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Ultravox Biography

Home > Music > U > Ultravox > Biography

Birth Place: London, England
Years Active: 1973–1988, 1992–1996, 2008–present
Genres: New Wave, Synthpop, Post-punk, New Romantic

Ultravox is a British new wave band formed in 1974 by vocalist and songwriter Dennis Leigh, a then Royal College of Art student, and was originally known as Tiger Lily. An initial but incomplete lineup comprised Leigh plus Chris Allen on bass and Stevie Shears on guitar, with Warren Cann on drums and Billy Currie on violin joining in May and October 1974 respectively.

The group released one single in 1975, “Ain't Misbehavin',” which contained a cover of the Fats Waller song. Later, the band went through a series of name changes including The Zips, Fire of London, London Soundtrack, and The Damned, using this last name for a few weeks before discovering that another band had already taken it. On the strength of their live act, the band signed to Island Records in 1976. The group had still not finalised their band name, wanting to make a good and lasting choice. In July 1976, while working on the late stages of their debut album, the band conceived the name "Ultravox!" (the exclamation mark was a reference to krautrock band Neu!). At the same time, the singer chose John Foxx and the bassist chose Chris Cross to be their respective stage names. In February 1977, Island released their eponymous debut album, “Ultravox!.”

Like many other bands that formed Britain's punk and new wave movements, Ultravox! drew inspiration from the art-school side of glam rock. Musically, Ultravox were heavily influenced by Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, David Bowie and Kraftwerk.Their debut was co-produced by Steve Lillywhite, and Brian Eno. “Ultravox!” sales were disappointing, and neither the album nor the associated single “Dangerous Rhythm” managed to enter the U.K. charts. Relations within the band were on an occasionally tenuous footing during this time as Foxx declared that he intended to live without emotions, a sentiment he wrote into the debut album track “I Want to Be a Machine.”

Ultravox returned later in 1977 with the punkier “Ha!-Ha!-Ha!.” Sales of both the album and its lead single, “ROckWrok,” were poor, both failing to register on the U.K. charts. Although “Ha!-Ha!-Ha!” was dominated by guitars and electric violin, the final track, “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” was a prototypical synthpop song. One of the first tracks by a British band to feature a drum machine (a Roland TR-77 with preset patterns), the song signaled a new direction for Ultravox.

In early March 1978, Stevie Shears, whose style of guitar playing was considered a limiting factor, was dismissed from the band after they toured England and joined Cowboys International in 1980. He was replaced by Robert Simon (ex-member of Ian North's Neo), who during his first days with the band changed his performance-name to Robin Simon. At some point in 1978, the group also dropped the exclamation mark, becoming simply “Ultravox.”

Their third album, 1978's “Systems of Romance,” was recorded with producer Conny Plank (the producer of German electronic outfit Kraftwerk) and engineer Dave Hutchins at Plank's Studio in rural Germany. Musically, the album was markedly different from Ultravox's earlier work, bringing synthesizers to the forefront of the group's sound. Despite praise from some critics, the album was a commercial failure.

Island dropped the band after an attempt to market the album in the United States failed to generate sales. That appeared to be the final nail in their coffin, but Ultravox undertook a self-financed U.S. tour at the beginning of 1979. Splitting after their final gig, near San Francisco, Foxx declared his intention to go solo. Simon remained in the U.S. and briefly joined The Futants, an American punk band from New York. He later returned to England and teamed up with Howard Devoto to replace guitarist John McGeoch in the band Magazine. The remaining members made their way back to a Britain. Island dropped the three Ultravox albums from its catalog, and released a compilation of highlights from the group's first three albums in 1980, called “Three into One.”

By this time, Billy Currie had been recruited by the rising star Gary Numan in 1979 to do a presentation at the “Old Grey Whistle Test” show with his band Tubeway Army. Numan had been a fan of Ultravox and Currie was also asked to play on Numan's début solo album, “The Pleasure Principle,” and its subsequent tour. Warren Cann went to work for Zaine Griff, while Chris Cross did some shows with James Honeyman-Scott (of Pretenders) and Barrie Masters, (from Eddie and the Hot Rods). Cann also undertook some session drumming, most notably on The Buggles' number one single “Video Killed The Radio Star.”

With the band seemingly over, Ultravox was then revitalized by Midge Ure, who joined the band as vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist. He had already achieved minor success with semi-glam outfit Slik and Glen Matlock's The Rich Kids, and in 1979 he was temporarily playing with hard rock band Thin Lizzy. Ure and Billy Currie had met while collaborating on Visage, a studio-based band fronted by New Romantic icon and nightclub impresario Steve Strange. Encouraged by Visage drummer and mutual friend Rusty Egan, Currie asked Ure to join Ultravox. Ure filled both John Foxx's and Robin Simon's posts for Ultravox's next album, “Vienna,” which heralded a major change of direction and would become their most successful to date, far surpassing any of the previous Ultravox (or Foxx's) albums. As with Systems of Romance, it was produced in Germany by Conny Plank. Released on Chrysalis Records in June 1980, “Vienna” produced the band's first U.K. Top 40 hit with “Sleepwalk,” while the album itself peaked at #14. The band achieved a substantial hit with the single and the album's title track. Accompanied by a highly distinctive video, the single became Ultravox's biggest hit, peaking at #2 in early 1981. On the strength of the single, the album then re-entered the chart and reached #3 in early 1981.

This was soon followed by “Rage in Eden” in 1981, with the band returning to Conny Plank's studio for what turned out to be a difficult recording session. The album featured a long track in three parts on the second side and peaked at #4 in the U.K., while two singles from the album, “The Thin Wall” and “The Voice,” both reached the U.K. Top 20.

Ultravox teamed up with producer George Martin for 1982's “Quartet,” which peaked at #6 in the U.K. and contained four Top 20 hit singles. It was their most successful album in the U.S., peaking at #61. The band undertook a major world tour known as the Monument Tour, which was recorded and released as a live LP and video in 1983 which also reached the U.K. Top 10.

1984's “Lament” continued the band's run of Top 10 albums and produced three Top 40 hit singles, including the international hit “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes.” This album was the last to feature the "classic" lineup of the band. Toward the end of 1984, a greatest hits compilation spanning the band's 1980s output was released entitled “The Collection.” It was preceded by a new single, “Love's Great Adventure,” which saw the single eventually peak at #12 in the U.K. “The Collection” went triple platinum and reached #2 in the U.K., the band's highest peak.

Ultravox reconvened in 1986, but Warren Cann was dismissed from the band at the beginning of sessions for their “U-Vox” album. Cann immigrated to the U.S. and retired from music to become an actor. Big Country's Mark Brzezicki took his place. Although “U-Vox” continued their string of Top 10 albums in the U.K., the declining performance of its singles prompted both Ure and Cross to leave the band. In 1987 Ultravox decided not to continue, after the “U-Vox” tour early that year, and split up in 1988.

Ure subsequently concentrated on his solo career with varying levels of success, and Cross retired from music altogether and returned to his former career as a psychotherapist. Billy Currie and Robin Simon reunited in 1989 as the short-lived Humania, performing live shows but never making a release until 2006, when Currie released a Humania-recorded album, “Sinews of the Soul.”

Without any other original members, Currie reformed Ultravox again in 1992 with vocalist Tony Fenelle to record “Revelation,” and later Sam Blue replaced Fenelle in a new five-piece Ultravox line-up, lending his voice to their final release, 1994’s “Ingenuity.”

Warren Cann, Chris Cross, Billy Currie and Midge Ure reformed Ultravox again for a U.K. tour in April 2009. This would be the first time the classic line up of the band have performed together since Live Aid in 1985. The first new Ultravox album in 28 years by the classic Ultravox lineup of Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Warren Cann and Chris Cross, entitled “Brill!ant,” was released in 2012. “Brilliant” debuted at #21 on the U.K. Albums chart.