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When I slipped Rock Galaxy onto the turntable at home, I fell in love with it at once. Certain tracks were naggingly familiar – and, as I played it over and over, this horribly designed album turned out to have some monumental music on it. A bit of research in the local record store revealed that it was in fact Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in a new gatefold sleeve. The inside featured a big picture of David Bowie in his then contemporary guise – jeans, kickers and a plaid shirt. Someone at RCA must have thought they could capture a new audience for Bowie’s glam records by branding a compilation with his Lodger persona. Anyway, c’mon – Hunky Dory AND Ziggy Stardust!
Miles Away by John Foxx, however, was a major disappointment. It sounded pedestrian in comparison with what I remembered of Metamatic. There was more romance or something cluttering up what I’d hoped would be a loftily sterile slice of the future. I played it a couple of times and put it away.
My stereo at the time was a mono turntable rigged up to an amp/ speaker, courtesy of one of my dad’s friends who flew jets for a living and tinkered with electronics in his spare time. It looked weird, (being mainly fashioned out of wood) but it sounded warm and bassy and I was very grateful for it.
A Long Time has an intro of synthesised notes that flicker back and forth across the stereo picture. At 11 seconds, the drums and a wash of warm synth come in. There’s a lot of bass very high up in the mix. John begins to sing in the yearning, romantic vocal style (like a desperate Lennon). He’d clearly been busy changing his style since I listened to Metamatic. At about 2.30 there’s a drum breakdown (great slathers of echo, making for sloppy rock beats), followed by a bass solo! This was extraordinarily different from his earlier work, but the combination of electronics and hackneyed rock elements made for a heady, driving, forceful piece of work. Like a Berlin-era Bowie song colliding with John Lennon at a Kraftwerk convention. Well, it did it for me. I’m still listening to it.
[If you’re new to John Foxx, a good place to start is Metamatic but the compilation, Metatronic provides an excellent overview of his electronic work from Metamatic to the present day. He also helmed the first three Ultravox albums (when they used an ! at the end of their name, and before Midge Ure made them more chart-friendly – hooray for them and sports cars all round. I stopped listening round about then). Foxx’s latest album with The Maths, Interplay, is also well worth investigating if you fancy a bit of warm analogue synth-pop.]
There it was: a reasonably unassuming 7″ single in a monochrome sleeve. But what a sleeve. Straightaway, it drew me in. The typeface said this is a sleek, possibly electronic, modern record – no surprise there. But the image that accompanied it was unlike anything on any other artist’s record at the time. It depicted an absence, (and as the eighties were gearing up, mainstream pop acts wanted the opposite – they wanted presence – their faces everywhere). Here was mystery. Who had been vapourised, leaving only their clothes behind? Was this a comment on prevailing trends in the music business? Whatever it meant, the image was striking – a combination of sci-fi, noir and French new wave (and designed by John Foxx). I knew I had to own this record. Unfortunately, the gift tokens only covered the cost of the Bowie album, and in the brief time that I’d had it in my hot little hands I’d decided that it and I were not to be parted. In order to secure the single, I had to admit to my mum that not only had I found something in Boots to spend my tokens on, but now I needed to borrow extra…
So, off to Southampton I went with my mum, on the understanding that if I found nothing at all to spend my Boots vouchers on, she would take them off my hands at a preferential rate.
Faced with aisles full of face cream and toothpaste, tweezers and corn plasters, my heart sank. I was about to give up and leave, when Mum pointed out that there was another floor downstairs. Tucked away at the back of it was a record counter. Expecting the worst (Perry Como or similar), I approached the racks. Almost immediately I found this:
David Bowie’s Rock Galaxy. Franc had played me some Bowie – ChangesOneBowie. Admittedly it didn’t look like this one but it had some of the same tracks on it. Rock Galaxy was a bargain double album. Reasoning that this was probably the find of the century in a Boots record rack and eager to be rid of the tokens, I plumped for it.
In the time between listening to Metamatic for the first time and Xmas, John Foxx had moved on. His sound was becoming more organic, his image softer. According to the sleeve notes to his collection, Modern Art,he had grown sick of London and wanted to move to a quiet place. He went to Italy and began working on a new album.
I was just about to hand over the tokens to the cashier, when I spotted a single called Miles Away...
Franc was fifteen and I was thirteen. He worked at a petrol station and had more cash than me, some of which he spent on records. When a significant purchase was made, Franc would invite me over for a listen. Metamatic by John Foxx was one of those occasions. The album sounded windswept, European, Ballardian, and featured virtually no conventional rock instruments (there’s a bit of bass). Of course, being thirteen I didn’t realise any of this; I just found the music a little odd. Now, it makes me think about chic people ignoring burning airliners as they crash over and over again into Palladian-style shopping malls, but in 1980 it just sounded a bit cold and brittle (and I preferred Gary Numan).
But Metamatic’s cover was something else. John Foxx seemed to have distilled the essence of the pop times – detached, robotic, smart, arty into one simple striking image – stripped down to the most basic elements – himself, looking like an academic or a scientist, and a big light. It was a bit like something out of 2001, A Space Odyssey, or the Chorlton version of Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville. And the cover was a perfect reflection of the music he made.
The afternoon of the Metamatic session, Franc played Reproduction by the Human League and some Gary Numan. Listening to these lumps of black plastic whizzing round on their belt-driven turntable, I felt like the future was just around the corner. Franc said he thought John Foxx was the most futuristic of the three. (Years later Gary Numan told interviewers he thought so too.) I agreed on the grounds that I didn’t really know what he was talking about.
Time passed and Franc stopped asking me over for listening sessions. A two-year age gap is a big one when you’re at school, and understandably I think he thought I was cramping his style.
That Xmas, one of my presents was Boots tokens. So I immediately entered into negotiations with my mum to get rid of them. She wouldn’t go for it at first on the grounds that there was a big Boots in Southampton and there might be something in there I could buy…