Ultravox – Vienna | 1980 – 4
After the band got shelved for a while following the departures of Foxx and Simon, the members all scattered to their own respective gigs to keep some income flowing. Irony of ironies, Billy Currie found himself recruited by über-fan Gary Numan for his top selling “Pleasure Principle” album and tour. While on tour with Numan, Currie was working out some ideas on the side with fellow keyboardist Chris Payne.
When Currie next moved to working on the Visage studio project, he brought forth the demo that fellow Visage member Midge Ure, fresh from stints with The Rich Kids and Thin Lizzy, managed to help him finish up for the Visage album. The song was “Fade To Grey” and was a huge hit that heralded the nascent New Romantic movement [what ever it was] into the mainstream. Visage drummer Rusty Egan opined to Currie that in Midge Ure, he had both the vocalist and guitarist that Ultravox were starting to look around for. Eventually, [Currie was resistant] they took the bait and Ure was in as the new front man. They tried to hit the ground running to the best of their ability. Having not sold large numbers and carrying debt, there weren’t many takers.
They managed to get signed to Chrysalis on the strength of the finished master for “Sleepwalk,” which they recorded and mixed in two days with Conny Plank again manning the boards. Chrysalis asked for a demo and got their first single master delivered instead. They quickly wrapped up what was then called the “Vienna” album after waffling over the title “Torque Point” for a little while until Chrysalis put their foot down, much to the joy of history.
The album began with the distinctive dit-dit-dit of the CR-78 laying down a nice synthetic hi-hat pulse that anchors the long, but definitely not boring, instrumental “Astradyne.” At nearly seven minutes in length, it was their longest waxing since “I Want To Be A Machine” on the debut album. Billy Currie really shines here with a robust electric violin and ARP solo with his now trademark pitch bending giving his leads the vibrant quality that almost no other synthesizer players bothered to have. Sure, it was work, but the end result sounded so strong!
As the song faded back down to just the CR-78, jagged guitar chords herald the next number, wherein the world got introduced to James “Midge” Ure as the new Ultravox vocalist. The Scotsman was a world of difference from the lanky Foxx, sporting a less idiosyncratic if equally powerful vocal style and lacking about a foot in height!
“New Europeans” sported influential, Eurocentric lyrics that on close examination, really don’t mean a whole lot, but in 1980 they embodied the lure of the Continent that was filling the dreams and desires of the demi-monde who were about to get plastered with the New Romantic tag. In terms of timing, the band, who had weathered long years in the wilderness, were now about reap the seeds they had sown for the last few years as the Blitz scene would carry them to the forefront of British pop for the next few years.
For all its Euro posturing, “New Europeans” was a killer slice of synth rock being played by a band that’s taking no prisoners. Currie’s ARP solos buzzed and reverberated with powerful square waves that made me feel like I’m licking a light socket. The cold false ending that stopped on a dime, only to kick in with a powerful extended coda a beat later, was a classic of its kind.
The highlight of side one was the band’s second single in this new lineup. “Passing Strangers” was like a feast of synthesizers and was the first Ultravox song I’d heard after seeing the incredible music video on a pre-MTV program called Hollywood Heartbeat. Sure, I’d heard Gary Numan when his breakthrough single, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” got a single play on the slightly more adventurous of Orlando’s two “FM Rock” stations the year prior. “Passing Strangers” sounded like three dimensional chess to Numan’s checkers. This track sounded like all four band members were playing synthesizers. Even the drummer!
These weren’t timid synth pop sounds like what would be proliferating within a year or two. These were thick, powerful waves of sound that were wedded to equally powerful rock with a Eurocentric, slightly classical bent. The fact that the group had a violinist who doubled on keyboards only served to strengthen this association. But where this music pulled ahead of middlebrow prog rock like Yes, was that it didn’t forget to rock! By all means tickle the cerebellum, but don’t forget the needs of the brain stem.
This certainly sounded like music that was as technologically advanced as I’d just heard that summer on the third Peter Gabriel album, which had been a favorite of mine. When the second verse ended the song’s bridge was a synthesizer solo capped with violin. In fact, it sounded like the whole band were playing synth solos while the violin soloed on top of it. Deep, rich, sequenced lines played off of sleek lead lines while the violin rose to the top of the sonic spectrum. I’d never heard anything this good before in my life.
Side one ended with “Sleepwalk,” a searing riff rocker that was the band’s attempt to deliver the “guts and gore of a typical Judas Priest song,” but using synthesizers, instead of guitars. The frenetic track succeeded admirably. It was driven by Cann’s tense, urgent drumming that really took the motorik sound of Klaus Dinger places. The addition of whipcrack synthetic percussive hooks made this one to dig deep and not let go of one’s ears. Incidentally, in a stunning turnaround, six years later Judas Priest would record their devisive, synth-heavy “Turbo” album, which in turn, resembled an Ultravox record!
Side two began with a track that sounded like it could have been on Kraftwerk’s “Man Machine” album. “Mr. X” was built on the sound of Düsseldorf’s finest robo rhythms over which the band’s drummer, Warren Cann, took the mic for this number only. Intriguingly, anyone who had seen the band’s 1979 US tour, had heard the group perform the unrecorded “Touch + Go” with a nearly identical melody. Cann’s lyrics to “Mr. X” sound like nothing more to me than a sequel of sorts to the spoken bridge on “Dislocation.” Heads turned when “Touch + Go” appeared on the debut John Foxx album sporting changed lyrics but the same melody. Both tracks were solely credited to their issuers and neither party raised a fuss, wisely. As “Mr X” trailed off, the next number cross faded in as side two of “Vienna” was segued together, for the most part.
The turbulent track “Western Promise” was the standout cut upon my first hearing the album. The slashing minor chords that are the song’s foundation contrasted beautifully with with the compulsive rhythms that drummer Warren Cann hammered out. The interplay between his live drumming and the rhythm programming available in the day would be a hallmark of Ultravox Mark II. Considering that he was known to have modified his stock Roland rhythm boxes (they couldn’t be called drum machines just yet, honestly) his efforts gave the band a quality of rhythm that combined the best of motorik beats coupled with a complexity of attack that machines were simply not yet capable of matching. But for me, the component that takes this song over the top is what sounded like synthesized flute shot through the number like Ian Anderson under the influence of cyberamphetamines*. The sharp, filtered crack of Midge Ure saying “Hai” at two points in the song arrived with all of the impact of lightning striking. This, for me, was a tremendously exciting number.
So much so, that upon early listening, the now-classic title cut that followed it struck me as anti-climactic. To be sure, the synth drone that resolved itself from the outro of “Western Promise” over the cavernous, thundercrack rhythm of the song was very atmospheric. Midge Ure’s delivery ran the gamut from calm retrospection to impassioned denial, and in this way only served to heighten the similarities in this track that I find to “Just For A Moment” from the previous album. Both have synthetic heartbeat rhythms, though “Vienna” sports some arrhythmia as well as heavy slatherings of reverb. Each song also sported piano solos, though only “Vienna” has a viola solo. Where the songs diverged was that “Just For A Moment” was ultimately an intimate work whereas “Vienna” delighted in overstatement and grandiloquence.
In the end, the song was Billy Currie’s baby with his piano and viola taking center stage. It was very rare at that time for a synthesizer band to have a ballad. Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” was perhaps the first of such things, two years earlier. The subtlety of the technology at hand in that era almost didn’t allow for it. Where the song really shone was when coupled with its now classic video. If “Passing Strangers” made even Bowie’s clips look passé, “Vienna” managed the neat trick of making “Passing Strangers” look like hackwork!
Finally, the album ended with the terse apocalyptic rocker “All Stood Still,” which was a vigorous way to end this album. The one weakness this album has for me as opposed to “Systems Of Romance” were its lyrics, written here by all members of the band for the one and only time. They managed to artlessly echo the thematic concerns of John Foxx while being in no danger of coalescing into a coherent artistic point of view on their own. At their best, as on “All Stood Still,” they came very close to matching the levels of tension and paranoia that were the hallmark of “Ha! Ha! Ha!” while adding a furious rock sensibility that very nearly reached parity with a storming track like “Some Of Them” from “Systems Of Romance,” …and that’s saying a lot! The band issued this as the fourth [hit] single from the album following the #2 smash that was “Vienna.”
This album was my gateway to Ultravox and it proved to be a good one. They instantly became my favorite band for a good five years. On one hand, it made me very eager to hear the earlier records, which I did in short order, only to find just how great they were. On the other, while the band couldn’t match John Foxx’s artistic P.O.V. or lyrical stance, their prowess as players and writers was even stronger than it had been on “Systems Of Romance” two years earlier. Here was a band at the peak of their powers for all the world to hear, and this album made huge ripples in the UK music pond that reverberated for years afterward. Gary Numan was step one, and this was the next step. Following this album, there was a synthesizer explosion in the UK for several years as everyone wanted this sound. The greatest irony of which was that the band, within a year, managed the karmic trick of displacing Gary Numan in the pop charts as his fortunes ebbed and their [finally] rose for a good five years. Their next move would be to consolidate this success.
* – Did you like that word? I just made that up.
Next: The sophomore jinx evaded…