Perfect Sound Forever

Ultravox


Systems of Romance revisted
by Jorge Luis Fernández
(June 2010)

Here in Argentina where I live, new CD releases imported from the UK or America are currently a rare find. Due to several factors, like the abysmal disparity between currencies and the unquestionable (for better or worse) supremacy of the MP3 format, there're only a few record stores unevenly supplied, and you can count them with a one hand's fingers too. The only way for a record nut to survive is auctioning on eBay or ordering directly from labels or distributors. But then, a new enemy appears: the local mail, which frequently operates as a black hole that swallows both your money and your records.

Nevertheless, we Argentines have developed new ways to deal with the draught, at least two friends and I, and the provisional outcome is… swapping records. Yes, once a week we three meet at home to exchange material, either CD's or vinyl, which would be more suitable for anyone of us. And the exchange, though amiable, even laughable (curiously, my neighbor once complained not about the loud music we played but about our loud laughs) is not immune to ferocious quarrels, especially when one of my friends tries to up the ante by bringing unavailable, glossy copies from Eclipse, 4 Bearded Men or another vinyl specialist. So, what has all this to do with Ultravox's Systems Of Romance? Driven by my friends' maniacal swapping craziness, I ended up once putting that album in the swapping table. And luckily, it survived.

To be honest, I bought that album more than twenty years ago and I don't remember having listened to it very often. I was uncertain about the value of this survivor so I started spinning that record the morning after that meeting, and I found I couldn't stop spinning it two hours later. The fact is, even though I was never attracted by their album titles, the Ultravox name, the record covers and the genre this album singlehandedly kick-started (synth-pop), I felt I've grasped something unique about Ultravox for the first time and that was John Foxx's vocals, which gave me an unexpected epiphany. I marveled at how he lifted the overall sound with his nuances, the way he underlined subtleties when the instruments weren't pliable enough to reach his desires; in sum, I was delighted about the way he took charge of the whole palette of music, with a voice never sounding commanding neither overstated. Far from that, it is a voice which was pure expression.

The other remarkable aspect about Foxx is the way he embraced the many sides of Brian Eno, which is particularly noted in the closing tracks of both the first and second Ultravox albums, while the closing track of Systems Of Romance marks a departure from within the same sound source. "My Sex," the Ballardian electro poem from the eponymous first album, has its roots in the ralentized, automata pop song of early Eno tracks like "The Fat Lady Of Limbourg" and (most notably) "Mother Whale Eyeless," but with a foot on the quieter experiments Eno was doing with Cluster at about the same time –in fact, the ambient maestro, who was credited as co-producer of the album, lent the band his own MiniMoog for the recording of this track.

From 1977's Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" was a crowning achievement for Ultravox and it's probably the song the band has been most identified with apart from "Vienna." But, on the other hand, the song emerges unequivocally like Roxy Music at their prime, and unlike the many breeds which have grown intermittently from their ashes (from Japan to Tindersticks).

"Hiroshima Mon Amour," along with other tracks from the same album, has the queer accident of sounding like an Eno-driven Roxy Music tune. As much as it is today, at the time that must have been an unknown pleasure.

All of which lead us to 1978's Systems Of Romance, the album I was about to trade but fate wanted it to stay home, and wanted it so loud that I am now writing about it. The Ultravox of 1978 is a completely different beast from the demi-punks which emerged in London two years before, to the extent that they dropped the Neu!-inspired exclamation mark of their name –they also dropped guitarist and founding member Stevie Shears as well, who was replaced by Robin Simon, while production duties went to legendary German engineer Conny Plank, the man behind many Krautrock meisterwerks by Kraftwerk, Cluster and (not coincidentally) Neu!.

Whereas 1976's Ultravox! was a genuine product of its time, an incandescent post-glam album with an articulated art-rock bent (actually, Foxx, Shears, Billy Currie and Warren Cann were already on the road as far back as 1973, at the time they were known as Tiger Lily (whose single-only "Aint' Misbehavin'" is a serious collector's item), SOR is a genuine product far-ahead of its time, an album which aimed to extrapolate their sound from London suburbia to further represent the feeling of a postmodern Europe –as was above noted, the seeds can be traced in 1977's "Hiroshima Mon Amour," where Ultravox offered their own rendition of Roxy's "A Song For Europe," with the accelerated, autobahn-like rhythm of a Roland TR-77 drum-machine, adding new millennium nerve to Bryan Ferry's nocturnal drama.

The album opens with the giant yawn of a synth-bass (probably an ARP-Odyssey) pretty much in the same vein of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," and thereupon "Slow Motion" quickly establishes Ultravox in a new, uncharted territory. With hindsight, it's quite easy to see the future of techno-pop wholly contained in this track alone (everything from Gary Numan to A Flock Of Seagulls had their starting point here), but "Slow Motion" is so strongly innovative that, unlike much of its Eighties followers, it has survived the test of time as briskly as any Sixties classic rock tune. Foxx depicts a modern scenario of fading faces in a nocturnal haze ("I feel a soft exchange taking place, merging with the people on the frames, blurring my face and conversation"), while Billie Currie's waves of synthesizer beautifully overlaps with Robin Simon's searing guitar and the epic, modulated Foxx vocal in the chorus. The same formula ups the tempo a bit for the following track, "I Can't Stay Long," which sounds like a distant cousin of David Bowie's "Look Back In Anger"– not to be heard until months later (and therefore presumably an influence) on 1979's Eno-produced Lodger. Here Ultravox is already sounding like a fully-fledged futuristic rock machine, with sheets of sounds spinning around the drums and vocals like satellites, entering and fading out with such a grace rarely heard before or since. "I Can't Stay Long" signaled a new age for rock music, stamped in the urgent but tepid (clearly postmodern) Foxx's chronicles of fleeting moves in a station (as if Ultravox were revisiting "Waterloo Sunset") and the luminous, splashy chords of Simon's guitar –a signature sound which was to be ubiquitously bastardized by groups like Simple Minds and U2 throughout the Eighties.

Not everything in Systems Of Romance is that great though. "Someone Else's Clothes" is a catchy new wave song but pales in comparison with the preceding tracks, while "Blue Light" is a rather monotonous song which flirts unsuccessfully with disco. Nevertheless, the track ends up being validated by the pyrotechnics of Simon's guitar work, which gets a central spot in the following "Some of Them," perhaps the most intense song ever in the band's catalogue. But then there are more interesting in the flipside (hey, what I'm dissecting here is a vinyl, remember?).

The album's B-side opens with the proto robotic glam of "Quiet Men," which sounds uncannily like the missing link between Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army, punctuated by glacial melody lines on an ARP-Odyssey synthesizer which could have been extricated from the Eurovision song contest. The following track is "Dislocation," Ultravox's first full foray into techno (befote its time, no less). The song owes much to Conny Plank's procedures (echoes of Kratwerkian kling klang metallic rhythm goes through the song like a skeleton), but instead of ending up as just another Krautrock-like ditty, "Dislocation" moves with unexpected nerve, Foxx intoning in his automata voice, moving in and out of the clanking percussive line and eventually merging in the chorus. "Maximum Acceleration" is a distant cousin of Low-era Bowie (also produced by you-known-who), even pointing to the latter's Eighties work, while "When You Walk Through Me" goes back in time even more, to the proto punk phase, with raw guitar chords in the vein of the Mick Ronson/Steve Jones continuum– but adding sleek keyboards textures which gives the song a disorientating aura (and you can hear the blueprint of David Sylvian's Japan in this). The final track is perhaps Ultravox's crowning achievement. "Just For A Moment" starts as a stripped down version of Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights" (The Man Machine was released at about the same time), until Foxx reinforces the climactic feeling by intoning, quietly: ‘Listen to the music the machines make, I let my heart break just for a moment. Listening to the music the machines make, I felt the floor change into an ocean.' By the end of the song, the machines abruptly stop. A cadence of haunting piano chords, full of reverb, repeats for two bars until a swirl of strings dissolves the interlude, preceding The Blue Nile's nocturnal visions by at least five years. The song concludes with Foxx's voice fading out, while oscillators chirp away in the distance.

In hindsight, the album today seems so vital and up-to-date as (or even more than) when it was made. But, undeniably, there is a kind of patchwork, revisionist nature that took crap from many critics back in its heyday. In his brilliant Rip It Up And Start Again, perhaps the most comprehensive and insightful book ever written about post-punk, Simon Reynolds states that "critics generally wrote them off as a glam johnny-come-lately," and even Reynolds himself gave the group little attention, apart from a handful of paragraphs in the book. There is, after all, a certain logic to this: Ultravox weren't shaking the earth in the manner of, let's say, PiL, Throbbing Gristle or The Pop Group. Furthermore, it was a very European band, mostly anchored in the past, and though they gave the past a new perspective (a fact that no one would deny), the outcome of their work was so rapidly devoured by so many imitators that SOR innovations were lost as the Eighties progressed into a fabric of techno-pop machinery. Only out of willingness and curiosity it is possible to dissect the original from the copy, therefore restoring Ultravox to its original status.

The rest of the story is well-known. Foxx left Ultravox even before SOR was released, and followed his departure with three truly idiosyncratic solo albums (for that and his prolific comeback in 2002, he deserves an in-depth coverage), while the Midge Ure-era Ultravox, after having released the sensational "Vienna" single, is perpetually subjected to close scrutiny about the very worthiness of their own existence. For my part, well, I admit they had their moments, but nothing can match the glistening spark of Systems Of Romance. And, needless to say, I have never returned my copy to the swapping table.

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