Originally lost in the gap between glam-rock and punk, Ultravox (initially operating, from 1974 to ’76, as Tiger Lily) became prime movers of the electro-pop and new romantic movements when they combined synthesizer with the direct and danceable pop music of the new wave.
Produced by Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and the group, Ultravox! marries the flamboyance of poseurdom to the cold minimalism of Kraftwerk, with more than a touch of punk’s roughness. John Foxx’s voice is typically distant, singing lyrics that contain jumbled images expressing passive dislocation (a popular Ultravox theme). While synthesizers are in short supply, the budding Ultravox style can be noted in “Dangerous Rhythm,” the oddly passionate “I Want to Be a Machine” and the classic “My Sex.”
Ha!Ha!Ha! draws closer to punk’s spirit, filled as it is with tight, straightforward rockers outlining a spirit of alienation and life free of love, companionship and comprehension. Billy Currie plays stunning electric violin and, on the climactic “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” introduces full-force synthesizer into Ultravox’s music, delineating the boundary between past and future. Recommended.
Systems of Romance, produced by Conny Plank, fuses the band’s pop vision with spare, crystalline electronic sound. Focused both lyrically and musically on the fragmentation of experience, the album weaves a sinuous existential mood that suggests dreams and autumn nights. Highly recommended.
Vienna, also produced by Plank, was marked by the departure of Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon (who had replaced founding member Stevie Shears after the second LP); Scottish vocalist/guitarist (ex-Slik/Rich Kids) Midge Ure filled out the new lineup and took over the group. Ultravox’s recast sound included a more symphonic use of synthesizer, layered in deep swells for new heights of sonic density. Vienna includes Ultravox’s best hits: “All Stood Still,” “Sleepwalk,” “Passing Strangers” and the title track. The danceable and sophisticated post-punk approach proved highly satisfying and successful, spawning a horde of less-inspired imitators collectively referred to as new romantics.
Noting Vienna‘s success, Island/Antilles issued Three Into One, a compilation of songs from the first three albums that includes “My Sex” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”
Rage in Eden, Ultravox’s last pairing with Plank, finds Ure taking the band’s posh suaveness a bit too seriously, sliding into operatic vocals and pretentious lyrics, but the music — again displaying complex synthesizer patterns — is superb, with Currie, Ure, bassist Chris Cross and drummer Warren Cann blending brilliantly.
New Europeans is a Japanese compilation of B-sides from the Vienna and Rage in Eden period, added to A-sides “The Voice” and “New Europeans.” Though the flipsides are hardly top-notch, they are interesting, and the mastering/pressing provides exceptional audio quality.
The Australian Mini-LP combines two rare tracks from an early flexi-disc (“Quirks” and “Modern Love”) with the contents of Live Retro, an excellent 7-inch concert EP originally released in 1978. (The Peel Sessions EP, recorded in November 1977, chronicles the same era.)
Quartet continues in much the same vein as Rage in Eden, but producer George Martin thins out the sound too much, reducing the band to a subordinate role as backing for Ure, whose lyrics are infused with religious overtones. Clear but unsatisfying.
Ultravox self-produced Lament, proving themselves quite capable of working without outside supervision. The album contains two of their finest singles, “One Small Day” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” amidst a host of other refined and personable excursions. Lament further elevates Ultravox’s reputation as one of the few groups to capably incorporate synthesizers and other modern conveniences into a truly unique sound.
The six-song Monument also serves as the soundtrack to a concert videocassette of the same name. The Collection is a remarkable compilation of the band’s post-Foxx/post-Island singles (1980-’84): 14 cuts, including “Sleepwalk,” “We Came to Dance,” “All Stood Still” and “One Small Day,” all stellar examples of craft and creativity. Not a bad introduction to the most commercial portion of the band’s career.
Except for a slightly increased guitar focus and the large proportion of instrumentals, Ure’s one-man solo album (with a little assistance, mostly on bass and vocals) sounds enough like Ultravox in spots to unsettle his bandmates — it could easily be mistaken for a group effort. (Although few would believe they would attempt a laid-back cover of Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past” — downright bizarre, but not as awful as you might imagine.) “If I Was” has a nice refrain but trite lyrics — Ure’s uncertainty quickly becomes aggravating — and goes on too long. If nothing else, this mix of familiar synth-rock and adventurous instrumentals showed how Ure would survive the end of Ultravox; perhaps The Gift hastened that eventuality.
Warren Cann quit in mid-’86; the three remaining members deputized Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki to finish the competent but unassuming U-Vox album. All their fire and personality seems to have evaporated. Ure’s singing has never been so restrained; the bland overall sound (punctuated with brass on two big production numbers) bears only occasional resemblance to their past work, yet offers nothing especially new to replace it. “Follow Your Heart” is about as good as it gets; in an odd detour, “All Fall Down” is a folky anti-war drinking song with accompaniment by the Chieftains.
Ultravox broke up in mid-’87, freeing Ure to complete his second solo album. Quite unlike the group’s work, Answers to Nothing has lots of lead guitar and puts a surprising emphasis on hyperactive bass guitar (Mick Karn, Level 42 thumbster Mark King and Steve Brzezicki do the honors; Mark Brzezicki is the album’s drummer). With the exception of “Dear God” and other simple songs, Ure downplays Ultravox’s reliance on synthesizers, avoiding extended keyboard chords and artificial sounds. A guest appearance by Kate Bush is more than symbolic of Ure’s new aesthetic: Answers to Nothing is a relatively cerebral journey (ignore Ure’s overly earnest lyrics) that pursues painterly audio art rather than pop hooks or dance rhythms.
Ure has always been a tremendously likeable performer — even when his pretensions in Ultravox threatened to make Emerson, Lake & Palmer look humble, it was hard to get too ticked off with the guy because he seemed well-intentioned and serious. Unfortunately, that good will is the only thing that saved him when he chose to follow up the reasonably enjoyable and artistically promising Answers to Nothing with the banal MOR dreck of Pure. This is a far, far cry from the Rich Kids. But as Bob Geldof’s right-hand man in Band Aid and Live Aid, Ure had a hand in saving thousands of lives, so anyone pointing out the abysmal quality of Pure will most likely go to hell. Best just to wish him godspeed and pop Vienna into the disc player.
Breathe is better, and goes a little ways toward dispelling the fear that Ure is intent on becoming the post-punk version of that other affable crap peddler, Phil Collins. The album boasts such distinguished guests as Robert Fripp, Paddy Moloney and Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy, and consists mostly of leisurely, well-constructed sound sculptures with lyrics of Ure’s standard overly earnest claptrap. Ure appears to be intent on joining the mature artiste club of such aural wallpaperists as David Sylvian and Talk Talk, and that’s cool. Breathe is very tasteful and kind of dull, but its heart is in the right place.
The fact that Move Me features a song titled “Beneath a Spielberg Sky” is enough to cause anyone to suspect the worst. However, the album is mostly harmless, and seems to confirm that Ure is committed to following the path he undertook with Answers to Nothing and Breathe. After threatening with Pure to follow the downward arcs of Collins and Sting into terminal sappiness, it’s heartening that he has chosen to aim at least a little higher. Like late-period Joe Jackson, Ure’s work may not be particularly exciting, but it’s intelligent and, for the most part, not an insult to his earlier work. It can be safely ignored, but it does yield a few modest rewards to those who care to listen.
Ure has also released a number of live discs and rarities collections on his own Environment label.
Having defied the odds once by not only surviving but thriving after the departure of its original frontman (Echo and the Bunnymen, Wall of Voodoo and 10,000 Maniacs all prove how rare a feat that is), Ultravox actually started up a third time, without Ure. But Currie was clearly pressing his luck when he revived Ultravox with himself as the only original member. Apparently embittered by what he felt was Ure’s hijacking of, and eventual dismantling of, the band to further his own career agenda, Currie fought for and eventually won legal rights to the name. His first attempt at resuscitating Ultravox was a collaboration with returning guitarist Robin Simon. Fan outcry prompted a change of name to Humania before the whole enterprise collapsed. The luckless Simon, who seems to have made a career of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was ousted, and Currie once again reformed Ultravox, this time with guitarist/vocalist Tony Fenelle. But they did not get on too well, and the resulting album, Revelation, is completely forgettable. Following that, Currie recruited yet another bunch of ringers. Ingenuity, the sole studio album by this version of Ultravox, is surprising in its non-wretchedness. New vocalist Sam Blue is competent-to-good, often achieving a decent approximation of Ure, and the music is at least listenable and sometimes great. It’s not Ultravox as we know it, but fans of the band coming across Ingenuity in a cut-out bin could throw their money away on worse things. Future Picture is a live disc from this lineup performing a mix of classic cuts and their own originals. System of Love is a cheekily named and wholly unnecessary compilation of Currie’s Ultra-faux albums.
Currie has released a steady stream of largely instrumental albums in the wake of Ultravox’s demise(s). They range in quality from soporific to excellent, but on balance they uphold his high standard of musical invention and nearly all of them contain one or two items Ultravox fans would find worth owning. Transportation — an instrumental collaboration with Yes/Asia guitarist Steve Howe — finds the keyboard/viola player mutely ambling through songlike compositions that aren’t that far removed from Ultravox, although the overambitious title track is a notable exception. Lacking a structural backbone, the aimless and fragmentary “Transportation” is mostly an opportunity for Howe to show off some of his stringed instrument collection. Stand Up and Walk features welcome guest appearances from Cann and Cross, while the odds and sods collection Pieces of the Puzzle contains the only officially released recording by Currie and Simon’s Humania: a live version of Systems of Romance‘s “I Can’t Stay Long.”
The Ure configuration of Ultravox was generous with non-album B-sides on nearly all its singles; those are compiled on two albums. The tracks on Rare 1 date from Vienna, Rage in Eden and Quartet, thereby covering Ure-travox’s period of greatest energy and creativity. With instrumentals, live tracks and several songs that could have easily been included on their parent albums, Rare 1 includes some of the band’s most experimental, even playful work. A live rendition of Brian Enos “Kings Lead Hat” is probably the hardest rocking thing Ultravox ever recorded with Ure, while the instrumental “Keep Talking” is perhaps the band’s most explicit tribute to Kraftwerk and Neu! Well worth owning by any fan of the band.
Strict chronological presentation badly shortchanges Rare 2, which collects the extra tracks from Lament and U-Vox. This chronicle of a band running out of steam contains unexciting instrumentals and live versions of songs from the final two albums of the Ure era. Skippable for everyone but completists.