As the original singer and main songwriter in Ultravox!, Foxx formed and 'designed' the UK's first synthesizer-rock group, working with producer Brian Eno before David Bowie mixed traditional and left-field influences together on his 1977 Low album. In fact, according to John Foxx, 'Brian got the call from Bowie when we were in the studio together.'
Ultravox released a series of pioneering tracks which still sound contemporary today, including 'My Sex', 'Young Savage', 'The Man Who Dies Every Day', 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' and 'Dislocation'. Many of them were featured in the recent British movie Awaydays, based on a novel by Liverpool writer Kevin Sampson.
'The starting point for me was being at a party in the '60s and hearing The Beatles 'Tomorrow Never Knows' which had been released that day,' reveals Foxx. He realised in an instant that the taped drum loop on 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was essentially a blueprint for the future. 'I sensed that that song had all the elements for everything that was going to happen for the rest of my life. It was a fantastic feeling.'
Further inspired by Pink Floyd's experimental, psychedelic 'happenings' and a growing interest in surrealism, Foxx enrolled at the Royal College Of Art in the early 1970s where he founded Ultravox! ('we used to rehearse in the college dining room until they gave us the push for making too much noise') and encountered the likes of Quentin Crisp who modelled at the college and painter Francis Bacon. 'He would only recognise me when he was drunk,' laughs Foxx.
Armed with an old analogue synthesizer and a four-track recording machine, Ultravox! gradually began to fuse together elements of Roxy Music, glam and Krautrock, in particular the bands Can and Neu!. After signing to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in the mid-70s, Ultravox! attracted the interest of former Roxy Music pioneer Brian Eno who worked with them on their self-titled debut. Two of the albums highpoints, 'My Sex' and 'I Want To Be A Machine' previewed the sounds and attitudes later adopted by British electronic pop (this was a full year before Kraftwerk's The Man Machine album) - inspiring the likes of Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Duran Duran.
Ultravox!'s follow-up LP Ha! Ha! Ha! was a new wave classic of manic, mad-eyed paranoia, heavy guitars and lush electronic interludes, especially on the pioneering 'The Man Who Dies Everyday' and 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'. Their final album, 1978's Systems Of Romance, was recorded in Germany with Krautrock guru Conny Plank whose previous credits included Kraftwerk and Neu!. Loaded with great songs ('Slow Motion', 'Just For A Moment', 'Dislocation', 'The Quiet Men') this dark, anthemic electro-rock album pointed the way forward in terms of sound, but also Foxx's sleek, elegant artwork for the LP was almost immediately referenced by designer Peter Saville in his sleeves for Joy Division and later New Order on Manchester's Factory Records.
After playing five nights of aggressive, electronic rock at the Marquee in London, Ultravox were dropped by Island Records who didn't understand what this weird, synthetic punk mutation was all about. Foxx decided to leave the band. 'The others wanted to be popstars which of course they eventually did. I knew I couldn't do that and I felt creatively we'd achieved everything with Systems Of Romance.' The album has continued to grow in stature over the years with the NME recently commenting: 'Synthesizing late-'70s English pop's two important strands - punk rock and the 'cold wave' electronics of Bowie's Low - the original Ultravox evoked an apocalyptic Eurocentric sci-fi world that veered between the hallucinatory and the monochrome . . . Systems Of Romance perfectly captures Foxx's doomed, visionary poetry in all its waiting-for-the-bombs-to-fall glory . . . the almost-psychedelic 'Just For A Moment', all cold synth strings and Foxx's voice fading away into the ether, talking about the music the machines produce, makes Thom Yorke's bedroom angst anthems sound like a night in the pub.'
By this time Foxx was writing most of his lyrics through the perspective of a new Quiet Man alter ego: 'A long time ago I found a grey suit in an Oxfam shop in London,' he explains. 'Over the next few weeks I began to think about who might have previously owned the suit and what kind of life he may have led. I got a few friends to wear the suit in various locations and rooms that I liked and took photographs and films of them, never showing their faces. I began to wear the suit and walk around London and other cities. It gave me a surprising amount of freedom. I attracted no attention at all. I found that I could go into a café or walk into a hotel without attracting a comment. If I sat in a corner long enough people would eventually cease to notice my existence altogether, so I could easily overhear conversations and observe all the small dramas that happen around us all the time. Here was a kind of invisibility and it was very exciting. The Quiet Man is still me, or rather still a part of me,' he concludes.
Meanwhile in January 1980 Foxx emerged from the wreckage of Ultravox! (band member Billy Currie was on tour in Gary Numan's band at the time) with the stark, icy Metamatic, home to his most famous solo single 'Underpass' which he says was influenced by his love of dub reggae. 'The bassline on 'Underpass' is dub. Because a lot of the acts signed to Island Records were dub and reggae, I did meet Bob Marley and Lee Perry in the 70s and I was struck with how the music sounded like a living organism. Everyone in the studio sort of melted into it.'
As Foxx recently recounted, his own work was mostly born out of long hours spent by himself. 'I lived alone in Finsbury Park, spent my spare time walking the disused train lines, cycled to the studio every day and wobbled back at dawn imagining I was the Marcel Duchamp of electro-pop. Metamatic was minimal, primitive techno-punk. Car crash music tailored by Burtons.' Metamatic's fusion of JG Ballard, Max Ernst and apocalyptic Japanese horror flicks made Foxx an unlikely chart contender yet he had his first taste of Top 20 success. More importantly it connected with an audience that included the likes of techno DJ Dave Clarke, John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), the Junior Boys, Ladytron, Aphex Twin, Hollywood movie director Alex Proyas (The Crow, I, Robot) and Detroit electro artists such as Juan Atkins and Carl Craig.
In more recent years Foxx's primitive, plugged-in approach on the album has been a source of inspiration to numerous contemporary electronic acts and as a result John Foxx performed Metamatic in full at shows in 2007, timed with a re-release of the album which was Album of the Week in The Sunday Times. Amongst the album’s new generation of fans were the Klaxons who described Metamatic as 'an amazing, visionary' piece of work.
Further singles 'No Ones Driving', 'Burning Car' and 'Miles Away' consolidated his fan base but Foxx's sound was not exactly built for mass consumption and he remained a cult figure, half recognised as he walked around London in his grey suit. Through this habit he familiarised himself with areas of the city that most people had left abandoned, including Shoreditch in East London where he relocated in 1981 in order to build his own studio, The Garden, as part of a three-storey building shared with a photographer and a film maker. Once again he was years ahead of his time, as London's Hoxton Square culture wouldn't develop in the area for another two decades. In fact, he recently captured some of the atmosphere of early '80s Shoreditch in his reflective, dark, mostly instrumental album, My Lost City from 2009.
Meanwhile, The Garden studios became an in-demand studio used by artists such as The The, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Nick Cave and Depeche Mode before Foxx sold it in the late 1980s. The Garden was also the name of his 1981 album which heralded a lush, more sensual style (previewed by the single, 'Europe After The Rain') described by Foxx as 'psychedelic ecclesiastical disco'. Its pastoral electronica is far removed from Metamatic's smoked-glass sound. 'I got the idea for the new album by walking around Italy and Germany, following tracks and footpaths in a very casual kind of way. I swam in rivers and slept outside at night because I like that feeling of experiencing the sunlight and air.' This more humanistic approach also set the tone for his next two albums, the uplifting, psychedelic pop of 1983s The Golden Section (two of the best moments are the single 'Endlessly' and a Stone Roses-esque B-side 'Annexe') and In Mysterious Ways (1985), although by his own admission the latter album was a time of feeling distracted and bewildered - 'feeling happy but making terrible mistakes.'
Sickened by the plasticity and conservatism of the 1980s Foxx retreated from the spotlight for several years and started writing music for video games, including 'Into The Wonderful' for Amiga's Gods – a track that has cult status amongst gamers since its release in the early 90s.
He also developed his own style of computer-generated visual montages a long time before most graphic artists recognised the creative possibilities of the new programmes available. 'For a while people just used computers to clean up photographs and remove imperfections on the faces of celebrities,' Foxx explains. 'I saw other possibilities and eventually went on to lecture at colleges on the subject. In fact I used to sit alone sketching out and dreaming up different ideas of how technology and art might evolve in the future and that's basically what I talk to students about today.' Foxx's work has ornamented the front covers of books by Anthony Burgess, Salmon Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson), and he directed L.F.O.s first groundbreaking promo video for the techno label Warp.
Foxx has also performed a beautiful, elegant ambient work entitled Cathedral Oceans in various churches and botanical gardens around Europe. It consists of a series of images that gradually unfold with the music. 'It's like a moving stained glass window that you can sit and look at for hours.' The avant-garde pianist Harold Budd attended a performance of Cathedral Oceans several years ago and was so moved by it that he collaborated with Foxx on two piano-based albums, Translucence and Drift Music, both of which were released in 2003. The third instalment of the Cathedral Oceans CD series came out in August 2005, to be followed by a DVD and London gallery exhibition in 2007. According to DJ Magazine, 'Cathedral Oceans is a beautiful, beatless, Eno-esque encounter incorporating murmuring synths that'll ascend into the upper reaches of your soul if only you let it. A small slice of genuine spirituality for an all too cynical world. Enjoy.' Mojo was enthralled by the 'beautiful stasis' of the album.
In recent years Foxx has hooked up with Manchester-based electro artist Louis Gordon and returned to the clipped, electronic beats of Metamatic with 1997s under-rated Shifting City (described by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields as a lost classic - 'one of the best albums of the 1990s'), the Kraftwerk-inspired The Pleasures Of Electricity in 2001, and the heavier Crash And Burn which came out two years later. The latter was summed up by Mojo as creepy, intelligent electronica, while Uncut enthused, 'not content with being merely relevant, Foxx is still very good indeed.' From Trash in 2006 received even better reviews and was followed by a limited edition, more psychedelic electronic album Sideways a few months later.
Meanwhile, his pioneering but sadly obscure work with Bomb The Bass's Tim Simenon was released for the first time in 2005. 'We formed a project called Nation 12 in 1989 and released a couple of limited edition 12 inch singles but the album got caught up in record industry red tape. It's a shame as we were trying to create the kind of music that Orbital later developed.' More recently Foxx has worked with other electronic acts including Paul Daley of Leftfield (an album is expected later in 2012), Steve Jansen (ex-Japan – they released an album entitled A Secret Life), Dubterror and Jori Hulkkonen, as well as co-writing an album with Robin Guthrie (ex-Cocteau Twins), Mirrorball, which has been released to critical acclaim in 2009. 'Full of myriad charms, John Foxx and Robin Guthrie's marriage of musical convenience encompasses the best of both their recent works,' enthused Q Magazine. 'Foxx's epic, sepulchral grandstanding and Guthrie's intricate, filmic soundscaping.'
Over the last two or three years, Foxx has increasingly focused on the worlds of film (although his first soundtrack work was actually back in 1982 on Identification of a Woman by legendary director Michelangelo Antonioni) and visual art: experimenting with Super 8 footage on his own Tiny Colour Movies, which has been shown internationally from the ICA in London to the Center For Moving Image in Melbourne, Australia; collaborating on new projects with film-makers including Alex Proyas, Macoto Tezka and Ian Emes – most notably the 2010 D.N.A. CD and DVD; and he's been the subject of several art exhibitions in London and New York. Meanwhile, a book of surreal stories entitled The Quiet Man has already been adopted for spoken word releases, short films, B&W art prints and illustrations.
In 2010 Foxx headlined the Short Circuit electronic festival in front of 2000 fans at London’s Roundhouse and also performed alongside Gary Numan and Daniel Miller at the Troxy in early 2011.
With his most recent albums, 2011’s John Foxx & The Maths’ Interplay and brand new album The Shape Of Things – recorded with musician, writer and synth collector Benge Edwards – the singer is enjoying some of the best reviews of his career so far. These all-analogue electronic records and accompanying B-sides also include contributions from some of his favourite contemporary artists – Matthew Dear, Mira Aroyo from Ladytron, Xeno & Oaklander and Gazelle Twin. Other current projects include Nighthawks with Harold Budd and Torn Sunset with Theo Travis (both out in June 2011), plus collaborations with Tara Busch, Smoke Fairies and the Ghost Box label.
As for what happens next, according to the man who has made a career out of imagining the future: 'I have hundreds of titles of songs yet to be written. I want to be doing this stuff until I'm eighty! I'm serious. I don't always know who John Foxx is but I don’t want to terminate him. He's a lot more intelligent than me!'