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ULTRAVOX - THE STORY Pt 2

WARREN CANN INTERVIEWED BY JONAS WÅRSTAD


14 Oct 1977 - The second Ultravox! LP 'HA! HA! HA!'

'Ha! Ha! Ha!' marked our first real experimenting with fully electronic instruments via the incorporation of synthesizers and a drum machine.

Now that we had a recording contract and had access to modest amounts of money we, naturally, updated our equipment.  The instrument/equipment technology of the time was still very basic; guitars, amps, acoustic drums, basic electric pianos & organs.  Certainly no MIDI!  Mini-Moogs were a very rare and exotic beastie.  While our guitars, amps, & drums were pretty much standard stuff, there really wasn't much we desired that was readily available.  We certainly weren't about to go buy a Mellotron, although if we could have afforded it (and the support infrastructure to go along with it) we just might have been mad enough...

Chris had bought our very first synth, an EMS 'Synthi'.  It was a strange contraption contained in a briefcase with the 'keyboard' being a flat plate on the inside of the lid!  It was weird and wonderful but highly tempermental and very unstable.  It had to warm up for about an hour and, even then, would never hold it's tuning.  About all it was ever used for was sound effects which didn't require being in tune.

Bill invested in a more professional electric violin set-up to replace the old banger with a crude pick-up stuck under the bridge that he'd been using previously.  The Crumar electric piano we'd bought with the 'Ain't Misbehavin' money had long since died a death but I can't exactly remember what he replaced it with, it was some kind of electric piano that also had some 'string' (note the quotation marks) settings on it which we used quite a lot. The real jewel was a new ARP Odessy Mk. 1 synth; while pretty much useless for accompanyment, it ultimately proved to be an incredibly expressive source of solo sounds which we used on many songs to come.

We often were heavily criticised for using a synthesizer at gigs (perhaps as yet it wasn't so obvious on the recordings).  Considering our approach to using one, this totally baffled us.  How could anyone be so stick-in-the-mud? The ARP was capable of the wildest most outrageous sounds we'd ever heard... real 'pin-your-skull-against-the-back-wall' and 'blow-your-brain-cells-out- through-the-fresh-holes-in-your-eardrums' type of noises.  How could anyone think that was effete and arty?  So we'd just play louder to help them figure it out.

Late in the writing & recording of 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' I bought my first drum machine, a Roland TR-77.  This was approximately two feet wide by four inches high by a foot deep, covered in a walnut wood veneer (wow!), and sporting a control fascia covered in multiple sets of different coloured push-buttons for the rhythm presets.  A small chrome bar on it's top left corner served as the Start/Stop switch (it wasn't a 'mechanical' switch as such, it initiated Stop/Start after it sensed being earthed by being touched... tricky).  There was a horizontal fader for volume, one for tempo, and one for balance (introduced more percussion elements, ie, maraccas or hi-hats, thinning to just bass drum & snare).  At the rear of the unit, there was a power cord and a single output jack.  The front panel presets were labelled for such rhythms as; Waltz, Mambo, Rhumba, Cha-Cha, Bossa-Nova. It was designed to augment a pianist or organist in, say, a small restaurant or lounge; I'm sure a lot of ship's orchestras used them.  It was entirely unprogrammable.  Pretty damn basic but state-of-the-art in 1977!

What we loved about it was the mesmerizing effect of the absolutely constant 'perfect' rhythm/ tempo; it never faltered, it just continued to hypnotically pump out the rhythm.  It fascinated me.

I soon discovered that if I held in the preset buttons, two or three or more at a time (though I'd quickly run out of fingers), I could get multiple rhythms which were more usable than the straight individual presets.  By popping the buttons in and out like station surfing on an old car radio, and by constantly fiddling with the balance control to fade between kick+snare to percussion, I could get some interesting stuff going.   To mutate the sound, I ran the output through some guitar FX boxes like phase, flange, and distortion.  Of course, there were no separate outputs for bass drum/snare/hi- hats/etc., if you applied flange - you flanged everything whether you liked it or not. I plugged the whole thing into an old H & H transistor guitar amp we had that was 'spare' and kept it all at my left side as I sat at my drum kit.

The tempo control was impossibly touchy, a millimeter too much one way or the other and the tempo was w-a-y off it's desired speed.  Far too coarse.  And that bloody Start/Stop bar...!  You only had to accidentally graze it with the lightest of touches and it would stop in the middle of the song - and it happened a lot - I'd then have to carefully (and quickly!) time my touch so as to get it going again in time with the band.  If I got it wrong we'd all be in a total mess with the beat.

The very first song we recorded with it was 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'. We'd previously done a 'demo' of HMA in a rocker type of arrangement [this early version was released on the B-side of ROckwrok 14 Oct 1977] but it presented an ideal opportunity to try out the drum machine, so it was rearranged for the TR-77. We were in Phonogram studios and C.C. (his initials only coincidentally the same as Chris Cross'), a sax playing friend of Bill and Eddie Maelove, was invited down to blow over the track 'to see what would happen...' Normally, we never wanted anything on our records that we hadn't actually played ourselves but this time we were prepared to make an exception if it sounded good.  The backing track was played to C.C. a few times in the control room for him to listen to, then he went into the studio and did two takes.  We chose the first take.

The TR-77 was a doorway into a whole new world for us.  As we got more into it, it was also used on 'Quiet Man' and in our 'live' set for 'He's A Liquid', and 'Touch and Go'.

ROckwrok:  I don't recall much about the recording of this song but I can tell you that I 'borrowed' the drum beat from a rather unlikely source... it's the same rhythm as 'Let's Twist Again' by Chubby Checker!  Just goes to show how important context can be.

We were very excited to hear this played on the BBC, not only because it was one of our songs but because they apparently hadn't noticed the naughty lyric. It was very amusing to hear Aunty Beeb playing a song which screamed "F*** like a dog...' in the chorus.  Either there were subversive elements looking after us, or they were asleep - you decide.

Regarding the unusual spelling of 'ROckwrok'... it was spelled that way simply because that's how John Foxx wrote out the song information for the sleeve, he wanted it spelled in that particular fashion.  I can only presume he thought it looked better that way.

The Frozen Ones:  The ending 'fade' on this song reflected something we'd often do; when recording the 'backing track', after having repeated the chorus a few times, of a song we knew we'd 'fade out', we'd begin to just let rip until we were going crazy and not stop in the studio until either one of us made a colossal mistake or we got tired or fell about laughing.  Or all three. Sometimes the greatest bits of the song were unuseable because they'd occurred two minutes after the song had 'ended'.

Fear in the Western World:  The feedback section at the end of this song was almost an entity unto itself; we had about five minutes of it and came close to giving it a title and putting it on the albulm 'as is'.  Why didn't we?  As much fun and anarchic as that would've been, we realised that much of the public might not think so after a few listens (we thought it got BETTER with each listen) and, mainly, we thought it too self-indulgent of us to take up a whole song's space on an albulm with such an extreme piece; unlike the critics, whom we were only too happy to piss off, the people who bought our records paid for them out of their own pockets.  Still, it was always extended 'live' to the pain threshold and beyond!

Distant Smile:  The feedback provided a great segue into 'A Distant Smile', like tumbling through chaos into a lake of serenity.  We did some recording trickery on the piano to provide the ambient pad floating in the background. We loved experimenting with textures to provide interesting vantages to view the carnage from...

The Man Who Dies Every Day:  Bill's synth was being incorporated into the sound more and more, this is one of the songs that really pointed to where we wanted to go in the future (and we knew it).  The bass line is interesting in that it could so obviously be a synth bass line, it has all the hallmarks of one, yet it was still being played on bass guitar.

Artificial Life:   I always think of this song as being heavily synth-based although, oddly, it's not; besides the string/piano sounds and the manic violin at the end, it's mostly guitar.  But it is definitely catalysed by the synth.  The more we got into it, the more enthusiastic and excited by the possibilities we were.  It was like a cranked up electric guitar, only orders of magnitude more awesome and complex.  To us, the public still seemed to equate synthsizers with 'electronic' music, i.e. beeps and robot squawks... we thought music like this might begin to change that.

While I'm Still Alive:  While not without it's charms, this is probably the weakest song on the album and, to my mind, represented the last of where we'd been.  How apt that it's followed by "Hiroshima Mon Amour", which represented where we were going.

As far as our eliminating the exclamation mark is concerned, after "Ultravox!" and "Ha! Ha! Ha!" we'd had rather enough of exclamation marks.  Besides, while fun in the beginning, it was becoming more hassle to keep it than lose it, so we just dropped it.

Free single 'Modern Love (live)' with initial copies of 'HA! HA! HA!'

'Modern Love' was from the Rainbow Theatre gig.  While we liked it, we'd never have put it on an album so it was chosen to go on the free single.  'Quirks' was a song we'd written which was, as they say, short and sweet.  We were very fond of it.  After the 'Sat'Day Night' song's-too-short-&-awkward-to-place episode during the recording of "Ultravox!", we weren't particularly inclined to deliberately lengthen a song if it's duration had suggested itself naturally, so we left it alone... it was a natural for a B-side.

14 Oct 1977 - Third single 'ROckwrok/Hiroshima mon amour (early version)'

[The B-side is] a 'demo' of HMA in a rocker type of arrangement.

1 March 1978 - live EP 'Retro EP'

[The Man Who Dies Every Day & My Sex - live at the Huddersfield Poly] I can't recall anything specific about the recording of those two tracks, we did a lot of Polytechnic gigs and that was... one of them.

[The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned - live at The Rainbow, London] I covered this one in earlier comments.

[Young Savage - live at The Marquee, London] This is my all-time-favourite live recording of ours and perfectly captures the energy of those Marquee gigs.  It's a shame the whole EP wasn't from the Marquee.  There must be more of that stuff buried in Island's vaults somewhere, it should be released - warts and all!

late 1977/early 1978 - guitarist Steve Shears leavs Ultravox

By the time we'd mostly finished the touring for "Ha! Ha! Ha!" and began casting our thoughts towards the next album, we knew it was time for changes to be made.  While a loyal and dependable band-mate, Steve Shears' style of guitar playing had for some time become an increasingly limiting factor in how we arranged the songs and it appeared that the only solution was a parting of ways.

While younger than us and relatively inexperienced, Robin Simon was invited to join and the difference was invigorating.   He had an accomplished and fluid style which I think is immediately apparent on our first recorded work with him, "Systems of Romance."  As I recall, he had ten days to learn our songs and then immediately found himself in Holland with us doing a tour.  In at the deep end.

Interview Part 3


Copyright (c) 1998-01-01 Warren Cann and Jonas Wårstad.

Last update 1998-11-27. No portion of this interview may be published in any form.


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