As their first three albums are re-released, we take a look at what one of Britain's most influential bands was doing in the Seventies, before any of you had heard of them. Unlike me. Ner ner ner-ner ner.
I'm not entirely certain if my sister reads this site or not. What I'm about to write kind of assumes that she doesn't. You see, as we've got a couple of hundred miles in between us, we can't always be certain what the other one wants for their birthday, and sometimes are reduced to blatantly asking "so, is there anything you particularly want?" When she asked me that in 1992, I had an answer all ready - they'd just released the first three Ultravox albums Ultravox!, Ha! Ha! Ha! and Systems Of Romance on CD for the first time, so I said I'd quite like those, please. This was in the days before widely available email, though, so this was a purely verbal request: and when I eventually got my present, telephonic Chinese whispers meant that I got this and this instead.
Okay, the first one was funny, I'll have to admit. But the second one was simply wrong. That Ultravox compilation assumes that the band started in 1980 with the Vienna album, and there's a small but informed minority of people who will tell you that isn't the case. The three albums that I was trying to get hold of in 1992 - which have now been released again in 2006 with sexy remastering, new sleeve notes and bonus tracks - date back to the years before Midge Ure was Ultravox's vocalist, when a chap by the name of John Foxx was effectively running the show, and they were a very different band. For older readers, think of it like the two periods of Genesis: the Peter Gabriel era of wild musical ambition and limited appeal, and the Phil Collins era of restrained tastefulness and commercial success. (Although to be fair to Midge Ure, he's never been the industrial strength arsehole that Phil Collins has.)
John Foxx (or Dennis Leigh, as he's known to his mum) was one of the original architects of the Ultravox sound that ultimately got them to the dizzy heights of number two behind Joe Dolce, and - more importantly - helped pave the way for a large part of eighties British pop. It's a bold claim to make, but the re-release of these three albums can back that up. Although listening to them chronologically, starting with 1977's debut Ultravox!, that promise isn't immediately obvious. Particularly when opening track Satday Night In The City Of The Dead kicks off all guitar and harmonica, like Dr Feelgood covering Subterranean Homesick Blues. But listening to it again now, I'm struck by the memory of passing this record on to a mate at school some 28 years ago (hi Mike, if you're out there), and his reaction. Mike insisted you can actually hear the band improving over the course of the album - they get better and better until the last couple of songs finally nail what they're trying to do.
Thinking about old school chums reminds me of something else. Most popular histories of the punk era would have you believe that music fans split neatly into two camps in 1977: either embracing the new music wholeheartedly, or rejecting it in favour of the old dinosaur bands. That analysis doesn't allow for a third camp, which covers most of the people I was going to school with at the time, and (I suspect) the members of Ultravox themselves: those of us who thought it was all good, and saw no problem in liking Pink Floyd and the Clash at the same time. The five members of Ultravox who made that debut - John Foxx (vocals), Billy Currie (keyboards/violin), Stevie Shears (guitar), Chris Cross (bass) and Warren Cann (drums) - brought a whole array of musical influences to the table, and it's their bad luck to have made a record that gleefully pillages all of them, at a time when anything other than two minute thrashalongs were seen as the height of pretension.
Ultravox! has two minute thrashalongs, sure, but it has everything else as well: and the main problem with the record is the way it spends most of its running time desperately trying to find a style. Amusingly, for a band so associated with Teh Modern, the most 'futuristic' song on the record (I Want To Be A Machine) sounds these days more like a collage of all their sixties influences - acoustic strumming, backwards tape effects, Curved Air violin solos. (My mum, Gawd bless her, didn't approve of a lot of the music I was listening to in 1977, but was of the opinion that Ultravox must be proper musicians because one of them could play the fiddle.) But there's also reggae (Dangerous Rhythm), funk (The Lonely Hunter), romantic pop (Slip Away)... all done with competence and some style, but with very little to hold these songs together as a unit.
And then suddenly, with the penultimate track The Wild, The Beautiful And The Damned, it all just clicks. The violin stops being a gimmick and becomes the rhythm that drives everything. Foxx's lyrics - generally, a collection of semi-random images on themes of alienation and decay - fit beautifully over the music. But there's one more surprise to come: My Sex, where the influence of co-producer Brian Eno is most apparent. For this final song, everything's stripped back to a simple pulse, some keyboards and a vocal: and in the first occurrence of what would become a regular trend with the band, the most synthetic song on the record turns out to also be the most emotional. It's the first time that electronics have played a major part in an Ultravox song: obviously, it won't be the last.
Don't click on that YouTube video on the right, it doesn't actually do anything. My original plan was to accompany this article with three video clips, featuring songs from all three albums. All I can tell you is, there were videos of Ultravox on YouTube six weeks ago, but since then the accounts of users Nummymuffin and KismetsKitten have both been closed down, presumably to prevent distribution of the copyrighted material they were posting. So I'm afraid you'll just have to mentally extrapolate Ultravox's 1978 appearance on Old Grey Whistle Test from the one frame shown here. It featured the band performing Hiroshima Mon Amour from their late 1977 album Ha! Ha! Ha!, the one that was responsible for me having to sell an A-Ha CD at a second hand record shop some 15 years later. Back in the days when the amount of popular music on British telly was vanishingly small, it was a huge deal for them to be appearing on Whistle Test, and I have fond memories of this very performance.
Ha! Ha! Ha! came out mere months after Ultravox!, and the momentum they'd achieved by the end of their first record carries over into the second. It holds a special place in my heart, because it's a record I played endlessly throughout the summer of 1978, in the decompression period immediately following my O levels. I still wasn't over that Pink Floyd phase I was alluding to earlier, and had started paying more attention to sound production. My earliest recollection of Ha! Ha! Ha! was picking up mainly on the sonic gimmicks that producer Steve Lillywhite had used on virtually every track - the stereo fingerclicks on Frozen Ones, the hugely overloaded violin solo at the climax of Artificial Life, the extraordinary jumpcut from the screeching feedback of Fear In The Western World to the ambient piano of Distant Smile.
Nowadays, the main thing that stands out is how bloody noisy a record it is. It's a more coherent record than their debut, and the main reason for that is the wild aggression running through it: both in the guitar-heavy arrangements (with a hefty side order of electronic noise), and in Foxx's lyrics. The singles from around this time, Young Savage and ROckwrok, are the most full-on punk rock things the band ever did, the latter mysteriously picking up frequent radio play despite a chorus that included the line "fucks like a dog, bites like a shark".
But at the same time, there's a lot of space in the sound that separates it from other records of the period. That becomes more apparent in these special edition releases, which include a couple of single remixes of album tracks like The Man Who Dies Every Day and Quiet Men. In both cases, the first thing that's been done has been to add things to the arrangement - extra beats and twiddly keyboard parts - and in both cases it ruins the song. TMWDED is particularly interesting for combining another experiment in pure synthetics with the first appearance of a regular theme in Foxx's lyrics, that of the outsider looking in at the rest of the world.
The album climaxes with Hiroshima Mon Amour: and if it's any consolation, the video clip I was going to show you doesn't really do it justice. Again, the live arrangement has too much going on. On the record, like My Sex, it's cut back to the bare bones - a cheap beatbox, a keyboard part, some rhythm guitar and a lovely sax solo. When I say I was playing the album obsessively in the summer of 1978, quite a lot of that time was spent just obsessing over that one song, as Foxx told the tale of a disintegrating romance to someone like me who was only just starting to understand the concept. It's a track that I suspect will remain part of my DNA for even longer than the 28 years it's already been there.
As I headed into my A level years in the autumn of 1978, the band released its third album, Systems Of Romance. And that's where it all went wrong. At the end of the year, Island Records had had enough of pumping money into a group that wasn't making the charts, and unceremoniously dumped them. After a few months touring the US, Foxx decided it wasn't working out and left them, much to the chagrin of long-term fans like me. It seemed like that was the end of that.
In one sense, it was, but of course in another sense it wasn't. The remaining members of Ultravox brought in Midge Ure as a replacement, and within a year they had a top two single with Vienna. Meanwhile, as teenagers across London dressed up in their mum's curtains and joined the New Romantics, bands started coming out of the woodwork who admitted that they'd been fans of Ultravox all along. The artist most obviously influenced by these first three albums is, of course, Gary Numan: after all, it's only a short step from I Want To Be A Machine to Are 'Friends' Electric? It seemed like the ultimate betrayal when Numan appeared on Top Of The Pops and actually had Ultravox's Billy Currie in his backing band.
Truth be told, even though Numan was upfront about his debt to Ultravox, he was never a straight copyist, and never could be. He picked up on the Future/Robots/Spooky/Woo vibe within some of John Foxx's lyrics, but never quite got at the human layer under the permafrost - a layer that's most noticeable in Systems Of Romance, the most satisfying record made by Foxx-era Ultravox. For all the fuss made about the band decamping to Cologne and working with Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank, their warmest music came out of these sessions. And their most English, paradoxically: Foxx's romanticism is a very pastoral thing, all trees and skies and country lanes, and it floods the lyrics here. Quiet Men is another one of his character studies in alienation, but it's somehow the kind of calm, reflective alienation that makes you want to join in. If that's possible.
And yes, as the eighties progressed, you could see how many people took this album and ran off with all its best ideas. Dislocation, in particular, is notable for being the blueprint for every record Depeche Mode have ever made. But there's also Foxx's sleeve art, which eschews the punk aesthetic of the first two records for very mechanical and cool images of physical beauty, a formula that Factory Records came to make its own. There are the underrated contributions of new guitarist Robin Simon, whose experiments with layered effects pedals are highlighted by Foxx in the re-release sleeve notes as the start of what he calls "New Guitar... forget them all, from Edge onwards - they all owe it to Robin." And though the departure of Foxx would affect Ultravox's sound, the seeds of the Ure-era band (ewww, did I just write Ure-era?) can be heard in songs like Someone Else's Clothes. Meanwhile, another passionate and minimalist closing track, Just For A Moment, would point the way towards Foxx's own future. That's a lot of music influenced by a single album, and it's nice that re-releases such as this one emphasise its importance.
Ultravox carried on for several years after Foxx's departure, and you probably know roughly how that went. (Happy 10th birthday to the official Ultravox website, by the way.) Meanwhile, John Foxx has carried on being his own Quiet Man, dabbling in a variety of activities (including book cover design under his original name). His first solo album, Metamatic, was one of the earliest pure electronic albums to come out of this country, but his subsequent work has occasionally mixed in other instruments too. To be honest, Foxx's solo material works best for me when he's got that mix of the synthetic and the organic... which is, of course, the mix that made these Ultravox albums so thrilling, and still does to this day. Anyway, he's still touring, and I finally got to see him live for the first time a couple of weeks ago, some twenty-nine years after first hearing his music. I think that's going to end up being some sort of personal record for me. Being a monkey, and all.