John Foxx has become something of a cult hero in discerning circles over the last four decades, making a big noise in the art and music world.
He has strong associations with the new wave of electronic music that saw us into the 1980s, and oversaw the recording of various happening bands in the following years.
He’s also been cited as a major influence on a diverse range of acts, including Gary Numan, Moby, Depeche Mode and Blur.
Having made his name as the initial front-man of Ultravox – succeeded by Midge Ure – he threw caution to the wind and went solo, a hit with Underpass paving the way for a critically-recognised career.
At one stage John turned his back on the music industry in favour of his first love, art, but later returned with a vengeance, with plenty of peer acknowledgement along the way.
Just one of the latest accolades to come his way arrived from unexpected quarters very recently, as a Lancashire university acknowledged the 65-year-old’s working journey with an honorary doctorate, in recognition of a somewhat pioneering career.
And that gave me the chance to catch up with the man himself – born Dennis Leigh in Chorley, Lancashire, in 1948 – and mull over that impressive CV and music and art career.
After three ground-breaking years and the same number of LPs with Ultravox, John signed as a solo artist with Virgin Records in 1979.
His albums Metamatic (1980), The Garden (1981) and The Golden Section (1983) helped define him, and in 1982 he set up his own recording studio in East London, its more famous clients ranging from Brian Eno and The Cure to Depeche Mode and Tina Turner.
Between 1985 and 1997, John withdrew from music and earned a successful living as a graphic artist under his real name.
He also became a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, a position he retains. But in 1997 he returned to music performance.
In 2006 he released an album to accompany a sequence of films, Tiny Colour Movies, and the following year a showcase of his artwork and music was presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
He went on to tour Europe with his new band John Foxx and The Maths in 2011, and recently with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
That work continues, and in October, John is set to release a new album alongside Steve D’Agostino, Evidence of Time Travel.
But first, that honorary doctorate in philosophy from Edge Hill University, awarded in the same week the Ormskirk seat of learning also bestowed a similar accolade on past writewyattuk subject Michael Pennington, best known for comic alter ego Johnny Vegas.
So, congratulations, John. I’m guessing you’re very proud of that acknowledgement. Have you had links with Edge Hill for a while?
Very pleased. There was no link at all. Came out of the blue. But we seem to be planning some interesting projects now…
You’ve travelled a fair bit with your work. Do you consider yourself a Lancashire lad all these years on?
You can take the lad out of Lancashire but you can’t take Lancashire out of the lad.
What do you see yourself as, first and foremost – musician, artist, photographer, teacher?
An artist – everything else came from that.
I worked in Chorley for several years, and you were one of the few names recognised as being part of this proud Lancashire market town’s cultural history. Do you keep in touch with your home-town roots? And do you recognise the Chorley of your youth in today’s town?
Chorley seems to have suffered some terrible planning – who decided to put that speedway straight through the centre of town? What happened to Duxbury? How come all the main streets are empty of shoppers and filled with trash shops? What happened to the market? The town has gone from one of the North’s best – a lively interesting place full of good shops, markets and pubs – to exhausted confusion. It can still be rescued, but it urgently needs a sensible rethink.
I believe the comic and impressionist Phil Cool was in the year above you at St Augustine’s (which has now been knocked down, having been incorporated into the present Holy Cross High School). Did you know each other?
We knew each other very well at school and after. He broke my nose on St Mary’s Rec and says it’s one of his greatest achievements! Later on, I sometimes used to go with him to club gigs at Horwich Loco and Wigan Labour Club. He did about 20 years of that. No wonder he’s good.
It sounds like you had a pretty typical North-West working class background. I believe your Dad was a miner and a boxer. Where did he fight?
All over. He had around 110 fights and even fought on fairgrounds for his summer holidays, taking on all-comers. He said it was no trouble at all.
Was there a sense of Catholic identity in those early years, or a religious divide in the town? And was faith important to you or something to break away from?
There was absolutely no religious divide, the kids then never thought about that. I got a lot from Catholicism – a decent education, a love of ancient music from the sung masses in Latin and an intro to Renaissance painting – as well as the usual guilt and shame stuff. But that evaporated quickly, leaving all the rest.
Absolutely the best thing I ever did was go to art school – it changed everything. Beautiful women, great friends and a future. Psychedelia was happening, the 1960s were happening all around and it all seemed to be coming from art schools – that was where you went if you didn’t quite know what you wanted to do. Then you met your generation and realised that everyone else wanted to make things happen too.
What was your first band, Woolly Fish, like, and where did you play?
Good on a good day. We only lasted a few gigs. One was at Preston Top Rank. It had a circular stage, so all the guitar leads came out as it turned around. You could only hear the drummer.
The other gig was at a cricket club. We borrowed an early but powerful smoke machine. Couldn’t see a thing. Then this fireman in full respirator kit appeared through the fog looking like Darth Vader. Everybody else had gone home. That was the last gig.
You got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art – did getting to London change the way you saw the world?
Did punk make a big impression, not least as you were among that whole scene?
Well – I think we made an impression on punk – we were in at the beginning and the only band with a synthesizer – but we could make it scream like nothing you’d ever heard before – and it delivered trouser-flapping bass too. Altogether we could make a beautifully filthy noise. Nobody else was doing that sort of thing.
What was it that clicked about electronic music and experimentation for you – and was there a defining moment?
Hearing Tony Bassett’s homemade Theremin – he made it from a trannie radio in Chorley 1966. It howled like hell when you came near it. Great fun. I realised electronics could make sounds you’d never heard before.
You quickly carved your own reputation as a solo artist, but did you ever regret stepping away from Ultravox as their biggest success followed?
No – I signed with Virgin when it was a tiny company in a backyard off Portobello Road. (Richard) Branson was brilliant. This meant I was free to do what I wanted, had the first drum machines and synths and knew how to use them – then I got my own studio. It was all much more fun than being in a band.
You had a lot of success with the recording studio in Shoreditch, with lots of great artists passing through. Were those good years initially?
Very exciting. A great band in every week, making seminal singles and albums by the truckload – Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, The The, Eno, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave, Boy George, The Cure, Yazoo, and dozens of others. Plus, we could experiment with new sounds and methods and carry on all night. What more could you want?
You said you felt increasingly removed from the music scene though, hence the decision to sell up and return to graphic art – moving away from this John Foxx character you’d created.
Things change, scenes fade – the energy went by the mid-’80s so I legged it for a while to get back to art. I was lucky again, because that also succeeded. Then Acid happened about 1987/8, so I was right back into it all again, as a video-maker and part of Bomb the Bass and Nation 12. Then I started putting out my own records again.
Everything got interesting again – The acid scene happened in London, then Warp kicked off in Sheffield, and Manchester happened. Imaginative music was back again. We had a studio just by Tony Wilson’s headquarters in the Sankeys building. Very lively.
It must be nice to hear other artists acknowledge your influence on their work?
That’s the best, most satisfying thing, moving into other generations. It’s hard enough to be successful in one generation, but if you can move beyond that, you live a lot longer.
Finally, what advice might 65-year-old Dennis Leigh offer his teenage name-sake, 50 years younger, bound for art college in Preston in 1964?
Go for it, my son. This is a very good time.
With thanks to Jennifer Morgan at Edge Hill University for arranging this interview, and John Foxx for his time and thoughts and giving such great answers.
This is a revised edition of a Malcolm Wyatt interview initially published in the Lancashire Evening Post on Thursday, July 31, 2014. For the original online version, head here.
For all the latest on John Foxx, head to his official website here.