[…continued from past post]
LIVE @ HAMMERSMITH ODEON 1981 CD1
The fourth CD in the box got to what was the main reason why I am vulnerable to a box that will represent the 9th time I buy an album like “Rage In Eden.” I am a sucker for a live concert recording. Especially with a band like Ultravox who made it a sticking point to never use tapes onstage to get their often complex music across. Seeing them trade off instruments and the carrying of parts with split-second timing on live performance footage was its own reward. Hearing the recording is the next best thing to watching it, and the slightly more reckless power they took to the stage makes of the listening its own reward.
They boldly began the show with “The Thin Wall,” a heavily sequenced dance track that still had the toughness of rock music. This band never forgot that they were a rock band at the core, no matter how sophisticated their technique and arrangements could get. This is a difficult song to sing as I suspect it may have been sung line-by-line and edited together in the studio as it’s challenging to keep that intensity up on such a fast tempo. But Midge Ure still managed to nail it to the wall.
“New Europeans” continued the synth bass section that opened the show. And once “Sleepwalk” happened next, we had Ultravox ditching all of the guitars for synthesizers. They gave it a solid, extended intro with a few more bars of its relentless motorik energy to soak up and savor. Of course with Billy Currie’s penchant for pitch bending solos, who needed guitars? He always played with a relish common to guitarists but rare in keyboardists. His solo in the middle eight was capped off with haughty choral patches either probably from Ure’s synth.
The synth bass opener continued with “I Remember [Death In the Afternoon],” the first of the new songs played in the concert. The concert followed this “should-have-been-single” with the deep-diving intensity of “Stranger Within” wherein Chris Cross got to bust out his bass guitar and let his freak-flag fly with the sort of sinuous bass playing that drove the bus on this song and placed him in a class with the likes of Derek Forbes.
The fact of the matter was that Cross was the one person worst-served within the band with producer Plank’s taste for midrange frequencies. Cross often was the odd man out; lost in the mix. Here, his vicious bass playing got the love for a change and it was marvelous. Listening to him sparring with Ure and Currie in the song’s extended coda where they hand off the ever increasing bolus of paranoia at the core of the track was an exercise in dynamics and balance. Each adding sharp and angular emphatic blows upon the vibe. Lasting until the track finally evaporated like the bad dream it was.
A crystalline “Mr. X” followed with the title track to “Rage In Eden” hot on its heels. I loved how the intro beats shifted their stresses until the rhythm ultimately resolved itself into a different form by the time the song coalesced. Tangy riffs of Ure’s guitar sparked obliquely against the relentless mantra of the bass synth and drums. Currie’s strings were a new addition to the live version; echoing the backing vocal harmonies. With that, part one of the concert was done.
Next: …Vocal Climax
Totally agree on your reflections re the placement and prominence of Chris Cross bass guitar throughout a fair bit of the Ultravox oeuvre. Frustrating, as Stranger Within as you rightly point out, is Derek Forbes-esque and totally on point for its time. I always felt (as a bass player) the bass guitar needed to be more muscular on this and the previous album. I saw the Rage in Eden Tour at the time and was blown away by how less ‘pretty’ everything was live. The Voice has a sublime bass feel but again, it just needed a bit more oomph in my opinion. At a time when people were raving about Forbes, John Taylor, Martin Kemp and Simon Gallup to name a few, I agree Chris was let down by the overall production choices of Plank (no question: he was a GENIUS). Maybe the focus on the mid frequencies was geared towards TV and radio’s of the time – not everyone had a great stereo back then even though record sales were dominant access format. Love your work.
Greg C – Welcome to the comments! Thanks for the kind words. A bass player who uses the word ouevre?! You’ll fit right in here, son! Isn’t it great to be gaining new appreciation for Cross with these two boxes? I always felt that Ultravox had two visionary musicians: Warren Cann and Billy Currie leading that band forward. Cann was synthesizing a new era in drumming and Currie was the most expressive and creative synth player out there. Mind stunning bass was had in a band like Simple Minds but Ultravox [and by extension Chris Cross] came off as anemic in comparison. Now I can see that it was down to mix decisions. Midge is a great guitar player. Excellent, tough tone, but I’m still not done being blown away by how Robin Simon integrated with the synths almost seamlessly under the aegis of Plank. That purposeful blending of guitars and synths on the same soundstage on “Systems Of Romance” to the point of not knowing where one ended and the other began was the bomb for me.
I think you have a great point you’re making as I can imagine Plank [or any old school producer of similar vintage] mixing for cheap playback options. I’ve read more than once of producers in their day monitoring on the same cruddy speakers that a portable radio might have, or others who played back on a car system if that day. With Plank it might have been something as prosaic as his higher frequencies were gone by that time! I think mixing should be a young man’s domain, since old geezers like us might top off at 12,000 Hz. In the same way that I laugh at geezers who’ve spent 50 years in front of Marshall Stacks like Neil Young, lecturing me on the sound quality of various digital formats! Memo to self; have hearing tested.
> I’ve read more than once of producers in their day monitoring on the same cruddy speakers
The rumors are true.
A staple since the 1980s if not the 1970s, and still in demand today in spite of being out of production for decades. If we were to rank a loudspeaker on a scale of 1 to 100, the NS-10 would be precisely a 50. Not good enough to be good, but not shitty enough to be shitty. When I was working at Chicago Trax in the 1990s, we mixed *everything* through those puppies… and then, yes, we’d take a cassette out to someone’s car to hear it there before committing the final mix to 1/4″ tape or DAT.
JT – That was super pragmatic and effective. Nice to know some heresay is true!
Just started listening to the live tracks from the 1981 Hammersmith Odeon concert. Not grasping, until now, that they did not use tapes back then, I am completely amazed at how visceral the sound is. Amazing stuff. Much better than “Monument,” in my opinion, which is the only other concert against I can compare. And always, thank you for your insightful reviews.
Finetime – You’re welcome! I liked “Monument” [particularly for the excellent BVs from Messengers] but the movement of their tech from analog to thinner sounding digital synths over time meant that earlier live recordings sounded much better to my ears. And yours as well, from the sound of it.
You ain’t heard nothing yet…..
While we are talking about Monument, funny you should mention Messengers. For years, until I found the explanation in the interwebs, I thought Midge announced “Our support band, Mass-ah-duce.” I bet if I listen to it again today, I will still miss-hear that phrase.
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Finetime – “We were talking, passing strangers, no man’s gonna cross an empty room…”