Beyond his work with Ultravox and Visage, Billy Currie has enjoyed a long career as an artist in his own right, with 11 solo albums to his name. And it all started when he was left alone with an oscillator belonging to psychedelic warlords Hawkwind…

Billy Currie has been experiencing a much-deserved renaissance of late. His collected works as a solo musician are getting the reissue treatment, taking in 11 albums over 34 years. Next up comes ‘Accidental Poetry Of The Structure’, 16 years after it was first released. What was Currie up to in 2006, then?

“With a title like that, I must have been losing the plot!” he says a tad self-deprecatingly, as is his wont. The former Ultravox man’s albums are appearing like revenants in reverse order, each one a snapshot of where Currie was at the time – or at least where his head was. For the record, we’re currently five albums down and there are six to go, with his 1988 solo debut ‘Transportation’ still a way off.

Aged 72, Currie has had an eventful life so far. Born in Huddersfield in 1950, he took up the violin when he was 11 and went to music college in 1965, where he switched to viola. He was accepted into the Royal Academy Of Music in 1969, but instead of taking his place, he spent the next five years playing in various bands, joining hippy communes and having close encounters with Scientologists in East Grinstead.

During this time he developed a deep love of some of the most far-out composers who ever lived – Béla Bartók, Arnold Schönberg and electronic godfathers like Arthur Honegger and Edgard Varèse. These last two would stand him in good stead when he finally broke through with a band he helped form in 1974 – Ultravox, the classically influenced titans of 1980s synthpop, who certainly had their ups and downs over the years. 

And then there have been the vicissitudes of Currie’s solo career. It started well enough. In 1987, when Ultravox first broke up, he signed to Miles Copeland’s IRS label. Since then, though, he’s seen two of his labels go bankrupt and spent several years cutting out the music industry altogether by mailing his albums directly to those who wanted them, via the Ultravox fan club and outlets like Amazon. Through it all, Currie has kept working.

“I have to keep on writing,” he shrugs. “That’s just how it is. I don’t enjoy it all the time but it’s just something I have to do.” 

He considers this for a moment and then decides to correct himself. 

“OK, I do enjoy it.”

Having had bad experiences with labels in the past, Currie has found a home he’s happy with at prog and left-field specialists Burning Shed. 

“They’re great to deal with and they do really nice packaging,” he enthuses.

The run of re-releases began with a brand new album, a collection of piano works called ‘The Brushwork Oblast’ in 2020. Then came the reissues of ‘Doppel’, ‘Balletic Transcend’ and ‘Refine’. Which brings us to ‘Accidental Poetry Of The Structure’, a daring, delightful and reflective synthpop album built on intriguing ostinatos. 

Many of Currie’s song and album titles are based on geography – the ones that aren’t long and opaque, anyway. ‘Matsang River’ was written in solidarity with the Tibetan people, while ‘Ukraine’ appeared on his vibrant, viola-driven 1992 long-player, ‘Stand Up And Walk’.

“Titles are very interesting,” he continues. “I’ve become more intrigued by words the older I’ve got. While I don’t listen to music much now, sometimes I’ll put something on for pleasure, then go on the internet and educate myself.” 

He was listening to John Cage and reading about tape loops when he came across the words “accidental poetry”. The ‘Accidental Poetry Of The Structure’ album isn’t built on physical tape loops, although there are plenty of loops from within the machine, and Currie even has a brief foray into drum ’n’ bass on the track ‘Skips Of A Chopped Head’. Ever humble, he is quick to give credit where it’s due.

“My producer, Peter Dudley, helped me with that drum ’n’ bass rhythm – hands up!” he says. “I’m too late in life for that kind of thing.”

There’s a balance between contemporary and classical throughout Currie’s oeuvre, as you might expect from a classically trained pop star influenced by the likes of Schönberg, Wagner and Stockhausen. An electronic pulse streaks faintly through the piano-led ‘The Brushwork Oblast’, although it’s an expansive, synth-enhanced collection that circumvents the need for a rhythm section. The album began with a nostalgic remembrance of the River Calder, which runs through the part of West Yorkshire where he grew up, and by the time he finished, he was considering the works of largely forgotten Russian composers like Alexander Mosolov and Sergei Protopopov. 

“I went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2017 called ‘Revolution: Russian Art 1917 – 1932’, and I was blown away,” he says. “And it got me thinking that although I know Stravinsky and Shostakovich, I’d never listened to Borodin, say. So I started reading up on these figures and a lot of them had a really hard time with the Soviet regime, particularly the avant-garde composers like Mosolov and Protopopov.”

Of the albums reissued so far, it’s ‘Accidental Poetry Of The Structure’ and 2013’s ‘Balletic Transcend’ that genuinely stand out.

“‘Balletic Transcend’ has a lot to do with meditation and the spiritual side of travelling,” says Currie. “The feeling of ritual is very much about meditation, but it’s funny as well. I never take myself too seriously – the word ‘balletic’ is absolutely ridiculous!”

He started writing and recording the album around the time Ultravox’s definitive line-up came back together for one last hurrah, culminating in the band’s 2012 long-player, ‘Brilliant’.

“It got a little bit confusing there sometimes,” he says. “A few of my ideas from ‘Balletic Transcend’ ended up getting used on ‘Brilliant’, and in some ways, I was reluctant to hand them over. I do regret giving up ‘Satellite’ because it had a lovely piano riff, whereas with Ultravox it was done on the guitar and you can’t quite hear it.”

Following the release of ‘Brilliant’ and a brief return to the album charts, Ultravox inevitably began to fall apart again. In 2016, “after 43 loyal years”, Currie decided it was finally time to draw a line under it, announcing his departure on his website.

Leaving in 2016 was neither the first nor the second time William Currie had left Ultravox. The first time that everyone had had enough was 1987. From the band’s initial line-up in the early 1970s, there had been, broadly speaking, two versions of Ultravox – John Foxx’s incarnation were at the vanguard of technological pop, though they remained largely on the periphery, while the Midge Ure-led Ultravox achieved massive commercial success, with their singer becoming a household name, not least for his role in Live Aid and co-credits on the Band Aid charity single, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. But by the time they came to record 1986’s ‘U-Vox’ album, the group were disintegrating, with long-term drummer Warren Cann already sacked.

‘U-Vox’ was recorded at Currie’s home studio in the basement of his Notting Hill townhouse. When Ultravox disbanded, he recorded his first solo album, ‘Transportation’, there in 1988 (with Steve Howe from Yes on guitar), followed by his second, 1991’s ‘Stand Up And Walk’, featuring Suzanne Bramson on vocals. 

For a time, his Hot Food Studios under Chepstow Place, which he’d filled with beautiful instruments, including a Yamaha grand piano, became a fully functioning commercial recording facility, with artists like Pet Shop Boys and Dead Or Alive popping in and out.

“It was a successful business, believe it or not,” says Currie. “But it’s a pain to be a manager. You don’t know who to trust. Everyone’s trying to get free studio time.”

Steve Howe, who played on most of the ‘Transportation’ tracks, made his own solo album ‘Turbulence’ there, with Currie reciprocating musically.

“My biggest mistake was not building a room within a room,” he claims. “I remember Steve once cranking it up at five in the morning. I don’t blame him – he’s in a studio, for God’s sake! – but I was three floors up and it was knocking me out of bed.”

Currie looks back on those days with fondness, although he admits he was “lucky not to come out of there in a box”, such were the excesses. His first marriage dissolved expensively and he found himself on the move again.These days, settled in North London with his second wife, he creates entire sonic worlds from his laptop in his garage, without any need for elaborate set-ups. That said, Currie does admit that he misses the days of shifting freight across the continent at eye-watering cost, only for the “proper wacky analogue synthesiser” to go completely out of control mid-performance.

“When Ultravox did the ‘Lament’ tour, I had eight synthesisers onstage, which was a bit ridiculous,” he concedes. “I mean, I loved that time in a way, and I liked the challenge. You’d twiddle a knob and then go over to play that synthesiser, and people in the audience could see you weren’t quite sure if it was going to produce what you were expecting. That was exciting.”

Alongside his solo career, at the end of the 1980s Currie was involved with the short-lived group Humania, which he put together with his former Ultravox bandmate Robin Simon. Their failure to command attention saw him revive Ultravox in 1992 with a five-piece line-up that bore little resemblance to previous formations.

“I couldn’t hack it,” he reflects. “You get a lot of criticism, and I was very sensitive to people saying, ‘Why don’t you get a life?’, and things like that. You have to be really quite tough.”

The 1990s turned out to be an indifferent time for his career, with bands like Ultravox being regarded as 80s relics by music listeners at the time.

“The whole process with Ultravox was getting to me,” he admits. “I didn’t even go on holiday with my family because I was expected to do gigs. I was being managed by Simon Napier-Bell and Harry Cowell. They sorted things out for me from when Ultravox did ‘Revelation’, which ended up being a bit of a legal disaster. They managed to grab me out of that one.” 

Things were coming to a head, and Currie quit the band for the second time in September 1995. In a bid to escape the dread, he went on the road, fiddling with Brussels-based musician Blaine L Reininger of Tuxedomoon, for a therapeutic adventure that extended into 1996 when they played a series of dates in Germany.

“It was quite nice for my mental health, really,” says Currie, before admonishing himself. “God, what are you using that term for? Very fashionable these days…”

For a while he crashed in Reininger’s attic in Brussels, revelling in “une vie bohème”.

“It was very artistic,” he remembers. “I just loved it, and he’s such a character, as is his wife. I mean, they’re completely nuts. Being up there in the attic was just what I needed.”

In 1996, Currie began work on what would become ‘Unearthed’, a fully scored neoclassical album which he performed at the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1998, although it wasn’t released until three years later.

Also debuting in 2001 was ‘Keys And The Fiddle’ – an 18-track compilation of unreleased tracks from three different projects stretching back to 1983. It was followed by 2002’s ‘Push’, which Currie says was “very much influenced by a period of doing tai chi”. Then in 2004 came ‘Still Movement’, a synth album that began his 21st century Buddhism-themed works, utilising some of the equipment he first fell in love with, such as the ARP Odyssey.

As we’re talking, he suddenly remembers one of the more unusual contraptions that helped kick-start his whole fascination with electronics – the oscillator. And not just any old oscillator.

“So I met these hippies…” he recalls excitedly. This was the early 1970s and Currie’s band at the time, Wild Oats, would open now and again for the mighty Hawkwind.

“Vince, our tech guy, was lovely but a complete nutcase. He had a flat in Willesden, northwest London, where we used to hang out, and the guys from Hawkwind used to come and bring their oscillator. That’s what they used to use on stage to make that…”

Currie emits a prolonged “Ohhh”, imitating the sonic fluctuations.

“It was this ambulation just going up and down,” he continues. “So Vince let me put headphones on and play around with it. I keep forgetting to mention it in interviews and it’s probably one of the key moments in my musical education. I was just left alone with some headphones playing around with Hawkwind’s oscillator.”

Accidental poetry in waveform motion.

‘Accidental Poetry Of The Structure’ is out on Burning Shed, with further reissues to follow later this year

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