
And when the streets are quiet
We’ll walk out in the silence
Foxx called it quits at the end of Ultravox’s 1979 tour, as did guitarist Simon, who joined Magazine—Ultravox’s nearest musical and spiritual relative. The remaining band members quickly recruited vocalist Midge Ure, and the new incarnation became a successful and enduring—it’s fashionable to malign them, but totally unfair—synthpop act. Foxx himself retreated to a “closet” in Islington with a “wee store of synthesizers” to work on his first solo album, 1980’s Metamatic, which was all electronic, a bit more experimental, and almost as influential—although it took some 20 years for it to be recognized as such. Lyrically, he continued to dwell on streets and cities and bridges, as well as the darker transitions accelerating within: the meshing, merging, sinking, melting, dissolving, fading, and blurring of love- and pain-afflicted mortals into the deathless urban machine. Foxx’s creative emulation of a robot, as he no doubt realized, was the act of resistance that prevented him from becoming one. And what’s more human than that?