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Ultravox – The Complete Guide

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Ultravox
Ultravox photographed by David Bailey

From their origins as art-rock innovators with John Foxx to their seminal success as synth-pop saviours with Midge Ure, Ultravox may have changed their sound and their line-up but their ability to produce quality pop was continual… By Mark Lindores

Beginning life in 1973 as Tiger Lily, a glam rock band who wore their influences − Bowie, Roxy Music and New York Dolls a little too literally, they released just one single, a cover of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, before establishing a style of their own, scoring a deal with Island Records and deciding to call themselves Ultravox!

With lead singer/songwriter John Foxx at the helm, the band became known for their off-the-wall lyrics and their willingness to incorporate elements of glam, prog-rock and electronica into their music, assisted by producers such as Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and Conny Plank. However their reputation as a formidable live act failed to translate into commercial success and the departure of John Foxx to pursue a solo career and being dropped by Island Records left Ultravox in a state of limbo at the end of the 1970s.

Following a period in which remaining members had worked with acts they had been an inspiration for (Gary Numan), Ultravox reformed with new recruit, Billy Currie’s Visage bandmate Midge Ure taking over Foxx’s lead singer role. With a new line-up and new vision in place, the 80s incarnation of Ultravox leaned heavily towards an electronic sound, something that brought them the commercial success that had previously eluded them, with fans seduced by the seminal synths and strings of their defining hit, Vienna.

The new line-up garnered a reputation as being po-faced poseurs by purists alarmed at the reinvented Ultravox’s live act which saw them immobile behind their synthesizers. However, any fans that the band lost due to the changes, they more than made up for, going on to score an incredible run of success, notching up 16 Top 40 singles and 10 Top 40 albums, becoming one of the defining acts of the decade. 

By 1984, inter-band tensions jeopardised their future with Midge’s involvement in Band Aid and Live Aid and solo success proving to be its eventual finale, leaving behind a legacy encompassing both the art-rocker experimentalism of the Foxx era or Ure’s electro-imperialism which continues to excite and inspire fans over four decades later.

The Must-Have Albums

Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, 1977

Ultravox

Bruised by the commercial failure of their debut album, Ultravox! quickly brushed themselves down (it was released just eight months later) and adopted a “what have we got to lose?” attitude which freed them to experiment more with their music, lacing their frantic punky rhythms with electronic flourishes and experimental sounds, with screaming guitars and distorted violins vying for precedence. 

Perhaps sensing the end of punk was in sight, Ultravox!, again with Steve Lillywhite, jumped ship from being part of a dying trend by introducing different styles and influences including hypnotic, robotic beats and atmospheric peaceful waves to ferocious punky pop laden with distortion. Of the album’s highlights are chugging opener ROckWrok and Fear In The Western World, Distant Smile − with its gorgeous piano intro and The Man Who Dies Every Day, but the best is saved until last with the superbly sparse electro of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a teaser of where the band were heading.

Like its predecessor, the album was a commercial failure on release, its brilliance and originality only realised in hindsight.

Systems Of Romance, 1978

Ultravox

Having failed to achieve any semblance of success outside of their small fanbase, Ultravox took a fresh approach with their third album, discarding the punk and glam influences in favour of a more streamlined, European electronic sound, achieved with the help of Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank.

Recording in Cologne with new guitarist Robin Simon, the band embraced a new approach with the mechanised sounds that had been hinted at on their previous work now brought to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound, at times an interesting juxtaposition with Foxx’s quintessentially British delivery. Singles Slow Motion and Quiet Men are both highlights, though the album as a whole is cohesive and of consistently high quality with tracks such as Maximum Acceleration, Some Of Them, I Can’t Stay Long and Just For A Moment ranking among their very best.

Quite possibly one of the most underrated and influential albums of all time, Systems Of Romance is an obvious influence on Gary Numan and Human League, who went on to achieve the success that continued to elude Ultravox at this point.

Vienna, 1980

New line-up, new sound, Vienna was the turning point for Ultravox. Having failed to achieve any commercial success, Island Records released Three Into One, a best-of compilation album and dropped the band. This led to John Foxx and Robin Simon departing the group, leaving them in limbo until Midge Ure joined, marking a new phase in their career.

Now signed to Chrysalis Records and once again with Conny Plank at the helm, Vienna signalled the rebirth of Ultravox, this time with an eye on success, honing their experimental tendencies into mainstream hits with a succession of melodious melodramas, housed in a stylised package featuring the photography of Anton Corbijn and the design of Peter Saville.

At its strongest on New Europeans and the sparse synthpop of Sleepwalk, Mr X and the title track, Vienna is a snapshot of its time, synonymous with the posturing, preening New Romantics.

Establishing Ultravox as an entirely different beast from the John Foxx years, Vienna gave them the chart success they had craved reaching No.3 in the chart.

Lament, 1984

Ultravox

Having adopted a rockier element to their sound on 1982’s Quartet, by 1984 they expanded those influences into a more traditional rock/pop direction, mirroring the career paths of fellow art-poppers-turned-stadium rockers U2 and Simple Minds. 

While songs such as the title track, One Small Day, When The Time Comes and A Friend I Call Desire are all personal tales of break-ups, depression and feelings of inadequacy, the band also incorporated global affairs on tracks such as White China, Man Of Two Worlds, Heart Of The Country, which dealt with issues affecting China and Scotland while the album’s biggest hit Dancing With Tears In My Eyes considered
the prospect of nuclear war. 

Despite being one of their more harmonious records, Lament belied the behind-the-scenes tensions within the band. When Midge Ure co-wrote and produced Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? later that year, they were barely speaking and Warren Cann and Billy Currie weren’t invited to the recording of the song. With a title that proved prophetic, Lament was, in many ways, their swansong.

And The Rest…

Ultravox!, 1977

Having established a reputation as a solid live act, the yet-to-be-named Ultravox! signed to Island Records in 1976 and began work on their debut album, much of which had already been written while the band were functioning as Tiger Lily.

Influenced by fellow art-school rockers Bowie and Roxy Music, Ultravox!, together with producer Steve Lillywhite, crafted a set of songs bristling with a punky/glam fervour in line with their heroes. While Eno’s involvement has been subsequently overplayed (he was enlisted initially as a “name” to get the band noticed), the album’s helmsman is undoubtedly John Foxx, whose vulnerable voice and lyrics bring to life the tales of alienation, destruction and disillusionment resulting in a promising debut, particularly Wide Boys, My Sex, The Wild, The Beautiful And The Damned and I Want To Be A Machine.

Rage In Eden, 1981

Ultravox

Having finally broken through to the mainstream with Vienna, Ultravox continued their run of success, both creatively and commercially, with Rage In Eden. While the previous album had been a relative breeze, Rage In Eden was a much more prolonged affair, taking three months to complete. As well as feeling pressure at the prospect of repeating or topping Vienna, Midge and Billy were still working with Visage and Warren Cann suffered a broken arm in a car crash.

Once again produced by Conny Plank, the album came from the same sonic palette as its predecessor, hooky-synthpop with cinematic flair. Opener The Voice set the bar high, matched only by the upbeat I Remember (Death In The Afternoon). The absence of an instrumental is compensated for by many tracks akin
to extended versions.

Quartet, 1982

Firmly established as one of the leading lights of the synthpop scene, 1982’s Quartet was a major departure for the band, heading in a rockier direction, which Midge Ure claimed was as much to keep things interesting for the band as it was for their fans. Following three albums with Conny Plank, Ultravox enlisted George Martin to steer them in their new direction. Martin agreed to work with them as his daughter was a fan.

Much lighter in tone than Ultavox’s previous two albums, Quartet dispensed with the experimental arrangements keeping the songs to the point with mixed results. Visions In Blue, Hymn, Reap The Wild Wind and We Came To Dance are among the highlights, the latter an ode to the New Romantic movement. The shift in style proved successful with Quartet becoming the band’s biggest seller internationally.

Brilliant, 2012

A full 28 years after the Lament album, the “classic” (ie. The Vienna-era) line-up of the group reformed for the Return To Eden Tour. Originally planned as a one-off venture, the tour’s success was the catalyst for the band getting together in the studio to see if they could write and record new material without past problems resurfacing. 2012’s Brilliant was the result. 

While not quite living up to its title, Brilliant did contain some tracks which stood up next to vintage Ultravox, namely Rise, Flow, Live and the title track. Unfortunately, they fail to maintain momentum and the album suffers from too many overwrought ballads.

Always a band that prided itself on being unique, on Brilliant Ultravox managed to retain their identity without ever falling into the trap of creating a pastiche of former glories.

Read more: Top 40 Synth-Pop Songs

Read more: Making Spandau Ballet’s Journeys To Glory

The Essential Singles

Young Savage, 1977

Unsettled by the failure of their debut album, Ultravox! immediately headed back into the studio, experimenting with various styles and sounds in preparation for what would become their second album, Ha! Ha! Ha! Though Young Savage didn’t make the final tracklisting of the album, it served as a taster of the direction in which the band were headed.

Despite the inclusion of a psychedelic keyboard line from Billy Currie, Young Savage is a straight-up punk song with a lyric so poetic it makes the underbelly of society sound romanticised. With its infectious guitar riff, Young Savage has remained a fan favourite and was always a frenzied highlight of their gigs, though it was also the moment where one of the most unpleasant audience rituals was at its zenith – being the point in the set where the audience would spit at the band to show their appreciation.

ROckWrok, 1977

Released in October 1977 as the lead single from the Ha! Ha! Ha! album, ROckWrok (its unique spelling using random capitalisation was insisted on by John Foxx as that’s how he’d written the title while composing the song) is a Roxy Music-inspired slice of glam rock based on a beat “borrowed” from Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again and achieved the rare feat of garnering airplay on Radio 1 despite featuring the F-word in the chorus – inaudible to the censors apparently due to John Foxx’s vocal delivery.

Even more impressive than ROckWrok itself was its B-side, an early version of Hiroshima Mon Amor, a song which was rearranged in its more electronic form for the album after the band began using the Roland TR-77 drum machine. Based on the 1959 French film of the same name, the rockier, demo version of the track is favoured by fans over the album version.

Sleepwalk, 1980

The first single from the Vienna album, Sleepwalk is the song that jump-started Ultravox’s career. Following three brilliant though unsuccessful albums with John Foxx and being dropped by Island Records, Ultravox regrouped with Midge Ure and adopted a more electro sound.

Sleepwalk was the song that secured them their deal with Chrysalis. Having been asked to submit a demo cassette, rather than record three demo tracks, the band made the decision to fully realise one track instead. Again with Conny Plank on production duties, the band went into the studio and wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered Sleepwalk and submitted that to Chrysalis. As the first song completed in their new line-up it was a natural choice for opening the Vienna album and as its first single. Released in June 1980, Sleepwalk gave Ultravox their first chart success, reaching No.29.

Vienna, 1981

Ultravox’s signature song, Vienna spent four weeks at No.2 in January 1981 − famously held off the top of the charts by John Lennon’s Woman and Joe Dolce’s Shaddup You Face. The song has regularly topped polls as the greatest song to stall at No.2 in the charts.

Widely believed to have been inspired by the 1948 film The Third Man, Midge Ure has since revealed that he made that story up and the song is actually about a holiday romance he’d had. Released as the third single from the Vienna album, the band had to fight to have it released as a single.

“We knew it was the musical high point of the album and were determined that it would be a single and fought with Chrysalis over it,” says Warren Cann. “They thought it was far too long at six minutes, too weird for a Top 30 chart hit, and too depressing and too slow.”

Hymn, 1982

As tensions between the band members continued to marr the recording sessions of 1982’s Quartet album, Midge Ure later claimed that producer George Martin “smoothed things over”. 

Feeling their sound and process of working was becoming stagnant, Quartet saw Ultravox attempt to shake things up, replacing Conny Plank with the aforementioned Martin steering them to a much more polished, expansive sound.

Hymn, the second and most successful single from the album dealt lyrically with self-realisation, corruption and the struggle to hold on to faith in an increasingly faithless society, emphasised by paraphrasing the Bible and its terminology in its lyrics. 

Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, 1984

Ultravox scored their second biggest hit with 1984’s Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, the second single released from the Lament album. While impending gloom had been a consistent theme in some of the band’s lyrics up to this point, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes brought it to the forefront, setting the song in the face of an impending nuclear disaster – their social commentary being a key factor of Bob Geldof approaching Midge to co-write and produce the Band Aid single.

The song eloquently evokes a man taking comfort in the memory of a night spent with the love of his life while he awaits the inevitability of his life ending. It reached No.3 in the UK and was their final Top 10 hit.

Read more: Making Ultravox’s Vienna

Check out Midge Ure’s website here

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BBC Two to screen new documentary series, The 80s – Music’s Greatest Decade?

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Dylan Jones with Cookie Pryce (left) and Susan ‘Suzie Q’ Banfield (right). Image: Sebastian Barfield/Plimsoll Productions

BBC Two is to screen a major new documentary series about the pop music of the 1980s.

Starting Saturday 23 October, The 80s – Music’s Greatest Decade? is presented by journalist and author Dylan Jones.

The programme features contributions from Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Jazzie B, Trevor Horn, Bananarama’s Sara Dallin & Keren Woodward, Gary Kemp, Mark Moore, Cookie Crew’s Cookie Pryce and Suzie Q, Bobby Gillespie, UB40’s Ali Campbell & Astro, The Fall’s Brix Smith, Sarah Jane Morris and more.

Lorna Clarke, BBC Controller, Pop, says: “I’m delighted that we’re going to dissect the impact and influence of the 80s decade, culturally – an experimental period of time that divides opinions hugely.”

Dylan Jones says: “Interminable television programmes still suggest the whole episode was nothing but a calamitous mistake, a cultural cul-de-sac full of rotten records by shameful individuals with orange skin and espadrilles. I’m here to tell you this couldn’t be further off the mark.”

In the first episode, Jones sets out his claim: that the 80s was the most creative musical decade ever. He’ll assert that the 80s, unlike other decades, was undefinable by monolithic musical movements such as punk, disco or Britpop, and unleashed a myriad of new musical genres in just 10 years. To support his theory, he’ll hear from some of the leading musicians and producers of the era, who were at the forefront of the incredibly diverse music creation.

Speaking in the programme, Nile Rodgers says: “The 80s was the pinnacle for a lot of us musicians who had come from the 60s and the 70s. Reaching that place you had this great explosion of artistry in the 80s that ran the gamut.”

Keren Woodward from Bananarama says: “You’d hear something and think, oh that’s Bananarama, that’s Culture Club, that’s Duran Duran – and everyone looked their own way as well.”

Episodes two, three and four will feature a mixture of archive performance and music video, handpicked by Jones, which explore themes including the MTV generation; the birth of hip hop, the emergence of house and the rise of the rebels, who deliberately eschewed all they believed to be ostentatiously 80s.

Some of the artists explored in the series include Madonna, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, The Sugarhill Gang, Public Enemy, Bronski Beat and Erasure.

The 80s – Music’s Greatest Decade? is produced by Plimsoll Productions. The Executive Producer is Siobhan Logue. It was commissioned by Owen Courtney, Commissioning Editor and Jan Younghusband, Head of Commissioning for BBC Music TV.

To accompany this series, on Friday 29 October, Radio 2’s weekly step back in time, Sounds Of The 80s with Gary Davies (Fridays, 8pm-10m), will see Dylan Jones share four of his favourite 80s songs and why they are so special to him, as part of Sounds Of The 80s regular feature, My 80s.

The 80s – Music’s Greatest Decade? begins on BBC Two at 8.55pm on Saturday 23 October.

Want more from Classic Pop? Try an issue for only 99p today. Click here for more details.

Dylan Jones (centre) with UB40’s Astro (left) and Ali Campbell (right). Image: Sebastian Barfield/Plimsoll Productions

Read more: The Story of the New Romantics

 

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Listen to “Made a Vow” by Millie Turner

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I haven’t written about Millie Turner in a while. She is a singer-songwriter who often surprises me with a banger of a track. That makes me sit up and take note. Like she has with the track, “Made a Vow“, released last Friday. She caught my ear alight with previous releases “She Was A Dancer“, “Night Running” and “January“. Basically, her style is eclectic, electronic dance music. Which makes her niche enough but not so left-of-field either. I totally missed, Millie teamed up with Dadi Freyr last year (how rude of me). They smashed a cover of Haddaway’s “What Is Love?”

Before Covid came along, she was generating some serious buzz. Managed some tour support opportunities, alongside Tove Lo before restrictions came into play, for what has felt like forever. With live shows now resumed, she has returned picking up the thread where she left off. Is back on stage getting those gigs in and just released the very, seriously shimmery electro-pop track “Made a Vow“. She sings about setting herself a goal and not allowing others to tell her otherwise or try to change her mind. Essentially it appears to be a song about steering her own ship and having command of her own destiny.

Listen on Apple Music

When listening to the track I could very much imagine it as something in the same lane as La Roux might enter into. Shimmery, choppy synths and both singers with recognisably distinctive voices. The style of this track feels a fit for both these artists. I really hope to see Millie Turner’s name added to many festivals and showcases next year. There is some time to make up but equally feel sure she is an emerging artist back on the ascent and fast-rising. I was stupid enough to not follow her closely enough, but I have realised my mistake. For me, Millie is a crucial new pop proposition for 2022. I am confident that we will be hearing from her a lot.

Connect with Millie Turner
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/millieturnr/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/millieturnr
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/MillieTurner/





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Watch “Stung” by TIN – EQ Music Blog

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Out, with a new, track “Stung“, today (because, believe it or not, Adele is not the only one dropping new music today) is the Australian pop singer-songwriter TIN. After covering several releases by TIN on the blog, I have noticed he is an artist who thrives on creativity. Someone who is always looking for a way to change things up and give his audience something different. And yet, authentically rooted in queer intentions. More often than not, this means we have gotten to see TIN dress-up as a way of portraying various characters. (Or dress down to his Andrew Christian briefs as in the video for “Firm“). Supporting the release of “Stung” he’s taken his biggest artistic step yet.

You know, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season 3, I had been convinced into thinking Choriza May or River Medway were the new queens for me this season. But that was before I caught sight of the foxy lady in pink who appears in the TIN’s “Stung” video. The name of this stunner?… it is TIN (but I think she requires a drag name so I’m putting ‘Tin Ahh Glitter‘ out there as a suggestion). Who garbs up in drag alongside some of the fiercest queens London has to offer. Polka Dot, Le Fil, Coco Couture and JVST TINA. Visions of loveliness who exude the same BETTER big drag energy of the kind we were introduced to last night on the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

Listen on Apple Music

Stung” is a song of substance as well as fizzing with B.D.E. because of the video… TIN explains the track further…

Stung” is about not being underestimated and not putting up with other people’s rubbish. I wrote it after a night out at a trashy club in Brisbane, having met so many gay men who were taking themselves way too seriously. I get exhausted by people who are arrogant with nothing to show, and I wanted to write something a bit tongue in cheek about the experience.”

Sure to catch on quick, is the buzzy refrain “you betta watch out or you’ll get stung” . Practice, practice, practice this, girlfriends, TIN wants you, word perfect for EQ Music Live next Saturday 23rd October – Ticket details HERE

Connect with TIN
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tinofficialmusic
Twitter: https://twitter.com/tinofficialau
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tinofficialmusic/





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