Ultravox (formerly Ultravox!) are a British New Wave rock band that rose to prominence in the late 1970s/early 1980s. They were one of the primary exponents of the British electronic pop music movement of the early 1980s. The band was particularly associated with the New Romantic and New Wave movements. Along with Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Depeche Mode, they were one of the most successful acts to emerge from the British synthpop scene of the late 1970s/early 1980s.
Until 1979, the frontman of Ultravox was John Foxx, later to become a dedicated electronic musician, who oriented the band to experimental sounds and changes of styles (glam, punk, industrial, synthpop, art) until 1979, when he decided to quit to embark on a solo career. Following Foxx's departure, Midge Ure took over as lead singer, guitarist and frontman, and he strongly steered the band to a distinct, energic electronic-pop sound and a notable commercial success, until 1987, when the group decided to disband. Between 1992 and 1996 Billy Currie, the only member who remained in Ultravox since the beginnings, briefly led the band but without any success.
Early years ? Tiger Lily: 1973?75
Main article: Tiger Lily (UK band)
The band was formed in 1973 on the initiative of vocalist and songwriter Dennis Leigh, a then Royal College of Art student, and was originally known as Tiger Lily. An initial but incomplete lineup comprised Leigh plus Chris Cross (bass guitar) and Stevie Shears (guitar), with Warren Cann (drums) and Billy Currie (keyboards/violins) joining later in 1974. The group released one single in 1975, Ain't Misbehavin', which contained an eponymous cover of the Fats Waller song, as A-side. Later, the band went through a series of name changes including The Zips, Fire of London, London Soundtrack, and The Damned.
Experimental years: 1976?79
In 1976, the singer changed his name to John Foxx and the band became "Ultravox!", ending the search for a name for a group. (The exclamation mark was a reference to krautrock band Neu!, produced by Conny Plank, who later produced some Ultravox albums.) On the strength of their live act, they signed to Island Records in 1976, releasing their eponymous debut album in February 1977.
Like many other bands which would go on to form Britain's punk and New Wave movements, Ultravox! drew inspiration from the art-school side of glam rock. Musically, Ultravox were heavily influenced by Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, David Bowie and Kraftwerk. Their d?but was co-produced by Steve Lillywhite, and Brian Eno (who next co-wrote and performed with Bowie on Low). Ultravox! sales were disappointing, and neither the album nor the associated single "Dangerous Rhythm" managed to enter the UK charts. Relations within the band were on an occasionally tenuous footing during this time as Foxx declared that he intended to live without emotions, a sentiment he wrote into the d?but album track "I Want to Be a Machine".
Ultravox returned later in 1977 with the punkier Ha!-Ha!-Ha!. Sales of both the album and its lead single, "ROckWrok", were poor, both failing to register on the UK charts. "ROckwrok" had a punk-lyric chorus, with the words "Come on, let's tangle in the dark / fuck like a dog, bite like a shark". Despite this, it got airplay on BBC Radio 1). Although Ha!-Ha!-Ha! was dominated by guitars and electric violin, the final track, "Hiroshima Mon Amour", was a prototypical synthpop song. One of the first singles by a British band to feature a drum machine (a Roland TR-77 with preset patterns), the song signalled a new direction for Ultravox. The energy, anger, and popular appeal of punk was fading in 1978, and the more creative UK punk-genre talent sought new directions?calling themselves British New Wave instead of punk rock artists. "Hiroshima Mon Amour" remains a critic's and fan's favourite from the group's initial period. Ultravox! also performed it on the Old Grey Whistle Test later in 1978.
In early March 1978, Stevie Shears was sacked from the band after they toured England, for being considered a limiting factor, joining Cowboys International, in 1980; and was replaced by Robert Simon (ex-member of Ian North's Neo), who during his first days with the band he changed his performance-name to Robin Simon. Sometime in 1978, the group also quietly dropped the exclamation mark, becoming simply "Ultravox". The new line-up performed live at the Reading Festival along with Radio Stars, Penetration, Sham 69, The Pirates and The Jam, playing fledgling versions of Slow Motion and Quiet Men on August 25 1978.
Ultravox in 1978. This was the second incarnation of the band from 1978 until 1979. From left to right: singer John Foxx, drummer Warren Cann, keyboardist Billy Currie, bassist Chris Cross and guitarist Robin Simon (who replaced Shears)
Their third album, 1978's Systems of Romance, was recorded with producer Conny Plank (notably the same producer of German electronic outfit Kraftwerk) and engineer Dave Hutchins at Conny's Studio in rural Germany. Musically, the album was markedly different from Ultravox's earlier work, bringing synthesisers to the forefront of the group's sound. Despite praise from some critics, the album was a commercial failure. Since none of the albums to date had generated much income, tensions within the band ? particularly between Currie and Foxx ? threatened the band's viability.
Island dropped the band after an attempt to market the album in the United States failed to generate sales. That was the final nail in their coffin, but Ultravox undertook a self-financed US tour at the beginning of 1979. Splitting after their final gig, near San Francisco, Foxx declared his intention to go solo. Simon remained in the US and briefly joined The Futants, an American punk band from New York. He later returned to England and teamed up with Howard Devoto to replace guitarist John McGeoch in the band Magazine. The remaining members made their way back to a Britain in the midst of a "winter of discontent". Island dropped the three Ultravox albums from its catalogue, and released a compilation of highlights from the group's first three albums in 1980, called Three into One.
Foxx subsequently signed to Virgin Records and released his most successful (and influential) album Metamatic in 1980. Billy Currie, all but broke, was then recruited by the rising star Gary Numan to do a presentation at the Old Grey Whistle Test show with his band Tubeway Army and to play on his d?but solo album, The Pleasure Principle, and its subsequent Touring Principle tour; he was a hero to Numan who had inwardly digested Ultravox's albums and had seen them play live several times. Warren Cann went to work for Zaine Griff, while Chris Cross did some shows with James Honeyman-Scott (of The Pretenders) and Barrie Masters, (from Eddie and the Hot Rods).
The Midge Ure years: 1979?88
With the band seemingly over, Ultravox was then revitalized by Midge Ure, who joined the band as vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist. An accomplished musician, he had already achieved minor success with semi-glam outfit Slick and Glen Matlock's more punk-inspired The Rich Kids, although in 1979 he was temporarily playing with hard rock band Thin Lizzy. Ure and Billy Currie had met whilst collaborating on the Visage project, a studio-based band fronted by New Romantic icon and nightclub impresario Steve Strange. Ure filled both John Foxx's and Robin Simon's posts for Ultravox's next album, Vienna, which, with a major change of pace and a more focused, improved production, would become their most successful to date, far surpassing any of the previous Ultravox (or Foxx's) albums. As with Systems of Romance, it was produced in Germany by Conny Plank. Ure knew of Ultravox's past, being a fan of Systems to the point where the new four-piece outfit (Ultravox mark three, often called "the classic line-up") played songs from that album on tours with Ure singing Foxx's lyrics. Released on Chrysalis Records in mid 1980, the Vienna album produced the band's first UK Top 40 hit with "Sleepwalk", whilst the album itself peaked at #14. Some months later, however, the band achieved a substantial hit with the title track (inspired by Carol Reed's The Third Man). Accompanied by a highly distinctive video, the single peaked at #2 in early 1981 (famously kept off the top spot by Joe Dolce's comedy hit "Shaddap You Face"). On the strength of the single, the album then re-entered the chart and reached #3 in early 1981.
This was soon followed by Rage in Eden (1981), with the band returning to Conny Plank's studio for what turned out to be a difficult recording session. The band had the difficult task of following the huge success of Vienna with something of equal stature. Whereas Vienna had been gigged a great deal prior to a three-week recording process, Rage in Eden took over three months and confounded people once more. Along with its singles "The Thin Wall" and "The Voice", the album featured a long track in three parts on the second side, leading some critics to decry the band as "the new Genesis".
Ultravox teamed up with producer George Martin for 1982's Quartet, which became their most successful album in the U.S., and undertook a major world tour known as the Monument Tour. The tour was recorded and released as a live LP in 1983 and once again hit the UK top ten. Ure had formally quit Visage by this time in order to concentrate solely on Ultravox (Currie remained with Visage for a while longer, but he too had left them by 1984). Visage, anyhow, had only one major hit and was never a major occupation for the musicians involved.
Ultravox vocalist Midge Ure in concert, April 1984
1984's successful Lament continued the band's run of top ten albums and produced three top 40 hit singles, including the international hit "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes". However, this album was the last to feature the "classic" line-up of the band. Towards the end of 1984, a "greatest hits" compilation spanning the band's 1980s output was released entitled The Collection. It was preceded by a new single, "Love's Great Adventure", which was accompanied by a popular Indiana Jones-style spoof video. The Collection went triple Platinum and reached #2 in the UK album chart, the band's highest ever peak.
At this time, Ure also co-wrote and helped produce the 1984 Band Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas?". The group also appeared at Live Aid the following year and played four of their hit singles ("Vienna", "Reap the Wild Wind", "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" and "One Small Day"). Later in 1985, Ure scored a #1 solo hit with "If I Was" and his solo album The Gift reached #2 in the UK.
Ultravox reconvened in 1986, but Warren Cann was let go from the band at the beginning of sessions for their U-Vox album. Cann emigrated to the US and retired from music to become an actor. Big Country's Mark Brzezicki took his place. The U-Vox album is widely regarded as the band's creative low point with even Currie (and later Ure) describing it as "unfocused". Although it continued their string of top ten albums in the UK, the relatively mediocre and declining performance of its singles prompted both Ure and Cross to leave the band. In 1987 Ultravox decided to not continue, after the U-Vox tour early that year, but officially split up in 1988. Ure subsequently concentrated on his solo career with varying levels of success, and Cross retired from music altogether and returned to his former career as a psychotherapist. Billy Currie and Robin Simon reunited in 1989 as the short-lived Humania, performing live shows but never making a release until 2006, when Currie released a Humania-recorded album, Sinews of the Soul.
First re-formation: 1992?96
Without any other original members, Currie reformed Ultravox again in 1992 with vocalist Tony Fenelle to record Revelation, and later Sam Blue replaced Fenelle in a new five-piece Ultravox line-up, lending his voice to their final release, Ingenuity (1996). Those two albums, as is often the case, were completely disregarded by both hardcore fans and generic audiences, and went off the map rather swiftly.
Current re-formation: 2008?09
Warren Cann, Chris Cross, Billy Currie and Midge Ure reformed Ultravox again for a UK tour in April 2009, entitled "Return to Eden". This would be the first time the classic line up of the band have performed together since Live Aid in 1985. The tour played at venues across the UK. Since success from touring the UK they have extended the tour to Germany and Belgium.
In September 2008, both Vienna and Rage In Eden were released in digitally remastered 2-disc format with the second disc containing previously unreleased material. Quartet and Monument were released in February 2009, also in two-disc editions. The second disc in the Monument package is a DVD containing the concert video that was previously only available on VHS tape. The other Chrysalis-era releases are planned for similar future releases. A live CD and DVD of Ultravox sell-out Roundhouse show is rumored to be released later this year.
An anthology of unreleased Ultravox material was planned in mid 2008, but has not been scheduled for release. The track-listing is currently being compiled.
Speaking to The Sunday Mail, Midge Ure revealed that the reunion is only a one-off, and there will be no new material from the group. He said: ""We're not trying to recapture our youth and won't be writing new songs or recording another album. This is about celebrating our music and our anniversary"
On Jonathan Ross's show on BBC's Radio 2 on February 21, 2009, Ure discussed the tour, with all four members of the most successful incarnation of the band on board. He mentioned that this reunion was not planned in light of the previously mentioned events, but rather was spontaneous and happened very quickly with the band members talking and communicating online (using email and Skype). The interview did not reveal whether or not new material would be recorded as a result of the reunion tour.