Career In A Nutshell: Ultravox

Mention the names Midge Ure or Billy Currie to most American music fans and you're liable to get nothing but a blank look in return.  Ask the average fan of "80's new wave" to name three Ultravox songs and our hunch is that they'd be hard-pressed to come up with even one. 

For a band that had such a lengthy string of massive hit singles in the UK, it is frankly astounding to consider just how unknown Ultravox were, and remain, in America.  Where other rock & roll obscurities got their just due posthumously (see Velvet Underground and The Stooges), Ultravox have gotten no suck luck.  For those music fans who enjoy the allusion of having their favorite bands all to themselves, Ultravox is just the band for you.  Still, there's no time like the present to shine some much-needed light on this seminal leader of the British New Wave movement.

Ultravox! (Feb 1977)

Led by singer John Foxx's jittery wail, Ultravox's debut album dabbles in British R&B from a post-punk POV, giving the songs a hyeractive urgency.  Produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite (how's that for a production team?), the album virtually leaps from the speakers, each song delivered one knockout hook after another.  Released on the fledgling (at the time) Island Records label, the album was a complete flop.

Foxx would create some inner-band turmoil by declaring that he was giving up emotion.  This may have inspired the songs "I Want To Be A Machine" and "My Sex", providing the template that Gary Numan would employ to great chart success two years later.

35 years later, the choice of "Dangerous Rhythm" as first single is a real head scratcher when other more obvious should-be hits abound - "Saturday Night In The City of The Dead" and "Slip Away", to name just two.

Ha! Ha! Ha! (Oct 1977)

Undeterred by the failure of their debut, the band turns up the energy and goes straight for the throat.  Steve Lillywhite's production bristles with a dark intensity that perfectly suits the themes of disillusion in much of the mjaterial.  Album opener "Rockwrok" is a punk anthem tailor-made for the top of the charts, achieving substantial BBC 1 airplay despite such chorus lyrics as "come on, let's tangle in the dark / fuck like a dog, bite like a shark".  Despite such airplay, the song failed to chart.

While much of the album had a punk ferocity and the band members were very much a part of the punk scene in London, Ultravox as a band seemed to somehow miss being included in the tidal wave that swept dozens of lesser punk bands into the Top 10.

"While I'm Still Alive" features a sneering vocal performance by Foxx that quite obviously recalls Johnny Rotten's vocal style.  That alone should have brought the song ample attention.  However, it did not and the album failed to chart.

Despite the punk angst of songs like the riveting rockers "Fear In The Western World" and "Young Savage", other songs like "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Frozen Ones" shows the band dabbling in the atmospheric keyboard sound that would later define their sound.

Systems Of Romance (Sep 1978)

After two albums that could best be described as commercial failures, something had to give and that something seemed to be guitarist Stevie Shears, who was kicked out of the band before the sessions for their third album began.  It was felt that Shears' guitar playing was preventing the band from attaining their fullest potential.  He would be replaced by Robin Simon.  On the production front, the band severed ties with Lillywhite in favor of legendary German producer Conny Plank, whose production work with kraftwerk had been a huge influence on Foxx and keyboardist Billy Currie.

Opening track "Slow Motion" begins with a sweeping synth flourish and quickly settles into a bass-heavy groove that, again, creates the prototype upon which Gary Numan would build his entire career.

Listen to Gary Numan himself talk about Ultravox's influence upon his music:

Throughout much of the album, you can hear the band struggling to harness the new synth-based sound that they've obviously chosen to hitch their wagon to in hopes of achieving that ever-illusive hit.  If the album has an achilles heel, it is that most of the songs seem underdeveloped.

"Dislocation", for example, has a pulsating, anthemic quality that, with a more concise arrangement, could have been a stand-out track.  Listening to it today, one wonders what heights this song could have reached in the hands of someone like Trent Reznor.

An ambitious tour of the US had been planned for early 1979, but the band was dropped by Island Records just before it began, leading Foxx to announce his decision to leave the band at the end of the tour.

Gary Numan, who called "Systems Of Romance" the most influential album in his life, would invite Billy Currie to take part in his mammoth 1979 tour and contribute to his career-defining album, The Pleasure Principle.

Vienna (July 1980)

With a new singer/songwriter in Midge Ure (fresh off of a US tour as guitarist for Thin Lizzy), Ultravox return after an almost two-year hiatus to release an album that very quickly distanced itself from the band's earlier work and had an eye (and ear) very much on the future.

Still, it takes a certain amount of confidence to open an album with a mostly-instrumental opus, "Astradyne".  Track 2, "New Europeans" lifts off on the strength of Ure's soaring vocals.  "Private Lives" is an elegiac rocker that is performed in superbly taught fashion.

Amazingly, the album closes with two songs that would both chart in the Top 10; the title cut (#2) and "All Stood Still" (#8).  The former is driven by a minimal synth/drum machine rhythm over which Ure's turns in one of his most empassioned vocal performances.

Over the span of a year, the band had gone from cult status to scoring three Top 40 hits and their first Top 5 album.

Rage In Eden (Sep 1981)

Working for the third time with producer Conny Plank, the band finally dispenses completely with the early sound of their first few albums and creates an album that separates completely from the John Foxx incarnation, creating a majestic synth-based sound that connects with a mass audience.

While only two singles are released from this album - "The Thin Wall" and "The Voice - both chart in the Top 20.

Critiocally speaking, the band certainly has hit upon a winning formula, but, to our ears, the songs that comprise Rage In Eden aren't nearly as good as those that had been on Vienna.  Additionally, Plank's production - most notable for it's muddy mid-range - has not aged well.

Quartet (Oct 1982)

Enlisting legendary producer George Martin, the band enters an exciting new phase that finally sees the marry their best batch of songs to a near-perfect production from Martin.

From the opening chords of "Reap The Wild Wind", it is obvious that Martin's presence has helped the band focus their considerable talents on hitting the mark with each and every song.

"Mine For Life" and "Hymn" feature riveting vocal performances that are certainly an influence on current UK hitmakers Muse.

Monument (Oct 1983)

Featuring note-perfect recreations of all the hits from their last three albums, Ultravox's live debut is almost as slick as their studio recordings.

In that sense, it's not exactly an essential entry into their musical canon, but, considering their UK popularity at the time, why not release a live album?

Lament (April 1984)

From the opening strains of "White China", one could not be blamed for thinking they'd put on a Wham! album accident as the band's sound is more obviously commercial and geared for the stadiums than ever before.

In most cases, seeing your favorite band take a drastic turn for the more commercial leanings of the day might be a disappointment, but in Ultravox's hands, such commercial attempts still retain the intelligence and sophistication of past efforts.

The winning one-two-three combination of "One Small Day", "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes", and the title cut makes this perhaps the most consistent album in the Ultravox discography.  It's also interesting to see the prevailing theme of the time in the video for "Dancing", which puts a human face on the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

U-VOX (April 1986)

After the band parted ways with longtime drummer Warren Cann, they returned to working with producer Conny Plank on this, their eighth studio album.  The end result was an album that had none of the character of most Conny Plank productions and showed the band moving into even more blatant commercial territory. "Same Old Story", with its female backing singers and horn section, packs a considerable whallop that seems designed to be played at top colume to a sold-out Wembley Stadium audience.  Long gone is the caffeinated claustrophobia of albums like Vienna or Rage In Eden.

Those who are familiar with Conny Plank's work know that, while the artists he has worked with cover a lot of ground, he does bring with him a certain sound, but said sound is nowhere to be found on this album full of all the latest production bells & whistles of the time.  In that sense, it shares a lot of sonic similarities with Tears For Fears Songs From The Big Chair.

Despite the uber-slick and bombastic production, the quality of the songs remains fully intact.

George Martin returns to arrange and direct the orchestration for the stunning album-closer "All In One Day".  Sadly, this would be the last studio album with Midge Ure as the band would split in 1988.

In 1993, Billy Currie would enlist new singer Tony Fenelle to release an Ultravox album in name only, the horrible and completely non-essential Revelation.  That same year, Chrysalis Records would release Ultravox Rare, Vol. 1, which compiles all non-lp B-sides from 1980-1983.  In the fall of 1984, Ultarvox Rare, Vol. 2 is released.  This album focuses on B-sides and remixes the band recorded during the Lament and U-Vox sessions, showing their growing interest in alterate versions and remixes of various album tracks.  Volume 2 is most essential as a source for obtaining the non-album Top 20 single "Love's Great Adventure", which is also available on 1984's The Collection.

Brilliant (May 2012)

All things considered, if you intend on calling your first album of new material in over two decades, you better mean business.  Close your eyes, though, and this comeback album by U-vox's classic line-up of Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann sounds like it could have been recorded in the early 80s while managing to sound modern at the same time.

As very few reunion albums ever bear fruit, it's quite remarkable how the band that has been away so long is able to pick up right where they left off 24 years ago, creating an album that very much fits within their musical canon and also ranks as one of their best albums.  Ure's vocal range may not be what it once was, but it's still a marvelous thing, cutting through the anthemic musical barrage like a hot knife through butter.

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