Can we go back to the future?

Event: Back to the Phuture

Where: The Troxy, London
When: 2nd April 2011

“Back to the Phuture”…… mmmm….. not the most inspiring name. Then it became a concert with a back story. A cancellation of the original December event because of a “fantom” illness which led to whispers of poor ticket sales and had one London events magazine telling the world that the rearranged April date was also about to be cancelled.

This event of 2010/2011 was an attempt to recapture something of the spirit of a loose musical movement of 1979/80 which combined synthesisers and some science fiction motifs and seemed for a few months likely to be the next major move in popular music culture. In reality that “cold wave” was swamped by the burgeoning warmth of the New Romantic-ism of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Adam & the Ants until in the public perception the two became one.

But at some point in 1979, Tubeway Army were atop both the singles and album charts and their leader, Gary Numan, was talking about how the cold, robotic style of both his image and music were inspired by John Foxx of Ultravox! and the science fiction vibe, pale faces, and eyeliner and keyboards was a huge influence a whole load of people who gathered at the Troxy in Limehouse, London to either relive their youth, consider where the music had gone and wonder whether these styling might really have a phuture.

The phuture of the music were represented rather uninspiringly by a band called Mirrors, who were like a very early Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode with a little Orchestral Manoeuvres thrown in and a band called Motor who were dark and shouty and monotonous with the emphasis on monotonous.

And there was the peculiar juxtaposition of Mr Foxx and Mr Numan, who perhaps because of their similar roots are not found too often on the same bill. Back in the winter of ’79/’80 there were only two artists that I can think of who were sporting a narrow tie, a suit and an album cover featuring a triangle and one was speaking nervously of the other as a major influence – a fact that Foxx’s parent label, Virgin, seemed intent on capitalising on.

These days, in his quiet man way, John Foxx is one of the most prolific recording artists in the trade and Gary Numan isn’t. John seems to have a new album every two months. Gary’s website talks vaguely about the development and recording of a new set that he has been murmuring about recording and developing for the last 5 years.

So it is rather ironic that with nothing new to sell, Numan was top of the bill whilst Foxx who has more product than we can keep up with, presented a mostly “greatest hits” set.

John Foxx has recently recorded an album called “Interplay” with Benge and released the venture under the designation of John Foxx and the Maths. Tonight’s band includes Benge, Steve D’Agostino (who has also recently released an album with Foxx and played keyboards on the anniversary tour of the Metamatic album) and perhaps most crucially, Robin Simon, former guitarist with Ultravox!. Noticeably absent is Louis Gordon who has been Foxx’s partner at almost every live show since he returned actively to the touring and musical scene in the mid-to-late 1990s.

 

John Foxx

Mr Foxx is often asked whether there will be a reunion with his old band and that certainly won’t happen but before the show tonight he spoke warmly of Simon’s unique style and what he brings to this band and the possibility of the two making a record together whilst the iron is hot. Perhaps that was the reason why so many of the songs at this show date from the Systems of Romance album or perhaps it is merely that these along with the early hits like “Underpass” and “No-One Driving” are the songs he figures that a Numan audience are most likely to know.

Consequently, these take up the bulk of the set with only a couple of the new numbers from “The Maths” album. Foxx is on tremendous vocal form and Simon and the rest of the band maintain a momentum which is curiously at odds with the public perception (should much remain) of this supposedly cold, robotic fare. “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, “Dislocation” and “Burning Car” were amongst the things that worked best for these ears:

For the record, here’s my recollection of the setlist:

Shatterproof
He’s A Liquid
Burning Car
The Running Man
No-One Driving
Underpass
Catwalk
Dislocation
The Quiet Men
Walk Away
The Man Who Dies Every Day
Hiroshima Mon Amour
Slow Motion

The visuals in the first half of the show really enhanced what Foxx and his gang were doing on the stage but these ceased at about the halfway point – perhaps victim of some technical difficulties.

Gary Numan’s visual backdrop was much more ambitious than in recent years and works well and this is important for his fans given the association that his early years has with over-the-top, flamboyant light shows. Most of this works well, although anything can eventually become soporific and there was nothing to lift flagging interest which seemed to spread through the audience during the second half of the set. Also some of the imagery perhaps needs revising (someone please speak to him about that burning cross – it is an image that is just begging to be misunderstood given the history of the political associations of that ideas).

The early part of his set was loaded with songs from his most successful years (the opener, Down in the Park, Films from 1979’s The Pleasure Principle), obscure delights (Crash, from the 1981 Dance album, early punkish single That’s Too Bad) and the odd hit single (I Die: You Die). These left the second half of the show which features new songs and songs from recent less well known albums like Jagged and Pure, with too much to do.

Gary Numan

The diehards at the front of the stage retained their energy but those further back in the hall seemed to become distracted (perhaps wondering how they were going to get home from the late night finish in a part of London where the trains seem to knock off at about 11 on a Saturday night).

The onstage style of the band and the music influences are from the supposedly industrial approach that Numan has favoured for the last decade and the band lacked the musicianship to avoid the same sense of visual and musical repetition later in the show.

All-in-all a great night’s entertainment but with no sign that the kind of music that lies behind the fame of these artists will ever become the kind of cult that it was around the turn of the decade that the event so strongly recalls. As in recorded output, Foxx seems more directed than Numan in his live show and, for me, was the highlight of a mixed night.

Here’s the setlist for Gary Numan as I remember it:

Down in the Park
Films
That’s Too Bad
Crash
Captured Underground Noise Transmission
I Die: You Die
Jagged
The Fall
Everything Comes Down To This
Zero Bars
Listen to the Sirens
When The Sky Bleeds, He Will Come
Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Haunted
Crawl
Pure
Cars

Encore:

Halo
A Prayer for the Unborn

The Usual Liggers (Does anybody still use that word?)

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