The reasons for choosing to puchase an album are many and varied, well that's bleeding obvious, yet it is interesting to reflect on why. Why that moment? Maybe it caught your eye in the rack, maybe you remember a half-mentioned anecdote which rendered the band suddenly fascinating? Delicatessen were of the latter proposition; in my student days much time was spent in Record Collector, a store in Broomhill, Sheffield which had rack upon rack of second hand CDS, a treasure trove of obscure delights. I chanced upon (amongst other things) this 'hustle into bed' - the only thing I knew about the band was that the singer was allergic to water or something equally bizarre. It also had a song named after a letter sent by Jack the ripper and a suitably seedy vibe from the moulded greens of the front cover artwork. Re-emerging from isolation amongst a pile of unloved singles (now off to the charity shop) it is a strange album, full of asthmatic gasping singers, gin-soaked violins and deep melancholia. Not one for a quiet Sunday afternoon unless there is a bloody knife on the butcher's block.
Ahhh Vienna... raincoats... ice machines working over time... strange moustaches.... pianos in huge rooms.... singers named after annoying biting insects.... my mum doing the hoovering to 'dancing with tears in my eyes... these are the things that pop into my head when I think of a band called Ultravox.
'Dead in the streets / who's that girl? / Ireland screams / Africa burns!'
Ultravox are chiefly remembered for the one song, the aforementioned 'Vienna', a slow pondering affair which fails to make much sense but seems to have struck a chord in the British public for laughing at the collapse of a rival empire. If there was any justice in the world they would be remembered for their work pre-Midge Ure, however there isn't so it languishes in obscurity and means that you can buy such evocatively titled albums as 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' for only about £6 in HMV.
'One day I'll just erase the tape, wave goodbye, and fade away / Get lost in the frost again'
Conceived in 1973 by John Foxx, Ultravox! like many bands went through various lineup changes which would be tedious to pursue here. Except to say that they emerged as one of the vanguard of new wave bands, a heady mix of punk, politics, glam, synths, apocolyptic visions, violin, and, of course, sex. They produced three albums of which Ha! Ha! Ha! was the second. Repeated lack of interest from the British public however, tension and unhappy record companies contributed to their demise. Foxx left the band, Midge Ure was invited to take his place, and... well Ultravox (minus exclamations) went on to become one of the most famous bands of the 80s. Foxx was either gutted or felt he had a lucky escape from all the dry ice and raincoats...
'This whirlpool's got such seductive furniture / It's so pleasant getting drowned'
This is the sound of someone laughing as the world collapses around them. It is the glee of someone revelling in the chaos they see all around them, seeing the desperate people trying to be normal but only in denial of their own hideousness. 'Rockwrok' sets the agenda. Its filthy and its rock! Despite its ponderous beginning, 'The Frozen ones' continues the breckneck pace, brilliantly sending up the modern condition of apathy - all well and good but what happens when you want someone to care? Foxx's voice has the right edge of detachment although at times you sense he is close to revealing a feeling, maybe under duress.
'Your picture of yourself is a media myth / Underneath this floor we're on the edge of a cliff'
Civilisation topples, the world is not what it seems... oh hang on we've heard all this before, ha ha ha! Despite the cliched doom-mongering 'Fear in the Western world' is a delight, all grating, shrieking guitars, discordant violins and portent sentences, still only too apt over twenty years later. I would listen to this as the Titantic sinks. Whilst 'A distant smile' is deceptive, opening with an oh so haunting piano riff, seguing into super charged guitar workout and descending into a confused mess of found sounds.
'Our secret destination / touch down in the haze / As the cameraman pans away'
'The man who dies everyday' seems to be a good title for a Bond film, conceiving of the world as stage set populated by the strange and the freakish dressed up as the norm, like the protagonists of the 'Artifical life' , which also contains my personal favourite of all lyrics thus:
'She turned to perfection once / But realised she'd only turned to pain'
If only we could have that pinned up above all school halls we would save a lot of bother.... Our narrator though is under no illusions, he knows that this time is the only time he has so lets make the best of it! While he's still alive! We won't ask what prompts the fatalistic conviction, its probably better not to know.
'A shock in the dark can be good for your heart, oh yeah'
Perhaps, but so can a soothing end to an album and after all the jittery pokery, 'Hiroshima mon amour' is captivating (much attention is focused on this song for apparantly spawning the New Romantic movement), pervaded by sadness for what is lost - 'Future's fused like shattered glass / the sun's so low / Turns our silhouettes to gold' - not least the mournful saxophone solo (harnessing the gentler tones of the much maligned instrument). And so it fades away like so many memories.