Saturday, 16 April 2016

Ultravox! (The Island albums and new Box Set 2016)

With the impending release in June 2016 of the 4 CD Island years Ultravox box set, I thought I would share with you how I first came across Ultravox! (the first three albums) and my thoughts on the bands early years. There are four albums in this box set because there is a disc of rarities and TV recordings, so you get the Peels session, OGWT Hiroshima Mon Amour and Slow Motion, Modern Love and Quirks which were on a free single that came with HA!HA!HA!, The Retro EP and some others.
The first time I heard Ultravox! I was round a friends house many many years ago, and he was playing his newly purchased singles. The final single he put on was in fact an EP. It was by Ultravox! a band I had heard of but not really listened to. The EP was live and called Retro. He put the EP on, and I was instantly smitten. The song titles fascinated me The Wild the Beautiful and the Damned, My Sex, The Man Who Dies Everyday, Young Savage; it was Young Savage that really got to me. The power and ferocity of the live version left an indelible impression. I should point out that before they called themselves Ultravox! they were Tiger Lily, who really were not that good, so enough of that. I think it probably was inevitable that I was going to like Ultravox! I was already starting to get a tad bored with a lot of the so called punk bands around at the time, and was latching onto anything slightly different, Magazine & WIre being a perfect example of this. In fact it was the same friend who introduced me to Wire by insisting I listen to Pink Flag  (I saw Wire in 2015 and they are still superb)
I decided from that moment to buy everything produced by Ultravox! (providing I had enough pocket money) The following weekend I picked up a copy of the Retro ep and the 1st Ultravox! album. I was not quite sure what to expect from the 1st album and in hind sight I can see why the public and reviewers/music press were confused. Punk had just exploded in the UK (USA for quite some time) and Ultravox! sort off looked part of it; plastic macs, PVC trousers tatty torn suits, but musically they were more Roxy/Bowie/Krautrock and of course they had keyboards and a violin. Unlike the music press I was not confused by the album, I loved it from the 1st listen. Saturday Night in the City of the Dead, Wide Boys, Life at Rainbows End, I want to be a machine and of course the Wild the Beautiful and the Damned. The only track on the album I never really liked was the pseudo/mock funk Young Americans wannabe Lonely Hunter. Some of my friends were not sure about the album and some of them really hated it with a vengeance; like a number of music journalists at the time. But I did not really care about reviews (Magazine's Secondhand Daylight was panned by the music press, I got a copy within weeks of it being released having already heard it played by John Peel)
Next up was the massive 1977 wall of noise that was Ha!Ha!Ha! Without a doubt for want of a better word this album is punk; but with shades of Neu! (Super/Neu! 2 After Eight/Neu! 75) and Eno (Third Uncle) At times songs on Ha!Ha!Ha are drenched in feedback, screeching synths and violin, the best example of this is on Artificial Life, which starts very quietly with synth and vocal and finishes up at a break neck paced cacophony of Guitars, Violins and Feedback (have a listen to the Peel session version) The album finishes with Hiroshima Mon Amour all Drum machine soft vocals saxophone and keyboards, this track alone was an indicator where the next album/Band were heading to. 
When I heard Slow Motion (1st single taken from Systems of Romance) I just knew the next album would be different. The 1st thing you notice on Systems of Romance is the exclamation mark on Ultravox has gone.....and so was the guitarist Stevie Shears; replaced by Robin Simon. Systems of Romance sounded and still does sound amazing. Systems was produced by Conny Plank (Produced Neu! Cluster, Harmonia, Ash Ra Temple, Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, Ralf und Florian,) and has a fuller richer and multi layered sound. I picked up a copy of the 12 inch version of Quiet Men, which has a thumping and driving euro disco feel to it which makes it superior to the album version. Sadly Systems at the time sold as badly as HA!HA!HA! and and Island Records dropped the band. Ultravox plodded along for a bit longer and then John Foxx left. The other members of Ultravox killed time and worked on other projects (Gary Numan, Visage with 3 members of the wonderful Magazine) before reforming with Midge Ure as their singer and Guitarist and releasing The Vienna album. To be honest I did not mind Vienna; the album has some good tracks on it (MrX New Europeans Astradyne) but for me that was it. I did try to like Rage in Eden (Vienna follow up album), but the album just did not work for me unlike Foxx's Metamatic and The Garden, both musically superior in style and ideas to Rage in Eden. John Foxx's 1980 album The Garden has a track called Systems of Romance plus Robin Simon plays Guitar on the album. So there you are, that's my thoughts on Ultravox! I still enjoy all these albums and if by some strange chance you have never heard them, then do give them all a try. A question that seemed to get asked and worried about quite a lot at the time was "Are Ultravox! punk?????" I think the only honest answer to that is "did it ever really matter, and who really cares." more here.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting reading your comments - Ultravox! were the first proper band I saw live, at Malvern Winter Gardens (which according to the BBC site ( was 24 August 1977). I remember enjoying it and but don't remember the details. What is sometimes forgotten is that most expectation was with John Foxx, with little attention paid to the rest of the band, particularly when they recruited Midge Ure. However I do remember when "Sleepwalk" was released as the first single, and it was surprisingly good. However "Vienna" changed everything (both good and bad), and I did catch this version of Ultravox a couple of times in the early '80s in Manchester, but perhaps they did drag on (I have never listened to the U-Vox album, even out of curiosity)