Cameron Carpenter: The ABC’S Of Rock – U

O Y this week I have an I on U.

Ultravox! (Not to be confused with Ultravox. Well maybe a little)

I feel sorry for those who never got the chance to discover a band on the strength of their album cover alone. You would walk in to a record shop, grab the new releases you came for, spend a good 20 minutes thumbing through the delete bins (for your 99 cent specials) and then graze the racks for something that caught your eye, The graphic was so big, and the information on the back was readable so you could usually get a decent indication of what the artist was all about.

Sometimes a producers name might catch your eye or you might recognize a musician from a previous band. There was a time that almost every label had its own identity and you trusted them. If it was on Stiff  you knew it was worth a fuck, Ensign was always a good sign, Island usually a good bet, Def Jam for beats`n`rhymes, Bomp! was always a sure thing, and so on and so on.

Sometime in 1977 I was probably browsing at Record On Wheels on Yonge Street or the Record Peddler on Queen Street East when the debut album from Ultravox! jumped out at me. Who were these dudes in leather, PVC, pointy boots and a little dash of make-up? Flip the jacket over and see the production credit by Roxy Music’s Brian Eno (and some dude by the name of Steve Lillywhite) and the money is in the till. Still have the original vinyl by the way.

Crack it open and look at the gatefold sleeve with mug shots and Polaroid’s of Steve Shears, Warren Cann, Billy Currie and Chris Cross with John Foxx in a ripped suit on the back surrounded by TV monitors. Cool.

From the opening drum beats of “Sat`day  Night In The City Of The Dead“ I knew this was going to be a bit different. Kinda punky and lots of attitude. “Life At Rainbow’s End (For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street)“ veered straight in to Roxy Music territory as vocalist John Foxx aped his best Bryan Ferry but hey, the production was cool and they were winning me over with their song titles. Next up on the influence list was David Bowie as the band and Foxx stripped it down for “I Want To Be A Machine“. Cold, calculated but major bonus points for the violin.  If you want to hear where early Duran Duran got their sound have a listen to “Dangerous Rhythm“.  The two outstanding tracks on the record are “The Wild, The Beautiful And The Da Dam Damm Damned“ and “My Sex“. They song nothing alike but showed a band that wasn’t afraid to take chances. “MySex“ was almost spoken word piece of dark prose over a beautiful piano line and electronic orchestration and finished with a triangle.

It was a very auspicious beginning but not the Ultravox that most people remember. This was the John Foxx Ultravox! They recorded one more record as Ultravox! 1978’s “Ha! Ha! Ha!” and then became Ultravox and recorded “Systems Of Romance” with influential and revolutionary German producer Conny Plank (check your Kraftwerk credits). It was on this album that the sound of the “popular” Ultravox was born as the band ventured off heavily in to electronics and what would become the sound of the new romantic scene. On “Hiroshima Mon Amour” they  used the Roland TR-77 drum machine and thus began a whole new era. Enter Rich Kids singer Midge Ure and the new…..


Things were not look great for the band. They had been dropped by Island Records after three albums that sold very little, John Foxx had left to record a solo album and Robert Simon (who had replaced Steve Shears after the band’s debut album) also quit the band.

Ultravox’s Billy Currie was helping out on the debut album by Steve Strange and Visage when he ran in to Midge Ure during the sessions. Believe it or not after Rich Kids Midge was playing in Thin Lizzy. The new four piece band (Midge could play guitar as well as keys) headed to Germany to record once again with Conny Plank. The result was “Vienna” one of the most important albums of the early eighties. From the edgy electronic “Sleepwalk” to the gorgeous title track this was a fine-tuned new Ultravox being led by a fearless new leader. A timeless record. Which leads me to a story about…

Midge Ure

In 1989 we planned a promo trip for Midge who was promoting his second solo album, “Answers To Nothing”. At this point Midge had left Ultravox unlike when he released his first solo record “The Gift”. I received a call from Phil Patterson at Chrysalis a couple of days before Midge arrived and he asked if it would be possible for us to arrange a rental car that Midge could drive to Hamilton when he arrived as he wanted to visit a relative. It was January, it actually snowed that winter, and there was more snow on the way. I told Phil that there was no way I was going to let Midge drive in the snow on my watch and said I would meet him at the airport and we would get him to Hamilton. I loaded the limo with a few liquid supplies “a wee dram of Jack” and met Midge at Pearson. He wanted to pay a surprise visit to his elderly Aunt Margaret and had the address dutifully in his pocket. The weather was dreadful and he was very thankful that he didn’t have to drive and was equally happy with a bit of his favourite beverage to calm his nerves. We got to the apartment building and I asked Midge the terms. He said come to the door with him (he didn’t even know if she was home) and then give him two hours and come pick him up. He pressed the buzzer and a quivering voice said hello. “Margaret, it’s Jimmy” said Midge (his real name). “My Jimmie? “ a now excited voice asked. “Aye, but it’s wee Jimmie”. “Where are you?” she questioned. “I’m in your lobby aren’t I” he laughed. Up we went. I met Marg and then headed out in to the Hamilton night for dinner with our driver Peter. Two and a half hours later I returned to a full apartment of distant cousins, friend of Margaret’s and excited children getting their copies of Ultravox, Midge Ure and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” singles and CD’s signed. Although Bob Geldof was the face of the Christmas single Midge was the co-writer and very hands on in the studio when it came to the recording. A very happy Midge and I headed back to Toronto with a well fed Peter. A few days later that would be another limo story that involves Midge, The Pursuit Of Happiness, Michael Williams and Craig Halket from MuchMusic and Kneale Mann from CFNY but I will save that one for another time.

UFO – “Force It”

Yet again another album purchased for its cover. This one I know I bought at Records On Wheels as it was on import and Donnie Ierullo the store owner said I would love it. Well the cover certainly piqued my interest. A couple were groping in a shower and there was more visible breast than J Lo dared to offer at the Academy Awards last weekend. Also, it was very difficult to tell the sex of the two participants. Cue Penthouse Forum. I have since found out to my astonishment that the two were Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle.

With guitar hero Michael Schenker leading the way, with full support from Phil Mogg, Pete Way and Andy Parker this 1975 had a unique hard rock sound. “Let It Roll”, “Shoot Shoot” and “Mother Mary” are three of the stand out tracks. A fantastic album for anyone who likes their rock hard.

Flash forward about 15 years and a revamped UFO were playing Toronto’s “Rock’n’Roll Heaven”. I was with the band’s label and while having lunch with Phil Mogg I told him I never understood why the album was called “Force It” and the cover was full of faucets. With his English accent he said “Force It” five times fast and indeed it sounded it sounded like faucet. Love the British sense of humour.

There will be lots of visitors to Toronto this month as the convention season officially kicks off with CMW and there is not better place to hang than The Shanghai Cowgirl at 538 Queen Street West, right beside the world famous Bovine. If you see the boys from Gloryhound hanging around the counter send them over a plate of fries and a Jager.

Cam’s column appears every Wednesday

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Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener,  The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, The Daily XY and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.

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