Ultravox – UVOX | 1986 – 0.5
When we last left Ultravox, the band had soldiered on into a rapidly changing British music marketplace where their traditional sound was losing ground admid a resurgence of more conservative rock music. The band pulled their biggest hit next to “Vienna” out of their hat but there were no assurances that they would be able to do it again. The end of 1984 brought with it their inevitable greatest hits album, “The Collection,” just in time for the lucrative Christmas market. That album was graced with a new single, “Love’s Great Adventure” which was the band at their kitsch-laden peak. A rousing “boy’s own” tune that would have been inconceivable from the band at any time from 1977-1983.
While that album and single were entering the market, Midge Ure took a fateful call from his friend Bob Geldof, and the saga of Band Aid began in earnest, with Ure playing the straight man to the Boomtown Rats singer as the Band Aid Trust became infinitely more newsworthy than even the cream of British pop [plus …Shalamar?] that sang on the record-breaking charity disc released in time to smash all Christmas single records. Ultravox were put on the back burner for all of 1985 as Ure was sucked into the Band Aid vortex. The only Ultravox activity in 1985 was the band’s appearance at Live Aid.
And then, a Midge Ure solo single appeared in the fall of 1985. He had released two of these before. “No Regrets” in 1982 was a cover of the Tom Rush ballad by way of Scott Walker that was a corker of a hit in the UK charts, reaching the top 10 with ease. In 1983, he teamed with Mick Karn for “After A Fashion,” a quirky tune that barely scraped into the UK top 40. Though differing in popularity, both of these seemed like Midge Ure records. No so with “If I Was.” The sappy MOR ballad was an embarrassment, or should have been, but is anyone really embarrassed by what turns out to be a number one single in the UK? This was followed by an album, “The Gift” that was in some ways, a logical step forward from the state of Ultravox ca. 1984, only with much worse writing.
I bought the second single, which opened with the howler “cross your heart and hope to die it’s love,” and only felt safe buying the album after the third single, “Wastelands” seemed to have a little Ultravox in its blood. The album was hit and miss, mostly the latter. It was inexplicably peppered with instrumentals, of which the fiery “The Chieftain” was clearly the saving grace of the entire album. Mark King of Level 42 contributed a world-conquering solo on that hot number! Elsewhere, the cheesy production featured loads of digital synths, including the Scourge of the Eighties®, the dreaded Yamaha DX7. It was at this juncture that I began to look backward and see the Midge Ure era of Ultravox as having perhaps been a mistake. It was inconceivable that I would wait long months to buy a Midge Ure album. Had he put one out in 1982-84 I would have bought it sight unseen, but “If I Was” [along with his self-directed video] was such a steep dropoff in quality, that I dared not blindly follow the Ure brand any longer.
Thus it was after the pivotal year of 1985 that Ultravox re-convened to make what would be their 1986 album. There was dissent in the group as drummer Warren Cann wanted to stop playing drums and play some rock guitar. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with guitarist Ure, who was the defacto leader of the group. Lines were drawn, chips set upon shoulders, and Warren Cann was fired from the group he’d played with for a decade. The three remaining members picked up Mark Brzezicki of Big Country [!] to fill the drum seat and plodded along, making the album with Conny Plank, who’d overseen their best recordings. But not this time.
Like every other group in the mid-eighties, the band added a horn section to the proceedings to liven things up. Like most of the others, this was largely a mistake. History reveals that Duran Duran and The Stranglers managed to escape this trap without too much egg on their faces. The pre-release single “The Same Old Story” was a horn-driven pop rock number with femme backing vocals and jazzy brass that was unrecognizable as Ultravox material, and yet, it was arguably a better pop song than much of the Midge Ure solo album. Too bad that can’t be said for the rest of this album.
“Sweet Surrender” is as repetitive a number as the band had ever did. A powerful bass riff is called upon here to carry the entire song and fails as the rest of the song is found to be wanting. Tellingly, the bass on this song is by Kevin Powell, of Ure’s solo band and not Ultravox bassist Chris Cross. Ure’s lyrics are more fluff of the variety that had been his stock in trade post-1983. “Dream On” is an attempt at the atmospheres of days gone by that fails due to a lack of invention and its own plodding self. Its nearly five minutes seem interminably longer. “The Prize” is a highly polarizing number among Ultravox fans, but I have to admit, next to the numbers that preceded it, it at least evidences a pulsebeat of some sort of life with its busy horn charts perhaps diverting attention away from Ure’s tired homilies that pass for lyrics.
I almost sound churlish to mention this, but the fact that Ure left school at 15 to be a rock star in Slik really comes home to roost with his attempt to write lyrics in the context of this band. The fact remains that John Foxx completed his matriculation, received a liberal education, and was almost 30 when he began writing songs… and brother does the difference show! With no training or raw materials to draw upon, Ure can only offer up well-meaning cliché to sit like an indigestible layer of lard on his musical pastries. The difference between a craftsman and an artist was never more apparent than when comparing Ure with Foxx in this area.
Then, the second single released from the album comes next in the program. “All Fall Down” is billed as Ultravox with The Chieftains, but it’s really The Chieftains with Midge Ure singing; apparently fulfilling his ambitions to be Irish, which is a lamentable strain in his vexing career. The lyrics revisit the nuclear anxiety issues of “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” with an appalling attempt at righteous anger that only serves to come off as clumsy bluster. The music is just awful – tiresome Irish folk music with the Ultravox name plastered on it.
The sing-songy “Time To Kill” is another gaffe that staggers the listener. Is this really the output of the once-mighty Ultravox? This wouldn’t have passed muster even on “The Gift.” The lyrics are incredibly trite. “Moon Madness” offers more schmaltz after a descending opening guitar chord that sounds like something a dire hair metal band would have used without thinking twice. “Follow Your Heart?” There’s some real news right there! I’d have never thought of that! All of this is couched in music that doesn’t even begin to sound like Ultravox. Really, only the dire “Dream On” has their spoor attached to it and even that song has me itching to press the “next” button. Speaking of which, one thing I’ve noticed is that as the shift came from vinyl to CD, most of my favorite acts released really weak albums as their material to debut on CD for the first time. I don’t think it had anything to do with the format per se, just the horrifying mid-80s zeitgeist that affected most bands that I enjoyed.
The album is capped with an orchestral track that once again features the hands of George Martin on its arrangement. “All In One Day” is the band’s final single from the album that barely troubled the UK top 100. Ure tried to encapsulate the spirit of Live Aid into song and failed because this sounds like a particularly leaden outtake from an Alan Parson’s Project album you’d rather not hear. Really, George. All we said about “Quartet” is taken back! What I’d give for another Ultravox album that was as least as successful as that one! This, is clearly not that record.
Following this farrago of an album, Ultravox limped through a tour of Italy [where they lost a ton of money] and called it quits. Two years late and thousands of dollars short [literally]. Midge Ure opted naturally for a rapidly diminishing solo career following this period while Billy Currie began his solo career in earnest. Warren Cann moved to L.A. to become an actor [unsuccessfully] while Chris Cross fell back on his university training, as a psychotherapist. The continuation of Ultravox after losing their founder in 1979, only to reach their commercial peak two years later, came to a grinding halt here. The brand had by now lost all meaning. Surely, this was the end for the band?