Saturday, April 30, 2022

Foxx on the run

 "You can't act out Mr Angry for ever, like some on-the-nose ham. I was looking for an effective sort of detached tranquility"

- John Foxx on leaving behind punk 

An interview with the eloquent Mr Foxx for Shock and Awe

In one of the first Ultravox interviews (NME 1977) you talked about being fans of the Velvets and the Dolls. But generally your orientation seems much more English – England and Europe. Psychedelia and glam appear to be the primary and abiding influences. (English psych, mind – Barrett + Revolver rather than Jefferson Airplane and “Dark Star”!). Would it be fair to say you’ve never been very attracted to American pop culture or US rock? (Excepting of course New York – but then Manhattan isn’t really part of America, really. Judging by how the rest of the USA regards it.)

That Jefferson Airplane/ West Coast axis interested me not at all. Britain and Europe certainly set the table. (As you say–New York/ Manhattan is really a displaced European city, so I guess much of what came out of there, including the Velvets/Dolls and much of the CBGBs scene, might be included.

Also - as we now know, most of those bands, including the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Talking Heads, were reacting in their various ways to a previous generation of British music – The Dolls intent on recovering the Stones initial glam/punk snottiness and the Velvets titles showed Brit/Europe reaction – Sacher Masoch /European Son poetics,  plus they were also reacting to press reports of feedback-era Who etc)..

The Velvets were a very glamorous band –Warhol and all, but it was a dark sort of glamour. A new scene based in the Factory - in a then unknown New York (or at least unknown to most Brits), where anything might happen. A mythland in the making.

At that time I also remember thinking that the impulse to imitate another culture meant you regarded your own as inferior.  So I tried to re-imagine what British/European popular music might have sounded like if America had never happened –If we hadn’t been overcome by a tidal wave from such a powerful and energetic culture.

That became part of the brief I gave myself in writing the songs for the band. It took a bit of doing, but defining what you didn’t want to be certainly helped to clear the water.

 Mind you, just like everyone else of my generation, I’d long been fascinated by mainstream Americana– from sci-fi films and comics I saw in the 1950s, then the Bill Haley/ Elvis /Chuck Berry explosion later.  I especially loved old blues records  - John Lee Hooker/Little Walter/Howlin’ Wolf era. They were so roughly recorded but had a power and immediacy that more polished stuff could never reach. Those Chess-era blues guys had a glamour all of their own – they wore big suits and ties, pulled-down fedoras and operated in Chicago – ultra urban scene of endless archetypal  gangster movies.

All this stuff came from a very different place - so a white Industrial North Brit kid would be daft to attempt imitation. But it was such a weight and so powerful that it was difficult to see your way out - at first.  Post-Beatles and Psychedelia, the only possible exit was to look in the opposite direction…

Germany was beginning to find its way out from the horror of its recent past. The next generation had a seemingly impossible job to do in defining themselves in absolute opposition to that era. There was a tremendous energy there – the noises it was making attracted my attention. Since Brit psychedelia had already moved there and left us with Prog,  very early in the 70’s I realized the axis of adventure in music had shifted to New York and Germany.

Then there was French chanson – those grand songs like the ones that eventually became My Way and Life On Mars. Ferry picked up on these forms more completely than anyone else and synthesized it all so beautifully, along with a bit of Noel Coward glam, into Mother Of Pearl and Sunset etc. Then there was Jaques Brel, Barbara, TV and Movie themes from the Third Man, The Killing Stones, Radiophonic Workshop stuff such as Dr Who, Theramin sci-fi movie music, The Tango, The angular beautiful music by Bernstein  from West Side Story, and some Spanish and Italian film music, too…An awful lot to reconcile. It took us a little while to digest that lot and turn it into fuel.

 Of British psychedelia you once said “it was very mysterious, optimistic and very English – nothing American about it—a strange mixture of traditional churchy things, but with young people involved. It seemed to open up limitless possibilities. There was a fresh kind of calmness about it that I loved.” Who did you love in particular?

The early Pink Floyd - all that early sunshine and shadow. Though I disliked their tendency to lapse into blues forms on occasion, you had to forgive them because the wild experimental stuff worked so well.

Live, they could make a timeless environment from feedback, smoke and strobes. They introduced that summery, church-like form, too - Saucerful of Secrets was the track – a rising Psychedelic hymn. Along with Tomorrow Never Knows, it hinted at a revisiting of English church music, (There’s a line of development there through Virginia Astley, Clannad’s Theme from Harry’s Game and the Cocteau Twins. Much of it reached a dead end with Enya.  I think some of that original spirit was later recovered and condensed into Eno’s best piece - An Ending (Ascent)).

 You always had to beware of whimsy and there was plenty of that with The Incredible String Band and some of Donovan’s later stuff - but there were great tracks from the Beatles and even the Stones. Ray Davies did ‘See my friends’ – the very beginning of Psychedelic Asian Drone and a superb record.

There was a fascinating sort of violence too, in the Syd-era Floyd –lighting that cast massive threatening  shadows and blinding spectrum  strobes.  Animalistic screeching, disorientating echo effects and wild feedback.

The Velvets were doing The Exploding Plastic Inevitable the best expression of violent light and noise. Momentarily, they and the Floyd intersected at this point with The Who – feedback and Pop Art leaking into experimental sound and Happenings.  I remember that, cumulatively, it all felt as though something unknown and gigantic was arriving.


How involved did you get in the Summer of Love and all that?

I went to the first 14 hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace. It was a revelation.

 Lighting by Mark Boyle,  Czechoslovakian art movies by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica projected on the walls and the shock of Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel and Dali, right beside new Avant-Rock.  It all enlarged the remit of psychedelia into a pan-European art movement and it certainly expanded my little mind that night - I’m forever grateful for it - a real life changer. All of hip London in the same place, lots of new connections made, then the Floyd coming on at dawn in that huge overgrown Victorian church-like space. Perfect.

Afterwards everyone walked in a long dazed procession to the tube at Highgate. It was a sunny, leafy, 1960’s tranquil London morning. Everything was illuminated and I felt blessed - I’d met my generation  - even though I was much younger than most people there..

Later there was a 24 hour Technicolour Dream then to Christmas on Earth Continued- I went to this at Earls Court if I remember.

After that, I occasionally bought Oz and International Times, had the Martin Sharp Tambourine Man poster and The UFO freak out Butterfly poster, went to many of the festivals and events. I printed my own posters and sold them to existing stallholders to make just enough for the weekend. (Some of my drawings were also reprinted in the underground press in the UK and US).

I was really searching for this world that I’d touched briefly at Alexander Palace, but it was already evaporating. Later, I went to Woburn Abbey and the first outdoor festivals until The Isle of Wight 1970, where it all finally seemed to fall apart. Two people who hadn’t met before had sex in the foam bank created as an entertainment. Most of the bands and music were a disappointment. It had become a cheap circus and seemed so childish and shoddy. 

I went to see the Stones in the Park and they seemed untuned and disconnected. King Crimson simply blew them away. A little later I went to my last hippy party - everyone was lying around on the floor and no one spoke. The place was dirty and reeked of dope and stale patchouli, the food was brown and tasteless, the music had arrived at a set of conventions which left it stale on delivery.

I quietly let myself out and wandered off home. Then came news of Manson, Bader Mienhof, Patti Hearst, Manson and lots of other horrors from various combinations of drugs, fanaticism, and careless or deliberate abandonment of any moral compass.

Every aspect of the scene was also becoming colonized by slick operators. A whole new breed of conmen and cheap dealers arrived, dressed in the right clothes, saying the right things, but ever ready to take advantage. It was easy for them because Acid had left many people in such a credulous state. 

Then the cults arrived - Divine Light and various Maharishis- these took easy advantage of the fag end of a generation of fragmented, Acid-blown brains. I used to see one little fat Indian lad  - at the time touted as the latest divine entity  - being scolded by his parents into his new Rolls in Highgate . You had to smile.  It all fell down, down, down, by the beginning of the 70’s

That was the end for me. I got a James Dean haircut and a complete antipathy for that sort of sluggish hippy Bohemia.

  And what about when music turned heavy and progressive from 68 onwards?

Lost interest completely. Got into painting and drawing at art school.

 One of my theses is that glam has more to do with the Englishness and androgyny of UK psych than NYC decadence. You only have to look at the John’s Children/Marc Bolan connection or Bowie’s mod period as flashbacked to with Pinups or Eno’s love of Barrett / Manzanera’s Soft Machine-y origins....

Oh Yes, that’s definitely true – the Bowie /Bolan bit came directly out of a compound of mod sharpness and mid-hippy extravaganza.

 The shops were very important then, Kings Road was becoming the centre - Granny Takes a Trip etc plus Portobello Road. A sort of 1930’s glittery smoke and strobe- lit hallucinatory confusion of sex, gender and music evolved.  

Hapshash and the Coloured Coat with The Human Host and The Heavy Metal Kids were another influential style statement, even though the record wasn’t much cop. Later, at the first Woburn Abbey festival as we were all waiting to go in, I remember seeing a bunch of recent mods all newly decked out in kaftans and those seashell beads, discussing their gear just as avidly as they’d previously discussed tonic suits and tailors.

Some time in the late sixties, I also remember reading an article in Vogue about this weird narcissistic cult of London mods who would gather to dress up and pose in front of mirrors every day. One of them was Bolan before he took up music..

Later, Bowie and Bolan both used both those periods as the launch pad.  Mission -  retrieve glamour and mystery from the so called ‘authenticity’ of early to mid 70’s rock  - All that Whistle Test denim and plaid. Dull Dull Dull.  Two sharp ex- mods certainly weren’t going to take that sort of neo- bureaucratic Puritanism for long.

Mod was really the first shot at glamour – working class kids able to try out the existing style statement clothes from other tribes – Italian driving heel shoes from Anello and Davide,  levis sta- prest, jumpers from W. Bill of Bond Street, etc. As well as inventing their own styles and haircuts. It was a dressing in tribal symbols – ironic and playful as well as ruthless and fast moving. You learnt how to read the street – spot a new use of an existing cliché as well as a new invention.

Later, as a more extrovert evolution of that Mod gleaning,  glam raided the dressing up box of the entire history of glamorous imagery and recombined it all into a sort of eccentric human collage – I always thought that Leigh Bowery was truly the ultimate expression of all that.

Ferry came out of the mod thing too, but from a much more intellectually demanding background at Newcastle School of Art. He used all his mod and Hamilton honed visual acuity to take it all another step- further than anyone at the time. - manifesting style as living pop art. He actually took pop art back into the streets -  making it a million times more pervasive and effective than anything relegated to a gallery.

Together with Anthony Price– another outstanding northern designer – Roxy and Ferry repurposed every relevant image, every clichéd man-type and tragic glam pose into a body of work as sleek as a starlets retouched press shot. It had the faintest style echoes of that earlier, brief, Pop Art version of the Who, which I also liked a lot, but it was much broader and more pervasive. This one was alive, airbourne and fully contagious.

 What are the initiating raptures and life-changing moments for you with music, and specifically with glam – particular concerts, or TV moments such as “Virginia Plain” on TOTP, NY Dolls on Old Grey Whistle Test, etc? Can you describe how they affected you, both in that moment and subsequently in terms of what you would go on to do?

Well, those two were absolutely seminal of course. The Dolls clearly illustrated how trash, snot and sheer cheek are indispensible, while at the other end of the spectrum, Roxy turned in a convulsive, momentary compendium of all things wonderful. Two new universes available to an entire new generation in just three minutes apiece. Very good going. A lot of new bands got formed in Britain as a result of those two appearances.

 In the band’s ad in Melody Maker, along with the Dolls and Velvets, another name listed – or so I read - was The Shadows. Interesting! Chris Cutler actually argued they were the first progressive guitar group, the first to use that instrument for texture and atmosphere, and had a huge influence on the subsequent development of rock in the UK / Europe. Is there a line from Hank Marvin that can be drawn to Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, Michael Rother, Manuel Gottsching?

Certainly – Chris Cutler has a point. The Shadows futuristic pop dominated European music for years (By the way, another mentioned in the ads was Billy Fury – take a look at his glitter suits in the 50’s and his guest spot in that first-class rock-map and Essex vehicle ‘That’ll be the Day’ to see what a blinder he was – and he wrote his own songs – a real first in those days).

Rother loved early Shadows (as did Michele Jarre) It goes everywhere - Marco in Adam and the Ants was clearly another Shadows fan, as is Gilmour, and I’m sure Manzanera would own up if asked, so the threads go all over - and all of these musicians had certainly grown up with that stuff on every juke box across Germany, Britain and France.

This includes Kraftwerk - all their publicity shots are predicated on Shadows early publicity. Ironic or not, the shadows visual and sonic style was a major element in the making of Kraftwerk.

 I think The Shadows represent a manifestation of that cultural melting pot of Soho after WW2 -. Italian suits from Jewish tailors. Italian shoes, haircuts and echo boxes.

Their material was composed by European emigres to whom rock’n’ roll was unfamiliar, but their heritage was the great European classical composers and their own folk and religious forms, all evident  in many of those compositions.

These were great, wide, cinematic melodies that gave an obligatory nod to the new rock music, but their form reached back into middle Europe, played on new electronic instruments with Cadillac styling and names – Stratocaster for instance. This is also where popular music became completely electronic – the electric guitar plus tremelo arm, recording studio and echo effects, transformed it away from the sound of catgut and propelled it towards the sound of theramin.

Of course this was glamorous in half-destroyed post-war cities, and of course all young people wanted a new world, free from bombsites, rationing and subdued parents. They wanted lights and joy and possibilities

In the early Shadows music you get the darkness and threat but you also get the wonderful land - a vision of sharp coffee bars in neon cities, cool people in cool clothes meeting, long cars going by outside.  

Great titles -  Frightened City, Man of Mystery, FBI,  Wonderful Land. Altogether, it seemed incredibly futuristic and hip at the time.

Looking back they seem like the only true precursor to Kraftwerk - clean, futuristic, separated sounds. Echo and reverberation – illusory technological space used as an integral part of the music.  Addressing urban youth and their dreams. Mutated middle European melodies, a rigid urban futurist styling. Enjoyed equally by bureaucrats in love and the avant-garde.

You talked in a NME interview of how the group’s melodies naturally came out European in feel, specifically Germanic. Billy talked about avoiding blues scales. You said, “We rejected all those Americanisms that were going round at the time. And that's really why we started off, because we wanted to make some English European music.”  How important were things like “Song For Europe” and Bowie’s shift from NYC / LA to Berlin?

Roxy gave permission to explore  kitsch and Euromusic, made it romantic and mysterious. Bowie’s shift was a physical indication that he’d seen the future and it wasn’t simply Warhol any more.

We’d decided before any of these, though, that we weren’t going down Route 66. It was to be Route Nationale 1 and the M6.

 In another interview you stressed the importance of singing in an English accent – citing Bowie and Ferry as the only people who avoided the Trans-Atlantic, faux-American vocals of yer Marriotts and Stewartses. But what did you think of Bowie’s own faux-black move circa Young Americans?

I liked a few of the songs around that time – Golden Years especially. But overall it was strangely unsatisfying - it seemed like some sort of compromise to crack America. A bit too obvious. But it worked for him.

 Your life arc – working class Northern family, background in mining – into art school (three of them, is that right?) could not be more archetypally glam! Or British-pop’n’rock...

Absolutely. We were temporarily socially mobile because of a unique historical opportunity and determined to taste it all.

 At the same time we all felt inadequate, self-conscious and unsure of the territories we were accessing, so overcompensation becomes a ubiquitous symptom. You could be forgiven though, because everyone instinctively knew exactly what was meant when you overdid it – they felt the same, but didn’t dare –at first…

 I suppose, given that the art school syndrome was equally strong with Sixties beat groups and with the postpunk period. In your case, did the things you learned at art school and ideas / attitudes picked up from that milieu filter directly into the music and its performance, visual presentation, etc?

Art school was where you went when you weren’t sure what you wanted to be, but cool. You met your generation and assembled some sort of culture from all the trash that was floating under the bridge at the time.  Whatever was going by that looked likely, you incorporated.  It was all you had.

Lots of ideas were swapped, sheer daftness and false starts could be engaged in without ruin. You could practise subverting style conventions, even ones which were considered radical.  Situationism was a practical strategy.

One example : - We were invited by a neighbouring art school to their Happening and asked to bring some music and slides. Our lecturer at the time,  George Hollingsworth, asked what we were going to take. I said  a Ravi Shankar album and oil and water slides - Psychedelia was new, so this was dead hip at the time.

“How conventional”, said George.

“What would you do then?” I asked, feeling a bit miffed.

 “Well, everyone should get a short back and sides haircut and a grey suit and tie. The slides should be Swiss typography, numbers one to ten. Music  - Bach cello suites. Everything mathematical and systematic. Totally in contrast to everything everyone else will do. You all walk in single file, everyone  sits down together. Music plays, numbers one to ten projected. Light go up. You all stand together and walk out in single file”.

Brilliant, I thought.

I actually put this into operation for Metamatic, around fourteen years later. The convention then was ripped and torn Punk. I did the oppositional move – electronics, a man in a grey suit. It worked.

Ultravox actually began as an art project. Richard Guyatt head of design at the Royal College of Art had just given me the first year drawing prize. Afterwards, he asked me what sort of projects I wanted to pursue.

A few days before, there’d been an interesting discussion of ‘Design for the real world’ - designing things you want to use and see, making ideas become real, working with things you have some true experience of, the principle of designing with your heart as well as your head, how to redesign yourself… lots of fascinating new ideas at the time.

So said I’d like to design a rock band. “Great idea” he said. “Go ahead”.

 In the NME Nick Kent interview, you say you went to art school “to stave off the real world”... 

I was avoiding working in a factory or a mine.

 There seems to be a strong relationship between glam and the urban North of England– Roxy were particularly popular in Sheffield, Manchester. Why do you think that is?

Our parents were embedded in a post-industrial world that was clearly limping to oblivion. You were slightly scared, wondering what might be next and at the same time you were full of unfocussed energy, doubt and evanescent courage, attempting to put all this together in some shape that fitted the kind of life you thought you might want to live.

Northern industrial cities held tribes of kids who’d seen tv and movies, wanted to get some of that and were prepared to remodel themselves in the attempt.  These bands seemed like a gateway to another, better way of life. All over urban Britain, empty clubs were available to try it out in. This became the network for the next stage.

The more general picture is, of course, that suddenly you are not someone’s kid anymore. Hormones hit and you’re forced to begin to differentiate yourself - to make your true self. Only you don’t know what that might be. There are a number of off the shelf pop models available, or you can make your own. These are all you have, so they have to do until real experience shapes your real self.  Then these identities are usually let go gently.

Bands colonized this identity-blag window and acted as a common focus for all the mess. It was their job. The really good songs felt like personal messages to you from another world.

Things have changed. Then, media made you feel as if everything was happening somewhere else - a million miles away from you and your tiny life. You had to be truly dedicated to actually get there.

Now, the reverse is true – the biggest media are all to do with social networking – it’s next door, happening all around, and now even international events are predicated on and displayed through personal media. You have a voice in it and a telepath’s world in your pocket.

Perhaps that’s why bands have little cultural impact or importance anymore. They’re superfluous. Everyone already has the message. A song and an image now take too long to carry it.

  When did you change your name to John Foxx? What drew you to that word, and the extra ‘x’?

I stole it from Charlie and Inez Foxx – A great looking couple in sharp silver outfits. I saw them supporting the Stones on an early tour in Wigan. I thought Foxx was a great name and kept it in the back of my mind.

Much later I read an article about the new phenomenon of urban foxes moving into London successfully. I liked their spirit and identified. So that was it.

A new identity meant you could redesign yourself into something more suitable for the new environment. The young lad from up north wasn’t really up to the job.

 I was going to say it’s a very glam thing to do but in fact it’s a very British pop thing to do – there were a lot of stage names in early British rock’n’roll, unlike US rock’n’roll where artists kept their real names mostly, and that was then nostalgically revived during the glitter period (Stardust, etc) and then intensified with punk (Idol, Siouxsie, Vicious, Rotten, Strummer, Styrene) in a way that at once parodic of showbiz and in line with the whole reinvention of the self idea.  

Well, McLaren’s management and punk renaming was certainly a deliberate parody of the 1950’s Fury/ Eager/ Quickly scene of Larry Parnes Svengali management.

It’s a class thing too – working class kids are hidebound as any other by a bunch of tribal rules of behaviour – you have to fight, can’t aspire to get above yourself, poetry is nancy etc etc.

 In order to ditch all that you simply ditch the identity and you’re free. It’s a great liberation. And you also come to represent an avenue of escape to others – but then, of course you have to play that out in public too.

You inevitably make mistakes and make a fool of yourself at times. Lou Reed had that great phrase ‘Growing Up in Public’ – that’s what you find you have to do- no way out. All your worst and best moments writ large forever.

And there’s no way back. Gets tough on the fish counter after Top of the Pops. Even if you do manage to succeed further than a hit single, you can easily get isolated and then, without that essential external jibing and criticism, begin to believe in the new version as real and the Top of the Pops moment as some kind of peak experience. Utterly fatal.

A definition of a star is one that evinces a single human attribute above all others - and often to the exclusion of all others. Marilyn is sexy for instance – Johnny is angry, Sid is vicious.  Dennis is a menace. Clint is cool. It’s the Music Hall coming through. You invent an interesting character capable of grabbing an audiences imagination and you sing songs about it.  Of course, all this is instinctive at first. Its only later you make those other connections.

If the character is good enough, they come to represent that single behaviour to their consituency. They don’t need to be anything else. Later they might modulate it a little - if they manage to survive, but their purpose is really to be engaging enough for us to want to watch how they play out their circumstances in their various worlds.

  The whole story of the Doll Factory – with its multiple evocations (Johansen & Co, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” “Showroom Dummies”, dehumanization, etc) – is almost too perfect.  What  was it like rehearsing amidst  the “dismembered plastic humanoids”? Was it a functioning  manufacturers or disused?   

It was functioning – the company repaired Showroom Dummies. It was called Modreno and was located in Albion Yard, off Balfe Street, an old warehouse in a mews behind Kings Cross.

(I knew Ronnie Kirkland, the guy who ran it, because I used to paint the faces of showroom dummies for a company called Adel Rootstein, located first in Soho Square then In Kings Road Chelsea, and he worked there too. You were paid per dummy and did a couple of hours a few evenings each week. They used art students because the faces were done in oil paint).

 The work kept me going after I spent my grant on a pa system for the band. Then Ronnie formed a breakaway company in Kings Cross. There was enough space to rehearse in the big store-room. So all at once I had a base, a phone and a rehearsal room too.

Kings Cross was very rough in those days. It was the first time I saw a woman squat down and urinate in the street in broad daylight. Each night, as we exited the alley leading out of the yard, we’d pass by prostitutes supplying the clients a swift knee-trembler, all lined up against the walls.

Modreno is also where I began to meet future members of The Human League - they took a trip down with the dummies from Sheffield.

  The presence of violin in the music seems like a UK art-rock hallmark – see also Cockney Rebel (Harley initially didn’t want to have guitars at all), Eddie Jobson in Roxy, Doctors of Madness, et al. Does it all come from a shared love of John Cale in the Velvets, or was there an aspiration at that time to go beyond the standard rock instrumental line-up?

It was just a coincidence –we got Billy in as a keyboardist then found his main instrument was Viola – I had that in right away because I loved what Cale had been doing – the ragged violence of that sound through a overdriven amp – beautiful.. The desire to change the entire format came a little later.

 How was it working with Eno on the debut album?

Great fun. He’d just got the chop from Roxy and was still smarting but had all these other interests. We soon realized he wasn’t that experienced technically, but he had lots of nice bold ideas, some of which worked. The purely technical stuff didn’t matter because we had Lillywhite along as insurance. We negotiated our way through successfully and got on very well. I was pleased he’d connected with Cale and Nico on one hand and with Tomorrow Never Knows era psychedelia and a lot of Syd Baratt on the other. I always thought he sang like Syd.

The call from Bowie to work on Low came just as we finished the album, in September 76. We’d meet up again with Brian from time to time when we were touring, at Connie’s studio in Germany, he was doing Devo and Music for Airports there.

“I Want To Be A Machine” seems like a key song, an anthem or mission-statement. Later, though, you told Nick Kent that the sentiments came from “a very bad emotional period...  a state of virtual manic depression,” caused by “a relationship breakdown” that “had really cracked me up... I just wanted to have all my emotions numbed.” And that you no longer felt that way and indeed preferred “The Quiet Man” as a personal mission-statement. Can you elaborate about “Machine” and also explain the Quiet Man concept of “the onlooker, the observer” as ideal?

Well, Machine was a compound really  - It was certainly a key song and a mission statement.

I used to dismiss it as some personal episode - true, but really it was a bit wider than just that.

It began from a quote by Gerard Malanga, then I realized I could pour a lot of other stuff into the bottle – Marshall McLuhan etc. He was the very first to talk about a global electronic nervous system and I found it all very intriguing -what might it be like to become disembodied and detached – to be purely objective and have no emotions?  - might there be some sort of new universal connectedness or spirituality that all that other human noise made inaccessible?

I think it’s also built around leaving home and friends and the fear of transforming into something unknowable or unrecognizable. A compound - as these things often tend to be.

  “My Sex” -  J.G. Ballard very present here!  He is often characterized as the ultimate postpunk novelist, but is he also the glam novelist, too? (All the stuff about the psychopathic neo-pagan “entertainment landscape” of movie idols and pop deities....the urban breakdown imagery similar to Bowie’s dystopian-apocalyptic scenarios).  

Ballard is really the end of glamour- the moment someone walks into the ballroom with a gun. He’s also forensically fascinated by stardom and celebrity.

Ballard was certainly an element in My Sex, as was Burroughs, but really I was trying to describe how confusing the whole thing was. Also beginning to examine how cities were shaping us in ways we barely recognize – even into our erotic lives.  All the subtexts and tangled, unconscious attractions we were only beginning to become aware of then. Ballard had done this with cars, architecture, films and celebrities - especially in the Atrocity Exhibition - and that had certainly  jolted me to take it closer to what I could see happening..

I’d also just realized that I was going to write about urban landscapes from then on, so here was the first missive.

The Quiet Men was some kind of resolution to all that.  A detached, calm, non-dramatic stance, approaching invisibility. I really wanted to be anonymous and invisible. Some sort of onlooker- almost a ghost..

 I’d just got a grey suit from Oxfam and began wearing it. After being onstage, and after all the frenzy of punk, it was a great relief not to be noticed. Wearing that suit, you could go anywhere without anyone giving a second glance. I loved it. You could watch everything – all the little dramas that happen all the time in any city - without drawing any attention to yourself.

This was when I was discovering that I shouldn’t be in a band at all. So it also became a symbol of wanting out of the whole thing. I think I was burnt out at the time. The rock life was certainly not for me.  I get psychically depleted by playing live and have to go in for repairs.

  “The Frozen Ones” seems to echo “Machine”, speaking of alienation, emotional disconnection, anomie, media overload etc. The word “cold wave” was being bandied around by the Sounds writers like Jon Savage and Sandy Robertson, in reference to Siouxsie & the Banshees and other groups, along with records like Low. Only a year or two before, Margaret Drabble had published The Ice Age.  Chris Petit would have then been filming Radio On, whose soundtrack would feature a song titled “The Frozen Years” (by The Rumour, of all people). Can you talk a bit about the late Seventies coldness thing? 

(Ironically, the song doesn’t sound frozen at all. It’s exuberant, full of fiery punk energy).

It was an aspect of machine, but just a little more specific– the country was cold and grey, we were all going nowhere, and didn’t seem to care. England seemed a very numb, dead place in 1976/7.

I think this song was the moment immediately before I decided that all the angst of punk was better poured into some cool electronic stance, where you didn’t act out the anger like some on-the-nose ham. You could be powered by the same fuel, but drive more effectively and much, much further.

This was when all the anger of punk became transmuted into the next phase of music - the cool world of electronics. In England, Punk didn’t die, it simply changed form.

I always felt that Punk was a glam offshoot really. The Clash were the trailer park sons of Presley and the Pistols were Ziggy’s feral kids.

  “Fear In the Western World” again is situated in that Ballard / Bowie interzone, from “masturbated on a magazine cover” to “50 million people in a state of decay.”

I seem to remember that as a view from the rooftops.. You get a new perspective. The world felt like it was all on the brink. Everyone seemed far too complacent. It all felt very dangerous. This tiny island in a sea of violence - all unconcerned and sleepy. We seemed so vulnerable and fragile. I easily could see it all as derelict, as ruins.

Billy and I used to climb up on rooftops in Kensington when I was still at Art College It felt like we were full of some kind of electricity. London spread out, all lit up.  Some nights you’d feel you could see everything, even the future.

We’d see how far we could get over the rooftops. Through windows, down corridors and hotel kitchens. We got all the way to the Dorchester one night - ended up playing the piano in the ballroom before being gracefully ejected.


“Hiroshima Mon Amour” : Roxy had done “2HB” but I can’t think of an example before “Hiroshima” of a song that directly references a specific film.  How much did cinephilia feed into Ultraxox? The all-night movie houses and art cinemas of London and other major cities were crucial spaces at that time, right?

Oh yes – Lots of all-nighters at the Palace, Kings Cross. They showed Euro art movies  - Aguirre, The Wrath of God etc as well as Warhol and other New York stuff, and Horror and Sci-fi and B movie nights. Because of the terminal times, they quickly became truly sleazy drug and drink -addled events.

There were more civilized venues too, like the Hampstead Everyman and that Screen chain that Romaine Hart ran. Portobello Road, Baker Street  - and Screen on the Green, where she put on one of one of the first Pistols gigs.

I wanted the songs to be like small strange art movies – open with a theme, establish characters and a world for them to operate in, then some kind of resolution – or not. End theme. Fade.

 Working with Conny Plank on Systems of Romance....  One idea I’m exploring is that the true European glam band were Kraftwerk. Perhaps Europe’s only one.   Bowie and Eno’s artistic responses to the German music points to the affinity, but they also had overtly glam-themed songs like “Hall of Mirrors”, “The Model”, “Showroom Dummies”. Were you a fan, or was it the Neu! connection that attracted you more to the idea of working in Koln with Plank?

I liked both for different reasons. Kraftwerk because they were free of the clichés of the time and Neu! because they seemed to point to the next stages of rock - incorporating technology and synths.

Kraftwerk were certainly the more glamorous. The world they indicated was unreachable but recognizable and uniquely theirs. Its frontiers coincided not at all with any rock world, or other media construct, bar early Hollywood. They were aloof and the image had a sort of beauty not seen since the golden days of Hollywood -the beauty of high definition and fine styling, like an expensive automobile. Like Tamara de Lempicka’s self Portrait in the 1930’s.

Even so, I felt there were more possibilities from Neu!.  There were hinted but unresolved directions everywhere in their music. By contrast, Kraftwerk seemed likely to become a closed system because of that lack of connection, the high definition, and its own detectably rigid brief.

 Ultravox were treated harshly by many reviewers at the time, dismissed as glam latecomers. The hook up with Eno for the debut as taken as further evidence for the prosecution. But as it turned out, the band were a preview of what was coming next, after punk  -  Tubeway Army / synth-pop, Futurists / New Romanticism / Blitz Kids. Did you feel vindicated when you were shown to have been ahead of your time rather than behind it?

Of course. But the press at that time was a knockabout playground and you simply accepted that. We’d begun to understand that many journalists were still reeling from punk and hadn’t yet assimilated that, even after it was clearly burnt out. Only one or two ever bothered to listen to anything that came from outside England and America. Whoever invented that New Wave tag solved the problem.

You can’t act out Mr Angry forever. I was looking for an effective sort of detached tranquility. Where you stood on top of a moving, powerful wave of music rather than trying to thrash it from behind in a frenzy. We felt we arrived at that in Systems of Romance. We felt we’d consolidated on that album. To us, it was a clear indication of the future. Even so, most of the press didn’t know what to make of it at the time. Other bands and musicians certainly did, though.

Did you feel any commonality with other “late glam” bands who initially had rough treatment from the press, like Japan, or Doctors of Madness?  Japan in particular seem like possible kindred spirits – initially hugely inspired by the New York Dolls, starting out quite raunch ‘n ‘ roll and then getting more electronic / exquisite.

Well, we were never exquisites. I think we were mostly out on our own.

It’s true that Japan were traveling a similar trajectory for some time and we respected them and thought they were good, but we diverged as we became more austere and they became more glamorous. I was determining Ultravox be a new kind of electron-rock band and finally got to it on ‘Systems’.

What did you feel about the New Romantics, Visage, et al ? The reference points and influences were similar but often done rather clumsily and tackily.

The visual stuff from Steve Strange was imaginative for the time. It was his vehicle of course, but the music was built by capable hands – Bill, Midge, Rusty, Dave Formula, Richard Burgess etc. Fade to Grey was successful - Moroder Meets Systems. The rest seemed uneven. Perhaps there were simply too many cooks involved in that particular broth.

I thought the New Romantics was partly derived from Systems of Romance, as was much of the form of the music. It was all good fun, even though it was really nothing to do with what we were about.




Was going to say "it's a bit early for a Fischerspooner revival", but then's about 20 years innit? 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

keeping up affront

Jordan - the most iconic shop girl ever; the original Sex Pistol incarnating the attitude before the band even existed - died last week. 

Before she was a punk - the first face of punk - she was a glam fan. There's a story about her turning up to a Bowie concert wearing amazing self-made earrings and Bowie leaning down off the stage and asking if he could have them - and she said "no!"

The glam connection spotlights the essence of punk - or let's say, a particular strand of punk (to me maybe the truest punk and certainly the most confounding nowadays to think about, as a grown-up).  And that is a spirit of empty provocation. 

"Her face was the front of shop" -  shops plural, although all in the same premises: Let It Rock,Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, Sex, Seditionaries. And what the face was selling was the idea of being looked at, but in a peculiar anti-attraction way. Call it atrocity-exhibitionism. Arrest the gaze and assault it. Kick the passer-by in the eye.

The look - hair, make-up, clothes, expression - mimes out a ruthlessness, that's brandished like a warning (I did this to myself; this is what I'm capable of; beware!).  It's analogous to, yet also the inverse of, actual terrorism (where the goal is to blend in with the populace - "we dress like students, we dress like housewives / or in a suit and a tie", Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"). Political terrorism and cultural terrorism share a common goal: strike fear. But with punk (this kind of punk) it's all means, no end.  The means is the end: shockwaves rippling across the faces and minds of the normals.

Why so appealing, to be so appalling? 

For sure, it takes fearlessness. More bravery than I would ever have been capable of mustering. And to be the first, and all alone, and female, running the gauntlet of the street  - yes, that is fucking fearless.

Yet it is a peculiar sort of fearlessness. Not the courage of someone involved in the French Resistance, or Greek Resistance. Nor the bravery shown by an eco-warrior in a speed-boat squaring off with a whaling ship or oil tanker, tying themselves up a tree, lying in front of bulldozers.... 

Fearlessness combined with pointlessness.  

More so than even the Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (where there's some kind of smash-the-Spectacle politique), the filmic expression of this particular fashionista-as-terrorista idea of punk is Jubilee. Not smashing the spectacle but making a spectacle of yourself. Beauty as cruelty, cruelty as beauty. 

Jordan is the star of the show. And here, as Amyl Nitrate, she reads a paean to child-murderer Myra Hindley. 

She starts by talking about how her school motto was Faites votre désir réalité  - make your desires reality, and adds “I myself prefer the saying ‘don’t dream it, be it’ " i.e. the glam maxim first heard a few years earlier in The Rocky Horror Show.

In those days desires weren’t allowed to become reality, so fantasy was substituted for them – films, books, pictures – they called it Art – but when your desires become reality, you don’t need fantasy any longer – or Art. I always remember the school motto – as a child my heroine was Myra Hindley – do you remember her? Myra’s crimes, they said, were beyond belief – that was because no one had any imagination – they really didn’t know how to make their desires reality – they were not artists like Myra – one can smile now at the naivete.

"When, on my 15th birthday, Law and Order were finally abolished, all those statistics that were a substitute for reality disappeared. The crime rate dropped to zero… I started to dance. I wanted to defy gravity.” 

(That last phrase became the title of her autobiography, Defying Gravity)

Jordan's other big Jubilee scene is as a ballerina Britannia. (She'd trained as a ballet dancer as a child until an injury put paid to it).


The odd thing is that the memorials and tributes invariably mention what a sweetheart she was - kind and nice and lovely. 

So it's a false front - an image (Myra Hindley crossed with Margaret Thatcher with a bit of Ruth Ellis) that's the opposite of how you are inside.

There is a fascinatingly detailed Jordan interview transcript that Jon Savage has made available at punkgirldiairies - originally done for England's Dreaming

Jordan starts by denying that the way she dressed was designed to offend. 

"I liked to treat myself like a painting. I didn’t consider that people would be offended or outraged by it. It really never crossed my mind". 

That's a fairly typical punkoid posture of that era - a  profession of innocence combined with a feigned plea for tolerance ("we just want to dress like this,  why are people so closeminded"). See also this bit, which cues off tales of her commuting from Brighton to London wearing see-through chemises that showed her breasts, psychotic spiky hair, virulent make-up (a scene of this creating consternation among British Rail passengers - mums shielding the eyes of their kids, Jordan having to be moved to a First Class compartment by the conductor - is recreated in the new Sex Pistols TV drama by Danny Boyle)

"Some of the men got rather hot under the collar, paper on the lap.... There was absolutely nowhere you could go where people wouldn’t say something. It was just too blatant for them. People up on scaffolding would shout, there’d be tourists running, trying to get photos. This is long before it all burst, taking pictures of punks and what have you." 

[Note how these reactions are presented as if an unexpected byproduct of her dressing that way, hassle that she'd really rather not have gone through - rather than exactly the response actively sought and achieved with enormous effort]

As the conversation goes on, the front of "just wanted to dress this way" drops - it becomes  clear that symbols are being wielded in awareness of their likely effect, the goal is to goad

"People were very offended if you wore a Cambridge Rapist T-shirt; I got a lot of trouble on the buses at that time. They didn’t like people wearing them." 

[Bear in mind that "at that time" = when the Cambridge Rapist is a at-large rapist depredating on women - he wore a leather mask bearing the words 'Rapist' on it, so victims would have no doubt what was about to happen to them. Sometimes, if he couldn't break in to a house or flat, he would write 'the Rapist was here' on the window', just to sow fear and so his evening wasn't a total bust. Turning the Cambridge rapist into a "pop star" - McLaren & Westwood's provocation and act of "cultural terrorism: here - relies on exploiting the actual state of terror that women lived under]

On appearing on the TV show So It Goes 

"They got my back up because they wouldn’t let me wear this swastika armband, right, there was the biggest do about it. They eventually put a piece of sticky tape over it." 

On her later-phase twinset-and-pearls Thatcher look

"People found it very perplexing. The look was very rigid, the hair was always very tightly controlled." 

The opposite of a come-hither look.

"People were terrified of coming in [to the shop]. I’d heard reports from people who later became friends, that people wouldn’t go in because of me, that I wouldn’t say anything to them, I’d be horrible.... It was just my attitude. I thought I looked better than anyone else. I was very introverted, I know people thought I was an exhibitionist, but I was pretty stand-offish. Even today I don’t take pictures smiling, because I think I look better when I don’t smile. I felt powerful, and I think I looked powerful, I know I looked very intimidating. People were very worried, even the guy who eventually became my husband [Kevin Mooney of Adam and the Ants] was very worried about coming in to see me. Adam was the same. By that time I’d built this reputation for myself."

On Johnny Rotten's asexuality and her own ability to repel approaches: 

"He didn’t see himself as attractive in any way, I suppose, if you were to ask him. He didn’t want the trappings of a normal person. He was John Rotten, and much the same as myself, I didn’t go out with anyone either, the image was everything, in a way.

"People were scared out of their wits of me. Absolutely.

"I never got anyone saying they’d like to take me out.... I exuded that leave me alone-ness."


A few extra thoughts, part-triggered by the comments from Tyler below 

The thing about the dialectic of outrage is that there's a constant pressure to up the anti, as it were - you have to go from sticking a safety pin through the Queen's nose and comparing the Royal Family to a fascist regime, to recruiting an actual fascist on the run into the Sex Pistols ("Martin Bormann", symbolically not literally, but this is all symbol play). 

That then leaves you nowhere to go - you either have to escalate ("kill someone / kill yourself" as "Belsen Was A Gas" puts the options) or climb down, de-escalate, relapse into normal life, reveal that hidden niceness.

The other thing that struck me was that although Too Young To Die/Sex/Seditionaries is considered a convulsion within the post-Sixties fashion-etc culture, a drastic break (symbolized by the "What Side of the Bed" T-shirt - with recent heroes consigned to the condemned side of the garment), really there's a fair amount of continuity. Not just with the shock aesthetics of glam (the swastika and iron cross play of the Sweet, Lou Reed and others; Alice Cooper's ghoulish make-up; Rocky Horror, with some of the cast reappearing in Jubilee of course). But actually there's a continuity with the counterculture and underground press. Think of OZ and the infamous Rupert the Bear comic strip that led to the magazine being prosecuted: there's the desecration of a children's favorite in pretty much the same way as Who Killed Bambi and the photograph of an actual dead baby deer with an arrow in its bloody throat (except that being Sixties cats OZ use Eros in all its hairy and tumescent graphic-ness, rather than Thanatos). 

You can see the anti being upped across the '70s in the escalation from defiling beloved images from children's literature (a priapic and monstrously endowed Rupert) to "celebrating" actual torturers of children (Myra Hindley, Ian Brady - both namechecked in "No One Is Innocent", the Pistols tune featuring Ronnie Biggs and "Martin Bormann". And then the brief infamous existence of a band called The Moors Murderers, featuring another exhibitionist later known for geometric make-up, Steve Strange).  

With OZ / Rupert the Bear and "Who Killed Bambi" alike, innocence - the sanctuary of childhood itself, not just its sentimentalization by grown-ups - is the target. And the assault comes from the adolescent, the ex-child who's discovered the power of cynicism

(Also assaulted: the innocence of domestic pets and wild animals: Vicious's "to think / I killed a cat", members of Clash shooting pigeons for a laugh, and the actual living creature killed for a scene in movie, Russ Meyer's aborted Who Killed Bambi). 


postscript: another '60s pre-echo that occurred to me later. Jeff Nuttall's 1968 book on the UK Underground,  Bomb Culture, has this passage on the Moors Murderers that rehearses the Jubilee / Jordan monologue about Myra as Artist: 

"Romantics, Symbolists, Dada, Surrealists, Existentialists, Action painters, beat poets and the Royal Shakespeare Company had all applauded de Sade from some aspect or other. To Ian Brady de Sade was a licence to kill children. We had all, at some time, cried "Yes yes" to Blake's 'sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire'. Brady did it."

Vicious lives this idea out... and the echoes continue through postpostpunk with Big Black and Rapeman, zines like Murder Can Be Fun and Answer Me! (a series of issues dedicated respectively to murder, suicide, and rape), the Slacker scene in which the aging radical academic exalts the "Texas sniper" Charles Whitman who gunned down strangers from the top of a tower...  To this way of thinking, the serial killers, assassins, etc, aren't just Artists; they're superior to artists, more committed.  They don't act out ruthlessness, they take ruthless action. They dissolve the barrier between art and life, take their desires for reality. 


  ... or at least, if not endorsing / encouraging, then at least accepting the existence and inevitability of theatricality as a social mech...