Through the eighties, Ultravox had a succession of slick synth-pop hits that continue to be mainstays of oldies radio stations. They were unfashionable at the time, and little has changed over the years. The three albums that they made for Island with John Foxx – prior to Midge Ure, Chrysalis Records and pop stardom – are still relatively little known. Yet they were massively influential, and have stood the test of time far better than the eighties material.
Over twenty months between February 1977 and October 1978, Ultravox!, Ha Ha Ha and Systems Of Romance appeared in rapid succession. Each fused Bowie/Eno type electronics with a punk spirit to create something utterly unique. Unfortunately for the band, musical sophistication was not on the agenda in 1977 and they only ever received a lukewarm press. By the third album, though, the world was catching up. Magazine and Wire both proved that using keyboards didn’t necessarilly turn you into ELP, and acts like Cabaret Voltaire, the Normal and Suicide were applying punk techniques to electronic music. Ultravox’s time seemed to have come. Instead, Island dropped the group in January 1979, and two months later both singer Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon left. The group went on to have much commercial success with Midge Ure, but musically they’d become conservative and safe.
“Just For The Moment” was the track that brought the curtain down on the Foxx era. The last track on Systems Of Romance, it maintained the group’s tradition of ending an album on a sombre, downtempo note – just as “My Sex” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour” has done on their previous records. There is just a synthesised bass pulse, like a heartbeat, simple synth chords and a brief piano bridge. Foxx sounds dislocated, almost robotic, during the verses: “Listening to the music the machines make / I let my heart break / Just for a moment“. It’s just a glimpse of emotion behind the cybernetic facade. The chorus is passionate, almost anthemic – but also contradictory “We’ll never leave here – ever / Let’s stay in here forever / And when the streets are quiet / We’ll walk out in the silence” (how can you do that if you’re staying in forever?). Minor quibble – it’s a great song, even if “Vienna” uses the same basic structure.
All three Island era albums were reissued last year with bonus tracks, and at mid-price. All are unreservedly recommended. They are just as good as more feted albums from the era like Metal Box, Real Life, Chairs Missing and even Low and Heroes.