Thursday, September 10, 2009

What's In An Exclamation Point! Ultravox! - The Foxx Years

If you were to examine a family tree that represented the British synth-pop movement of the late 70s through mid 80s, the band Ultravox would form a strong part of both the root system and trunk. Both the music, and members, of Ultravox played a crucial role in influencing and inspiring a myriad of other acts, attached directly or indirectly, to the synth-pop faction, and broader new wave/new romantic genres. The band’s legacy in terms of their own material, and stylistic stimulus upon other artists, is without question. But if just one song were to be singled out that could stand as an instantly recognisable testament to the Ultravox brand, for mine, it would be ‘Vienna’. The majesty and pristine musical finish of ‘Vienna’ embodied synth-pop perfection. When coupled with the song’s sense of literary drama, and the emotional resonance of Midge Ure’s vocals, ‘Vienna’ is not just a classic of the synth-pop movement, but an all time masterpiece of popular music. Not to mention that it was backed by one of the defining achievements in the medium of promotional music videos. But for Ultravox, the road to ‘Vienna’ had been a long and arduous one - after all, perfection isn’t attained easily. Ladies and Gentleman, a (very) potted history of that very road.

During 1974, just as punk was about to explode, singer John Foxx (real name Dennis Leigh) met up with bassist Chris Cross (formerly Chris St. John), who was in London to join an outfit called Stoned Rose. Instead, Foxx and Cross started another band called Tiger Lily, along with guitarist Steve Shears, violinist/synth player Billy Currie, and a Canadian born drummer called Warren Cann (who answered an ad in Melody Maker magazine) - actually Currie joined the band a few months into their journey. Tiger Lily recorded just one single together, titled ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ (a cover of the old Fats Waller tune), planned for release in March of ‘75, but withdrawn (eventually released in 1980 on the Scottish label Dear Good Records). Over the next year or so, the band went under a variety of names (the Zips, the Innocents, London Soundtrack, Fire Of London), as they tried to bridge the gap between artsy avant-garde glam rock (Roxy Music), and the surging high energy of punk (New York Dolls), using the synthesizer as a key weapon of choice (with Billy Currie unleashing the electric violin on occasion). By 1976, the quintet had finally settled on the new moniker of Ultravox! (that’s with an exclamation point), having already signed with Chris Blackwells’ Island Records label (earned in part by a showcase gig for the Island suits).

In March ‘77, Ultravox! issued their eponymous debut album, co-produced by the band with none other than former Roxy Music member turned gun producer, Brian Eno (with Steve Lillywhite). Neither album, nor associated singles, the reggae-synth hybrid of ‘Dangerous Rhythm’, or the surging ‘Young Savage’, struck a chord with the wider record buying public, but interest was sufficient to encourage Island to back the band for a second album just six months later. October ‘77’s ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ saw the band experimenting a little more in studio with instrumentation and arrangement. Though the album missed the charts, Ultravox! were carving a considerable niche for themselves in the burgeoning post-punk/new wave market, and attracting positive interest from music critics. The band had also attracted a considerable following as a live act, with their mesmerizing synth-glam-punk fusion captured on the February ‘78 live EP ‘Retro’, pieced together from various live gig recordings over late‘77/early ‘78. But soon after Ultravox! experienced the first shake up in their ranks with the sacking of guitarist Steve Shears (went on to Cowboys International), replaced by ex-Neo member Robin Simon. In the months following the band spent time in Germany recording their third album, with former Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank at the helm. Sometime during the sessions the band also lost the exclamation point from their moniker, and in September ‘78 Ultravox released the album ‘Systems Of Romance’, their most electronic-oriented, and experimental, set to date. The album again missed the charts, but at the time (and subsequently) was cited as a landmark album in terms of its limit defying development of the synth-rock, electro-pop genres, captured in tracks like ‘Slow Motion’, ‘Dislocation’ and ‘Just For A Moment’.

Despite the band displaying a rapid rate of growth as an artistic entity, the poor commercial returns eventually prompted Island to drop Ultravox from their roster in early ‘79, just prior to the band embarking on a disastrous self funded U.S. tour. Frictions within Ultravox led to front man John Foxx announcing he would leave the group upon completion of tour duties, whilst relative newcomer Robin Simon also left the scene to remain in the U.S. (he later hooked up with Magazine - see separate post). John Foxx departed in pursuit of a solo career, subsequently signing on with Virgin Records to release his debut set, ‘Metamatic’ (UK#18), in January 1980. Foxx moved markedly into a harder-edged electro-pop sound which finally secured him some commercial interest. Within a year, Foxx had scored three British top forty singles, ‘Underpass’ (#31), ‘No-One Driving’ (#32), ‘Burning Car’ (#35), and a second top thirty album ‘The Garden’ (UK#24) followed soon after. His old band Ultravox may have also been about to break through commercially, but it’s unlikely Foxx felt any regrets over his departure from the band. He continued to release a steady stream of well received singles/albums through until 1985’s ‘In Mysterious Ways’ (UK#85), after which the enigmatic singer/producer broke completely from the music scene to try his hand at a career in graphic design. In the early 90s Foxx began making tentative steps back into music via the house/acid scene, and in 1997 returned as a fully fledged artist with the albums ‘Shifting City’ and ‘Cathedral Oceans’, confirming that he’d lost none of his penchant for pushing the boundaries of electronica. Foxx’s most recent albums include ‘Tiny Colour Movies’ (2006) and a planned 2009 release ‘My Lost City’. To this day, John Foxx remains a seminal figure in the history and development of the post-punk/synth-pop movements, alongside his old band Ultravox, whose history will be explored further in coming days - so as they say in the classics, stay tuned!

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