Starting in January 1977, I decided to publish my research into the career of John Foxx in short narrative passages. One chapter here each month, on the 40th anniversary of the original events. Reverse chronology.
Please note that this is all my own independent work, and is not endorsed by John Foxx, by Ultravox or by any agents or representatives on their behalf etc.
The text is taken from a much longer biographical project I have been working on for several years and still editing. Anyone with evidenced corrections, anecdotes, photographs or memorabilia is invited to get in touch and all correspondence will be acknowledged and followed up.
There is no intention to misrepresent facts, and all events described here have been researched. However, the narrative chronology is assumed and interpreted, and some artistic license is exercised. Any errors will happily be corrected once detail is substantiated.
All opinions expressed are my own, unless credited otherwise.
Please link to this page by all means, but don’t copy the text and paste elsewhere.
At least, not without asking. Thank you
© Martin Smith, 2019
John Foxx (NME. September 1980):
I just felt like a ghost. I don’t want to be too dramatic about that, but people that I know tell me that for about two years during that period I was hardly there at all. I felt very detached, more like a machine. There was a distrust somewhere. I couldn’t open myself up at all. I was damaged in a lot of ways and exhausted. I just felt like a shell. I remember walking around London trying to feel things, anything, and I couldn’t, it had all been burnt out.
I was very wrapped up in living a kind of automatic way of life and living and I want to be like that. I was interested in the way William Burroughs used to do his speech things, in a flat monotone, and I was reading too much J.G.Ballard as well. I was getting very interested in certain aspects of identifying with machines. I also held the point of view which was pretty central to Metamatic that there’s no such thing as nature as opposed to machines or technological development – they are part of the same thing. Like a factory is as natural as a tree.
Towards the end of June, In the City published a special edition dedicated to the “Past Present & Future”of Ultravox, which not only brings together all their features on the band from the previous two years, but also includes new (entirely separate) interviews with John Foxx and the others talking about not only their time together, but their current situattion on plans for the next phase of their careers. During May, Foxx was interviewed by Francis Drake at his home in Tollington Park where, he reveals, he has already recorded ‘more than half the songs for an album’ working with a drum machine, a synthesizer and a Revox. Foxx describes the songs (which include Blurred Girl, Tidal Wave and A New Kind of Man) as both melodic and functional, along the lines of Hiroshima Mon Amour and My Sex – his favourite parts of what Ultravox did as a band. Listen again to Blurred Girl and you will here how the backing rhythm is the same as that used on Hiroshima…
“The music I am doing now is just what I have wanted to do for a while, and its even better than I expected. Its not necessary to work with a band anymore, and I just want to see what someone can do one their own. I don’t even have to go into a studio. Just one man and his ideas, working away with a machine. It’s very exciting and it’s got limitless possibilities.”
(In The City, June 1979)
Foxx goes on to reference three artists working this way whose current work both inspires and interests him in particular. We have already learned of his admiration for Thomas Leer’s ‘Private Plane’ single (see April 1979), and he goes on to commend Leer’s subsequent album The Bridge, recorded with fellow influential DIY post-punk pioneer Robert Rental and released on May 7. After meeting fellow sonic maverick Daniel Miller at a Throbbing Gristle gig, Rental worked with the Mute founder as The Normal on a UK tour, recording the album Live At West Runton Pavilion in March 1979 (distributed through Rough Trade). Miller himself had previously recorded and released Warm Leatherette using two Revox B-77 tape machines – the same as those owned by John Foxx.
In his interview with In the City, Throbbing Gristle also feature among the list of artists Foxx currently admires. Their approach to ‘music’ as ‘organised noise’ echoes his observations on the earlier work of the Velvet Underground. Though not released until 1986 (as “CD-1”), TG recorded a TEAC 8-track album of meandering studio experiments in one day in their Hackney studio in March 1979 – further establishing this period as one of the most under-rated but influential periods in the development of the emerging industrial and electronic genres. Contemporary significant releases also include Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark’s debut single Electricity (DinDisc), Tubeway Army’s second album Replicas (Beggars Banquet) and Cabaret Voltaire’s debut Mix Up (also on Rough Trade). London. Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield – evidence immediately of a wider geographical happening heralding a national awakening far beyond the range of the very London-centred punk movement.
A different scene began…
In London itself, the city’s socio-economic and political climate was no further forward than it was when Foxx first arrived six years previously. The country was emerging from the ‘Winter of Discontent’ characterised by widespread strikes in response to the failing Labour governments attempt to control inflation and disputes with the Trade Union movement over payrises in the public sector.
Uncertain times prevailed; there was no-one driving…
Following what also happened to be the coldest winter for two decades, Conservative opposition party leader Margaret Thatcher forced a vote of no confidence in James Callaghan’s government (which he survived by a single vote) leading to a general election five months before the term of office was due to end. Thatcher won the election on 4 May with the largest swing from one party to the other for 30 years.
While national newspaper headlines ran with soundbites on the Conservative majority under banners about a divided nation, music papers the same week broke news of Ultravox split to their readers. Journalist and broadcaster Will Self was drinking in a pub the night Thatcher was elected: “my mate was crying when the result scame in. I said, “Don’t worry, the fight is now on”. ”You don’t understand” he replied; “John Foxx has left Ultravox”.
John Foxx – Blackpool Neon Tango
Having mutually agreed to go their seperate ways at the end of the tour, John Foxx and Ultravox parted company and he flew back to London alone the day after the last gig at Redondo Beach.
The tour had gone well, and the crowds exceeded everyone’s expectations. Thanks to the support and professional connections of the Copeland brothers, the astute bookings in advance of the tour and the timing of an English rock band visiting most of the Stateside emerging punk and new-wave clubs – not to mention the band’s own skill and presentation – they ended up making a profit. A rare thing in Ian Copeland’s experience. Few bands without a record deal at the time toured so extensively and played so many shows to such large numbers of people, as well as securley three or four live-to-air broadcasts. But the demanding pressure of such an intense tour was too much, especially in circumstances that were less than favourake before they set off.
John Foxx agreed that ‘Ultravox’ could keep the name, and they determined (at least according to Warren Cann in an interview published in Melody Maker) to find a new singer with “a different attitude” and establish a more so-opertaive workign environment. They would take a break before recruiting though, and the various members set off looking for other bands to work and perform with. It is often overlooked that Robin Simon chose John Foxx’s departure as the time to leave the band himself, and he chose to stay in America with Grace Weisbard. They married at the end of April, and Robin found work in New York with a post-punk electro band called The Futants before going back to London to join Magazine.
Back in the UK, Gary Numan – a big fan of Systems of Romance and the crafted keyboard playing especially – got in touch with Billy Curire who agreed to work with him on his next album The Pleasure Principle. Tubeway Army’s predecessor, the seminal ‘Replicas’ hit the high street record shops on April 6th. In issue 9 of IN THE CITY fanzine, Gary Numan makes on eof his many references to the influence of Ultravox:
Oh yes, the latest album Replicas almost completely rips off Ultravox!! Some of the things they do are doom laden too! That’s probably what I like about the band. I like John Foxx’s voice as well as some of the keyboard runs, they’re very effective”
Currie toured with Numan over the summer of 1979, and subsequently joined the line-up of emergent New Romantic fashionistas Visage with Steve Strange, DJ Rusty Egan and guitarist Midge Ure. Visage’s first single “Tar” (Radar Records, September 1979) has been referenced several times by Billy Currie since as one of the songs he came up with during the preliminary sessions for Systems Of Romance, but he and John Foxx disagreed over it and so the track was never used. Mind Of A Toy seems to have a similar back story, though readers may be more familiar with the track ‘Mr X’ on Ultravox first post-Foxx album Vienna (Chrysalis, July 1980). There are undeniable similarities between this song and John Foxx composition ‘Touch And Go’ on his debut solo album Metamatic (Virgin, January 1980) – both use the same melody, again conceived and discussed during the Systems sessions. It wasn’t used at the time, and each musician chose to return to the same idea later once their paths diverged.
John Foxx himself used money from the proceeds of the tour to buy more recording equipment, and immediately set himself up at home with his Revox tape machine writing new material. He went to visit Thomas Leer, and is said to have turned up at Leer’ s home one evening to enthuse about the Private Plane single, whose initial handmade sleeves had the singer’s address on the back. Foxx had his own ideas of doing something similar, working alone in his bedroom, producing independent music created wholly on electronic instruments.
But he also went to Germany, where an exhibition in Hamburg celebrated “25 Years Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” featuring his artwork for the Systems Of Romance project. Muzikexpress in Germany reported that Foxx was keen to display his artwork in other cities too, but it is not known whether this ever happened.
UK music press reported the Ultravox split at the end of the month (including the comments from Cann referenced above) and made no comments about the future of either party. While on the other side of the world, one belated review of Systems Of Romance in particular now seems both prophetic and visionary. In ‘Woroni’ (Newspaper of the Australian National University) “The Amazing Atholl” observed that “[Ultravox] seem to be desperate about something all the time as if they are trying to be part of the new technological society, but aren’t really happy about it… Listening to this album is a bit like talking to your own reflection in a piece of polished steel.”
Foxx was settling himself into his bunker.
Concrete, bulletproof and invisible.
Looking for a place among the car crash set…
John Foxx – A man and a machine
Ultravox intense schedule for the rest of the American tour really kicked off after the successful gigs in New York. They played two shows a night in most places (probably all, but this is difficult to evidence), starting further up the East Coast at the Paradise Theater in Boston for shows attended by BCB Art gallery curator Bruce Bergmann and supported by his friends in the local band Human Sexual Response. Their experimental ‘outer rock’ sound has been compared to both Talking Heads and the B-52s. Reflecting on their support slot for Ultravox, songwriter Windle Davies described an ‘electrifying’ experience. The high energy atmosphere gave the band three encores, and Davies affectionately remembers this as one of his career highlights. Singer Dini Lamot concurs, adding that he especially appreciated the respect with which Ultravox treated HSR:
Here they were, coming over from England to play with a band they’d never met. I would add that these four shows were the best collaborations between two bands that I have ever had in my career. People still tell me now 36 years later how great those shows were.
(from an interview with the author, 2016)
The adrenalin carried Ultravox 500 miles west on 4 March to play at Stage One in Buffalo, NY (where members of The Cars were in the audience) and then over the border into Canada for the tour’s second highlight – a three-night residency at Toronto’s hippest nightclub The Edge. For a tiny venue located in a former residential property, the Edge had a reputation far beyond its size as one of Amercia’s foremost ‘tastemaking’ venues. Promoters Gary Topp and Gary Fournier already had 999 at the venue, as well as Nico and The Velvet Underground before Ultravox sold out there. But it really was very small. 250 capacity with a stairwell in the middle. If you were on side of the building with the tiny stage, you saw the band; if you were on the far side where the bar was, you heard them. The stage itself was taken up by a grand piano, and Ultravox had to set their synths on top of this, using a sheet of plywood to protect the instruments.
They played two sets, but this time with only 45 minutes between them, and without necessarily realising that half the audience stayed for both! Three songs into the second set (Man Who Dies Every Day, Slow Motion and Slip Away) the crowd started booing and pelted them with bread rolls. John Foxx eventually got fed up with the screaming, and invited anyone with something to say to come up onto the stage and express themselves. Ken Schafer did precisely that, explaining that they had seen this set only an hour early. After a quick group chat and some re-shuffling, Ultravox changed tack and played the three new songs in a more electronic ‘second half’.
The pressure of two shows each night for ten days now was starting to show, as photographer and journalist Lyndsey Dawn Hammond observed after shooting the band backstage at The Edge:
“I never got to talk to him [John Foxx] as he seemed so insular and I didn’t like to invade, but in the photos it is evident how apart from the rest of the band he already was, and so infinitely bored with it all. I remember that when the guys were rounded up to meet the press they were all tired and wanted nothing to do with it”.
Nevertheless, the relentless schedule rolled on. The gigs were each 400 miles apart, and the band moved west through Detroit and Chicago to meet up with The Police, travelling in the opposite direction, at Grinnell College in Iowa. The latter weren’t doing especially well at the time, and lead singer Sting was reportedly quite ill. His mood wasn’t helped by an oversight made by College event staff who advertised headliners Ultravox “and The Police” as if they were the one band. By all accounts, The Police played only 20 minutes, out of tune, and far too loud for the small room. Ultravox, by contrast, destroyed the audience offering “an insightful musical experience”. John Foxx remained calm throughout the set, one hand on the microphone in his way, until the violin solo in Artificial Life when he went ”totally berserk” and cleared the crowd for ten feet around the stage.
Ultravox only day-off during the American tour was Sunday 11 March, and they spent it on the road travelling the 1500 miles west across country into California.
First stop on the West Coast was the University of California in Davis (UCD), a small city outside Sacramento where Ultravox played a low-key gig to students in the Coffee House. Before the show, John and Billy co-hosted an interview with local radio station KDVS. Both men seem relaxed, and are having a laugh in each other’s company, leaving aside for a moment the tensions within the band on such a stressful tour. In a spontaneous moment, they even put together a spoof ident for the station when presented with a piano in the studio!
UCD served as a useful basecamp before the ascent to the tour’s peak over the next five days: two nights at the Old Waldorf theater in San Francisco, followed by a three-night (six show) residency at the legendary Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood. At the Old Waldorf, the second show of the first night was recorded and broadcast live-to-air by Terry Hammer, a DJ who famously documented the San Francisco punk scene and rated Ultravox very highly. “I remember it well,” he recalls.”They were electric, though they started really late. It was a short set, 9 songs, and lasted only 45 minutes.”. Support was provided by local maverick band The Readymades (who supported the Police at the Theater a week earlier), but they almost didn’t make it. Singer Johnny Postal was imprisoned the night before after a violent incident. Had it not been for the coincidence that the Ultravox gig was being promoted by Bill Graham, one of the most powerful men in the business at the time with significant legal advisers, Johnny Postal may not have been released in time for the show.
Then came three nights at the “Whisky” on Sunset Strip, surely one of the most famous venues Ultravox ever played. Yet curiously, very little media exists around these shows other than listings before the event. Unlike Hurrah and The Edge, there were few leading journalists present, and no-one has yet come forward with photographs or even press reviews. Only the LA Times had anything to say of the third night, describing Ultravox with little enthusiasm as “Solid, but not particulaly brilliant.” Perhaps the exhaustion finally kicked in at the Whisky? Frayed tempers and fragile personalities drifting off too far? Overcoats closing in. Touch and go…
With only three wheels intact and the engine firing on less than enough cylinders, Ultravox limped down from the Whisky to complete the last three dates in LA on the last vapours of their oxygen supply and with personal relationships shattered. 70 minutes. 14 songs. Fans knew nothing of the internal dysfunction, and continued to beseige them at The Squeeze club in Riverside, the Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa and the final date at The Fleetwood in Redondo Beach, the largest of the South Bay clubs.
Few of the (claimed) 1200 present will forget John Foxx at the end, standing alone on the brink of the stage, covered in spittle, with his arms outstretched, snarling “f*cking posers” at the hipsters, punks and ‘proto-chicks’.
“Every sneer is thrown away
With practised gestures of disdain
The outlaw stance is so pedantic
Hate the world, it’s so romantic…”
Dislocated – Ultravox reach the ‘End Of Part One’
This American tour, between February and March 1979, is of especial personal interest and has been the subject of significant research over several years.
If you have information, anecdotes or anything at all on these shows please do get in touch.
Ultravox flew to America in mid-February 1979 on a low-cost flight with Laker Airways, which allowed them no luggage restrictions and so enabled carriage of all their own instruments and backline amps. As well as the synthesizers, guitars and drum machine, Warren Cann added a ‘new toy’ to his arsenal – one of the first gadgets designed by Dave Simmons in his High Barnet based record store-workshop. The ClapTrap was essentially a ‘metal case with knobs on’, about the size of a chocolate box, used to add handclap effects to a percussion track. ‘Crude, but brilliant’, affirmed Cann which he used throughout the tour via a heel-to-toe latch mechanism under his left foot.
The band were met at the airport by Ian Copeland in his large Econoline van, with a station wagon on hand to carry the musicians and their kit from gig to gig across the country. Their first scheduled stop was an ‘opener’ at the Bayou Club in Washington, but there is no evidence they played this show and only a single liisting in the Washington Post would suggest it was even planned.
Instead, the “American debut’ took place at the Hot Club in South Street, Philadelphia where Ultravox performed two shows on Friday 23rd February.
Copeland had tapped into the city’s subculture and set up gigs like this at emerging venues catering for the underground punk and new wave scene. A hardcore minimum of 200 people attended every show at the Hot Club, and both Ultravox performances were sold out. The second set (which didn’t start until the early hours of Saturday morning) lasted approximatley an hour and 20 minutes, during which they played 14 songs chosen from their full catalogue. Opening with Man Who Dies Every Day, Slip Away and Slow Motion (one track from each album), Ultravox then crashed through Artifical Life, Quiet Men, I Can’t Stay Long and Someone Else’s Clothes – pausing for breath to present Just For A Moment and Hiroshima Mon Amour alongside the new song “He’s A Liquid”, introduced by John Foxx as being about the way in which people are changed by the circumstances around them. The show closed with a starkly minimal presentation of My Sex when “they reached the end of the oxygen supply” before coming back out for a two-track rock-out encore comprising “Young Savage” and “The Wild, The Beautiful and the Damned”. Support was from local Philly band The Shades, and the show was broadcast live to air on local radio station Q102.
The following day, Ultravox did move to Washington, and played two shows at The Atlantis Club in DC with only an hour break between them, again supported by The Shades. During its short, intense lifespan of less than 18 months, the Atlantis became the epicenter of the Washington scene. It occupied a converted restaurant and was initially conceived in order that the owner’s brother’s punk band Urban Verb had somewhere to play. The vision was to encapsulate the vibe of CBGB’s in Manhattan, but sadly the violence of the punk scene that came with it proved too much for the owner and neighbours alike and it was forced to close just a few months after Ultravox appearance. The band’s set shifted slightly for this second outing and was extended – even if the playing time wasn’t – to include a viola-splashed version of ‘Touch And Go’ and a one-time only frenzied take down of ‘Maximum Acceleration’. ‘RockWrok’ came in to replace ‘Young Savage’ and acted as a fevered closer, swapping places with ‘My Sex’ that instead opened the encore, sequeing into a second run through of ‘Man Who Dies Every Day’ in place of TWTBATD. “Tight and well run” said Therese Segall in the Washington Post; “Haunting and intricate”, said the Washington Post.
In his book “Wild Thing”, Ian Copeland suggests that he did in fact try to get Ultravox a gig at CBGBs on the lower East Side, but found the owner Hilly Krystal to be sceptical of the band’s popularity and status. Krysatl allegedly refused to offer them a fee. So instead, Copeland booked Ultravox into the Hurrah ‘rock disco’ a couple of miles across town in West Street. Hurrah was struggling at the time, losing a lot of its business to nearby Studio 54, and the owner Robert Boykin was a personal friend of Copeland’s. He had never heard of Ultravox at the time of the booking, but was convinced to book the band by his Dj Jim Fourrat, who enthused that he was “a massive fan”. Fourrat visualised the club as a place to expose new bands live on stage alongside the latest dance and disco sounds. Fourrat – founder of the Gay Liberation Front – had been into Ultravox for a while, and played Quiet Men regularly in his set. He was a pioneer of new wave, rock and even industrial music, and instigated video screens around the club to enhance the atmosphere. On Fourrat’s recommendation, Boykin booked Ultravox for three nights and offered them a significant sum of money. Enough, according to Copeland (when combined with a similar fee in Toronto) to put the entire tour in the black.
Thus the residency at Hurrah became one of the cornerstones of the Ultravox tour, and crowds flocked to see them. Billboard reports that the second night (Wednesday) attracted more than 600 people, who squeezed into a venue apparently licensed for only half that number. Among these were many of New York’s foremost music journalists, including Lou Stathis of Heavy Metal magazine, Steve Grant for Trouser Press and Cathy Nemeth whose review was later published in London’s In The City fanzine:
The hypnotic “Hiroshima” indicate’s Ultravox’s direction to some extent. The new songs the yintroduced in the course of the set were structurally simple – like aural honeycomb, “Radio Beach’s” gentle chorus “we’ll run forever” and the equivocal synthesizer break persist like the memory of a colour. John Foxx called “Touch And Go” a completely synthetic song. While Warren Cann summed up the cool and uncanny “He’s A Liquid” as the new dirge. Built of strata and tension, Liquid was the most intriguing of the new songs. The vocals were a vague compromise between singing and speaking (although some of the vocal had no words at all). When the guitar spoke, it was with a far Eastern accent. An Ophidian violin line crossed the charged atmosphere like a cloud sculpture. The encores “Blue Light” and the sultry, much anticpated Rockwrok” wound down to the cool neon imagery of My Sex – a song “for all of you”
Nemeth’s review – and some of the bootlegs recorded at the gig – suggest Ultravox played a short set at Hurrah. Only twelve songs are listed, including another new song entitled “Radio Beach”. Unlike “He’s A Liquid” and “Touch and Go” which were rehearsed and studio demo’d back in England, Radio Beach was new for the tour and unfamiliar, Introduced by Foxx as “a song about Blackpool Beach in England, the Golden Mile, where you can’t see the sand for all the transistor radios”, these handful of shows represent the only known perfrmances of this song.
Also at one of the Hurrah shows was British writer and socialite Anthony Fawcett, John Lennnon’s former personal secretary. Jim Fourrat introduced Fawcett to Foxx and the two became friends once their acquaintance was renewed at a subsequent gig in California. On his return to England in 1981, Fawcett met John Foxx again at his studio in Shoreditch, and was in turn introduced to Howard Devoto and Genesis P.Orridge. Fawcett went on to become on one the leading facilitators of London’s underground and arts scene and later introduced Foxx to film-maker Michaelangelo Antonioni via his PA ‘Dante’…
Further reviews of the Hurrah shows were published in local student newspapers, variously describing Ultravox as “unusually challenging”, “capturing the sound of our times”, and “like cold cybernauts, attempting to transcend their nuts and bolts.” Any one of these could be attributed to a young Grace Weisbard who, on meeting the band backstage, formed an immediate relationship with Robin Simon that was to impact on his own future with the band.
For his part, and true to the escapist nature of his alter-ego The Quiet Man, John Foxx spent almost all his time off stage walking New York alone, away from the band, the hangers-on and the associated media. He took many photographs of the city, in particular around central Manhattan where he “made notes to write hymns for buildings and streets. Wanting to connect ancient embedded church music to modern cities via electronics, without disrupting continuity.”
Writing in the New York Times, Ken Emerson astutely picked up on the lead singer’s detachment after watching him on stage at Hurrah:
“His alienation seems to be alienation for its own sake, and not for any particular expressive effect. The group sounds promising, but he needs to devleop a sound and sensibility he can call his own…”
Ultravox in Canada and the West Coast
This American tour, between February and March 1979, is of especial personal interest and has been the subject of significant research over several years.
If you have information, anecdotes or anything at all on these shows please do get in touch.
Before Ultravox were despatched from Island Records (and before John Foxx announced his own intention to leave), the band had already made significant plans to travel to America and play a series of concerts there for the first time. These extended as far as a booking in Toronto (Canada) and similar at the Whisky-a-Go-Go in Hollywood, made back in August. Despite record company reservations that they would get nowhere as they had no radio airplay, the band were determined to travel across the Atlantic and join the new wave of band’s leading the charge in the name of English ‘post-punk’ rock.
Their departure from the label only seems to have strengthened Ultravox resolve to make the trip anyway, and – with John Foxx in complete agreement while serving out his notice – they committed to fund the tour themselves. Following up industry connections, Warren Cann secured the help of promoter Miles Copeland, founder of the British Talent Mangement agency and self-appointed manager of his younger brother Stewart’s band The Police. Copeland also managed Chelsea and The Only Ones and initially intended that Ultravox would travel with them, but as he had already arranged a tour of the United States for the Police, it did not take him long to line Ultravox at the same venues – playing the same circuit from east to west coast but in the opposite direction.
Key to the speed of the bookings for Ultravox was the middle Copeland brother, Ian, operating as Frontier Bookings International in New York and already responsible for establishing many small clubs across the States. The Copeland brothers put English band Squeeze into these mostly unknown venues through 1978, and then established the Police using the same tactics. American clubs were still only just opening up to new bands, and some did so especially on the promise of getting first dibs on some of the Copleand’s roster. Many were bored with punk – the American movement born in clubs like CBGBs in New York’s Bowery in 1974 – and had further distanced themselves from the English ‘corruption’ of that style and the associated violence.
In his biography “Wild Thing: Backstage-on the road-in the studio” (Simon & Schuster New York, 1999) Ian Copeland writes:
“many of the clubs that had been unmoved by punk bands were attracted to Ultravox. Huge areas of the country had only really heard of the Sex Pistols, and were turned off the minute they heard the word “punk”.
Furthermore, they [Ultravox] had been told over and over again by every other agent in America that it was impossible to tour without a shortfall, paid for by a record company. Since I was already talking to promoters about my hopes for bringing a whole new wave of British bands over, I began to refer to Ultravox and all the bands after that as ‘new wave’.”
In Toronto, Copeland revised the initial booking and set Ultravox up to play three nights at The Edge in March – a brand new club that only opened on December 31st 1978. And once the triumvirate foundation of the tour was in place (Toronto, LA and Hurrah in New York), advertisements for ‘the hottest new wave bands in the UK’ started to appear in the American press. Listings featured nationwide, including high profile newspapers from Billboard to Rolling Stone and Variety:
Associated reviews of Systems of Romance accompanied the announcements, describing the album variously as “truly memorable”, “bristling with possibilites” and packed with “irrepressible energy and intellectualism”. To prepare the American audience, new comparisons were made. As well as Bowie and the Dolls, Ultravox were likened to King Crimson, the Talking Heads and other electric vanguards including Pere Ubu and the little known Gentle Giant, a sophistictaed prog band from London popular with university students.
The “American debut” was announced at the end of the month, while other dates were still being filled in. The Brits were coming, and in February 1979 Ultravox, Chelsea and The Only Ones were set to open their Stateside accounts in Philadelphia’s Hot Club:
Ultravox in America – the East Coast shows
We have no press cuttings or information from the UK media relating to Ultravox tour of the United States during this period. If you can provide something, do get in touch.
Similarly if you have any information, corrections or anecdotes to this story that can be added to the John Foxx archive I would be delighted to hear from you.
The end of the beginning…
A difficult one this – reflecting a turbulent time of mixed fortunes for Ultravox. Everything looked great from the stage, with hundreds of eager fans queueing to get in to every live gig; but the view from behind the smoked glass of the record label management office was very different. ‘Systems’ was steadfastly not selling – while concert tickets could not have sold faster. The band’s appeal was frustratingly limited to a body of loyal and enthusiastic followers – but beyond that, in terms of breaking into new audiences and reaching a critical mass that carried them chartbound, Ultravox made no further progress. A broader appeal evaded them, and the writing was on the wall…
Meanwhile, the sellout success of their third European tour carried Ultravox triumphantly back to the UK, where they announced a celebratory show at the Lyceum in London’s West End on December 10th. Three support acts were lined up for a memorable evening at the 2,000-capacity seated venue: the certifiably crazed, screeching Angletrax (with Martin Heath on bass) brought a taste of Germanic darkwave; mysterious local band The Snips (about whom I still know nothing) performed without making an impression; and thirdly postpunk-poets and Peel favourites The Skids fresh from recording their debut EP in Maida Vale. Frontman Richard Jobson’s “unforgettable dancing” was to become an iconic image of the band throughout their ensuing years of chart success.
(Make a note – there are two individuals named here who will feature again in the story of John Foxx…)
See: “an archivist’s dilemma” for more on this advert
Ultravox performance at the Lyceum was as good as any they ever gave, variously described as “amazing”, “elegant” and “berserk” in the music papers, and the set (rather surprisingly) included two new songs as well as the most unfamiliar and ‘electronic’ arrangement of Just For A Moment they ever played. The new tracks were introduced by Foxx as “When I Walk Away [sic]” and “He’s A Liquid”, the latter being about the way in which “people are changed by the circumstances around them”.
And prior to the Lyceum show (as well as playing warm ups in the Midlands) the band tentatively made their first UK television appearance – for the Old Grey Whistle Test on December 5th. Chris Cross and Billy Currie both played keyboards in an electronic version of Slow Motion, while a disengaged Foxx drifts away on a tide of his own through this and a bassed-up and buzzy version of Hiroshina Mon Amour, carried along by Billy’s beautiful ARP solo.
Both a debut and a legacy in one elegant and hypnotising eight-minute performance…
A couple of weeks later, the writing on the Island Records wall that prophetised the end of Ultravox took solid form in the printed pages of NME.
An announcement in the paper on December 15th reads:
“Ultravox have left Island Records after three albums by mutual arrangement and with no recriminations.” Lack of commercial success (25,000 copies of Systems was considered a poor return) and a lack of direction were to blame, and the contract was to be terminated at the end of the year.
With practised gestures of disdain, Ultravox arranged two final shows at their spiritual home, the Marquee, for Boxing Day including a matinee for under 18s at 3.00pm. The new songs featured again, arranged differently to the Lyceum show and pumped up to segue into Young Savage. Attending this with a friend, lifelong Foxx-fan Richard Heraghty recalls ‘something of a gulf’ between John Foxx and the rest of the band when he met them between the shows before heading off to see Public Image at The Rainbow. Foxx had just announced he too was leaving the band, and everyone was uncertain of their next move.
Set list – UlTRAVOX: 26 December 1978 (Marquee)
The Man Who Dies Every Day
Some of Them
Hiroshima Mon Amour
Just For A Moment
I Can’t Stay Long
He’s a Liquid
When I Walk Away [sic]
Someone Else’s Clothes
At the invitation of fan and fellow musician Rusty Egan, Billy Currie and Robin Simon went to drown their sorrows at a nearby Soho club called Billy’s, where Egan DJ’ed a Bowie Night. Sipping garishly tinted cocktails, as Simon Reynolds recalls in Rip It Up and Start Again (Penguin, March 2006), the despondent Ultravox guys perked up when Egan played “Quiet Men” from Systems of Romance.
The full dance-floor mix from the 12-inch single was having an effect, albeit on the underground scene. Gradually, Currie and co. realized they were in the midst of a fledgling neo-glam subculture, where like-minded ‘romantic rebels’ were already re-designing sound and vision in flambouyant new styles.
Shifting, things were shifting…
Ultravox plan their first American tour
With Quiet Men waiting in the shadows just outside the door to the UK charts, (knocking but unheard) Ultravox travelled to Europe for their third visit to Germany, and for the second time this year. Audiences here were expectant, appreciative – and huge; they had been waiting since the dates were announced on a flyer issued with Ariola’s release of Slow Motion. Enthusiastic reporters in Bravo magazine ambitiously claim over 1500 fans saw the band in Munich’s bohemian Scwaßinger Brau venue (October 23rd), and it is certainly true that each of the fourteen venues was quickly sold out. Ultravox following was so large in Germany they played two consecutive shows at the legendary Kant Kino cinema in Berlin to a capacity crowd of 600 both nights, performing songs from all three albums. On November 5th Ultravox played to 1,000 people in Hamburg’s Market Hall, and the following day John Foxx was interviewed about this show and the German experience for Sounds magazine. Speaking from a flat in Berlin he rented for the duration of the tour, Foxx expressed his appreciation for German fans interested in the more philosophical aspects of the songs and how much he enjoys talking to them after the shows. He spoke of the Systems album artwork too, explaining some of the rationale behind the imagery for the first time:
“Some people think romance is completely natural. But even when you write a novel, romanticism is systematically built up. It’s a whole system, from the tree to the printed page. A functional process at every stage. I also wanted to express that on the cover, where I use pictures as a visual description of the phrase. They represent advertisements. Signs that surround you every day. Like the suit someone wears: fashion is also part of the Romantic system. Likewise the city in which you live. And how people adapt to it, like when they feel the raindrops falling in front of a white neon light. Politics is another. For example, the statue of Lenin on Red Square in Moscow. Before anyone goes into politics, he must work out what he wants from other people. Which will influence the effect he wants to have on others. Above all, this is a question of image.”
You can read all this interview (in both German and English languages here)
A special art booklet was produced for this tour, and made available to fans at each venue. It contains eight collages by Foxx which have been reproduced in various formats throughout his subsequent career including re-issues of the album. As interviewer Alfred Hilsen observes, they draw on the concepts of both Contructivism and Futurism, recognising the postitive influence of machines and systems on human society.
From Germany, Ultravox travelled back from what was to be their last tour of Europe via Belgium and a final gig at the celebrated but short-lived Rose Bonbon in Paris. Here John Foxx “positively crackled with static energy” and the group gave a typically relentless, uncompromising and “visually stunning” performance.
On arriving back in the UK, John Foxx and his colleagues would have found three records on sale that were set to change just about everything. Recorded over the summer in his girlfriend’s flat, Thomas Leer pressed 650 copies of his single Private Plane and distributed them each with individually hand-coloured sleeves. Thanks largely to Tony Parsons making this single his Record Of The Week in NME( October 21st) the stock sold out quickly, and one at least found its way into the collection of John Foxx. Tracking down Leer at the address writtten on the sleeve, John Foxx paid a visit to his flat, eulogising over tea about the originality of the record.
Another DIY home-grown strange fruit available at the same time – and distributed from the back of the same van – was a record by The Normal (aka Daniel Miller) : TVOD / Warm Leatherette. The B-side struck many chords and shattered many windscreens.
A Ballardian breakthrough. Crash.
A “fine sound”, declared Mr Foxx of the burgeoning industrial music, recorded by Miller on two Revox tape machines and released as Mute 1 on his own independent label:
“the idea of all that technology being taken away from record labels excited me so much” (Melody Maker, January 1980)
Alongside these pivotal seven-inchers came the debut album by Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army. 5000 copies pressed on striking blue vinyl and released on the underground independent Beggars Banquet label. “I was a really big fan of Ultravox”, said Numan, “but their sound wasn’t quite heavy enough and didn’t quite convince me what synthesizers could do. So I took it a bit further.” Every Day I Die, he sings on alienation and detachment.
Perhaps a oblique manifestation of the Man Who Dies Every Day?
But we’ll leave the last word of this month’s narrative to John Foxx, speaking to Francis Drake for In The City magazine, issue 8.
“What I find most exciting about synthesizers is when they sound like themselves. If you want a bass guitar sound, then use a bass guitar. But you could make a transistorised version of the same sound by plugging the guitar into a keyboard and pressing keys to make the sound. So there’s another way, in between. A hybrid sound as well. We need to experiment more with synthesisers as instruments, as other sources of sound. We now have a literally unlimited choice.”
Ultravox at the end of the road
If you saw Ultravox at any gigs on this tour in Germany, I’d love to hear from you.
Anecdotes, memories, photos, press cuttings – all welcome and will be useful contributions to the John Foxx archive at metamatic.com
Similarly, if you can add information generally to the Ultravox story from this period, or correct the narrative in any way, do get in touch
There was no hint to any followers of Ultravox that all was not entirely well within the band at this exciting time that appeared (to all intents and purposes) to present as the beginning of ‘something’. Systems Of Romance was selling steadily, there was a high profile in the media and every night on the tour was reviewed highly and enjoyed by everyone that saw them play. To a live audience, Ultravox could do no wrong and continued to be among the biggest draws on the UK circuit. They were establishing themselves as a significant influence – many gigs on the Systems tour attracted the next generation of msuicians seeking to make names for themselves: OMD watched them play in Liverpool, Gary Numan in London; members of the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield and Leeds. In Chelmsford on 1 October, a 17-year old David Gahan was in the crowd at Chancellor Hall a year or so before he joined Vince Clarke and Andy Fletcher to become Depeche Mode. Fletcher too was a fan of Ultravox, and has said that the first incarnation of DM sounded ‘rather too much like them’.
Ultravox themselves then went to Leeds, playing the opening night of the Fan Club’s new location with local band The Limit; followed by dates all round the north of England including Wakefield, Cleethorpes, Birmingham and Preston. They returned to Scotland, squeezing in an extra (unscheduled) show at the Town Hall in Grangemouth with (The) Simple Minds between nights in Dundee, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Venues seemed to change frorm those originally listed in the press adverts for the tour back in September. In Dundee they played Samantha’s instead of The Stage Coach, and at Rafters in Aberdeen instead of Ruffles. At the Kinema ballroom in Dunfermline a rare less-than-capacity crowd (though still over 400) insisted the band played three encores, including going though Young Savage twice.
On the crest of this wave, Island released the next single ‘Quiet Men’, described by John Foxx as one of the best songs Ultravox wrote together. An astute choice for single release, the song had been familiar to audiences for six months and was among the most popular in the live set. There was an optimism in the camp that this would be their breakthrough. Indeed behind the scenes, label management were insisting that it had to be. To maximise the chance of success, Conny Plank was flown over from Germany to produce a special 12-inch extended mix, tapping into the same current that brought Kraftwerk their crossover success:
We wanted to make a dance version for clubs that would play as loudly and powerfully as possible… I went to several cutting rooms to find out how to do it. Turns out that the only way was to spread a single track over 12” album format. We managed to persuade Island to do this. We mixed it specifically so Warren’s metal beats would shred speakers.
(John Foxx in Record Collector, 2009)
Plank also worked on a 7-inch edit of the album track for radio play, so in the end three mixes of Quiet Men were put together and released on coloured vinyl – a positive (but rather ambitious) sign that Island expected significant returns this time around. Foxx himself designed the sleeve extending ideas from the parent album, different ones for the single and the 12-inch. The latter draws on a scene from John Ford’s Academy Award-winning film 1952 film “The Quiet Man”- John Foxx once again referencing sources outside music to expand his work.
.“A very concise piece of self-description”, he said when interviewed about the song for Sounds:
“l tried to write something very normal, without drama, about the Quiet Man. He’s a plural figure in the song but the idea of the quiet man who’s got a set of beliefs and operates on those, but doesn’t necessarily try to impose them on anyone else is the opposite of what rock ‘n’ roll does to sell records.”
Peel picked up on Quiet Men immediately and played it every night during the week after its release, both the 12-inch version and the B-side, a new track called Cross Fade. More film and cinematic references, in the last piece he recorded with Ultravox. And more hints in the lyric that Foxx was looking beyond the band, craving the withdrawal and tranquility offered by the Quiet Man persona:
We’re driving and we’re drowning and we’re drifting in a daze
The journey was crazy, I’m trying to close my eyes
While Peel was doing his best to break the band on the wireless, UK music critics continued their quest to destroy them. “Technicolour tack” was the best Record Mirror could come up with, while NME smashed their nail into the coffin with a hammer labelled “disco rhythms for the retarded…”
Respond to that unnecessry critique as you will, but it won’t have helped.
Things were shifting…
Ultravox return to Germany.
If you saw Ultravox at any gigs on this tour, I’d love to hear from you.
Anecdotes, memories, photos, press cuttings – all welcome and will be useful contributions to the John Foxx archive at metamatic.com
September 1978 (Part Two)
Armed with a new cache of instruments – including a Minimoog for the first time (used, for example, on Slow Motion and Quiet Men), the ARP Odyssey, an Elka Rhapsody 610 string-machine and Warren Cann’s Roland TR-77 rhythm box – Ultravox took to the road to promote Systems Of Romance across the UK. The tour opened (according to the listings in press as printed on adverts for the album) rather inauspiciously with a ‘warm-up’ at the 77 Club in Nuneaton, Warwickshire on Tuesday 12th September where Doll By Doll opened proceedings as the travelling support band. An interesting pairing – like Ultravox, Jackie Leven’s new-wave folk-rock band were popular live (he sounds not unlike Van Morrison), but considered out of touch with what was going on around them by the music press. Doll By Doll played with Ultravox on alternate and ‘occasional’ dates on this tour, which often clashed with their own schedule ahed
Initial press listings had Ultravox down to play next at the Fan Club in Leeds, but the venue was closed down over the summer and does not appear on the official tour schedule. Instead, there was a gap in the itinerary until the Friday, when they started proper at the Penthouse in Scarborough. As the name suggests, this was an upstairs venue, which meant that all bands playing there had to lug instruments and PA gear up a flight of concrete stairs before they could play. Nevertheless, it was regularly sold out and hosted famous names thorughout its short 13-year history including Derek and the Dominoes (featuring Eric Clapton), The Sex Pistols, David Bowie and The Police. Safety concerns eventually forced the Penthouse to close after Barclays Bank (downstairs) complained about the dangerous ceiling, under pressure from the crowded, pogi-ing fans. Many of the venues Ultravox played were similar: seedy, small and awkward; popular with punks; and prone to over-crowding and violence. But this was after all 1978 – these were the UK’s most popular venues. It was the way of things in those days.
At AJ’s in Lincoln for example – a notoriously ‘difficult’ club – John Foxx called a temporary halt to proceedings after he and the band were continually pelted with bottles. There are similar anecdotes from the Coatham Bowl in Redcar where over 800 fans crammed in to see their local heroes Blitzkrieg Bop perform their 60th gig. Singer John Hodgson (aka ‘Blank Frank’) denied that tables and chairs were thrown at the stage during Ultravox performance because the support band were denied an encore. He did recall that Utravox were ‘very, very good’ though, and spoke particularly fondly with Billy Currie over a shared interest in keyboards.
Ultravox returned to The Outlook in Doncaster (Monday 18th) and then played The Sandpiper in Nottingham, where Foxx was interviewed after the show by Bev Briggs for Record Mirror. The gig at Sheffield’s Limit Club was difficult for Foxx in particular as the underground venue had a very low ceiling, but equally the band were challenged as the sound system was too loud and distorted everything. Chris Cross has described it as ‘the most aptly named club in England’ and lists this gig as one of the worst he ever played.
Most of the other venues were packed to their 250-odd capacity for every Ultravox gig, including both shows (they played a matinee for under-18s) at Eric’s in Liverpool. After this gig, John Foxx recalled it being one of his favourite venues. Chatting to a girl backstage afterwards, she said “don’t forget me” and waved on leaving.
“I found that very moving, so I made a note of it and kept it for a song”…
There was a gap in the schedule either side of John Foxx birthday – and given his experience in Bristol on 29th it is no surprise he wanted a day off from the relentless abuse. On the notoriously grey and uninspiring Yate overspill estate, fans report meeting Warren Cann in a nearby off license and hanging ’round the back of’ Woolworths where they could hear band soundchecking ‘Hiroshima’ . At the infamous Stars & Stripes Club (one of the best known Northern Soul clubs in the south of England, celebrated for its all-night parties) John Foxx was described as being on magnificent form; “glacially cool glampire” according to one member of the crowd, despite “the audience gobbing on him relentlessy. He didn’t flinch though, or even blink; stood still and sang while gob dripped off his face like a melting wax mannequin.”
Whatever Foxx was trying to do with Ultravox at this point, it clearly wasn’t coming through to this audience in these situations:
“Music is like most things in this consumer society, it has to function to exist. It has to perform some task before it becomes real – disco music, Gary Glitter… they have functions, exist as dance music. Ultravox? I suppose our function is as a cinematic band, to trigger off pictures in people’s minds. Cinema is a great escape and is therefore a very functional form of entertainment.”
Foxx wasn’t happy as the front man in a band anymore (if indeed he ever truly was), performing for people who had apparently little appreciation for the subtleties of his craft. The violence can’t possibly have appealed much. His cultural reference and inferences were overlooked. He had his sights on a different horizon, and reflected on his position after a heavy gig:
“Popularity changes attitudes just as your writing changes and your perspective alters. The most important thing to remember is why you started doing it and what sparked you off in the first place. It’s tough. It’s like listening to your first record, you realise how you invested everything into your own dreams, but you don’t understand what it all means.“
(Record Mirror, September 1978)
These opinions didn’t often tally with those of his colleagues though, and behind the scenes relationships within the band were strained. They were each commited to the tour and the album, but were struggling to see where the path ahead took them beyond these current events.
If you saw Ultravox at any other gigs on this tour, I’d love to hear from you.
Anecdotes, memories, photos, press cuttings – all welcome and will be useful contributions to the John Foxx archive at metamatic.com
September 1978 (Part One)
Depending on which newspaper source you read, Systems Of Romance was released somewhere between 4th and 11th September 1978* Official communication from Island Records ahead of a re-issue in 2006 suggests September 8th, a week after the band appeared live at another festival – the Canet Roc outside Barcelona. In its fourth year, Canet Roc was more of a hippie/ Woodstock affair than a ‘rock’ festival and favourite acts on the bill were led by Nico and Kevin Ayers. This might explain why Ultravox (appearing in Spain for the first time) were, according to some reports, booed and ‘pelted with tomatoes’. Others suggest they were the best act at the festival, outperforming even the ‘fantastic’ Blondie…
Typically divisive, it will come as no surprise that Ultravox third album split opinion when it came to be reviewed in the popular press. The “mutant glitterbeats”, cryptic drum patterns, Teutonic bass and plunging synthesizers were a runaway hit with Sounds and Melody Maker, yet the same Germanic blend of romantic sensibility and electronic rhythms was dismissed as “pompous, idealistic verbiage” in the NME. This was Ian Penman’s view – he and John Foxx had a notoriously difficult relationship. Perhaps he wrote provocatively by design? Whether or no, the comments wound up Foxx sufficiently to cause him to call the writer late one night threatening all manner of ills. “If only IP had taken the time to actually study the lyrics,” etc…
There is a case for an argument that it is John Foxx lyrics that have consistently set Ultravox apart from the pack even more than their undeniable musicianship and image. His words are considered, poetic and articulate, heavy with cultural references. They demand something of the reader, suggesting more than they directly present. On Systems Of Romance, and in particular tracks like Quiet Men, Someone Else’s Clothes and Just For A Moment he writes of longing, identity and the fragmentation of experience. Further tales of a man and a woman in a city. Observational. Dreamlieke and autumnal. Themes and styles consistent with his subsequent 40 year career.
These three tracks epitomise all that Ultravox represent and have come to be considered among the band’s finest achievements. John Foxx frequently cites them among his personal favourites, along with My Sex and Hiroshima Mon Amour from the previous two albums. Billy Currie too has expressed a particular satisfaction with Someone Else’s Clothes:
“When John sings ‘Ah ah oh’, what comes in is not a guitar – it’s me playing the ARP. It’s three or four separate notes. I didn’t play duophonic because it went out of tune with those two oscillators, so I had to take it about four times – these are separate notes, but they’re treated with guitar effects by Robin and I’m most proud of that as a sound.”
The result, in accordance with Record Mirror’s review, is an “unforgettably catchy” tune, one of the highlights of an accomplished, dynamic and complex album. Each tracks contributes to the whole, bringing distinct textures and ingredients. “When You Walk Through Me” for example, is another important track, instilling elements of The Beatles psychedelia into the band’s sound for the first time.
Over the forty years since its release, Systems of Romance has firmly established itself not just as a favourite among fans of the band, but is now considered a landmark album, cited by Goths, New Romantics, Prog-rockers and all manner of other genres as being of particular importance. Gary Numan is on record championing the album, describing it as having a pivotal influence. It showed him “how electronic music could be merged with guitar, bass and drums” and became the standard he tried to reach in his own work.
“Ultravox… had a conventional line-up but electronics were the main part of it which is what I was doing. You had people like Kraftwerk that were entirely electronic but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Ultravox were by far the best thing I’d found. That album become my blueprint, my reference point. With whatever I did, I was trying to get to that level. When I was doing ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ and all those sorts of songs I was trying to get as good as I considered Systems Of Romance to be. I never, ever got close in my opinion. I had more success but in my opinion the quality of what they were doing was beyond anything I got to at that time. I was always in awe of it.”
(The Quietus, December 2012)
‘Systems’ establishes Ultravox in rock’s canon of significant bands, and marks their coming of age. But there is an especial poignancy to the closing track, as John Foxx thin, pleading voice leads ‘Just For A Moment’ and fades off into a distant, detached hum beneath a discordant piano. The final broadcast. I can’t stay long…
However, the undeniable influence of Systems Of Romance extends beyond the music pressed on the vinyl. The sleeve artwork is just as widely respected, not least because of its influence on Factory records art director and influential graphic designer Peter Saville. Saville’s sleeve designs for OMD, Roxy Music and the Factory catalogue have influenced the way that we think about pop music. Along with his school friend, Malcolm Garrett (the man responsible for the early Buzzcocks’ sleeves), Saville was a major player in a design revolution that collided with the convulsions in popular music at the end of the 1970s. Saville was impressed and fascinated by the typography of Jan Tschicold in particular, and came to London from Manchester (while working on a FAC poster) just as Systems Of Romance arrived in the record shops: “It made me think that maybe I wasn’t wrong in wanting to use Tschichold’s later work,” he explained to Mark Fisher in 2006. “The Sabon serif type, white on a black background.”
Within 12 months, neo-classicism and the influence of architectural post-modernism were everywhere. See for example, Joy Division’s ‘Closer’ album and Saville’s later work with Ultravox post John Foxx.
‘Systems’ album is also the first time the members of the band have not appeared on the front cover, with John Foxx in the middle of the five men. Instead, he uses the trained artist’s technique of placing himself (and the others) several removes from a clear identity. This technique places Foxx within the context of early 20th-century modernist collage art, as well as the dawn of what we now call conceptual art. None of the five postcards placed across the image shows the clear identity of any of the human figures within it either – instead we have a crumbling statue, a cropped figure in a suit and a silhouette. This echoes, but develops the photo portraits used inside ‘Ultravox!’, which re-appear in a different style on the reverse of ‘Systems’.
It is interesting to apply hindsight here and look at what this represents in terms of the development of the band – each album cover in turn progressively removes the identity of the musicians from the product…
Though it has become apparent that Island had some reservations about the album’s success (it was released on the subsiary Antilles imprint) Systems Of Romance received more press coverage than Ultravox previous records. It was promoted in the music papers with full and occasionally double-page adverts throughout September, and the record company simultaneously issued a limited number of promotional ‘media packs’. Simply titled ‘ULTRAVOX’ the A3 card outer cover was folded to A4 and contained four loose leaf double-sided inserts. Each of these features unique artwork by Foxx, credited with ‘concept’ and ‘illustration’, and is accompanied by the lyrics to a song.
There was also to be an extensive tour of more than 20 consecutive dates, confirming Ultravox position as one of the most imaginative and forward thinking bands of the moment.
I have since been advised that Systems Of Romance was available in UK record shops as early 19th August. There is no reason to doubt this, but I have no evidence that the album was advertised as available BEFORE the Reading Festival.
Certainly nowadays release ‘dates’ are notional and product is often despatched ahead of those dates. Research continues…
Part Two to follow…
Adverts for Ultravox next single, Slow Motion, first appeared in the music press on the last weekend in July – announcing a limited number available in “special colour bags”. The image, expanded to fill a whole tabloid page, was as striking as the music. Gone was the ‘hand made’ roughness of the punk-infused previous releases, the ransom-note ‘cut-and-paste’ lettering; instead the artwork was detached, crisp and clean, redolent of High European culture. This was the first artwork to be credited to ‘John Foxx’ and establishes what has become an iconic style: the use of white lettering in a serif Sabon typeface spaced over a black background. The image itself uses a sample of da Vinci’s Virgin On the Rocks, spread across the frame – a technique which speaks to various classical theses on the velocity and infinity of light (Whitworth, Michael 2014).
A statement of identity for Ultravox, a defining moment. Reflecting the confidence and direction of the new, accompished material. No more adolescent sneers…
As it transpired, the single was delayed a week, its release closely followed by their first 12” format, pressed on ‘opaque’ vinyl which varied enormously in colour. Anywhere from white to lilac and everything in between. “Transparent vinyl for transparent music”, wrote NME rather unfairly. Clearly the long wait for new material had done little to soften the attitude of that particular paper.
Sounds however responded a lot more favourably, and featured Ultravox as their cover band for the first time on the week’s issue dated 19th August. In his ‘single of the week’ review, David Lewis claimed “If the rest of their new album is this good, these lads may yet live up to all the trumpeting that Island came out with when they first signed. The whole song was a distinctly eerie sound about it, largely due to the rumbling synthesised background and vocal reverb.” As well as the cover picture and this review, Sounds published more details of a five-night residency at the Marquee and an exclusive two page interview under the headline “the sound of having your face dragged across concrete”, conducted at the Island offices in Chiswick.
Promotional copies of the album (ahead of its scheduled release on 8th September) were circulated to the media and high-profile DJs, including the ubiquitous John Peel. As honest as ever, Peel delighte din playing tracks from it on his show throughout August, including three back-to-back one evening during the band’s week at the Marquee: “I’ve never been a great Ultravox fan, but this is a pretty good album. It’s ceretainly better than their last two, I can tell you that…”
Apart from Peel shows, where Ultravox featured alongside other bands scheduled to play the Reading festival, the first that fans heard of the new Moog-infused material was at the band’s live shows in London. Each of the ambitious five-night bookings was sold out, and the varied set combined stalwart favourites and debutantes including Some Of Them, Quiet Men, Maximum Acceleration, Slow Motion and Can’t Stay Long.
At the Reading Festival on the bank holiday weekend, Ultravox divided opinion and struggled to find the form of the previous week. There was a lot of aggravation in the crowd between the familiar ‘longhairs’ and the transitional audience of punks who had come to see Sham 69 and The Jam. The weather was stifling hot which didn’t help, and by all accounts the sound was affected by the heat. Billy Currie has gone on record saying this was the worst gig of his life – both the lighting and the audio electrics affected the sound of his piano. The audience of punks and skins didn’t take kindly to the band either and pelted them with beer cans and verbal abuse throughout a set cut short to under 40 minutes. The above video shows nothing of that, and is taken from an obscure film by Steptoes Ltd Film & Video production called “ The Kids are United “ (which, given the circumstances, was a somewhat ironic moniker), featuring Penetration , The Pirates, Sham 69, Ultravox and the Jam.
Reviews were mixed again, but John Foxx was pragmatic in his response:
“It would be impossible to flood ourselves in self-indulgency because more than any other band we are still real. Real in terms of playing in front of people, not media-real which is only an illusion. It seems that there are two modes of acceptance, one is playing in front of an audience and the other is a media acceptance which involves playing the games the media play. You can be very successful at the latter – and most people are. Me? – I don’t participate in one deliberately and satisfy the other completely.”
Systems Of Romance
Did you see Ultravox live during this period?
I am always looking for personal anecdotes or any info that can complement the story.
Do get in touch.
The new underground electronic ‘music’ in the UK emerging in the summer of 1978 grew from simultaneous disconnected sources, giving it a more widespread foundation than the London-centric punk movement. In many of the country’s largest cities, artists (and people who would not consider themselves to be musicians) were taking their lead from Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk and the Dusseldorf saboteurs, and making funny noises of their own with tape machines and synthesizers. The drop in price of electronic components in the mid 1970s meant these machines suddenly became affordable to the average user.
On Merseyside, influenced by Eno and Kraftwerk, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys (as The Id) were performing bizarre electronic experiments, with tape collages, home-made kit-built synthesisers, and radios. On the other side of the Pennines, at Leeds Polytechnic, art student Marc Almond was sharing mutant moments of his own with musician David Ball composing some bizarre performance soundtracks using tapes and synthesizers. In Spaceward Studios in Cambridge, where Tubeway Army were recording their first album, legend has it that Gary Numan ‘found’ a Minimoog plugged in and set to whoever had last used it. Pressing a key out of curiousity, Numan experienced a rush of incomparable sound that was to shape his ideas for the band and his own future.
That future was also flickering in an abandoned warehouse in Sheffield, where computer-operators Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware and Adi Newton were composing their own avant-garde form of music. Rehearsing as ‘The Future’ and performing TV themes – including a version of Doctor Who – the band offered no marketable songs and record companies weren’t interested. With an eye on commercial success once Newton left (to form his own experimental band Clock DVA) Craig-Marsh and Ware sought a vocalist and sent some recordings to an old school friend Phil Oakey. Inspired by what he heard, Oakey wrote the lyrics to Being Boiled and The Human League was born, delivered by Edinburgh’s fledging indie record label Fast Product.
Independent, home-produced music was the order of the day. Working on his own in a flat in Finsbury Park, Glasgow’s Thomas Leer wrote and recorded his debut single Private Plane in the summer of 1978 using a 4-track recorder and an ALICE mixing board, effected by a Watkins Copicat tape echo unit (Foxx had one the same), Electo Harmonix DrQ filter, an old Roland drum machine and a Stylophone.
So what has all this to do with Ultravox, busy in Conny Plank’s studio recording Systems Of Romance? Nothing directly perhaps, but contextually this stuff is important. John Foxx knew Adi Newton in passing from their days together working at Modreno, the Kings Cross mannequin factory, and he had an ear for the innovative and original. Numan, Ware and Thomas Leer were to become personal friends.
Speaking some years later, John Foxx explained how these pioneering singles by The Human League, TG and similar were to help him see his own path ahead:
“It’s the sort of thing I wanted to do myself, since recording Hiroshima Mon Amour. It felt like the beginning of some wonderfully liberating and beautifully obscure underground movement – a completely new way of making music – you felt like some Film Noir sci-fi character, holed up in a post-industrial city, creating a new form of life.
This accumulation of DIY electro records was to be a complete game changer for the entire music scene. I think it is a virtually unrecognised, wonderful, indigenous movement – true Post Industrial folk music – heartbreakingly real, and as vital to the future as Chicago Blues was to the 1960’s.”
Conny’s place was not only at the heart of it all in Germany and producing records by bands with a similar creative and independent ethos, but being there enabled Foxx, Currie and Warren Cann in particular an opportunity to experiment with electronic sounds themselves and use machines to make music in a new ways – helping them decide which instruments to buy for themselves to shape the sound and direction of the band.
The experience in Köln was an awakening for the band, and Ultravox new material was rich and forthcoming. Even before they returned home and anything was released, the band announced they would play the Reading Festival again at the end of August. The product of the recordings at Conny’s studio would be presented to a UK audience before that though. On 29th July, Sounds was the first paper to announce an ambitious five-night residency at The Marquee from the 19th of next month, following the release of a brand new single called Slow Motion on August 4th. There was also to be a tour of Germany in October, after the band’s most extensive UK tour throughout September.
There was even a hint of dates futher ahead. Speaking to Vancouver’s Snot Rag magazine in July 1978, Warren Cann revealed that the band were making plans to tour America in January and February. He confirmed they already had a date booked in Toronto [which they never subsequently played] and was enthusiastic about Island’s support for the new album:
“I think they’re going to spend a great deal of money on it, trying to break us.
It’s about time…”
If you have any information, corrections or anecdotes from this period that can be added to the John Foxx archive I would be delighted to hear from you.
I am going to start this chapter with a more specific disclaimer than that which covers this whole narrative. With no access to the actual memoirs of people involved, and in the absence of a studio diary, it is not clear precisely when Ultravox went to Germany to record their third album. Interviews with John Foxx and Warren Cann both confirm that Eno and Holger Czukay were present and busy with their own projects but I have been unable to establish exactly when any of them were in Conny Plank’s studio.
So setting this chapter in ‘June 1978’ is an educated guesstimate. To quote the lyrics for Dislocated (Jori Hulkonnen & John Foxx, F Communications 2005) “mostly assumption, not observation”. But there’s a degree of fun and narrative licensing in putting the jigsaw together anyway. And of course, if you can help with more specific information I am always happy to be corrected.
Neither do we know how long Ultravox spent in Conny’s place. Two weeks? Three perhaps? Or longer…
But speaking to NME in September 1978, John Foxx presents a reason for the ‘why’, even if the ‘when’ remains unclear:
“It was because there was nowhere in England that really had the experience to handle the things that we wanted to do. It was mostly geared to rock ‘n’ roll or pop music in England. We wanted to find some place where we could try things out without being under the pressure of studio time. Also because Conny has worked in the past with the German electronic bands we like and he has the facilities and the experience.”
In the two months before recording sessions began, John Foxx had written more than enough new material for the next Ultravox album. He had some clear ideas about the band’s sound and direction and persuaded Island to invest in the famous German producer, no doubt convinced that doing so would help their chances of a chart breakthrough. It’s fair to say that relationships within the band were not improved by the time apart, but everyone was committed to the project and excited by the opportunity of working on such hallowed ground.
As a result of Plank’s experience and enthusiasm for invention, Ultravox were able to use his mixing desk and tape systems to great effect. Instruments flip left and right between channels, individual notes are isolated and looped – all giving the music an enormous deep and wide sound. Mind cinema, recalled Foxx. “Exactly what I was looking for”. During some of the sessions, Foxx recorded vocals outside in the garden and in a big barn next to the studio. Some were played back through guitar amplifiers. Warren Cann’s drum machine effects were distorted with transistors and valves, and guitars were played through a speaker set inside a piano for extra harmonics.
All enthusiastically and inspiringly enabled by Conny Plank and his assistants. The feelings of harmonious respect were mutual and by all accounts the sessions were a delight for everyone involved. Speaking to Electronic Music in 1987, Plank said of Ultravox that (like Lou Reed and John Cale) they were both “naïve and exciting. They made imaginative music from a different point of view, and they did it unconsciously, with no idea how good it was or how important it was to become.”
The sessions were a revelation for John Foxx in particular. Spheres aligned and weather conditions favourable. Brian Eno “just happened to be around” (as he had been at Island studios in the autumn of 1976 for the Ultravox! debut) recording Music For Airports in an adjacent studio, perfecting what was to become a defining moment in the development of ambient music:
“Brian was probably the first Brit to really get what Conny was doing, and between them they formed the crossroads of intelligent, adventurous music where Avant-garde theory intersected with pop music. Music For Airports was bold because it stepped away from everything that was popular at the time. No rhythm, no drums, no melody. No posturing. Quietly courageous and not afraid to be gorgeous.” (The List, October 2011)
In another room, another musician was making a similarly influential and ground-breaking album. When Foxx found the late Holger Czukay (ex-Can) in the studio, he was dazed, exhausted and somewhat down-hearted after spending months on a project that he just couldn’t quite get right. Czukay went on to spend the best part of two years making ‘Movies’, an album that brings together the different worlds of film, radio and music. Most of the sounds, samples and fragments were recorded either in Can’s studio or out in the field, and Czukay was in Conny’s studio experimenting with pitch-changes and trying to fit his samples to an existing piece of music.
Celebrating ‘Movies’ for Mojo magazine in 2006, Foxx recalls:
“There was literally one edit per two inches of tape. Holger told me there were around 7,000 splices on it, which was a miraculous piece of craftsmanship. There were no samplers back then and only Holger’s skills with tape manipulation made Movies possible. My view is that it was the last peak of analogue music before digital music came in. It was almost telepathic, as if with Movies analogue music was preparing for that transposition. That is why it is a phenomenal record as it predicts digital music, sampling and plunder culture and everything that came afterwards.”
At the time of their meeting at Conny’s studio, Holger Czukay was ready to throw in the towel until John Foxx enthused that he should carry on. “I was amazed by it,” he told Sounds in January 1980. “I was fascinated by how it was done and I said he should continue with it. I just loved that idea of taking music from the airwaves which are around us all the time.”
On the album’s eventual release in December 1979, Foxx was surprised and touched by Holger Czukay’s credit to him on the sleevenotes: “For pushing me forward when I was about to give up.”
So Ultravox recorded their third album in esteemed company, ideal conditions and influential surroundings, and came away with what they have all come to regard as their best work together. A collection of songs with nebulous emotional elements running through mathematical frameworks – ideas in common with the contemporary artworks of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti. Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book ‘The Ghost In The Machine’ is a similar examination of the dualistic relationship between mind and body.
John Foxx was talking about this kind of thing in the studio with Conny one day, about the spiritual element of machines and they started to discuss ‘systems’ music.
“Suddenly I got the title I had been looking for, and I had to run out of the room to write it down. Systems Of Romance. It seemed a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the music I was attempting to get to at that moment.” (Frieze magazine, June 2011)
You can read more from John Foxx on Conny Plank here
As I have said above, if you have any information, corrections or anecdotes from this period that can be added to the John Foxx archive I would be delighted to hear from you.
‘Punk’ (or at least a more sophisticated version of a similar movement) arrived late in Germany, at a time when the pop charts were full of disco records. Members of first generation new wave bands hammering on the door of recording studios in 1978 included Robert Görl of DAF and Ralf Dörper of art-punks SYPH. They were desperate to be heard during the incendiary times in Berlin and Hamburg, and they were convinced “all the old bands” – and in particular Kraftwerk – were boring, dead and gone and generally too clean and too accurate to be of much interest.
But with a finger each precisely on the pulse of the underground and a nose for the sound of a commercially successful future, Messrs Schneider and Hutter were disdainfully unconcerned. They locked themselves into their Düsseldorf bunker (quite literally, as they were threatened with violence when they went out and frequently raided by the police when they stayed in) and purposefully composed their fourth album. The band emerged, blinking in the mid-May sunshine with their most fully realised Pop Art statement to date, The Man-Machine, and stepped effortlessly into both history and a timeless future.
In 1976, John Foxx wrote:
Kissed me on my eyes…
in the anthem to detachment that is I Want To Be A Machine on the first Ultravox! album, before taking much Kraftwerk material seriously at all. In the song he taps into the populist vision of a cybernetic, post-apocalyptic future which sees the cyborg state as an ideal. A disengagement. Man as machine. An escape from the complexity of emotion. Indifference. Automation and efficiency. Replicas.
In doing so, Foxx draws on the artworks of Raoul Hausmann, El Lissitsky and the Russian constructivist movement, the same sources that inform the visual elements of The Man Machine.
These are all among the ingredients on the neon jukebox at the Central European Motorway Service Station in the parallel future that spawned Foxx’s first solo album. And informed his later work with Louis Gordon when the dance rhythms came from Detroit rather than Düsseldorf. Their 2001 album The Pleasures of Electricty is an homage to the shimmering elegance of ‘Neon Lights’ in particular.
This song, described by Foxx as “simple, beautiful genius” is frequently listed among his Top Ten favourite records of all time, often in a selection which includes Giorgio Moroder’s ground-breaking dance track I Feel Love that similarly influenced the clinical Germans.
Maybe not directly comparable in terms of Ultravox immediate sound, but the release of The Man-Machine and its precise depiction of a future harmonising man and machine, crystallised a lot of things for John Foxx. It clarified what could be achieved and identified a clearer path forward than he might otherwise have seen. Synthesisers sounding like themselves, the kling-klang metal beat of The Robots and the mechanised, vocoded lyrics. Even the concept that the night club could be a market for his songs… He was writing new material, and the others in the band (as well as those in the offices at island) had an eye on commercial success. In tracks like ‘Quiet Men’ they would come to experiment with the idea of dance-floor mixes and reach tentatively in the direction that Kraftwerk faced in 1978.
There can be little doubt either that Kraftwerk’s breakthrough success also induced a degree of frustration as the German’s set an impossibly high benchmark and influenced countless hundreds of artists and musicians in every genre. Foxx has expressed how they have become impossible to escape for anyone trying to make their way in electronica. To re-invent popular music, it will become necessary to “forget” that Kraftwerk ever existed:
“If I was starting again, I’d have to ignore Kraftwerk; become post-digital. In some ways you’ve got to put masterpieces on hold to allow your music to come through. I think in generations to come we’ll look at Kraftwerk in the same way we look at Frank Sinatra: as an interesting but irrelevant force – that’s inevitable.”
(John Foxx in Classic Pop, January 2016)
But forty years ago, the fully automated consumerism of the man-machines, with their psychedelic heritage and strong roots in the arts scene was the must-have career path. The pleasures of electricity in a new form came from those art school German students who picked up psychedelia when the English turned their backs on it in 1972. They were born in Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Berlin – and many were to come of age in a ramshackle home studio in the woodland outside Cologne…
Sure. Eno’s been there, and Neu! We should go there”
For the first time since signing to Island almost two years earlier, Ultravox spent several weeks apart in spring 1978. After a few promotional photoshoots introducing ‘new boy’ Robin Simon to the UK music papers, they stepped way from the studio (and each other), considering new material, writing and otherwise doing their own things. Island issued flyers and a press release showing the band – with Robin Simon central in the foreground – standing on the central reservation of the A4 near Hammersmith and in the gardens behind the company offices:
In the former, above, hindsight enables us to see the first sign of fracture within the band. Leaving aside that everyone seems rather cold and buffeted by the wind in the middle of the road, John Foxx stands in the background and one step removed from his colleagues. He is becoming detached, and it is from around this time that we can now trace the source of the earliest rumours that all was not well within the group. Perhaps wearying of the intense live schedule, perhaps feeling he had achieved what he set out to do with the band, and at times wanting to be more alone that in a band situation John Foxx has gone on record saying that he was already considering just doing one more album and that would be it.
But this is “retrospective fact migration” and none of it was evident at the time. The Retro EP was selling well, though it divided the critics as decisively as anything else they had recorded. NME described the songs as ‘tiresome blubber’, and some ‘inane nonsense about inner urban anxiety and man as machine’. Ian Cranna was typically rude, clearly as tired of John Foxx as Foxx was with him, but he did observe with rather more foresight than he probably intended, that sooner or later there would not be Ultravox…
Though fans would remain loyal to Ultravox and turned out in their thousands to see their next tour, this temporary break in the band’s programme gave them an opportunity to turn to other sources of entertainment.
The post-punk scene in and around London was beginning to buzz more persistently, and among the new bands gaining especial momentum were Tubeway Army. Frontman Gary Numan was a fan of Ultravox, but had yet to ‘discover’ electronics or introduce keyboards into his group’s sound. Their second single, Bombers, was recorded at the Music Centre in early April 1978, and on 20th Tubeway Army played their first gig at the Marquee supporting the Lurkers – another of the venue’s biggest draws. In much the same way that Island persuaded Ultravox to re-record Rockwrok with a verse missing due to its questionable lyrical content, so Numan was encouraged to rewrite the third verse of Bombers, leaving the word ‘junkies’ out of the studio recording.
Generation X were equally popular, and (with The Lurkers) were among those championed avidly by Francis Drake and Peter Gilbert via In the City Magazine. In an issue that features both bands with concert reviews and photographs, Drake also writes an outspoken piece defending Ultravox. He is openly critical of the UK press who – in his opinion – clearly don’t spend time or money actually going to to see the band but just write negative things about them for the sake of it. Being respected and trusted by the band themselves, Drake has more credibility than some of his colleagues – mirroring at least John Foxx’s own opinion on the value of independence and integrity at the expense of mainstream critical approval.
If you saw Ultravox! during this period or can otherwise add stories, accuracies or anecdotes to this article or the official archive at metamatic.com, we’d love to hear from you.
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Ultravox second tour of Germany bookended with dates in the Netherlands and Belgium (and their first with Robin Simon on board) was their second visit within six months. They had a strong following, and the press were more encouraging than their counterparts at home. Venues across the country were reportedly ‘bursting at the seams’ and the start of the show in downtown Munich was delayed by an hour to accommodate as many as 1500 fans. They played popular student venues, and word travelled fast about how good they were. The University gig in Tübingen sold out first, quickly followed by the last two nights when the tour built to a climax at Kant Kino in Berlin (where they stayed for a second time at the same hotel off Kurfurstendamm) and finished at the famous Onkel Pö Carnegie Hall in Hamburg.
At each venue, Ultravox played the same 90-minute set comprised of mostly music from their first two albums, but with the introduction of one new track. Between Hiroshima Mon Amour (in which John Foxx hummed the saxophone part, swaying with his eyes closed as if in a dream) and the crowd-pleasing Man Who Dies Every Day they performed a song in the same vein called ‘Quiet Men’ a beaty number to which the enthusiastic crowd clapped and stamped along. While its distinctly recognisable with Simon’s choppy guitar and the rhythmic chorus, thumping bass and arrangement, John Foxx earliest lyrics are quite significanlty removed from the later recorded version. He sings of ‘aching’ and ‘longing’ as well as ‘waiting’ and ‘shifting’. But things were different then, and things were changing fast. We thought we knew what you were going through…
The subjects are ghosts. Visions. Drifting through walls and moving under our feet. Constantly changing. Confused and confusing.
From Germany, Ultravox returned to the Netherlands and played shows in Arnhem and Limburg. At the former, they were supported by a locally well-known band called The Suzannes. Modelling themselves on their heroes The Ramones (to the extent of naming each band member ‘Suzanne’ somebody), The Suzannes played a frantic set of short songs, including a cover of the Leonard Cohen song from which they took their name. Singer songwriter ‘Suzanne’ (Fedde) van der Spoel remembered Ultravox fondly as he was a big fan of the band and excited to be supporting them at the Stokvishallen. But he recalls “the drummer took ages to do the soundcheck of his drum kit, and we had to wait ages and cut ours short. Every drum, tom and cymbal was checked individually.” Cann’s meticulous attention to detail comes across in the live recordings of the band as much as on record, especially his motorik pulse through most of the third album.
The last date of the tour was their debut in Belgium, at the legendary club Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. One of Europe’s biggest venues at the time, Ultravox sold out the 2000 capacity and their performance was superbly captured (and diligently archived) by photo-journalist Philippe Carly.
Ultravox went back home on a high, having performed some of their best sets on this temporary triumph in Europe.
It was to be their last live series of dates for six months. Having settled back in London, the band took a working break for six weeks. Foxx needed to unplug and recharge. Touring was wearing him out, and despite the band’s huge popularity, the frontman was becoming uncomfortable as an idol and figurehead performer. He had written of the Quiet Men, and longed to join them in the English lanes on silent, summer days away from the press and the posers. Waiting, he was waiting…
So he imposed a break in proceedings, to rejuvenate and write new material.
Despite the setback of a stolen violin, Ultravox! headlining tour continued with 400+ sell-out dates at Barbarella’s in Birmingham, Stafford’s Top Of The World Ballroom and a return to the Coatham Bowl in Redcar. The latter had developed a reputation as a violent gig, and there are reports that John Foxx had to stop the performance for a while when a table was thrown onto the stage! At Rafters in Manchester they suffered the indignity of a disco PA that distorted the sound so badly it occasionally produced little more than white noise. This particular show was attended by a 20-year old wannabe broadcaster named Mark Radcliffe (yes, that one) and reviewed in Sounds the following weekend. Reporter Ian Wood, on seeing the much-talked about Ultravox! for the first time was impressed, if a little bewildered by their “dense, frantic, suicidal pyre of sound” and the “compulsive twitching” of John Foxx. Wood confesses to being both amused and intrigued by the band, especially the leftfield arrangement of My Sex.
Ultravox! returned to London to close the tour at The Marquee. They arrived ‘home’ on the same day that Beggars Banquet released the debut single ‘That’s Too Bad’ by their latest signing – Tubeway Army. Frontman Gary Numan (aka Valeriun, and modelling himself, in part, on John Foxx) was in the audience for the Ultravox! show on February 11th when, instead of the taped music intro used on the tour, Foxx appeared on stage solo with his acoustic guitar and the rest of the band came on one by one behind him, building up into I Want To Be A Machine.
The set, the tour – and the band’s original line-up – came to an end with an intense re-run of Rockwrok and the apocalyptic Fear In The Western World. complete with blinding white spotlights. It was to be Stevie Shears last performance. Though nothing was planned or announced regarding his departure, subsequent interviews with both John Foxx and Warren Cann suggest there had been tension around his role in the band for some time. Things came to a head after The Marquee show, and suddenly it was over.
With no notice on either side, Stevie Shear’s departure came just two weeks ahead of the band’s next trip to Europe. This did not give his replacement very long to learn the material, so it needed to be someone already familiar with the band. And who better than Robin Simon, already well known to members of Ultravox and admired especially by Billy Currie and John Foxx? Robin and his brother Paul had recently parted company from Ian North and disbanded Neo, their previous group (and who supported Ultravox several times at the Marquee), and Billy Currie had even played in Kandahar with Robin and Paul back in Halifax (see Paul Simon interview). The young pioneering soundmaker was the obvious, perfect choice.
Robin Simon had a matter of days to catch up with the set before his debut on stage with Ultravox at Melkweg (Milky Way) in Amsterdam – the warm up show before a series of ten dates in Germany – where his presence immediately added a richer dimension to their expanding range.
To bridge the gap between guitarists (though perhaps more by luck than judgement), Island released an EP of Ultravox! live to capitalise on the band’s undisputable stage appeal, and keep interest in the band going ahead of new studio material. RETRO contains four songs, recorded at different venues during 1977 covering the spectrum of their best live material. Both the opener ‘The Man Who Dies Every Day’ and the closer ‘My Sex’ are taken from the gig at Huddersfield Polytechnic in October 1977; ‘Young Savage’ from one of any number of gigs at The Marquee; while ‘The Wild, the Beautiful & The Damned’ harks back a year to the definitive performance recorded on the Rolling Stones mobile studio at the Rainbow Theatre.
The EP is retrospective in its artwork too, with ‘spiky’ punk-style lettering and an iconic black and white image of a screaming John Foxx courtesy of White’s News Agency.
The press failed to get very excited about the release at all, and only Ian Cranna in NME expressed anything in the way of opinion. Sadly, he was never one to champion the band, and puts this “tiresome, inane blubber” quickly to one side. Unjust crtiticism really, as the sound quality is excellent and the single presents Ultravox at their live best.
It is also on record as being Warren Cann’s favourite of all live recordings of the band.
To annotate this chapter, I have chosen three ‘different’ advertisements for the Retro EP from the UK music press. The variation between these fascinates me – each slightly changed according to space available on the page (and the cost of that), or the information available at the time of publication (release dates etc). Note how the Island logo moves around within the graphic.
There could also perhaps have been some discussions about the running order of the tracks? Notice that although each advert format shows the four songs in the same order, this bears no resemblance to the running order on the actual vinyl release.
If you saw Ultravox! during this period and can add stories, accuracies or anecdotes to this article or the official archive at metamatic.com, we’d love to hear from you.
Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
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New year, New Wave…
The New Year holiday period was just a short respite for the band, a brief period of calm before the next extensive tour programme. Ultravox genuinely were ‘packing them in’ and the label was keen to encourage as many gigs as possible to promote the less-than-expected sales of Ha! Ha! Ha!
Their name was spreading too, carried on the ‘new wave’ of emerging bands finding popularity not only in Europe – where German TV shows broadcast live performance recordings – but across the Atlantic and down under. One Australian newspaper, in an article referencing Wire and the Blockheads, describes how Rockwrok “echoes and re-echoes the nihilsm of early Roxy Music”. In America, a reviewer for Trouser Press relates the ‘unnerving’ experience of listening to the the album, warning her New York readers to “Stay clear, you who are meek and mediocre”. Writing in Billboard, Peter Jones included Ultravox in a roster of England’s “top bands” that were (alleged to be) lining up to follow Bowie’s foorsteps across the United States.
John Foxx was invited to comment on Bowie’s influence on the band:
“He taught us the value of change. I wish I could have a wardrobe of different bodies to wear.”
Foxx gave a handful of other interviews to various local British newspapers as well, all published in towns and cities scheduled to host Ultravox over the next few weeks. Perhaps not surprisingly, he spoke most extensively to the Lancashire Evening News:
“Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground taught us that music is just organised noise, thereby destroying any mental blocks about theory and proving that anyone can do it. And we’re more interested in noise than in any specific form of music. A noise which prompts emotion, wedded with words which act as triggers to the individual responses of our audience. We want our music to go beyond classification with a more instinctive use of sound”.
The 17-date tour that opened in Newcastle’s Mayfair Ballroom on January 20th was Ultravox’s first with a regular support band. Travelling with them for all but one or two dates were The Doll, a dynamic rock band with a distinct ‘trashy’ keyboard sound, fronted by the iconic Marion Valentine, whose debut single carried their breakthrough song “Trash” on its B-Side. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, this track landed The Doll a deal with Beggars Banquet and this tour with Ultravox was to be their first nationwide outing.
Audiences were enthusiastic and excited, and glowing reviews sprang up in fanzines all over the country. Every show was sold out and packed full. Crowds of over 500 at several venues. 450 in the 300-capacity Lad’s Club boxing gym in Norwich, and reports claim a wall-busting 750 at Clouds in Edinburgh, where they were “magnificent and malignant in equal measure”. All looking very good ahead of the forthcoming release of a live EP, featuring four tracks specially selected from the set to capture the power and passion of the band on stage.
That stage presence was largely the product of the ‘writhing centrepiece’ John Foxx, whose eccentric performance on stage was one of the tour’s most talked-about features. And it was here, in his twisted malevolence, that mainstream critics were further divided about Ultravox. Sounds described his mannerisms as ‘absurd and distracting’ and NME went further, suggesting that he was ‘contrived and derivative’ and trying just to hard to not look as if was enjoying himself.
That said, both papers concurred the band’s overall ‘superb’ musicianship, and conceded that even Foxx was ‘sublime’ during his perfectly manicured moments of whispering, rather than shouting. Hiroshima Mon Amour won everyone’s favour, but the set’s highlight was undoubtedly My Sex, when the stage was plunged into darkness and the room was lit by a single strobe.
This would have pleased management at Croydon’s Greyhound in particular, whose disclaimer on the promotional flyers stressed that POGO DANCING is not allowed at this venue.
On the last day of the month, Ultravox played one of a few shows without The Doll. At The Locarno in Coventry they were instead supported by local ska band The Coventry Automatics. Within a few months of this show, the evolving six-piece band changed its name to The Special AKA – the performance at The Locarno is reported to be the first that featured Terry Hall alongside Lynval Golding on vocals.
One rather less fortunate story that emerged from this tour was revealed in a chat held by Kingdom Come’s fanzine editor Johnny Waller with Billy and Warren after the Edinburgh gig. While hinting that the band were already writing new material (including The Quiet Men and a song with the working title ‘Music the Machines Make’), Billy also announced that his electric violin had just been stolen!
One wonders how this will have affected the band’s sound on the remaining dates…?
If you saw Ultravox! during this period and can add stories, accuracies or anecdotes to this article or the official archive at metamatic.com, we’d love to hear from you
A temporary hiatus in life on the road for Ultravox! and a much needed, though brief, break at the end of a year in which they performed over 80 gigs. The band’s reputation was secured as one of the circuit’s biggest live draws, and plans were already being made for another round of dates in both the UK and Europe early in 1978.
In an interview with Vancouver fanzine’s “Snot Rag” – fixed up as a result of Warren Cann’s connections at home in British Columbia – the drummer alludes to even bigger things for next year and suggests the band are considering a trip to the United States. He acknowledges that it’s only an idea at this time and no plans are being made, but does suggests that all the band are keen to play in New York and LA. We know from interviews with John Foxx later in 1978 that Island Records were less keen on investing in an American tour where they felt there would be little interest in the band and had serious doubts in particular about securing airtime on the nation’s rather conservative radio airwaves. It is interesting to learn that the band were discussing it themselves 12 months earlier…Warren is adamant that any tour would have to be on the band’s own terms and that they would seek to play in smaller club venues, avoiding the large stadiums preferred by artists like Ted Nugent and the Doobie Brothers!
Ultravox! name does appear on a listing for Eric’s on December 3rd, but as this seems incongruous with their known activity at the time it seems unlikely they played. In fact, their next scheduled gig (which was to become of their finest) was set up when they accepted an invitation to headline a New Year’s Eve party at the Marquee.
During the gap in their hectic schedule, various members of the band attended gigs themselves. John Foxx and Billy Currie, for example, took Steve Lillywhite along with Dave Philip of The Automatics to see Eater at the Vortex, recently opened as the city’s first 24-hour punk venue. Sadly, the Roxy had already announced it was closing its doors in January. Manager Andy Czezowski had begun to tire of the raucous punk bands and their sleazy hangers on. But Eater (average age 16) were still very much up there among the must-see ‘authentic’ punks. They infamously condemned the Pistols as being “too old” and performed original material with controversial titles like ‘Get Raped’ and ‘Fifteen’ alongside speeded up versions of Velvet Underground songs. But like many others of this generation of copycat thrashing screamers, youth was not enough, and a menu built mostly of frustration and aggression had, quite literally, no future.
Warren Cann opines:
The people that originated the punk thing here have all dropped out. They’re probably all off somewhere blowing a spliff and growing their hair. The media has woken up too. – too late of course for punk – and have flogged it to death. You see adverts for mail order punk gear! Half of the drag they’re selling now for punks the majority of people can’t even afford! It’s all dead except the shouting.
Cann is pretty much right in this respect. The iconic heroes of punk, the Sex Pistols, had all but imploded by December 1977, and would play their last UK gig (in Huddersfield) on Christmas Day. The ‘scene’ had begun to descend into self-perpetuating chaos verging on parody. Speaking to Melody Maker nine months later, John Foxx was to concur with the observations of his drummer:
“What killed punk in a way was its own conservatism, its refusal to accept the opening of any boundaries. I did identify with a lot of the spirit and flavour of early punk, when it was healthy, apart from the lack of imagination which stopped me going totally into it. But you’ve got to remember that there were other strands developing at the time as well, things like Throbbing Gristle.”
A week after the Eater gig at the Vortex (at which the drummer was allegedly bleeding from the mouth throughout the set!) John Foxx was experiencing an altogether different evening. A new underground was indeed emerging. At the Rat Club in Fitzrovia’s Bedford Square industrial deviants Throbbing Gristle launched their debut album ‘Second Annual Report’. Highly controversial, and largely dismissed as provocative, uncompromising noise and wilful ugliness, this ‘presentation’ by the pioneers of industrial anti-music was to become hugely influential to a minority of significant artists both at the time and subsequently. John Foxx was among them, recognising (in the soundtrack piece ‘After Cease To Exist’ in particular) that this was something new, original and different. Improvised and unconventional. Atmospheric, instinctive and unhinged. It was an art installation as much as a ‘musical’ event – the band ‘playing’ home made instruments, synthesizers and cassette machines with their backs to the audience, everything draped in allusive red and black. They had a rationale, a purpose, and ideas. All the things the ubiquitous, sneering punks lacked.
Whatever constitutes ‘punk rock’ may have been falling apart by the end of 1977, but Ultravox at the Marquee on December 31st were at the pinnacle of their game, weathering the turbulence with confident articulation and skillful musicianship. “More convincing than ever”, wrote Chas de Whalley in Sounds.
“The best is yet to come” proclaimed NME. “When all the fuss has eventually died down, Ultravox will still be creating some of the most distinctive music heard this decade.”
If you saw Ultravox! during this period and can add stories to this or the official archive at metamatic.com, we’d love to hear from you
After the gigs in Sweden, Ultravox! moved to Germany to play live there for the first time. Anticipation was high following their appearances on popular music TV shows earlier in the year, and the magazine interviews and articles that followed. Foremost among German journalists championinng the band from the beginning was the late Ingeborg Schober, one of Europe’s foremost female music writers and an advocate of new trends. Schober was among the first to interview Ultravox, catching up with them in June at the Munich studios while they were recording performances of Dangerous Rhythm and Young Savage for the “Szene 77” youth magazine show. Musikexpress, Bravo and Sounds all published enthusiastic reviews of both albums, contributing significantly to the band selling out 500+ capacity venues when they arrived in the country.
They opened their account with a typically low profile show in Ortenberg before a debut at the world famous Kant Kino in Berlin. Considered now one of the most significant music venues in Europe, Kant Kino opened in 1912 as a cinema, diversifying as a music venue early in the 1970s as the progressive ‘krautrock’ scene expanded and both glam and new wave bands from the UK and America started to seek venues in Europe. The club is situated on the west side of the city, just 500m north of the equally legendary Kurfürstendamm, which ‘just happened to be’ the location of the hotel Ultravox! stayed in. Immortalised by many bands, artists and writers (including John Foxx who named a track after the street on his 2006 album Tiny Colour Movies), Kurfürstendamm is the ‘Champs Elysee’ of Berlin, a leading avenue of commerce, decadence and social history. Kant Kino was also only a mile to the west of David Bowie’s apartment in Schoneberg – perhaps it is reasonable to assume that he and Iggy attended an Ultravox show in Berlin. If not this one, then maybe a year later when they returned in 1978?
Ingeborg Schober certainly was there, and reviewed the show for Muzikexpress, complimenting both the excellent musicianship of the band and the ‘enthusiastic performance’ of their front man.
To celebrate Ultravox performing in Germany (they played a third show at Schwäbisch Hall near Stuttgart), Island licensed an exclusive 7” single release of Frozen Ones coinciding with this tour, featuring a remixed version of Man Who Dies Everyday that would not otherwise become available for over 30 years…
From Germany, Ultravox! went to the Netherlands, where their arrival was equally anticipated and promoted in the national press. John Foxx stole the media attention when they played at the Pavilion in the Park in Groningen, astutely defined as more “new wave” than “punk” despite the set being preceded by a screening of The Sex Pistols film God Save the Queen.
On a par with Kant Kino in terms of European venue status is Amsterdam’s Paradiso, synonymous with the city’s hippie counter culture of the late 1960s and renowned as among the Rolling Stones’ favourite venues in the world. Ultravox first performed there on 11th November 1977, followed immediatley by a much lesser-known show at Eksit in Rotterdam – another ‘must-play’ club for anyone touring Europe at the time.
Back in the UK, “the best DJ in the world” (according to John Foxx, 1979) was playing his part in spreading the Ultravox! message. John Peel had been in the audience to see them at the Reading Festival, and come away impressed. “Here is another band which has improved considerably in recent months, and their set was of a very high quality; tight, concise and exciting…”
Having played most of the album on his Radio 1 evening show, Peel ensured the band received national coverage by inviting them to perform a session, live in Maida Vala They performed four songs in the legendary MV4 studio, and the session was broadcast a week later featuring My Sex, Man Who Dies Every Day, Artificial Life and Young Savage. Ultravox! are on fine form for the session, and the performance makes excellent use of keyboard and drum machine, but the second song recorded, ‘Man Who Dies Every Day’, is ‘strangely’ absent from the subsequent vinyl EP?
If you saw Ultravox! during this period and can add stories to this or the official archive at metamatic.com, we’d love to hear from you
Ultravox! third single, the ambiguously titled ROckwrok, was released by Island on 7th October 1977 – a week ahead of the ha! ha! ha! album. It continues the raw, ‘punk rock’ seam mined for Young Savage and has an equally powerful hook, repetitive vocal that firmly established ROckwrok as a live favourite. Doubtless the song’s popularity with the audience was enhanced by its risque chorus “f*ck like a dog / bite like a shark” which somehow managed to slip past the Radio One censors as the song enjoyed a short period on the station’s evening playlist. There must have been some awareness of the lyrical sensitivity by the record company though in advance of the single’s release – it is cut down to a shortened version and leaves out the second verse as it appears on the subsequent album. John Foxx described the song as a ”a simple celebration of sex” (KDVS interview, 1979) but goes on to suggest it is “a take-off of what rock ‘n’ roll’s all about from a slightly different angle. And also it’s a 1920’s movie. Very jerky and quick, Things happenin’ very quickly. Lots of quick images in there. More like a pornographic 1920s movie. You can imagine Charlie Chaplin up to things like that!”
The unusual spelling of the title deserves some consideration. It left many observers (and some members of the band) bemused at the time and has forever since been ‘misrepresented’ in many biographies and listings. I like to think that the phrase (an original by Foxx) derives from the title of a Modernist magazine produced by Marcel Duchamp in New York called ‘Wrongwrong’. At least that is the name Duchamp intended, but owing to a printing error it was titled ‘Rongwrong’ on the cover of the single issue, published in July 1917. Foxx picks up on this, plays with the character string (capitals for the first two letters and lowercase for the following) and extends the printing ‘error’ concept (and non-conformist grammar) to the cover of the album.
As well as Foxx’s literary referencing, the music itself derives from a classic and somewhat unusual source: Warren Cann admits he ‘borrowed’ the drum pattern from Chubby Checker’s 1961 hit “Let’s Twist Again”…
For the B-side of the single, Ultravox! chose another live favourite, the howling six-minute epic Hiroshima Mon Amour complete with ‘dragging your face across the concrete’ screeching guitar feedback and Foxx’s viscious, sneering vocals. They had recorded a different studio version entirely to close the album, using a saxophone solo overdub (played by CC of Gloria Mundi) in place of the guitar and altogether ‘softer’ filmic arrangements, but wanted to offer something different for fans buying the single that again captured the band’s live energy. Like My Sex on the debut album, the paradoxical, haunting melancholy of Hiroshima Mon Amour leaves ha! ha! ha! looking forwards and Ultravox! changing direction, and is often cited as being one of John Foxx personal favourite recordings from this period.
While fans, live audiences and punk fanzine editors lauded ha! ha! ha! (there are no capital letters in the title on the album’s front cover), music critics were less convinced and furthered their diatribe against Ultravox! Some considered them to be more pretentious than progressive (the wordplay will not have helped with this), and most popular writers concurred there was little in the new material to set Ultravox apart from their contemporaries, which all seems rather incredible looking back in 2017. Sounds complained that they had “rejected the possibilities of the accessible pop song and instead use only catch-phrase choruses with infuriating insistence”. Julie Birchill writing in NME was especially scathing, calling the band “unbearably old” and their image as one of “chilling stupidity”. With 40 years hindsight and despite its vitriole, her review (Washed Up On A Terminal Beach From Nowhere) is an ‘entertaining’ read whether you are a fan of the album or not.
Wilfully regardless of this criticism, Ultravox! continued the September tour promoting the album around the UK culminating with two shows at The Roundhouse in Camden. The previous day they were scheduled to play at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh but arrived to find the show cancelled after complications with the venue’s entertainment license. Instead, Cann and Foxx gave radio and magazine interviews in the early afternoon and went to the venue themselves to explain to disappointed fans.
At the end of the month, the band travelled to Sweden and played to enthusiastic, audiences in Malmö, Göteburg and Stockholm. After recording an extensive radio session in the capital (pressed to red vinyl and released unofficially), Ultravox peformed a sell-out gig in front of nearly 1000 people in the former Gota Lejon theatre, which John Foxx opened by playing I Want To Be A Machine on his 12-string acoustic guitar. “More arty than anything I was expecting” said veteran Swedish punk Bosse Luthen. “But completely magical. My very own Killing me Softly…”.
The following evening in Malmö at the celebrated punk night in Dad’s Dancehall, Ultravox! were supported by two local bands, Problem and New Bondage. NB frontman Henrik Venant told an interviewer two years later that he particularly remembered Ultravox, but for the wrong reasons: “they were lucky to be paid by the owners to mix our sound, because they were not very good at it and totally destroyed our set”. It was a habit of the club. Two week’s earlier Venant’s band had opened for The Clash, about whom he was more complimentary. The concert was bootlegged by Swedish punks, who report that John Foxx was “so tall” that he hit his head on the low ceiling if he jumped too high!
It is from this week in Sweden that we also get the cringe-worthy video footage of John Foxx being interviewed for the popular music TV show Haftig Fredag. He’s clearly tired, but also disappointed and a little annoyed with the banality of the questions. Particularly galling is the rendition of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” with which he is serenaded. His provocative response:
“I’m not an anarchist, I’m a human being. And I think human beings have everything from Jesus to Hitler inside them somewhere.”
On September 17th, readers of the New Musical Express first learned the title of the band’s second album in an article entitled “Ultravox Major Trek”. Scheduled for release on October 14th, Ha! Ha! Ha! was to be promoted by Ultravox first UK headlining tour.
It’s a relatively unusual title too. Provocative and pertinent, cocking a snook at the critics who accused Ultravox! of relying on musical ‘crutches’ for too long. A defiant gesture of survival and intent. A Foxxy adolescent sneer, if you like. Laughing back at those who laugh at them…
Meanwhile, the artwork for the sleeve was at the printers, once again designed by the Bloomfield / Travis agency and based on a concept by Dennis Leigh. Drawing on his art school education and Dadaist sympathies, Leigh chose to deliberately reproduce a printing error on the sleeve, setting the colour plates slightly out of register. To jar against the eye. A punk gesture, combining familiar newspaper headline techniques with surreal and Cubist principles – in much the same way that the rather abrasive and high-impact songs bely their musicianship and lyrical complexities. It also alludes cleverly to the whole question of identity. Not just that of the ‘blurred’ faces of the band’s individual members, but of the unit as a whole, defying categorization and never being completely ‘in focus’.
15 British gigs are listed in the NME advert, commencing at Eric’s in Liverpool on September 23rd, to be followed by “an extensive European trek” on October 18th visiting Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, France and Belgium.
Before appearing at Eric’s though, Ultravox were allegedly booked to play an unpublished gig at The Windmill in Rotherham, a new venue in the social club of the town’s football ground. The venue developed quickly in the wake of the punk explosion in the summer of 77, established to support The Outlook in Doncaster that was bustling, active and more or less fully booked most of the time. Locals were travelling on buses and on the back of motorbikes from Sheffield and Nottingham to see bands like Doctors of Madness and The Stranglers in Doncaster – as well as various other bands that occasionally simply did not appear. The scene was full on, and there was a vibrant and buzzing punk culture in the towns. The Pistols were banned everywhere, but there were always rumours that they would pitch up and play under a different name, and crowds were always optimistic. Few in fact hardly cared who played, as long as they got their chance to pose and pogo in their own space.
Ultravox were listed on a poster at The Windmill for September 22nd 1977, among similar promos for The Adverts, Generation X and The Slits. A shroud of mystery still surrounds why Ultravox! did not perform that night, and one punter was forcibly evicted from the hall during a performance by The Skunks for shouting “Ultravox!” throughout the set. One possibility – there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from other venues – is that the band were never lined up to play at all, their name being used just to get punters into the club. Ultravox! may have had enough kudos to be considered a big catch…? However they did not play at The Outlook itself on this tour either, although that gig was officially cancelled. Who knows why? Who cares?
They did duly kickoff their ‘first’ tour upstairs at Eric’s on Friday 23rd, Malvern Winter Gardens on 24th and onto the celebrated Town Hall Crypt in Middlesbrough on Sunday 25th. This gig was heavily promoted in the local press because it was to be the 100th appearance by local heroes Bltizkreig Bop, and as a result attracted over 600 fans crammed into a space more used to capacity crowds of half that number. Singer John Hodgson (Blank Frank) recalls in his biography that unfortunately Ultravox were something of “a shambles” – disappointing given that they had an extended soundcheck and the ‘Boppers’ never had a chance to warm up. The crowd were, however, more forgiving than the support band might admit, and by all accounts played a pumped up, loud and exciting set.
The audiences at other venues on the tour were also mostly hardcore punks, and the band were subjected to the usual beer can throwing and spitting characteristic of the scene. Over his ‘trademark’ black shirt and jeans, John Foxx took to wearing an exceptionally large woolly jumper which he was noted to pull on and stretch throughout his performance. The punks went especially mad when Young Savage was played and at some points in the show (at Barabarella’s in Birmingham, for example) Foxx picked up a strobe light and pranced about the stage with it, even swinging it at some of the missiles being hurled at him from the pit.
The sets generally ended with the apocalyptic “Fear In The Western World” – the machines whirring and screeching towards the climax while the band quietly walked off the stage…
If you saw Ultravox! during this period and can add stories to this or the official archive at metamatic.com, we’d love to hear from you
“The excitement in what we do depends to a great extent on taking chances, which means doing something we believe in and following it through whether or not people accept it. We might even fail in our own eyes, but it doesn’t matter as long as we’ve tried. If it sounds like an electronic device, that’s good because it’s what we are.”
Several interviews with John Foxx in the summer of 1977 alluded to the media’s insistent comparison between Ultravox and Roxy Music. It was acknowledged (if not directly appreciated) by the band in the first instance and doubtless assisted sales of their debut album, but by the time they were recording the second, comparisions became irksome and Foxx and co. shifted towards indifference.
“We’ve never really spent time thinking about how we project ourselves as an image band. We’re just affected by things that happen in the street, same as anyone else. If you’re in the media, you accumulate things around you that become your image whether you like it or not. Whether your image is a contrived punk band or an imitation Roxy band or whatever, it doesn’t matter. I just hope people have the vision to see through that.”
These conversations most often took place at the various recording studios Ultravox were drifting between for recording sessions. From a spell in Phonogram, they returned to Basing Street to complete the album, recording a dozen or so songs in as many days. They cut two different versions of Storms of Things for example, as well as taking different approaches to another new song, an enigmatic ‘hyperballad’ entitled Hiroshima Mon Amour. Initially, the song was recorded with distorted guitars and screaming feedback in the vein of similar tracks like A Distant Smile and Fear In The Western World, but the acquisition of the band’s first drum machine in between studios enabled Warren Cann to experiment with arrangements. The Roland TR-77’s mesmerising effects and constant faultless rhythm fascinated the drummer, who sat the box beside his kit and plugged it in to a spare transistor guitar amp for sessions and live performance. (see ‘The Ultravox Story’ : Warren Cann, 1998)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (titled as per Alan Resnais innovative 1959 post-nuclear contextual romance and similarly mixing past with present) was the first song the band recorded at Basing Street, using the preset rhythms of the TR-77. The song was recorded with Eddie Maelov in the studio, and it was suggested that his saxophone-playing friend from Gloria Mundi (known only as C.C.) was brought in to play over it “just to see what happened”. Foxx was initially hesistant, preferring to use only material the band had recorded themselves, but the effect of the sax was so good they kept the first take and immediately set it down to conclude the album, suggesting as it did that another new direction for the band was already presenting itself…
With the album in the bag inside three weeks, Ultravox lined themselves for their first appearance at the Reading Festival and accepted an invitation to take their new songs to the Luit Festival in Belgium by way of a warm up. They played a preview gig at De Beuk in Middelburg en route (a music and arts club in a youth centre, favoured by Pink Floyd), but pulled out of the Ostende festival at the last minute where they had been scheduled on the same bill as progressive folk-rock bands like Livin’ Blues and Caravan.
The Reading Festival was, like the Luit, primarily a Jazz and Blues Festival, but the 17th incarnation on the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August 1977 was the first to use the term ‘Rock’ festival instead, reflecting the popular trend towards metal, punk and harder sounds favoured by the young audience.
There were still however relatively few ‘punks’ in the crowd. So few in fact that The Electric Chairs were forced off the stage after barley 15 minutes due to being pelted with cans and mud.
Ultravox fared a lot better on the Saturday and found favour with the transitional audience, who similarly enjoyed both Gloria Mundi and Eddie and the Hot Rods the previous evening. They played a superb set of old favourites (Young Savage, My Sex, Satday Night) and new songs, of which Caroline Coon noted was “inspired with complex textures not usually associated with M.O.R. punk.”
Chas de Whalley was also there in the sea of mud, writing for Sounds:
“And with a brace of hard, melodic, memorable songs in their catalogue, Ultravox certainly suggest that they’ll still be in business long after many of your street politicians have been washed down the drain.”
The London punk scene was a fertile breeding ground not only for new – often short-lived – bands, it also spawned a fashion for homemade magazines that similarly fledged in other significant towns where the movement flourished. Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield in particular saw fanzines distributed at gigs featuring photos, reviews and other news about the latest local bands and occasional interviews with well known names.
The first issue of In The City by Francis Drake and Peter Gilbert featured not only reviews of Ultravox! gigs, but the authors declared their allegiance to the band with a full colour reproduction of the debut album sleeve on its front cover. Among the listings for gigs at venues like the Roxy every night were Generation X and The Lurkers; one particular night at the Marquee featuring friends and associates of Billy Currie and John Foxx. Gloria Mundi headlined on 2nd (Eddie Maelov’s band), supported by the first appearance at the club of Ian North’s band Neo, comprising Paul Simon on drums and his brother Robin on guitar.
Ultravox! themselves were in the Phonogram studios, recording material for their second album with Steve Lilywhite and working at a furious pace. Half the material from which the album tracks were chosen was recorded in just four days, including two songs ultimately not used (but part of the new live set) called Storm Of Things and Do The Mutation.
It’s important to realise that at this point in time, though punk was dominating the live scene in London, other more established genres were occupying most of the UK charts. Different sounds were developing in the mainstream of popular music, and on the periphery there were signs of a new kind of underground.
In a disused cutlery warehouse in Sheffield, art student Adi Newton – known to Dennis Leigh during his time as a travelling mannequin painter – had teamed up with computer operators Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh to form The Future, experimenting with electronic sounds. Echoes of this new ‘industrial’form were by now also emanating from a factory unit in west London, the headquarters of Throbbing Gristle, a confrontational performance art group held together by Genesis P. Orridge and model / writer Cosey Fanni Tutti.
In Islington’s Pathway (the same studio that brought The Damned into the world ten months earlier) Mick Finesilver was now hosting another songwriter whose career was to make a significant impact in the manufacture of commercially organised sound – Mark Knopfler had recently acquired his first Stratocaster and was shaping ‘Sultans of Swing’ into Dire Straits first single in the tiny converted garage.
But pioneering electronic sounds into mainstream disco music (significantly more popular than punk for most young people) was still largely the work of film-makers, producers and DJs with an established route to market. On the strength of singles like Jive Talkin’ (1975) with its synthesized bassline and pulsating dance rhythm, the Bee Gees were commissioned to write ‘more discoey’ songs by Robert Stigwood for a soundtrack to what was to become Saturday Night Fever (released in December 1977).
It was among commercial projects and established producers like this that the cutting edge was at its sharpest. Benny Andersson’s ABBA for example were pumping out Moog-laden dance hits every month, and Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love was a massive Number One for Donna Summer in July ‘77; it has come to be regarded as one of the most significant and influential singles of all time.
Eno described I Feel Love as ‘the sound of the future’ and John Foxx, regularly cites it at is one of his favourite songs:
“When ‘I Feel Love’ first swayed out of the speakers, I thought KRAFTWERK had got a black woman singer – total ecstatic, genius combination – and a pulse that replaced the one in your heart.” (The Electricity Club, 2013)
The Kraftwerk reference is significant, because Trans Europe Express was another hugely popular album at the time. Recorded in Dusseldorf in December 1976 and released in March ’77, TEE represents the arrival of Kraftwerk in many respects. It sees the archetypal Showroom Dummies using electronic rhythms and sequencers extensively for the first time and thus crossing over into disco music and onto dance floors.
Towards the end of the month, Foxx gave an interview to Ian Birch for Melody Maker that gave an insight into the attitude the band were cultivating for their own new material. Using the jagged edge of a less polished blade favoured by TG, and picking up on the techniques and visions of Moroder and Hutter, Foxx realised that:
“music is just a matter of translating yourself into noise. I think in some ways on the first album we organised it a little too well because that’s what we thought you did in a studio. The first time I was very detached because that’s the way we were feeling at the time. I mean, I did want to be a machine at that time. I was experimenting on myself, which I do all the time. Or not reacting to certain things. That was a period I didn’t have any sex for a long time. I wanted to detach myself from all those human feelings to see how it affected me. For one period of about two years I didn’t watch any television. I got a completely different version of the place I was living in because when you watch TV you feel like things are in slots.There’s no point in living unless you are enjoying it and feeding back all the things that you make. That’s what the media is there for. You put things into it, it gets assimilated, other people throw things back at you. Everything we’ve done has been done very quickly, with very little consideration.
Style’s important, but we operate beyond style. I believe that style is just another instrument like a guitar and it should be used as such.”
Six months into the year and the punk scene was surging forwards, reaching towards the crest of its reactionary wave. Across London there were gigs every night at dedicated clubs like the Vortex, the Roxy, Hope & Anchor and the Marquee. Some of the local bands were playing several gigs a week, among four or five acts on the bill. John Phillips (vocalist with Johnny Curious & The Strangers) recalls playing with Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Damned, the Heartbreakers, the Clash, Squeeze, Tubeway Army and Ultravox! in a very short period, and he notes seeing the same people in the audience at all these different places: Stuart Goddard, Jordan, members of the Sex Pistols and all the associated hangers on. Members of Ultravox! were part of the scene too. Billy Currie recalls going with Foxx and the others to see, for example, Eater one night at the Vortex after a day rehearsing new material.
In between acts, it was commonplace for DJs to play not only punk music, but also a good deal of reggae – bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse were especially popular. This fitted well with Ultravox!, who were spending a fair bit of time in the Basing Street studio watching Bob Marley & The Wailers recording the Exodus album with Lee Perry. Here’s John Foxx on this, speaking in 2007:
“what we saw there was people taking over a studio and using it almost as an organic entity where everyone had a role. Everyone would be moving some element around. And the whole thing became almost magical. It was really interesting, and it was a view of using a studio that wasn’t conventional in any way and wasn’t disciplined in any conventional sense. It had its own disciplines, but it was very different from the ones we’d been used to”
Ultravox! were using this experience to manipulate their own sound too, tearing a harder edge to existing songs and ripping out new ones like Frozen Ones and the bizarrely titled RockWrok, both performed for the first time at the Marquee on June 16, when Johnny Curious played support. The tracks proved popular with the punkers in their audience right from the start and became fixtures on the setlist thereafter, even featuring twice (along with the single Young Savage) at gigs in St Albans, Shrewsbury, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Scarborough as well as their fortnightly homeground performances in front of the Oxfam outlaws that followed them everywhere in London.
After a couple of dates at the end of this tour, at The Doncaster Outlook supported by Bethnal (who some observers claimed blew the main act out of the water) and Rebecca’s in Birmingham, Ultravox! returned to London and settled into a regular Thursday night residency at The Marquee.
Stuart Goddard was there by this time with Bazooka Joe, mixing nights in the audience with nights on stage along with members of Generation X and Subway Sect. Blondie arrived in the UK and toured a similar circuit to the Ramones and Talking Heads.
Ultravox! were by now playing one or two new songs in their set, heading towards an edgier mood with an ARP Odyssey and a new fender violin for Billy Currie. The starker sound came through in songs like Modern Love and more especially the next single – already an audience favourite – called Young Savage. It was an instant hit with the band’s more punk inclined followers, who could shout and swear along with Foxx’s aggressive lyrics and ‘viscious’ delivery, changing blossoms into fists and taking bites from every kiss.
The single was promoted heavily by Island via large format glossy posters featuring a sneering punk in a leather jacket, adverts in all the music papers, and a limited edition special bag that extended to 10,000 copies.
It failed to chart – despite the inclusion of another live favourite on the B-Side (Slip Away recorded at The Rainbow) but marked a significant progression for the band into more serrated, atonal and experimental territory.
Ultravox! tour continues, following in the footsteps of many other bands doing the UK punk circuit. They played the 76 Club in Burton on Trent for example, where the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy in the UK: Live’ album was recorded in September 76. A classic, much-loved local venue but not one recalled particularly fondly by Chris Cross who only remembers the club on the High Street being hard to find and having to carry all the gear through the fish shop at the front.
They played Eric’s too, the famous gig in Liverpool that launched OMD, and the Top Rank club in Sheffield, home of Adi Newton’s Clock DVA.
It was an intense time, gigs more or less every day for three weeks, and promoted by adverts in the UK music press, including this expansive double pager in NME created by John Foxx.
Even in these earliest days, Foxx artwork was drawing on his recently completed RCA degree and classical knowledge. He visually references the Russian Constructivists here in this Dadaist image, a photomontage that draws on the work of Raoul Haussman – the human mind as controlled by rational thought. Methods of thought are free from emotion and non-biased calculation. A visualisation of I Want to be A Machine…
Numerous fanzine writers and editors saw Ultravox! around the country and wrote enthusiastically of them without exception. Sniffin Glue, Ghast Up and Panache all published reviews, the latter especially raving about THE CITY DOESN’T CARE that ‘Modest Young’ insisted must be a single, comparing it favourably with the Buzzcocks classic ‘What Do I Get’
There were dates in Europe too. An ambitious five consecutive nights that all sold out at the Club Gibus in Paris, as well as appearances in Brussels and Amsterdam. These were scheduled around a tour of Germany that was lined up for the band supporting ‘supergroup’ Rough Diamond, but this never happened, despite the dates being changed several times at short notice. Ultravox! did go into Germany for some promotional work, and Foxx was interviewed there for the Young Observer magazine:
‘What we’re really trying to do is write about how it feels to be alive now in a city. It’s like reporting, like a diary. That’s what music is, it’s alive. You should always be able to listen to music, even if it’s 20 years old, and feel what it was like to be around then.’
Foxx had not only finished his degree by this time, but also moved on from the job at Modreno. The band were rehearsing instead at an underground studio beneath the Beggars Banquet shop, popular with the Lurkers and The Buzzcocks. Beggars Banquet founder Mike Stone saw Ultravox! take delivery of a new ARP Odyssey synth into these premises, which they had some difficulty getting down the stairs. (ref. the Quietus, November 2008)
If you saw Ultravox! during this period and have anecdotes, photographs or information you’d like to share, do get in touch
With the album on the shelves and selling fast – despite mixed critical reviews – Ultravox hit the road in March, taking their mix of revolutionary rock and rudimentary electronics to some of the area’s most significant pub-rock venues. They played the Toby Jug in Tolworth (where Bowie had performed as Ziggy Stardust for the first time), the Railway Hotel in Putney (favoured by Squeeze and The Police) and returned to The Marquee in Soho.
By all accounts they were well received. “A band to be reckoned with” who wouldn’t be needing their musical crutches for long…
This may have been the case in and around London -guests of Island A&R staff described them as “sonically jagged, metallic, white noise in parts yet cold and stark all at once” -but further afield the band struggled to make an impact and played what bassist Chris Cross considers to be some of the worst gigs he can remember.
This inauspicious start includes a show at the little known Grey Topper, a former cinema turned music venue in Jacksdale, (a mining village outside Nottingham) where there were more people at the chip shop opposite than in the hall; and the Electric Circus in Manchester where they stepped in to replace prog rockers The Enid and performed to a rather bewildered audience of ‘a dozen long-haireds’ .
You can read the story of the Grey Topper in Tony Hill’s excellent memoir The Palace and the Punks.
Island were lining Ultravox! up for appearances in France and Germany, favouring the band (with their experience warming up for Supercharge) as support for a new glam-rock band they had put together called Rough Diamond, featuring David Byron of Uriah Heep and members of blues-rockers Humble Pie.
This was scheduled for the beginning of May. Before that, Ultravox! had to find their identity and their feet in the UK, travelling to many of the popular venues on the established regional circuit, most now with regular punk nights midweek and keen to book as many of the new wave bands as possible.
Tuning into the growing symbiotic relationship between reggae and punk that was ‘happening in the air’ towards the latter half of 1976, Ultravox! choice of debut single shifted from the edgy, r’n’b flavoured ‘Modern Love’ to the bass-heavy richness of ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ – an observation on the intense fire generating in London.
Released on February 4th, the song chosen for the B-side was perhaps even more surprising. ‘My Sex’ is clever but simple piano composition with an atmosphere more redolent of JG Ballard’s post apocalyptic cityscapes than the ‘all night infernos’ referenced in the A side.
Nevertheless the package was declared Single of the Week in Sounds (Pete Silverton) and attracted critical acclaim from most of the UK music press marking Ultravox! (and John Foxx in particular) as a force to be reckoned with.
One of the first journalists to champion the band’s ‘special talents’ was Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon, among the 2500 capacity crowd at The Rainbow Theatre on 19th for the band’s first full-blown public appearance – again in support of Eddie & The Hot Rods.
The show was recorded and two tracks – Modern Love and Slip Away later appeared on a Live EP. Other high-impact numbers performed at the Rainbow were TV Orphans, I Won’t Play Your Game and I Came Back Here To Meet You – none of which appeared on the eponymous debut album when it was finally released by on 25th February
“Ultravox!” had been recorded at Island Studios in less than three weeks the previous October, with most tracks – in particular the complex, anthemic ‘Machine’ – being laid down in one take to capture the energy of the band’s live sound. Some of the more intense, raw songs (like those listed above) were left off because they didn’t fit once recorded but were to become favourites on stage in the months that followed and remined part of the set for most of the year.
The observation that Ultravox! were Island’s favoured ‘replacement’ for Roxy Music seems to be have been both a blessing and a curse, but there can be no doubt that Roxy foremost among the many influences on the album. Bowie, Velvet Underground, New York Dolls.
John Foxx was at ease describing the cutting up and re-purposing of all this and more:
“It’s fine. I don’t care about criticism of that because once one thing is done as far as an artist is concerned, it’s dead. They’ve got to do the next thing. So it’s a ghost. What we do, and what everyone does despite what they say, is to use all these ghosts and eat them. It’s cannibalism. You eat the ghost and you throw it out in a different way.
As well as being one of the first production majors for Steve Lilywhite – brought in by the band after his work on their early demos – Brian Eno’s contribution to the sound as guest producer certainly had a significant impact. Further to encouragement (and samples) he provided for My Sex, Eno was responsible for the vocal distortion on the track Wide Boys and gave Billy Currie confidence to experiment with arrnagements and sound effects.
His name on the record sleeve has proved a significant reference throughout the life of the album, and gave Ultravox! an immediate credibility with the avant-garde. From Island, he went immediately to Hansa in Berlin, engineering a wild reunion with Bowie and Iggy Pop. The wild, the beautiful and the damned…?
The sleeve itself was as striking as the sound – initial copies were released in a lavish gatefold sleeve paid for by the band themselves and conceived by John Foxx, whose iconic image stares wildly out from a bank of cathode faces on the back cover
Two other London gigs followed the Rainbow Theatre show –
Ultravox! launched the album with their first performance for three years at the Marquee on 25th and in support of Dave Edmund’s Rockpile at the Aldwych theatre the next day.
They were third on the bill though, below the ailing Plummet Airlines…
The ‘dangerous rhythm’ to which the single refers was gathering momentum in February 1977. Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Damned and The Clash were all attracting significant attention and the London underground movement was spitting out new names nearly every week – Rezillos, Cortina and The Vibrators, Slaughter and the Dogs etc
And at the end of the month, NME received a telegram from Malcom McLaren informing them that Glen Matlock had left the Sex Pistols. In his reply, Matlock advised that he was forming a new band, to be called The Rich Kids, with drummer Rusty Egan.
By which time, John Foxx was set to lead his band out of London for the first time in their own right, taking a dangerous rhythm of his own to established and emerging venues…
“New band Ultravox! who toured with Eddie and the Hot Rods in 1976, have been signed to a long-term recording and publishing contract by Island Records.
The band whose material is written by lead singer John Vox [sic], have their first single out in the second week of January, with an album, co-produced by Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and the band, released in February.
The band, described by Island as “rock’n’roll with an IQ” will be on the road in January for a University tour with the Hot Rods”
International Musician & Recording World, Jan 77
By the end of 1976, punk was forcing its way into the consciousness of the general public, growing rapidly beyond a few support gigs here and there to a movement in its own right. Popular London bands like Dr Feelgood, Kilburn & The High Roads and Eddie & The Hot Rods were developing a grittier edge to their sound, and they were being rapidly caught up by the Sex Pistols and The Clash, bands whose spiky-haired audience of Oxfam outlaws were less than welcome in the pubs and hotels on the popular circuit.
Punk needed a place to call its own own, and settled at The Roxy on Neal Street in Covent Garden, which opened its doors officially on New Years Day 1977.
Within a few short weeks after the release of their first single Anarchy In The UK, the Sex Pistols’ notoriety peaked with their appearance on Bill Grundy’s ‘Today’ programme, leading EMI to terminate their contract with the band in January 1977.
One step to the left of the filth and the fury, and after three years of songwriting and intense rehearsal, Ultravox! signed to Island Records and recorded their debut album in the previous October. Wrong-footed by the split of their flagship idols Roxy Music and the mayhem of emerging punk, the label chose to hold fire on the release until the New Year and after their official ‘launch’ of the band at a special gig in London.
It was during the recording of the album that guest producer Brian Eno took a call from Bowie, inviting him over to the Hansa Studio in Berlin.
The resulting album, Low, was released on January 14th and has been cited by Foxx as significant to his own work and a whole genre of experimental musicians ever since.
Other bands playing frequently in London this month included The Damned, The Buzzcocks (Spiral Scratch), Eater, and The Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders).
The Jam made their debut at The Marquee on 22nd.
The gig that launched Ultravox! took place on 31st January 1977, a week ahead of the release of their debut single. By way of a ‘warm up’ before taking on their own headline shows, Ultravox! were guests on the Hot Rods winter tour in December – during which they earned the unlikely respect of hardcores fans unusually receptive to their sound.
They followed up with a few mid-January appearances on the University circuit in support of college rock icons Supercharge*(not the Hot Rods, who instead went to France), and prepared for the press night at the Nashville with a photoshoot in the mannequin workshop at Kings Cross, where lead singer John Foxx worked as a face-painter.
Eventually, on 31st January 1977, under a gaudy neon sign screaming the band’s name, Ultravox! played their first headline gig at The Nashville in Kensington, promoting themselves to record industry officials and music journalists**.
Their style, songmanship, and signing to a major label antagonised many of the ‘punk’ writers especially, and the band were immediately regarded with suspicion from that quarter.
Billy Currie recalls the evening:
“It was terrible. I was nervous as hell and I remember one of my keyboards fell off and I had to catch it. John Peel was there, loads of journalists. We were all dressed up – I had my blue PVC jacket on and John had his white, see-through mac. It was all a bit glam, but tougher looking.”
*Only two dates are recorded in the Ultravox! archive for this tour – Leeds (21st) and Southampton (28th)
Do get in touch if you have any information on these or other gigs we may have overlooked
More details at metamatic.com
**This event is among more early memories of the band described by Steve Malins in his excellent sleevenotes to the 2006 edition of the album, which you can buy here.