A Brief History of Ultravox

❉ Oh, Vienna! We Are Cult’s resident synthpop queen Ange Chan offers a rough guide to Ultravox.

“At that moment, I was drawing lines into New York and the Velvets, European avant garde and electronic music, previous generation’s Brit Psychedelia plus a ragged sort of insulting glam. I guess this was the start of the New Wave. New Wave is precisely what it was – and precisely what was needed at that moment.” – John Foxx.

Ultravox was originally formed in the early 1970s and were originally presented under the name, Tiger Lily. They later went on to become Ultravox! before eventually ditching the exclamation mark and going on to greater fame.

The band was formed on the initiative of vocalist and songwriter Dennis Leigh (who later went on to change his name to John Foxx). He cut his teeth with synthesisers in the 1970s whilst on a scholarship at the RCA in London, where he formed his first band; Woolly Fish.  

From 1974 until 1979, the Lancastrian-born singer was the frontman and the main driving force behind both Tiger Lily and later, Ultravox! The initial line-up comprised Dennis Leigh plus Chris Allen on bass guitar, Stevie Shears on guitar with Warren Cann on drums and Billy Currie on violin.

The name Tiger Lily was drummer Warren Cann’s idea, as Foxx recalled in a 2016 interview with The Arts Desk:

“We didn’t have a name and I couldn’t think of one. [Warren] had this décor from the Fifties and a picture of a woman on the back of a tiger. That was a time when we had a name every week: The Zips, Fire of London. The Damned was one of them. We weren’t gigging, so it didn’t matter.”

In 1974, as a four-piece band without Billy Curry, Tiger Lily made their first gig in Chorley, Lancashire, hometown of the erstwhile Dennis Leigh. The band were influenced heavily by the New York Dolls and dressed like them. Their true first show was at the Marquee supporting the Heavy Metal Kids.

In 2008, Foxx told The Quietus:

“We were all floating around London forming and reforming bands and trying new things out. Then The New York Dolls arrived and galvanised the entire scene. Real glam trash. Beautiful. They proved it was possible to be trashy and good at the same time. Kicked everyone into action at a desperate moment. They saved us all. At that moment, I was drawing lines into New York and the Velvets, European avant garde and electronic music, previous generation’s Brit Psychedelia plus a ragged sort of insulting glam. I guess this was the start of the New Wave. By the way, whoever coined that New Wave byline is my hero. Because a New Wave is precisely what it was – and precisely what was needed at that moment.”

As Tiger Lily, the group released one single in 1975, Ain’t Misbehavin’, a cover of the song by Fats Waller. Later, the band went through a series of name changes including The Zips, Fire of London, London Soundtrack, and The Damned, using this last name for a few weeks before discovering that another band, a punk outfit, had already taken it.

In 1976, on the strength of their popular live act, the band signed to Island Records. The group had still not finalised their band name, but in July 1976, while working on the late stages of their debut album, the band conceived the name Ultravox! The interrobang was a reference to Krautrock band Neu! and marked the new wave direction the band was heading towards. Coincidentally, Neu’s Conny Plank went on to produce three of Ultravox’s albums. In conversation with The Arts Desk, Foxx says:

 “We dropped in to Conny Plank’s studio when we were touring Germany as Brian [Eno] was there working on Music For Airports, and also working with Holger Czukay. It was interesting to see how great Conny was. He had chairs with tubular legs around the room and was running tape loops around them. He took infinite pains and I thought, this is the guy. I was starstuck.”

At the same time of the band name change, Dennis Leigh chose the name John Foxx and Allen chose Chris Cross as their stage names. In 1977, Island released their debut album, Ultravox! The eponymous album was produced by Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite and spawned just one single Dangerous Rhythm, which was released in February 1977 – the song was written when the band were still under the Tiger Lily guise.

1970s music paper Trouser Press wrote: “Ultravox! marries the flamboyance of poseurdom to the cold minimalism of Kraftwerk, with more than a touch of punk’s roughness.”

The song My Sex featured a drum track by Phil Collins of Genesis. In a 1983 interview with John Diliberto, Foxx told electronics and music mag Polyphony:

“We used a Phil ColIins bass drum on “My Sex”. It was on an old Eno track. I said we need a pulse and he said, “oh, I’ve got this old bass drum part by Phil Collins.” So we put that on and we did it. I hope he doesn’t come back for the royalties.”

After their third album Systems of Romance (Classic Pop: “quite possibly one of the most underrated and influential albums of all time”), Foxx left the band in March 1979 to embark on a solo career (“Things change, scenes fade”, he reflected in 2014) and, following his departure, Midge Ure of the Rich Kids took over as lead singer, guitarist and frontman in October 1979, after he and keyboardist Billy Currie worked in Visage.

Speaking to Cryptic Rock in 2016, Ure recalled:

“The Rich Kids was late 1977-1978 in the throes of the whole Punk thing and I started listening to music coming out of Europe. I wanted a synthesizer, I wanted to merge this new technology with traditional Rock instrumentation. I bought a synthesizer and brought it into the band, which instantly broke the band up. Half the band loved it and half the band hated it. Half the band who liked it went on to put the band together with all their favorite musicians, and that was Visage. That of course featured Billy Currie, the keyboard player with Ultravox, and during the Visage recordings, I watched Ultravox fall apart and ended up joining the band, which was just fantastic.”

Between 1980–86, Ultravox enjoyed their greatest success, scoring seven Top Ten albums and seventeen Top 40 singles in the UK. The most successful of which was their 1981 hit Vienna, only managing to reach number 2, being woefully kept off the top spot by novelty record Shaddup You Face by Joe Dolce.

At the time Ure wrote the melodramatic ode to the Austrian capital, it was a place he’d never even visited, including during the infamous video which was filmed somewhere in London one gloomy morning. In 2016, Ure told The Guardian:

“A lot of what Ultravox did back in the day was soundbites. Vienna was a love song to an imaginary girl. You’ve gone to this beautiful place, met someone and vowed it is going to continue – and, of course, it doesn’t. Why Vienna? There was a decaying elegance about it. In such a crumbling environment, you could easily fall in love. Then you go back to your cold, grey, miserable life in Chiswick.”

Over the ensuing years Midge Ure has moved in and out of the public eye. He’s toured solo and in April 2009 Ure and Cann, Currie and Cross reformed Ultravox for the “Return to Eden” tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Vienna album, and in their own words, the “anniversary of their classic line-up”.

Ultravox reformed more recently to produce the critically acclaimed album, Brilliant and the latest release in December 2017, Orchestrated was an orchestral album of Ultravox’s best known hits and Midge’s solo work including a new single, Ordinary Man. Ure continues to tour regularly with 80s revival festivals and with his own solo tours.

After leaving Ultravox to embark on a solo career, John Foxx yielded albums such as Metamatic and The Garden and scoring some commercial success at that time with the singles Underpass, No-one’s Driving and Europe after the Rain.

In his various musical guises and collaborations Foxx has released more than fifty albums over the course of his career and has inspired a plethora of both mainstream and underground/alternative artists across the decades, from synth-pop godfather Gary Numan to more contemporary artists in the electro world such as techno duo Adult. In more recent times, Foxx has toured with his band The Maths, supporting long-time friend and peer, Gary Numan, and in  June 2014, Foxx was award an Honorary degree from Edge Hill University as a Doctor of Philosophy.

❉ Ange Chan is a poet and novelist. Her latest poetry collection “Songs of Sorrow and Heartbreak” was published in October 2017 and her third novel “Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots” is a work in progress.

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