Well, the new Ultravox album, “Brilliant,” arrived in the mail yesterday, so of course, that means that I’m delving into the deep chasm of another Rock GPA, this time for one of the ultimate core collection bands in my Record Cell. I must have 300-400 Ultravox and related artist releases on my racks. That would include: John Foxx, Midge Ure and Visage releases, among other, more obscure tributaries of the river Ultravox. It’s safe to say they were a foundation of my music fandom as well as record collecting. They were the right band at the wrong time, but eventually time caught up with them, and they managed to have a tremendous commercial heyday after a couple of years slogging it out as unheralded visionaries. Let’s begin at the beginning and know ye that we will be covering every base and including all albums with the name “Ultravox” on the cover, including live albums, but not compilations. Each record will be critically reviewed and assigned a grade on the four point grade scale. At the end of the run, we will plot the artistic graph! Let’s begin.
Ultravox! – Ultravox! | 1977 – 3
The debut album by Ultravox! featured the initial lineup of John Foxx [vocals], Stevie Shears [guitar], Chris Cross [bass], Warren Cann [drums], and Billy Currie [violin/keys]. It also featured an exclamation point [stolen from Neu!] in the group’s name. Wags at the time considered the group the latecoming end of Glam Rock, lazily – since Brian Eno co-produced this album along with the band and a virginal Steve Lillywhite. It opens with the amphetamine rush of “Sat Day Night In The City Of The Dead” and ends with the mandrax hum of “My Sex.” In between it touches on reggae [“Dangerous Rhythm”], proto-punk [“Wide Boys”], and begins to build a musical foundation that the group will spend most of its future elaborating upon with cuts like “The Wild, The Beautiful, And The Damned,” or “I Want To Be A Machine.”
You can hear the band reaching for something that’s not quite defined but is nevertheless, something they are synthesizing from their surroundings and backgrounds. Of course Bowie and Roxy Music are touchstones, but so are The Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk. It’s fascinating how the equally talented Doctors of Madness, who were utterly contemporaneous with Ultravox!, never managed to coalesce a scene around them but then again, that post-glam, pre-punk band of equally talented visionaries had the misfortune to split up by the late 70s and they lost all of their momentum. Richard Strange is a Star Wars trivia question answer in 2012 while John Foxx is an elder statesman of synth rock. So it goes.
Foxx was almost 30 when the band finally recorded their debut album. This makes him very comparable to Bryan Ferry, who was equally mature when he made his debut album with Roxy Music. The fact that these men were well on the far side of their teenaged years meant that their art was driven my a different perspective than younger bands typically bring to bear. Foxx was sometimes reporting on his surroundings but was already beginning to explore the themes of dissolution of self that would enthrall him for the rest of his life with songs like “I Want To Be A Machine.”
For a band so strongly associated with synthesizers, this album is rather more conventional in its makeup. It’s primarily driven by guitars and drums with the melodic coloration largely coming from Currie’s violin. The glaring exception is the futuristic “My Sex,” which had Eno’s Moog added to the mix. The result is an emotional autopsy built around one of Foxx’s poems wherein he examines the titular concern from numerous angles with the dispassionate detachment of a scientist. This song, more than the rest on this album, lays the groundwork for the rest of his career.
The album was released to reactions ranging from indifference to outright hostility, but it successfully managed to synthesize its many disparate influences into a unique point of view. It identified a zeitgeist which was strongly suggestive of the next five years and the only thing about it that was dated were the Cuban heels the band members wore on the striking cover. “Ultravox!” received strong pre-release hype followed by the almost-inevitable press attacks after their records failed to sell in significant numbers. In a year or two, having Brian Eno produce your record would carry a distinct caché of coolness that wouldn’t lose its luster for another six years or so, but being ahead of the curve did little for Ultravox! at this time. By this time the nascent punk rock scene was moving fast and furious across the UK and their laying the groundwork for Post-Punk was [wrongly] seen as being behind the curve. When they next convened to the recording studio just months later, they would sound very different.
Next: Sophomore Punx…