When I was back in college, fellow progarchist and professional musician, Kevin McCormick, and I used to spend hours upon hours talking music, chord structures, album marketing strategies, and, especially, the meaning of lyrics. For us, the lyrics of good rock and prog were akin to poetry.
And, frankly, as someone who studies literature for a living, I can state in hindsight that many of the lyrics written at the time by Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, and, especially, Neil Peart and Mark Hollis warranted such praise. At their highest, each lyricist reached toward the best modernist writers of the twentieth-century.
Some might argue that we could’ve and should’ve more wisely spent our time studying and doing our school work.
There’s much to argue against this, however.
First, our conversations solidified a life-long friendship. Second, they fired our imaginations. And, third, they allowed us to think it very direct ways about how art can influence society. Indeed, all three of these things have not only been critical to my own intellectual and professional development, but also to my very source of happiness.
Sometime during our freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, Kevin introduced me to a band that had never reached my ears in my childhood in Kansas, the music of Ultravox. Through Kevin, I became absolutely enamored with three of Ultravox’s albums: VIENNA; RAGE IN EDEN; and LAMENT. I liked Quartet as well, but it seems the poppiest and shallowest of the three. It had some catchy things, but it just simply couldn’t compare in depth to VIENNA, to RAGE IN EDEN, or to LAMENT. The lyrics to VIENNA opened the world of Europe up to me. RAGE IN EDEN struck me as literature, pure and simple. LAMENT seemed an extraordinary comment on the sorrows of the world of the time (and, frankly, still).
We sit and watch these lifeless forms stark and petrified
The high suspense of an empty stage drawing, in clutching to its breast
With murmured words we sigh and focus on the main facade
Beyond the hard reluctant windows news from magazines
We wrote their names on books we’d borrowed as if to bring us closer still
And threw it all away to focus on the main facade
Rage in Eden jigsaw sequence, but no one could see the end
And they were the new gods and they shone on high
Their heavy perfume on the night sucked them down in red tide
–Rage in Eden
As probably many college students do, Kevin and I each had pretentions to a literary career. Kevin had already become a rather accomplished poet, and his senior-year poem dealing with Arvo Part won the award for the best poem written by a college student in 1990. Extraordinary! I had no such skills, but I still wanted to be a writer. I, however, had no desire to write poetry or fiction. Instead, I wanted to write histories, biographies, and cultural criticism.
Regardless, what prompted this post was my relistening to Ultravox. When Kevin first introduced me to RAGE IN EDEN, he told me to listen as carefully as possible to the lyrics. He hoped, he claimed then, that he would one day write a book of cultural criticism using not only the titles of each song for the titles of his own chapters, respectively, but that he would base the ideas of his own book on the lyrics.
Kevin has pursued other interested in his professional career.
Still, it’s a great idea, and I hope he takes up his own challenge to himself, delivered to me in Cavanaugh Hall, thirty years ago this coming fall.
I can say with absolute certainty that I write about prog rock because I know that it inspired me in 1981, in 1986, in 1992, and continues to do so. Indeed, there’s nothing I’ve published that hasn’t had a prog or rock soundtrack behind it.
Reading passages of ancient rhyme
Cut so deep, so old
Telling tales of travelers and mystery
Hearing spirits never far removed
Calling out aloud
When the time comes, they’ll talk to me
–Man of Two Worlds
3 thoughts on “Lyrics Matter: Ultravox and Literary Aspirations”
Your memory continually astounds me. I had completely forgotten about that conversation, but very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. It’s interesting, the three albums you mentioned are still the ones I think of as classic Ultravox. I didn’t get Quartet so much either, but did you know it was produced by George Martin?
Thanks for the flashback to happier music listening days, Bradley. I can say hand on heart that after 1977 Prog Rock was gone. Not much filtered down here to New Zealand in music or news. I had no idea there was an underground movement where Prog thrived until many years later and had the joy of chasing the back-catalog of so many jewels i the crown. Having said that, I did find many substitutes, albeit in other subgenres of Rock such as Synth-pop and New Romance. Ultravox certainly fitted the bill with keyboard driven songs layered in complexity made danceable and enjoyable to listen to. The lyrics were special too, and really liked what John Foxx did in Ultravox as well as on his own. It just fitted the times and the whole mood in music and fashion. Excellent piece. mate.
Interesting article—it makes me want to sit down and re-listen to Ure-era Ultravox with a new outlook on the lyrics. Vienna is an excellent album and my favorite of this era of the band.
I can’t help but point out the parallels between Ultravox and Genesis, despite working in seemingly disparate subgenres. Both succeeded before and after a founder and writer/lead singer departed (and therefore a shift in lyrical (and musical) direction via evolution.) Both put out imitative debut albums before ultimately finding their own voices and blazing new trails starting with their second albums. Both bands tended to be very melodic as well. Both bands had some musical connection to new wave (thinking of Genesis’s new wave-influenced albums from Abacab to Invisible Touch—of course Ultravox did it first!)
The Foxx Ultravox era (only three albums long) peaked with Systems of Romance but contained a lot of gems on Ha-Ha-Ha. Listen carefully to those lyrics. Foxx continued these themes on his solo albums, of which I recommend The Garden (practically a continuation of Systems of Romance) and Metamatic (his solo debut but musically very different.) All these albums can be found on Spotify.
However, to continue the similarities between Ultravox and Genesis: lyrically, however, I think John Foxx and Tony Banks are the parallel members (not Peter Gabriel.) Both use similar imagery and metaphors in their lyrics for both their bands and their solo works (e.g.: changes in the weather, cities, rooms in a house, viewing life as scenes from film/television.) Both share a detached view of life and/or voice of narration. Both men’s lyrics examine identity and the self, despite being from differing socioeconomic, religious, and geographical backgrounds: Foxx is working-class, Catholic, and northern (Lancaster), while Banks is upper-middle-class (by US standards), Anglican, and southern (East Sussex). Both are of similar ages as well.
This just demonstrates the importance of listening outside “your genre” of music. Much more is connected than it seems!
P.S.: Did you know that John Foxx (real name: Dennis Leigh) designed the album cover for Porcupine Tree’s Lightbulb Sun?