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Systems of Romance

Systems of Romance

Ah, Systems of Romance – a title to strike dread into the heart of any would-be Ultravox reviewer. It certainly shouldn't have that effect. After all, isn't it generally considered to be the finest and most innovative of their three albums with original frontman John Foxx? The answer to all this is yes...and that's exactly why I find myself cringing from the task of writing about it. It's genuinely hard to find superlatives that haven't already been overused in describing this truly groundbreaking record. For all that, Systems of Romance, like any Foxxvox album, isn't short of detractors. A large minority of fans resent the shift from a harder, 'punky' sound to a synth-driven approach, while from another angle comes the old and rather dull refrain: 'Midge could have done it better'. Finally, for all its influence upon successive generations of electronic musicians, Systems of Romance's commercial success was depressingly limited, and the critical reaction - whilst not as overwhelmingly hostile as it had been to the previous two albums - was, at best, muted. Perhaps the easiest way to tackle reviewing this record, then, is to ask the question any Foxx fan worth his or her salt should be posing. Far from being quietly satisfied that Systems of Romance did a little better than its predecessors, we ought to be asking ourselves why the hell it didn't become the massive hit it deserved to be.

Ha!-Ha!-Ha! had seen the last embers of Ultravox!'s harder, punkier ethos flare up spectacularly, but the ashes settled around a changed band. The general enthusiasm for a change in direction was not shared by erstwhile guitarist, Stevie Shears, who left under circumstances that are as unclear as those surrounding any other Vox departure/sacking/event best left well alone (and no, I'm not even going to mention the others. Oh, hang on...). He was replaced by Robin Simon, whose legendary status in Ultravox fandom was sealed by this, his only recording with the band. The vastly different styles of the two musicians invite comparison, but there isn't really any need to pick a favourite; both guitarists made an immense contribution to the varied styles with which Ultravox experimented.. Nevertheless, the personnel change made an immediate impact. Shears's wasn't the only exit in 1978 – there was another, less immediately obvious but equally momentous departure, or rather omission. Ultravox! became Ultravox, and, with that, the Foxxian mania for excess punctuation was over. Had the exclamation mark remained until Vienna, I would have been able to insert a poignant comment here about its loss symbolising the end of a creative era chez Vox, but no such luck.

The third album cover, although as powerful as its immediate predecessor, is another indication of the change of approach. The band's name and the album title stand out in an elegant white typeface against a black background; neon signs and screaming pink letters are a thing of the past. On the front, five images that should have set the minds of any Foxx fans gifted with precognition racing. A statue in an overgrown garden, a man in a smart suit (face unseen), a cityscape, another statue, and a rainbow over open countryside are the cryptic pictures that confuse us as we gaze at the sleeve. One could interpret them as either a Julie Andrews-esque parade of Foxx's favourite things, or a powerful statement of creative intent that would set the pattern for his career over the ensuing thirty-plus years. Given his penchant for design, my money's on 'powerful statement of creative intent'. The band members have been relegated to the back cover this time, but they certainly aren't giving anything away with their blank stares and relatively unobtrusive clothes. You look at Foxx carefully, but to little avail. He'd been a punk with the face of a medieval saint on the first album's cover, and a line-drawn, faintly menacing monochrome presence on the second, but here his folded arms and neutral gaze challenge us to work this one out for ourselves.
Systems of Romance's credentials as a classic are immediately obvious on its opening track, the majestic “Slow Motion”. Deservedly one of Ultravox's most famous songs, the band's most influential achievement – the fusion of synths with traditional instrumentation – is most brilliantly realised here. Robin Simon's soaring guitar is matched by Billy Currie's thrilling keyboard work, providing a perfect introduction to the album's new style. The word 'new' perhaps isn't entirely appropriate; Ultravox had taken steps in this direction before with tracks such as “The Man Who Dies Every Day” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, a risky tactic given the music press's shrieking dislike of 'pretentious' synthesisers. The fact that Ultravox pressed on with these experiments in the face of a typically lukewarm media response is testament to the band's visionary style and sheer bloody-minded determination to plough their own furrow. Their gamble paid off, and nowhere more so than on “Slow Motion”.

No reply, I'm trying hard to somehow frame a reply...And with that, ironically, John Foxx delivered the perfect riposte to his critics. His lyrics and vocal performance are among the key, distinctive elements of this record. No more comparisons with Bowie and Ferry; here, he sounds like nobody other than John Foxx - inimitable and irreplaceable. The glam rock swagger and harsh, angry punk attitude are gone, replaced by a reflective, calmer persona. He's freed himself from the bleak, nightmarish cityscapes of his past by learning to look beneath the surface to something beautiful and unchanging. On Systems of Romance, he's as intangible and distant as the dreamlike images he conjures up for us, but never mistake the superficial tranquility for a lack of emotion. The ache of longing on “Slow Motion” comes full circle to the genuinely heartbreaking “Just For A Moment”. Post-Metamatic, Foxx would be pigeonholed as electro's ice king, but the wonderfully romantic feel created by the warmth and yearning behind many of these tracks gives the lie to that inaccurate stereotype. Foxx's presence on the album is calm, detached and unshowy, yet absolutely mesmeric. From the powerful, soaring vocals of “I Can't Stay Long” to the repetitive, incantatory “Dislocation” through to “Just For A Moment's” stunning choral element – another hint at the future– he is an essential part of the record's unforgettable quality.
Not only does Foxx's delivery impress, but the sublime lyrical content here is simply too much to digest without repeated listens. Systems of Romance is pure poetry from start to finish – just listen to “I Can't Stay Long”, with its stunning, richly sensual evocation of the blurring of dream and reality ('I like to glide in the long green light of a July afternoon/Sliding down a vague conversation'). After his sharp indictment of urban brutality in the previous two albums, he turns his attention here to the spiritual and metaphysical. Time is the central theme of this record; more specifically, the power of memory and emotion to distort it, stretching precious moments to infinity. If this sounds excessively introspective, tracks such as “Slow Motion”, the exhilarating “I Can't Stay Long” and the brilliantly catchy, punk-inflected “Blue Light” put paid to any such concerns. The previous two Ultravox albums had already hinted at Foxx's powers as a lyricist; this swansong for his incarnation of the band is where that burgeoning talent burst into glorious life, cementing his status as one of the finest wordsmiths of his, or any other, generation.

Systems of Romance's one slight misstep, if it can be described as such, is “Some Of Them” – although it's an enjoyable track and, with its tale of long-lost and half-remembered friends, is lyrically in keeping with the rest of the album, its breakneck pace, noisy guitars and brief length give it the air of a lost cut from Ha!-Ha!-Ha!. Just when we might have expected the album to have peaked, however, it suddenly rockets into genius territory once more. The title alone should give some idea of “Quiet Men's” immense importance to Foxx's entire body of work. A more benevolent figure than his slightly menacing close relation in the earlier “The Man Who Dies Every Day”, the Quiet Man has haunted every strand of Foxx's output for the past thirty years. In this early, upbeat outing, he and his 'quiet friends' are standard bearers for a new ethos; far from the previous despairing belligerence, Foxx has discovered the joy of blending in with the scenery, opting neither to play society's antagonists at their own game, nor to give up and aim to 'fit in', but to hover on the peripheries, living life as he wishes. It's difficult to imagine a more appropriate anthem for the alienated than this track, with its strident guitar and one of Foxx's most endearing vocals driving home the message of this most polite of revolutions. From here, it's only a short, disturbing journey to “Dislocation”. This haunting track's minimal arrangement, with an unusual and eerie rhythm from Billy Currie's ARP Odyssey at its centre, is the perfect accompaniment to the distant, enigmatic lyric. On tracks such as “I Can't Stay Long” and the much-neglected “Someone Else's Clothes” – yet another bravura performance from Currie, with his keyboard masquerading as a guitar – Foxx had conveyed a sense of the wonder involved in passing from one life to another, merging with other times and places. “Dislocation”, by contrast, is a dark fever dream where nothing is quite as it seems, and irrevocable loss of identity seems to hover menacingly as our narrator becomes more and more disconnected from the world. More loss of control – albeit of a rather more pleasant variety, by the sound of it – is the subject of the instantly memorable and rather mysterious “Maximum Acceleration”, a track that boasted one of the band's catchiest ever hooks and which would, in a just universe, have rivaled Bryan Addams's number of weeks at the top of the charts.

“When You Walk Through Me” adds a touch of '60s-influenced psychedelia to the mix, foreshadowing Foxx's work on The Golden Section five years later. The album's original closer, “Just For A Moment”, is one last dose of Foxxvox fabulousness, the poignant parting shot, although nobody knew it then. Every element here is perfect; the heavenly synth, the beautiful vocal with its hint of a choral influence, the raw emotion of the lyric. Whether by accident or design, every Ultravox album ends with a song that could be considered classic. Systems of Romance is no exception. But there's more to come. “Cross Fade”, a track missing from the original release but added to the 2006 reissue, is a fascinating glimpse of how Ultravox's fourth album might have sounded in that oh-so-tantalising parallel universe; Foxx barks out his lyrics like a robotic drill sergeant against a wholly synthesised backing. The obvious assumption to make is that this is pre-Metamatic experimentation, but its lyrical content locates it squarely within the Ultravox canon. For the completist, an alternative mix of “Quiet Men” rounds off a superb reissue.

It's easy to wonder exactly what Ultravox did wrong in 1978. How could Systems of Romance fail to be a massive hit? Actually, everything was right: the voice, the music, the look. One thing, and one alone, let them down – timing. Always ten steps ahead of their peers, Ultravox were simply too innovative for a musical epoch in which image reigned supreme, and dull, derivative posturing passed for rebellion. Systems of Romance has been with us for thirty years now. It sounds new in 2008, and, if the world is still revolving a hundred years hence, it will sound new then, too. With such a legacy, there's no need for regrets or pondering what might have been. Cann, Cross and Currie would go on to achieve the commercial success they wanted in what was, in essence, a wholly different band. For Foxx, the demise of his former outfit was just the beginning of an eclectic and incredibly influential solo career.

No epitaph is required for Ultravox, because they never really went away. Their three albums with Foxx may not have topped charts or won awards, but they managed something even more elusive. Their ideas were absorbed into the musical mainstream, referenced both consciously and unconsciously by successive generations of bands. It need hardly be said that they won't receive their full critical dues until they, and no doubt we, have arrived at the great gig in the sky. Somehow, it seems almost appropriate. The quiet men wander, still smiling, down those infinite English lanes, always vanishing round the corner just as we think we're catching up.

Gem Wheeler

Ultravox! - Ha-Ha-Ha - Systems of Romance