marking time exhibition

My favourite Londoner : Mark Gatiss on John Foxx

Actor and writer Mark Gatiss was born in Sedgefield in 1966 and found fame as a member of The League of Gentlemen. The Devil in Amber, the second of his Lucifer Box novels, is out now from Simon & Shuster.

So there I was. Fourteen years old. Spending endless afternoons trapped in maths lessons that seemed to exist in a gluey, over-sunlit no-time, combating an acne-blemished forehead and developing hopeless crushes on straight boys. Nothing could save me from the deadly ennui of it. But then something did. Electropop! I’d missed punk, but suddenly my pale, skinny self had a home where all was eyeliner, long coats, heavy fringes, sharp cheekbones, blurred faces and vapour trails. And I had a hero. Reigning in suitably detached fashion on some great, grey autobahn - John Foxx.

Born in Lancashire, Foxx moved to London in the early ‘70s to attend the Royal College of Art where he founded Ultravox (or Ultravox! as they were then). Initially show-casing a Roxy-ish post-glam sound, Foxx developed a highly influential electronic style for the band, culminating in the album Systems of Romance . He then went solo, releasing the singles Underpass , No-One Driving and Burning Car (in the JG Ballard-heavy time, everything seemed to be about automobiles). The records charted but not spectacularly.

Ultravox, meanwhile, recruited Midge Ure and went on to massive success with a song about Rigsby’s cat from Rising Damp. I always resented that, and the fact that John Foxx was written off as a Gary Numan wannabe.

Certainly, the Krauty, frigid, kipper-tied image would come to haunt Foxx. His album Metamatic, recorded in 'an eight-track cupboard in Islington’, is a hugely original work. But Foxx moved rapidly away from this style, re-emerging a year later with the lush sounds of The Garden album. In fact, Foxx’s whole sound became ever more romantic, through the psychedelic influences of The Golden Section to the quite lovely In Mysterious Ways .

Commercial success proved elusive, though, and he effectively vanished from the music scene after 1985, concentrating instead on pioneering work as a graphic artist, designing book covers as diverse as Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. But I kept the torch burning. I looked a bit like him in my youth and cultivated my fringe while scouring Oxfam shops in search of cutaway waistcoats.

Foxx went on tour in 1983, by which time I was a sixth-former, and I still have the ticket for the show at the Leadmill in Sheffield. I still have it because the show was cancelled. Twice!

When I was 19, I came to London on a drama-school field trip. At the first chance I had, I fled the seedy hotel in which we’d been imprisoned and took the Central Line to Holywell Lane, Shoreditch. I can still remember the thrill of seeing the place I’d only ever read about in obscure music journals. I asked some technicians who were humping in equipment if this was Foxx’s studio, The Garden. “Yeah” they said. “Go right up.” But I didn’t. I mean, what could I say? “John, what was that line in Rockwrok that I could never understand?” “Where did you get your eyeliner?”

As the years have passed, I’ve kept a weather eye on his progress. Ten years ago there was suddenly a brilliant new album, Shifting city , made in collaboration with Louis Gordon. It was the first of many excellent new projects, all of which I’ve lapped up. Then came YouTube. And in just a few clicks… the video for Endlessly that I’d only ever heard rumoured! The video for He’s a Liquid ! And so everything seems to have come happily full circle for this charming self-effacing and underrated musician. I just wish that I could still carry off that blond fringe…’