Review: Phil McNeill, NME, Apr 1977
ULTRAVOX ARE a hype. right? I keep hearing it, and anyway they reek of it. Just look at their contrived, intense-eyed, PVC punk image, and the amount of push that Island are giving them. H-Y-P-E.
Yet this album has had less advertising than the latest from, say, Status Quo, Supercharge or The Clash. And if you want contrived visuals well, theres a lot of bands getting Saviour Of The Universe media treatment (Jones. Strummer & Simenon this month) and who trade just as heavily as Ultravox on capturing the identikit Face Of ‘77 look.
Sure, I know, their musics great sorry, their attitude all this Sound Of The Westwav and razor edge power chords lark. This may he so, but The Clash and The Pistols undoubtedly spend inordinate lengths of time in front of the mirror, and are just as deadly serious about how they look as this bunch of goons. Luckily for them, they carry it off a little more convincingly than Ultravox.
Where the hype label really catches Ultravox is in the fact that their first known gig came after the Island signing : a band out of nowhere playing support to The Hot Rods in their brand new clothes, with it brand new expensively packaged album. An arrogant hello, love me entrance with no live gig goodwill to act as a safety net.
In a way such a debut is requisite to the genre – for Ultravox fall into the old intellectual sardonic glam rock category, updated to take in such magic ingredients as Boredom (Satday Night In The City Of The Dead). Alienation (I Want To Be A Machine), The Street (Wide Boys) and New Wave (Life At Rainbows End (For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street)).
Their true heritage numbers Bowie, Steve Harley, Ian Hunter, Sheer Heart Attack Queen. Jobriath, and above all Roxy Music. Having lost Bryans Boys to Polydor, for Island to immediately come out with a commodity this similar to Roxys debut marketing gambit dress sense, album packaging, previous history (lack of), line-up. vocal sound (on the single at least), even internal relationships (John Foxx being songwriter boss of the band) is almost beyond the bounds of credibility (in both senses of the word).
But if theyre good, who cares? Dont be fooled by the opener, Satdav Night In The City Of The Dead, which sounds like Them furious R&B introd by wailing harp with high rise, dole queue cliches which dont grate over-much because of the cut-up fever of Foxx delivery, and a gawky backbeat.
The R&B/punk connotations are misleading; for a start theres really only one other fast number. Energy and anger have little to do with the romantically bored pose Ultravox strike.
Foxx puts on his Bryan Ferry voice for Life At Rainbows End, as Brian Eno gets his clanky production into stride rhythm section mixed high and tbuddy, a very non-guitar hero sound for Stevie Shears, whos always plinking towards the periphery with attractive grey tones and true minimalist economy, and a wide range of colourless sounds from keyboards /violin player Billy Currie.
Shears and Currie. and even Foxx. are sublimated to the mood at all limes and the underlying mood of the record is the coldness of I Want To Be A Machine
Bui its not the coldness of a David Bowie, whose Low posture sends a chill up the susceptible spine because finally the calculating poser seems to be posing as something as cold-blooded as himself.
Ultravox arc just playing games though Foxx imagery is so clichéd (as titles like The Wild, The Beautiful And The Damned bear witness) that its possible to believe hes actually kidding himself too.
But at least hes acting diffident, which is far more bearable than some of the self-deceptive, self-righteous, empty vessel ranting and droning thats going down these days.
He writes a good tune mind. Every song is memorable, and only Lonely Hunter is boring and that’s saved by the intricate yet simple machinery riffs.
They really do carry off the machine sound well. The only objectionable instrumental foible is Shears penchant for flattening notes.
Oddity of the album is My Sex, a studiedly cold and beautiful track (incredibly pretentious on first hearing), playing on dehumanisation again.
I dont believe Ultravox, and I dont like them – but I like their album.