Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ha! Ha! Ha! - Ultravox!

Provenance: Like the dog who returns to his vomit, I once again decided to trust a review in Classic Rock magazine. However, this time - this time, guys - instead of just saying "these guys make a soulful rock racket, like Bad Company partying with the Doobie Brothers" or some other banal shit, they actually made the first three Ultravox! records (they came in a bundle) sound interesting.

When I read the description that they'd often been dismissed as a "punk Roxy Music", I was all in. This, I was told, was 'good Ultravox!', before they dropped the exclamation mark, gained a Midge Ure and became shite.

Review: If you only know Ultravox as the band behind 'Vienna' and 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes', Ha! Ha! Ha! will come as quite a shock. Far from the mannered, slickly delivered synth-pop that defined their most successful era, the Ultravox! on display here are a bunch of perverted sickos with out of tune guitars and a clutch of cracking songs. First track 'ROckWrok' is as fluid, messy and enjoyable as the sexual practices gleefully delineated and, masked by the frantic delivery, possibly the filthiest song to ever gain airplay on BBC Radio 1. Oh, and in case you didn't realise that you were dealing with capital-a Art, the name is a punning take on a Marcel Duchamp-produced magazine.

What I have come to sincerely love about Ha! Ha! Ha! is the energy that pulses throughout the album; an energy that threatens to teeter over into anarchy but reels back from the edge at just the right moment. It sounds like it was put down mostly live (I have no idea - but it doesn't sound like its replete with overdubs) and captures Ultravox! at their most freewheeling. If frontman John Foxx has a weakness (it's certainly not his name) it's that he's sometimes trying too hard to act cool, but that's largely offset by lyrics speaking of disaffection, fin-de-siecle nihilism and sex. Is it pretentious? Sure, but it's a lot of fun. It's a gas hearing Foxx mash-up Bryan Ferry's strange bleat with guttersnipe polemicising, and the squeaking, skronking instrumentation never seems less than demented.

Whilst one can certainly hear Roxy Music in the mix, as well as Joe Strummer and wisps of Kraftwerk, it's also nice to see where the legacy of Ha! Ha! Ha! lives on in popular music. Listening to the post-glitter stomp of 'While I'm Still Alive' (a favourite of mine) always brings to mind Franz Ferdinand, whilst (more obscurely) the off-kilter tunings could easily have influenced King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard's Flying Microtonal Banana album.

Also, I know I use the term 'glamorous demimonde' far too much (if I've used it once, it's too much) but - dear reader - it is entirely appropriate. For all the thrust of the music, the pose on display is a cross between a decadent ennui and Mitteleuropean (lol, me using words again) elegance. The two most obvious examples - and it's probably no coincidence that the Kraftwerk imprimatur is most evident on these tracks - are 'The Man Who Dies Every Day' and the mighty 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'. It's also curious that, Kraftwerk aside, the other big influence both share is cinema; it's hard to hear the opening lines of 'The Man...' and not think of a Harry Lime figure stood turned away, shrouded in mist; and 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' shares its name with the 1959 Alain Resnais film of the same name (of course - you knew that, right?).

It is perhaps perverse of me to rank 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' as a highlight, because formally speaking it is the one song that points towards Ultravox's revivification as purveyors of sleek, stilted melodrama. Why is it good then? Because whilst it starts out with a bipping drum-machine intro that threatens to turn into an OMD single, it soon morphs into something strangely affecting and beautiful. Each verse is a miniature painting, or perhaps a still from an arthouse movie, a moment of clarity not so much captured as poised. I've used the word 'elegant' before in this review, and it really does apply to 'Hiroshima Mon Amour', from the mournful saxophones to the swooning melody.

And in any case, if I am being perverse, that fits in nicely with a good portion of what Ha! Ha! Ha! serves up. What a wonderful chronicle of humanity's ability to sound sad, jaded and deliriously happy all at the same time.

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