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‘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 the 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.
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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.