I’ve been thinking about Ultravox, particularly the Mark II Midge Ure era since I recently got “Return To Eden,” a 2xCD/DVD set of their recent 2009 reformation concerts. That incident, coupled with finding out about singer Midge Ure’s autobiography and subsequently getting a copy, has gotten me going down memory lane for one of my “core collection” bands and I’m powerless to stop it!
I can’t forget the first time I ever heard Ultravox. It was on a half hour syndicated music video program that aired after Saturday Night Live back in September of 1980 called “Hollywood Heartbeat.” It was hosted by Bob Welch, the ex-Fleetwood Mac vocalist, and featured a half hour of the then scarce music videos per week. The bumpers for that episode featured what was an amazing looking clip coming later in the program. It looked like a black and white film with very high production values compared to music videos of the day. Since we’re talking about September of 1980, typical production values consisted of a New Wave group on a white seamless with the white balance tuned all the way up to the extreme, lip synching their latest hit with oily looking complexions on 3/4″ videotape. Elvis Costello could get away with this by virtue of his wit, but the lion’s share of such clips are tough going.
I patiently waited and the producers wisely used the teased clip to anchor the final segment after the last commercial break. What I was presented with was a quantum leap visually and musically from what I was used to. Let me explain. I’ve always been partial to keyboards. Throughout my childhood, I especially loved groups with electric organ (? Mark & The Mysterians, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night) and by the early 70s, I was into synthesizers. Yes. ELP. And a bit later, post-psychedelia Pink Floyd. You kids may laugh, but it was what we had at the time. The first harbinger of what was to come was when Kraftwerk amazingly got a German language three minute edit of an album side into the US top 40 in 1974 with their seminal “Autobahn.” What I heard on that video, for the song “Passing Strangers,” was like an feast of synthesizers. Sure, I’d heard Gary Numan when his breakthrough single, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” got a single play on the slightly more adventurous of Orlando’s two “FM Rock” stations the year prior. “Passing Strangers” sounded like three dimensional chess to Numan’s checkers.
This track sounded like all four band members were playing synthesizers. Even the drummer! These weren’t wimpy synth pop sounds like what would be proliferating within a year or two. These were thick, powerful waves of sound that were wedded to equally powerful rock with a Eurocentric, slightly classical bent. The fact that the group had a violinist who doubled on keyboards only served to strengthen this association. But where this music pulled ahead of middlebrow prog rock like Yes, was that it didn’t forget to rock! By all means tickle the cerebellum, but don’t forget the needs of the brain stem. This certainly sounded like music that was as technologically advanced as I’d just heard that summer on the third Peter Gabriel album, which had been a favorite of mine. When the second verse ended the song’s bridge was a synthesizer solo capped with violin. In fact, it sounded like the whole band were playing synth solos while the violinist soloed on top of it. Deep, rich sounding sequenced lines played off of sleek lead lines while the violin rose to the top of the sonic spectrum. I’d never heard anything this good before in my life.
Back in 1980, I didn’t have a VCR yet, but my friend Dave did. The next day I asked him if he had taped the show. He did, and we must have watched that clip a half a dozen times the next afternoon. I would not leave his home without taking with me a (mono) cassette dub from the videotape soundtrack. I could not wait to get that album with all due haste! I looked at all of my normal record store haunts (East-West Records & Tapes, Record Mart) but the elusive “Vienna” album was nowhere to be seen. I had read a review of the record in “Dogfood,” our local “new wave” music freebie paper so I had known how the record had impressed other ears as well. A competing rock freebie magazine, “Rocks Off,” featured an interview with the band a few weeks later and apparently, the group were appearing live in Tampa, Florida. If memory serves, it was at The Cuban Club in Ybor City. I still have the mag, in a box of ephemera somewhere.
At the age of 16, I had never been to a rock concert before, and this was a band I really wanted to see, but the reality of it was that neither I drove a car nor did any of my friends at the time. Driving the 70 miles to Tampa for the late September show was all but impossible. I would have to wait for later tours to get my chance to see this incredible band live. Since the bands I liked never seemed to play in Orlando, FL, it would be another 3-4 years before I would finally see a rock concert (Joe Jackson, since you asked) in my home town. In the meantime, just finding the “Vienna” album was proving difficult. It took until late December, and a trip to a Musicland store in a Charleston, SC mall until I managed to see a copy. I got the album back to my cousin’s all-in-one stereo, into which I had plugged my [mono] cassette recorder and proceeded to record the album on tape, so I could listen to it while trapped at my relative’s home for the typically bleak Christmas holiday with the Lowcountry relatives. You could say the music on offer made the pain considerably diminished.
The album began with “Sleepwalk,” a searing riff rocker that was the band’s attempt to deliver the “guts and gore of a typical Judas Priest song,” but using synthesizers, instead of guitars. The frenetic track succeeded admirably. This cut was followed by “Passing Strangers,” which was the video I was familiar with. Next up were “New Europeans” and “Private Lives,” a pair of what constituted mid tempo numbers for this band. Then side one ended with the long instrumental “Astradyne.” Nice! Apparently, US Chrysalis seriously re-jigged the track order of side one of the disc, but I wouldn’t know that for five years, when I finally got a UK pressing of the album on CD.
Side two began with a track that sounded like it could have been on Kraftwerk’s “Man Machine” album. “Mr. X” was built on the sound of Düsseldorf’s finest robo rhythms over which the band’s drummer, Warren Cann, took the mic for this number only. The Kraftwerk connection was magnified by the fact that Conny Plank, the man behind the console for that band’s 1974 breakthrough, “Autobahn,” was also producing this album as well. He certainly hadn’t been resting on his laurels in the last six years!
“Western Promise” segues together with the end of “Mr. X” and the turbulent track was the standout cut upon my first hearing the album. The slashing minor chords that are the song’s foundation contrast beautifully with with the compulsive rhythms that drummer Warren Cann hammers out. The interplay between his live drumming and the rhythm programming available in the day would be a hallmark of Ultravox Mark II. Considering that he was known to have modified his stock Roland rhythm boxes (they couldn’t be called drum machines just yet, honestly) his efforts gave the band a quality of rhythm that combines the best of motorik beats coupled with a complexity of attack that machines were simply not yet capable of matching. But for me, the component that takes this song over the top is what sounds like synthesized flute shot through the number like Ian Anderson under the influence of some serious amphetamines. The sharp, filtered crack of Midge Ure saying “Hai” at two points in the song arrives with all of the impact of lightning striking. This, for me, is a tremendously exciting number.
So much so, that upon early listening, the now-classic title cut the follows it struck me as anti climactic. To be sure, the synth drone that resolves itself from the outro of “Western Promise” over the cavernous, thundercrack rhythm of the song is very atmospheric. Midge Ure’s delivery runs the gamut from calm retrospection to impassioned denial. In the end, the song is Billy Currie’s baby with his piano and viola taking center stage. It was very rare at that time for a synthesizer band to have a ballad. The subtlety of the technology at hand in that era almost didn’t allow for it. Where the song really shone was when coupled with its now classic video. If “Passing Strangers” made even Bowie’s clips look passé, “Vienna” managed the neat trick of making “Passing Strangers” look like hackwork!
My memory of seeing the clip for the first time isn’t as distinct as with “Passing Strangers” since the latter was my entrée to the group, but director Russell Mulcahy pulled out all of the stops to deliver a five minute magnum opus that was heavily indebted to Carroll Reed’s “The Third Man,” set in the titular town of the song. It made Mulcahy the go-to man for a music video that turned heads. Just ask 80s stars from Duran Duran to even meatball rocker Billy Joel.
I would eagerly travel down the road of Ultravox fandom as well as its many different forks that would pop up over the next few years. There would be a lot to discover, particularly the larger body of earlier material with a completely different lead singer (John Foxx) as well as the many side projects of Midge Ure, their then-current vocalist/guitarist. There would be many ups and downs and my opinions would shift and reform over the next 30 years. But this was my story of what it felt like at the flashpoint of it all, as this wondrous new sound was first unfolding to virgin ears. More later.