Category: Legacy (Page 1 of 6)

Change: The Legacy of SPARKS

Photo by Richard Creamer

“Change – I don’t care what other people say, I know everything will be okay…”

The legacy of American sibling duo SPARKS has been celebrated in ‘The SPARKS Brothers’, a new documentary film directed by Edgar Wright. As can be expected from the man behind ‘Shaun Of The Dead’, ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘The World’s End’, Wright’s delightful film captures the deadpan wit and sarcasm of the Mael Brothers, while illustrating their serious but artistic pursuit of fun.

Born in Los Angeles of Austro-Russian Jewish heritage, Ron and Russell Mael excelled at sports but opted for more artistic studies at UCLA while harbouring ambitions in music, driven by their love of British bands such as THE BEATLES, THE KINKS and THE WHO.

In a 50 year recording career that has taken in art rock, operatic glam, nouveau swing, electronic disco, new wave, Eurodance, orchestrated pop, theatrical indie and soundtracks, SPARKS have an array of musicians who cite them as an influence. So it is no surprise that the cast of contributors to ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ include Vince Clarke, Andy Bell, Rusty Egan, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Martyn Ware, Nick Heyward, Steve Jones, Alex Kapranos, Bernard Butler, Jack Antonoff, Thurston Moore, Björk, Flea, Beck, Jane Wiedlin, Weird Al Yankovic and many more

Featuring the Maels themselves and previous producers Todd Rundgren, Muff Winwood, Tony Visconti and Giorgio Moroder alongside former bandmates like Christi Haydon, Ian Hampton, Earle Mankey, David Kendrick, Les Boheme, Tammy Glover and Steve Nistor, humorous animations by Joseph Wallace visualise the stories not captured in the magnificent archive footage assembled for the documentary.

SPARKS had originally been HALFNELSON whose Todd Rundgren produced debut was released on the Warners subsidiary Bearsville Records, founded by Bob Dylan’s former manager Albert Grossman. Despite containing the lyrically prophetic ‘Computer Girl’, the album has not sold well but keen to exploit the Maels image, Grossman suggested they should rename themselves ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ after the comedy siblings Marx. Ron and Russell hated the idea but compromised and changed their name to SPARKS.

The HALFNELSON album was repackaged and reissued in 1972, with ‘Wonder Girl’ lifted as a single and gaining a prestigious TV slot on ‘American Bandstand’. This led to interest from UK promoters and a Warners sponsored tour which included a residency at The Marquee in London.

But following an appearance on BBC2’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ performing ‘Wonder Girl’, presenter Bob Harris was unimpressed and said SPARKS were the worst thing he had ever seen… this was the same esteemed music expert who had poured scorn on ROXY MUSIC a few months earlier and later called NEW YORK DOLLS “mock rock”!

However, this ultimately provoked even more fascination in the quirky brothers among British youth with queues around the block for their shows at The Marquee. One of the support acts was QUEEN who were undoubtedly taking notes from the side of the stage, particularly with Russell Mael’s bursts of falsetto within a traditional rock format.

The first SPARKS album proper was 1973’s ‘A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing’ and included ‘Girl From Germany’ with its narrative about a Jewish boy taking his new Mädchen to meet his shocked parents, perhaps reflecting the brothers’ own lives and conflicts. But the continuing indifference towards Ron’s Dadaist expressionism and Russell’s unusual vocal articulation in their homeland led to the Maels leaving America and uprooting to the UK to find fame and fortune after extracting themselves from the Bearsville deal.

Signing almost immediately to Island Records thanks to championing by Muff Winwood (brother of Steve), SPARKS recruited a new British backing band where the audition adverts required: “a really good face that isn’t covered by a beard”; one of those who did not pass the audition was Warren Cann, later to join ULTRAVOX. But eventually recruiting Dinky Diamond (drums), Adrian Fisher (guitars) and Martin Gordon (bass), the newly configured quintet recorded the now classic album ‘Kimono My House’ which included ‘Here In Heaven’ and ‘Falling In Love With Myself Again’ among its highlights.

Inspired by Ron Mael’s love of Westerns and playing out the breakdown of a relationship as a histrionic Bach-driven gunfight, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ was chosen as the album’s launch single and a now iconic appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in May 1974 sent the single stratospheric.

One of those enthralled was Glenn Gregory of HEAVEN 17: “Obviously ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ was and still remains one of the quirkiest and best songs ever… and the 1974 Top Of The Pops appearance was truly sublime, Russell, preening and looking beautiful, his older brother Ron looking like it was his first trip outside his bedroom in several years, it was mesmerising and I loved it”.

Rob Dean, guitarist of JAPAN recalled: “I first saw SPARKS on OGWT in ’72. They were interesting, quirky and certainly different but it wasn’t until ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ was on TOTP that their true focus and talent shone through. Here was a song (and a band) so unique and undeniably fresh that it was just irresistible-it still is. It just exploded out of the TV”

Who wasn’t frightened to death by the snarling stares of Ron Mael with his Charlie Chaplain moustache sitting motionless behind his RMI Electra-piano? But while his facial hair had been a feature for a number of years, the cutting of his naturally curly locks, now greased back, presented something a lot more sinister with possible references to The Third Reich. With the Maels being of Jewish descent, this was unlikely to have been a deliberate act of provocation; Ron Mael was to state his naivety in adopting such a look and years later would reshape his moustache accordingly.

But with stories circulating that John Lennon phoned Ringo Starr to tell him that “Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler!”, they surely would have been aware of the outrage that had been caused with 15 million people watching on that Thursday evening. However, with Russell’s good looks and animated stage presence, SPARKS gained themselves a screaming teenybopper audience and the appealing ‘Amateur Hour’ followed ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ into the UK Top10.

To maintain the upward momentum, SPARKS were quickly despatched to record the next album ‘Propaganda’, but discontent was already brewing with Adrian Fisher and Martin Gordon leaving the band. Brian May was invited to join but with QUEEN making progress having had a hit with ‘Killer Queen’, he declined and the void was filled by Trevor White and Ian Hampton from the band JOOK.

From ‘Propaganda’, ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and ‘BC’ provided thrilling staccato stomps, but the beautiful synth laden ballad ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ pointed to environmental concerns and was later covered by Mary Hopkin, Martin Gore and Billy MacKenzie.

This was all at the height of SPARKS-mania and superbly documented at what was to be the final British concert of their Island period at Croydon Fairfield Halls in September 1975. The show turned into exuberant chaos when girls rushed the stage and tackled Russell to the ground while Ron, who trying his best to maintain his stoic stance, was even accorded an embrace.

This was undoubtedly the end of an era as the Tony Visconti-produced ‘Indiscreet’ released in October 1975 proved. Those girls who had rushed the stage in Croydon were undoubtedly peeling their posters off the wall as they were treated to this bizarre collection of songs such as the strident marches of ‘Hospitality On Parade’ and ‘Get In The Swing’. Meanwhile ‘Looks Looks Looks’ with its backing by elderly jazz swing musicians and the string quartet laden ‘Under The Table With Her’ may have been the final straw.

Getting homesick, the Maels dissolved their British band to move back to the US in 1976 and delivered the AOR focussed ‘Big Beat’. Working with Rupert Holmes, he of ‘The Pina Colada Song’ and producer of Barbra Streisand, it was largely met with indifference. This period in the artistic doldrums was summed up by SPARKS’ appearance performing ‘Fill-Er-Up’ and ‘Big Boy’ in 1977’s ‘Rollercoaster’, a disaster movie starring George Segal. It was a disaster in more ways than one and the ironically titled ‘Introducing’ album did little to change fortunes.

In a creative rut and seeking a new direction, the Maels opened their ears to the burgeoning electro-disco sound as heard on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ and were put into contact with its producer Giorgio Moroder by a journalist in Los Angeles.

The idea of fusing electronics with the neo-operatic songs of SPARKS was intriguing, so Moroder set to work with them immediately, the tremendous propulsive result being ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’. Released in March 1979, it reached No14 in the UK charts, actually a few months before TUBEWAY ARMY’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’ which is often been seen as the cultural turning point for the synthesizer.

Having worked with Moroder himself, Rob Dean recollected: “After two disappointing albums, hearing that they had recorded with Giorgio Moroder was welcome news as I was already a fan through the brilliant ‘I Feel Love’ and the ‘Midnight Express’ soundtrack. When I heard ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’, it was gratifying to hear that the band’s integrity had been left completely intact, and it was another high watermark in their career. It was a more successful collaboration both commercially and artistically than JAPAN’s own ‘Life In Tokyo’ I think.”

Featuring just six tracks, the parent album ‘No1 in Heaven’ released on Virgin Records featured an embarrassment of riches including an even bigger hit in ‘Beat The Clock’ and the cosmic ‘Tryouts For The Human Race’, while ‘Academy Award Winning Performance’ would have made a great single.

“My favourite SPARKS track is, well actually, two songs together really, ‘My Other Voice’ segued into ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’” said Glenn Gregory, “I have a fantastic memory of a bonfire night in 1979. Martyn Ware and I had taken some magic mushrooms and walked around a fairground immersed in colour and light, embraced by voices and sounds, a wonderful experience. Then as the fireworks climaxed, we were stood by the waltzer and ‘The No1 Song In Heaven’ was blaring out through the speakers… we both saw God at the same time, we went back to Martyn’s flat and had that album on repeat for the rest of the night.”

“The ‘No.1 In Heaven’ period is my SPARKS” explained Peter Fitzpatrick of CIRCUIT3, “They’re like Doctor Who aren’t they? Everyone has their version of them. Pirate radio in Dublin played SPARKS constantly in the spring and summer of 1979. With Gary Numan appearing around the same time, it became normal to have these odd looking people on TOTP playing electronic keyboards”

It was during their TV appearances promoting singles from ‘No1 In Heaven’ that SPARKS invented the synth duo. While Russell’s flamboyant falsetto fitted in well with the electro-disco sound and inspired movement, the throbbing programmed backing meant Ron could maintain the impression he was “doing nothing” and appearing unhappy about it. As Vince Clarke put it in ‘The SPARKS Brothers’: “There’s myself, the guy from the PET SHOP BOYS, and DURAN DURAN… we’re all miserable f*ckers; it’s a look which we just stole from SPARKS!”

Virgin Records pulled out all the stops with releases pressed in different colour variations. But despite the artistic rejuvenation and chart hits for SPARKS, the ‘No1 In Heaven’ album did not sell well. The Maels had perhaps been overshadowed by the success of Gary Numan, but it was possible that the singles focussed disco audience who had crossed over felt those were enough. To add salt to the wound, SPARKS were branded as “disco traitors” by the music press which now seems bizarre in hindsight for such a pioneering work.

Undeterred, SPARKS were despatched by Virgin Records to record the follow-up ‘Terminal Jive’. Although Moroder was still nominally at the helm, it was Harold Faltermeyer who took up most of the production duties as the Italian started to lose interest, distracted by more lucrative soundtrack work such as ‘American Gigolo’ which hit paydirt with the BLONDIE collaboration ‘Call Me’.

With Ron forbidden from actually playing his own keyboard parts, the ‘Terminal Jive’ songs featured more guitar and less of the throbbing sequencer magic with ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll People In A Disco World’ reflecting the confused state of mind on a record that was lacking the Maels’ personality.

Intended to appeal more to American ears, ‘Terminal Jive’ was not actually issued in the US on its eventual release in January 1980. Paradoxically, ‘When I’m With You’ was a massive hit in France and even covered by NEW ORDER in concert.

During this period, the brothers relocated there for a few years, appearing on ‘L’Académie Des Neuf’ (the French equivalent of ‘Celebrity Squares’) as “LES SPARKS” and writing with Belgian neighbours TELEX during their sojourn.

Licensed to RCA in the US via a deal brokered by Moroder and recruiting Californian combo BATES MOTEL as a backing band, SPARKS recorded their 1981 album ‘Whomp That Sucker’ with QUEEN producer Reinhold Mack in Munich as a much more rock orientated affair.

Channelling a cathartic aggression, the ‘Whomp That Sucker’ cover depicted Russell and Ron as boxers. “I went to a SPARKS album launch party at the Grosvenor Hotel on Park Lane where they had a full size boxing ring” remembered Glenn Gregory amusingly, “they came out and fought a few rounds, I stood talking to Vivian Stanshall of BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND… or maybe I was tripping!”

Songs from ‘Whomp That Sucker’ and their next two long players on Atlantic Records ‘Angst In My Pants’ and ‘In Outer Space’ like ‘Funny Face’, ‘I Predict’ and ‘Cool Places’ with Jane Wiedlin from THE GO GO’S were playlisted by KROQ-FM. An influential Pasedena-based radio station, it specialised in what Americans termed New Wave with acts such as DEPECHE MODE, YAZOO, NEW ORDER, OMD, THE PYSCHEDLEIC FURS, BERLIN, DURAN DURAN, PET SHOP BOYS, SIMPLE MINDS, THE CURE, ABC and A-HA on regular rotation during its imperial phase.

This support from KROQ-FM assured SPARKS of some West Coast success for a period, although 1984’s ‘Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat’ with DURAN DURAN producer Ian Little saw SPARKS become too immersed in new digital technology, with the album’s lead single ‘With All My Might’ sounding more like HEAVEN 17.

The Mael Brothers had another rethink and used the Fairlight to accentuate their more eccentric and provocative side again with ‘Change’ on what turned out to be a one-off single with London Records in July 1985. Returning to Europe to record with Dan Lacksman of TELEX, the middle eight featured a sonic passage that would have made Trevor Horn proud and reminded audiences of how enthralling SPARKS could be.

However, London Records were not happy with one A&R muttering “why can’t you make music that you can dance to?” – from criticism comes inspiration and this led to the next SPARKS album ‘Music That You Can Dance To’ released on MCA in September 1986, although the energetic similarities of the title song to ERASURE’s ‘Oh L’Amour’ did not go unnoticed while Russell got to impersonate Gene Pitney on ‘Rosebud’.

1988’s ‘Interior Design’ did not halt downward trajectory although a French version of the album closer ‘Madonna’ possessed some Gallic charm and this ongoing affinity with the country saw a superb collaboration with the Parisian avant pop couple LES RITA MITSOUKO with ‘Singing In The Shower’, a track later used in the 1989 film ‘Black Rain’ starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia.

With ambitions in cinema, SPARKS turned their attention to an adaptation on the Japanese anime comic ‘Mai The Psychic Girl’ to be directed by Tim Burton. The lead was to have been played by Christi Haydon who had been a regular extra on ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. But when the film project floundered, she became an important aspect of their video and live presentations for their next album ‘Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins’ released in November 1994.

Now working as a duo, SPARKS’ new material was picked up by the German based Logic label, then home to trendy dance acts like COSMIC BABY and SNAP! And just when people least expected it, Russell and Ron Mael returned like a phoenix from the flames.

With a superb vintage styled sibling rivalry video directed by Sophie Muller, the brilliant ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ became a smash in Germany and gave them an unexpected career renaissance with a brand new young audience. The song had everything; atmospherics, subtle rhythmical infections and an anthemic uplifting chorus. And as if to repay their debt for SPARKS paving that path for synth duos, Vince Clarke and Dave Ball of SOFT CELL (in his new guise of THE GRID with Richard Norris) provided remixes.

Meanwhile ‘(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing’ was very much in the frantic Eurodance vein of the period, sounding like PET SHOP BOYS ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ being covered by Freddie Mercury! Russell Mael brought his obviously more quizzical character into the cutting ‘I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car’ with its Arabic overtones and unsettling multi-tracked chants. ‘Now That I Own The BBC’ humorously imagined the Maels returning to the fame game, but best of all was the chilling ballad ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil’, now with the passage of time sounding like MUSE gone synthpop!

However, the Maels lost it all again with the rather pointless 1997 reworkings collection ‘Plagiarism’ featuring special guests ERASURE and FAITH NO MORE, and then capped it all with the poorly received ‘Balls’ in 2000. After the lush synths of ‘Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins’, ‘Balls’ was more jagged with the title track and ‘Bullet Train’ rhythmically attempting to ape THE PRODIGY, although songs such as ‘More Than A Sex Machine’ and ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ showed SPARKS could still do catchy electronic pop when it took their fancy. But ‘Balls’ was the Maels trying to emulate others rather than being themselves.

As always, SPARKS bounced back again in 2002 with the acclaimed classical concept album ‘Lil Beethoven’, described in the original CD booklet as “Nine scintillating works of seduction and self-delusion…” – the bookends ‘The Rhythm Thief’ and ‘Suburban Homeboy were immediate highlights while ‘What Are All These Bands So Angry About?’ was a wry baroque observation on self-destructive egos in the music biz.

‘Hello Young Lovers’ in 2004 developed on the template further but adding conventional band augmentation with the prog pop opus ‘Dick Around’ and the orchestrated swing rock of ‘Perfume’ released as singles, although the former earned itself a BBC radio ban.

Using photos featuring Susie the baby chimpanzee on the cover, 2008’s ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ with songs like the buzzy ‘I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All the Cr*p In This Song’ and the playful dig ‘Lighten Up, Morrissey’ showed SPARKS still had it was far as sardonic lyricism went. To launch the new album, they undertook their ‘21×21’ adventure, performing each of their 20 previous albums in full during a London residency at Islington Academy over 20 nights, before culminating in the live premiere of ‘Exotic Creatures Of The Deep’ at Shepherds Bush Empire.

But there were signs that another jolt was needed creatively. First came the radio musical ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ in 2009 while the Maels undertook two stripped down duo tours under the ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ banner.

The 2015 union of FRANZ FERDINAND and SPARKS was a visceral project centred around a six piece band together in a room, unlike many modern collaborations which are distant and detached. The resultant FFS album could easily have been titled ‘Art School Musical’ with the Glasgow art rockers particularly invigorated by their spiritual godfathers. Snatching back the intellectual artistic high ground, the Mael brothers found themselves in the mainstream again for the fourth time in their multi-decade career.

From ‘FFS’, ‘Call Girl’ and ‘So Desu Ne’ revisited SPARKS’ past electronic adventures while ‘P*ss Off’ was the ultimate two fingered anthem, grabbing the vibrancy of the ‘Kimono My House’ and ‘Propaganda’ era with its joyful multi-track phrasing and vitality. Contradicting its title, ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ combined operatic rants and country with buzzy synthpop, spacey jazz, a showtune and a classical mini-symphony! It was bonkers and brilliant with the sorcerer and the apprentice working in unison to double the magical power!

SPARKS returned as themselves in September 2017 and it was zoo time again on ‘Hippopotamus’ with the Maels are waxing lyrical about amphibious mammals, French culture, flat pack furniture, presidential widows and The Scottish Play. Featuring a whopping 15 tracks, there was the orchestrated rock eccentricity of ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’, the frantic electronically assisted storm of ‘The Amazing Mr Repeat’ and the poperatic ‘Life With The Macbeths’. Meanwhile the fascination for all things Gallic continued with ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ and ‘When You’re a French Director’ featuring Leos Carax on guest vocals and accordion.

Heading into the fifth decade of their career and with their weird and wonderful sense of humour still intact, SPARKS showed no signs of waning in their zest for idiosyncratic adventure on 2020’s ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. If the album had a key track, then it was the glorious ‘One For The Ages’ with its narrative about craving artistic longevity.

The baroque synth classical of ‘Stravinsky’s Only Hit’ was a light hearted reflection on serious artistes while paradoxically ‘Self-Effacing’ was an anthemic song about modesty in the ‘Kimono My House’ vein but sans Ron’s electric piano. Returning to the lyrical gist of their 1975 hit ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, there was the profound closing plea of ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’.

Still remaining as enjoyably oddball as ever, after numerous aborted film projects, Russell and Ron Mael recently fulfilled their cinematic dream with the musical film ‘Annette’ starring Adam Driver and directed by Leos Carax.

After watching ‘The SPARKS Brothers’, Rob Dean said: “This is a well-deserved, successful and exhaustive overview of the brothers’ chequered career so far that somehow manages to still keep their enigma intact. Undoubtedly a must see for any fan such as myself, anyone else with the curiosity to explore can expect to be richly rewarded and surprised too.”

“The documentary reminded me I wish I’d been an art school boy. SPARKS let you in on the joke, never too smart for their own good and not excluding the listener” Peter Fitzpatrick thought, “Reviewers comment on the humour of course but the message it’s sending to artists is choose your own path and don’t follow convention; stick it out because what you create is all that matters. I dove back into their catalogue before the documentary came out and rediscovered how similar to XTC they are in that sheer bloody mindedness, but in a good way. Some current bands are like that for dumb reasons with notions about themselves. Artistic bloody mindedness is an admirable trait. SPARKS have it in spades.”

As far as legacy is concerned, apart from synth duos and any act with a static keyboard player, bands such as SIMPLE MINDS and ASSOCIATES mined the poise of SPARKS’ glam period for their earlier post-punk records, while the eccentric sound of SPARKS continues to be heard in modern female-fronted acts such as MARINA & THE DIAMONDS and GOLDFRAPP. But Paul McCartney choosing to impersonate Ron Mael in the ‘Coming Up’ video in 1980 was the ultimate symbol of worldwide cultural impact.

“I have some very happy memories of SPARKS” Glenn Gregory surmised, “genuinely one of the most innovative, interesting bands ever”, but as Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff put it succinctly in the documentary: “All modern pop music is rearranged Vince Clarke and rearranged SPARKS, that’s the truth”

While SPARKS were not easy task masters in their pursuit of the unconventional, their unwillingness to compromise and determination to remain accessibly intelligent has to be admired in a world that has lowered itself to ignorance and complacency over the past few years.

“They’re clever but not impenetrable” concluded Peter Fitzpatrick.


With thanks to Glenn Gregory, Rob Dean and Peter Fitzpatrick for their contributions

‘The SPARKS Brothers’ is on general release in selected cinemas, more information at http://thesparksbrothers.co.uk

‘The Sparks Brothers (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’ will be released by Waxwork Records as a quadruple marbled vinyl LP boxed set on 22nd January 2022

‘Past Tense – The Best of SPARKS’ is available as a 2CD, 3CD and triple vinyl set via BMG

http://www.allsparks.com/

https://www.facebook.com/sparksofficial/

https://twitter.com/sparksofficial

https://www.instagram.com/sparks_official/

https://sparks.lnk.to/spotifyWE


Text by Chi Ming Lai
3rd August 2021

Oh Yeah: The Legacy Of YELLO

The illustrious career of the Swiss electronic trailblazers YELLO is being celebrated in a new lavishly packaged 4CD earbook retrospective entitled ‘YELL4O Years’.

As well as containing their best known tracks, the duo’s more melodic cinematic works are compiled as a separate volume while there is also the inevitable collection of remixes from the likes of DJ Hell, Carl Craig and Mark Reeder. Frustratingly YELLO’s biggest UK hit ‘The Race’ appears in a 2016 live version from their Berlin Kraftwerk residency rather than its studio variants or even the wonderful atmospheric Magician’s Version for Tempest & Cottet!

Boris Blank founded YELLO in Zurich together with Carlos Perón through a mutual love of jazz, musique concrète and tape experimentation. Blank had a taste for the considered uncompromising aspirations of THE RESIDENTS and sent demos to Ralph Records, the label that the American art collective founded. Around the same time, at the suggestion of Paul Vajsabel who ran the Music Market record shop in Zurich which they mutually frequented, Blank and Perón were joined by Dieter Meier as lead vocalist.

Meier was the son of millionaire banker with his own business interests and had also been a professional gambler who had played cards in the presence of Marilyn Munroe. But perhaps in a reaction to his background, Meier had a penchant for performance art. In the rather conservative environment of Switzerland where a policy of neutrality is adopted to not upset anyone, secret banking is available to all with no questions asked and nuclear fallout shelters are a legal requirement in every home, artists were generally frowned upon, so they often had to develop a thick skin and a sense of humour to survive.

And it was within this society that YELLO’s tongue-in-cheek avant pop was born. As if to reinforce this, the name came from wanting a simple brand identity like Lego, inspired a comment made by Meier about “a yelled hello”. The first YELLO album ‘Solid Pleasure’ attracted the interest of Do It Records, the British label formed by Robin Scott of M and Ian Tregoning who had released the debut ADAM & THE ANTS album ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’.

As a result, one of its tracks ‘Bostich’ was played regularly at The Blitz Club by its resident DJ Rusty Egan. Its opening military drum tattoo was deceiving as an electronic throb quickly set in for a perfect slice of avant garde disco. With a quirky range of vocal pitches from Meier achieved by various tape manipulations, it introduced a style of speedy European rap later that was to become YELLO’s trademark.

The conga madness of ‘Pinball Cha Cha’ from the 1981 album ‘Claro Que Si’ proved they were not a straightforward electronic band. Boris Blank had begun with a Farfisa organ as his instrument of choice, later upgrading to the ARP Odyssey and Sequential Pro-One, but it was the purchase of the Fairlight CMI that was to change everything.

Opening up endless possibilities, Boris Blank said to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK in 2016 that “When making the music for YELLO, I never think about a certain aesthetic or a certain kind of concept. It just comes out. When you work every day, like I do in my studio, more as a painter than like a traditional musician, then things come up that I never knew before. I just make music for fun, of course – it should be fun all the time. At the end, that is the result, reflecting more or less my fantasy from the past months and years that I’ve been working on those tracks.”

Blank laboured over his Fairlight, sampling anything from broken guitars, percussion, rusty brass instruments, screaming, opera singers and golf swings, eventually building up a huge catalogued library of over 14,000 sounds.

“There was a lot of heart and sweat in those old samples. I recorded everything at the time” he said, “I threw a snowball at the studio wall and worked it into a bass drum in the end – things like this”

A self-confessed non-musician, his tendency was not to play notes or count rhythms, but to be like child playing with a classic Lego set comprising of many coloured bricks and no instructions, surmising “Working with modern technology is much more convenient though, it stops you making final decisions.”

With Dieter Meier, his delivery was more like a storyteller or acting as another instrument rather than being a traditional singer. And with the handy Fairlight, Blank had another colour on his palette. YELLO was not a democratic band with equal collaborative input and it was admitted by Blank that only when a track was instrumentally complete would Meier be invited to make his contribution. But while Meier wasn’t that involved in the studio aspects of the music, his voice would give YELLO their personality, much like his cravat would be the crucial statement that complimented his suit.

Having already released a solo record ‘Impersonator’, Carlos Perón left YELLO in early 1983, just after release of their third album ‘You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess’ on Stiff in the UK and Elektra in the US. It spawned the rhythmic gothic drama of ‘I Love You’ which utilised an unusual wobbly bassline that was doubled by a staccato voice sample, as well as pitched-up repeats of the title and lyrics inspired by ‘The Empire Strikes back’.

But with a synthesized squelch that predated acid house by several years, the moody disco number ‘Lost Again’ became the opening theme to the BBC2 yoof music show ‘ORS’, signalling an interest from TV and cinema in YELLO’s music. And although Do It folded in 1982, Ian Tregoning continued to work with YELLO and introduced the music of the Swiss duo to film director John Hughes.

As YELLO’s fourth studio album ‘Stella’ became their biggest seller to date, Blank and Meier made their mainstream breakthrough. An intricately woven patchwork of samples, the catchy ‘Vicious Games’ featuring the sexy vocals of Rush Winters became a US dance Top10 hit. Meanwhile, the quirky leftfield pop of ‘Oh Yeah’ appeared prominently in the 1986 John Hughes’ film ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’.

‘Oh Yeah’ centred around a deep slowed down Meier going “BEAUTIFUL, OH YEAH!”; the track possessed a comic element that led to it being synched in situations whenever an attractive lady would appear, although it ultimately became ubiquitous as Duffman’s signature tune in ‘The Simpsons’.

Despite the novelty of two mature continental eccentrics becoming the toast of Hollywood and perhaps more unexpectedly, Urban America, YELLO also had a more cinematic European side that was more akin to their cosmopolitan origins; after all, Switzerland is a middle European landlocked country that has four official and very different languages.

From the 1987 album ‘One Second’, ‘The Rhythm Divine’ was an immense brooding ballad originally written as part of an ambitious project about Marilyn Monroe under the working title of ‘Norma Jean’. On lead vocals was Shirley Bassey who had been introduced to Blank and Meier by Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe. The lyrics were written by the late Billy MacKenzie of ASSOCIATES whose own ghostly neo-operatic vocals proved to be vital as the mighty diva worked around the dynamics of this epic number.

Despite ‘The Rhythm Divine’ being a European hit, Dieter Meier reflected later that the song hadn’t been very YELLO and decided that their next album ‘Flag’ should be as YELLO as possible, with the focus on Blank and himself. It yielded ‘The Race’, their biggest hit yet in English speaking territories like the UK, Ireland and New Zealand. Frantic, thrilling and gimmick laden, ‘The Race’ featured in the 1990 film ‘Nuns On The Run’ and perhaps not surprisingly on the cable channel Eurosport, keeping Meier flush in casino chips and allowing Blank to purchase even more studio equipment.

Billy MacKenzie continued working with YELLO and Boris Blank remembered “The songs ‘Capri Calling’ and ‘Because You Love’ still get under my skin. Working with Billy was always a pleasure. He worked fast and sang with his whole heart and soul, he gave everything. You could see it was very emotional for him. And for me.”

Included on 1991’s ‘Baby’ album, ‘Capri Calling’ was a smooth sunset romance that captured a gentle Mediterranean spirit. The soaring ‘Baby’ title track did not actually appear on the album but later featured on Mackenzie’s first solo long player ‘Outernational’ in 1992. The groovy jazz inflected ‘Rubberbandman’ from ‘Baby’ with Meier pitch shifted down to sound like Louis Armstrong continued the quirky ingenuity.

However from hence on, YELLO made albums less frequently as Meier’s business interests in coffee, wine, watches, silk garments and organic beef took up more of his time. The 1997 album ‘Pocket Universe’ featured the enigmatic Swedish songstress Stina Nordenstam on the techno-flavoured ‘To The Sea’, but the follow-up long players ‘Motion Picture’ and ‘The Eye’ saw public interest wane, even in Switzerland and Germany which had been YELLO’s strongest markets.

After signing to Polydor, 2009’s ‘Touch Yello’ saw a revival in fortunes, reaching No1 in the homeland, their first long player to do so since ‘Stella’. Notably, guest singer Heidi Happy provided a sumptuous smoky quality to the airy ballads ‘Stay’ and ‘You Better Hide’, the latter fittingly appearing at the end of the dystopian Swiss sci-fi movie ‘Cargo’.

The interim period saw Dieter Meier release a solo album ‘Out Of Chaos’, while Boris Blank collaborated with Malawian jazz singer Malia and issued a boxed set of unreleased solo material called ‘Electrified’. Reuniting in 2016 and coinciding with their first full live shows in Berlin, ‘Toy’ released arrived with much fanfare.

‘Limbo’ was a classic YELLO single laced with Meier’s distinctive drawl over a big metronomic beat syncopated by rhythm guitar for something suitably racey. Meanwhile the superb ‘Electrified II’ saw a duet with a guesting Malia in a slice of seductive energetic electro-cabaret.

Meanwhile, Beijing-born chanteuse Fifi Rong offered her own dreamy elegance on ‘Kiss The Cloud’ as addition to the tradition of sophisticated YELLO mellows. She said when Boris Blank first approached her to collaborate: “He reached out to me by email and said he really liked my music and the way I do my harmonies in my tracks.”

YELLO’s most recent album ‘Point’ did not disappoint their cult following. There was no mistaking that the lead single ‘Waba Duba’ was them, all tribal and elastic while punctuated with staccato horn stabs that recalled ‘The Race’. ‘Arthur Spark’ presented a purer electronic vision while ‘The Vanishing of Peter Strong’ showed an artistic affinity with THE ART OF NOISE.

It’s together with THE ART OF NOISE that YELLO have a legacy in technical innovation, pioneering digital sampling and turning found sound into danceable pop music.

More importantly, Boris Blank and Dieter Meier incorporated a sense of humour in their art, something that was largely absent from a significant number of electronic artists. For the general public though, YELLO’s legacy manifests itself in movies, the segments familiar despite the pair remaining largely anonymous.

It would be fair to say that when doing uptempo material, YELLO did not deviate from their signature sound much with songs like ‘Bostich’, ‘The Race’, ‘Tied Up’, ‘Jungle Bill’, ‘Limbo’ and Waba Dubba’ all being close relations! However, in their more downtempo collaborations with other artists like Shirley Bassey, Billy Mackenzie, Heidi Happy and Fifi Rong, they ventured into something more otherworldly and the third “Mello YELLO” volume of the 4CD earbook provides a well-deserved platform for this less appreciated aspect of their catalogue.


‘YELL4O Years’ is released by Polydor on 30th April 2021, available as a 4CD collector’s box, 2CD, abridged double vinyl LP and digital download – further information at https://40years.yello.com/

http://yello.com

https://www.facebook.com/yello.ch/

https://www.instagram.com/yello_official/


Text by Chi Ming Lai with thanks to Simon Helm
19th March 2021

Euro-Vision: The Legacy Of TELEX

On paper it shouldn’t have worked; a funereal paced reworking of the song that heralded the birth of rock ‘n’ roll smothered in vocoder. But TELEX always had an eccentric sense of irony about them.

Their cover of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ caused much head scratching when it entered the UK Top 40 singles chart in the summer of 1979, although one person listening was undoubtedly Daniel Miller who borrowed the concept for SILICON TEENS and their only album ‘Music For Parties’. So it is no big surprise that the Belgian trio are to have their back catalogue reissued by Mute Records, beginning with a compilation ‘This Is TELEX’ which bizarrely omits their biggest UK hit!

TELEX began their account in 1978 with another rock ‘n’ roll cover in ‘Twist a Saint Tropez’ made famous by LES CHATS SAUVAGES fronted by French singer Dick Rivers; their manifesto stated their intent of “making something really European, different from rock, without guitar”. With their embracement of synths and a tongue-in-cheek championing of pop and disco, TELEX enjoyed baiting the ideologically-rigid rock press, especially with their cover versions.

This continued on their debut album ‘Looking For Saint Tropez’ released on Vogue Records. It included a KRAFTWERK styled reinterpretation of ‘Ça Plane Pour Moi’ by Belgian faux punk Plastic Bertrand who Lacksman had provided all the synth instrumentation for on his electro-disco favourite ‘Tout Petit La Planète’. Other highlights on ‘Looking for Saint Tropez’ included the hypnotic ‘Pakmowäst’ with its treated robotic vocals and ‘Something To Say’ which didn’t sound unlike one of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA’s vocal tracks.

Like YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, TELEX were already experienced hands by the time of their formation; Marc Moulin was a jazz musician with two albums to his name and the boss of the Belgian FM radio station Radio Cité, while vocalist Michel Moers had been a member of prog folkies NUIT CALINE A LA VILLA MON REVE.

The most electronic inclined of the trio, Dan Lacksman was a noted studio engineer who had recorded three solo long players using his Moog IIIP modular system and provided the Roland System 100 sequence programming to the huge worldwide disco hit ‘Born To Be Alive’ by Patrick Hernandez, with whom a young Madonna was once a backing vocalist for.

But TELEX’s wider breakthrough came via The Blitz Club and its resident DJ Rusty Egan who played the self-penned ‘Looking For Saint Tropez’ opener ‘Moscow Diskow’ alongside KRAFTWERK, YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA and SPARKS to signal a new phase in electronic dance music that had been seeded by the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ in 1977.

Taking the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow and adding a funkier groove compared with KRAFTWERK’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ excursion, the track became a cult international club favourite and proved that TELEX were more than just a novelty covers act.

The second TELEX album ‘Neurovision’ in 1980 continued with the deadpan electronic covers and a gloriously metronomic take on ‘Dance To The Music’ showcased the trio’s irreverent humour and penchant for mischievous subversion. But this mischief came to its head with their lampooning number ‘Euro-Vision’, which they actually entered for 1980 Eurovision Song Contest!

A bouncy electropop tune, ‘Euro-Vision’ had deliberately banal lyrics about the whole charade itself. With Lacksman’s Moog modular behind them, the trio had even choreographed swaying and clap movements while Moulin cheekily mimed his MicroMoog polyphonically. The Situationist performance concluded with Moers stoically taking a photo of the bemused audience in The Hague.

With the sole intention of coming last, TELEX were sitting in that very position with just four juries to vote. But Portugal awarded “dix points” and TELEX ended up 17th out of 19 entries ahead of Morocco and Finland!

Featuring a song called ‘Tour De France’ three years before KRAFTWERK and a pulsing jazz tinged Schaffel in ‘En Route Vers De Nouvelles Aventures’, ‘Neurovision’ saw TELEX’s profile raised although they declined to perform live. However, their sophisticated electronic sound would have been very difficult to replicate at the time, a situation which also saw SPARKS unable to perform their Giorgio Moroder produced albums ‘No1 In Heaven’ and ‘Terminal Jive’ in a concert setting.

With many things in common, for TELEX’s third album ‘Sex’ released on Ariola in 1981, the Mael brothers were invited to contribute lyrics to all of its nine tracks and begin a fruitful friendship.

Experiments in swing on ‘Sigmund Freud’s Party’ displayed a sophisticated vintage musicality and the brilliant ‘Haven’t We Met Somewhere Before?’ was the hit single that never was.

Meanwhile, like KRAFTWERK meeting YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, ‘Brainwash’ was quite obviously the blueprint for LCD SOUNDSYSTEM’s ‘Get Innocuous!’ and ‘Drama, Drama’ reinterpreted the latent funk of Bowie’s ‘Fame’ in synthesizer form.

However, the tracklisting was considerably revamped for the UK release in 1982 as ‘Birds & Bees’ with new material; one of these numbers ‘L’ Amour Toujours’ was a wonderful exploration of latter day ROXY MUSIC if Bryan Ferry had opted to venture into electronic pop. However, ‘Holiday Holiday’ amusingly sounded like a synthy Chris De Burgh on holiday in the French Riviera!

But ‘Birds & Bees’ confused the TELEX story and a remixed ‘L’ Amour Toujours’ ended up also opening the fourth TELEX album ‘Wonderful World’ which only came out in Germany and France despite a new deal with Warners.

Despite its vibrant title song, the album sank without trace but TELEX were still in demand and  signed by Atlantic Records for the 1988 album ‘Looney Tunes’. From it, ‘Beautiful Li(f)e’ was an oddball sampling experiment akin to YELLO that showed Moulin, Moers and Lacksman were still willing to explore the possibilities of new digital technology, despite electronic pop being out of vogue and the public seemingly preferring house and techno.

With TELEX going into hiatus, Michel Moers released a solo album ‘Fishing Le Kiss’ in 1990 before becoming a video director and photographer. However, Marc Moulin and Dan Lacksman had maintained parallel production careers during TELEX. Working together in the studio, the pair had scored several domestic hits including ‘Amoureux Solitaires’ and ‘Le Banana Split’ with the sexy Belgian starlet Lio.

SPARKS continued their association with TELEX and wrote English lyrics for the Canadian edition of Lio’s ‘Suite Sixtine’ album and in return, Moulin and Lacksman did a 12 inch remix of ‘Music That You Can Dance To’.

Meanwhile, Lacksman engineered SPARKS’ ‘In Outer Space’ LP which spawned the Jane Wiedlin duet ‘Cool Places’ that became the Mael brothers’ biggest US hit and Thomas Dolby’s second album ‘The Flat Earth’.

Although Moulin produced several tracks on the self-titled debut of Anna Domino released on the Belgian boutique label Les Disques Du Crépuscule, it was Lacksman who was to have the most lucrative post-TELEX career as a producer, notably working with CAMOUFLAGE on their ‘Methods Of Silence’ and ‘Bodega Bohemia’ albums, as well as producing French ethnic electronica project DEEP FOREST who had a worldwide smash hit with ‘Sweet Lullaby’.

TELEX reunited in 2006 for the ‘How Do You Dance?’ album on Virgin Records; it featured five cover versions including a downtempo take on the Mexican folk standard ‘La Bamba’, a vocodered ‘On The Road Again’ which appeared to replicate ROCKETS’ 1978 version and in tribute to their old mates SPARKS, a superb deadpan interpretation of ‘No1 Song In Heaven’. Welcomed back by the artists who had they had helped lay the electronic foundations for, TELEX did remixes for DEPECHE MODE and PET SHOP BOYS.

Sadly Marc Moulin passed away in 2008 and TELEX was retired. Since then, Michel Moers returned to music in 2013 to provide his Gallic nonchalance on ‘Will I Get to Your Heart?’ for Danish musician NATTEFROST and has been recording solo material. In 2015, Dan Lacksman collaborated with the late Florian Schneider on ‘Stop Plastic Pollution’ to highlight the issue of ocean environment conservation as part of the campaign Parley For The Oceans and continues his studio career.

TELEX have certainly left an impressive legacy linking them with some of the biggest names in electronic music. Their time to be discovered by a new generation and established music fans who may have missed them first time round comes via this new partnership with Mute.

While ‘This Is TELEX’ does not include ‘Rock Around The Clock’ or ‘Haven’t We Met Somewhere Before?’, it does feature a good selection of their career highlights. Long-standing TELEX enthusiasts will be tempted by the new mixes from Lacksman and Moers, although as the former explained “We simplify, we take away, to create something more efficient, more TELEX.” while Moers added “We’re so glad to have signed with Mute. We couldn’t have done better.”

“Beaux messieurs, belles dames: musique au programme…”


In memory of Marc Moulin 1942- 2008

‘This Is TELEX’ is released by Mute Artists on 30th April 2021 in CD, double shrimp pink or fern green coloured vinyl LP, cassette and digital formats

https://www.facebook.com/TELEX-312492439327342

https://mutebank.co.uk/collections/telex

http://danlacksman.be/

https://www.facebook.com/danlacksmanmusic

https://www.facebook.com/explusguests

http://www.marcmoulin.com/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
25th January 2021

THE ELECTRONIC LEGACY OF 1981

Was 1981 the most important year in synth as far becoming ubiquitous in the mainstream and hitting the top of the charts internationally?

Yes, ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Oxygène’ came before, while the Giorgio Moroder produced ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer is acknowledged as being the track that changed pop music forever and still sounds like the future even in the 21st Century. French electronic disco like ‘Magic Fly’ and ‘Supernature’ also made its impact.

Meanwhile closer to home, a post-punk revolution was already permeating in the UK with the advent of affordable synthesizers from Japan being adopted by the likes of THE NORMAL, THROBBING GRISTLE, CABARET VOLTAIRE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE. But it was Gary Numan who took the sound of British synth to No1 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘Cars’ in 1979. It signalled a change in the musical landscape as the synth was considered a worthy mode of youthful expression rather than as a novelty, using one finger instead of three chords.

Despite first albums from John Foxx and OMD, 1980 was a transitional time when the synth was still the exception rather than the rule. But things were changing and there had also been the release of the first Midge Ure-fronted ULTRAVOX album ‘Vienna’ and the eponymous debut long player by VISAGE just as The Blitz Club and the New Romantic movement were making headlines. With the acclaim for the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ in early 1981 which launched the careers of DEPECHE MODE, SOFT CELL, BLANCMANGE, THE THE and B-MOVIE, a wider electronic breakthrough was now almost inevitable.

VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ went on to be a West German No1 in Spring 1981 and this exciting period culminated in THE HUMAN LEAGUE taking ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ to the top spot in the US six months year after becoming the 1981 UK Christmas No1. It would be fair to say that after this, the purer sound of synth was never quite the same again.

For many listeners, 1981 was a formative year and had so many significant new releases that it was difficult to stretch the limited pocket money to fund album purchases. ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK even took to selling bootleg C90 cassettes on the school playground, promising a value-for-money “two albums for one” deal to support this disgusting habit!

Looking back to four decades ago when there were also albums from DEVO, EURYTHMICS, FAD GADGET, LOGIC SYSTEM, SPANDAU BALLET, SPARKS and TANGERINE DREAM, here are twenty albums which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK sees as contributing to the electronic legacy of 1981. Listed in alphabetical order with the restriction of one album per artist moniker, this is the way it was in the past, a long long time ago…


DAF Alles Ist Gut

Under a haze of “sex, drugs and sequencer”, the late Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl released an acclaimed album trilogy produced by Conny Plank. The first ‘Alles Ist Gut’ featured their fierce breakthrough track ‘Der Mussolini’ which flirted with right wing imagery in its sardonic reflections on ideology. Causing controversy and confusing observers, DAF attracted a following which Delgado hated. Despite his parents escaping from the Franco regime in Spain, he was always unapologetic about the provocation within his lyrics.

‘Alles Ist Gut’ is still available via Grönland Records

http://www.robert-goerl.de/


DEPECHE MODE Speak & Spell

Having conceived the idea of a teenage synthpop group called SILICON TEENS, this dream of Daniel Miller became flesh and blood when he came across a young quartet from Basildon called DEPECHE MODE. Signing on a handshake 50/50 deal to his Mute Records, the group became a chart success. Despite other great songs like ‘Puppets’ and ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’, the group fragmented on the release of their 1981 debut album ‘Speak & Spell’. The remaining trio of Andy Fletcher, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore recruited Alan Wilder, while Vince Clarke formed YAZOO with Alison Moyet.

‘Speak & Spell’ is still available via Mute Records

http://www.depechemode.com/


DRAMATIS For Future Reference

Following the ‘retirement’ of Gary Numan with his spectacular farewell shows at Wembley Arena in April 1981, four of his erstwhile backing band became DRAMATIS. RRussell Bell, Denis Haines, Chris Payne and Ced Sharpley had been instrumental in the success of Numan’s powerful live presentation and their only album showcased the band’s virtuoso abilities. While the use of four different lead vocalists (including Numan himself on the superb ‘Love Needs No Disguise’) confused the continuity of the album, musically, there was much to enjoy.

Originally released by Rocket Records, currently unavailable

http://www.numanme.co.uk/numanme/Dramatis.htm


DURAN DURAN Duran Duran

It would be fair to say that the classic line-up of Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor took the arty poise of JAPAN and toned down their androgynous outré to make it more accessible But the enduring appeal of DURAN DURAN is great timeless pop songs and that was apparent on the self-titled debut album which at times sounded like an electronic band with a heavy metal guitarist bolted on, especially on ‘Careless Memories’ and ‘Friends Of Mine’. But most will just remember the two hits ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Girls on Film’.

‘Duran Duran’ is still available via EMI Records

http://www.duranduran.com/


JOHN FOXX The Garden

Thawing considerably following the release of the acclaimed ‘Metamatic’, John Foxx admitted he had been “reading too much JG Ballard”. Exploring beautiful Italian gardens and taking on a more foppish appearance, his new mood was reflected in his music. ‘The Garden’ album featured acoustic guitar and piano as showcased in the Linn Drum driven single ‘Europe After The Rain’. With choral experiments like ‘Pater Noster’, a return to art rock on ‘Walk Away’ and the more pastoral climes of the lengthy title track, Foxx had now achieved his system of romance.

‘The Garden’ is still available via Edsel Records

http://www.metamatic.com/


HEAVEN 17 Penthouse & Pavement

Fronted by the cool persona of vocalist Glenn Gregory, HEAVEN 17’s debut ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ was a landmark achievement, combining electronics with pop hooks and disco sounds while adding witty social and political commentary, taking in yuppie aspiration and mutually assured destruction. The first ‘Pavement’ side was a showcase of hybrid funk driven embellished by the guitar and bass of John Wilson. The second ‘Penthouse’ side was like an extension of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Travelogue’, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh’s swansong with the band.

‘Penthouse & Pavement’ is still available via Virgin Records

http://www.heaven17.com/


THE HUMAN LEAGUE Dare

After Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form HEAVEN 17, vocalist Philip Oakey and Adrian Wright recruited Susanne Sulley, Joanne Catherall, Jo Callis and Ian Burden to record ‘Dare’ under the production helm of Martin Rushent. Like KRAFTWERK meeting ABBA, the dreamboat collection of worldwide hits like ‘Love Action’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ had a marvellous supporting cast in ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘I Am The Law’, ‘Seconds’ and ‘Darkness’. Only the Linn Drum rework of ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ blotted the album’s near perfection.

‘Dare’ is still available via Virgin Records

http://www.thehumanleague.co.uk/


JAPAN Tin Drum

JAPAN took the influences of the Far East even further with the Chinese flavoured ‘Tin Drum’. A much more minimal album than its predecessor ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, there was hardly any guitar while the synths used were restricted to an Oberheim OBX, Prophet 5 and occasionally the Roland System 700. David Sylvian’s lyrical themes of ‘Tin Drum’ flirted with Chinese Communism as Brian Eno had done on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), a point highlighted by the pentatonic polyrhythmic single ‘Visions Of China’ and its less frantic sister song ‘Cantonese Boy’.

‘Tin Drum’ is still available via Virgin Records

http://www.nightporter.co.uk/


JEAN-MICHEL JARRE Magnetic Fields

With his synthesized symphonies, Jean-Michel Jarre helped popularise the sound of electronic music. ‘Magnetic Fields’ was his first long player to utilise the Fairlight CMI which allowed him to absorb some musique concrete ideas such as water splashing and hydraulic train doors into his compositions. Featuring the klanky Korg Rhythm KR55, it was a much more percussive album than ‘Oxygène’ and ‘Equinoxe’ had been, complementing the metallic textures that featured. However, ‘The Last Rumba’ confused some who considered the home organ closer incongruous.

‘Magnetic Fields’ is still available via Sony Music

http://jeanmicheljarre.com/


JON & VANGELIS The Friends Of Mr Cairo

Having scored an unexpected UK hit with the sonic beauty of ‘I Hear You Now’, Jon Anderson and Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou presented a second album in ‘The Friends Of Mr Cairo’. Featuring ‘State Of Independence’ which was to become a hit for Donna Summer, the album was laced with spiritual overtones over symphonic synths, cinematic piano and dialogue samples from films. However, the album is now best known for the single ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ which had not been included on the original tracklisting.

‘The Friends Of Mr Cairo’ is still available via Polydor Records

https://www.jonanderson.com/

https://www.facebook.com/VangelisOfficial/


KRAFTWERK Computer World

‘Computer World’ could be considered one of the most prophetic albums of its time. KRAFTWERK forsaw the cultural impact of internet dating on ‘Computer Love’, but the title track highlighted the more sinister implications of surveillance by “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard” with the consequences of its prophecy still very relevant discussion points today. But the dynamic rhythmic template of ‘Numbers’ was to have a major impact on Urban America as it was mutated into hip-hop, rap and techno.

‘Computer World’ is still available via EMI Records

http://www.kraftwerk.com/


LANDSCAPE From The Tea Rooms Of Mars To The Hell-holes Of Uranus

Jazz fusion combo LANDSCAPE were led by producer Richard James Burgess who co-designed the Simmons SDSV with Dave Simmons as the first standalone electronic drum kit, with circuitry based on the ARP 2600. Using a Lyricon, the first wind-controlled synth played by John Waters as its lead hook, ‘Einstein A-Go-Go’ was a fabulously cartoon-like tune about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of theocratic dictators and religious extremists! Meanwhile, ‘European Man’ predated EDM by having the phrase “electronic dance music” emblazoned on its single sleeve.

‘From The Tea Rooms Of Mars To The Hell-holes Of Uranus’ is still available via Cherry Red Records

https://twitter.com/Landscape_band


NEW ORDER Movement

Rising from the ashes of JOY DIVISION and reconvening in late 1980, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris chose the name NEW ORDER as a symbol of their fresh start and after deciding against recruiting a new vocalist, Morris’ girlfriend and later wife, Gillian Gilbert was recruited. Despite Martin Hannett still producing, recording sessions were fraught although synths were taking greater prominence while Morris used a Doctor Rhythm DR55 drum machine on ‘Truth’ and ‘Doubts Even Here’. ‘Movement’ may not have been a great debut album, but it was an important one.

‘Movement’ is still available via Rhino

http://www.neworder.com/


GARY NUMAN Dance

Following his much-publicised retirement from live performance, the last thing Numanoids expected from their hero was an understated Brian Eno homage. At nearly an hour’s playing time, ‘Dance’ outstayed its welcome and despite the title, these were mostly downtempo pieces with ‘Slowcar To China’ and ‘Cry The Clock Said’ stretching to 10 minutes. Much was made of JAPAN’s Mick Karn playing fretless bass although he was only on five of the eleven tracks. It was the wrong album at the wrong time but in ‘A Subway Called You’ and ‘Crash’, there were some great moments.

‘Dance’ is still available via Beggars Banquet Records

https://garynuman.com/


OMD Architecture & Morality

”I think ‘Architecture & Morality’ was a complete album, it was just so whole” said Paul Humphreys in 2010. The big booming ambience of the album next to big blocks of Mellotron choir gave OMD their masterpiece, tinged more with the spectre of LA DÜSSELDORF rather than KRAFTWERK. Featuring two spirited songs about ‘Joan Of Arc’, these were to become another pair of UK Top 5 hits with the ‘Maid of Orleans’ variant also becoming 1982’s biggest selling single in West Germany.

‘Architecture & Morality’ is still available via Virgin Records

http://www.omd.uk.com/


SIMPLE MINDS Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call

A generally overlooked ‘double’ opus, ‘Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call’ exploited the KRAFTWERK, NEU! and LA DÜSSELDORF influences of SIMPLE MINDS to the full, under the production auspices of Steve Hillage. From the singles ‘The American’ and ‘Love Song’ to the mighty instrumental ‘Theme For Great Cities’ and the unsettling dentist drill menace of ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall’, with basslines articulating alongside synths and guitars layered in effects that when harmonised together were almost as one, this was SIMPLE MINDS at close to their very best.

‘Sons & Fascination / Sister Feelings Call’ is still available via Virgin Records

https://www.simpleminds.com/


SOFT CELL Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret

In their cover of Northern Soul favourite ‘Tainted Love’, SOFT CELL provided the first true Synth Britannia crossover record. Possibly one of the best albums of 1981, ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ captured the edginess of minimal synth arrangements while married to an actual tune. At the time, art school boys Marc Almond and Dave Ball were rated higher than DEPECHE MODE. But with the  follow-up success of the Top5 singles ‘Bedsitter’ and ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’, the pair became reluctant popstars, chased around by both teenagers and paparazzi.

‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ is still available via Mercury Records

https://www.softcell.co.uk/


TELEX‎ Sex

‘Sex’ was Belgian trio TELEX’s third album and a collaboration with SPARKS that saw the Mael brothers contribute lyrics to all nine tracks. Experiments in swing on ‘Sigmund Freud’s Party’ displayed a sophisticated vintage musicality and ‘Haven’t We Met Somewhere Before?’ was the hit single that never was. Meanwhile, like KRAFTWERK meeting YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, ‘Brainwash’ was quite obviously the blueprint for LCD SOUNDSYSTEM’s ‘Get Innocuous!’. However, the tracklisting was considerably revamped for the UK release in 1982 as ‘Birds & Bees’.

‘Sex’ was released by Ariola, currently unavailable

https://www.facebook.com/TELEX-312492439327342


ULTRAVOX Rage In Eden

‘Rage in Eden’ began with the optimistic spark of ‘The Voice’ but it was something of a paranoia ridden affair having been created from the bottom up at Conny Plank’s remote countryside studio near Cologne. There was synthetic bass power on tracks like ‘The Thin Wall’, ‘We Stand Alone’ and ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’, but there was also the tape experimentation of the title track which used the chorus of ‘I Remember’ played backwards to give an eerie Arabic toned “noonretfa eht ni htaed… rebmemer i ho” vocal effect.

‘Rage In Eden’ is still available via EMI Records

http://www.ultravox.org.uk/


YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA BGM

‘BGM’, the third full length album from YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA was the first recording to feature the now iconic Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer and was also made using a digital 3M 32-track machine. Following the technopop of the self-titled debut and ‘Solid State Survivor’ albums, ‘BGM’ included reworked pieces such as ‘Loom’ and ‘1000 Knives’. The best song ‘Camouflage’ was a curious beat laden blend of Eastern pentatonics and Western metallics from which the German synth band CAMOUFLAGE took their name.

‘BGM’ is still available via Sony Music

http://www.ymo.org/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
9th January 2021

New Europeans: The Legacy of ULTRAVOX

Photo by Brian Griffin

What do John Foxx, Midge Ure, Tony Fennell and Sam Blue all have in common? They have all, at some point, been the lead singer of ULTRAVOX.

While Fennell and Blue are now largely forgotten, having only recorded one album each in ‘Revelation’ and ‘Ingenuity’ respectively, there are endless debates about whether the John Foxx or Midge Ure fronted ULTRAVOX is the valid and definitive one.

Like with the Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins led versions of GENESIS, both have their own sound and different audiences, while there are some who even like both. But whatever, the four piece ULTRAVOX comprising of Warren Cann, Chris Cross, Billy Currie and Midge Ure was undoubtedly the most commercially successful, scoring thirteen Top 30 hit singles in the UK over a period of four and a half years, as well as five Top 10 albums including a greatest hits collection.

How John Foxx departed the ULTRAVOX fold and Midge Ure came to join at the encouragement of Rusty Egan, following the first VISAGE sessions at Genetic Studios that included Billy Currie, is now more than well documented. The new quartet soon embarked on a US club tour in 1979 to test the water with their new material.

The thread between the two line-ups was German producer and engineer Conny Plank; he had offered to finance an album himself, such was his faith in the band. When interest came from Chrysalis Records and an offer of two days free studio time to make demos, ULTRAVOX opted to use their opportunity to complete a fully recorded version of ‘Sleepwalk’. It saw the new line-up of the band beef up their Motorik inclinations with lots of “fun-fun-fun on the autobahn” and Chrysalis duly offered a deal to the quartet.

ULTRAVOX were despatched to RAK Studios in London to record an album which was to be given the title of ‘Torque Point’ before the band and label settled on ‘Vienna’. With Ure’s background in power pop with SLIK and THE RICH KIDS, dynamic catchy choruses were to become a new trademark to go with a greater use of synthesizers, while there was a conscious move to utilise more of Billy Currie’s classical music training via his piano, violin and viola playing.

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Released in Summer 1980, one of the key tracks on the ‘Vienna’ album was the robotic spy story of ‘Mr X’ which was voiced by Warren Cann and clearly influenced by KRAFTWERK. With its tight Compurhythm backbone, it was an idea that dated back to the John Foxx-era as its hook was very similar to his ‘Touch & Go’ on ‘Metamatic’ released in early 1980. But ‘Touch & Go’ had been premiered live by ULTRAVOX before Foxx departed.

Another standout was the lengthy instrumental ‘Astradyne’, a glorious statement of intent that was the perfect opener. Under the spell of German acts like LA DÜSSELDORF and RIECHMANN with a fantastic interplay between the band and a final celebratory section coming from an unexpected lift.

Billy Currie told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK in 2012 that “Midge came up with that final section lift taking it out of the long ARP solo. I double it! It is a very good strong keyboard part. I used to say at the time: ‘Only a guitarist could come up with that!’, I meant that as a good thing!”

There were more guitar driven songs too with Ure adopting the chunky flanged sound that had been showcased by his predecessor Robin Simon which blended well with the Minimoog, ARP Odyssey, Oberheim OBX and Yamaha SS30 that were in the ULTRAVOX keyboard armoury. ‘Passing Strangers’ was the hit single that never was while ‘New Europeans’ featured a lyric written by Warren Cann which hit the zeitgeist with a narrative about a young man whose “modern world revolves around the synthesizer’s song”.

Meanwhile ‘All Stood Still’ was verging on heavy metal in the vein of THIN LIZZY, perhaps unsurprising given Ure’s time as a stand-in-guitarist for Phil Lynott’s combo when Gary Moore went AWOL before their US tour with JOURNEY; it was this link that led to THIN LIZZY’s managers Chris O’Donnell and Chris Morrison looking after the business interests of ULTRAVOX. Complete with thundering Moog bass, powerhouse drums and Jimi Hendrix impressions using an ARP Odyssey, ‘All Stood Still’ rocked so much that many listeners were unaware it was a tune about a nuclear holocaust…

Sandwiched between ‘New Europeans’ and ‘Passing Strangers’, ‘Private Lives’ was like a less frantic amalgam of the two but if the ‘Vienna’ album had an under rated track, then it was ‘Western Promise’. Relevant today in light of questions about the British Empire’s past role in colonisation, slavery and genocide, the mighty tune used the Far East as its location with a distorted Ure ranting “Oh mystical East, you’ve lost your way, your rising sun shall rise again. My Western world gives out her hand, a victor’s help to your fallen land” like some totalitarian dictator…

But the tune which the wider public remembered most was the title track. When Conny Plank heard the demo of ‘Vienna’, he imagined an old man at a piano in a desolate theatre who had been playing the same tune for forty years. And when Billy Currie came to record his ivory parts, that was exactly the feel which Plank had engineered for the now iconic track. As for the Roland CR78 Compurythm intro, Warren Cann told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK that it was perhaps his proudest moment when he presented his idea to the rest of the band and went “How about this?”.

With the ‘Vienna’ reaching No2 as a single and No3 as an album in the UK charts, ULTRAVOX were getting the success they deserved. But for the follow-up ‘Rage In Eden’, they adopted a completely different approach. Whereas lyrically, a fair portion of the lyrics had been written by Cann, this now shifted primarily to Ure.

Photo by Brian Griffin

Although the ‘Vienna’ album had been written and played live before recording, the band decided to decamp to Conny Plank’s residential countryside studio with no material pre-prepared. Living in each other’s pockets for three months, the sessions were tense and that impression came across in the music.

Released in Autumn 1981, ‘Rage In Eden’ began with the optimistic spark of ‘The Voice’ and possessed the Motorik thrust of NEU! while maintaining some marvellous symphonic pomp. Creative tensions that had now emerged between Ure and Cross on one side, and Currie on the other who responded with his magnificent middle eight ARP Odyssey solo and a very proud ivory run.

But aside from that, ‘Rage In Eden’ was a paranoia ridden affair. However, many of its tracks were mighty. Chris Cross’ trademark triggered Minimoog bass synth came to the fore on tracks like ‘We Stand Alone’ and ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ with Billy Currie working more with the Oberheim OBX for his soloing, although neither was a particularly cheerful affair. In between, there was the tape experimentation of the title track which used the chorus of ‘I Remember’ played backwards to give an eerie Arabic toned “noonretfa eht ni htaed… rebmemer i ho” vocal effect.

Also making a prominent appearance was the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, a machine that used digital samples for its sounds which Warren Cann acquired, fascinated with furthering the possibilities of programmed percussion that had been opened up. Speaking to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK in 2010, he surmised that “Drum machines lent a new dimension to music on two fronts; one, the hypnotic element given by perfect unwavering tempo, and two, the ability to endlessly layer, edit, and re-edit rhythm tracks.”

‘The Thin Wall’ dramatically merged synthesizers, guitar, piano, violin and Linn Drum for a formidable yet under rated hit single, but then the album entered a dense phase of indulgence with the deeply rhythmic but overlong ‘Stranger Within’ and the meandering ‘Ascent On Youth’. The melancholic interlude ‘The Ascent’ provided some relief despite its intensity before the haunting conclusion with the sparse mental breakdown of ‘Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again)’.

Not as accessible as ‘Vienna’, only two singles were lifted from ‘Rage In Eden’ whereas its predecessor had four; ‘Rage In Eden’ was ambitious and loosely conceptual but it may have been too much for some, including the band.

So for 1982’s ‘Quartet’ album, ULTRAVOX worked with George Martin, most notable for his work with THE BEATLES. The sound was brighter, more structured and stripped of the density that had characterised the albums with Conny Plank, perhaps coinciding with the use of more digital hardware like the PPG Wave 2.2 and Emulator.

The catchy ‘Reap The Wild Wind’ opened proceedings with an immediacy that was less angular and experimental that anything on ‘Vienna’ or ‘Rage In Eden’ although this poppier approach may have alienated any John Foxx-era fans that had stuck it out into the Ure-era.

However, the quasi-religious pomp of ‘Hymn’ had the anthemic thrust of the previous two albums and in ‘Visions in Blue’, ‘Quartet’ had its own ‘Vienna’ but aside from those, ‘Mine For Life’ and ‘Serenade’, overall it was something of a disappointment. While the mighty motorik attack of ‘The Song (We Go)’ offered some percussive edge, the middle second side trio of ‘When The Scream Subsides’, ‘We Came To Dance’ and ‘Cut & Run’ proved lacking in the delivery of their verses despite strong choruses.

Photo by Pete Wood

‘Quartet’ had been a big budget effort with recording in George Martin’s Air Studios in London and Monserrat plus a tour with a huge grey gothic stage set to support it, as documented in the ‘Monument’ concert film and soundtrack.

By this time, ULTRAVOX took out a huge amount of equipment live which caused many logistical headaches. There were nearly thirty keyboards and electronic gadgets on stage including ARP Odysseys, Minimoogs, PPGs, Emulators, Oberheims and assorted Yamaha keyboards including the CP70 electric grand piano which could take up to three hours to tune in soundcheck!

Then there was Warren Cann’s infamous percussion console ‘The Iron Lung’ which had the Simmons SDSIII, SDSV and SDSVII drum synthesizers, Roland TR77 and CR78 drum machines, a Linn LM-1, a LinnDrum and various effects processors like the Roland Space-Echo.

So things became more simplified by ULTRAVOX’s standards for the next album ‘Lament’ released in Spring 1984, with the recording sessions taking place in home studios and self-produced. Largely gone were Billy Currie’s trademark synth solos with the ARP Odyssey although its replacement, the OSCar made a fleeting appearance in that style on the closing song ‘A Friend I Call Desire’. Meanwhile Warren Cann had acquired the MIDI compatible Sequential Drumtraks and there were more obviously programmed rhythm tracks than on previous ULTRAVOX albums while the band seemed quite pleased with their new Yamaha DX7.

Photo by Paul Cox

But one new keyboard acquisition proved to be a major disappointment in Sequential’s giant Prophet T8. “I got it thinking it would be a competitor to the Yamaha CS80 but the action was always far too heavy” remembered Currie, “It was the only other synth that had a totally polyphonic touch-sensitive keyboard. It was about £4000… a bargain!”

The album contained many varying different styles as the band battled for a clear direction. ‘One Small Day’ was a decisively hands-in-the-air rockist statement in the vein of U2 and SIMPLE MINDS.

Meanwhile the brilliant ‘White China’ was a full fat sequencer number about the eventual 1997 handover of British ruled Hong Kong to Red China that developed on NEW ORDER’s ‘Blue Monday’.

Using Far Eastern ethnic influences with a nod towards JAPAN’s ‘Tin Drum’, the title song was an exquisite but obviously mournful ballad. But the album’s highlight was the magnificent ‘Man Of Two Worlds’, an electro Celtic melodrama featuring a haunting female Gaelic vocal from Mae McKenna with doomed romantic novel imagery capturing a feeling of solitude in an unusual mix of synths, programmed Motorik rhythms and manual funk syncopation.

Notably a re-configuring of ‘Sonnenrad’ by NEU! guitarist Michael Rother from his ‘Sterntaler’ album which Conny Plank had produced and given a copy to Billy Currie, ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ was yet another song about a nuclear holocaust. While it might have been a depressing subject to revive, there was the spectre of ‘Protect & Survive’ when Mutually Assured Destruction lingered in the minds of the population. Released as a single, ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ reached No3 in the UK singles charts, ULTRAVOX’s biggest hit since ‘Vienna’.

Photo by Paul Cox

ULTRAVOX had been a consistent singles band but after eleven successive Top30 hits, it seemed as good a time as any to release a greatest hits for the 1984 Christmas market.

At the time of release, ‘The Collection’ was novel. Not only did it feature all thirteen Midge Ure-fronted era singles to date, but in ‘Love’s Great Adventure’, it also included a brand new one too.

It was a perfect package that could be played from start to finish, from ‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes’ to ‘Lament’ via ‘The Thin Wall’, ‘Vienna’, ‘Sleepwalk’, ‘Reap The Wild Wind’ and ‘All Stood Still’.

After four albums in five years, it was time for Cann, Cross, Currie and Ure to take a break, but instead, the ULTRAVOX frontman took a busman’s holiday. There was Band Aid and then a solo career which yielded a UK No1 in 1985 with ‘If I Was’, a song Ure had co-written with Danny Mitchell from the band MESSENGERS who had played support and augmented the live  ULTRAVOX set-up on the previous two tours.

After an appearance at Live Aid, when ULTRAVOX reconvened in 1986 for the making of their next album, the quartet imploded with Warren Cann unceremoniously fired from the band due to musical differences. By now, Cann had more or less given up the notion of live drums while the other three favoured a back-to-basics approach with more live instrumentation.

Despite Conny Plank returning to produce, the resultant ‘U-Vox’ was poor. The title said it all, a band with something missing. The album saw ill-advised excursions into funk, brass and folk with the latter being a rather sombre collaboration with THE CHIEFTAINS about the threat of a nuclear holocaust called ‘All Fall Down’.

Meanwhile most of the other tracks on ‘U-Vox’ were uninspired pieces of rock, with the lame ‘Moon Madness’ being a particular low point. Despite this, there was a genuine highlight in ‘All In One Day’, a magnificent song about ‘Live Aid’ which featured an orchestral arrangement by George Martin. However, after an underwhelming arena tour, ULTRAVOX split. Midge Ure continued his solo career to varying degrees of success while Chris Cross left music to become a psychotherapist amd Warren Cann moved to Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Billy Currie made three attempts at reviving the ULTRAVOX name. However, the first one featuring Marcus O’Higgins as singer and a returning Robin Simon on guitar was blocked; when the recordings from these 1989 sessions were finally released as ‘Sinews Of The Soul’ under the name HUMANIA in 2006, the booklet notes saw Billy Currie launch into an almighty tirade against Midge Ure and Chris Morrison who had taken on the role of sole ULTRAVOX manager after Chris O’Donnell moved on. An interview that Currie gave to Beatmag that year was no less frank.

There was now a lot of bad feeling, so any possible future activity involving the four members of the classic ULTRAVOX line-up was now unlikely… or so it seemed. In 2003, Ure was playing a significant amount of ULTRAVOX material on his ‘Sampled Looped & Trigger Happy’ tour.

Then in 2009, the impossible happened and the classic line-up of ULTRAVOX reunited for the ‘Return To Eden’ tour following an offer from Live Nation, who their former manager Chris O’Donnell was now working for. The show went on two triumphant European stints and things went well enough for a new album to be recorded, with writing taking place at Midge Ure’s log cabin retreat near Montreal in Canada.

Co-produced by Stephen J Lipson, the ‘Brilliant’ album’s title song chorused a cautious optimism in a bittersweet comment on pop culture. Meanwhile as the album opener, ‘Live’ came as message of intent like ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ but without the imminent nuclear holocaust as its superb instrumental breakdown dropped to a magnificent pulsing sequence, piano and lone bass drum reminiscent of LA DÜSSELDORF.

One of the main talking points about the ‘Brilliant’ album was Ure’s voice which now possessed a fragility and honesty only could have come from battle-hardened life experience. But fans were polarised about his use of the Melodyne, an audio pitch modification tool not dissimilar to Auto-Tune.

In his defence, Midge Ure told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK in 2015 about how “it’s a tool and no different from any of the plug-ins that I use when I make music. It’s a bit like saying ‘why do you use reverb on your voice?’… well, it’s because it suits the song and makes it more interesting.”

The excellent ‘Satellite’ recalled former glories and even recycled the violin solo from the album version of ‘The Thin Wall’ while the percolating sequences and rhythmic snap of ‘Rise’ emulated Giorgio Moroder for a 21st Century update of ‘Western Promise’.

‘One’ and ‘Remembering’ captured the chromatic romanticism of Europe with its classical influences although the soaring stadium rock pandering of ‘Flow’ was not to everyone’s taste. However, this blip was countered by the whirring ARP Odyssey lines on ‘Change’ which featured some majestic widescreen inflections glossed with beautiful ivory runs bouncing off a shuffling percussive pattern.

Closing with the resignation of ‘Contact’, a sensitive statement about the emotional detachment caused by modern technology, ‘Brilliant’ was a better album than many expected and righted the wrongs of ‘U-Vox’. There was another successful European tour and it looked as though the old wounds between the four had healed. Then came a surprise run of dates opening for SIMPLE MINDS on the arena leg of their ‘Greatest Hits+’ UK tour at the end of 2013 but after that, it all went quiet.

Speaking to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, Midge Ure said that “We always said we were never getting back together to take over the world as a band and pretend we were a bunch of teenagers, we all have other things that we do. And we said that if and when something interesting pops up, we would get-together and do it”. But in 2017, Billy Currie made a statement on his website that his tenure with ULTRAVOX was over and even sold his beloved ARP Odyssey MkII on eBay!

Despite this, the legacy of this particular incarnation of ULTRAVOX lives on, with Ure going out on the road in 2019 with his solo band to play the ‘Vienna’ album in its entirety on ‘The ‘1980 Tour’ as a testament to its artistic longevity. And now there is a 40th Anniversary boxed set complete with a new 5.1 surround sound mix by Steven Wilson.

ULTRAVOX also brought the sound of the NEU! axis to a mainstream British audience and even re-exported back to Germany – in acknowledgement, Ure had the music of Michael Rother played before the shows of ‘The 1980 Tour’.

Meanwhile, there has also been a substantial and diverse ULTRAVOX legacy within modern popular culture. The Manchester pop duo HURTS effectively played on being TAKE THAT dressed as ULTRAVOX, especially with their single ‘Stay’ and its accompanying promo video. Meanwhile for their quintet reunion album ‘Progress’, TAKE THAT themselves interpolated ‘Vienna’ for a song called ‘Eight Letters’ which resulted in the rather unusual credit “written by Barlow / Donald / Orange / Owen / Williams / Ure / Cross / Cann / Currie”!

Photo by Chi Ming Lai

But the biggest ULTRAVOX legacy can be found in the stadiums of the world via the Teignmouth rock trio MUSE. It is not difficult to imagine Midge Ure singing ‘Starlight’ while ‘Vienna’ has been borrowed not once but twice, first on ‘Apocalypse Please’ where the middle eight bass synth section was more or less lifted note-for-note while the second time was more obviously with the drum intro to ‘Guiding Light’.

ULTRAVOX were indeed a jigsaw sequence, but no-one could see the end.


‘Vienna’ is released as a 5CD+DVD and 4LP clear vinyl boxed set by Chrysalis Records on 9th October 2020, pre-order from https://ultravox.tmstor.es/

http://www.ultravox.org.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/UltravoxUK

https://twitter.com/UltravoxUK

https://www.instagram.com/ultravoxuk/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
12th September 2020

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