1979 was a heady year…
· Drag King, Margaret Thatcher was unleashed upon the world.
· A Mullah from Paris lit the fuse for the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah.
· Americans were taken hostage in Iran.
· The INLA blew up Thatcher fanboy Airey Neave.
· The IRA blew up Royal Coup Mongerer Lord Mountbatten.
· Three Mile Island blew up.
· USSR invaded Afghanistan.
· Idi Amin is overthrown.
· Saddam did some overthrowing and came to power.
· Skylab returned with a bang.
· And John Foxx quit Ultravox.
By January 1979, Ultravox were a washed-up curio. A Curate’s Egg of prog rock, punkish overtones and New Wave sensibilities that was abandoned by their lead singer, John Foxx and their record company, Island. Never quite one thing, or the other, Ultravox were men out of step and out of time. Zero financial success had done for Island Records* who not only dropped the band but also expunged their 3 — critically well received — albums from their catalogue.
Unsurprisingly, after such a kick in the creative gonads, John Foxx walked away only to turn up a year later with the rather magnificent solo album ‘Metamatic’. The individual members of the band dispersed to play with amongst others, Numan and soon to be dead, James Honeyman-Scott.
*Island not only dumped them by letter but demanded all of their money back.*
At this point, they should really have faded into a foot note of ‘Post-punk try hards of English musical history’ but then life doesn’t always follow the plot-line…
Enter Midge Ure…
Glaswegian Midge, had a somewhat chequered musical history and had been knocking round the UK music scene since the early 70’s. Firstly as a member of hippy abomination ‘Salvation’, then the truly ghastly ‘Slik’, a hastily constructed boy band aiming to cash in on the success of the Bay City Rollers. The short-lived re-badged Slik ‘PVC2’ and then the proto-Blink 182 Punk Pop outfit ‘Rich Kids’ (Ironic when you consider Midge was McClarens’s first choice for lead singer with the Pistols) formed by Glen Matlock after his ejection from The Sex Pistols.
*Midge also claims he was the originator of the word ‘Punk’ having used it whilst being interviewed by the NME’s very own chameleon and Doriana Gray, Caroline Coon in 1976*
Enter The New Romantics…
By 1978, Post Punk London was a melting pot of weirdo’s and creatures of the night who had crashed out of the Punk scene and its various bands. Though Punk was seminal in musical terms, the nonsense that came with it, the violence, the spitting, dreadful 3rd or 4th generation Punk bands making dodgy facsimiles of the Sex Pistols and the inevitable monetisation of Punk by high street and the media, meant many wanted to escape their past into something safe and very much theirs.
‘Rich Kids’ drummer and all round cheeky chappie, Rusty Egan and gender bending Welsh boy, Steve Strange, hosted a number of DJ nights at various London clubs in the late 1978 and eventually set up the Blitz Club in London in 1979, which was to become the spiritual home of the New Romantic movement, that very briefly flourished in 1980/81.
Enter Rusty Egan & Steve Strange…
Having played with Midge in the recently defunct ‘Rich Kids’, Egan had pitched in with Strange and set himself up as a proto-Alternative DJ at various clubs around London. He was playing a lot of electronica from Germany but the listening pool was limited. The ‘Rich Kids’ had disbanded by November 1978, mainly due to half the band having zero interest in synthesizers and electronics. Midge being a mate and a regular at the club nights/Blitz Club was an obvious choice of musical partner and they embarked on recruiting various musician pals — including Ultravox’s Billy Currie — to record their own music to play at The Blitz. This was a band that was only ever meant to be a studio and video project…Visage.
Enter Martin Rushent…
Martin was hot property in the late 70’s. He had enjoyed considerable success producing The Stranglers. Rushent had offices above The Blitz and inevitably, Egan wandered into Martin’s office and played him the Visage demos. He fell in love with them, so much so, he let the band record their album in his studio for free. He loved them so much, he bought all the same equipment and used it on his next production gig, Dare by The Human League – the rest, as they say is history. He loved them so much, he signed them to his fledgling record label, Genetic. Which didn’t go so well…
Ultravox staggers from the ashes…
After the original Visage demos were recorded in early 1979, Billy Currie, who wanted to keep the Ultravox Candle aflame, asked Midge to join Ultravox in the April of 1979. This proved to be rather problematic, due to Midge’s contractual clauses from various shit bands he had played in previously. So, it wasn’t until November 1979, that he officially joined Ultravox, however in the intervening months the band were no slouches:
· They managed to bring onboard Thin Lizzy’s management, MOD who funded their tours and musical exploits.
· Most of the Vienna album was written and rehearsed.
· The first Visage album was recorded.
· Billy Curry joined Gary Numan on tour and Midge joined Thin Lizzy on their US tour.*
· They toured as Ultravox playing, as then, unrecorded Vienna tracks.
*Midge had previously met Phil Lynott in Scotland and became friends. When Gary Moore left Thin Lizzy, for a third time, Lynott hastily recruited him to play lead guitar for the remaining leg of their 1979 US tour. He was given a tape of the set list and told to learn it during the flight from London to the JFK. A flight much shorter than usual, due to it being Concorde.
By the beginning of 1980, Ultravox had songs, management but no album or record deal. After hawking themselves around and some deft gamesmanship from MOD, Chrysalis records finally signed the band in early 1980. The band recorded their album in RAK studios in London and decamped to Conny Plank’s studio for mixing in Cologne.
Conny Plank was instrumental to that early Ultravox sound. Having worked with Foxx era Ultravox! (Note the exclamation mark) and a man famous for his production of Kraftwerk, Neu! And Yello. He brought the cold, clinical, brooding quintessential Germanic and Central European atmosphere to the record.
Vienna turned out to be their masterpiece and most complete album.
By the beginning of 1980, Visage had a recorded an album, had management (MOD again) but also no record deal, However, the Visage project of the previous year, was about to burst into life.
Having been recorded over a year earlier, Martin Rushent’s Genetic Records had planned to release the album but Genetic folded before that ever came to pass. MOD went straight to the USA to hawk Visage around and found a fan in Polydor, who bought up the global rights to the first Visage album. The Album, imaginatively tiled: ‘Visage’, was released in November 1980 and the single: ‘Fade To Grey’ was released in December 1980 and became a sensation.
After the album ‘Vienna’ was released in July 1980, two unsuccessful singles were released: ‘Sleepwalk’, which was the song that had secured them the Chrysalis deal and ‘Passing Strangers’.
Then came the behemoth that was ‘Vienna’. In a dry run of The Stranglers ‘Golden Brown’, the record company didn’t want to release Vienna. It was too long. Too doomy. Not a single for radio.
After the boss of Chrysalis saw a live performance of ‘Vienna’ at Hammersmith Odeon in November 1980, Chrysalis relented and ‘Vienna’ was released to the radio stations in December 1980 and the general public in the first week of January 1981.
And there was, of course, that video, which again, the record company didn’t want to make, so the band made it anyway.
And the rest, as they say, really is history…
Well not quite…