Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Ultra-hip, Ultra-chic 'Blitz Kids' Called Ultravox

Following Foxx’s departure from Ultravox, the band all but split, with the three remaining members going on to work with other projects to pay the bills. Billy Currie hooked up with a young former Ultravox ‘devotee’ by the name of Gary Numan, and played on Numan’s debut solo album ‘The Pleasure Principle’ (1979), and subsequent world tour. Drummer Warren Cann hooked up with Zaine Griff, whilst bassist Chris Cross tinkered away on projects with Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, and Eddie and the Hotrods vocalist Barrie Masters. Billy Currie had also continued his involvement with the cutting edge Steve Strange synth-pop outfit Visage (see separate post). Though essentially the brainchild of the eccentric Steve Strange, the studio based Visage boasted an outstanding roster of talent from other groups, including three members of post-punk mavericks Magazine, Dave Formula, John McGeoch, and Barry Adamson (see previous post), and two former members of another punk-edged outfit the Rich Kids, in drummer Rusty Egan, and a Scottish born vocalist/guitarist by the name of Midge Ure. Ure had already clocked up considerable experience over the previous five years, with the semi-glam outfit Slik, post-punkers The Rich Kids, and synth outfit Visage. Ure was also a fan of Ultravox’s earlier work, and having already established a solid musical synergy with Currie via their Visage work, he was the logical choice to front the new model Ultravox - and fill the roles of both singer and guitarist. Midge Ure and Ultravox agreed to work together in April of ‘79, but firstly Ure had to complete a stint as touring guitarist with Thin Lizzy before formerly commencing duties with his new band - see next post for more details on Ure’s career beyond Ultravox/Visage. Known later as ‘the classic Ultravox’ line-up, Ure, Currie, Cann and Cross signed on with Thin Lizzy’s management team, and began working on material for a new album during the latter part of ‘79. The revamped Ultravox also chose to play some very low key shows at home, and embarked on another short U.S. tour, with the view of further strengthening the band’s chemistry.

Ure’s recruitment to Ultravox seemed to breath new life into the formerly flagging group. The band retained elements of their former synth-rock identity, but firmly embraced the more commercial facets of the exploding ‘New Romantic’/electro pop movement. Now signed to Chrysalis Records, the first single of the Ure-era Ultravox arrived in June 1980 with ‘Sleepwalk’, which delivered the band their first chart hit (UK#29). It was lifted from the album ‘Vienna’, which was again co-produced by Conny Plank. On the strength of ‘Sleepwalk’, the ‘Vienna’ album initially pushed its way to #14 on the U.K. charts. The album melded a number of styles, perhaps indicative of the new line-up still finding its stylistic feet, or stretching its wings, probably the latter given Ultravox’s track record for pushing the stylistic/technical envelope in the recording studio. The next single, ‘Passing Strangers’ (UK#57), remained relatively anonymous in late 1980, but its follow up would push Ultravox to the zenith of the ‘New Romantic’/synth-pop scene. The album’s title track, ‘Vienna’, was a grandiose piece of synth-pop melodrama, boasting a hauntingly resonant sound. The song took it’s thematic inspiration from the 1948 film noir classic ‘The Third Man’. The accompanying music video, directed by Russell Mulcahy, also took inspiration from the film, and combined a backdrop of 1940s film noir and 19th century Vienna, weaving a tale of promised infidelity, forbidden love and murder (though set in Vienna, for budgetary reasons half of the video was shot at London locations). The video was befitting the atmospheric grandeur, and cinematic timbre of ‘Vienna’. ‘Vienna’ has always sent a shiver up my spine when I listened to it, from Cann’s pounding, reverb drenched drums, the sublimely lush orchestral/synth arrangements, Billy Currie’s transcendent electric violin solo, through to Midge’s Ure’s emotive vocals. It generates a palpable sense of being elevated beyond the everyday, luring you into an evocative world, drenching you in its mood, its atmosphere, its drama, its intrigue - like the most brilliant of classic cinema. The song’s indelibly melodic charm worked to temper its potentially pretentious ambitions, and established the new model Ultravox as a virtual synth-pop chamber ensemble, lavished with melodrama. ‘Vienna’ reached #2 on the British charts in early ‘81, and soon after broke the band in Australia (#11). It also earned Ultravox the Brit Award for ‘Best British Single’. ‘Vienna’ was later re-issued in Britain in 1993, and second time around peaked at #13. Sales of its source album surged as a result (UK#3/OZ#4/ US#164), and an earlier Ultravox song ‘Slow Motion’ (UK#33), from the Foxx era, was released as a single to cash in on the rise in popularity. By mid ‘81, Ultravox had scored their second top ten hit with ‘All Stood Still’ (UK#8), which showcased Cross’ pulsating Moog inspired bass lines, and Ure’s ultra dextrous guitar playing - just two more ingredients that contributed to the brilliant ‘Vienna’ album.

As is often the case following a mega-selling album, Ultravox faced the task of recording a follow up that would meet with the heightened expectations of both critics and the public. The Conny Plank produced ‘Rage In Eden’, had obviously grand ambitions, deemed by some to be too grand. Released in September of ‘81, the album bordered on excessive prog-rock in parts (according to some critics), but was an instant hit on its release in the U.K. (#4/OZ#20/ US#144). The lead out single, ‘The Thin Wall’ (UK#14/OZ#95), was backed by another engaging (and very cinematic) promo video, and its follow up ‘The Voice’ delivered Ultravox with yet another top twenty hit late in ‘81 (UK#16). During this period both Midge Ure and Billy Currie continued to be involved with the Visage project, who had scored a string of hits over the preceding year, including the brilliant ‘Fade To Grey’(UK#8/OZ#6). Still, Ultravox found time to return to the studio during 1982, this time in partnership with legendary Beatles’ producer George Martin. The collaboration resulted in the band’s most commercially accessible album to date, featuring a markedly warmer, more melodic sound with ‘Quartet’. The lead out single, ‘Reap The Wild Wind’, blew Ultravox into the U.S. Hot 100 for the one and only time in their career (#71) - British synth-pop acts never really made a substantial incursion into U.S. chart territory. The song performed considerably better on home charts (#12/OZ#69) in late ‘82, and though still boasting a moody edge, was definitely more aligned to a commercial brand of synth-pop. The follow up single, ‘Hymn’ (UK#11), further consolidated Ultravox’s transformation to commercial synth-pop vehicle, and lyrically, tapped into its source albums broader religious themes. ‘Quartet’ ascended to a peak of #6 on the British charts (US#61/OZ#35), and yielded two more British top twenty hits, ‘Visions In Blue’ (#15 - my choice as the album’s best track), and the more bare bones synth-pop approach of ‘We Came To Dance’ (#18), both released during the first half of ‘83.

Ultravox undertook a mammoth world tour, including the U.S., in support of the ‘Quartet’ album, resulting in the live album release, ‘Monument - The Soundtrack’ (UK#9) in late ‘83. With such a demanding schedule, Midge Ure parted ways with the studio based Visage (after producing their second album ‘The Anvil’), and by 1984 Billy Currie had followed suit. Of course, the relentlessly productive Ure was extending his extracurricular activities into other projects during this period (covered in more detail in the next post on Ure’s career). The Ultravox quartet reconvened over late ‘83/early ‘84 to record the album ‘Lament’, which they self-produced. The lead out single, ‘One Small Day’ (UK#27), signalled a further shift toward straight up commercial pop-rock, with the balance pointed firmly in favour of the guitar over the synthesizer. The follow up single, ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, echoed the evocative synth-laden sound of Ultravox circa-Vienna, and boasted another emotive vocal performance from Midge Ure. Lyrically, ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ dealt with the fear of a nuclear power plant meltdown, and was backed with the band’s most striking promo video since ‘Vienna’. ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ sparked a positive reaction on British charts (#3/OZ#58) and pushed sales for the ‘Lament’ album to top ten levels (UK#8/OZ#41/US#115). The album’s title track, ‘Lament’ (UK#22), a slower tempo synth-ballad, rounded out the first half of ‘84 for Ultravox. It also marked the end of the ‘classic’ Ultravox line-up, with drummer Warren Cann departing prior to Ultravox beginning work on their next full studio album in 1986. Cann moved to the U.S. and pretty much retired from the music biz in favour of pursuing a career in acting.

In late ‘84, Chrysalis Records released a best of compilation titled ‘The Collection’ (UK#2/OZ#14). The lead out single was a newly recorded track, ‘Love’s Great Adventure’ (UK#12), featuring hook laden layers of synthesizers, and backed by a clever ‘Indiana Jones’ pastiche themed promo clip. Ultravox then took an extended break, during which time Ure in particular kept maintained a high profile (see next post). In 1986, the band reconvened (minus Cann) to record the critically lambasted ‘U-Vox’ album (UK#9/OZ#92). They recruited the services of Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki (see separate post), but even the ace sticks man couldn’t imbue sufficient energy to lift ‘U-Vox’ off the canvas. The album lacked the creative adventure of previous efforts, and yielded just two minor hits, ‘Same Old Story’ (UK#31/OZ#93), and ‘All Fall Down’ (UK#30). The latter did push the stylistic boundaries into Celtic territory, and its militaristic rhythm augmented the subject matter, which dealt with the strife in war torn Northern Ireland. Perhaps the blandness of both album cover and title gave a strong hint that Ultravox’s creative edge had been dulled.

Ironically, as Ultravox’s commercial fortunes were fading, Midge Ure was experiencing the most lucrative phase of his solo career. Perhaps the chemistry had just run its course, and by 1987 the formerly vibrant Ultravox had become creatively listless. Following the conclusion of the U-Vox tour in 1987, Ure and Cross both decided to leave the band, though a formal announcement regarding the band’s split wasn’t issued until September ‘88. Chris Cross retired from the music business to pursue a profession as a psychotherapist, whilst Ure focussed fulltime on his solo career (see next post). After releasing the solo album ‘Transportation’ in 1988, Billy Currie toured during 1989 under the banner of U-Vox (with ex-Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon and vocalist Marcus O’Higgins), and revived the Ultravox brand in 1992, with a new vocalist Tony Fenelle - a new album titled ‘Revelation’ was issued in May of ‘93. Two years later, with another new vocalist Sam Blue on board, the Currie led Ultravox issued the band’s final studio album ‘Ingenuity’.

At time of writing the ‘classic’ Ultravox line-up had recently reunited for a U.K. tour. Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Warren Cann, and Chris Cross have stated the tour was a one-off, and was undertaken to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Ure’s joining the band.
For your fix of all things Ultravox -

No comments: