Rock GPA: Ultravox [part 2]

Ultravox! – Ha! Ha! Ha! | 1977 – 3.5

For their second album of 1977, the band continued with producer Steve Lillywhite at the helm, but this album is a far cry from the one that preceded it.  It can be argued that this was their response to the erupting punk rock movement that had flowered in the year of ’76-77 during the time of their recording their debut album. But this album is much more violent and extreme than the garden variety of punk rock that was represented by The Damned, The Sex Pistols, or The Stranglers.  Of the three, The Damned come closest in terms of intensity, but the cripplingly aggressive sound, reliant on the heaviest use of feedback I’ve ever heard, stands alone.

The album opens with, unbelievably, its only single, “ROckWrok.” The lyrics are singular in Ultravox! canon for being unbelievably sexual in the most graphic yet detached way possible. The track has a retro-50s bounce reminiscent of early Roxy Music and Steve Shear’s guitar manages the neat trick of sounding like sax riffs, that further cement the King Curtis/Andy MacKay comparisons. But there is no saxophone on the song. That is saved for later in the album. Continuing the Roxy Music metaphors, if “Ultravox!” was “Roxy Music” then this album is “For Your Pleasure.”

The next song is no better at releasing any tension. “The Frozen Ones” was released as a single only in Germany and although it opens up with fingerclicks, by the time the extended intro is over, Chris Cross is pummeling his instrument to provide the galloping bass line that propels the tune at a breakneck pace. Without pausing for breath at all, the album reaches its frenzied peak on the third cut, the apocalyptic “Fear In The Western World.”

It starts with a shard of sustained metallic feedback on what sounds like both guitars and bass over which drummer Warren Cann lays down a frantic 4/4 beat. John Foxx joins in with his gleefully catastrophic lyrics and is ultimately joined with Billy Currie’s queasy violin which ultimately careens out of control as the song all but collides onto a stone wall of feedback for its final 40 seconds. The resultant flesh-stripping feedback manages to make the achievements of The Cramps and Jesus + Mary Chain sound positively urbane in comparison. It really does sound like society collapsing under the weight of its neuroses. Which, of course, it is.

Just at the point where any normal listener would be begging for mercy, it arrives in the form of  side one’s final track, “Distant Smile.” The track begins as a jarring blunt edit into the squealing hell that is the finale of the preceding song as soothing piano takes over the soundfield with an all-time champion whiplash-inducing juxtaposition. The piano is perhaps the first Post-Punk evocation of the sound of Erik Satie that would become more widespread over the next 35 years, and I’m not aware of anyone else plowing this particular sonic furrow at this point in time. Even Harold Budd had only an experimental 1971 album that no one heard under his belt at this time. David Sylvian and Gary Numan were still a couple of years away from exploring this sound themselves. This intro would reverberate throughout fringe popular music live a snowball rolling downhill and is almost as influential as Ultravox’s use of synthesizers and drum machines were, albeit less heralded.

As the first flowering hint of Billy Currie’s distinctive ARP sound, in which he favors heavy pitch bending enters the track, it is joined with Foxx’s restorative, wordless vocals. The track continues in this vein for fully half of its 5:21 length until Foxx begins singing the lyrics and the tranquil mood is swept away by a song that echoes the frantic pace of the preceding track once again. This time the song culminates in the trebleshriek of Stevie Shears’ guitar solo before a spliced in pair of descending organ chords stop the song it its tracks.

Side two opens with absolutely one of my all time favorite Ultravox songs whose failure to be a triumphant A-side anywhere in the works frankly staggers my imagination. “the Man Who Dies Every Day” is the emergence of the new Ultravox! from its synthetic chrysalis. The use of Roland’s TR77 rhythm box [you couldn’t yet call it a drum machine] along with the mature birth of the distinctive Billy Currie synth solo sound with which he would be associated forevermore. The snappy syncopation of Foxx’s lyrical delivery interlocks flawlessly with the Cross/Cann rhythm section to result in a track that I never tire of hearing. Forget The Jam. This is the modern world unfolding right before your very ears.

The rest of side two is a far cry from the cataclysmic blitz of the first. Only “Artificial Life” comes close to the harrowing feel of side one, and here, their attack is mediated by the fat chords of Currie’s synth that, as forceful as they are, differ wildly from the brutally abrasive use of feedback on side one. Currie then ups the ante with a catgut-shredding viola solo that takes no prisoners. The odd track out here is the penultimate “While I’m Still Alive, ” which in all honesty recalls a throwback to the more conventional rock of their debut.

The album concludes with the game-changing “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” The cut begins with the calm, otherworldly rhythms of their hacked TR77 rhythm box releasing a steady flow of insect-like chirps and rhythmic counterpoints. Then Currie’s “string chords” begin to build before the surprising appearance of their friend CC from Gloria Mundi on suave saxophone.  When Foxx begins singing in a voice tinged with ennui and faint regret, for me this is the ground zero point of what got tagged years later as New Romanticism. For me it wasn’t about makeup, foppery, tribal drums, or even videos. For my money it comes down to the emotional tenor of the music, specifically a world-weary ennui that’s redolent of old-world European cultures with enormous swaths of history behind them. Foxx’s lyrics speak of being dressed in “European grey” and he understands this point of view and is among the first to give it room to grow in the fertile Post-Punk soil. That it was recorded in early 1977  and was released by that year’s autumn show’s how far ahead of the game he really was.

This bracing, and at times highly abrasive album was never intended to win many friends, but the seeds it sowed certainly did influence people. This album, for my ears, drew the first Post-Punk line in the sand at a time when most people were just trying to come to grips with the still-emerging punk revolution. This album is admittedly difficult listening with its reliance on extreme contrast between corrosive noise and otherworldly calm with little in between, save for the perfect synthesis of the next five years that was “The Man Who Dies Every Day.” Ultravox! took major leaps into the unknown with their sophomore album that saw them leaving their youthful influences decidedly in the shade as they were quickly blazing new trails that many would soon follow. But not before producing their masterpiece.

Next: their masterpiece…

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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5 Responses to Rock GPA: Ultravox [part 2]

  1. Echorich says:

    Ha!Ha!Ha! is purely punk in ethic and sound. It is so schizophrenic. When they are abrasive they are almost too hard to listen to, and when they reach a calm it feels totally unexpected.
    The Man Who Dies Everyday and Hiroshima Mon Amor are the go to tracks for me when making an Ultravox playlist. Both tracks are certainly blueprints for Tubeway Army.
    I’ve heard a version of The Man… that JF performed with Louis Gordon a few years back and it was every bit as exciting and fresh.
    There is a sad beauty to Distant Smile that isn’t lost even when the amphetamines kick in.
    35 yrs on the album makes even more sense to me than it did when I first heard it.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich- Warren Cann has stated that the wall of feedback at the conclusion of “Fear In The Western World” went on for five minutes, and he is of the opinion that the more you listened to it the better it got! I also have the live version of TMWDE on “Impossible” and whenever Foxx revisits hie early past it is always invigorated in the process. That his present is just as good, if not better, is cause for celebration.

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      • Echorich says:

        I have to agree Monk, Foxx is a man completely in touch with his art at the moment. The two Maths albums are superior to almost anything released in the past 5 yrs. His recent collaborations have also been amazing. I am constantly listening to Mirrorball and love the almost chanted quality of Foxx’s vocals.

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  2. chas_m says:

    This is where I got on board the Ultravox train. Not the album per se, I confess, but via a “double-single” release that included “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “The Man” though I could no longer tell you what the b-sides were. I’ve always liked the “double single” form, and for a while I collected them from various bands, including Monty Python!

    Anyway, when I heard “Hiroshima Mon Amour” I knew I was to something special.

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