Tag Archives: Ultravox

City spaces and popular music

The Guardian this week headlined a feature about London-band The Maccabees “bands can’t afford to live in London anymore“, and that connected with something I’ve been thinking about for a while: what material infrastructure do bands need to get off the ground?  The most obvious ones are places to live and venues to perform at, but for traditional rock with drums and amplification, somewhere to rehearse is also pretty crucial.

In their early years — 1977 and 1978 — the post-glam/ pre-punk/ new-wave band Ultravox often used publicity shots of themselves posing with shop-window mannequins, and this was a hidden clue as to how they had made a distinctive sound for themselves, though by 1977 it probably looked like a nod to Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies.”

Ultravox Mannequins1

The band was put together by John Foxx in 1974, initially under the name Tiger Lily; Foxx at that time was a graduate student at the Royal College of Art.  They rehearsed initially in the dining room of the Royal College, but soon Foxx found a better space.  To supplement his grant, he had been painting faces on shop-window dummies, and through this learned of the warehouse space of the firm Modreno, at Albion Yard, Balfe Street, just round the corner from King’s Cross.  He persuaded the manager, Ronnie Kirkland, to allow the band to rehearse there in the evenings.  Having a free rehearsal space allowed the band to experiment with their songwriting and their sound without the financial pressure that comes with hiring a rehearsal space. Ronnie Kirkland was apparently the proprietor of Modreno, and was able to do what he liked with it; but if such a factory / warehouse exists at the present-day, would the manager be allowed to do what he liked with it, if he/she had to answer to property owners who were anxious about their investment and their insurance? Similarly, around 1976, when the band came to producing an early demo tape, they were able to do so cheaply because Steve Lilywhite, then a tape-op (a trainee engineer) allowed them to use a studio during down time.  Would it be possible to sneak a band into a high-end recording studio today?  The very idea of “down time” is becoming alien.

It’s also notable how squats enabled the popular music scene in the mid 1970s: in a recent interview with Martin Smith, Paul Simon — not the one who recorded with Art Garfunkel, but the brother of Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon — mentions the brothers’ move to London being simplified by the availability of a squat in Vauxhall [*]; Foxx himself was living in one, and some of the band’s early gigs were in one on Regent’s Parade.

What became of Modreno?  In 1985 there were notices in the London Gazette implying that it had ceased trading.  If you look up Albion Yard on the internet now, you find advertisements for one- and two-bed flats, leasehold.


A two-bed flat there will set you back £925,000.  Nice if you’re a property owner, but what happens to musicians when every last piece of space has a by-the-hour charge attached to it?  True, you can now make music on a laptop in a bedroom in a way that was scarcely imaginable in the mid-1970s, but one kind of musical creativity involves reacting to the unexpected things that other musicians throw into a piece; that kind of creativity needs live rehearsals, and rehearsals need spaces.


#bookadayUK (20): Favourite Cover

In September 1990 I was living in Oxford, just about to begin my postgraduate study, and I noticed something familiar and unexpected in the window of what was then Blackwell’s Paperback Bookshop on Broad Street:

Penrose (D Leigh)

Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind had come out in a Vintage paperback, and I instantly recognised the style of the cover artist.  A little later, I saw another very familiar jacket, and asked the staff if I could have one of the large promotional posters they’d had in the window:

Winterson Sexing (Leigh)

I’d been listening to John Foxx’s music since around the time of his album The Garden; I’d come to him via the Midge-Ure-era incarnation of Ultravox, and had discovered the earlier Foxx-era Ultravox and then Foxx’s solo work.  Born Dennis Leigh in Chorley, Lancashire, he had studied at art college in Lancashire and later at the Royal College of Art, before starting a band; from the outset he had been involved in the design of Ultravox’s sleeves. Early sleeves (‘RockWrok’ and  ‘Young Savage’ around 1977) had employed  rough-and-ready collage style that was ubiquitous in punk, but with the first single from their Systems of Romance album, a more refined style had emerged: less of the kidnap-gang and ransom-note style, more of a detached reworking of high European culture.


Foxx dropped that style for the stark minimalism of his first solo album, Metamatic, and for the associated singles, but it re-emerged in the sleeve for the single ‘Europe After the Rain’ (1981), and, having been allowed to drop for a few more singles, emerged again for several more singles: the second version of ‘Endlessly’, ‘Your Dress’, and ‘Stars on Fire’.


Dennis Leigh, front cover of Endlessly (second version)


Dennis Leigh, back cover of ‘Your Dress’


Although there are all sorts of different methods being used in these sleeves, they’re united by  their sources (Italian paintings, especially Botticelli) and framing elements (the numbers at the edge of ‘Slow Motion’, the colour strips at the edge of of ‘Stars on Fire’) which reference colour-printing quality control or some sort of indexing system.

After ‘Stars on Fire’ and the album from which it was drawn, In Mysterious Ways, Foxx withdrew from the music industry.  He lectured on design in the art departments of various universities, and worked as a book-cover designer, under his real name, hence the Penrose and Winterson covers.  (A few years years later I discovered that he’d been living a few miles up the road from my parents, in south Oxfordshire; I bumped into a friend from school who had been having French conversation lessons with his wife). My own musical tastes moved on too.  The remembered versions of the songs stayed with me, but the relatively commercial production values of the last two albums grated. The early Ultravox material stood the test of time much better.

Much of my D.Phil. involved thinking about the popular science writing of the 1920s, and although Penrose’s book is very different from (say) Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World (1928), the popular science boom that followed Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was an important element of dialogue between the past and the present.  Seeing Leigh’s designs on the covers of both literature and science was a reminder that at some points, literary and popular scientific culture overlapped.  At some point in reworking my thesis into a book, Einstein’s Wake, I imagined the sleeve of ‘Slow Motion’ as the ideal image. A crucial argument both in thesis and book concerns the finite velocity of light, and the way it becomes an image for the belatedness of knowledge in modernity.  Many expositors adopted Camille Flammarion’s ideal that, seen from a distant point in space, the Battle of Waterloo appeared to be happening in the present moment.  The way the image of the woman’s face is spread across space speaks to that idea.  The sequences of numbers in the margins also intrigued me, and touched on the idea that our knowledge is relative to our frame of reference; I particularly liked the way that the sequence at the left has a gap in it, as if the frame isn’t quite as reliable as it should be.  I was contracted to publish with Oxford University Press, and at that date its jackets were typographically conservative (Roman fonts) and tended to include a small framed image centrally in the page; I liked the way that ‘Slow Motion’ would fit that tradition but also break it; modernist fracturing of a settled tradition. It seemed worth asking if Leigh would allow me to re-use the image. I didn’t know how to go about contacting him, but found an Ultravox fan-club website and asked the fan-club organiser if he could pass on a question; the answer came back indirectly that it would be okay, but that the image should be credited to John Foxx.

I had the 12″ single of ‘Slow Motion’, and though that would improve the image quality, but scanning an image that was slightly too large for any available flat-bed scanner proved to be a nightmare.  (This was sometime in 2001).  I had to scan it in two parts and then digitally piece them together, and more or less manually sharpen the edges of lines, pixel by pixel.  Doing it this way gave me the opportunity to eliminate some of the scuff marks on my own copy, but at some point the labour expended went beyond reasonable and beyond enjoyable, and became more of a labour of love. Somewhere in the line of transmission the pointed corner at the top right was flattened, which is frustrating, and of course OUP were never going to reprint the image in colour; but on the whole I’m happy with how it worked out.

Slow Motion and Einstein's Wake