Saturday, 25 April 2009

Mine for life

Never mind a thin wall, this was a wall of sound; not just exploding around, but inside. Deep inside – bone deep, opening up an entirely new and different space.

The lighting, blues and purples dominating, was so rich and intense it was so hyper-real.

This is the HMV Apollo Hammersmith (to give it its full current title) and this is 24 April 2009 and this is Ultravox. It's taken me almost 30 years to get here – to be at a live gig with Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann playing live.

Tickets for this reunion tour went on sale last autumn. I dived in straight away to buy one – this is not The Other Half's cup of tea, so I was always going to be on my own. And in so many ways, that makes it even more perfect. If I dance too wildly or sing too loudly, there will be nobody anywhere near to remind me about it the day after.

It's a tour that I never thought would happen – they haven't played together since Live Aid – and I thought I'd missed the chance.

There was an extent to which I didn't quite appreciate how much this band and their music had become part of my life. Only the announcement of the tour and the purchase of a ticket made me realise how excited I was. And only as the date itself finally emerged from the long tunnel of the winter months did my excitement start to mount to a fever pitch; a level of anticipation I cannot recall for any other comparable event.

Midge doesn't bother to spend much time chatting to the audience – this is for the serious business of the music.

And how different and fresh it is to hear all those familiar songs played live.

They open with Astradyne, the seven-minute instrumental that opened the first album that this seminal line-up of the band recorded, Vienna.

And it's Ultravox all over – perhaps as I love them best. Derided by many and an acquired taste (isn't all taste acquired?), they were often labelled as 'New Romantics'. But as Midge has put it more than once, there were no frilly shirts anywhere. What they did – as Astradyne so magnificently shows – was take the influence of electro pioneers Kraftwerk and give it some twists.

They combined a New Wave sound with electonic instruments and arrangements, and with rock and, later, pop. But here, as they play through their greatest hits – and there are a lot for what was, in essence, a four-album band – the rock element is at the fore.

Warren's work on drums is fantastic. Never having seen them live before, I hadn't fully appreciated Midge's work on guitar – but Billy's forays from keyboard to electric violin – each one greeted by huge cheers – is as remembered and as expected.

Visions in Blue has long been a favourite and it's great here.

Vienna is magnificent. As the unmissable intro begins, I raise eyes upward, punch the air, give a silent cheer and think to myself – not for the first time in the evening – that I've waited close to 30 years for this moment.

If it's not the climax, it marks, at around two thirds of the way through the gig, a raising of the tempo. Now, even in the circle, people start to stand – and stay standing. Then they start to dance. Having sat through the first part unable to keep still – head bobbing, hands moving, feet tapping incessantly – the arrival at this delicious point allows free reign to instinct. Okay, I don't dance 'well' (whatever that means), but I dance because I want to let myself go; to move with the music.

We go through Reap the Wild Wind (one of the poppier tracks), Hymn (which I always thought was a bit 'blasphemous' and therefore never played anywhere near the parents, unless wearing headphones), Dancing With Tears in My Eyes (still my least favourite single) and All Stood Still, which works so well as an anthemic live piece, while Warren gets to do another Kraftwerk-influenced work, Mr X (also recorded as Herr X) and Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again) is a melancholic beauty.

Passing Strangers and Sleepwalk are fabulous.

They finish with The Voice, but done as I have never heard it: the song (as recorded) finishes, but an electro theme continues, while three techies arrive to place three small (snare-sized) electronic drums at the front of the stage. Chris, Midge and Billy then join Warren in a four-way drum finale, that, if the house was standing by that time, it isn't after – even with a predominantly middle-aged audience going wild.

I emerge into the west London night, dazed, my ears ringing, my body shaking and my voice a tad hoarse. Making my way home, I'm exhausted and elated.

I've been to gigs before, of course – quite a number over the years. But when I try to work out why this was so special, it slowly dawns that it was the first time I'd been to see a band whose catalogue, as a whole, I knew so well as to know the lyrics – and the riffs – to pretty much every song on the playlist. This was a connection with something that I have known and enjoyed for years – not simply a curiosity or an artist that I know one or two singles from. It was utterly different.

The nearest I've come before to such a sense of letting-off-steam and catharsis previously was at the Lovebox Weekender in Victoria Park a few years ago, when I boggied so madly to 90 minutes of Jamiroquai that my legs and ass were stiff for days after.

When it had burst angrily on the scene in the late 1970s, I had avoided punk. It had offered no appeal: or rather, it had nothing that I could understand. Absorbed at the time in music studies, learning to adore Beethoven, I lived in an atmosphere where it was barely possible to imagine rebellion. Perhaps that's a little unfair – perhaps we all just 'rebel' in different ways. I clung to the stage, despite parental disapproval – and downright discouragement on occasion. It was what kept me sane (whatever that is).

Looking back, for a drama student with a history of studying music and art, Ultravox was perhaps almost inevitable. The single covers were always elegant and really rather grown up. The use of an electronic violin appealed to the student of classical music. There was a campness – but without those frilly shirts and very heavy eye make-up – and a bit of the sort of theatrical pomp that I enjoy.

And there was, as there has always been for me with electronic music, a sense of the future. In my mind's eye, it was pristine, gleaming modern buildings against azure blue skies; light and bright and full of a promise. Perhaps that was the beginning of my affinity – only explored really in the last few years via photography – with modern architecture?

But the promise – that brightness, that clarity, that pristine quality – is still there in the music. And I love it. Is it just nostalgia? Nostalgia is there, of course, but not on its own – because I was only ever be on the periphery of such things at the time. So personally, this isn’t just about memories of youth, but about something completely new and previously unexperienced.

And is it too much to say that it was worth the wait? No. No ... it isn't.

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