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Ultravox! The John Foxx years

Over thirty years after its original release, John Foxx’s first album with Ultravox! (complete with exclamation mark) is still regarded by many fans as one of his pivotal works, and one of the finest albums to emerge from the late 1970s, where punk had killed off prog and glam, disco fever was setting in, and electronic music was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream. Gem Wheeler takes a look back at Ultravox!'s eponymous début album...


Depending on your perspective, the punk movement was one of two things: a rebellious, snarling attack on the glam rock excess of the mid-1970s, or a cynical, commercially-minded bid to enforce another stiflingly conservative trend. Thirty years after the hype, and thirty seconds after watching Johnny Lydon doing his best impersonation of a pantomime villain for the umpteenth Pistols reunion, it all looks depressingly conformist. As the NME's 'hip young gunslingers' tore into any band that dared to give the finger to their preconceptions, the music press's bizarre hold over the minds and tastes of supposedly anarchic punks spelt disaster for those on the wrong side of the party line. So, when Chorley-born art student Dennis Leigh - soon to be known as John Foxx - decided to start a band in decrepit, seedy 1970s London, it might have been expected that he and his magnificently-coiffed comrades would avoid using violins, Neu!-style exclamation marks, glam rock stylings and neon signs. But the N.M.Excess, Melody Faker and Clowns (nice one, Foxxy!) were about to encounter a very, very different group.

Ultravox!'s eponymous début seemed incongruous on its '77 release, although this is more understandable when taking into account the fact that the band was formed in 1974, at the height of glam rock. While many Foxx fans approve of the last of his three albums with Ultravox!, the first two are often written off as interesting but flawed curiosities. Big mistake. Without listening to these records, it's impossible to make proper sense of the band's evolution, and of Foxx's development as a lyricist. It's important to remember that, at this stage, John isn’t the detached observer we’ve since come to know; he’s in the thick of the scuzzy London scene he describes with such jaded bitterness. The album is a mishmash of several different styles, and its lack of cohesion has often been criticised. Yet, somehow, it works. The disjointed collection of tracks on offer here effectively conveys the band’s alienated take on their surroundings.

The album launches into jaunty life with “Sat’day Night In The City Of The Dead”, a frenetic attack on ‘70s London. John plays the harmonica for the first and only time while delivering his caustic commentary on urban life at breakneck speed. Exciting, slightly cocky and instantly memorable, it’s a sterling start. “Life At Rainbow’s End” (subtitled For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street, in a clear dig at expatriate rockers) is a heavily glam-influenced track, with wonderfully theatrical vocals and lashings of attitude. “Slip Away” is an unusual, Shadows-inspired song with a lyric that hints at some of John’s later preoccupations, and the glam quotient is upped still further by the brilliant “Wide Boys”. The altered vocal works fantastically well, giving John quite the ‘foxy adolescent sneer’ of his own, while the theme, exploring the seamier side of London subculture, looks forward to the classic “Young Savage”.

One of the most interesting moments on the record comes with “Dangerous Rhythm”, the first single the band recorded as Ultravox!, and the recipient of a surprising amount of praise from the usually viciously critical music rags. Chris Cross’s interest in reggae shows in his memorable bassline here, while John’s Ferry-esque vocals are the most romantic on the album. Ironically, given the massive success of The Police’s take on ‘white reggae’ shortly afterwards, the band decided not to pursue this angle, as they felt (no doubt rightly) that they might be mocked. “Dangerous Rhythm” remains as a fascinating hint at an avenue never fully explored.

“The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned” is well-known for its drama and power, especially live; while the lyrics are slightly too overblown to pass muster, and the theatricality of the violin fails to make the indelible impression left on other tracks, it’s a strident crowd-pleaser of a track that proves difficult to stop humming. Probably the least successful effort on the album is “The Lonely Hunter”, one of those tracks that inevitably lurks at the bottom of any poll of worst songs. For all that, the lyric gains panache from John’s delivery, and the track has a certain charm that puts it firmly in the list marked ‘guilty pleasures’. There is a certain irony in the fact that this overlooked song marks the first appearance of John’s preoccupation with solitary wandering in an urban environment, albeit in a different, more predatory context. In fact, the album has more in common with Ultravox!’s later work than it at first seems. The only difference is the hard-edged, aggressive, visceral quality that lends it a flavour all of its own.

Two tracks on the album tend to receive special attention, even from those who lack patience with the very different style of this era of Ultravox! The first is the truly outstanding “I Want To Be A Machine”, one of the band’s many ‘finest hours’. At over seven minutes long, it’s the antithesis of the short punk tracks popular at the time. The insistent, almost hypnotic rhythm of the track builds to a crescendo as John sings of his longing to be ‘freed from this flesh’, before his panic-stricken cry punctuates Billy’s climactic violin frenzy. The detachment John would show later when singing of similar subjects is nowhere in evidence here, and, despite its title, the track resonates with humanity and passion. It’s also worth noting that John’s reference to ‘die Mensch-Maschine’ beat Kraftwerk to it by a year…
The second groundbreaking song on the LP is “My Sex”. Described by one contemporary reviewer as ‘more of an aberration than a song’, ”My Sex” is, in fact, closer to a poem, as John half-sings, half-speaks the story of his own sexuality. Breathtakingly frank lyrics take us deep into John’s psyche (‘My sex is a wanting wardrobe of all the bodies I knew, and those I want to know’), while the haunting synth backing and heartbeat rhythm are the perfect accompaniment. This track is an early instance of John’s incredible skill as a lyricist, and a magnificent closer to the album. The 2006 reissue of Ultravox! also includes live versions of “Slip Away”, the unreleased “Modern Love”, “The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned”, and “My Sex”. While studio versions of the many discarded tracks laid down at this time would have been a dream come true for fans of early Ultravox!, these live tracks give a real taste of the excitement generated by the band at their fierce early gigs.

It’s fair to say that Ultravox! probably doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts, but with parts as good as this, who cares? This is the sound of a band full to bursting with ideas, ideals and passion for their music, and coming across even better for their occasional failure to control it all. Stranglers bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel’s malicious suggestion that they were a bunch of ‘session musicians put together by Island Records’ to fill Roxy Music’s shoes sounds even more ridiculous and petty when listening to the album today.

Coming to the record as someone who wasn’t a product of that scene, it’s incredibly hard to fathom why, with such obvious potential and such sheer determination to plough their own furrow, they were dismissed as Roxy rip-offs and third-rate Bowie clones. Perhaps that very determination to experiment and step beyond the limitations imposed by the prevailing trend was their downfall. There was no place in ‘77 for a band with a working-class singer who refused to let any ‘wet Mockney’ browbeat him into dumbing down his fiercely intellectual lyrics. The NME couldn’t deal with the idea of a rock group featuring a classically-trained violinist (step up, Billy Currie, whose virtuoso performance is one of the most memorable aspects of the record), and, in Stevie Shears, a guitarist whose ‘organised chaos’ was the perfect foil, accompanied by Warren Cann’s whirlwind drumming and Cross’s bass.

Ultimately, the band were the victims of an overhyped and poorly thought-out promotion campaign, and, unwittingly, of their own naivety in refusing to play live until they felt comfortable doing so. What they saw as perfecting their sound, the media and their peers saw as arrogance, and a wholly undeserved reputation was born. Even the stunning gatefold record sleeve was criticised as pretentious, yet John’s design perfectly conveys the paradoxes in the band’s image; dressed like rockers and heavily made-up, they stand against a brick wall under that wonderful red neon sign - yet another misunderstood reference - superficially at home with their seedy environs. Look at their faces, though, and it’s another story. Eyes distant and staring, poses almost mannequin-like, there’s an edge of discomfort, a hint of something deeper beneath the mascara and the PVC-jacketed gloss. The quiet men, perhaps? Another album, another time. This most underrated of groups still had so many tricks up their collective sleeve before they took us there. For anyone still believing the old nonsense that John Foxx brought nothing to Ultravox! but an obsession with punctuation and the kiss of commercial death, here’s the first of your wake-up calls. If the first two don’t do the trick, the third will definitely jolt you into reality.

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