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1980 never ended: Ultravox and John Foxx January 23, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
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Metamatic

John Foxx: Metamatic

In 1979, Gary Numan’s song “Are Friends Electric,” with its icy synthesizer sound, damn near changed my life. But this post is not about Gary Numan. It’s about a band I first heard about in interviews with Numan, who named them as a key influence: Ultravox.

Imagine young musicians working under the influence of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, and punk, and you’ve got early Ultravox. The original version, led by John Foxx, recorded three albums to widespread apathy. Foxx left the band for a solo career; the other members regrouped and brought in new lead singer/guitarist Midge Ure.

Vienna

Ultravox: Vienna

Foxx’s first solo LP was in stores before the first new Ultravox LP, but the latter was a much bigger commercial success, thanks to the album’s title track, Vienna. Over the next few years Foxx released three more solo albums and the Ure-led Ultravox released four more albums, but after 1986 or so both disappeared from the public eye, as Foxx withdrew from the music world and Ure left Ultravox for a solo career of his own.

And that’s where the story doesn’t end so much as take a long rest.

In the 1990s, a new version of Ultravox appeared, with only one original member, and produced two new albums, about which no more will ever be said. Meanwhile, Foxx reappeared with two new albums on his own label, the ambient Cathedral Oceans and the electronic dance music album Shifting City, recorded with his new creative partner Louis Gordon. To the surprise and delight of his fans Foxx entered a productive new phase of his career; he’s released several new albums with Gordon, two more Cathedral Oceans albums, an ambient collaboration with Harold Budd, some “live in the studio” albums, some spoken word interview albums, and a collection of material from before his comeback, a couple of songs of which had been released as singles under the name Nation 12. And more. He has several albums in the works, as well.

Meanwhile, in the Ultravox camp, Midge Ure and viola/synth player Billy Currie each carried on with their own solo careers, making music with little sonic debt to Ultravox.

What makes them relevant now? Well, Foxx has been mentioned as an influence by everyone from Metamatics to Hot Chip, and the Ure version of Ultravox has reformed for a concert tour later this year, selling out shows months in advance.

More importantly, for people who loved their albums way back when and those curious what the fuss is all about, there have been a number of reissues.  The three Foxx-era Ultravox albums, with a lot of great bonus tracks, were reissued in 2007, followed by a series of double CD reissues of Foxx’s solo albums and the current ongoing Ure Ultravox reissue program. Almost every available bit of bonus material has been compiled, filling the second disc in each set. Though some of that bonus material has been previously released, these are definitive editions for longtime fans and educational experiences for newcomers.

To the ears of a decades-long fan, it’s all wonderful. For newcomers interested in early electronic pop, electronic new wave, the roots of synthpunk and electroclash, etc, some of the material on these albums is going to sound really dated. Not only because some of it has been so widely adopted and recycled, but because some of it turned out to be following a creative dead end, and some is simply let down by dated ’80s production. Nonetheless, at their best, albums like Metamatic and Vienna have an almost out-of-time feel that helps them hold up well today. Get started there (and the Foxx-era Ultravox album Systems of Romance); they may be enough. But if you get hooked, there’s so much more to discover.

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