“Vienna” Gets Ultrabox After 40 Years As Synth Rock Touchstone [part 5]

billy currie (c) 1980 brian griffin

Billy Currie modeled the “top button/no tie” look years before it went mainstream ©1980 Brian Griffin

[…continued from last post]


Disc four were all from the rehearsal cassettes that Ultravox would record during the early days of the lineup to work out new material. These dated back to the  late 79 period where Midge Ure was just coming into the then moribund band’s orbit from his linkup with Billy Currie in Visage. Ultravox had released a single track from their rehearsal tapes [not quite demos] when they were jamming for grooves to turn into songs with “Keep Talking;” not their finest moment. Would a whole album of such rough recordings have any charm?

In the version presented here, “Astradyne” was already well developed into the form that it would ultimately take on  “Vienna.” As to how much it gained from a rough and ready cassette recording [probably through a condenser mic] I can’t really say. The occasional tape dropout would attest to its veracity, but it was not ultimately far removed from any bootleg recording made of the band live from their glory years.

The next two songs [“New Europeans” and “Private Lives”] were of vocal numbers, but the incarnations here were predating any vocal/lyrical input. The arrangements were pretty close to what was recorded eventually, but for the notable absence of a middle eight section. As such, the latter ran a bit longer and more repetitively that it ultimately would.

Where things got much more interesting was when “Passing Strangers,” a song that was not written until much closer to the album sessions, popped up with a dramatically slower and more minimal take on the song. It was bass driven with meekly tentative keys and a polite drumbeat. The 7:32 version felt like about half of the tempo that the song would ultimately take. As with the previous two songs, there was no middle eight, which was the most mind-melting part of this particular song.

“Sleepwalk” was very close to the final form here, even sporting a Midge Ure vocal, though the order of the lyrics differed. The “Sleepwalk” vocal hook was obviously not there yet, but the grinding synth riff hook was clearly set in stone. Currie’s middle eight solo was fully there.

I liked the fake drum machine breaks in intro of the “Mr. X” as heard here. Warren was already narrating the track, but the lyrics were slightly different. The titular person was “probably from somewhere in Europe, judging by the style.” Otherwise the song would pass muster as the one we all know and love.

As a fan of “Western Promise” the rhythmic synth loop the song was built on as used here was radically different and almost percussive. The tempo was slower and the vibe was actually funky here. Vocals and lyrics were just about in place but the vibe was drastically different. This was pretty cool and the drum fills that Mr. Cann used certainly wouldn’t fly once the song became the streamlined bullet train it was destined to be, but as a fan of all things funky, it was a fascinating glimpse into the song’s origins.

We’ve read of how “Vienna” came together relatively quickly, after Cann proffered the iconic drumbeat, and this recording won’t dispel that notion. Apart from the roughness of the recording it is “Vienna” in full, florid form as we would know it forevermore. Complete with Ure performance and lyrics. The concluding “All Stood Still” here was an instrumental but also close to the final form, but for the rhythmic fills that were excised to make it sleeker. I found the dubby energy that occasionally manifested here to be most intriguing. Including the rhythmic guitar skank. If they had a better grasp on remixing, some of these arrangement ideas would have been great on the 12″ version of the song.

After hearing the album in rough, raw form, the rest of the disc was other bits and some 2nd looks at familiar songs. “Sound On Sound” was famously used in a press ad for “Passing Strangers” and has been an Ultravox holy grail for decades. Actually, the song was just an alternate title for what was released in a live recording as “Face To Face.” It was the exact same song but fot eh title phrase, which was inserted into the song where one would expect to hear “Face To Face.” Nothing to see here. Move along.

Far more cataclysmic was the inclusion of a song no one was aware of previously! “Animals” was a song that seemed fully formed complete with almost full lyrics and vocals from Ure. It was not an early effort that mutated into something else we might know. It’s a pretty interesting song that might have been a contender with a little polish. I suspect that Ure might have had this in his notebooks already; perhaps from the Rich Kids or even Visage. But hearing it here one can imagine it not surviving the vetting for what became the “Vienna” album. It’s not quite there.

The 2nd version of “Sleepwalk” was also a vocal take with an extended intro that could have enhanced a 12″ single, but the breakneck pacing of the LP version of the song was its first, best destiny. “Sound On Sound” was also in an instrumental version, heavy on the guitar. This song is really sticking with me 40 year later and I like having three versions of it now.

The 2nd version of “Passing Strangers” was about the halfway point between the earlier one and the LP version. It was still slower, but now Currie was putting the boot in on his synths, getting the energy levels boosted. It was still long at 6:30, though a minute shorter than the earlier version here. The second instrumental of “All Stood Still” was now 6:51! It’s neat to hear Ure working out his feedback solos in the intro that would come to help define the song. His interplay with Currie’s synths was also extended here for lots to chew on. The middle eight was really expanded here with lots of ideas that were cut to ultimately make it all more relentless, but were nonetheless interesting. Making for even more ideas that would have created an interesting 12″ version if they had gone there.

At the end of the day, these cassette recordings were almost interesting for the hardcore fan of this album that I was. The more the results here differed from the final album, the greater my interest was piqued. The running times that were much longer than I was used to for these songs were either pointless noodling [the long “Passing Strangers” seemed even longer than its 7:30 running time] or in the case of “All Stood Still” featured the song packed with many ideas that only served to divert its energy into various [fascinating] cul-de-sacs better left unexplored for the integrity of the song.

Next: …Albanism

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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3 Responses to “Vienna” Gets Ultrabox After 40 Years As Synth Rock Touchstone [part 5]

  1. Andy B says:

    Monk, I pretty much agree with your assessment of these cassette recordings. I thought the track ‘Animals’ was promising but obviously the band didn’t feel the urge to continue working on the track. There are some nice synth lines for sure. It was interesting to hear how ‘Passing Strangers’ started as such a slow track and gradually speeded up as the track was further worked on.

    One of my favourite tracks is the second version of ‘All Stood Still’. As you said it’s quite relentless. They have used the familiar bass sequencer and drum pattern whilst dropping in various guitar and synth effects. This track could have been taken in so many different directions. I understand they wanted the final album version to be quite concise. However, as you said Monk, they really could have made a really interesting 12” version. There was also the opportunity to extend the track live which they never took. Shame.

    Considering the source of the tracks on this disc the sound quality is pretty good. There’s definitely enough of a difference with a lot of these tracks, compared to the final studio versions, to make them worth listening to more than once.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. negative1ne says:

    Hi Mr. Monk,
    I still have not had time to delve into the details of all these tracks like you have. However, I have been enjoying your descriptions, and look forward to checking them out once I get a chance.


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