I really love the first time John Foxx says "Alright" on "Burning Car".
The second time doesn’t quite work so well...maybe his inflection or his timing is slightly off...either way, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. But that first "Alright" is a thrilling Pop Moment whose delivery is consistent with the understated ‘Quiet Man’ Narrative Persona adopted by Foxx during that era.
Prior to Foxx’s intervention, Julian Cope had rescued the A-word from the forgotten Early Seventies Rockist Context-Domain where it had been casually abandoned by the likes of Iggy Pop. Bands like the Stooges and the MC5 mainly used the word as a howling strung-out plea for Sex and/or Hard Drugs (and, occasionally, if the mood took them: Revolution), whereas Cope respun it as a joyous Post-Blowjob “Awwwwright!”, shifting the word’s gravitational centre from a representation of Need to one of Satisfaction. Cope was Middle-Class, so we even could go a step further and describe his (unconscious) recontexturalisation of “Alright/Awright” as an act of Bourgeois Appropriation, tho' I'll happily give him the benefit of the doubt.
But Foxx takes the word somewhere else entirely. At a first glance, “Burning Car” appears to be a song about distance, real or imagined, physical or metaphysical...though, as a logical extension of this theme, there also seems to be an embedded political subtext that describes the cultural distance between different classes.
For starters, the song's verses seem to have more in common with Cocteau than, say Ballard: the words and the cadence of their delivery are passive, languid and dreamy (as in decadence and opiates)... his choice of imagery is deliberately 'poetic' ("She was dressed in a white suit/she looked like a bride, too...") and there is a sense of detachment from psychical reality, ie reality as experienced by proles or 'ordinary' people. This sense of dreamlike dislocation is hightened by the deliberate choice of soothing, almost-ethereal, rounded Sine-Wave synth-sounds which are at odds with the abrassive Sawtooth noiseforms used on the 'chorus'.
Foxx's use of the word "Alright" is meant to be mannered and neutral; it is intended to cast him in the role of unbiased narrator or dispassionate observer, but it falls short of Complete Deadpan and we get a slight sense ("just for a moment") of where the narrator's true loyalties or interests lay. The word "Alright" is used here as a signifier, a deliberate point of transition in both the song's structure and in it's mood: the music that follows its use is the aural equivalent of a cinematic pan or a slow dissolve; it says: Look! Over here...C'mon, follow me (I'm going to show you something)...
And it leads us straight to the song's heart, its centre-piece or 'chorus' ("It's a burning car! It's a burning car!"): a narrative device intended to grab and focus our concentration on the inner-mind visual of ('natch) a burning car. And it is spectacularly successful: at this point in the song, there is no way that we, the listener, can avoid seeing a vivid mental image of a burning car...
Remember my piece on biscuit-tin lids, where I talked about the Italian Metaphysical Artists of the early Twentieth Century and how De Chirico in particular was highly adept at presenting images that suggested that something was about to happen or had just happened? Well, similarly, the burning car image is presented here purely as a consequence...the song offers no overt explanation of the events that lead to its burning; it remains at the song's centre as an isolated mystery, a beautifully inexplicable (yet banal) image... but Foxx strongly hints that the hidden (and unexpected) eruption of violence (that we presume must have taken place, possibly somewhere beyond the blurred edges of the song) has its origin in the song's verse(s). He seems to be implying that the decadence, psychic disinterest and displaced ennui typical of certain mindsets or social types will inevitably lead to random Ballardian violence (with the car displayed as an obvious symbol of Production, Aspiration and Kapital). And, of course, it's, er, extremely hard not to read a political context into that...
Given this internal discourse within the song, it's equally hard not to view the word "Alright" in a different light: since it acts as a transitional gateway into the second section of the song, it strikes me now that the narrator might actually be giving permission... that he is quietly encouraging the invisible act of urban protest/Class War/wanton vandalism that ends with the car on fire. It is the narrator's intelligence, his apparent lack of passion (or, rather, political conviction), his non-revolutionary ordinariness that makes this all the more thrilling. Long before The Falls' "Middle-Class Revolt" and Ballard's "Millenium People", John Foxx was miming a Pop Song on on TOTP that was subliminally hinting to The Middle Masses: "Go ahead...be my guest: torch the fucking car..."
As an act of Cold Politics, it is incredibly sophisticated and sooooo far beyond anything The Clash ever even dreamed of.
And picking the central image of a burning car was certainly an act of singular genius: Foxx, no doubt inspired by footage of late-seventies inner-city rioting, had, accidentally or otherwise, picked a searing image that would indelibly burn the second half of the Twentieth Century, leaving a scabbed-up wound that we would still be picking at twenty-five years later.
As that image rolled down through the years it picked up further cultural 'weight' as image piled on top of image: Toxteth, Beirut, ram-raiding, Gulf War One, Joy-riding, the films of Simpson and Bruckheimer, Moss Side, Palestine, Kosova, St. Pauls, the occupation of Iraq:
"It's a burning car."