JOHN FOXX WEEK XTRA: Awaydays creator Kevin Sampson pays tribute
Awaydays the movie features plenty of Foxx on the soundtrack - we talked to the original author and screenwriter Kevin Sampson about growing up with the Ultravox legend
How and when did you discover John Foxx?
‘I started going to Eric’s, the Liverpool underground club that spawned Echo & The Bunnymen et al, towards the end of 1977. I was 15, so it was quite a big deal getting in there at all, and I was happy to stand back by the bar with my pals and watch the in-crowd do their thing.
The DJ there, Norman, used to play ‘RockWrok’ - a lot. It was a big track with the hip kids - they used to do this very strange dance where they’d keep their feet rooted to the floor but thrash their bodies around like they were demented on glue.
I’ve got to be honest though, I wasn’t too mad on ‘RockWrok’ myself. David Bowie’s Heroes came out around the same time, and I was much more into that whole experimental sound, stuff like ‘Sense of Doubt’ and ‘Moss Garden’. But my mate Mark Revell who was in our little Eric’s gang loved ‘RockWrok’, bought the single and when I heard the B-side for the first time – ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ - it just wrecked my head.
I thought it was just unbelievably beautiful and I went out the next day and bought ‘RockWrok just so that I could play ‘Hiroshima’ again and again and again. I loved it.
That was all towards the end of 1977 and, even though the country was generally going punk-mad, there was a smaller, parallel scene that was drawing together elements of Bowie, Krautrock, bits of Giorgio Moroder-style disco - it was very Man Who Fell To Earth, quite androgynous in its styling. The wedge haircut with a long, effeminate fringe was worn by boys and girls alike, and the sound of John Foxx and Ultravox seemed like a perfect score for this growing sub-culture.
I felt a huge sense of belonging in that scene, much more so than with punk which seemed older in terms of its crowd, and quite elitist and alienating. So (and this is from memory, I am almost certainly conflating disparate shards of teen recollections) as 1978 began, the Ultravox live E.P came out and that was me, completely gone on Foxx.
I got a wedge cut at Minsky’s in Liverpool; a pair of Pod shoes; bought the Ultravox live e.p from Probe - and went to see them live at Eric’s all in the space of a few days. I played that live EP relentlessly - The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned, even though it seemed a bit fast and ragged, was incredibly romantic to a young lad who knew nothing but was starting to feel everything.
Do you think early Ultravox were ahead of their time - recording tracks such as 'My Sex' and 'I Want To Be A Machine' back in 1976?
‘All great artists are ahead of their time and, at that point in the mid ‘70s there was no-one else doing what Ultravox were doing. There were other fantastic bands and artists doing exceptional things, but Ultravox were genuinely weird in a way that was … it was just dead exciting whenever the news leaked out that they’d recorded something new. You knew it was going to be a shock to the system, and there just aren’t many bands who can deliver that level of surprise and experience, consistently.
I’m aware that John Foxx has struggled at various points in his career life, yet one wonders how his output might have been affected if he had been met with acclaim from the very outset? Selfishly, I loved the fact that so few people were in on the secret. Tracks like ‘My Sex’ were completely out there, on their own - other-worldly, in the best possible sense.
Did you ever see Ultravox live with John Foxx? If so, what kind of impact did they have on you?
‘Yes, I saw them on a freezing cold night early in 1978. I know it was not long after Graeme Souness signed for Liverpool because I bought a pair of Pod shoes on the Friday, then went to see Liverpool at West Brom on the Saturday. Then, I think, the following weekend, Ultravox played at Eric’s (Doll By Doll supporting, possibly? This is all from a very frazzled memory!)
Eric’s had a very, very low roof which just made everything even more atmospheric, but I remember convincing myself that night that we were in a little cellar bar in Berlin - partly the Ultravox ambience, but mainly teenage affectations. I saw Ultravox in visual terms. To me, they were as much a monochrome film as a band.’
Were early Ultravox an influential band in Liverpool?
‘They were a huge inspiration to the up and coming electronic bands. Dalek I and The Id were out on a limb, quoting Tangerine Dream as an influence at a time when it was heresy to acknowledge anything that lasted longer than three minutes. Bowie, with Low and bands like Red Noise and Ultravox changed all that. I’m sure Dalek supported Ultravox at a Russell Club gig in Manchester, when The Factory was based there. I know they started looking for a violinist soon after, then a synthesiser that could give them a similar sound.
But above and beyond all the young bands loving their sound and their weirdness, Ultravox seemed to fit with a certain lifestyle and subculture that was happening in Liverpool at that time.
Without going off on a massive tangent about politics and youth unemployment, a lot of kids (and I’m talking working-class youth, not hippie-trail idealists) were starting to discover the Transalpino/Inter Rail route into Europe. There was a growing fascination with Eastern Europe in particular, and with cheap travel and discovering new cultures generally. It was all mixed up with that fusion of football, fashion, electronic and underground music that I touched upon earlier, and Ultravox (along with Berlin-era Bowie) were a huge element in that scene.
The line from Hiroshima: “Riding inter-city trains, dressed in European grey” seemed to us as though it had been written especially for our gang.
Do you have a favourite John Foxx track or early Ultravox track and if so, why is it your favourite?
I have many - all for different reasons - but your first love is always your most powerful, the most enduring; that big, transcendental moment when it all washes over you and lifts you up and out of your body… Whenever I hear that gorgeous, prolonged intro to 'Hiroshima Mon Amour I can take myself back to that moment, that feeling.
Any album that you feel has been particularly important to you and others in terms of inspiration?
‘I don’t think John Foxx has every released a record that has been anything other than fascinating. On a purely personal level I think the body of work in those few years between Systems Of Romance and The Garden are sublime.
They're three utterly hypnotic records - although for me The Garden is the one that demands re-visiting, regularly. It’s almost a concept album; its textures and its complexity make it one of those pieces that give you something new almost every time you listen to it, and that epic final track is worthy of Jon Savage-style deconstruction and micro-analysis, all on its own! A sumptuous conclusion to a beguiling record.’
How important were the tracks 'Young Savage' and 'Just For A Moment' to the Awaydays movie?
‘We could have underscored Awaydays solely with Ultravox and Joy Division tracks - their brand of beautiful desolation is, and was, the sound of that time. I went to see the film department at Universal, who control most of Foxx’s catalogue, and put the basic proposal to them that, although I had very little in terms of budget to offer, the film stood a real chance of becoming iconic and, as such, it would invigorate a whole new audience for John Foxx and Ultravox.
I showed them a few sequences from the movie that we had speculatively cut to some Ultravox tracks; ‘Slow Motion’ was one of them and, of course, the definitive opening sequence that is cut to ‘Young Savage’.
Anyone who has seen Awaydays will understand the impact that opening sequence has - it’s pure teen adrenaline, and there was a moment where Ross Pelling from Universal sat forward in his seat with his eyes shining. I’d like to think that the Ross trusted our vision after those early meetings, and things progressed from there.
I always imagined the film would play out to ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ - Awaydays is a love story, after all. I always had ‘Just For A Moment’ in mind for the daybreak scene, when Cary and Elvis have that sudden adolescent awakening that there’s a big wide world out there, and they’re both massively into discovering it; that teenage dream of just getting off and stowing away and seeing the world.
When it came to cutting the movie, the daybreak scene is so poignant with ‘Just For A Moment’ underscoring it, that we could, from that point on, only imagine the play-out scene that brings the film to an end with a reprise of ‘Just For A Moment’. No other track could evoke that feeling, that particular teenage emotion of love, loss, regret…but above all, the euphoria of having experienced the big feelings at all.
Why do you think that many people are only just discovering John Foxx's music now?
‘Honestly? I think Awaydays has been a huge factor in the discovery of John Foxx. The film has played all over the world, and theAwaydays website is, on a daily basis, hit with enquiries about the music. But like anything you could ever describe as classic, sometimes it takes a while for people to understand. After that, it’s eternal. John Foxx’s music will last forever.’