Sunday, August 09, 2009
Music is a magical thing. It's remarkable how a tune, a melody or a lyric can transport you to another place, or bring back a vivid memory. So it is for me and Ultravox. Hearing any song off the Quartet album instantly re-locates me to Sheffield on Boxing Day many years past. We went to visit my dad's auntie Margaret and uncle Stan at Christmas for a few years when we lived in Liverpool. Since it was Christmas I always had a new tape to listen to (or one year a MW radio that never left my ear) and Ultravox is the one I really associate with this time.*
I'm sure most of you will be familiar with Ultravox from their, oh so nearly, hit song - Vienna. The combination of synthesizers, violin, drum machine and European imagery was certainly a mixture that appealed to me. In truth Vienna was not totally typical of what they did... for three golden albums (Vienna, Rage In Eden and Quartet) they mixed cinematic soundscapes, synthetic sounds and rock guitar to amazing effect. They were always inventive: detuned radios are switched off with click (Rage In Eden), delay soaked drums from the end of one song start another (The Ascent) and a range of swirling effects and noises. They also introduced me to a love of drums that go pfft, tic, dop and fah (as opposed to the usual rock: snap, crack and pop), which I've never lost. In truth I didn't think all that much of Vienna at the time, but fell in love with Hymn (from Quartet) - and then rediscovered the back catalogue. It wasn't just me they influenced, Depeche Mode were fans too, and I would imagine that bands like Muse and MGMT were heavily influenced as well.
It all went a bit wrong after they released Lament and then decided that the next step should be to fire their drummer (Warren Cann) and embrace world music. What followed was possibly the worst album of all time - U-Vox. Fortunately there has been a recent change of heart, and for their reunion tour, they reformed the optimum middle line-up (Cann, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Midge Ure) and played all the hits from the three albums mentioned above.
I've rediscovered the joys of disappearing into a world of Ultravox music in the iPod age. It's a revelation to hear the details of the music now, that the cassette / Walkman combination conspired to obscure. Do check out a few tracks on Spotify or the like, and see what you think.
One final anecdote, my dearly departed friend Andy Hewitt was a big fan too. One day many years back he tuned into a radio programme and immediately identified Ultravox drummer Warren Cann as the guest on the show. After listening for a while he realised that he was a "mystery guest" and listeners were failing to identify who he was, it made him laugh as there was no mystery at all, just a voice he recognised and knew. If only he'd been near a phone to call in!
To hear the Ultravox influence, check out my songs: Lightkeeper, or Minneapolis Hungover Tired Awake.
P.S. I am very happy to say that I have actually seen Ultravox live... last year at Hammersmith Apollo, that's where the picture is from.
*Interesting fact: it was also this time of my life that I was initially thrown back to when standing in the back of a truck in 2006... when the snow (nearly) fell on Denver (okay Detroit actually).