Album Rescue Series: Ultravox ‘Ultravox!’

Some people know about my two-part life but most don’t. The two halves are cycling and music which are similar to oil and water; its very rare that the two mix. In early 2015 bicycle company Swift Carbon, who named their top of the range racing bicycle Ultravox, invited me to the launch of their new carbon fiber racing bikes. It was an interesting event held in a posh, spotless, boutique style bicycle shop in St Kilda, an über hip and trendy suburb of Melbourne. At this launch I met South African company owner Mark Blewett and I asked him why he hadn’t named these bicycles something more cycling orientated e.g. Mistral or Sirocco (both hot winds that blow across the Mediterranean from the North African desert). It turned out that Mark was a big fan of 80s synth-pop and in particular the UK band Ultravox, what he didn’t know was there were two very different versions of this band.

The lessor known but more adventurous Ultravox (version one) ran from 1974 to 1979 and then the more commercially successful Midge Ure fronted version two ran from 1980 onwards. Most people are familiar with version two due to mega hits like Vienna and Dancing With Tears In My Eyes. For me this is a problem as the latter more commercial and insipid work throws a long shadow over version one.

It’s the version one February 1977 debut album, Ultravox! that I am rescuing here. The exclamation mark is a sign of their origins. When the band formed in 1974 the Krautrock band Neu! was a heavy influence. Originally the band went by the name Tiger Lilly and drew their influences from The Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Bowie, Steve Harley and The New York Dolls. Though not really a performing unit at this stage, other than the odd pub gig, they did write a lot of material some of which makes it onto this album. This album was recorded cheaply at Island Record’s studio in Hammersmith, west London in only 17 days. Production work was undertaken by up and coming producer Steve Lillywhite, who would later find fame with U2, Simple Minds, and Roxy Music’s Brian Eno.

On the 2003 compilation release, The Best Of Ultravox, there isn’t a single track from this debut album. I would argue that Ultravox were at their most vital, and did their best work, on this debut album. But why is this piece of excellent music largely ignored? Anyone expecting this album to be similar to the Midge Ure fronted Ultravox (version two) of the Vienna era is in for something of a shock. The Ultravox of the late 1970s were a much stranger, much more interesting and engaging outfit. The music on this album is as idiosyncratic as anything that made it onto vinyl during that era. The list of influences is long: Neu!, Berlin-era Bowie and Eno-era Roxy Music are perhaps the most obvious on this record. Forming in 1974 and signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island label in 1977 put the band into a liminal state, a bit too late for punk rock and a bit too early for the New Romantics. Their sound on this record is a combination of post punk, glam rock, electronica, new wave, classical and reggae, which is probably Chris Blackwell’s influence. Gary Numan, who was heavily influenced by Ultravox, said that they were “conventional but with another layer on top”. There’s a real sense of this music not belonging, it’s disconnected, doesn’t fit and not of its time. Looking back at it through a 38 year long telescope it all starts to make sense, it’s all about perspective. In the same way that cheap electric guitars defined the sound of the 1960s, cheap synthesizers defined the sound of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ultravox were suspended in 1977 between the bold influences of Bowie and Roxy on one hand and a vision of new wave and early 1980s synth-pop on the other. Ultravox was a band out of sync with the times.

I first discovered this album when a schoolmate stole it from a local record shop and offered it to me for £5. As a 15 year old I was probably the only person in my whole school that the music thief could possibly sell this record too. In retrospect my schoolmate was probably thirty years ahead of the time by stealing music when everyone else was still paying for it. Some would call him a thief; I would call him a visionary. What initially attracted me to this album was the fabulous high quality gatefold cover. The five members of the band dressed predominantly in black PVC against a black brick wall with a vivid bright red neon sign spelling out Ultravox! This photograph is a pre-computer one, so there is no Photo Shop manipulation here. The huge neon sign was real and I’m guessing it’s languishing in a north London garage somewhere awaiting a TV makeover show when some heavily tattooed guy called Rick will bring it back to its former glory. When the gatefold opened staring out were Stevie Shears (guitar), Warren Cann (drums/vocals), Billy Currie (violin/keyboards) and Chris Cross (bass/vocals). The back cover is a backlight picture of John Foxx in a TV studio dressed in a black suite with his shirt collar and cuffs burnt off. It’s a powerful image, a kind of digital Jesus Christ like figure? The cover artwork and design is credited to Dennis Leigh, which I didn’t realize at the time is John Foxx’s real name. This was a piece of luxury design and packaging, Art Into Pop strikes again.

Ultravox1
The five members of Ultravox dressed in black PVC.

The music press of the day, yes we actually had a music press back in the late 1970s, did not treat this album kindly upon its release. Ultravox!‘s sales were disappointing, and neither the album nor the associated single Dangerous Rhythm managed to enter the UK charts. The band’s debut as Ultravox was after they had signed to Island Records and had made this album. The press found this problematic, as it seemed to contravene some un-written punk rock rule of the day. The band walked directly into the lion’s den by playing their first show as Ultravox at the Nashville Room, 171 North End Road, London, W6. At the time the Nashville Room was the home of the booming pub rock scene (101ers, Duck Deluxe, Dr Feelgood, Kilburn and The Highroads, etc.) and not somewhere a contrived alternative art school band complete with violin, synthesizer and newly signed record contract should be playing. The gig very quickly turned into a ‘hyped’ event, rammed to the rafters with self important gonzo music journalists determined to pull the band apart. In the 19th century, Charles Sanders Pierce defined the theory of semiotics as the “quasi-necessary, or formal doctrine of signs” and its quite feasible that one of the issues at the Nashville Room that night was one of semiotics. The red neon sign, from the album cover, caused the most offence when it was used as the backdrop on the stage. I wasn’t there but I’ll speculate it looked very impressive. However the journalists who were viewing this through the lens of punk rock interpreted it as a sign of arrogance. It’s very rare for a debut album to be damaged because the band had a strong visual image, which they wished to communicate to their audience. All high school media studies students would see this as a classic case of what Umberto Eco terms aberrant decoding.

What about the music on this album? There aren’t any bad tracks, it sounds much bigger than its environment. The joint production work between the technically savvy Lillywhite and the cerebral Eno is sonically top notch. I would propose that one of the issues the music press had with this album is that it did not adhere to the strict three minute, three chord, shouty aesthetics of punk that was popular at the time, it was all together a much more complex piece of work. During the 1970’s the music press wielded their immense power quite irresponsibly and to a large extent it was them that inflicted unwarranted damage on Ultravox! the album and the band. The sound of this album is unique and was just too different for most listeners at the time, which is possibly why it alienated the band from their potential following. At times the lyrics are a little overblown and art school pretentious e.g. track eight (The Wild, The Beautiful and The Dammed) “I’ll send you truckloads of flowers. From all the world that you stole from me. I’ll spin a coin in a madhouse. While I watch you drowning“. For me though this is all part of the fun.

The first track (Satday [sic] Night In The City Of The Dead) possesses the same no-nonsense attitude that The Clash would display. It also captures the edgy noir mood that pervades the entire album. Track two Life At Rainbow’s End is an upbeat future gazing tune about living the good life. This fascination with Futurism is the core theme of this album and it is most prominent on track four’s I Want To Be A Machine. Relations within the band were occasionally on a tenuous footing during this time as Foxx declared that he intended to live his life devoid of all emotions, a sentiment expressed explicitly here. This track excels because it culminates in a startling reverb laden violin-fest. Track five’s Wide Boys bares its influences openly when it kicks off with a Bowie-ish Rebel Rebel Mick Ronson sound-a-like guitar riff before settling down into a Spiders From Mars’ groove. On track six’s Dangerous Rhythm John Foxx starts aping Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry but set against a catchy Island Records house style reggae beat. The anthemic track eight, The Wild The Beautiful And The Damned, with its experimental and avant-garde themes draws heavily on Bowie’s 1977 Low album, which was only released one month before Ultravox! The album closes with track nine’s haunting My Sex, a spares piano driven composition with bare disarming vocals overlaid with electronic heart beat and eerie distancing synth strings.

Ultravox! back cover featuring John Foxx.
Ultravox! back cover featuring John Foxx (AKA Dennis Leigh).

After this debut album two more albums followed, Ha!-Ha!-Ha! (1977) and Systems Of Romance (1978) neither of which sold well nor were particularly exciting. With three poorly selling albums under their belt Island Records pulled the plug and dropped the band in 1979. Despite being dropped by the record company the band undertook an un-successful self-financed USA tour the same year. By this point the writing was well and truly on the wall for Ultravox version one. Guitar player Stevie Shears was fired after the USA tour and John Foxx’s professional relationship with Billie Currie was well and truly broken. With the extra strain of financial bankruptcy facing the band, John Foxx left to pursue a solo career. Ultravox version one was well and truly terminated by the end of 1979.

When I’m out on my bicycle and ride over a bridge in a river valley its virtually impossible to comprehend the structure’s engineering elegance and architectural beauty. As you ride along all you can see is the road ahead and it’s not until you put some distance between you and the structure that you can you look back and admire its beauty and elegance. Maybe this visual metaphor holds true when considering this album? Ultravox! was an album bridging the gorge between punk and new romantics/synth pop. At the time we couldn’t see this because we were right on top of it but in retrospect its becomes fairly obvious of the form and function that this album takes. Dave Thompson, writing for AllMusic, opinioned, “It was Ultravox! who first showed the kind of dangerous rhythms that keyboards could create. The quintet certainly had their antecedents – Hawkwind, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk to name but a few, but still it was the group’s 1977 eponymous debut’s grandeur, wrapped in the ravaged moods and lyrical themes of collapse and decay that transported ’70s rock from the bloated pastures of the past to the futuristic dystopias predicted by punk”. This CD makes me grateful and proud that when I was young, my youth was not wasted, in fact it was rocked by this album.

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