This early incarnation of the band stumbled around looking for a direction, releasing one single, a cover of Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, on Gull Records in 1975. They struggled to progress, however, and frequently changed their name, taking on briefly held monikers such as The Zips, Fire Of London and even The Damned for several weeks before discovering another aspiring punk group with the same name was working the London circuit.
Writing songs and gigging regularly in and around London, the embryonic outfit were signed by Chris Blackwell’s ever-vigilant Island imprint in the early summer of 1976 and only chose their permanent name while recording their debut LP. Collectively digging innovative German experimental bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk, they chose the name Ultravox!, initially inserting an exclamation mark in homage to the former.
At this juncture, Dennis Leigh also chose the new stage name of John Foxx, while bassist Allen rechristened himself Chris Cross and the band continued recording their self-titled debut with co-production from future U2/Siouxsie & The Banshees producer Steve Lillywhite and one of their heroes, ex-Roxy Music synth manipulator and David Bowie collaborator Brian Eno.
Released in February, Ultravox! failed to set the charts alight. It was easy to detect echoes of band’s influences such as Roxy Music and the New York Dolls in tracks such as ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Sat’day Night In The City Of The Dead’, though the rippling synths and tumbling pianos of the closing ‘My Sex’ pointed to the terrain that Foxx and co would begin traversing when they emerged from punk.
Ironically, however, Ultravox!’s second LP, November ’77’s Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, felt like a retrograde step dominated by loud guitars and aggressive, punky anthems such as ‘Fear In The Western World’ and the wantonly sexual first single ‘ROckWrok’, which picked up BBC Radio 1 airplay despite Foxx’s visceral lyric: “F__k like a dog, bite like a shark.” In stark contrast, however, the album concluded with ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, a critically acclaimed track that signposted the way to the band’s future. Built around moody, atmospheric synthesiser melodies, it was also one of the earliest electro-pop songs to feature a drum machine: a Roland TR-77, programmed by Warren Cann.
During 1978, Ultravox dropped the exclamation mark from their name and replaced guitarist Stevie Shears with the versatile Robin Simon before heading to Cologne to record their third LP with another of their heroes, Kraftwerk/Neu! producer Conny Plank. Though another commercial failure, that September’s sublime Systems Of Romance has rightly since been cited as a significant influence on the burgeoning post-punk synth-pop scene.
In the sleevenotes for the CD reissue of Tubeway Army’s Replicas, electro-pop superstar Gary Numan later admitted that Systems Of Romance was “exactly where I wanted to go with my own music – I loved the way John Foxx and Billy Currie merged synthesisers with guitars and drums”, and its best tracks (the melancholy ‘Slow Motion’, the clipped, staccato ‘Quiet Men’ and the enigmatic, psychedelic-tinged ‘When You Walk Through Me’) undeniably rank among the finest in Ultravox’s canon. The sparse, proto-industrial grind of ‘Dislocation’, meanwhile, also signalled the direction John Foxx would pursue on his glacial 1980 solo debut, Metamatic.
Despite positive critical notices, Systems Of Romance again struggled in the marketplace and Island dropped the band. Label-less, they soldiered on for a while, but split after an ill-fated US tour in March 1979. With John Foxx then signing to Richard Branson’s Virgin label as a solo artist, Robin Simon joining Magazine and Gary Numan recruiting Billy Currie to play on his highly successful LP The Pleasure Principle, it seemed Ultravox was over until the versatile Midge Ure stepped into the picture.
A talented vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist, the Lanarkshire-born Ure had already tasted some minor music industry success as he’d sung on studio-bound outfit Slik’s 1976 Top 10 hit ‘Forever And Ever’ and played in former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock’s short-lived new wave supergroup Rich Kids. Billy Currie first met him when the pair were collaborating on new romantic icon Steve Strange’s studio-based project Visage, and, after some encouragement from Visage drummer Rusty Egan, Currie asked Ure to join Ultravox.
It proved a momentous moment. Ure’s vocal and guitar skills meant he could replace both Foxx and Robin Simon, and he rapidly revitalised Ultravox’s fortunes. He brought a much-needed pop sensibility with him, which was reflected in Ultravox’s make-or-break fourth LP, Vienna, their Chrysalis Records debut, released in June 1980. Issued at a time when electronic pop outfits such as The Human League and Depeche Mode were beginning to break into the mainstream, Vienna’s state of the art, synth-driven pop surfed the zeitgeist and, after a slow start, its dramatic title track rose to No.2 in the UK singles chart in January 1981.
Still arguably Ultravox’s signature song, ‘Vienna’ was strongly influenced by Carol Reed’s atmospheric 1948 movie The Third Man, which was also based around the Austrian capital. Promoted by a suitably enigmatic video of the band wandering around several well-known Viennese landmarks, the song went on to become one of the UK’s biggest-selling singles of 1981 and – on the back of two further Top 30 singles, ‘Sleepwalk’ and the edgy ‘All Stood Still’ – its parent album eventually peaked at No.3 in the UK charts, earning Ultravox a platinum certification.
Post-Vienna, Midge Ure and co frequently graced the upper echelons of the UK charts until 1985. Again the product of sessions with Conny Plank, 1981’s sleek, silver-selling Rage In Eden rose to No.4 in Britain and produced two memorable Top 20 singles courtesy of the stark, motorik ‘The Thin Wall’ and the anthemic ‘The Voice’, while 1982’s opulent Quartet (overseen by the eminent George Martin) fittingly yielded four Top 20 smashes courtesy of ‘Reap The Wild Wind’, ‘Hymn’, ‘Visions In Blue’ and the irrepressible, Kraftwerk-ian ‘We Came To Dance’ en route to going gold in the UK.
Ultravox received another gold disc for 1983’s Monument, a well-received live album recorded at their headlining show at London’s prestigious Hammersmith Odeon on the tour to promote Quartet. Predictably, their seventh studio set, 1984’s self-produced Lament, climbed into the UK Top 10 and once again went gold, though its contents were a departure from Ultravox’s tried and tested synth-pop sound. Both of the record’s two significant hits, the soaring, guitar-driven ‘One Small Day’ and the bombastic, nuclear meltdown-related ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, were designed to compete with the band’s contemporaries, U2 and Simple Minds, in the mainstream rock arena, while the album’s title cut (also a UK Top 30 hit in June ’84) was a melancholic, Celtic-flavoured ballad.
Chrysalis issued the band’s first “best of” anthology, The Collection, late that same year. Presaged by yet another Top 20 hit, the standalone ‘Love’s Great Adventure’, the album went triple platinum in the UK, where it peaked at No.2. Arguably at the height of their popularity, however, Ultravox then took a break while workaholic Midge Ure co-wrote and helped produce Band Aid’s multi-million-selling charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, and then scored a major coup when his solo 45 ‘If I Was’ topped the UK charts in 1985.
Recorded with contributions from high-profile friends such as Level 42 bassist Mark King and Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki, Ure’s debut solo LP, The Gift, again rewarded him with critical and commercial success when it rose to No.2 in the UK charts in October 1985. At this stage, Ure and his compatriots seemed unassailable, yet they immediately ran into difficulties when they reconvened to record Ultravox’s eighth LP. Though the sessions found the band reuniting with long-time studio collaborator Conny Plank, they were quickly marred when drummer Warren Cann left the band and emigrated to the US.
Having played on Midge Ure’s The Gift, Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki was drafted in for the subsequent sessions, but the resulting album, U-Vox, confounded fans and critics alike on its release in 1986. Continuing the trend that began with Lament, its overall sound drifted further away from synth-infused pop, with a brass section pepping up the expansive arena-sized rock of ‘Same Old Story’, and the melancholic ‘All Fall Down’ embroidered with strong Celtic flavours from traditional Irish folk band The Chieftains. Both these tracks were released as 45s, but each stalled around the Top 30’s outer perimeter, while the third single – ‘All In One Day’, which came couched in a lavish, George Martin-scored string arrangement – stalled at a lowly No.88. U-Vox also received mixed reviews, but while it again made the UK Top 10 and yielded a gold disc, Ultravox decided to split after touring the album during 1987.
Though largely remaining out of the spotlight, the band members all kept busy after Ultravox ceased trading. Chris Cross temporarily quit music to become a psychotherapist; Billy Currie briefly played with Dead Or Alive and embarked on a sporadic solo career; Midge Ure also switched back to his solo career and enjoyed widespread European chart success in 1998 after his single ‘Breathe’ was used in a popular television advertising campaign for Swatch watches.
During the 90s, Currie slightly contentiously released two albums, Revelation and Ingenuity, under the Ultravox banner, though he was the only original band member to feature on these recordings. However, in 2009, long-term fans finally received the news they’d been hoping for when Ultravox’s “classic” line-up of Ure, Cann, Cross and Currie announced their Return To Eden tour, which took in a series of highly acclaimed live dates in the UK followed by gigs in Germany and Belgium, and then a further bout of gigging in 2010, which was celebrated by the release of that year’s Return To Eden: Live At The Roundhouse in-concert LP.
Devotees waited with bated breath to see if new recordings would emerge. Eventually Ultravox’s first all-new album for 26 years materialised, when the confidently-titled Brill!ant was released by Chrysalis in May 2012. Trailed by the spooky, attention-grabbing title track, the album was produced by Stephen Lipson (Annie Lennox; Pharrell Williams) and it was a vintage return to form, with numerous highlights including shimmering stadium-sized anthems such as ‘Live’ and the yearning, bagpipe-assisted ‘Flow’; the insistent ‘The Change’ and the sparse, haunting postscript, ‘Contact’.
Brill!ant received a brace of positive reviews and it soon reacquainted Ultravox with the UK Top 40, where it peaked at No.21, as well as selling strongly in the band’s long-time European strongholds such as Germany and Sweden. Encouraged by the record’s performance, Ultravox took to the stage for a lengthy tour, taking in shows across the UK and Europe during the autumn and winter of 2012. They returned to the stage as Simple Minds’ special guests on their arena tour of the UK in 2013 and remain a going concern, though Midge Ure has since returned to his concurrent solo career. He released the beautifully crafted Fragile during 2014 and in 2016 embarked on the extensive 80s Invasion UK Tour, sharing the bill with Big Country, Nick Heyward and Curiosity Killed The Cat.
Words: Tim Peacock
With the departure of vocalist John Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon behind them, Vienna kicked off Ultravox's second phase with former Rich Kids vocalist Midge Ure at the helm. Trading Foxx's glam rock stance for Ure's aristocratic delivery, Vienna recasts the band as a melodramatic synth pop chamber ensemble with most of the group doubling on traditional string quartet instruments and the synthesizers often serving to emulate an orchestra. It was a bold move that took awhile to pay off (the first two singles, "Sleepwalk" and "Passing Strangers," went unnoticed), but when the monolithic title track was released, the Ure lineup became the band's most identifiable one almost overnight. The simple and instantly recognizable drumbeat of "Vienna" proved infectious, taking the single to the top of the charts in the U.K. and making an impression in a new wave-apprehensive America. Drummer Warren Cann's monotone narration on "Mr X" and the frantic ride that is "Western Promise" give the album just enough diversity and showcase the rest of the group on an Ure-heavy album. There are plenty of pretentious and pompous moments at which Foxx-era purists cringe, but taken as a snooty rebellion against the guitar-heavy climate of the late '70s, they're ignorable. Returning producer Conny Plank's style adapted well to the new group, pitting the stark and the lush against one another. Add Anton Corbijn's photography and Peter Saville's smart cover design and all the ingredients for an early-'80s classic are there. A few albums later, it would all seem like a fluke, but on Vienna, all the pieces come together.
Words: David Jeffries
As the title suggests, Ultravox were in a gray mood as they launched into their seventh studio LP, their previous existential angst now pooling around personal anguish. The album's title track was a study in languorous melancholy, where the emotional pain lingered on and on. And why would it ever dissipate, when romance is forever doomed, as "When the Time Comes" exquisitely illustrated? Even "One Small Day," the most musically celebratory song on the set, battles depression but dismally loses the war. No wonder Ultravox were so keen to escape far into the past, with "Man of Two Worlds" taking them back to the gloriously romanticized days of the Celts. The modern world, in contrast, was filled with terrors, both emotional ("A Friend I Call Desire") and global. There was the omnipresent yellow peril to fear; but if "White China" warned of the dangers of creeping communism, the nation sworn to protect its citizens from a Stalinistic embrace proves just as nefarious on "Heart of the Country." Each side is as bad as the other, together threatening the globe with annihilation, with the mini-epic "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" poignantly pointing out the richness of life the world's leaders hold so carelessly in their hands. This was to be Ultravox's final album, at least in this form, and in many ways, the set was the band's perfect epitaph, as lavish musically as it was desolate thematically.
Words: Dave Thompson
With 1978's Systems of Romance, Ultravox! left punk behind and single-handedly blue-printed the entire New Romantic movement to come -- well, with a little help from co-producers Conny Planck and Dave Hutchins. Gone was the brittleness of Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, replaced by a rich lushness of sound that would define the forthcoming genre. Shifting from the political to the inter-personal, gone too was the overwhelming sense of looming Armageddon, replaced by more generalized (and mundane) feelings of alienation, "Dislocation," and unease. "Quiet Men" is a Lowry painting brought to life, the chorus of "Slow Motion" a swaying field painted by Renoir, "I Can't Stay Long" a Degas ballet, while "Maximum Acceleration" is as lavish in sound as Botticelli was with paint. The rhythms still remained dangerous, however, and Robin Simon's guitar gives the set a tough edge, but it's the swirling, swooping synths and keyboards that predominate within.
Words: Dave Thompson
Ha!-Ha!-Ha! is a bruising album, a tsunami of a set that epitomized the fire and fury of its age. Icy to its core, producer Steve Lillywhite brilliantly captured both the band's urgency and the brittleness of their sound. Like the implosion of gases that ignited the Big Bang, Ha!-Ha!-Ha! hangs in the millisecond before the ensuing explosion, trembling with ferocious tension and fierce anticipation of the coming storm. Much of the set seems frozen in this moment in time and space, lyrically reflected in "Hiroshima Mon Amour," "Man Who Dies Every Day," and "Frozen Ones." Unlike the celebration of destruction that defined their debut set, Ultravox! now stood staring aghast into the abyss, with the manic exuberance of "Rockwrock" emerging not as the exhilarating dance through the death of civilization that many listeners assumed, but the band's panicked response to its collapse. And as fear took hold in the Western world, the band battered themselves against its crumbling walls, ravaged by the artificiality of the society rising amongst its ruins. Even decades on, the sheer ferocity of this set continues to impress.
Words: Dave Thompson
Depeche Mode claimed to be punks with synthesizers, but it was Ultravox! who first showed the kind of dangerous rhythms that keyboards could create. The quintet certainly had their antecedents -- Hawkwind, Roxy Music, and Kraftwerk to name but a few, but still it was the group's 1977 eponymous debut's grandeur (courtesy of producer Eno), wrapped in the ravaged moods and lyrical themes of collapse and decay that transported '70s rock from the bloated pastures of the past to the futuristic dystopias predicted by punk. Epic tales of alienation, disillusion, and disintegration reflected the contemporary holocaust of Britain's collapse, while accurately prophesying the dance through society's cemetery and the graveyards of empires that were to be the Thatcher/Reagan years. "Saturday Night in the City of the Dead," "Wide Boys," "The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned," "Dangerous Rhythm," and "Slip Away" all simultaneously bemoaned and celebrated the destruction of Western culture while swaggering boldly through the wreckage; "I Want to Be a Machine" and "My Sex" warned of and yearned for technology's triumph. And it was these apposites and didactic emotions that so pierced the zeitgeist of the day, and kicked open a whole new world of synthesized music. Dangerous rhythms indeed.
Words: Dave Thompson
Following on from the success of Vienna, Ultravox cemented their position as a New Romantic phenomenon with their follow-up, 1981's Rage in Eden. The martial beats and political undertones of "The Thin Wall" single acted as a potent taster for the album, to be joined in the U.K. Top 20 by the even more powerful message of "The Voice." The latter song opened the album, but nothing that followed equaled its strength, its sequencing a flaw in an otherwise excellent set. That said, propulsive numbers like "We Stand Alone" and "I Remember (Death in the Afternoon)," the rebellious angst of "Accent on Youth," the exotic strains of "Stranger Within," and the haunting "Your Name Has Slipped My Mind Again" all contained their own power. And even if the instrumental "The Ascent" harkened back to "Vienna," it was obvious that with Eden, Ultravox was climbing to grand new heights.
Words: Dave Thompson
With the successes of Vienna and its follow-up, Rage in Eden, Ultravox's position in the music scene was unassailable, further fortified by frontman Midge Ure's foray into solo-dom with the summer 1982 hit cover of the Walker Brothers' "No Regrets." The band's "Reap the Wild Wind" followed it up the U.K. chart that fall, a taster for the band's sixth album. And what a portentous taste it was. While "Wind" buffeted and whooshed once again around nostalgia for a past never lived, "Hymn" (its melody lifted from "Mourning Star" by Ure's last band, the Zones) wrestled with faith in a faithless age and prayed its way up the chart later that fall, while the dirge "Visions in Blue" saw the spring caught in its icy grip. But it was the fourth song spun off the album, "We Came to Dance," that best defined the overall themes of the set. Having helped create a movement renowned for its fashion victims and superficiality, Ultravox recoiled from the Frankenstein they'd birthed. "The Song (We Go)" may have been a cry of welcome, but both "Dance" and "Serenade" make clear the music scene's terrifying capacity to unleash both Dionysian abandon and militaristic conformity. "When the Scream Subsides" further fuels the album's existential angst, which reaches its emotional nadir on the suicidal "Cut and Run." With their toe-tapping rhythms, billowing synths, and rousing melodies, one is often tempted to ignore the darkness of Ultravox's themes, but with Quartet, the band deliberately made that nigh on impossible.
Words: Dave Thompson
Recorded during the band's 2009 sell out UK tour on April 30 at the legendary Roundhouse in London. The Return to Eden tour was the first time that the classic Ultravox line-up of Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Criss Cross and Warren Cann had performed together in over two decades, and was followed by a highly successful European and festival tour that ran through the summer and into the Autumn.