My Top 10 Live Bands – 4

Ultravox

If there’s a single band that encapsulates all that’s best about the music of the late 70s and early 80s, then that band must surely be Ultravox. With a dark, new wave undercurrent, superb arrangements and a willingness to step off the pop reservation, Ultravox effortlessly bridge the language gap between mainstream music and the alternative counter-culture.

There’s no doubt that they arrived on the scene with perfect timing, at the end of an era when unconventional and experimental tracks like Vienna and The Thin Wall still stood a chance of chart success. Seriously, does anyone believe singles like those would’ve gotten a look in five years later? I sincerely doubt it.

Like so many talented bands from that brief flowering of analogue alchemy, I wasn’t able to catch Ultravox in their Monument heyday, but I was thrilled to finally see Midge and the boys performing live at Sheffield’s O2 Academy during their highly regarded Return to Eden tour. This was doubly exciting for me as I’m already on record stating that Rage in Eden is my favourite album of all time.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as Midge Ure strode onto that stage in a silver-sheen suit and proceeded to blast out some serious hard-core guitar chords. Within half a minute those chords had morphed into the opening riffs of New Europeans, one of the great unsung new wave classics. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it perfectly packages the zeitgeist of that struggle between the printing press and the microchip, played out against a backdrop of grey concrete and glaring new neon.

The gig that followed this blinding opener was a nonstop parade of new wave classics, reminding us all just how imaginative and prolific they’d been during that short burst in the early 80s. Although some hair was thinning here and some waistlines thickening there, Midge and the boys more than proved that they could still throw down with the best as they displayed a level of musicianship which, let’s be honest, was all too rare among some of their more readily marketable contemporaries.

With an unassuming stage set combined with sound and lighting to die for, Ultravox re-established their credentials as some of the more serious musicians from a decade that started deep, but quickly shallowed into an identikit ensemble of sickly synthetic pop confections. It’s ironic how those dark, brooding foundations of the Ultravox sound were once a drag on commercial success, yet now they’ve become the very feature attracting a new generation of admirers in this new millennium.

Whilst they may not have been the vaunted megastars of yesteryear, there’s no denying that Ultravox have outpaced, outlasted and out-created nearly all of their contemporaries. There are no humiliating twenty minute slots on some washed-up-by-the-sea revival tour for Midge and the boys, and their enduring appeal is proof positive that substance always outlasts style in the long run. I’ll wager there’s many a big-name from yesteryear who secretly wishes they could still headline in their own right, instead of hitching their one-hit wagon to a burgeoning and cynical nostalgia machine. A lesson for us all methinks.

Though the years may have changed them physically, Ultravox’s commitment to their sound, their performance and their audience remains as bright and youthful as those heady days of top ten success and Smash Hits centrefold splashes. Though they may never again write or perform as a cohesive unit, it’s clear that those New Europeans have more than a couple of ideas inside them still.

The Music of my Life 1980-1984

The eighties was a decade defined by contradictions. The neon dawn of a beckoning consumer age shone brightly against a dusty background of industrial decay. Newfound freedoms and lifestyles rubbed shoulders awkwardly with centuries-old social norms, often chafing against them. The gender benders shocked on Top of the Pops, while the bowler hatted city men were overrun by the hungry and street smart barrow boys who’d finally broken into the City’s sacred inner sanctum.
It was a time of both economic expansion and industrial contraction, which somehow managed to co-exist within the space of a single frantic decade.
With a little less wealth but a lot more personal freedom, it was a great time to be growing up, and I would never trade it for today’s paranoid, smoke free and calorie counting childhood.

1980 – Vienna by Ultravox

It seems to be an unwritten rule of the music world that one may like either the John Foxx or the Midge Ure incarnations of this band, but never both. That’s a rather short sighted outlook in my opinion, as this technically advanced offering from Midge and the boys is one of the finest examples of the post punk synth wave. While certainly more commercial than their first three albums, Vienna nonetheless displays a high degree of creative integrity. Indeed, I would argue that New Europeans is the single greatest new wave track ever. Never a band to chase the teen romance demographic, this album’s title track is emblematic of a bygone age when bold, innovative and unconventional music could still attain chart success.

1981 – Rage in Eden by Ultravox

That’s right, two in a row for this highly creative musical quartet, and in fact my single favourite album of all time. Too often overlooked by nostalgia channels and list shows, Rage in Eden is a triumph of dark-tinged electro pop that clearly doesn’t give a damn whether the “inkies” deem it worthy or not. Indeed, so cleverly constructed are the tracks and running order of this album that its lengthening shadows creep imperceptibly across the listener’s consciousness, while masquerading as a high quality synth-pop creation. With a brooding, concrete production style and lashings of dark, quasi monastic backing vocals, Rage in Eden is a neglected jewel of the eighties synth movement. Slide the CD into the player, sit back and experience the hidden depths and darkest corners of this most unlikely of masterpieces.
Indeed, time has vindicated this band’s creative approach as Ultravox are still touring in their own right, as opposed to being rolled up into some last hurrah of a fading revivalist roadshow. In hindsight, whilst their commercial triumph was much smaller than the Spandaus and the Durans of the day it has endured far, far longer. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in this story.

1982 – A Broken Frame by Depeche Mode

If Ultravox were dark synth with a poppy undertone, then Depeche Mode were their mirror image of poppy synth with a dark undertone. The early eighties marked a distinct societal as well as musical shift, where the groans of that wounded industrial world were processed, digitised and remade in the imagined likeness of the coming computer age. Many bands attempted to balance these opposing cultural currents, more often than not falling off the beam and into day-glo derision or respected obscurity. Somehow Depeche Mode managed to harness these two opposing forces to create something that is both easily accessible yet just a little off key. The video for the popular single See You is a brilliant example of that gravity-defying juggling act. Anyone old enough to remember those dark, frosty and atmospheric BR stations will immediately smell dust, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke in those wonderful opening frames. An album made by young men who were themselves shaped by the greater forces at work during those important years.

1983 – The Golden Section by John Foxx

The third of John Foxx’s post Ultravox projects is less well known than Metamatic or The Garden, and that’s a great shame. The master of the discordant dream and the fleeting shadow finds his strongest abstractionist voice in this glowing, warm and yet distantly chilling production. Perhaps finally trapping the phantom he’d been chasing for over a decade, The Golden Section is a triumph of musical arrangement that takes the listener on a journey to a quiet, melancholy place. This collection of beautifully crafted musical tracks brilliantly succeeds in triggering introspection and a longing for something once known but now forgotten, distilling ideas of shuttered shops and overgrown ruins into a vague longing for past freedoms. The greatest trick this album plays is that it achieves its ends by deception and subterfuge, forswearing any pretentious teen dirge in favour of a far more mature and nuanced musical expression. This album demonstrates an advanced and intuitive understanding of both music and the human condition, where discord somehow gives birth to beauty. An unrivalled triumph of the era.

1984 – Fugazi by Marillion

The second album by the last of the prog rock children is a veritable feast of musicianship and poetic prowess. Fish’s peerless lyrical agility finds a new confidence in this virtuoso display of song-writing and studio production. Steve Rothery shines as the most underrated guitarist of his generation, ably matched by Mark Kelly’s dazzling keyboard skills. Indeed, Steve’s soaring, weeping solo on Jigsaw is my personal favourite.
With major chart success still elusive, Fugazi makes little attempt to chase the then lucrative singles market, as the butchery of Assassing into a short seven inches makes all too plain. Who would buy a single like that?
It’s also worth noting that this is an album that arrived at exactly the right time for music fans like me, providing a vital escape route for those of us who’d spotted the scouts for the Stock, Aitken & Waterman invasion. It’s both an end and a new beginning as the musical mainstream begins its steady and seemingly irreversible decline.

Yes, the eighties are remembered with great fondness, but they also mark an irreparable fracturing of the music scene. By mid-decade the music charts had become increasingly homogenised and predictable, so there was only one thing for it. To misquote a very famous British singer, it’s time to go underground.

The Music of my Life 1975-1979

If the seventies are anything to go by, then the old adage of tough times producing great art certainly holds true. Like the social and political realm around it, the music world was in a state of decay and rebirth all at the same time during this period. The end result is some of the best and most imaginative work ever to grace a recording studio.
It was tough making the choices, but here are my five favourites from the latter half of that landmark musical decade.

1975 – Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

If I could only take one Pink Floyd album to my desert island it would be this one. The word “masterpiece” is bandied about far too often in the age of the internet, but it is surely the most succinct description of this seminal work by the grand masters of prog rock. Concept, musicianship and production all combine to produce a listening experience which is as fresh and relevant four decades on as it was on the day of release. Boasting the title track, Welcome to the Machine and Shine on you Crazy Diamond to name just three all-time greats, Wish You Were Here is almost too good to be true. The greatest album of all time? I’m not certain of that, but it’s surely got to be in the running.If you don’t yet own this dazzling offering from a musical golden age then you should renounce mp3, obtain a high quality copy and prepare for a horizon-widening audio experience.

1976 – Boston by Boston

The debut album from the ridiculously talented Tom Scholz and the guys from Massachusetts is a true masterclass in the art of music production. Seemingly resistant to the passage of time, More Than a Feeling still a firm radio favourite more than forty years after it first hit the airwaves. Never a band to just release music for the sake of it, Boston have earned their reputation as the supreme exponents of hard yet also melodic rock.Even though many of their tracks reflect the same problems that both the punks and suburbia were grappling with at the time, Boston always managed to shoehorn them into a remarkably upbeat rock parcel. With a unique blend of beautifully clipped guitar work and multi-channel vocal harmonies, it’s always summer when Boston’s in the background. Just immerse yourself in the first two tracks on this album and you’ll soon realise you’re in the presence of musical greatness.

1977 – No More Heroes by The Stranglers

It’s 1977, and so that means the punk explosion has laid waste to the cultural landscape. The explosive detonation of the Sex Pistols often eclipses some of the equally worthy and arguably more insightful creations of that long overdue, snarling counter-culture.
With a wreath adorning the cover and an increasingly fraught economic story dominating the world outside, No More Heroes intuitively encapsulates the death of the post war industrial consensus. Working hard and doing the right thing is no longer a recipe for success, and is becoming increasingly derided as a fool’s errand and a cynical method of social control.
The gleaming high-rise renewal has all too quickly become a grey, dripping, concrete dystopia; turning against the very masses who were promised that bright new tomorrow so long as they sacrificed the sweat to build it. This album is a brilliantly unfiltered scream from a generation instinctively sensing that everything is rotten, but not really knowing what to do after it’s all been torn down.

1978 – Systems of Romance by Ultravox

If there was a hall of fame for the most underrated yet influential albums of all time, then this would surely be hung in the foyer for all to see. Ultravox’s third and last album with the legendary John Foxx is a dusty and often overlooked glory of the post-punk synth movement. While The Stranglers echo through the guitar riffs of The Quiet Men and When You Walk Through Me, something altogether new and wonderful is stirring within the half remembered dreams of Dislocation and the analogue airwave chatter of Slow Motion. The haunting final track, Just for a Moment is my single favourite song of all time.
Indeed, the legendary Gary Numan has paid homage to this musical masterpiece as both an influence and an inspiration in more than one interview over the years.

1979 – The Wall by Pink Floyd

It feels eminently fitting that the seventies should bow out with one of the giants of that decade. The Wall is more than just a great album, it’s a brilliant and timely examination of power, control and cyclical interdependency. Nearly four decades of history have added yet further layers of contradiction and complexity as Roger Waters et al have themselves been absorbed into the Establishment they once railed against. Indeed, it has been argued that the process was well under way by the time The Wall first appeared. With imagery by Fleet Street fixture Gerald Scarfe and a bunch of boys from Cambridge singing about not needing no education, some charges of intellectual dishonesty have been levelled at Floyd for this conceptual creation.However, it could also be argued that the mere existence of such discussion vindicates The Wall’s creation, by bringing the ever-changing and malleable nature of power dynamics into sharp, somewhat dated, and yet somehow timeless focus.

Fading out with the Winter of Discontent and the election of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, the seventies was a decade of upheaval and contradiction. Above all, it was a decade troubled by an overbearing yet unfocused sense that something was deeply and fundamentally wrong with society. Somehow the orderly, expert-driven concrete dream had gone terribly, awfully awry. This underlying sense of unease helped to usher in an unprecedented era of musical invention and creativity, and this rich cultural legacy is still being discovered, enjoyed and re-visited by each new generation of musicians and listeners alike.