If there’s a single band that encapsulates all that’s best about the music of the late 70s and early 80s, then that band must surely be Ultravox. With a dark, new wave undercurrent, superb arrangements and a willingness to step off the pop reservation, Ultravox effortlessly bridge the language gap between mainstream music and an alternative counter-culture.
There’s no doubt that they arrived on the scene with perfect timing, at the end of an era when unconventional and experimental tracks like Vienna and The Thin Wall still stood a chance of chart success. Seriously, does anyone believe singles like those would’ve gotten a look in five years later? I sincerely doubt it.
Like so many talented bands from that brief flowering of analogue alchemy, I wasn’t able to catch Ultravox in their Monument heyday, but I was thrilled to finally see Midge and the boys performing live at Sheffield’s O2 Academy during their highly regarded Return to Eden tour. This was doubly exciting for me as I’m already on record stating that Rage in Eden is my favourite album of all time.
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as Midge Ure strode onto that stage in a silver-sheen suit and proceeded to blast out some serious hard-core guitar chords. Within half a minute those chords had morphed into the opening riffs of New Europeans, one of the great unsung new wave classics. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it perfectly packages the zeitgeist of that struggle between the printing press and the microchip, played out against a backdrop of grey concrete and glaring new neon.
The gig that followed this blinding opener was a nonstop parade of new wave classics, reminding us all just how imaginative and prolific they’d been during that short burst in the early 80s. Although some hair was thinning here and some waistlines thickening there, Midge and the boys more than proved that they could still throw down with the best as they displayed a level of musicianship which, let’s be honest, was all too rare among some of their more readily marketable contemporaries.
With an unassuming stage set combined with sound and lighting to die for, Ultravox re-established their credentials as some of the more serious musicians from a decade that started deep, but quickly shallowed into an identikit ensemble of sickly synthetic pop confections. It’s ironic how those dark, brooding foundations of the Ultravox sound were once a drag on commercial success, yet now they’ve become the very feature attracting a fresh generation of admirers in this new millennium.
Whilst they may not have been the vaunted megastars of yesteryear, there’s no denying that Ultravox have outpaced, outlasted and out-created nearly all of their contemporaries. There are no humiliating twenty minute slots on some washed-up-by-the-sea revival tour for Midge and the boys, and their enduring appeal is proof positive that substance always outlasts style in the long run. I’ll wager there’s many a big-name from yesteryear who secretly wishes they could still headline in their own right, instead of hitching their one-hit wagon to a burgeoning and cynical nostalgia machine. A lesson for us all methinks.
Though the years may have changed them physically, Ultravox’s commitment to their sound, their performance and their audience remains as bright and youthful as those heady days of top ten success and Smash Hits centrefold splashes. Though they may never again write or perform as a cohesive unit, it’s clear that those New Europeans have more than a couple of ideas inside them still.