John was at school in Preston, Lancashire in the mid 1960’s when he first heard the music of Erik Satie. “A girl I knew played a piece of music on the piano in the old lecture theatre. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I can still picture the moment – doors on Avenham Colonnade early summer. She told me the name of the piece and I wrote it down. That was Gymnopedies.”
John still considers Gymnopedies to be the composer’s finest work. Short atmospheric pieces written in 3/4 time they are regarded as an important precursor to modern ambient music. A contemporary of John’s, Gary Numan covered the first Gymnopedie on the b-side of his 1980 hit single ‘We Are Glass’ and other notable artists have covered one of the pieces or used them as samples including Lana Del Rey, Japan, Janet Jackson. The pieces often crop up in TV and film soundtracks too; Star Trek: The Next Generation, Short Circuit 2, The Royal Tenenbaums, Man On Wire included. Although published in 1888 the three piano compositions and Satie’s music in general is increasingly relevant today. John offers this explanation: “the world is so crowded and frantic now. Satie provides a place of quiet sobriety and reflection, far away from all the agitation. We need him more than ever. In modern terms, you might say he was the first minimalist. He really invented that approach to music.True minimalism is concerned with isolating something dignified and beautiful and presenting it without unnecessary additions, so you can appreciate it fully. When it works properly you find yourself in a sort of timeless, luminous space. Satie did all this instinctively – he was the first and the best.”
It is Satie’s originality that makes him a ‘hero’ to John. “He had the quiet courage to be himself – at the time he was composing, Wagner was dominating everything – huge Germanic pieces for full orchestra. Satie simply stood aside and made minimal music for a single player on a domestic upright piano; totally unfashionable in those days.” Some might say that John himself has displayed similar courage throughout his career; most famously as lead singer in Ultravox (before Midge Ure and the band’s shift into mainstream) and later as a solo artist and with current band John Foxx and the Maths. A true pioneer of electronic synthesiser music John’s contribution and influence has been acknowledged by artists as diverse as The Orb, Duran Duran, Gary Numan, Simple Minds, Leftfield and The Human League.
John also admires Satie for the company he kept. “He was a friend of Picasso, Jarry, Breton, Debussy, Duchamp – Paris at that time was the centre of the modern art world. The Dadaists and Surrealists were manifesting their new ideas and Satie was working with them all. He was also among the first to listen to ragtime and Scott Joplin.” Perhaps John would like to have lived in that place and time? If he’d met Satie, what would he have said to him? “Swift transition of time and place .. it’s 1910. We’re wearing the old grey suits. Glimmer of wire framed glasses. ‘Let’s meet up with Picasso first – then all the others. Drinks are on me’.”
Writer: Russell Poad