Russell Smith

On Nostalgia, Ironic Or Otherwise: Part 1

John Foxx, “Underpass” (1980)

John Foxx, one of the founding members of Ultravox, was the son of a Lancashire coal miner. He released several solo albums after he left Ultravox in the late 70s; the most avant-gardist of them was Metamatic, from 1980, an all-synthesizer record. Foxx wrote and sang all the songs, and played all the instruments and drum machines. All the songs share a coldness, the machine fixation that was the hallmark of the sensitive in those days, and a certain resistance to pleasing melody, particularly in the vocals, which are deliberately adenoidal and often chanted rather than sung. Foxx had a remarkable voice, actually, and was given to diva-like wailing on other albums, but here he did his best to sound like an airport announcement. “Underpass” was the most dramatic and orchestral of the songs on Metamatic, and has a driving melody that will stick in your head to the point of irritation.

This music preceded house music by about five years, techno by about seven.

Foxx’s debt to Kraftwerk is obvious, but he is bringing something new to the genre here: Kraftwerk liked cold machine sounds, but they liked the pretty, too. There is a sunniness, a lightness to so many Kraftwerk songs – think of the flute bits in Autobahn – and a hint of irony to almost everything they did. Even their image, the suits, the made up mannequins, the sepia photographs, the nostalgia of their cover designs, was part of a complicated series of parodies.

But there is no humour to be found in John Foxx. This is deadly serious. Even his image – the ghostly pretty boy in the dark suit, inspired no doubt in part by Bowie, later to become standard for Goth bands – is not ironic. He shares nostalgia with Kraftwerk, but his is not parodic. His nostalgia is despairing:

Well I used to remember
Now it’s all gone
World War something…
We were somebody’s sons

Foxx’s urban alienation, dependent as it was on images of industrial landscapes and loneliness (“click click drone”), is now clichéd. But his is complicated by this nostalgia, by the idea not of a futuristic techno-society but of a rusting and abandoned place, in many ways an obsolete place (“Misty on the glass now/Rusty on the door/Here for years now…”), reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s portrayal of the future in Stalker-a place of rubble and debris.

Tarkovsky, “Stalker” (1979)

When I first heard Metamatic, in a Canadian university residence in or around 1982, it was electrifying; it was revolutionary, to us, and brilliant. It instantly unified the intellects and the weirdos, gave us our secret anthem. (I had a friend, a PhD student in English, who claimed that all the songs in Metamatic referred in some way to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We pored through the cryptic lyrics trying to see the clues. I don’t think they are there. But that’s the kind of words they are. They could be.)

Our anthems had to be secret, of course, because they provoked mockery from happier students. The most popular music of the time was still American-style rock. Bruce Springsteen was big. And there was something offensive to the healthy crowd about our melancholy music: they saw it as pretentious, and, well, I suppose it was.

Interestingly, we never saw music videos to match our favourite songs.

Music of the time was on vinyl, or, more frequently, on cassette tapes, copied from somebody who had a record store in Toronto. We didn’t even know what the album cover art looked like most of the time, let alone what the performers looked like. There was a television in the common room of the residence, but it didn’t have cable, and MuchMusic didn’t come on the air until 1984. (Just to remind you of the tenor of the times: the first video ever played on Much was by Rush). For almost the whole of the 1980s I was living in shared student apartments and I don’t remember there being a television set in a single one of them.

So I first saw this video, of one of the most influential songs of my youth, last month.

It was a joy, of course, for nostalgic reasons, but also disappointing. The two girls looking frightened in an empty room, for example – that’s surprisingly gothy for such a tasteful minimalist as Foxx. But I still thrill to the images of subways and highways, I love the raw concrete and I love the stiffness of the cadaverous musicians.

The sudden migration towards electronic pop music that occurred over the next few years, the early 80s, produced astoundingly cheesy videos for a movement that was so aesthetically obsessed. Watching the videos of the great synthpop hits – Visage’s “Fade To Grey”, for example, with its hysterical makeup and mime-like posing – might have turned me off electronic music, had I seen them the time.

Visage, “Fade To Grey” (1980)

What is charming about this video now is how it reminds us of a time before pervasive irony. Remaking the world as aesthetically ideal was serious business to these guys: it really was romantic. There was no humour to it at all. That’s why it’s embarrassing now.

I sometimes yearn a bit for that lack of self-consciousness.

 – Russell Smith

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Russell Smith's novels include "Confidence," Girl Crazy," and “Muriella Pent” — named best fiction pick of its year by, and nominated for the Rogers Fiction Prize and the Impac Dublin Prize. He lives in Toronto. More Russell Smith here. Author photo by Jowita Bydlowska.