As part of my ongoing Song Lists project, I produced a study of recordings by English (mostly electronic) musician John Foxx. My personal history of him stems back to my trusty Rock Encyclopedia in my youth. I was intrigued by a band called Japan. A picture shot with a pink filter was accompanied by text which suggested they were on the verge of disintegration despite their long overdue success – in the UK that is. On the opposite page was a black and white picture of the man himself, who was of interest as he had left what had become a successful band (Ultravox were then huge with a song called Vienna) prior to their turn of fortune.
So both Japan’s David Sylvian and Foxx intrigued me for similar reasons. The former was about to quit while Foxx had already gone on to produce the much lauded Metamatic album. For me it is ok but not quite the masterpiece it’s often portrayed to be. The Garden was better and as good as he would get during his limelight years on Virgin Records. His later recordings for Virgin produced some moments of pop brilliance, 1983’s The Golden Section featured Endlessly and from the same album Like A Miracle which went for gold but sadly stalled short of bronze. On 1985’s In Mysterious Ways, Stars on Fire should have been a major hit but the public reception of Golden Section coupled with disinterest meant his star was if anything burning out and Foxx vanished from view shortly after.
During this time I followed John and many others before me into the realm of the art school though it was not so much his music that was a guiding light but his imagery; the sleeves to Europe After the Rain (in turn named after a painting), Endlessly, Your Dress and Stars on Fire were striking collage illustrations. It always perplexed me why his singles were given this stunning make up yet his album covers, save In Mysterious Ways were less satisfying on a visual level. Nonetheless I set to work designing many artefacts (further inspired by my continuing interest in Sylvian and his Weatherbox design courtesy of Russell Mills).
One item was a reinterpretation of Metamatic’s cover design and while the original hand made version (painted grey with hand traced Optima type as used by John on much of his material) has been lost to the winds of time, I recently wondered what it would have looked like had I had access to a computer – time has given me this opportunity. The original idea was to do all four of his Virgin era albums this way but in the end only Metamatic was realised.
Another item was a box set called Annexe (as I was based at Newport’s Fairoak Annexe) and also the title of John’s most Beatle-esque moment; a shock to both the turntable and myself! Bored of waiting for Virgin to issue Assembly I made my own on cassette complete with cover design. Finally, a couple of years later on my degree I produced what in art circles is known as a transcript of the Annunciation of St Anne (a diptych) in 1994.
A decade or so after he left the music scene I entered Virgin’s (long gone) Marble Arch store in London to find two new CDs from none other than John Foxx who had reappeared as mysteriously as he had absconded. Foxx says he ‘ran out of road’ and he ‘wanted something different’ yet the Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd – the former’s Robin Guthrie and the latter both future collaborators – found a way to produce music in the eighties, could Foxx not have altered his course? Was he tired of music or just the music business?
In hindsight he may have been wise to take a break though his return in 1997 came at the height of the music industries heyday from which downloads took over. He was however fortuitous in that his audience was waiting and that his electronic output could be distributed via the phenomenon known as the internet; meaning the hidden man was no longer in hiding, the quiet man could be heard and the shadow man could now be omnipresent.