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.
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 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.