Among the litany of rock cliches, the 'difficult' second album stands out as one of the most enduring. Many bands come up with the goods on their debut offering, attracting lavish praise from the ever-fickle music press and fans alike, only to find themselves returning for a second LP to be faced with, at best, indifference, or - even more woundingly - accusations that they've run out of ideas.
Ultravox! faced a different problem in late 1977, as they regrouped only a few months after the release of their self-titled debut. That eclectic first album had confused and angered the punk-obsessed music press in equal measure, and, despite a growing and ardent cult following, they were still pigeonholed by the media as vacuous, derivative glam rockers. The band members must have found these cheap shots irritating in the extreme. They evidently stung frontman and lyricist, John Foxx, whose title for the second record - Ha!-Ha!-Ha! - was presumably intended as a sarcastic commentary on the charges of superficiality laid at the band's door.
There's certainly nothing else especially frivolous about this second LP. Even its cover, another Foxx-designed artwork, conveys its harsher, bleaker edge. The band had posed as mannequin-like figures on the cover of the first record; now, they're monochrome line drawings, their unsmiling faces repeated several times over. On the reverse, the same images are blurred and distorted, creating a disorientating effect. With this unsettling cover design, the band's aim of making the album an uncomfortable and difficult listen is evident, even before we get to the music. The very title screams at us in shocking pink, a jarring burst of colour outlining the RSI-inducing punctuation. Evidently, the accusations of pretension that had greeted the band's notorious, Krautrock-referencing exclamation mark had merely acted as a red rag to a bull.
The album takes no prisoners, and Microsoft Word's spellchecking function isn't the only casualty. While it evidently helped to develop a fanbase at the time, question the average Foxx fan now and you'll dredge up a surprising amount of bile about Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, with the only cut to win general approval being Hiroshima Mon Amour (of which more later). Viewed post-Systems of Romance, the record's rough edges and unpolished production - courtesy of a pre-fame Steve Lillywhite - are resolutely uncommercial and make for distinctly uneasy listening. Job done for Foxx and co, then.
Ha!-Ha!-Ha! begins with ROckWrok, a song that makes Slade look like rank amateurs in the unofficial 'spell the title as bizarrely as possible' contest (the title was, apparently unbeknownst to the other band members, a reference to Duchamp's 'Rongwrong' artwork). The album opener sees John picking up where he left off with My Sex, except that the claustrophobic psychological journey of that track is replaced by a comic and gloriously obscene romp through, well...everyone else's sex. The LP version could never recreate the immense energy of live attempts, but it's a dizzying, shouty rush of a track nonetheless. For those of us more used to the metaphysical elements in John's work, this noisy, visceral song is a revelation.
Time for a 'quiet one', surely? No, the shell-shocked listener is given no quarter, as a vaguely menacing, finger-clicking intro (shades of things to come) propels us into The Frozen Ones. It's with this track that the album's overarching theme starts to emerge. The first Ultravox! record had hinted at John's feelings towards contemporary London, alternating between fascination and revulsion; here, it's all revulsion. The Frozen Ones is an anthem for 'hollow' people, the more self-aware elements of the contemporary scene who could empathise with the anger and bitterness behind John's defiant shout that 'We're nowhere, we don't care who led us here – no-one will care when we're gone'. The album's punk leanings become especially obvious with this track. John's vocals have lost their Ferry-esque smoothness as he roars his lyrics with a fierce harshness that takes more than a little getting used to, but fits perfectly with the context and with the abrasive guitars and edgy keyboards of this new, spikier version of the Ultravox! sound.
The Frozen Ones may harpoon individual self-centredness and emotionlessness, but the following track, Fear In The Western World, takes Ultravox! on a rare journey into the political landscape of the time. John's vision of 1970s society in the wider world is even bleaker than his views on his immediate surroundings; suburbia may recoil from the brutality of punk, but it too is stumbling into an abyss of its own making while 'TV orphans laugh at the confusion' (the first of what would be many Foxxian callbacks to an earlier track or lyric). Long-time fans will enjoy hearing a particularly naughty blasphemy in the opening verse, while reflecting that this is indeed the man who would - a mere five years later - offer us the Lord's Prayer in Latin set to a danceable beat. Another strident track is While I'm Still Alive, a cocky and pleasingly nerve-grating track about our daily defiance of mortality that channels some of the aggressive desperation of the first album into a satisfying last stand for that record's particular brand of glam-influenced rock. As Stevie slowly murders his guitar, John rather menacingly tells us that 'a shock in the dark can be good for your heart'. With the mood he appears to be in for most of this record, one would not dare to cite any medical evidence to the contrary.
Distant Smile, by contrast, is a trip back to individual isolation. After a lengthy and rather beautiful piano intro lulls us into a false sense of security, we are suddenly propelled into a burst of screaming guitars as John yells that he often finds himself pulled away mentally from the world around him and hiding behind...well, no prizes for guessing what kind of a smile. Despite the typically frantic arrangement, the theme of the song indicates the preoccupation with disconnection from reality that would run through the band's next album, while the ambient piano hints at nothing so much as John's work with Harold Budd some twenty five years later.
So far, so good. By this stage, the punk fans amongst its audience will be punching the air, and the electro fans will, in the main, be thoroughly alienated. This is a great shame on many levels, not least because the band's decision to incorporate punk stylings into their work here partially obscures themes and lyrics that are right up Systems of Romance's alley. For those of us who love discordant noise and, regardless of the '77 ambience hanging heavily over it, find this record as fresh as the day it was pressed, none of this poses a problem. For those who don't, nothing that I say here will succeed in convincing them that the tracks already discussed are worth a listen. That said, there are three songs on this relatively short album that quite simply refuse to be overlooked.
Artificial Life was apparently one of the band's favourite tracks; as far as they were concerned, this was where it all came together. It's hard to dispute that – no previous attempt on their part to criticise the zeitgeist made anything like its searing impression. John's singing on this album is sometimes compared to '90s vocalists like Damon Albarn – an obvious point of reference, given his early tendency towards social critique – but, if we're forced to draw analogies with Britpop, the brilliantly theatrical delivery and almost visceral loathing point more to Jarvis Cocker on this particular track. The tragedy of his narrator is that he detests the vacuity of the 'scene', yet is unable to resist the seductive lure of the milieu he describes as a 'whirlpool' – 'it's so pleasant getting drowned'. The track begins quietly, building up with vicious stabs of guitar until the climactic violin crescendo, arguably Billy's finest hour. By the end of the song, we feel alienated, a little bit dirty – and totally exhilarated. Little wonder that the band never again bothered to pursue this avenue. If you don't understand the sickly lure of the 'artificial life' after this, you never will.
Staunch defender of the first Ultravox! album that I am, even I can't deny that cohesion was not its strong point. Not so Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, an album that fits together pretty perfectly, just like its successor. That said, there is one track that – thank you, MP3 shuffle function – I often mistakenly assume belongs to Systems. The Man Who Dies Every Day may have the sneering vocal and hard-edged keyboards common to much of this record, but lyrically it looks to the future. Make no mistake, this is the Quiet Man's slightly scary older brother – anonymous, rootless, never showing on photographs and never looking much older. The sense of menace is wholly appropriate to its parent LP, but TMWDED evokes a type of individual who is capable of moving outside the periphery of society, his self-contained existence lived out just under its radar – all very Systems.
The world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who have heard Hiroshima Mon Amour, and those who haven't. How few expectations this track generates as that quiet drum preset tick-tocks into life, until the onset of that heavenly synth sweeps us away. An expectant pause, then the sound of a voice that takes all the best bits of Bowie and Ferry, mixes them up and creates something else a hundred times more powerful. This is the calm after the storm, the blissful rest following the feverish nightmare. There are remarkably few love songs in the Ultravox! canon, but this one sublime track is worth twenty by any other band. It tells a sad tale of lost love, a couple who 'communicate like distant stars' and whose former passion now lives on only in memory. It should be a tearjerker – yet, as that euphoric final burst of saxophone (courtesy of Gloria Mundi's C.C.) and the palpitating rhythm of the drum machine join the soaring keyboards in a final minute of sheer, beautiful release, we're left far from miserable. There's nothing to be sad about, after all. The memories are stored up safe beneath that autumn lake 'where only echoes penetrate' and the dying sunset 'turns our silhouettes to gold'. Somewhere, far from the desensitising artificiality and coldness of everyday life, the real emotion survives for eternity.
The extra tracks from this period in the band's career are numerous and satisfying; we get more of The Man Who Dies Every Day (an extended version and a live performance), plus the inclusion of the non-album track that nonetheless is one of the band's most famous, the superb Young Savage. Sorry, Julian Cope, but the 'art-school punks' did it best; frantic, vicious guitars and a snarled vocal that targets its victims – the front-row phlegm artists and the bottle-lobbing morons – with a lyric like a heat-seeking missile, a deadly attack on the most noisome end of the punk scene delivered with its own weapons. While the version plucked from the Live Retro EP is a perfect three-minute salvo, the live counterpart also included here is even more venomously exciting. Another great curio for die-hard fans is the original version of Hiroshima Mon Amour. Musically, the discordant violin and that devastating guitar (substituted for the sax) firmly places it within the discomfort zone of the rest of the album, while the screamed vocal lends the lyrics a bitterness entirely absent from the LP version. This prolonged explosion of coruscating noise, ending with its thrummed aftershock, deserves to be listened to back-to-back with its better-known version. Last but not least, the supremely irritating and wholly endearing Quirks is thrown in, just to remind us that Ultravox! had a far better sense of humour than their critics ever gave them credit for.
Ha!-Ha!-Ha! incorporates elements of both the debut album and the peerless follow-up, while sounding nothing like either; however, far from being an inconsequential linking album between the two, it is a powerful work in its own right. Systems of Romance did not just spring fully-formed from the band's collective head, and nor was Ultravox! purged thoroughly from their system before carrying on. This is where it all started: where the seeds of the Quiet Man ethos germinated, where the band as a whole really succeeded in organising the noise, and where John Foxx's songwriting mutated from patchily brilliant to another level altogether. Ha!-Ha!-Ha! was received with lazy belligerence by the music press, who with tiresome predictability pegged Ultravox! as bandwagon jumpers beyond compare. This album was once described to me as 'punky trash'. 'Punky' is actually about right – the band weren't riding the coat-tails of the punk scene, but were taking the best of its original firebrand allure and carefully fashioning it into something precious and innovative. And besides, as someone would one day make abundantly clear, there's nothing so wrong with trash.