August 1980. Ultravox finally enjoy a hit single.
mp3: Ultravox – Sleepwalk
It was hardly an overnight success. The band had been in existence since 1975, initially going by the name of Tiger Lily, changing it to Ultravox! in 1976, with the exclamation mark being dropped in 1978.
They were initially signed to Island Records, for whom they recorded three albums and released six singles without getting close to the charts. They were originally seen as part of the dying punk/emerging new wave movement in the UK, as can be seen from their place in the line-up of the opening day of the Reading Festival in 1978 alongside the likes of The Jam, Penetration and Sham 69.
There was a change in sound with the third album, Systems of Romance, which was released in September 1978, thanks to a greater use of synths. It’s an album that wasn’t well received at the time, but has since been re-assessed by many critics as one of the records which helped define the electro sounds that began to take root at the end of the decade and into the 80s.
Island Records dropped the group on 31 December 1978 (I’m assuming this was something to do with dates of contracts). Ultravox managed to self-fund a short tour of America in the early months of 1979, during which more tensions surfaced. Lead singer John Foxx took his leave of the band in March 1979, as too did guitarist Robin Simon. To all intent and purposes, it looked to be all over.
Chris Cross, Warren Cann and Billy Currie still had belief that success could be achieved, buoyed partly by the fact that Gary Numan, the newly emerged superstar of synth-pop, was a fan of the band and had recruited Currie to play on his records and as part of the touring band.
Currie was also involved with Visage, through which he met and worked alongside Midge Ure. One thing led to another, and Ure accepted the offer to become lead vocalist and guitarist with a slimmed-down Ultravox.
Record companies were desperate to sign any group that had potential to ride the wave of the new electro sounds, and Ultravox were soon attracting all sorts of A&R reps to their live shows in London. Chrysalis Records put forward an attractive offer, but it was dependent on the label bosses being convinced there were hit singles in the offing. The group decided to take a demo of a new song that had been recorded in London across to the Cologne studio of producer Conny Plank. Some magic was worked and the ‘finished’ version of Sleepwalk was presented to Chrysalis, after which the contract was signed.
Sleepwalk was issued as the band’s debut single for the new label in June 1980. It proved to be something of a slow burner, taking four weeks to crack the Top 40 where it kicked around for almost two months, defying the normal gravity of chart singles with its weekly positions being 39, 34, 33, 29, 31, 29, 30, indicating a consistent level of sales on a weekly basis without ever really taking off.
The follow-up single, Passing Strangers, turned out to be a disappointing flop, and it took until January 1981, and the release of the title track from the album Vienna, before Ultravox became everything that its members had always believed they could be.
Here’s the b-side to the first hit single.
mp3: Ultravox – Waiting
It’s quite different in tone and style. It’s certainly not easy to dance to.
6 thoughts on “OUT OF THE BLUE?”
I really enjoyed the first three LPs of this incarnation of Ultravox. With Rage in Eden being my favourite.
Vienna, as an LP, was played regularly and only recently I was surprised to note the very good condition it is in. It was one of the very first records I bought new.
Sleepwalk is a fantastic single and deserved to stick around the charts – not that I can recall. I was surprised to read of Passing Strangers but I guess it’s not as immediate. I still really like it.
This was a wonderful stroll down memory lane.
Love that whole album – cherished the copy I taped from my big sister’s friend. Particularly loved opening track Astradyne.
Vienna and Rage in Eden are still huge favourites – loved them!
“Sleepwalk” was described by Warren Cann as being the band’s attempt to write a Judas Priest song on synthesizers. Which I think is as fair a description as any. Here in The States, I believe it got a promo 12” released, but no commercial action. I only heard the band when the video for the next single got a showing in the pre-MTV universe over here. That track stunned me and made me an immediate fan. I was a synth-head and I’d never heard anything quite that exciting before. Sorry, Gary. Ironically, six years later, Judas Priest attempted to do the same thing with their divisive “Turbo” album. That is to say, write Judas Priest songs on synthesizers.
I had gone to see Ultraavox at Dundee’s Samantha’s disco in 1978 with John Foxx leading the band, and went along to the city’s Caird Hall to see Midge Ure at the helm. It was at least the third time Midge had played Dundee, appearing with Salvation (Slik before a change of name) at the Menzieshill High School Christmas Dance – the first and only ever such event. Midge played the Caird Hall with Slik, a pseudo Bay City Rollers band as they were riding high in the charts, having hit No.1 with their debut single for Bell Records. It was with this past success that as Midge approached the microphone at this latest gig and said, “Hello Dundee,” someone shouted, “Forever And Ever.” Midge’s next words, to the heckler, were, “Fuck off!” which got a suitable cheer.
I remember the exact record bin in my favorite record shop where I picked up the 7″ single of Sleepwalk, the week it came in the store. I walked up to the counter with a couple of other singles and the owner at the register asked if I wanted to play any of them before I left, I said, yeah Sleepwalk. When he put the needle to the record, it was like time stood slowed down around me and all my focus was on the track. There were probably about 5 or 6 copies of the single when I got to the shop. There were none left by the time I left for home that day.