There were not too many people dropping the name of Ultravox in 1979, but Gary Numan was certainly one of them, and that’s how I first became aware of the group at the age of 12. Always refreshingly candid about his influences, Numan readily acknowledged the debt the two Tubeway Army albums owed to John Foxx’s terminally unfashionable synth-punk unit. Since I was both a fanatical Numan fan and a fervent Smash Hits reader, Ultravox didn’t escape my notice for long, even though they were actually dormant at the time.
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Ultravox: Three Into One
Before the Midge Ure version of Ultravox, which briefly shone with the moody, European sound of the Vienna album before descending into bombast and cliché, there was another Ultravox. This incarnation of the band, fronted by John Foxx, delivered three albums for Island between 1977 and 1979. They were an unfashionably glamorous bunch, taking elements from punk but defying the Zeitgeist by mixing in other musics from the 70s – glam, prog, even reggae.
When Foxx left the band and the Ure-led version signed to Chrysalis, Island understandably tried to cash in on the new version’s popularity with Three Into One, a compilation of the best of the Island years. There is a story that the remaining members of the band met the compilation’s cover artist, who asked them for their views as to which of various options should be used; wishing to sabotage the success of the release, they chose the worst. In fact, the cover (three ghostly figures merging into a fourth) is not a bad visualisation of the album; in any case, it can’t detract from the quality of the music within.
Chronologically arranged, the songs would describe an arc from the first, self-titled album’s stinging glam-punk, through the growing maturity and artistry of Ha! Ha! Ha!, to the clean, industrial modernism of Systems of Romance. Instead, the album is sequenced by flow, opening with the cleansing blast of “Young Savage” and moving through a range of moods from the aerated groove of “Dangerous Rhythm” to the confident swagger of “The Wild, The Beautiful And The Damned”.
Even in their earliest days, Ultravox! (their name carried an exclamation mark for the first and second albums, losing it for the last) evidenced a mastery of songform that was way ahead of the rest of the class of 1977. This compilation’s highlights include the simply gorgeous “My Sex”, a tremulous ballad delivered by Foxx in a stark, unearthly monotone; the choppy futurism of “Slow Motion” and “Quiet Men”; and the blissful, eerie quietude of their greatest song, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”.
Released only on vinyl and on the bizarre, short-lived ‘1+1’ cassette format (a side of music and a side of blank tape), the album is well worth tracking down as a summary of one of British rock’s most distinctive and underrated outfits.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector: Vinyl Viands, 2006)