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.

Album Rescue Series: Marianne Faithful ‘Broken English’

Like a lot of people, my earliest recollections of Marianne Faithful is of a 17-year-old pale waif princess singing the Jagger/Richards 1964 composition of When Tears Go By on a flickering black and white TV. Marianne Faithfull was one of the most photographed women in the world during her youth. With her angelic English looks, large breasts and long legs, she was the physical embodiment of the sexiest part of the 1960s, particularly when draped around the rock stars who made up her inner circle of lovers David Bowie, Gene Pitney, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. She was the 60’s quintessential rock star girlfriend, the beautiful young exotic woman envied by everyone, men wanted to fuck her, and women wanted to be her.

Marianne Faithfull was born the daughter of an idealistic British gentleman, army officer and professor of English literature Major Robert Glynn Faithful. Her mother was Eva von Sacher-Masoch, the Baroness Erisso, whose family had originally hailed from Vienna. During the 2nd World War the von Sacher-Masoch family had secretly opposed the Nazi regime in Vienna and helped to save the lives of many Jews. This is the same family line as Leopold von Sacher-Mascoh who lends his name to the Masochism part of Sadomasochism. Major Faithfull’s work as an Intelligence Officer for the British Army brought him into contact with the von Sacher-Masoch family where he met Eva. A family background that reads like a combination of narratives from Blackadder meets the Von Trapp family. Faithful is probably the only daughter of an Austro-Hungarian Baroness to ever spend time in Ormskirk, west Lancashire while her father undertook his PhD in English Literature at the nearby University of Liverpool. She was largely schooled at a north London Catholic convent that temporarily sheltered her from the outside world. With such a family background, Faithful’s life should have being one of middle class privilege, comfort and free of celebrity notoriety. All that went out the window when she was sucked into the blossoming rock ‘n’ roll scene via the irrepressible gravitational pull of the Rolling Stones.

Andrew Loog Oldham is one of last century’s most radical and mysterious musical Svengali icons. His pivotal role and contribution to creating the popular culture in which we live cannot be underestimated. He was only 19 years old in 1963 when he commenced his four year tenure managing the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. The Rolling Stones are shrouded in myth and legend, which makes it virtually impossible to identify what is fact and truth. According to Loog Oldham’s 2001 autobiography Stoned, he understood that the Stones would not get rich as an R&B covers band. So he took the radical and unconventional step of locking the glimmer twins into their kitchen and would not let them out until they had penned some original material. His instructions where “I want a song with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex” and the Glimmer Twins delivered to specification with As Tears Go By. Originally it was called As Time Goes By but Loog Oldham changed its title and probably claimed a writing credit in the process. It may be pure conjecture but it’s quite possible that Loog Oldham had an inferiority complex and as such he measured himself harshly against people like The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstien. Epstien had a stable of talent to whom the Beatles contributed material to e.g. Cilla Black. When Loog Oldham re-titles and re-appropriates As Tears Go By and sends it in Marianne’s direction he gives it a totally new meaning; genius.

Once Faithful had entered the orbit of the Rolling Stones it proved almost impossible to break free. Originally the girlfriend of Stones guitarist Brian Jones, Faithfull moved her allegiance to Mick Jagger in 1966, then had a very brief fling with Keith Richards, before a well publicized split with Mick in 1970. Her life went into a nosedive with heroin addiction, anorexia nervosa and her son (Nicholas), from her first husband (John Dunbar), was taken into care. Rock ‘n’ roll always had a non-existent duty of care policy with no support network. She lived rough on the streets of Soho, London for a few years. This lifestyle of heroin addiction and ill health irreparably changed and damaged her voice. Her career was resurrected in the late 1970s when she met and then married Ben Brierly, the guitarist of punk band The Vibrators. Between 1970 and 1979 Faithful made a few attempts to return to music including an album with producer Mike Leander, Rich Kid Blue, started in 1971 but not completed until 1985. There was also a country sounding single Dreamin’ My Dream.

After a lengthy absence, Faithfull resurfaced in 1979 with the album Broken English, which took the edgy and brittle sound of punk rock and mixed it with a shot of studio-smooth fusion disco. Marianne had lost all but her diehards audience long before Broken English’s release; hence it was never a commercial success only achieving number 75 in the UK and 83 in the USA charts. She had been a hit-making folk-pop singer with beautiful good looks and an angelic singing voice, but who quickly became a washed-up junkie, largely due to the Rolling Stones. The Stones have this devastating effect on people e.g. Gram Parson, Mick Taylor, Jimmy Miller, Bobby Keys, Andrew Loog Oldham and the death of the Peace and Love generation at Altamont. Years of heavy drinking, smoking and drug taking had taken their toll on her once frail voice. Of Marianne’s key personal traits are being able to adapt and survive, she has the knack of turning disadvantages to her advantage. On Broken English, her voice was very different from the pre-Stones records; it was far stronger, dirtier, harsher, worldly and capable of expressing her inner being.

Probably one of the perceived issues with this album is one of authorship. In essence this is a multi-authored piece and many consumers consider that Faithful is not the auteur of Broken English. Of course I would dispute this. Just because Marianne only co-wrote three of the eight tracks doesn’t mean that this isn’t a great album. Her role on this record is as interlocutor, as the voice positioned within the narrative. This is a narrative record, disjointed and unconnected narrative, but a collection of narratives that works to express her inner most feeling. She may not posses the expressive tool of being a writer but she still manages to make herself heard through what tools she did have at her disposal. Essentially on this record Faithful is a curator of other people’s material ranging from Shel Silversteins The Ballard Of Lucy Jordan, originally recorded by Dr Hook in 1974, Heathcote Williams’ Why D’Ya Do It? and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. These days, curators of other people’s material are celebrated e.g. DJ’s such as David Guetta, Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Moby. I guess curating musical material was not a valid metric back in 1979?

Faithful’s role as interlocutor makes this album great. In each song, Faithful takes on the role of the lead character. She does this so well that it feels like she owns each and every song. Her sneering cover of John Lennon’s anthem Working Class Hero, which is sang as though she lived through it personally is totally convincing. As I’ve mentioned above Faithful cannot be described as working class by any stretch of the imagination. Every song here stands out in it’s own right, because there are simply no fillers. Read Shel Silverstein’s original poem The Ballard of Lucy Jordan, or Jordon as he wrote it. Then compare it to Faithful’s version; she delivers a totally absorbing, believable performance.

I’ve always adored the outrageous Why’d Ya Do It? which sees Marianne playing a bitter pissed off harpy who is delivering a fierce, graphic rant to her husband’s infidelities. The lyrics were far too rude for radio and caused a walk out by female packing staff at the EMI pressing plant. In Dave Dalton’s 1994 book Faithful, there’s a great account of how Faithful went to visit poet Heathcote Williams to claim this song. Williams came from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a perfect match for Faithful. Record producer Denny Cordell claims this song was originally destined for Tina Turner; I really can’t see Tina taking ownership of this song as convincingly as Faithful does.

Faithful was married to guitarist Ben Brierly of English punk band The Vibrators during the making of Broken English. In Dalton’s book she claims it was the affair that Brierly was having that drove her to seek out this song and record it. The opening track, Broken English, comments upon the rise of the German 70’s terrorist group Baader Meinhof, forerunner of the Red Army Faction, and their leader Ulrike Meinhof. I also like the idea that this track is a self referenced comment upon the bastardization and purposely distressing of her own voice through the negative lifestyle choices of the last decade.

Part of the credit for this album must go to Chris Blackwell who signed Faithful to his Island record label. Blackwell has a knack for sniffing out the bizarre, unusual and off-kilter artists. Only a label like Island would release a record such as Broken English and be comfortable with it. Just as George Harrison’s Handmade Films had a sort of house style, so does Island Records. There’s always this implied reggae feel or beat. Compare Broken English to Grace Jones’ Island Life, another record that only Island would and could release. Sonically this album is superb, its a testament to the quality of Matrix Studios in North London which had the most up-to-date recording equipment available. The arrangements and production work by Mark Miller Mundy is impeccable. I don’t know how much time was spent recording and mixing this album but my educated guess is a lot.

A sound engineer friend of mine once provided some very vocal opposition to me playing this album over the PA while I was sound checking the system. His objection was it sounded like “its music to slit your wrists too”. He was totally wrong, this is an album NOT to slit your wrists to; it is an album that celebrates surviving not dying. I often say to my audio students that you know when a record is well produced because you can’t hear the production it becomes transparent. According to my own metric, the studio production and arrangement by Mark Miller Mundy is spot on. The Dennis Morris album cover of Faithful as the ravishing, disheveled wreck is perfect. It’s a strong image and according to Morris it’s a shot that took considerable time, red wine, cigarettes and self-restraint to produce. The husky croak of Broken English rescued Faithfull’s image from legends of fur coats, Mars bars and as a background figure in the history of the Rolling Stones. This album put her back into contention as a solo artist. OK this record is sloppy but I find Faithfull worth listening to even when she’s sloppy, or maybe because she’s sloppy, like Dylan when he’s at his best.