John Foxx ‘20th Century: The Noise’ (Metamatic)

A magical mystery tour through one of electronic music’s most impressive back catalogues

The hardcore fans will open this retrospective collection and head straight to ‘Musique Electron’. It’s a previously unreleased instrumental that will please those who forever associate John Foxx with the delicate and evocative clinking of the Roland CR-78 drum machine.

‘Musique Electron’ is pretty, that’s for sure, but ‘20th Century: The Noise’ features a wealth of interesting material elsewhere for the more casual listener to get their teeth into. This is a fascinating journey through a singular and eccentric solo career that has weaved between minimal electronics and 1960s British psychedelia and several other unexpected sonic destinations in between over the past 35 years.

It’s a testament to the quality of work that Foxx was producing in his little synth garrett post-Ultravox that ‘20th Century’, the track that opens this set, was relegated to a B-side.Fast and punk-ish, its message is one of urgency. The century that gave us the Bauhaus movement, air travel, Warhol, The Beatles, two World Wars, Kraftwerk, electronic music, rock ’n’ roll, nuclear weapons, Bowie, JG Ballard, Kubrick et al was reaching its winter years, but what did remain of it gave us the European Union, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Cold War, hip hop, acid house and the internet. Somehow, these ideas are bound up in the music of John Foxx, with its images of technology, pre- and post-war European grandeur, the Brutalist concrete architecture of London’s reconstruction, the endlessness and fragility of cities.

Take, for example, the synthesiser replicating what might be the howl of an air-raid siren throughout ‘Underpass’. It haunts the whole track, just as the London of the 1970s was still haunted by its recent history. Back then, it was a place pocked-marked with bomb sites, the giddy flirtation with freedom and fun it had briefly enjoyed in the previous decade abruptly shut off by the increasingly grim reality of British daily grind. Foxx’s music is perhaps the psychological outcome of a life lived through that transition, at first celebrating and reflecting the city and its bleak modernity, then retreating from it.

The heart-lifting ‘Miles Away’ (Are those real drums? Why yes, they are) with its lovely line, “I’m watching summer through an English rain”, signals the shift in Foxx’s trajectory towards more romantic and lush territory, daydreaming away from the concrete-hued ennui for which he’s best known towards the positively rural (or at least out into that archetypal British psychedelic location, the garden). By 1983, Foxx was allowing his many varied influences full throat, mining the awakening of his teenage years in the 1960s for inspiration. He co-opts The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and chunks of the ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album in ‘Endlessly’, going on to channel both Eno and Ferry in the Roxy Music-esque ‘The Hidden Man’.

‘20th Century: The Noise’ then skips a decade and a half, landing at a couple of tracks from his 1997 collaboration with Louis Gordon, ‘Shifting City’, where you can hear Foxx adopting the tightened breakbeat sounds of drum ’n’ bass, fused with lush psychedelia and the minimal synth of ‘Metamatic’ in ‘The Noise’. The Beatles are again strongly referenced in ‘Through My Sleeping’, which is nothing less than a love note to George Harrison’s contributions.

All in all, it’s an extraordinary and much misunderstood back catalogue, evidence of a restless and creative mind that has never really been able to conform to the expectations of the music industry. A follow-up to this compilation is due next year and there’s little doubt that Foxx’s 21st century selections will make for equally compelling listening.

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