Friday, 7 October 2011

John Foxx - The Garden / Ultravox - Rage in Eden

I love 1981 pt.19
Hate to have to lump these two albums together but they are of course related in more ways than one, sharing more than just the vicinity of their "birthdays".
Warning: I'm going to say some unfavourable things about the Foxx album. Don't get me wrong, I'm (officially) one of the world's biggest Foxx-fans, but The Garden just didn't do it for me, and thirty years on still doesn't. "There's a difference between creating your own distinctive sound and doing the same thing over and over again. John Foxx falls the wrong side of that line" : Ian Cranna said that in Smash Hits, not me but I couldn't have agreed more.
"I'd grown tired of being a frozen electrician"
After the ground-breaking revolutionary and utterly stupendous Metamatic, issued at the very dawn of 1980, John Foxx had gone to Italy to "thaw out", rubbed shoulders with the likes of film director Antonioni, tasted a bit of la dolce vita and came back to create what was essentially a re-working of his previous sound with Ultravox. Even the title of the the album's second track 'Systems of Romance' is re-cycled from his third album with the group, and who is to say he hadn't already written the track for the band. Tracks like When I Was a Man and You Were a Woman, You Were There and Walk Away may as well have had former band-mates Chris Cross, Warren Cann, Billy Currie as well as Robin Simon, who was in fact brought in on some tracks, playing their respective instruments on them, so close they are to the 1978 Ultravox sound with Foxx on vocals.
The fountains, squares and colonnades of Italy had rubbed off efficiently only in the opening Europe After the Rain and the post-Metamatic walking tours around England reflect in the closing title track, two songs which are essentially the album's saving grace. True, Foxx had already anticipated his move from the Ballardian underpasses and concrete jungle dystopias of Metamatic with the interim single Miles Away (there's a new man at the edge of me..making new plans for the rest of me), but few followers expected such a sharp turn-around in the underpass as they got with The Garden. OK, Ballard was still there with the images of overgrown cities and buildings and churches the like, but the warmer and more organic sounds seemed less suited to Foxx as he had established himself as a solo artist.  "After 1981 everyone and his dog went electro, so I became Max Ernst dressed as Lord Lost, exploring the overgrown and abandoned city of London. To a psychedelic ecclesiastical disco soundtrack." Shame really. Nice booklet though.

 John Foxx & friends perform Systems of Romance live in 1983

The new eighties Ultravox on the other hand  rarely looked back on their Foxxy past and together with Midge Ure, Messrs Cann, Currie and Cross continued their rise to popularity and household name-ness with Rage in Eden, released two weeks before The Garden. Smash Hits, this time under the pen of Johnny Black, was equally scathing in their review stating that the album "was too bland to satisfy", favouring instead Numan's Dance, but this time they were wrong! Ultravox had good songs, Conny Plank at the helm to make one heck of an album. The Thin Wall had already announced it's tougher, edgier feel vis à vis Vienna, yet it was stomping tracks like The Voice, We Stand Alone and I Remember (Death in the Afternoon) (singled out by Black, to his merit) which push Rage along and we our attention is even maintained during the 7 minute long Stranger Within,and the closing, agonising angst of Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again).

At the time I don't think there was no real sense of competition between the two artists and their respective albums, but in retrospect it was Rage in Eden which had the upper hand. True, Ure-vox were pompous and just a tad pretentious in form and style yet they somehow managed to carry it off, at least for now. For the moment they were the ones who were taking electronic music into some sort of mainstream audience, and arguable "merit" in itself but it got them lots of radio play and onto Top of the Pops a lot and we loved that.  RAge in Eden was quality new-music in huge quantities, adequately packaged by Peter Savile, the perfect match to their neo-thirties-cum-futuristic style.
No Ultravox album would be as good as this ever again, proof of that being the amount of tracks from Rage that are played live to this day - Thin Wall, I Remember, We Stand Alone, Rage in Eden and not least The Voice with its spectacular burundi-esque 4-man drum-pad finale.

Ultravox perform The Voice live in 1984

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