Metamatic and memory

Metamatic, one of the earliest and most important landmarks of British electronica was released 35 years ago this week, in January 1980.

35 years ago: half a lifetime. Strange that I have retained two memories of the launch of a record that at the time was limited in appeal to dedicated followers of electronic music, and is still only recognised within that genre.

The first is of Foxx performing a (marginal) hit from Metamatic, one that remains perhaps his best known track, Underpass, on the late chart programme Top of the Pops (remarkably a clip from that very show seems to be available on YouTube).

I remember Foxx’s appearance: elegant, alien handsome in a suit and tie, quite unlike the show’s other acts, the top 40 at that time being a confusion of punk, disco, pub rock and country and western. And I remember the music, my first encounter with electronica: mechanical, angular, a steel and glass construction, cold and clear like a blue winter’s morning.

My second memory is of Metamatic’s sleeve art. I can actually place the recollection: in the record section at Boots on Union Street, Aberdeen (in a store long since occupied by another retailer). You used to go down the stairs at the shop entrance then turn right into a long narrow space. The top 40 singles, arranged in shelves, appeared straight ahead as you entered, and the albums were stacked along the wall to the right. Sleeve design was a much more important thing in those days, the 33 inch vinyl format offering a sufficiently large canvas for an effective album cover to make an impression.

I saw Metamatic there, quite soon after the Top of the Pops appearance. There was the suited man again, pictured with right arm reaching into a glowing square of pure white light: the future. The image evoked the music perfectly, cool, abstract, spare. It remains my favourite album cover.

Despite all of that I never did buy Metamatic. The resources available to my nine-year-old self were scarce, and the £3.99 price tag standard for albums then quite prohibitive. But the memory of Underpass and that cover remained, and I finally shelled out when it was released some 20 years later in CD format.

Listening to it for the first time it soon became apparent the music wasn’t the dystopian sci-fi I was expecting. It wasn’t actually concerned with the future at all, but the present. Specifically the present of the life of the city: Metamatic, like so much of Foxx’s work I have subsequently explored, is a kind of stark poetry of the metropolis, urban pastoral.

Foxx is fascinated by the infrastructure of urban life, with everything on the margins of vision: underpasses, overpasses, filter lanes, concrete islands, orbitals, industrial zones, car headlights, neon signs, sodium street lights, a lone worker glimpsed through a lit office window.

Foxx’s city is a living thing, with its own sublimity, like a forest, or a mountain range. It is a site of continual conflict between constructed urban spaces and a nature ever ready to encroach and reclaim. He notices the overgrown grass verge, the weed in the crack in the office wall, the flowers spreading through an abandoned industrial zone, the birds nesting in the office towers, the fox in a lane.

And for Foxx the city is constitutive of the self, part of the identity of those who live in it. Particular roads, buildings, cafés, plazas, parks, perhaps unremarkable in themselves, are layered with memories. The city, like Wordsworth’s Lake District or John Clare’s Northamptonshire, is thick with associations, its imagery entangled in the dreamworlds of those who walk its streets.

Metamatic’s endless urban grid is a composite of every city, but the ambience is distinctly European. In a 2001 interview, speaking of the recording of the album, Foxx said:

We were consciously making new music for the cities. But rather than looking to America, I wanted to make a kind of music which might have happened if America had never existed. A sort of minimalist European urban electronic folk music. I had a picture of a future jukebox in some lost European motorway service station. I just listened to it play what became Metamatic.

John Foxx has released many albums since Metamatic. Indeed he is one of those artists whose work has got better over time. Try, for example, last year’s brilliant collaboration with Steve D’Agosino, Evidence of Time Travel, or the epic ambient slow burner Cathedral Oceans.

Metamatic isn’t my own favourite Foxx album. But many of the tracks continue to resonate, like the blistering Burning Car, or the four stark instrumentals Mr No, Glimmer, Film One, 030.

But the central theme that his music has obsessively returned to over the years first found unambiguous expression on this early record. Over and over Foxx’s records tell the story of a single character, which he loosely terms ‘The Quiet Man’, a wanderer, walking endlessly through the city streets, life’s archetypal observer of urban life, a figure from myth: then, a silent watcher, in the ancient Babylon marketplace; now, a face gazing from the window in the 21st century megalopolis.

Garry Hensey, writing in the sleeve notes for a 2010 Foxx compilation Metatronic, puts it well:

[R]esonating through it all, [is] one peripheral figure – The Quiet Man. The Quiet Man permeates all the songs and all the movies in Metatronic. Faceless, anonymous in a dark grey suit, he walks through London, through lost New York, through all the cities all the time. A ghost from long ago, made of memory, electricity, dust, light and smoke – where he drifts through the old streets on echo, bleep and bass in the lingering haze of the city.

He is not alone.