Before leaving for Belgium, and at the same time as rehabilitating ‘Burning Car’ for its release on parole in the summer, Foxx, Jones and company were encouraged to provide ‘something’ for a promotion in Smash Hits magazine. To fulfil this, they applied a little spit, polish and an ARP solo to another early demo track called ‘My Face’. This rather incredulously appeared as an exclusive flexidisc, attached to the cover of the magazine’s October 2nd issue, with a large photograph of Gary Numan peering out through the garish yellow plastic. Someone in the magazine’s editorial team was clued up and set to make a subtle point…
On the accompanying press release Foxx admits to having “no plans” for a Metamatic follow-up album, suggesting that this song is just one of many that started life as a thought experiment in a notebook.” In a more expansive interview (published in The Service in 1981), Foxx suggests that this song examines the identity of ‘the people you pass in the street without noticing them.’ The quiet men in grey suits:
“I began to wonder if, for one or two of these people – the ones we never notice and don’t remember at all – what if their anonymity might be deliberate for some private reason of their own. Many people could deliberately not want to be noticed. I read an article someone that pickpockets for instance, deliberately wear completely ordinary clothes so that they can get close to their victims without attracting any attention, and if detected at all their appearance dis so unremarkable that any description of them would be virtually useless to the police.”
The song itself, for all its free distribution of over 100,000 copies is rather clunky and does sound as if it was put together in a hurry. The CR-78 drum machine is set to ‘frantic’ and the rest of the track is quite simplistic; even the over-dubbed ARP solo could be considered a little clumsy and unimaginative by Foxx standards. Nevertheless, it is a catchy song and does hint at a new more expressive singing style. There are at least two vocal tracks: one in the ‘spoken’ style of Metamatic, but another more open style wherein Foxx sings more freely and gives his voice space to soar and fade.
Although My Face, the original flexi release, was never meant to be more than incidental, it did serve well to whet the appetite for the next ‘proper’ single that came out on Virgin records two weeks later. One wonders if there was some residual obligation to Island behind its release, given there is no reference to either Virgin or Metal beat on the yellow plastic?
Either way, it was Miles Away that Virgin were interested in, though adverts for the single were few and far between at the time. Money was even invested in a video to promote the song, but this never appeared on Top Of The Pops and in fact is only known to have one television broadcast at all, and even then a month after release.
In order to develop a new image, a new sound and significantly distance himself from the previous album, John Foxx chose to work in a different studio to record Miles Away. On Gareth Jones recommendation, they decamped just a few miles up the A1 to The Music Works studio and put the song into the hands of house engineer Jo Julian. Not only known to Jones, Julian’s respected CV also included a few sessions with Eno, working with him and Gavin Bryars for Onskure Records.
Every single strand’s connected…
Keen to generate interest in his own project (a pop-sensitive dance/funk band called Shake / Shake) Julian took the opportunity to play a cassette of songs to his guests. Both were immediately impressed. Foxx followed the lead, and arranged with Julian to meet the other band members – bass guitarist Jo Dworniak (working at the studio as tape operator), and keyboard player Duncan Bridgeman. In Shake/Shake, John Foxx found enthusiastic young musicians keen to gain experience and credibility by working with seasoned professionals, and thus the potential to develop his own work in a new direction.
Between them, Shake / Shake and Foxx recorded three songs at Music Works; two versions of Miles Away and a new song (written as a collaboration) especially for the back of the single. Of the lead song, the ‘alternative version’ is slower, heavier (more laboured?) and the ‘dual’ vocal harmonised tracks are given more differentiation. There’s a slight shift in the lyrics too as Foxx introduces the emergent “new man”…
Foxx then took the tapes back to Pathway where live percussion was overdubbed on the lead track courtesy of popular Virgin-favoured session drummer Paul ‘Ed Case’ Edwards.
A Long Time reinforces the shift in focus at which Miles Away hints. Not only is it John Foxx first co-written song since 1978 (the single sleeve introduces ‘Shake / Shake’ confidently on the back) it also carries a new picture of John by celebrated pop-photographer Herbie Yakamuchi. His tie has been cast aside, the suit is gone and his hair is longer.
It’s a relatively long piece too, running over four minutes, driven by a powerful drum track, ARP rhythms and pulsating dance-orientated bass guitar. John’s vocal is softer, there are more poetic words and harmonies with qualities that echo later-period Beatles, and the mix gives his vocal a lot of air and space to float around, delivering lyrics that clearly announce a new psychedelic frame of mind is emerging. Neo-romantic imagery of green lanes, hazy sunshine and ‘shafts of summer’. Foxx is acknowledging his absence, aware that he has been away, but has returned without regret. Instead his longing to come into focus again is apparent, gently acknowledging that it has indeed been ‘a long time’ since he was here last…?
Miles Away may bear the hallmark instrumentation of the Metamatic ‘sound’ but it is distinctively more triumphant’. The mix introduces rhythms and bass guitar overdubs and the song has lyrical themes that set the scene for a more psychedelic, pastoral and romantic approach to composition more akin to some of the material back on Systems Of Romance. There is a sense that Foxx is somehow returning to something – the first suggestion that the whole Metamatic period was some kind o finterlude…?
The idea for the title and perhaps even an early lyric comes from a note he scribbled down in mid 1979, and Foxx makes reference to it in an interview with In The City magazine:
“You know when you’re looking out of a window or you’re not quite present? You’re with someone but your mind is on something else? That is quite often my state of mind…”
It is a English colloquial phrase. One my Dad still uses when distracted.
And its release in October 1980 is perfectly timed, when Foxx himself (or at least the host organism Dennis Leigh) would rather be anywhere else than the UK charts and pop magazines!
He is physically ‘miles away’ too during the song’s entire chart journey. In Brussels, recording material that would appear with much less fanfare on a tiny European record label a few weeks later…
This distancing is manifest by Dennis Leigh in the superb and now iconic artwork that carried the single into the record shops.
The monochromatic presentation is immediately striking, sleek and modern – a single picture on a plain white field, with the artist’s name and song title simply presented alongside in a black sans-serif typeface, re-creating the presentation of a painting in an exhibition.
But it is the image itself that really catches the eye. By carefully arranging an empty grey suit, white shirt, black tie and shoes in an armchair, Leigh deliberately created an ‘absence’ – putting himself at one remove from his composition. A significant statement at a time when the Eighties mainstream publicity was based on ‘presence’ and artist wanted their faces everywhere. Look at Numan, sneering out on the Smash Hits cover. “Look at My Face…”
Instead, here was mystery – a combination of sci-fi, film noir, and French cinema, created by an educated artist with an awareness of art history and visual communication. Who had been vapourised, leaving only their clothes behind? Was this a comment on prevailing trends in the music business? Perhaps, but it is actually a deliberate transposition of a promo poster for Honda Studios 1958 horror movie H-Man, minus the trickle of (He’s A) Liquid and some vapour. Foxx collected these things throughout his childhood and teenage years
The Quiet Man: asleep by windows and set in English front room!
Only Sounds continued to respond positively, recognising that the song was much more ‘up’ than his previous work and thereby more accessible, being “virtually a continuous chorus lifted by spiralling synths”. This time round though they stood alone in favouring the release. Most other reviewers paraphrased those who wished the ‘trite and unbearably vacuous’ John Foxx were indeed – to put it politely – “miles away”.
The strongest hint yet that Foxx was changing his image and working to a new brief is captured in a photoshoot conducted at the time with Michael Putland. Dressed casually, a fopp-haired Foxx stands in a colourful summer garden, surrounded by flowers and trees instead of buildings and cars. Natural light, outdoors.
The ‘artificial life’ is coming to an end, and the man who would be a machine is unplugged and starting to defrost…