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ULTRAVOX - THE STORY Pt 4

WARREN CANN INTERVIEWED BY JONAS WÅRSTAD


1 Jan 1979 - Ultravox dumped by Island

Upon the release of 'Systems of Romance' we commenced touring.  We'd made what we felt was definitely our best album and the response from audiences seemed to bear that out which was very reassuring.  We traveled all over the U.K. and Europe and played a lot of good shows.  Just as things began winding down from that series of tours and we began thinking about the next album, to our great surprise, Island Records choose that time to drop us.  I think it was New Year's Day '78/79.  They told us that was it - finis.  It seemed to make no sense.

I can't say I know why with any degree of exactitude or conviction, except that we certainly weren't pumping out chart topping hits.  Still, our actual sales seemed to be making progress and we felt we were just on the verge of success.  Perhaps they just decided they'd had enough of us and weren't prepared to put any more money and effort into it all.

While initially believing in the band, they'd never really known just what to do with us (we had to respect them for saying, "We don't quite know what you're doing, but we like it!").  Our initial 'promise' had deteriorated into a bad relationship with the music press who didn't know what to make of us either, especially as we'd didn't fit into their rabid obsession with 'Punk' (no matter that we did our fair share to define it in the first place).  The various labels they'd tagged us with stuck tenaciously until they came up with some new ones later on.

Our lack of proper management had certainly hampered our career... But we'd managed to get ourselves signed to a major record company and make three albums without having our own business manager!  Quite a feat.  In the early days we didn't have enough clout to get big-time management and, once we'd been signed, we were too paranoid and mistrustful of anyone to make the plunge.  It always seemed like we were far too busy with writing or recording or playing to seriously investigate getting a manager.  Plus, to be fair, most of the time we thought we knew better and could do it ourselves.  Depending on how you look at it, we were either incredibly ballsy and forward thinking or very stupid and misguided.  Both, I think.

For the longest time, many of our affairs were by default more or less 'managed' by the Director of Island Records, Richard Griffiths... spot the conflict of interest.

Feb 1979 - First US tour starts

While disappointed and bewildered at being dropped by our label just as we were beginning to break through in the U.K, we thought that perhaps it was the best thing for us.  To leave the label for a fresh start somewhere else might be just the sort of jog we needed to make it the next rung up the ladder. Ultimately, we decided that our next move should be to tour in America.  We were keen to go, we wanted to see how our music would be received and thought that if things went well it would help us in our quest for a new label.

Island Records had believed that we could achieve nothing in America and would never get on the radio, Chris Blackwell had given us tapes of American radio which was nothing but disco and explained why he thought we'd never get airplay there.  We didn't share his opinion that no one was interested and were determined to go, with label help or otherwise.

We connected with Miles Copeland and organised a 'Club Tour' of the U.S. at minimum expense.  "Squeeze' had just completed a tour there with no big-money help from the record company to provide tour support and this mold-breaking effort was our inspiration.  Bear in mind that in 1979 this completely flew against all conventional music biz rules and wisdom; to tour the States you absolutely needed to have lots of financial backing from your record company and positively must be promoting a new record.  It just wasn't possible otherwise.  We did it with neither.

In February, 1979 we flew over on the cheapest seats available from Laker Airlines (remember them?) with a bare-bones set of equipment paid for as 'excess baggage'.

We took no lighting or P.A. equipment, it would've been far too expensive to hire and transport around.  We elected to use whatever was available in the clubs we were to play in.  Besides my usual kit, I was still using the Roland TR-77 drum machine through some guitar pedals and an H&H 100 w. guitar amp. As for us, we drove ourselves (literally) from gig to gig in either a hired van or an estate car which is called a 'station wagon' in the U.S.

Our live set was:

... basically a selection comprised of material from the latest album, 'Systems of Romance', and a few songs from both 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' and 'Ultravox!' The new songs included were ones we'd been working on prior to the trip, 'Touch & Go', 'He's A Liquid', and 'Radio Beach' (strange, I can recall nothing about this song).

We started off on the east coast.  When playing in New York, I got out of the taxi in front of the 'Hurrahs' club and immediately stepped onto the white lines the police use to distinguish the position of a body at a crime scene. I could still discern what looked like traces of blood.  Thinking this might not be too unusual an occurrence in New York City, I didn't pay any more attention to it until I started seeing them all over the place.  I thought, "This place is more violent than I imagined!"  I found out later that it was the work of an artist who was painting them all over the city...

We occasionally had support acts who were determined by the management of the club.  At 'Hurrahs', an interesting guy who professed to be a great fan of the band supported us with his one-man show; he wore bandages and sunglasses like the 'Invisible Man', he was called 'Nash The Slash'.  There was one show in the mid-west where we 'shared' the bill with 'The Police' due to the Copeland connection.

Working our way from east to west, we ended up in San Francisco at the 'Old Waldorf' in March prior to travelling down to Los Angeles and Orange County where we would do our last shows before returning to the U.K.   They proved to be our last gigs in more ways than one.

The environment of 'the road' is infamous even to people who haven't experienced it, it's tough and extremely demanding on people's nerves.  Our relationship in the band with John Foxx had never been great and had been steadily unraveling for a long time but this tested it to the limit.  It was obvious to us that it wasn't a matter of 'if' something was going to give, but 'when'...

It all came to a head in San Francisco.  We got into a huge row after the show and that was it: we'd had our fill of each other and decided that when we got back to London, John was going his way and we would go ours.  As you can imagine, the atmosphere on the remainder of the tour was decidedly strained.

April 1979 - Midge Ure joins Ultravox

Upon our return things indeed looked grim; we'd been dropped by our label, needed a lead-singer, and had no money to speak of.  But we were determined to keep the band alive, we'd stick it out and prove ourselves.  Soon a fresh set- back developed... Robin Simon had chosen to stay over in New York for a little while and, during a call to find out when he was returning, he told me he'd decided to leave the band and remain in the U.S.  The attractions of New York were more appealing than his prospects with us in London.  I was shocked and did my best to convince him to stay but his mind was firmly made up.  With Robin out of the band, the odds had become stacked against us even more.

It became clear that the ideal solution for us was to find a lead guitarist who was also a singer.  This had the benefit of ensuring that the singer could relate to us on an additional level as an instrumentalist, something which we'd found lacking and uncomfortable before.  We were determined to avoid the lead-singer-from-another-planet syndrome.  Bill had been spending time with Rusty Egan ('Rich Kids') and, through Rusty, was introduced to Midge Ure. They were writing some songs together in what ultimately became 'Visage'. Rusty encouraged Bill to approach Midge about joining Ultravox, he thought it would be a great match.

Bill subsequently introduced Midge to Chris and myself.  Other than the usual musical issues, my main concern was that Midge might have no sense of humour and wasn't a fun guy.  He had to a) have a sense of humour, and b) like to drink, carouse, carry-on, etc.  This anxiety was quickly dispelled after an hour or two in a pub... as he's somewhat small of stature, I tested him with every 'short' joke I knew ("Do you buy furniture from 'Airfix'?") and he could have a laugh about it, plus he wasn't shy to get in his share of rounds and seemed like a straight enough chap at the time.

We had some rehearsals together and it quickly became evident that Rusty was right, he truly was an excellent guitarist (and outside of Ultravox, prior/during/since, I've played with some great people), something usually overlooked in assessments of him.  And he could sing, as opposed to shout- with-attitude.  With no reservations we resolved that we'd found the right person to complete the new line-up of the band and Midge was in.  We'd decided to go for it and all was more or less hunky-dory for quite awhile.

One of the most refreshing aspects of our new band was that we all accredited ourselves as writers, we were adamant there was to be no more arguing over who was or wasn't  responsible for what.  In this healthy and equitable climate, ideas passed far more freely from one to another, then on again to another, and so forth... we would all make suggestions towards each other's contributions, so much so, in fact, that the only possible financial arrangement regarding the writing was to split everything equally.  It was a very sensible arrangement but a rarity amongst bands.  It ensured that whatever else we might argue over in future days, it would never be over money.  It proved to be true for the life span of the group.

Summer 1979 - Ultravox goes solo for a while

In the interim period of trying to make our next move we had to support ourselves, this lead to an interesting series of temporary gigs.  Bill played with Gary Numan, Chris did some shows with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott (the 'Pretenders') and singer Barry Masters ('Eddie & the Hot Rods'), while Midge did U.S. & Japanese tours with 'Thin Lizzy' (filling in for guitarist Gary Moore), and I played with 'Zaine Griff'.

Zaine was a very talented singer and his band was great fun.  We did a few gigs to prepare for playing the Marquee Club, Aug.24th /'79, and the Reading Festival on Aug. 26th/'79.  It was through the Zaine Griff band that I met Hans Zimmer who was playing synths.  Hans and I hit it off and immediately became good friends, I ended up involved in one of his projects and thus soon found myself on 'Top of The Pops' playing drums to 'Video Killed The Radio Star' by 'The Buggles'.

At one point, we were in the curious position of all being in the charts in other bands!

Here's a story from my 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gig' memories from my time in Zaine's band...

We were in our dressing room at Reading and, just prior to us going onstage, Hans came rushing up to me... he was totally panicked and I asked him what was wrong.  He gasped, "The tape data isn't working! I can't get it to load!" Technology was primitive then - every time you turned your synths off all of the sounds and settings were instantly lost.  You needed to record the data onto a cassette tape and then have to load it all back in again after turning the power on.   He'd been backstage trying to load the sound/sequence data into the synths' memories via a little boom-box and it wasn't working.  If we couldn't load in the appropriate data we couldn't use his synths and we wouldn't be able to play the majority of the songs in our set.  This was Very Bad News.  Our big gig was looking like it might be our big disaster.

I ran backstage with him and took a look.  Hans was completely white and I'm sure my pallor wasn't far behind.  I had a quick look, then said, "Ah, I think I see the problem..." I reached down and flicked the boom-box switch from 'Radio' to 'Tape'...  ".... that ought to do it."

Little things... little things... they're the ones that get you.

We never did any more gigs with Zaine's band but we helped him work on his next album.  Ultravox was still in the process of regrouping so I had the spare time.

This time around we were determined to have proper representation and began looking for a manager.  We approached 'Thin Lizzy's management team of Chris Morrison and Chris O'Donnell and they were impressed with the fact that we'd managed to do an American tour with no record company tour support, no 'new' album, and still turned a modest profit.  Their interest wasn't like they immediately wanted to manage us and said, "Sign here..." but more a matter of agreeing to try and help us out.  As our involvement deepened one thing lead to another and, gradually, they were effectively managing us.  Much later on, I think it was after the release of 'Vienna' at the very least, we actually got around to formalising the agreement.  Our success was preceeding us but we now had established and respected professional management.

Autumn 1979 - The new album starts taking shape

We started writing and rehearsing, all the while trying to keep this news reasonably quiet as Midge still had some lingering legal problems to sort out due to his past involvements.  This was frustrating as I wanted to let people know the band wasn't dead but, for fairly obvious reasons, we thought it wiser if we kept a low profile to help him resolve the situation.  Nothing can throw a spanner in the works quite like old business 'partners' who smell money.

We worked on songs that became the bulk of the first album, 'Vienna', though the title track was yet to be written.  We wrote 'Astradyne', 'New Europeans', 'Mr. X', during this period, certainly, though I'm a little hazy as to just when we wrote 'Private Lives', 'Passing Strangers', and 'All Stood Still'... those may have been written then or during our next writing sessions which took place after we'd returned from America.

The music was - to us - a continuation of the things that we were interested in and what we wanted to hear.  It reflected a stylistic change because Midge's singing was very different from John Foxx's, plus Midge was the best guitarist we'd ever had... still, we kept following the areas of sound that excited us.  The chemistry within the band was now very different but it enabled Bill, Chris, and myself to enjoy ourselves much more.

While our first writing sessions were certainly exciting and generally very productive, not everything we worked on during this period gelled.  There was one instrumental piece that Midge had brought in which we played about with for some time; it was great fun to play (the riff rather reminded me of the Glitter Band, of whom I was a huge fan), but for some reason it never really came together for us and we dropped it from our works-in-progress repertoire. Midge reprised the idea years later with Phil Lynott and it became "Yellow Pearl."

At this stage of the band's life, I was contributing to the lyric writing and wrote the bulk of the lyrics to 'Sleepwalk", 'Mr. X", 'Private Lives', 'All Stood Still', and 'New Europeans'.  I'd always wanted to try my hand at it and it helped take a some of the initial pressure off of Midge.  Once Midge had completely settled in, I withdrew and left him to it.  I'd also decided that I probably wasn't very good at it... certainly not as good as I'd like to be.

Dec 1979 - Second US tour starts

As a band, we all had a lot of baggage to contend with during those early days and thought that, if we were to have a chance, we needed to be able to stretch our wings without being prematurely subjected to the magnifying glass of the British music press.  With this in mind, we set up a second American tour, much along the lines of the first one; minimum equipment, play clubs, expenses pared to the bone.

Before we left for America we played four U.K. 'secret' gigs [in November, starting at Eric's in Liverpool].  This was to get a bit of a buzz going and show that the band hadn't totally disappeared, plus we didn't want to go to the U.S. having never been on stage with each other before.  I remember we played at the Nottingham 'Boat House' and at the Liverpool 'Eric's', the other two venues I forget.  The set was a mixture of mostly our new songs and a select few of the old ones, i.e. 'Slow Motion'.  We chose not to eliminate all previous songs from our set for two reasons, one practical and one principled; we, as yet, hadn't written enough new material to play a wholly new set, and we weren't about to turn our backs upon our own heritage.  There was, of course, some shouting from elements of the audience for John Foxx but Midge weathered the storm and we all had an exciting time.

The American tour gave us a chance to gel as a band and was a great start. It was wild, we did something like twenty-nine gigs in thirty-two days.  There was one marathon drive we did non-stop from Lawrence, Kansas, to New Orleans. Upon arriving we crawled out of the car, cleaned ourselves up, and immediately set off to explore Bourbon Street.  We finished up with a series of gigs in Los Angeles at the 'Whisky A-Go-Go'.  The shows were extended due to demand so we ended up doing about seven shows there and set some kind of record for the place.

Interview Part 5


Copyright (c) 1998-11-14 Warren Cann and Jonas Wårstad.

Last update 1998-11-14. No portion of this interview may be published in any form.


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