INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo Special Limited Edition JANUARY 2005 - by Toby Manning
I WANT TO BE A MACHINE
Midge Ure famously transformed Ultravox into hit act, but before that was the pioneering art school spirit of original singer John Foxx. Welcome to the future we almost forgot...
At a Hammersmith Odeon show in the early 1980s, Ultravox were playing there signature tune, Vienna. During its violin solo, their CR-78 drum machine suddenly threw a fit, pouring out six different rhythms, all of them at triple tempo. Everyone turned to glare at drummer Warren Cann, who after frantically fiddling with the CR-78 finally took a highly scientific approach to the problem: he punched it. Ah, men and machines...
Ultravox! were formed in London in 1974 by royal College of Art graduate Dennis Leigh, bass player Chris Allen and guitarist Stevie Shears. Initially called Tiger Lily, they were joined by Cann and then by keyboard/violin player Billy Currie. Just prior to the release of their debut album, they changed their name to Ultravox!, briefly adding the exclamation mark in tribute to Krautrockers Neu!. In this spirit of arty reinvention, Leigh also changed his name to John Foxx, while Allen became Chris Cross. The look (plastic macs, dog collars, leather trousers, ripped suits) and the concept were of equal importance to the music, Foxx being inspired by the likes of the Futurist manifesto and William Burroughs. Says Foxx: "I had these ideas about ruined, half electronic people and it was sort of like ruined cyber hippies - ripped and torn, people who've become unplugged."
Recording their first album with Steve Lillywhite (his first proper gig) and Brian Eno - then yet to work with a rock band since Roxy Music - in 1976, Ultravox!'s debut had a stronger link to the past than was entirely fashionable as punk emerged. With their long song structures and Foxx's Burroughs-cribbing cut-up lyrical technique, they referenced both arty glam (Bowie, Roxy) and - it seemed to punks - prog, while their use of synthesizer (mainly Eno's loaned Mini-Moog) was also suspect. "Electronic stuff was considered to be something you wouldn't touch," says Foxx. It was too close to Pink Floyd, forbidden by Johnny Lydon, declared ungood. In fact, Ultravox! were post-punk before punk had played itself out. This confused people. Their use of electronics, extended song structures, keyboards and un-punk instruments like violin previewed what Magazine and Wire, as well as Gary Numan and The Human League, would be doing in two years' time. Equally, a year prior to Kraftwerk's The Man Machine, Foxx was exploring the same idea in I Want To Be A Machine, while his alienated Euro-romanticism also pre-empted Bowie's Berlin trilogy (Foxx recalls Bowie phoning Eno to suggest the collaboration during recording), Foxx hymning the city in The Wild, The Beautiful And The Damned. Most importantly, neither Kraftwerk nor Bowie had yet created anything quite like My Sex's mix of the electronic and the classical, or as detached as Foxx's robotic yet romantic chant. "I was very interested in the pull and push of romanticism and alienation," says Foxx. "It's the opposite of punk's anger. There's something very romantic about withholding certain feelings. My Sex was the first electro-ballad. When we finished that, I knew it was a direction that no one else was anywhere near at that point."
Critics mostly misunderstood the album, accusing the band of pretension. "Everything I liked was pretentious!" laughs Foxx. "Eno said of Bowie that when he was at his most pretentious he was at his best." This approach continued on the same year's Ha! Ha! Ha! at which point the band bought their first synthesizer, the briefcase-bound EMI Synthi. The album was still fairly rock-orientated, slightly closer to punk than the debut. The Man Who Dies Everyday was both venomous and electronic, however, and the real revelation was at the end: the extraordinary Hiroshima Mon Amour. Already recorded in a rock arrangement, Ultravox! re-created the track from drum machine, synths and sax. "The Roland TR77 was entirely unprogrammable," says Warren Cann. "What we loved about it was the mesmerising effect of the absolutely constant 'perfect' tempo." Quite how Foxx's equally hypnotic lyrics related to Alan Renais' film of the same name is both mysterious and irrelevant, the song painting a gloriously wistful, quintessentially European picture of present day coldness and old world romance.
Sales, however, were even worse than the first album; reviews not much better. Foxx was bemused by their lack of punk credibility. "We were trying to increase bass frequencies for the synths, subsonic zooms - we wanted to work like sonic terrorists - to make audiences sick." This desire to move forward and away from conventional rock structures led to the sacking of guitarist Stevie Shears. "His style had become an increasingly limiting factor," said Cann.
Replacing Shears with the more innovative Robin Simon, 1978's Systems Of Romance was an altogether statelier affair, a synthesizer-laced arena rock record that was a reaction to playing bigger venues and touring America. "We were working on long returns, long echoes," says Foxx, "to see if you could make the chords and the structures last twice as long." It was an approach that, he points out, was purloined by both U2 and Simple Minds. Produced by the revered Conny Plank, who had worked with Neu! and Kraftwerk, it's easily their most cohesive album. Billy Currie was so excited about the new material that he played Slow Motion and Dislocation to a friend who was hosting a Bowie convention. One of the fans in the crowd was an unknown punk singer, Gary Numan, who became an immediate convert. He was especially impressed by Slow Motion.
Cann: "It perfectly represented our amalgamation of rock and synthesizer, many of the ideas and aspirations we had for our music gelled in that song and we were very excited about it."
Foxx felt equally proud of the taut robotic rock of Quiet Men. "I got very interested in that Quiet Man thing, wearing a grey suit. I thought it was terrifically romantic to be invisible, to live in a city and not be noticed." Just For A Moment, meanwhile, formed a triptych of closing electro-ballads, its ghostly, classical melodrama also pointing forward to Vienna.
When this again proved commercially fruitless, and the band was dropped by Island, simmering tensions came to a head. Says Cann: "Our relationship with John Foxx had never been great but this tested it to the limit." Following a post-gig bust up in San Francisco, they agreed to part company with Foxx on their return.
Foxx's reaction was to do a musical volte-face, quitting not just the band but also the very band set-up. Going to ground with his synths during electro-pop year zero 1979 - as Gary Numan hit big with a distinctly Ultravox-esque style (he also briefly co-opted Billy Currie into his backing band), Foxx re-emerged in January 1980 with a sound stripped back to bare electronics, reducing his vocals to the robotic sing-song of My Sex. He called the ensuing album Metamatic after a painting machine by kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, and it stands as one of the first ever electro-pop albums.
"I wanted to see what would happen if you threw everything but the synths away," he says. "But I still wanted to write songs. I felt the problem with Kraftwerk at that point was they were writing pieces of music, there weren't many songs. I had this vision of a future jukebox at a service station. I was trying to make pictures in people's heads, of a particular place that was like a united Europe with America taken out of it." Foxx even graced the fringes of the singles charts with the trio of Underpass (31), No One Driving (32) and Burning Car (35).
With Robin Simon departing after the US tour, leaving Ultravox without a singer, song-writer or guitarist, the odds on the band's fortunes weren't good. As Foxx's solo career took off, Currie dabbled with Visage and hung out with Steve Strange and Rusty Egan at their Blitz club. There he met Midge Ure, a former teen star (Slik) and fellow punk traveller (Rich Kids), who eventually took Foxx's place in Ultravox, though not before the absurdly versatile guitarist had completed a US tour with Thin Lizzy.
Ure was un-intimidated by the Ultravox task ahead: "It was easy," he recalled, "because the amount of success they'd had on their three prior albums was sort of minimal." Affable and foppish in contrast to Foxx's chilly, alienated persona, the music now became an extension of the electro-classicism of Just For A Moment and the arena rock of Slow Motion, but with Ure's suave vocals adding a warmth in stark contrast to Foxx's detachment. "Midge didn't want to get too deep sometimes and I think that was actually quite a positive thing at that time," says Currie. Asked what he brought to the band, Ure said, "A smile. I don't know; a pop sensibility maybe. It just seemed that as characters we gelled. We wrote fifty percent of the Vienna album in two weeks; the ideas were fast and furious."
Again working with Conny Plank in Cologne, the electronics were more pronounced than ever. The Mini-Moog was the dominant pulse of Sleepwalk, New Europeans and All Stood Still.
The song Vienna came about when they attempted to solve the problem of a gap in a ballad. "The term 'Vienna'," recalls Currie, "came up because I was trying to get a feeling for the middle section and Conny said, 'Why don't you over-blow it? Why don't you make it seem like decaying decadence?' He was talking about the way Vienna was at the end of the eighteenth century... when the Habsburg empire was going into decline. And then, of course, it ended up going on to the lyrics - Midge picked up on it." Said Ure, "We thought we had something special and wanted to put Vienna out as a single and no-one else could see it." When they did, of course, it became a hit, notoriously kept from Number 1 by Shaddap Your Face in February 1981.
The Vienna album was impressive but demonstrated the deficiencies that would dog the band. While superficially pushing the right Foxx-like buttons (New Europeans, Mr X), the lyrics were weak in comparison and musically they were a little pompous. Foxx now abruptly abandoned the minimalism of Metamatic for a lusher sound on his 1981 album, The Garden. "I needed to get away from the greyness of London," Foxx recalls of his shift in style, "so I went to Italy - to the gardens at Tivoli, places which had been rebuilt from old pieces, building ruins as a reminder of our fallibility and that we'd pass on."
With all this chiming too melodiously with the concurrent New Romanticism of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, Foxx abruptly moved on again, but his career went into free-fall. Ultravox filled the breach with 1981's Rage In Eden, their darkest, most atmospheric album. While they continued to have Top 20 hits in the UK, 1982's George Martin-produced Quartet was the closest they got to breaking America. Dancing With Tears In My Eyes was a big success in 1984 but the accompanying Lament album is mostly uninspired and Cann left soon after. The rest managed one more album, U-Vox in 1986, before splitting. Ure is now a recovering alcoholic, best known for his involvement in Live Aid. Currie releases neo-classical instrumental albums on his own label.
And Foxx hit the bottom. After the merely passable The Golden Section, 1985's poor In Mysterious Ways made no impact and Foxx gave up music altogether, returning to his original career as a graphic designer and artist. His collages have graced the cover of books by Salman Rushdie and Anthony Burgess. He did, however, dip a toe in music again when he worked with Sheffield electronic act LFO on their eponymous 1989 video.
"The underground scene reappeared in acid house," says Foxx. "It was like what we were doing but with the powerful bass we'd never been able to get. There was a lot of possibilities but, like punk, dance quickly became very conformist, a lot of jerks with baseball caps."
Even so, many dance musicians profess a debt to Foxx and Ultravox, especially Bomb The Bass's Tim Simenon (who would work with Foxx in the '90s) and Dave Clarke, who even used the title No One Driving. Foxx returned to music in the mid '90s with a series of new electro-pop albums and working with Eno associate Harold Budd on ambient material. What's more, Foxx remains a flag-waver for futurism and electronics, saying today, "A lot of ideas that came out of the '60s have never been realised - the potential of Kraftwerk has never been realised. They just did Neon Lights and then left it alone. There's a whole genre there that's not been realised."
Clearly man and machine still have plenty of work to do together.