Okay, I’m in a 70s music mood these days. Recent posts have been about Genesis and Fela Kuti, both of whom I discovered in the mid to late 70s, as well as Jerry Garcia, whose music has been with me since around 1976 and who, together with The Grateful Dead, is one of the staples of my iTunes library.
Today’s listen is Ultravox!, a sui generis group that flourished in the 70s, before changing drastically after founding singer-songwriter John Foxx left the band. The band’s first album, Ultravox!, was released in 1977. It was a combination of pre-punk, glam rock, and pre-new wave. (Ultravox would later become a popular new wave band, but I’ll get to that.) The quality of John Foxx’s songwriting, and singing, make it easy to put this album side-by-side with early Roxy Music and David Bowie, one of their influences, but the music is not at all derivative. Foxx is very sincere: In I Want to Be a Machine, Foxx sings like he really means it. The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned is a powerful rock ballad. And My Sex, with its combination of 70s Euro-drab-chic and Pink Floyd-esque sounds. Produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, this album is a snapshot of a transitional period between early 70s rock and the nascent punk rock.
Released later the same year, the band’s second album, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, takes the same moody music but pumps up the energy. From the punky Rockwrok and Fear in the Western World to the Euro-gray Hiroshima Mon Amour, through the introspective The Man Who Dies Every Day, Ultravox honed their sound, with catchy songs that nevertheless depict the monochromic urban world of 1970s England.
For their third album, released in 1978, Systems of Romance, Foxx is at his peak in songwriting, and Quiet Men would become his signature song, even after he left the band. The music becomes smoother and grayer, using synthesizers, and suggests what would soon be heard from Joy Division and other groups. Produced by Conny Plank, the producer of Kraftwerk, the influences of krautrock are clear. But this would be the last of the group’s albums with John Foxx, leaving this trilogy of excellent songs that depict the heart of a decade.
After Foxx left, Midge Ure came in as singer, and the group changed to a more new wave sound. In fact, listening to their 1980 Vienna, one would be hard pressed to find much of a link between the two periods. I saw Ultravox! live in a small club in New York in 1980, and they performed a combination of older songs along with those from Vienna (there were several hit singles from that album), and I recall the band all wearing those early-80s new wave coats while performing. (If you ever see any old new wave music videos, you’ll know what I mean.) It was a good performance, but I regret never seeing John Foxx perform live.
Foxx released Metamatic in 1980, which could be seen as the first real electro-pop album of the new wave era. Hugely influential, it was followed in 1981 by The Garden, and Foxx set out on a career of electronic and ambient music, and has been an important composer in this area.
But when I listen to those three early Ultravox! albums, I’m reminded of a wonderful period of music before MTV, on the cusp of punk, and before New Wave would bring a lot of bland, formatted music to the airwaves.