Ultravox (earlier stylized as Ultravox!) were a British new wave band, formed in London in 1973 as Tiger Lily. Between 1980–86, they scored seven Top Ten albums and seventeen Top 40 singles in the UK, the most successful of which was their 1981 hit “Vienna“.
From 1974 until 1979, singer John Foxx was frontman and the main driving force behind Ultravox. Foxx left the band in March 1979 to embark on a solo career and, following his departure, Midge Ure took over as lead singer, guitarist and frontman in October 1979 after he and keyboardist Billy Currie worked in the studio project Visage. Ure revitalised the band and steered it to commercial chart success lasting until 1988, at which time the group disbanded.
A new line-up, led by Currie, was formed in 1992, but achieved limited success, with two albums failing to chart and one solitary single reaching 90 in the UK Singles Chart.
The band’s best-known line-up of Currie, Ure, bassist Chris Cross and drummer Warren Cann reformed in 2008 and performed a series of reunion shows in 2009 and 2010 before releasing a new studio album, Brill!ant, in May 2012 which reached 21 in the British Album Charts. In November 2013, Ultravox performed as special guests on a four date UK arena tour with Simple Minds. These shows proved to be Ultravox’s last, as in 2017 both Currie and Ure indicated that Ultravox had run its course.
In early March 1978, Stevie Shears, whose style of guitar playing was considered a limiting factor, was sacked from the band after they toured England and joined Cowboys International in 1980. He was replaced by Robert Simon (ex-member of Ian North‘s Neo), who during his first days with the band changed his performance-name to Robin Simon.
Some time in 1978, the group also dropped the exclamation mark, becoming simply “Ultravox”. The new line-up performed live at the Reading Festival along with Radio Stars, Penetration, Sham 69, The Pirates and The Jam, playing early versions of “Slow Motion” and “Quiet Men” on 27 August 1978.
Their third album, 1978’s Systems of Romance, was recorded with producer Conny Plank (the producer of German electronic outfit Kraftwerk) and engineer Dave Hutchins at Plank’s Studio in rural Germany. Musically, the album was markedly different from Ultravox’s earlier work, bringing synthesisers to the forefront of the group’s sound. Despite praise from some critics, the album was a commercial failure. Since none of the albums to date had generated much income, tensions within the band—particularly between Currie and Foxx—threatened the band’s viability.
Island dropped the band on 31 December 1978 after an attempt to market the album in the United States failed to generate sales. That appeared to be the final nail in their coffin, but Ultravox undertook a self-financed US tour in early 1979. Splitting after their final gig near San Francisco in March 1979, Foxx declared his intention to go solo. Simon remained in the US and briefly joined The Futants, an American punk band from New York. He later returned to England and teamed up with Howard Devoto to replace guitarist John McGeoch in the band Magazine. The remaining members made their way back to a Britain in the midst of a “winter of discontent”. Island dropped the three Ultravox albums from its catalogue, and released a compilation of highlights from the group’s first three albums in 1980, called Three into One.
Foxx subsequently signed to Virgin Records and released his album Metamatic in January 1980. By this time, Billy Currie had been recruited by the rising star Gary Numan in 1979 to do a performance at the Old Grey Whistle Test show with his band Tubeway Army. Numan had been a fan of Ultravox and Currie was also asked to play on Numan’s début solo album, The Pleasure Principle, and its subsequent tour. Warren Cann went to work for Zaine Griff, while Chris Cross did some shows with James Honeyman-Scott (of The Pretenders) and Barrie Masters (from Eddie and the Hot Rods).
With the band seemingly over, Ultravox were then revitalised by Midge Ure, who joined the band as vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist. He had already achieved minor success with semi-glam outfit Slik and Glen Matlock‘s The Rich Kids, and in 1979 he was temporarily playing with hard rock band Thin Lizzy. Ure and Billy Currie had met while collaborating on Visage, a studio-based band fronted by New Romantic icon and nightclub impresario Steve Strange.
Encouraged by Visage drummer and mutual friend Rusty Egan, Currie asked Ure to join Ultravox. Ure filled both John Foxx’s and Robin Simon’s posts for Ultravox’s next album, Vienna, which heralded a major change of direction and would become their most successful to date, far surpassing any of the previous Ultravox (or Foxx’s) albums. As with Systems of Romance, it was produced in Germany by Conny Plank. Ure knew of Ultravox’s past, being a fan of Systems to the point where the new four-piece outfit (Ultravox mk. III) played songs from that album on tours with Ure singing Foxx’s lyrics. Released on Chrysalis Records in June 1980, the Vienna album produced the band’s first UK Top 40 hit with “Sleepwalk” reaching No. 29, while the album itself initially peaked at No. 14. A second single, “Passing Strangers“, failed to reach the Top 40, only reaching No. 57, but the band achieved a substantial hit with the third single, the album’s title track (inspired by Carol Reed‘s 1949 film The Third Man). Accompanied by a highly distinctive video, the single became Ultravox’s biggest ever hit, released in January 1981 and peaking at Number 2 (kept off the top spot by John Lennon’s “Woman” and then Joe Dolce‘s “Shaddap You Face“). On the strength of the single, the album then re-entered the chart and reached No. 3 in early 1981. A fourth single from the album, “All Stood Still“, peaked at No. 8. in 1981, and “Slow Motion” from Systems of Romance was also re-issued, reaching No. 33 the same year.
This was soon followed by Rage in Eden (1981), with the band returning to Conny Plank’s studio for what turned out to be a difficult recording session. Whereas the Vienna material had been performed live a great deal prior to a three-week recording process, Rage in Eden took over three months. The album featured a long track in three parts on the second side. The album peaked at No. 4 in the UK, while two singles from the album, “The Thin Wall” and “The Voice“, both made the UK Top 20, reaching No. 14 and No. 16 respectively.
Ultravox teamed up with producer George Martin for 1982’s Quartet, which peaked at No. 6 in the UK and contained four Top 20 hit singles; “Reap the Wild Wind” reaching No. 12 and “Hymn” No. 11 both in 1982, and “Visions in Blue” and in 1983 “We Came to Dance” charting at No. 15 and No. 18 respectively. It was their most successful album in the US, peaking at No. 61.
The band undertook a major world tour known as the Monument Tour, which was recorded and released as a live LP and video in 1983, which also reached the UK top ten.
1984’s Lament continued the band’s run of top ten albums and produced three top 40 hit singles, including the international hit “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” (UK No. 3), “Lament” (No. 22) and “One Small Day” peaking at No. 27.
Towards the end of 1984, a “greatest hits” compilation spanning the band’s 1980s output was released entitled The Collection. It was preceded by a new single, “Love’s Great Adventure“, which enjoyed massive radio airplay that autumn and eventually peaked at No. 12 in the UK, accompanied by a popular Indiana Jones-style spoof video. The Collection went triple Platinum and reached No. 2 in the UK album chart, the band’s highest ever peak.
At this time, Ure also co-wrote and helped produce the 1984 Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?“. The group also appeared at Live Aid the following year and played four of their hit singles (“Vienna”, “Reap the Wild Wind”, “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and “One Small Day“). Later in 1985, Ure scored a No. 1 solo hit with “If I Was” and his solo album The Gift reached No. 2 in the UK.
Ultravox reconvened in 1986, but Warren Cann was sacked from the band at the beginning of sessions for their U-Vox album. Cann emigrated to the US and retired from music to become an actor. Big Country‘s Mark Brzezicki took his place. U-Vox was later described by Currie and Ure as “unfocused”. Although it continued their string of top ten albums in the UK, the declining performance of its singles prompted both Ure and Cross to leave the band, “Same Old Story” peaking at No. 31, and “All Fall Down” at No. 30 in 1986, with “All in One Day” reaching only No. 88 in 1987. In 1987 Ultravox decided not to continue after the U-Vox tour early that year, and split up in 1988. Ure subsequently concentrated on his solo career with varying levels of success, and Cross retired from music altogether and returned to his former career as a psychotherapist. Billy Currie and Robin Simon reunited in 1989 as the short-lived Humania, performing live shows but never making a release until 2006, the album Sinews of the Soul.
Since 1979, Ure and Currie had also been part of the Visage ensemble on a part-time basis while simultaneously being in Ultravox. During Ure and Currie’s tenure, Visage had released two successful albums and had a string of hit singles (the most notable being “Fade to Grey“), but Ure decided to leave in 1982 to concentrate solely on Ultravox. Currie remained with Visage for a while longer, but he too had left them by 1984.
- (Mainly) 80s studio albums