Singer, music producer
Though his first major group, Ultravox, found their greatest success after he left the band, John Foxx has challenged and influenced generations of artists with his extensive body of rock and electronic pop music. Born in Chorley, Lancashire, England, as Dennis Leigh, Foxx moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art. After hearing the experimental sounds of electronic music pioneers John Cage and Walter Carlos, Foxx became entranced by the style and set about starting a group of his own. In 1973, Foxx, along with bassist Chris St. John (a.k.a. Chris Cross), keyboardist Billy Curry (a.k.a. Billy Currie), guitarist Steve Shears, and drummer Warren Cann, formed Tiger Lily. The moniker was short-lived, but they managed to record one single, a cover of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," for use in an adult film of the same name. The money secured from the track reportedly went towards buying Currie a new keyboard.
After a few name changes—including the Innocents, the Zips, London Soundtrack, and Fire of London—in 1976 Tiger Lily became Ultravox!. (The exclamation point was soon dropped). It was also at this time that Leigh began to formally take on the name John Foxx.
Ultravox signed to Island Records, and with Steve Lillywhite and ambient producer/Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno at the helm, released their self-titled debut in 1977. "I Want to Be a Machine" and "My Sex," the disc's major singles, were touchstones for New Wave, but that didn't stop the British media from pointing out Ultravox's similarities to Eno's old group.
That year, Paul Rambali of New Musical Express wrote, "There were uncomfortable similarities to Roxy Music—the lack of musical history, the high stylisation content both in music and appearance, and the comparatively lavish sleeve on their debut album—which have led to rumours of the group being no more than a bunch of session musicians put together by Island to fill the Roxy gap."
Foxx responded to the accusation by saying, "Believe it or not, we've never really spent time thinking about how we project ourselves as an image band. We're just affected by things that happen in the street, same as anyone else. If you're in the media, you accumulate things around you that become your image whether you like it or not."
Later in 1977, the band returned with Ha! Ha! Ha!, which featured one of the group's early well-known songs, "Hiroshima Mon Amour," its name taken from an Alain Resnais film.
The single's popularity did not contribute much to Ultravox's sales, and after a rather unfortunate showing at the cash register with their 1978 follow-up, Systems of Romance, Island dropped the band from their roster. The group continued with a successful tour of the United States without any label support, but upon returning to the United Kingdom, Foxx took his leave. While he was pleased with the band's sound—an amalgam of angular rock and glam influences—he wanted to pursue electronic music more seriously.
Ultravox went on, recruiting singer Midge Ure and scoring a Top Five album with 1981's Vienna, and Foxx began his solo career. However, despite the band's newfound success, many still remembered Foxx as Ultravox's most qualified front man. In 1980 Robert Paln of the New York Times wrote that Ultravox "is an innovative band that's never been as well known in the United States as some of its more popular derivatives. But in its original configuration, with John Foxx as lead vocalist and lyricist, Ultravox was never so one dimensional as its imitators."
Foxx's solo debut, 1980's Metamatic, came out on his own Metal Beat label, with distribution through Virgin Records. Made entirely with electronic instruments, save for the odd bass guitar, Metamatic was Foxx's biggest selling record, mostly due to the ultra-synthetic single "Underpass." Metamatic, named after a painting machine created in 1959 by kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, would prove a lasting influence on synth-pop star Gary Numan and Can's Holger Czukay, and both musicians have acknowledged their artistic debt to Foxx.
The Garden, named after Foxx's studio, followed the year after. With its much more lively sound, it included a version of the "Lord's Prayer (Pater Noster)" chanted in Italian with a disco beat beneath it. Some copies of the disc came with a monograph titled "Church," and featured Foxx's poetry and photography. Trouser Press called it "a lush, thick paean to Foxx's Catholicism and the mysticism that has always lurked beneath his austere urbanity. Pastoral in tone, the album flourishes under a denser sound, replete with acoustic instruments that offset the onslaught of synthesizers."
Foxx's recording schedule became increasingly busy during those years, and 1983 saw the release of two albums: the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni's film Identification of a Woman, and his own record, The Golden Section. The latter was a stylistic leap for Foxx, as some of its arrangements resembled those of the Beatles and their jangly, later-period psychedelia.
However, after releasing the rather lackluster In Mysterious Ways in 1985, Foxx took a hiatus from pop music production. He sold his studio, went back to calling himself Dennis Leigh, and returned to working as a graphic designer and visual artist, where he designed covers for books by such authors as Jeanette Winterson and Salman Rushdie.
Slowly and quietly, though, he began to experiment with ambient sound textures in the privacy of his home, and was inspired by the acid house and techno music emerging from Chicago and Detroit. In fact, he began anonymously releasing white label test pressings of his dance tracks and feeding them to DJs at home and overseas. Soon LFO, the British techno group, enlisted Foxx to produce their debut music video.
His next project, Nation 12, involved an early 1990s collaboration with Bomb the Bass's Tim Simenon. Together they released two 12-inch singles, "Remember" and "Electrofear," to much dance floor acclaim.
By 1995 Foxx was back to full-on collaborations, and with Louis Gordon he released Shifting City, an intentional return to the style of Metamatic. He also put out Cathedral Oceans that year, a project that examined religion, spirit, sound, and architecture in equal measure. Loosely based on Claude Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral," Cathedral Oceans exemplified Foxx's renewed creative spark. Writing in All Music Guide, Jim Brenholts stated, "Foxx has built some very serene and peaceful soundscapes that are perfect for relaxation and meditation. The arrangements are flawless."
The Gordon partnership released The Pleasures of Electricity in 2000 and the vaguely political Crash and Burn in late 2002. The following year, with Eno's frequent musical partner Harold Budd, Foxx released 2003's Translucence/Drift Music, continuing in the vein of ambient music he'd been experimenting with. The club scenes in New York and London were booming with the electroclash fad—a style of punk, hip-hop, techno, and electro all converging—and bands like Adult., Peaches, and Miss Kittin and the Hacker were digging back into Foxx's legacy. Rumors that he would collaborate with some of those artists did not materialize, but Foxx's influence was felt strongly throughout that time, and he has continued to have an impact on all forms of experimental and electronic dance music.
For the Record . . .
Born Dennis Leigh in Chorley, Lancashire, England. Education: Studied at Royal College of Art, London.
Formed Tiger Lily with bassist Chris St. John (a.k.a. Chris Cross), keyboardist Billy Curry (a.k.a. Billy Currie), guitarist Steve Shears, and drummer Warren Cann, 1973; eventually became Ultravox; released Ultravox, 1977; Ha! Ha! Ha!, 1977; and Systems of Romance, 1978; left band and mounted solo career, 1979; re leased landmark albums Metamatic, 1980; and TheGarden, 1981.
Addresses: Record company—Metamatic Records, P.O. Box 21, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 2ZB, United Kingdom, website: http://www.metamatic.com.
Metamatic, Metal Beat/Virgin, 1980.
The Garden, Virgin, 1981.
The Golden Section, Virgin, 1983.
In Mysterious Ways, Virgin, 1985.
Shifting City, Metamatic, 1995.
Cathedral Oceans, Resurgent, 1997.
The Pleasures of Electricity, Metamatic, 2000.
Crash and Burn, Universal, 2002.
Translucence/Drift Music, Metamatic, 2003.
Ultravox, Island, 1977.
Ha! Ha! Ha!, Island, 1977.
Systems of Romance, Island, 1978.
As Nation 12
"Electrofear," Rhythm King, 1991.
"Remember," Rhythm King, 1991.
New Musical Express, August 13, 1977.
New York Times, November 7, 1980.
"Cathedral Oceans," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 9, 2005).
"John Foxx," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 9, 2005).
"John Foxx," Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=john_foxx (July 9, 2005).
John Foxx Official Website, http://www.metamatic.com (July 9 2005).
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