Music of My Youth

Music of My Youth: The Ultravox Story

A lot of people have those go-to songs, or albums, or something special in their music collection that they always come back to. This is the story of one of those albums, and one of my favorite bands ever.

The story begins because ages and ages ago, my friend Mark gave me an album that he didn’t want.

Back in those days (1982), there was a music store within easy biking distance of my house (and, conveniently, just doors away from a video arcade in the very same strip mall). I could drop a few bucks into video games and then buy a couple of 45s for 99 cents each. Twice a year, though, Don Leary’s Records would hold a sale to get rid of everything that hadn’t sold well or maybe was sent to them as a demo, had been played, and had a few scratches. Albums sold for $1. 45s sold for a quarter.

My friend would go to the sale and buy albums in quantity based solely on how cool the cover art was. I thought this was crazy, because it was music, but hey…

On this occasion, the album he had purchased and then passed to me after listening to it was Ultravox’s Rage In Eden. And this was the cover:

Okay. So it had that going for it. Cool. Modern. New Wave. Awesome. But Mark didn’t like the music.

I took it and listened, and I can honestly say that in the 37 years since, with each new listen, there’s more that I love about that album. From the power and anger of the opening track, The Voice, to the increasing rage of The Thin Wall, and the deep ennui of I Remember (Death in the Afternoon), to my ears and mind, there isn’t a dud on the whole album. Hell, they even slip in a line in The Thin Wall that actually says “They shuffle with a bovine grace and glide in syncopation.”

What’s not to love?

That single album, purchased by a friend for $1 and given to me kicked off an obsession. Who was this band? Where did they come from? What else have they done?

Here in the US, Ultravox was relatively unknown. Radio airplay at the time was basically nil. Finding them in record stores was tricky, at best. But in the UK and Europe, they were big. Not huge, but big. And well known. Especially from a hit from their previous album, Vienna.

Keep in mind that it’s 1982. No internet, really. I mean there was CompuServe, but I wouldn’t subscribe until 1987. So I dug into whatever I could find in the library. And bookstores. And music stores.

4 guys in the band. UK based. Midge Ure, the current lead, was the replacement for John Foxx who fronted the band through their mid- to late-’70s “feedback is art” phase, as I called it. Midge (Jim backwards, I would later learn) and the band would go in a different direction, loading up on synthesizers and sequencers and joining the emerging New Wave movement of the early 1980s. I bought Vienna next, an album that was simplistic when compared to Rage In Eden‘s power and layered sounds. But the sound was there. That feel. The unmistakable strength of Midge’s voice. And, a surprising element: Billy Currie’s violin on some tracks, always played in haunting minor keys.

Late in 1982, I found their new album, Quartet. I loved that album too.

1983, nothing new. I couldn’t find any info anywhere on what was going on. So I kept working on finding old titles from the John Foxx days.

Then in 1984, Lament came out. It was a different sound. Still filled with anger and some darkness. The hit from the album took place during the time between hearing there’s an incoming nuclear missile attack and the actual landing of the ordinance. Dancing With Tears In My Eyes was a love song wrapped in those minutes of hell. As a youth of the Reagan era, it was striking because it had a new take on something all of those in my generation feared.

1985 dawned. There was a famine going on in Ethiopia. My friends and I watched news stories about it. We lamented it, did small fundraisers at school, and then went back to our comfortable lives worried about the look of the shirts, jeans, and shoes we wore, and we’d buy a package of fries in the lunchroom at school even if we brought our lunch. Because we could.

And then there was Live Aid.

Midge Ure was one of the organizers of a huge concert, originating in London and Philadelphia, beamed across the globe, to bring together dozens of acts to perform all day and raise money to help those suffering in the famine. And somewhere, I found the schedule of acts performing in the show. Ultravox was one of them. I was irrationally excited.

It was a Saturday morning in the middle of summer, and insanely early for a teenager (I was 15, almost 16). Ultravox had a time slot sometime around 7:15 a.m. Central Time in the US. The Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof’s band (Geldof was the other organizer with Midge) was before Ultravox.

I set my alarm, got up at about 6, and went downstairs to watch. Without any fanfare, Ultravox came on and started their set. This was the first time I’d see them “live.”

The second song was Dancing With Tears In My Eyes.

My God, I wanted that coat.

They performed two more songs, closing with their big hit Vienna, and that was it. Four songs in about 20 minutes. Then Spandau Ballet came on.

“Thank you very much. Enjoy your day,” says Midge. Oh, I already have, sir. I already have.

For those 20 minutes, I was in heaven. I recorded it on the VCR, and played it back immediately, just to relive the moment.

Okay, so what was the big deal? In the age of MTV (which I didn’t get because we didn’t have cable), and a little later on NBC’s Friday Night Videos, fans could see the music videos from their favorite bands. Except Ultravox. Because while I knew a song or two had been played on MTV, it was few and far-between, and when at a friend’s house, the likelihood of seeing one of their videos was very slim. And here, early on a summer Saturday morning, I’d seen my favorite band perform live.

There were 5 albums in the stack that Mark passed on with Rage In Eden, and I can name the other four (one was Q-Feel’s only album, maybe I’ll talk about that gem some other time; and another was Kim Wilde’s self-titled debut album which contained her hit Kids In America in 1981). But Rage In Eden was the one that really stuck.

And still does.

Music of My Youth

Music of My Youth: Free to Be…You and Me

Ages and ages ago, or 1972 to be more precise, an album came out that was aimed squarely at kids around my age. It was Free to Be…You and Me. The album tried to build on a movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s to foster gender neutrality, racial equality, tolerance, and a belief that anyone could be whatever or whoever they wanted to be. It was produced by Marlo Thomas, and featured practically anyone who was anyone at the time.

Fast forward 46 years, and the album is relevant again (or still, depending on your point of view). And as you’d probably expect, all along its history, the album has drawn the ire of those who claim it’s emasculating. Or ignores traditional values. Or something along those lines. The arguments against Me Too or Black Lives Matter or any calls for equality haven’t ever changed, even 40-plus years on, it’s the same tired refrain.

But back to the record. I loved this album. I listened and sang along to it every chance I had in kindergarten. And listened to it a lot when I got a copy at home.

And just to complete the message of the album, picture this: I’m in kindergarten. I’d constructed “microphones” out of giant Tinkertoys, and my best friend, Sarah–an African-American girl–are belting out the songs along with the album in class during free time. 

Because of course we would.

I don’t know how exactly I got introduced to the album. I started in kindergarten in 1974 so by then the album was about two years old. But in March 1974, there was a TV special…An hour long show with many of the songs and skits from the album, plus some extras. More on that later…After you watch the open:

Catchy tune, right? They opened on a strength, I’m telling you!

Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past either my kindergarten teacher or my mom to introduce something so sneakily subversive into my life. And clearly I loved it, which either woman would have loved. Because even then, I knew what the album was talking about. It was kinda hard to miss.

(The best line: “What do you want to be when you grow up? A fireman. How about you? A cocktail waitress! Does that prove anything to you?” This skit was co-written by Carl Reiner.)

And yes, that was Mel Brooks there with Marlo as the babies. And Alan Alda was on the album. As was Rosie Grier, Carol Channing, and Michael Jackson, among others. Oh, and the title song up top? That was performed by the New Seekers. I’ll clue you in on them at the end for those that don’t know them.

Okay, so back to the origin story as it pertains to my life. I don’t know how this came into my life, though I may have discovered it with the TV special in 1974. 

But this thing would always seem to find its way back into my life.

I was an A/V nerd through elementary school, taught to load and run the filmstrip projectors (look those up, you youngsters out there–and loved the automatic ones, but I’ll save that for another post maybe), shown how to use and thread the black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape recorders/players we had at school, and I was trained to thread and run the 16mm film projectors.

I was running the movies for my classes by the middle of second grade. And my favorite movie to run was Free to Be…You and Me. Why? It was a two-reeler. About 45 minutes of movie. 45 minutes of non-educational movie or so we thought). Which usually meant that the teacher would get 2 projectors from the library, and I’d have to switch from one to the other midway through, looking for the cue mark on the film to start up the second projector.

Yep. Just like the theaters. It was the big time, man.

Free to Be…You and Me was 45 minutes of nerdy bliss. By the time I showed the movie, I’d listened to it probably hundreds of times. So I could watch the reel on the first projector as it worked its way down and got closer and closer to the end, so that I could then focus on the screen. 

Oh yeah. And it was an important social statement as well. I suppose.

I’ve had that album hanging around in my life for a very long time. I’d come back and listen to some of it into adulthood, and played it for my kids more than once. Though I don’t think it impacted them as much as it did me. 

But back in 2006, the album was remastered and reissued. And just a few years ago, digital versions were made available on Google Play or iTunes. So I can listen to a nice clean version of the album I grew up loving as a somewhat scratched up mess. 

I just listened to it again recently–beginning-to-end. And found I haven’t forgotten many lyrics. Funny how those stick with you.

Before I close, remember the New Seekers? No? They had a hit in 1971 that came from an ad jingle for Coca-Cola (yeah, the jingle came first):