Near enough to the day (11th July 1980), forty years have passed since the impeccably eerie synthetic ‘less is more’ dynamic of ‘Burning Car’ appeared. As Spring moved into Summer of 1980 it was exciting times for music for me. Spring had brought Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark with ‘Messages’ and The Human League with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ to my ears and Gary Numan had released the exciting ‘We Are Glass’ single. New Musik and The Cure had also kept my cassette recorder busy, taped from the top 40 show. I had read about the forthcoming release of this latest Foxx single mid June in Smash Hits. It had competition from former band mates Ultravox, who had reactivated and were releasing the first notes with Midge Ure in the shape of ‘Sleepwalk’ – and would be an earlier release than Foxx’s latest.
Nonetheless, I wasn’t wasting time in getting ‘Burning Car’. There had already been the two singles from ‘Metamatic’, in the way of ‘Underpass’ and a completely re-recorded ‘No One Driving’ – and now, just barely seven months into 1980, a whole new non-album single. Which also happened to sound amazing. Just over three minutes long, it was unlike anything else. Whole segments of little more than steely Roland CR78 rhythm machine and vocal with eerie synth washes rolling in like some mysterious mist, Foxx’s precise lyric like some telegraphic telling of a yet unrealised film projected by alternative means. It felt like best thing he’d released yet.
The sleeve design was equally stunning, it remains an all time favourite of mine to this day. The still on the front like something from the movie I imagined the lyric telegraphed in its brevity. The rear a stock photography snap that by rights should probably have been on the front were it not too obvious a move. Foxx’s coloured angular lines first hinted at on the ‘Slow Motion’ single by Ultravox are let loose to splinter across the sleeve here. We would see something similar again on ‘Dancing Like A Gun’ and periodically beyond. Forty years on from its first release, the style of ‘Burning Car’ remains as fresh, barely aged a day.
A week or two later from it’s initial release, the single appeared on the local record shop wall as a striking 7″ picture disc, now with a mirror image photo of Foxx himself on the A side. By this time, Foxx had also appeared on Saturday morning children’s TV, on Granada television’s short lived ‘Fun Factory’ to perform the song to the impressionable masses. It was a different recording of the track, if I recall. This was long before my family owned a VCR and I have only ever seen it surface on YouTube once, in incredibly poor quality. Perhaps lost forever from chance of a proper showing, who knows if it lives on in some ITV archive somewhere or other?
Let’s not forget ’20th Century’ on the B side either. The Smash Hits news piece back in June that trailed the forthcoming release had made significant mention of the B side and the fact that it was used as the theme tune to a new arts programme, ‘Twentieth Century Box’. And so it did – in a different version too. Fortunately, this has been preserved and you can view it on YouTube. A music press advert of the time also makes explicit reference to the B side and its connection as theme to the programme.
In the UK charts (back when they actually seemed to mean something) ‘Underpass’ had reached 31, ‘No One Driving’ reached 32 and both had afforded Foxx with memorable opportunities to appear on the weekly Top of the Pops chart show. ‘Burning Car’ made it to number 35 and no such TOTP appearance would come for it and there was no promo video made at the time either. Meanwhile, ‘Sleepwalk’ would see Ultravox reborn and scraping the top 30 by reaching number 29, propelled by their first ever Top of the Pops appearance.
As well as the UK 7″, ‘Burning Car’ would also appear on a Japanese 12″ mini-album which has been covered here before.