26 April 2007

Those Who Sneer Will Fade and Die

One summer day 20+ odd years ago, I bought Ultravox’s 1981 LP Rage in Eden at the Book Broker for $2. I was just barely cognizant of Ultravox because I had seen portions of their “Vienna” video on USA’s Night Flight, and the reason I remembered them at all was more because I thought their name was cool rather than “Vienna” making much of an impact on me. But when I glimpsed Rage in Eden’s elegant Peter Saville-designed sleeve* and I put it together that this was indeed that Ultravox, I knew I had to purchase it. So I did.


And best of all, I wasn’t disappointed after I pedaled home, fired up the stereo and put on the headphones. Rage in Eden showed that synthesizer-driven new wave music needn’t necessarily be synonymous with shitty bands and singing haircuts (e.g., A Flock of Seagulls, the Human League, Modern English). And even though I can understand why some people might find Midge Ure’s vocal stylings a tad bombastic and overblown, I really like the way he sings on this album. He belts it out like nobody’s business (“We Stand Alone,” “The Thin Wall”), but he can also dial it down a notch for more subtle shadings (e.g., “Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again),” the title tune). My favorite cut from Rage in Eden is easily “The Thin Wall,” a bouncy little number with vaguely sardonic lyrics (“They shuffle with a bovine grace and glide in syncopation”) and mountains of symphonic synthesizers.

So from that day on, I was heavily into Ultravox. About a year later, I got my first job (at Hardee’s (shut up)) and with my very first paycheck, I purchased brand-new copies of Vienna and Lament at the Disc Jockey in Eastland Mall. Vienna came out before Rage in Eden and was Ure’s first with the band, while 1984’s Lament would prove to be the “classic” line-ups final release, as drummer Warren Cann split after its release (the remaining three members – Ure, Chris Cross and Billy Currie – released an album called U-Vox in 1986 but I have never heard it).

Both Vienna and Lament are great records. The former features the epic “Vienna,” of course, as well as more straightforward, rocking numbers like “Passing Strangers” and “New Europeans,” plus stylistic holdovers from their previous incarnation as a more glam/Krautrock outfit with the spoken-word character study “Mr. X” and the sweeping, soaring, cinematic instrumental “Astradyne.”


Lament is a slightly different kettle of fish. The best songs are all frontloaded on Side 1, making Side 2 seem a little underserved, so I took the liberty of rearranging the album’s running order and dubbing a cassette version for myself. Purists will be aghast that I tampered with an artist’s original vision, but I really think my version flows better than the official sequence.

Original:
Side 1
"White China"
"One Small Day"
"Dancing with Tears in My Eyes"
"Lament"
Side 2
"Man of Two Worlds"
"Heart of the Country"
"When the Time Comes"
"A Friend I Call Desire"

DMBYSC Special Mix:
Side 1
"White China"
"Man of Two Worlds"
"Dancing with Tears in My Eyes"
"When the Time Comes"
Side 2
"One Small Day"
"Heart of the Country"
"A Friend I Call Desire"
"Lament"

Of course, the CD version of Lament features numerous extended remixes, two b-sides and two instrumental versions, but I didn't have those on vinyl. Feel free to dig out your own copies of Lament and listen to both running orders and let me know what you think.

*In a recent Q/Mojo special edition, Peter Saville rather unprofessionally mentioned that the work he did for Ultravox (and there was quite a bit of it) was phoned in, but I’ll be damned if they’re still not cool-looking album sleeves.

3 comments:

The Fan With No Name!!! said...

The Human League - shitty band or singing haircuts?

Vitamin J said...

Little of both... While I retain some nostalgic fondness for Human League singles like "Don't You Want Me" and "Keep Feeling Fascination" (hey, hey, hey, HEYYYY), the group, for better or worse, kind of epitomized all the stereotypical '80s synth-pop trappings.

Mark said...

Human League don't get the credit they deserve. "Dare" was a groundbreaking album that fused pop and electronica in ways that few were doing successfully at the time. While I like the synth pop hits on it (most notably "Don't You Want Me" and "Love Action"), what gave the album depth were more experimental songs such as "Darkness," "Seconds," "Things That Dreams Are Made Of" and "The Sound of the Crowd." There are subtle touches of electronic noise on some of the songs, even the poppier ones, that are pretty ahead of the times.

HL drifted in the pop doldrums after this but for one album and a few earlier singles, they were pretty great. And DYWM really helped put new wave into the light.

A great quartet of albums that came out at about the same time and really set the standard for synth pop very early would include "Dare," plus Yaz' "Upstairs at Eric's," OMD's "Architecture & Morality" and Ultravox's "Rage In Eden." HL and Yaz are a little more pop, OMD more experimental and Ultravox a little more rock but all are great.