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Ultravox (formerly Ultravox!) was one of the primary exponents of the British electronic pop music movement of the early 1980s. The band was particularly associated with the New Romantic movement, although it both pre- and post-dated New Romantic by several years, drawing inspiration variously from punk, the artier side of glam rock, and latterly straightforward synthpop.
The band was formed in 1973 on the initiative of vocalist, songwriter and keyboardist John Foxx (born Dennis Leigh). Originally known as Tiger Lily, the first lineup included Foxx plus Chris Cross (bass guitar), Billy Currie (keyboards/violins), Stevie Shears (guitar) and Warren Cann (percussion). The group released one single in 1974, a cover of "Ain't Misbehavin'", before changing their name to Ultravox!. (The exclamation point was a reference to krautrock band Neu!, produced by Conny Plank, who later produced some Ultravox albums.) On the strength of their live act, they signed to Island Records in 1976, releasing their eponymous debut album in February 1977.
In common with many other bands which would go on to form Britain's punk and New Wave movements, Ultravox! drew inspiration from the art-school side of glam rock, from bands such as Roxy Music and The New York Dolls, plus David Bowie and Brian Eno's early pop albums. Their eponymous debut album was co-produced by Eno (whose next job after these sessions was working with Bowie on his Low album) and Steve Lillywhite. Sales were disappointing, and neither the album nor the associated single "Dangerous Rhythm" managed to enter the UK charts.
Ultravox returned later in 1977 with the punkier Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, although sales of both the album and its lead single "ROckwrok" - which, despite a chorus featuring the lines "Come on, let's tangle in the dark / fuck like a dog, bite like a shark", was played on BBC Radio 1 - were still unimpressive, again failing to chart. Stevie Shears left the band to form the new band Faith Global. Although Ha!-Ha!-Ha! was dominated by guitars and electric violin, the final track, "Hiroshima Mon Amour", was a prototypical synthpop song. It remains a critical and fan favourite of the group's early incarnation, and was performed by the group on the Old Grey Whistle Test. During 1978 the group quietly dropped the exclamation mark, becoming simply Ultravox.
Their third album, 1978's Systems of Romance, was recorded under the ear of Conny Plank at his studio in rural Germany and featured new guitarist Robin Simon. It also failed commercially and Island dropped the band. John Foxx left to pursue a solo career whilst Robin Simon left to join the band Magazine. Musically, the album was similar to Ultravox's subsequent work, bringing synthesisers to the forefront of the group's sound. Island released a compilation of highlights from the group's first three albums in 1979, Three Into One, which was until the mid-1990s the most widespread of Ultravox's early releases.
Midge Ure, an already accomplished musician, asked to join the band. He had achieved minor success with semi-glam outfit Slik and Glen Matlock's more punk-inspired The Rich Kids, although in 1979 he was temporarily playing with hard rock band Thin Lizzy. Midge Ure and Billy Currie had met in the Visage project, a band fronted by Steve Strange. Midge therefore replaced John Foxx for their next album, which would become their most successful to date; as with Systems of Romance, it was produced in Germany by Conny Plank.
Called Vienna, the album was released on Chrysalis Records, achieving a substantial hit with the title track (inspired by Carol Reed's The Third Man), which was accompanied with a distinctive video. It topped out at number two (Joe Dolce's "Shaddap You Face" infamously kept it from the top spot) on the UK Top 40 in 1981. The album reached number three, and was soon followed by Rage in Eden (1981), the band returning to Conny Plank's studio for what turned out to be a difficult recording session.
Ultravox teamed up with legendary producer George Martin for 1982's Quartet, which became their most successful album in the U.S.. Midge Ure co-wrote and helped produce the 1984 Band Aid single "Do They Know It's Christmas?". The group appeared at Live Aid.
1984's successful Lament (including the international hit "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes") was the last to feature the "classic" line-up. Warren Cann was asked to leave Ultravox at the beginning of sessions for their U-Vox LP in 1986. After that album's mediocre performance in the charts Ure decided to leave, prompting Cross to do the same. Billy Currie and Robin Simon reunited in 1989 as the short-lived Humania, performing live shows but never making a release until 2006, when Billy released a Humania-recorded album, Sinews of the Soul. Billy reformed Ultravox again in 1992 with Tony Fenelle to record Revelation, and later Sam Blue replaced Tony, lending his voice to their final release, Ingenuity (1996).