Former bassist with Energy Orchard, the curious Mr Fox tells tales of Belfast's punk era - the spitting, the record deals gone wrong, the stage-bound Japanese throwing star
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Few people can claim to know what it feels like to be chewed up and spat out by the music industry and come back for more, but ex-punk Joby Fox knows all about it and he's got the stained t-shirt to prove it.
Not that he's bitter. The now sober musician fondly recalls his adventures as a wild young man, telling it as it was, back when 'explosive' wasn't a phrase casually bantered around Belfast - although, for a brief period, it perfectly described the city's vibrant punk scene.
'That's what it was, it was a social explosion, a real action against mediocrity and all of that. I'm proud to have been part of that,' says Fox as he takes his guitar from its case in Madden's bar in Belfast.
Setting his green flat cap down on the table Fox starts strumming a couple tunes unprompted, ahead of the release of his debut single 'Perfect Stranger'.
Occasionally the songsmith strums a chord while talking, as if the music itself is part of the conversation. The movement draws attention to the faded love/hate tattoos across his knuckles, hinting at a past as colourful as the scruffy scarf wrapped below his bushy ginger beard.
One of the city's unsung rock 'n' rollers, Fox started his music career with 1980s punks The Bank Robbers, releasing records under Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label. The band became infamous for publicity stunts like printing £50 notes with the band logo on it, a prank which later had them arrested on charges of counterfeiting and forgery.
As a youngster, Fox's exposure to music occured mainly through his parents, but it was only when the curious 14-year-old stumbled into a Rory Gallagher gig at the Ulster Hall that music took on new meaning. Three years later, mentored by Gallagher’s bass player, Fox found himself up on stage performing in the same venue with The Bank Robbers.
Fox recalls a particularly anarchic Ulster Hall gig alongside one of the earliest street punk bands, U.K. Subs. 'We went on slightly earlier [than scheduled] to this totally outrageous crowd. They were going bonkers and it was like, the [height of the] punk era – they were spitting and throwing things at us and everything!
'We got through a song-and-a-half when someone threw a Japanese throwing star at us and it got stuck in the back [of the stage] in the wood at eye-level, where the orchestra usually plays. So we knew kind of instinctively, it was like telepathy, we all looked at eachother – 'right, get off'!''
After an appearance on Channel 4's weekly live music programme The Tube (see video above), Fox moved to London in 1983 with the band signing to EMI and releasing two singles – 'Jenny' and 'Dear Miss Problem Page' – before being dropped just one year later. The band moved back to Belfast and eventually split up.
As a founding member of Bap Kennedy's 1990s outfit, Energy Orchard, Fox penned the rock group's most successful single, entering the British charts and reaching the number one position in Ireland, with a song called 'Belfast'. It wasn't all plain sailing in the beginning, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable tenures of Fox's career.
'Bap Kennedy was my roadie at one stage, and Brian Kennedy was originally the vocalist. After a year or so of silly arguments, we weren't going anywhere', Fox says. 'Brian was going to go his own way and we thought that was a good thing. But then Bap decided he was going to take the vocals. I just thought to myself, "Oh no, that's the end of the band", but as it happened it was one of the most amazing things I've laid witness to.'
Songwriting has always been a vehicle to purge emotional tensions for Fox. His debut single, 'Perfect Stranger', written during the mid-1990s, explores the period in his life that, he says, was ruled by alcohol.
'It's about kind of going out to a bar, and you meet a girl, glance across the room – bingo! You just know that the pair of you are leaving together. It's kind of hedonistic in a sense. It's about waking up not knowing the girl that you've been with the night before. It's talking about a one-night-stand type of thing, but maybe just the very thing that you need at the time, let's put it that way.'
Check out a free download of Fox's debut single 'Perfect Stranger' from JobyFox.com.
Joby Fox plays a free gig as part of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival at Kings Street Arts on February 25, 7pm (contact King Street Arts on 02890 327297 for tickets) and also as part of In-The-Round Concert at the Kings Head, February 28 with the legendary Ultravox front man, Midge Ure, JJ Gilmour, Colin McGrath and more - tickets £8 from Belfast Welcome Centre.