Essential Music: Ultravox: The Island Years

Ultravox island yearsBack in the 1970s, Ultravox came onto the scene with an intriguing combination of glam-rock, semi-punk, and electronics. In 1977 and 1978, Ultravox released three albums in quick succession: Ultravox!, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, and Systems of Romance. Fronted by John Foxx, the band split in 1979 after a US tour, and Foxx set out on his own, fertile solo career.

But the three albums the band released – before it was co-opted by Midge Ure, and became a synth-pop group – remain classics. They have recently been re-released in newly remastered versions, together with a fourth album, Rare Retro, containing some live tracks, alternates, and unreleased songs, as Ultravox: The Island Years (for Island records, the band’s label at the time). (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

I was a huge fan of these albums back in the day, but the first time I was able to see the band was the Midge Ure incarnation, on the Vienna tour. They didn’t play many – if any – of the older songs, and they remained essentially immobile on stage with their synthesizers and long, dark, new romantic coats. (Which must have been very uncomfortable in the heat of Danceteria, where I saw them in New York City.)

Early Ultravox (or Ultravox!; they dropped the ! in 1978) was strongly influenced by Roxy Music, David Bowie, and even Kraftwerk (that band’s producer Conny Plank shepherded the third album Systems of Romance). These three albums sound fresh and vital today, with clear remasters, though some of the mixes are still a bit flat, showing the limitations of the way they were recorded.

But there are some classic songs on these discs. Just to mention a few, John Foxx sings I Want to Be a Machine as if he means it; The Wild, The Beautiful, and the Damned is a classic ballad; The Man Who Dies Everyday is a sci-fi influenced track; Hiroshima mon amour is perhaps the best example of early electronic-influenced post-punk, and one of the band’s all-time best songs; and Quiet Men, on Systems of Romance, is Foxx’s theme song.

It ended there for Ultravox, but then John Foxx released Metamatic, and what a record that was…

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