Robin Simon is a guitarist with only two things going for him; impeccable talent and excellent taste. His CV is not incredibly excessive, but almost everything I can see that he played on is in my Record Cell. His style is clean and angular; eschewing the blues completely. He was one of a handful of Post-Punk guitarists that paved the way for the entire wave of music that we cover in depth here. Along with John McGeoch, Alan Rankine, and Keith Levene, Robin helped to cut the exit door out of the six sided cardboard box that was late 70s UK rock music.
His first recording is something that I need to obtain, especially after looking into his discography. I was not aware that Neo actually had a release but his first waxing is the 7″ single that they cut for Jet Records just before breaking up.
Neo was singer Ian North along with Robin on guitar and his brother Paul on drums. Their single “Trans-Sister” is all that they managed to get committed to tape and in the shops. Not long after that came his first substantial body of work as he was tapped by his friend Billy Currie to join the seminal Post-Glam, Proto-Punk, Proto-Post-Punk band Ultravox in time for their groundbreaking third album, “Systems Of Romance.”
Simon’s work here is nothing short of astonishing as his ego-free playing manages to meld seamlessly with Billy Currie’s synthesizers under the watchful eye of producer Conny Plank. You know something monumental is afoot on the very first track, as the wondrous “Slow Motion” begins. Simon’s guitar peals begin the intro as they morph frictionlessly with Currie’s ascendent synth chords while Chris Cross adds throbbing Moog bass underpinnings. Once Warren Cann breaks the tension with the drums, sonic nirvana has been reached. It’s easy to believe that Ultravox would never sound as good again; until the next track began, anyway. Thinking about it now, 30 years after first hearing it, still raises goosebumps. That, is powerful music!
Unfortunately, Ultravox mark I imploded following a US tour in 1979, leaving Simon Stateside as the rest of the band scattered home to plot their next moves. After John McGeoch split from Magazine after their “pearls before swine” classic album “The Correct Use Of Soap,” failed to ignite the charts, Simon was tapped to join the other, primary, seminal Post-Punk band, Magazine.
But Simon’s time in the band was not to last beyond the tour for the “Correct Use Of Soap” album. 1981 brought Ben Mandelson as Magazine’s final, phase 1 guitarist and Simon found he was once more in demand by the erstwhile lead vocalist of Ultravox, who would come to value his guitar playing exclusively going forward.
After making the first, minimal, cold wave electronic album in 1980 with “Metamatic,” John Foxx was ready to move backward into warmth, and he didn’t cast his net far to obtain the guitar services of Robin Simon again. Given that “The Garden” was a return to the lush textures and technological warmth he pioneered on the overlooked-in-its-day “Systems Of Romance,” it made perfect sense that Foxx would seek to return to this style in the midst of the New Romantic movement, which this writer believes was spearheaded by the earlier Ultravox album. Simon’s playing on tracks like “Night Suit” and “Systems Of Romance” show that he still fit like a glove into Foxx’s gameplan.
Simon continued to play on Foxx’s subsequent solo albums from the first phase of his career. 1983’s “The Golden Section” used an outside producer for the first time since Conny Plank back in ’78 on “Systems Of Romance.” Zeus B. Held gave the album an impeccable warm, yet technological sheen, as is his wont. Simon shared guitar duties along with Kevin Armstrong and Foxx himself.
The last contiguous John Foxx album for over a decade was 1985’s “In Mysterious Ways.” The album is uniquely Foxx at his most genteel and Van Morrison-esque. It features Simon only on the single “Stars On Fire,” Lose All Sense Of Time,” and the standout rock tune on the album, “This Side Of Paradise.” Simon’s playing here, as on the exceptional B-side “Stairway” a.k.a. “Hiding In Plain Sight,” is top drawer and he really gets a chance to take the music places. Alas, Simon would not resurface after this album for a long period.
Ironically, his next project was hooking up with Billy Currie in Curie’s post-Ultravox group Humania. The band sounded fantastic according to multi-gen demos I heard in the early 90s, but the ’87-’89 period was a rough one for Currie with business conspiring to hammer him down.
In spite of that, the Humania album, “Sinews Of The Soul,” which was released in 2006, has a lot to offer fans of Ultravox mark I. It’s telling that both Foxx and Currie just can’t stay away from Simon’s playing. The new material is tight, dynamic, and accomplished; far more redolent of Ultravox than can be said of Midge Ure’s solo work. Simon fit right back into the groove, and a cover of “I Can’t Stay Long” manages to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, just as it always did with Foxx at the helm. Too bad this had to wait 18 years before reaching the public!
Fast forward to 2006 and Robin and his brother Paul emerged with a new project, AjantaMusic. It’s largely the two of them making the [instrumental] music and I’ve just discovered their website. The music is available on hard copy [yes!] and download, so I need to visit their website and check out the samples. I simply can’t imagine disliking it.
Apart from that, in recent years there have been further albums of vintage Robin Simon performances issued by John Foxx. Foxx’s single tour from the first phase of his solo career was when he trod the boards in support of his “The Golden Section” album in 1983. Two of the shows were recorded and ultimately released in 2009 as the 2xCD set “In The Glow.” Simon reprises both Foxx solo and a few of his Ultravox songs within the set, with “Slow Motion” and “I Can’t Stay Long” in evidence.
Simon’s other New Wave band of note, Magazine; have also issued a similar set of archival recordings in 2009 called “Live + Intermittent.” Dave Formula put this together when Magazine was preparing for the shows that no one expected in 2009. Simon figures in the half of the live set that originated in Sydney in 1980.
More than just Foxx and Currie, mark Dave Formula as another talented musician who knows a stellar guitarist when he see one. Dave has appeared on Simon’s newest AjantaMusic album and Robin reciprocated by appearing on Dave Formula’s 2010 solo debut album, “Satellite Sweetheart.” Robin appears on the song “Saddest Quay.” Again, I’m chastened that this didn’t immediately find its way into my Record Cell, but it’s on my Amazon list, so it’s only a matter of time.
That’s eleven albums featuring the elegant guitar textures of Robin Simon. That’s not a huge amount of music but it is a hugely crucial collection of music that touches on many of my core collections. All of it elevated by his precise, powerful playing. Currently the man starts a tour tonight playing guitar with John Foxx + The Maths as they launch their Interplay 2011 tour. If you’re in the UK reading these words, miss this at your peril.
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