Although they are one of the most important British art rock bands, Ultravox have always been ignored or sneered at in the UK. But with re-mastered versions of their first three LPs just re-released, featuring extra tracks and sleeve notes, K-Punk reckons it’s long past time to rescue their legacy as synthetic rock pioneers...
It is the Mark II version of Ultravox, fronted by Midge Ure, which tends to be remembered and dismissed as a moment of 1980s indulgence and pomposity. That judgement is unfair – the impact of the Ure-led Ultravox on techno and house, for instance, should not be underestimated - but it is the first three Ultravox albums, recorded when the band were led by John Foxx, that have been most scandalously neglected.
Foxx was more than the band’s singer. He conceived of Ultravox not as a rock band but a design concept, and he meticulously co-ordinated all aspects of the band’s production – image and words as well as sound – to produce a consistent ‘sonic fiction’. Foxx’s striking sleeve designs are as important as the music (as Peter Saville told me in the interview in last issue’s FACT, Foxx’s cover art for ‘Systems of Romance’ was an important influence on his own work for Factory).
The first self-titled Ultravox LP, released in 1977, is like art rock on punk amphetamines. Tracks like ‘Wide Boys’ and ‘Satday Night in the City of the Dead’ are lurid vignettes of a late 1970s London lurching into social collapse. Brian Eno produced the LP, and early Roxy were a clear reference point, their shiny plastic surfaces Velvets-slashed and Dolls-scuzzed for ‘77 (it is interesting to compare what Japan did with similar co-ordinates on their first album). Ultravox were too arty, too conceptual, to be punk-fashionable, and the album would be no more than a particularly fascinating souvenir of ‘77 were it not for its closing track, 'My Sex.'
'My Sex' is like cyber-theorist Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto nigh-on a decade ahead of time, and better - Ballard's condensed novels further compressed and spliced with Burroughs/ Warhol in a simulation of a post-social(ist) ex-human POV. The vocal - tentative, thin, distant - is less sung than (newsreel) reported, a radio-signal beamed back from the near-future. And the music - a sparse, plaintive, Satie-electric piano fugue - plays like nostalgia from an era (then) yet to come - the lost/ last sounds of the human echoing in the abandoned brutalist precincts of an alternate 1980s.
Kraftwerk had patented the emotionless in pop. But their Robots were Asimov-SF: smoothly efficient industrial machines, oddly quaint, almost old-fashioned, redolent of the Fritz Lang twenties. ‘My Sex’ is cyber-punk to Kraftwerk’s Science Fiction: Foxx's sex/ sect were messily cyborgian, grafts not quite taken, machine-human, Ballard-abstract collages rather than smooth fusions: “My sex is … suburban photographs/ skyscraper shadows/ on/ a carcrash overpass.”
The second Ultravox LP – ‘ha! ha! ha!’ - is a much harsher proposition. It is like ‘For Your Pleasure’ graffitied by Francis Bacon and collage-hacked by John Heartfield and ‘White Light/ White Heat’ cut-and-pasted with apocalyptic-speculative newspapers from ’77. Songs - ‘The Frozen Ones’, ‘Distant Smile’, ‘Fear in the Western World’, ‘Artificial Life’ – are hideous Steadman-distorted polaroids of a decadent metropolis. Moments of glacial calm are suddenly jump-started by an amphetamine-agitated electro-punk that forever teeters on the edge of total disarray, lurching now and then into an atonal collapse that - because of Billy Currie’s frenzied strings and abstrakt electronics - is more Penderecki than Pistols. After this, the desolate beauty of ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ - Resnais and Duras rescored as mutant synthezoid jazz – seems genuinely, eerily post-atomic.
1978’s ‘Systems of Romance’ sees the Ultravox sound re-branded yet again. ‘Systems…’ is more closely aligned with a post-Bowie, pre-New Romantic disco-rock sound than any of the previous albums. Robin Simon’s guitar has a similar liquid metallic quality reminiscent of Carlos Alomar’s, and Connie Plank’s production smoothly integrated electronics with conventional instrumentation much in the way that Eno had on ‘Low’. But Foxx sounds more like a post-traumatic Lennon than Bowie. The Beatles are a definite, if subterranean, presence here, and one of the innovative features of ‘Systems…’ is its recovery and reinvention of psychedelia: there’s an (unused) template for a future-shock rock here that takes up from where the Beatles left off, rather than lazily rehashing them.
The track ‘Slow Motion’ is the outstanding example of this new, electronic pyschedelia. ‘Slow Motion’ describes those moments when successive time melts (away) into longing, producing an affect somewhere between yearning and bliss. This is one of Foxx’s signature moods: a feeling in which all definite edges and boundaries smooth away, ‘blurring [your] face and conversation’. ‘Systems of Romance’ explores psychedelic topographies again in ‘When You Walk Through Me’ (the drum pattern of which, Warren Cann subsequently admitted, was stolen from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’) and in the identity-migration scenarios of ‘Can’t Stay Long’ and ‘Someone Else’s Clothes’: “check out some memories I don’t recognize.”
‘Dislocation’ is the inverse of this: the dark psychedelia of mental disintegration, from a Poe coma-zone of catatonia and amnesia, between wakefulness and sleep, life and undeath. Rock is not so much refitted as superceded here, its instrumentation replaced by ominous electronic textures: ‘Dislocation’’s insistent repeating figure, like an android spine being played as percussion, is in reality a heavily treated, FXed sound from Currie’s ARP synth.
‘Quiet Men’ is disco-rock, another of Foxx’s condensed sonic-fictions. The quiet men – those who observe, but don’t act – were Foxx’s vision of alien(ated)-anonymity as liberation. (The concept was inspired by Foxx’s buying of a second-hand grey suit, which he would wear as an art experiment in invisibility, a deliberate attempt to merge with the crowd.)
‘Systems of Romance’ produced a template for synthetic rock that Gary Numan, Duran Duran and others would follow. In Chicago and Detroit, the future producers of techno and house also listened attentively. This was rock from the future, all the more compelling at a time – now - when groups reheating twenty-five year old ideas are being sold to us as new.