We were all supposed to breathe a sigh of relief when electronica appeared to have dissolved into the ether at some point during the late Eighties. It was time to welcome back ‘real music’, by which the British music press apparently meant scowling, parka-clad youths regurgitating Beatles b-sides at us. The faithful, however, clung on to their copies of Travelogue and Trans-Europe Express and waited for the inevitable. A full decade of therapy later, the listening public was once more ready for synthesizers, eyeliner and immaculate hair. Ten years ago, an event like Back to the Phuture would have been a nostalgia fest. Now, at a time when everyone’s rediscovering the joys of the synth, it’s glorious validation.
You can listen to the synth pioneers of the early Eighties now without a trace of the snide, clip-show irony often thrown at this most misunderstood of musical eras. They’ve migrated from cheesy compilations to in-depth BBC Four documentaries, and, best of all, have managed to do so without the sense of humour bypass usually undergone in the process. Now, after all Britpop’s excesses and the posturing of Noughties rock, the music of thirty years ago is back, reimagined, reworked and sounding a hell of a lot like the future. Again. The mini-festival of synth splendour at the Troxy united two electro pioneers, both of whom have played a significant part in shaping music’s future –- however you want to spell it.
Though the headliner of Back to the Phuture was Gary Numan, many in the crowd came to see John Foxx. Last year’s Foxx-curated Short Circuit festival at the Roundhouse brought these two giants of electro together for the first time, although Numan’s only contribution then was a DJ set. For Back to the Phuture, he and his long-time collaborator Ade Fenton gave us a full gig in front of a passionate crowd. The rapturous reception was fully justified. Numan’s set ranged from his earliest work with Tubeway Army to his more recent industrial material, and encompassed storming versions of his biggest hits “Are Friends Electric?” and “Cars”. From the opener, “Down in the Park”, onwards, it was clear that this was Numan on top form.
Endearingly honest, he told us at one point that a new song unveiled that night was a track he’d finished working on the previous week. Numan didn’t only play to his ever-ardent fanbase, but won over the doubters during the course of a lengthy set. We’d been promised a dazzling stage show, and he delivered; the breathtaking, if often gruesome, visuals by Digital Insanity referenced religious hypocrisy and dogma, themes often touched on in Numan’s more recent work. With a new energy visible in his live appearances, the omens foretell good. Numan, so often lampooned and so rarely appreciated by the music press, is finally taking his rightful place in the pantheon.
So, we got an excellent headline performance, a couple of underwhelming DJ sets, courtesy of organiser Mark Jones and Mute Records luminary Daniel Miller, and some patchy support. I arrived at the venue just in time to miss most of Mirrors’ opening set (sketchy impressions: tunes of early OMD, hair of Franz Ferdinand, not bad at all). Motor –- inexplicably second on the bill –- were unfortunate enough to be following John Foxx, and became an inevitable anticlimax. Numan’s may have been the only name on the tickets, but he certainly wasn’t the only star. Foxx occupied just an hour of the night’s action, but all sixty minutes rocked hard.
NME recently described Foxx as the ‘Dark Lord of the Synth’. For once, the hipsters got it right. Impossible to pigeonhole, Foxx has been exploring his themes of urban alienation and cultural reshaping for over thirty years, through music, visual art and film. Inevitably, he’s had to wait until now for the full impact of his work to be appreciated, just as the disparate threads of our allusion-heavy, remixing and sampling culture fuse together. At long last, others are starting to catch up. Foxx is nothing if not unpredictable, and his recent return to an all-analogue sound for the first time since his debut solo record, 1980’s Metamatic, was just the latest in a series of surprises. This is, after all, the man who eschewed that glacial sound for pastoral beauty with The Garden just a year later.
Unfair stereotypes abound in electro, and Foxx’s label as the genre’s ice king encompassed nothing deeper than the cheekbones and eyeliner. Lots of people have, like him, listened to the music the machines make, but nobody else has ever made it touch the heart quite like Foxx. This gig, however, focused more on the shadows than the light. Perhaps it was down to the absence of his long-time collaborator, the cheekily irrepressible Louis Gordon, but the atmosphere had changed. Foxx is bound to come back over to the light side at some point, but for now, playing the dark lord really does suit him.
Our minds were comprehensively blown with a spine-chillingly fabulous version of the menacing “Shatterproof”, one of the most distinctive cuts from Interplay, his new album with Benge (Ben Edwards) as John Foxx and the Maths. The other tracks from this superlative recent offering to feature on the night were the suitably propulsive “The Running Man” and “Catwalk”, one of Foxx’s rare but welcome critiques of the urban glitterati’s superficial lustre. The tracks from Interplay were interspersed with well-chosen songs from Foxx’s previous analogue life, with storming versions of the classic “Burning Car” and –- of course –- “Underpass” matched by a version of “He’s a Liquid” that pushed all the right sinister buttons. Some still hanker after a reunion of Foxx’s former band, Ultravox, but when he’s still got his old colleague Robin Simon on guitar for a rousing “Quiet Men” and the closing “Slow Motion”, where’s the need? He’s right where he belongs –- at the centre of everything interesting in modern electronica.