John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single (Metal Beat/Virgin VS360, 1980)

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.

John Foxx - 'Burning Car' UK 7
^ John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single picture sleeve front

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.

John Foxx - 'Burning Car' UK 7
^ John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single picture sleeve rear

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.

John Foxx - 'Burning Car' UK 7
^ John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single label side A
John Foxx - 'Burning Car' UK 7
^ John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single label side B

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?

John Foxx - 'Burning Car' UK 7
^ John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single picture disc front

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.

John Foxx - 'Burning Car' UK 7
^ John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single picture disc rear

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.

5 Replies to “John Foxx – ‘Burning Car’ UK 7″ single (Metal Beat/Virgin VS360, 1980)”

  1. If I can remember correctly, I probably heard this song first on the Japanese 12″ in glorious hi-fi sound; probably sometime in 1982. It might have been a few years afterward that I found the UK 7″ and the picdisc 7″ might have happened by the late 80 in an attempt to be thorough. At the time “No One Driving” and “Burning Car” were vivid, if outré Ballardian metaphors that seemed to be a little overripe. But time has been more than kind to them. The last 20 years has seen me use “no one driving” as a perfect metaphor for our so-called governance. And when you see a burning car, that is the clearest sign that chaos has won. Today, burning cars litter the political and social landscape. They clutter our everyday surroundings and loom large on the horizon ahead.

    “I switch the news off and I just sit in the dark thinking, ‘What the fuck?’,” says John Foxx.

    And while the released version of “Burning Car” has been a special thing for half a lifetime, the early version that surfaced on the “Metatronic” collection, and the “Metamatic” boxed set was a glimpse of Foxx at his most vicious and contemptuous spitting out the word “burn!” instead of the more dispassionate “all right” that the released version sported. You can really believe that he wants to see it burn. I find that I prefer this far less Numan-like version to the one we’ve known for decades.

  2. The periodic discovery and release of previously unheard tracks and versions from the ‘Metamatic’ era over a good many years now has been a welcome thing on the whole and that early version of ‘Burning Car’ is a rough hewn treat, right enough… tapping into that vibe anew for the latest ‘Howl’ long player even… Which lyrically seems to be informed by similar ‘no one driving’ and ‘burning car’ crash politics our side of the ocean increasingly too, sadly…

  3. As a 13 year old in 1980, I remember hearing the theme to Twentieth Century Box.

    Many years later I was well chuffed to find a video on t’internet of one episode which covered the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene. I grabbed the opening and closing credits and upped it to The Tube for all to see.

    I was surprised that the end credit air guitar scene actually synced with John’s alternative version really well.

    A few years ago I also noticed that both sides of the single have “1/2 Speed” stamped in the runout grooves which must’ve been quite an indulgence at the time .

  4. I had never noticed that detail on the run out groove – taking a look at the standard black UK 7” there it is, marked Strawberry and 1/2 Speed. The picture disc a different cut though, mastered at Townhouse instead. Great clips for Twentieth Century Box – although aware of the programme at the time, it was never broadcast in my locale, unfortunately. The head-banging synch does work well indeed! John Foxx seemed to strike a good deal with Virgin for his Metal Beat releases somehow (and odd for the time; compare to OMitD, for example) – not least that he managed to retain ownership so that he can now re-release directly, for some while now.

  5. Pater Hill – Wow! I love that I can learn something new after 40 years! Thanks for sharing that half-speed mastered tidbit. Thats what I get for not studying the dead wax of every record I have.

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