Fireside Navigation
I’ve been listening to translucent drift music, a double CD from 2003 by John Foxx and Harold Budd. A friend of a friend in London a few weeks back told me that it existed, and recommended it, and gave me the website for John Foxx ­ who is also making solo music. Translucent Drift… is intelligent ambient, more Budd than Foxx to these ears, packed in a card digipack which my one year old loves to play with, as it features some rather bad brightly coloured computer art images.

Anyway, that’s what got the whole thing started. Last night I pulled out some long unplayed Ultravox and John Foxx LPs to see what they sounded like. The first Ultravox album is pretty tacky stuff: a weird mix of proto-punk and krautrock. You can hear Can and Faust creeping in at the edges, perhaps with some Roxy Music, but Ultravox! is really only listenable for the angstful ode to computer lust, ‘I Want to Be a Machine’, and the bohemian romp of ‘The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned’, which sounds like The Teardrop Explodes in a fey moment. It’s on their third LP, Systems of Romance, made just before Foxx left and Midge Ure joined, that the Germanic influences really come to the fore, along with those big-sounding drums and busy percussion that every record in the late 70s/early 80s had. [Personally, I rather like those brisk bouncy rotadrum fills and early drum machines.] Anyway, Systems… is full of attempted pop songs that are just too edgy and sombre, too dark and disturbing, and - let’s be honest - downright pretentious, to actually seduce any pop fans into buying them.

A couple of years later, John Foxx’s The Garden came packaged in almost identical design, but with a groovy book of full colour photographs that mixed stain glass windows with tree shots. The music is very similar, although tracks like the opening ‘Europe After the Rain’ are pure, bright electropop, which shine amongst the dourer, darker songs that mainly fill up the album. I still love ‘Pater Noster’ and it’s ridiculous plainsong chants set against big 80s synthesizer, and the creepier, quieter music towards the end of the album, which also echoes the schizophrenic mutterings of ‘Just for a Moment’, which brought System of Romance to a close.

At this point I looked at the dates on the LPs and realised they were a lot later than I thought. Punk had already happened, this stuff was competing against new wave and punk-pop, it wasn’t the fag end of progrock and psychedelia as I’d assumed. I went on a rummage to see what else I could find from the same era.
V-Sor, X were a cult synth-pop band from the Midlands. Led by the ambitious Morgan Bryan ­ who went on to make several solo ambient CDs ­ they started as a Wire phtoocopy, turned into a synthesizer trio, and finally ended up in London with a bass player, trumpeter and drummer in the band. From the Mouth of No King on Berlin’s Ear-Ruption label was their only officially recorded output [although they issued tons of cassette EPs in the days of the indie-tape revolution] and it sits soundly alongside Ultravox with its relentless electric rhythms and big production, whilst the twin frontline of vocals and trumpet entwine themselves around busy drums and keyboards.

For some reason I thought of Landscape next and pulled out From the Tea-rooms of Mars… …to the Hell-holes of Uranus. I soon wished I hadn’t. Here is the sound of a mid-70s jazz-rock band, who I regularly used to see in the pubs and clubs of West London, trying to join the electro pop world of the New Romantics. Frankly it’s dire stuff, all twiddles and cleverness, bright and nasty synthesizer sounds set against bright and nasty drum loops. Richard Burgess was busy producing and/or drumming for the likes of Spandau Ballet and his own dance-theatre outfit Shock! [who were fantastic live], but he should have known better than to try and turn his colleagues into something they weren’t. I reassured myself that they had been good once by playing their debut LP, Landscape, which is full of short, sharp, miniature instrumentals full of texture, intrigue and delight.

That in turn made me think of another jazz-rock outfit from the same time, Visitor 2035. Visitor 2035 were more Weather Report than anything else though, they didn’t care whether punk had happened or not. They probably didn’t even know of it’s existence. This is busy, busy music: sound & fury layered over fluid fretless bass and relentless, exhausting drumming which doesn’t know when to stop. It’s of another time really, simply ended up being released in 1979, so I put it aside.

Wire was an obvious choice. They were experimental, they surely absorbed electronic influences into their punk games? 154 is the one where the 4/4 headrush through two minute songs gave way to all kinds of musical games, isn’t it? Actually, it’s a pretty dull album to listen to these days. There’s still loads of pretty simplistic bash’n’run punk songs, and only occasionally do we get things like the gorgeous religious seduction of ‘Blessed State’ or the strange half-spoken timewarp of ‘The Other Window’. I can’t be alone in thinking that the resurrected Wire ten years down the line, actually produced some much better LPs than their early incarnation?

Unlike Simple Minds. I don’t need to remind you how wonderful Real to Real Cacophony or Empires and Dance are. You have Alistair to do that for you elsewhere. Just take my word that they, too, are full of experimental inclinations which for a while subverted the big pop-rock trajectory the band were intent upon. Here, young, naďve, full of enthusaism and energy, they produced two masterpieces. Magazine are forever linked in my mind with Simple Minds, as the first time I saw them they had Simple Minds as support act. After the meaty synthesizer subverion of their Real Life debut, they went on to produce a masterful second album, Secondhand Daylight. Devoto and co. went on to be a little dismissive and coy about this album, but for me it’s their best, absorbing as it does Beefheart, Pink Floyd and krautrock into its new wave mix. Where else would you find an aching sax and synthesizer [wordless] song like ‘The Thin Air’ or the demented chill of ‘Permafrost’? Where else manic ventriloquism, eloquent despair and unbridled lust? Here Devoto’s lyrical obsessions are given a much wider-ranging and challenging music than anywhere else in their catalogue. A great fold-out cover and front cover image, too.

Clock DVA’s Advantage turns out to be a much later record than I thought. It’s big brass production, especially on the glorious single ‘Breakdown’, which should have been a hit, place it firmly in the late 70s, but the sleeve says 1983, so it doesn’t really count. Their earlier avant-garde album, Thirst, made by a different, and differently inclined, line-up and released on Fetish is the forgotten matserpiece from this era though. Here at last was the musical subversion I sought. Here is the sound of electropop meeting noise meeting krautrock meeting the avant-garde. Here is what you can do to a song but still make it glorious. Here is ‘4 Hours’, one of the most beautiful and hypnotic pieces of music ever made ­ loops clanking along beneath an insistent voice and some unearthly whistles [? or clarinet?]. Here the sonic collage and suggestion of ‘Moments’ and ‘Impressions of African Winter’. Here the pure pop angst of ‘Piano Pain’ and ‘Blue Tone’. Here is an album waiting for CD reissue. It’s a long way from Ultravox to Magazine and Clock DVA, sitting on the carpet with the headphones on, but what a great journey.

© 2004Rupert Loydell