As a John Foxx-fronted five-piece, Ultravox (formerly with an added “!” in homage to Neu!) gained much critical acclaim with their increasing synth dominated glam punk rock, but split after third album Systems Of Romance failed to generate any commercial success. Or at least that’s how it seemed after frontman Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon decided to pursue their own separate paths. However, after keyboardist Billy Carrie had worked with Midge Ure in Visage, in 1980 the pair regrouped with remaining Ultravox members Warren Cann and Chris Cross to form a new line up. This new incarnation of the band was a rather different beast indeed, with Ure’s arrival bringing a more accessible approach to the songwriting process.
Vienna was released in October of 1984, initially rewarding the band with their chart breakthrough, before it’s majestic title track carved them an immortal place in music history. 40 years on and the nine-track LP stands as a truly seminal piece of work, and although it may have acted as a further blueprint for much of what was to become the sound of the 1980s, the songs on Vienna have an enduring and timeless quality. This 5CD and DVD edition of the album adds a trove of extra material, providing further insight into what was the most pivotal point in the band’s career.
While much of the original line-up’s output was perhaps slightly too uncompromising to infiltrate the charts, the Midge Ure-fronted configuration of the band was certainly more tooled up for the mainstream. However, although many hardcore devotees of the Foxx-era were disgusted at the band’s new direction, in hindsight Vienna certainly isn’t an out-and-out pop record. Its epic seven-minute opener ‘Astradyne’ sits perfectly on the line between the Krautrock punk of old Ultravox and to the more polished electronic rock of the new Ultravox, a propulsive European flavoured instrumental that has plenty of space to grow more strident with every minute. The infectious new wave anthem ‘New Europeans’ also isn’t a million miles from the group’s earlier work, yet its hungry sense of melody gives it an almost targeted drive.
Magnificent synth hooks and sturdy riffs elevate ‘Private Lives’ into the sort of brilliance that stands just the right side of bombastic, while further magic also is found all over the tasty basslines and solid drum work on post-punk pop banger ‘Passing Strangers’. Released as the album’s first single, the urgent synthpop of ‘Sleepwalk’ earned the band with their first Top 40 hit, with its heat-seeking keyboard solo complimented brilliantly by Connie Plank’s masterful production. It’s easy to see why purists were offended by its appearance as the new line-up’s debut single, but also easy to see why the Midge Ure-led unit gained many, many more fans than they lost. Behind the bright, upbeat melody there lurks an effectively contrasting darkness in the lyrics (“Rolling and falling, I’m choking and calling, name after name after name…”)
The shadowy analogue electronics of ‘Mr X’ aren’t afraid to show their debt to Kraftwerk, as the song is embedded with a mysterious atmospheric beauty that grows with the mechanical repetition of the music while Cann provides the monotone vocal. ‘Western Promise’ brims with drama, its astonishing drum rhythms and Bowie-like verses interspersed with a striking synth refrain, contrasting effectively with the iconic title track that follows.
‘Vienna’ was inspired lyrically by a holiday romance and ‘The Third Man’, musically by Greig, Elgar and German composer Max Reger. Building these influences around cold, sparse electronics, before rising into an unforgettable chorus, its sonic construction as the song develops is truly extraordinary. Although it remains one of the most seminal examples and pinnacles of popular music, ‘Vienna’ was famously held off the number 1 spot by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit ‘Shaddap Your Face’, but still managed to occupy the number 2 slot for a whole month in 1981. It makes for a double bill of classic singles, preceding the addictive dynamite closer ‘All Stood Still’, a thrilling track which gave the group their second Top 10 hit and ensured the album climaxed with a bang.
With CD2 adding some modern sheen by offering a Steven Wilson mix of the album, the third CD contains B sides and rarities from the era. Essential inclusions are the marching rock of ‘Waiting’, the guitar-driven ‘Face To Face’, and the hyperactive live take on ‘King’s Lead Hat’ which are quite a distance away from ‘Herr X’, the German language version of ‘Mr X’ which pays an even fuller and more obvious homage to Kraftwerk. Parts of ‘Passionate Reply’ wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Bowie’s Berlin-era albums, the chorus taking a further step towards the new romantic era. The B sides which featured on the ‘All Stood Still’ single are particularly fascinating, the reverb-heavy electronic instrumental ‘Alles Klar’ practically being an early example of house music with marvellous synth patterns floating around its surfaces. Meanwhile, the cassette recorded oddity ‘Keep Talking’ is an explorative, and quite frankly weird six and a half minutes of prototype techno that sounds like music from today’s future, never mind being ahead of its time in 1981.
Perhaps the only complaint is that these essential tracks weren’t grouped together, instead of being mixed in among single edits and identical versions of live tracks that appear on disc five.
The other cassette recordings from the 1979/1980 rehearsals occupy CD4 of this package, offering a glimpse into intriguing bits of unused material as well as rawer and more formative versions of the songs that would make up Vienna. But it’s disc five that perhaps provides the best reason for anyone aside from hardcore enthusiasts to ever want to buy this expansive reissue. Recorded back in December 1980 at St. Albans City Hall, the 14 live tracks have been newly remastered and pack a most impressive punch. While the rhythm section is tight as can be, the electronics are prominent and wonderfully atmospheric, and vocally Midge Ure is on his very best form, also fitting effortlessly into the band, even taking to Foxx-era songs like a duck to water. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ is particularly mesmerising. ‘New Europeans’ sounds utterly solid, ‘Sleepwalk’ is oddly joyous, and already clearly becoming an unconventional fan favourite, ‘Vienna’ itself is given an exemplary performance, providing an overwhelmingly powerful moment. At times it’s genuinely unbelievable to think that this is a 40-year-old live recording.
Four decades later, and the original album sounds just as wonderful as ever, with its accompanying b sides acting as a further reminder of how vital Ultravox was during a trailblazing and hugely fertile time for popular music. Meanwhile, the St. Albans live album is a priceless document that underlines the unique magic that this band possessed at the time. Their fourth album proved to their break into the big time, a fine balance of Teutonic experiments and perfectly accessible mainstream anthems that took the group to a whole new level, and into the cultural history books. Decades later and there is still plenty to learn from this record.