Ultravox is best known for their hit singles Dancing With Tears In My Eyes and especially Vienna in the early 1980s. The band became popular in the rise of the synth pop and new romantics wave. But at that time the band already had a history and is a pioneer in combining electronics with the energy of punk and the glam rock of David Bowie. The box set The Island Years covers the history of the band before they became popular.
Dennis Leigh, an Art School student in London formed a band named Tiger Lilly back in 1974, inspired by glam rock but also the krautrock in Germany and the no-wave from New York. In 1976 the band obtained a record deal. The name was changed to Ultravox! And Leigh, singer, lyricist and main song writer in the band, changed his artist name to John Foxx. The exclamation mark was part of the name of the band for the first two albums, it was an idea taken from one of their examples Neu!.
In February the self titled debut album was released. The sound of this album was highly inspired by glam rock, bands like Roxy Music, T-Rex and especially David Bowie. On tracks like I Want To Be A Machine and Wide Boys Ziggy Stardust is never far away. The album was co-produced by Brian Eno, who had played with Roxy Music, worked with Bowie and also with the German bands Cluster, Harmonia and Neu! guitarist Michael Rother around that time. But Ultravox! also had a particular sound of their own. They had in Billie Currie a gifted violin player. The violin had an important role in the music. On Dangerous Rhythm they played with reggae rhythms. On the first album the role of the synthesizer is marginal, but on the last track My Sex they started to play with it and set the blue print for the albums to follow.
The second album Ha! Ha! Ha! was released towards the end of 1977. It has two different faces. The first four tracks, which form the A-side of the original LP, sound influenced by punk, and especially The Ramones. Raw, fast and simple 3 chord structures, although Foxx' lyrics had much more depth and creativity than the average Ramones lyrics. Musically much more interesting are the last 4 tracks, the B side of the LP. Songs like The Man Who Dies Every Day, Artificial Life and especially Hiroshima Mon Amour are some of their finest songs, and have a perfect balance between electronics and conventional instruments. The drum machines in the 1970s were rather primitive, but drummer Warren Cann added real drums to the rhythm.
In 1978 the third album Systems Of Romance followed. More coherent, more electronic and some good catchy songs. Co-produced by the famous German producer Conny Plank. Also the most accessible of the 3. But despite good music and a sound of their own, Ultravox! did not make a breakthrough. They were simply too early. In 1977 punk dominated the underground, and punks did not like synthesizers. They did not consider them as musical instruments or associated them with prog rock, a genre they wanted to break away from. The musicians union at the time carried out the strange idea that synths made musicians unemployed, so bands that used them could not become a member. And in order to be in Top of the Pops one had to be a member of the union in that time. The first synth pop bands like Ultravox, Gary Numan and the Human League had to overcome a lot of prejudice which is completely ridiculous looking back.
So Island records dropped the group. This then enlarged the differences in ideas and ambitions in the group. John Foxx was tired of touring and had ideas of making totally electronic music, modelled after Kraftwerk. Some of the other members wanted to make a breakthrough and have a hit single. So Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon left the band. Foxx released his first electronic album Metamatic in 1980. Meanwhile the 3 remaining members Currie, Cann and bass player Chris Cross found a new singer and guitar player in Midge Ure and with him they would record the success album Vienna. But many of the new fans didn't dig the old material, and these 3 albums were ignored, except for a small group of fans.
So now after almost 40 years the first 3 albums are bundled in a box set. The box contains a booklet with a brief history. The 3 albums are presented as the original albums, the bonus material is presented on a separate disc. I think that's nice, they could have added it on the regular albums but this would have destroyed the magic of them. Even the covers look the same as the original albums. The bonus material is a collection of singles, B-sides, live material, sessions for the famous John Peel show and also an appearance in the Old Grey Whistle Test, a TV show.
The original LPs can still be found in record stores and on record fairs, for not so high prices. So what makes this box set so special? The bonus material is certainly worthwhile. But most of all, it is the complete remastered sound. The music sounds sparkling and crystal clear. Hopefully they will finally get the attention they deserve.
**** Erik Gibbels (edited by Astrid de Ronde)
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