Ha! Ha! Ha! is one of the most important albums in British drumming history.
Yet it rarely gets a mention and failed to trouble the UK chart statisticians on its release in 1977.
Talk about underachievement and not being appreciated.
This lack of recognition doesn’t do justice to the trailblazing John Foxx-led Ultravox! and drummer Warren Cann.
It’s important for possibly one song. Just 5.21 minutes that changed the course of percussive possibilities.
That’s not to say the rest of the album doesn’t boast some impressive drumming, because it does.
Edgy and innovative, Ultravox! offered a template which other bands followed to success. The New Romantic movement owes a debt to Ultravox! while Gary Numan and bands like Orchestral Manouvres In The Dark and Depeche Mode found inspiration in the electric energy of the London-based quintet.
This was before the Midge Ure-era of Clark Gable-moustache, New Romantic sideburns and style, when the electronic drum sound had become a trademark.
Harnessing the brutal and bright energy of the punk movement which had exploded onto teenage Britain, the Mark I version of the band merged Roxy Music art school sensibilities with German avante garde, drawing on the examples of Neu! (hence the exclamation mark), Kraftwerk and Can.
By this second album, Cann, long fascinated by the potential of electronics and drum machines, had got his hands on a Roland TR77. The rest is history.
With Hiroshima Mon Amour came the first use of a preset drum machine on an album by a British band. There had been nothing like it before, just like his pioneering drum pattern for Vienna three years later. It caught the attention of critics and other musos.
Live, he’d supplement the drum machine with his acoustic kit, hell bent on a search for the Holy Grail of perfect time-keeping.
In an interview I did with him in the Noughties, he said that the Roland factory welcome soon wore out as he took back broken drum machines, having taken them apart in a quest for new sounds. Cann was about pushing boundaries. He also revealed that his audience never quite knew when he was playing drums or a drum machine, such was his dedication in the pursuit of perfect time.
Hiroshima Mon Amour was a major stepping stone for him. And others. Consider Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight sans drum machine, for example. Or listen to OMD’s Enola Gay and realise how the commercial success that evaded the early Ultravox! came for those who followed.
In fact, there’s a bit of a link between Ultravox! and Collins, who first used the drum machine technique on Duchess, off Genesis’s Duke album in 1980. Renowned producer Brian Eno, who worked on the first Ultravox! album as well as Genesis on 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, talked years later of sampling Collins’ bass drum for the seminal My Sex. Collins had played on Eno’s first solo effort, Another Green World, and the former Roxy Music man thought the bass drum sound from his Sky Saw fitted the Ultravox song perfectly.
Elsewhere, Cann plays his part in a release which one reviewer described as ‘a bruising album, a tsunami of a set that epitomized the fire and fury of its age’.
Opening track, Rockwrok, and track two, The Frozen Ones, explode into life with percussive precision par excellence. But it’s Fear In The Western World, melding into Distant Smile, that are stand-out tracks for me. Brutal, raging, urgent, ferocious; as if he’s playing the kit with cricket bats and iron feet like his life depended on it. He’s propelling the anarchistic, fearful vision of a society on the brink. His skill comes not in groove and pocket, but in setting a template for the music, the beating heart of a band on the edge.
Listen to the change in feel on Distant Smile, when the eerie piano and vocals, with ice cold notes of guitar melt away under the assault of his fists and feet of fury. It’s breathless stuff, a cacophony of chaotic crashing underpinning the feel and tone of the music.
That’s not to say Cann didn’t have the ability to groove. Check out his work on the Roxy Music-inspired Dangerous Rhythm on the band’s earlier eponymous release. Or on the follow up album, Systems Of Romance. He can be groove personified. But for this offering, he was meeting the demands of the music.
Island Records didn’t quite know how to market Ultravox! The initial energy of punk had dimmed, New Wave was coming and Ultravox! were pointing the way, but not settling on a sound, instead continuing their journey and refusing to be pigeon-holded. Cann was treading a new path, too.
His legacy ought to be recognised.