Tuesday, 14 February 2012

73 Vienna - Ultravox

Acquired :  23  December  1987

Tracks :  Astradyne / New  Europeans / Private  Lives / Passing  Strangers / Sleepwalk / Mr  X / Western Promise / Vienna / All  Stood  Still

With  both  of  us  now  working  Helen  and  I  could afford  to  spend  a  bit  more  at  Christmas  so  I  now  got  an  LP  each  for  birthday  and  Christmas. This  one  had  regularly  appeared  on  the  list  since  1981  and  finally  arrived  on  my  23rd  birthday.

"Vienna "  was  Ultravox's  breakthrough  album  but  at  the  beginning  of  1980  success  seemed  far  from  guaranteed. The  band  had  been  dropped  by  Island  Records  after  three  non-charting  albums  ( those  were  the  days !)  and  had  lost  enigmatic  singer  John  Foxx  and  guitarist  Robin  Simon in  1979. Ironically within  months both  drummer  Warren  Cann  and  keyboard  player  Billie  Currie  tasted  number  one  success  as  session  players  with  The  Buggles  and  Gary  Numan  respectively. The  remaining  trio  were  persuaded  to  take  on  Midge  Ure  to  perform  both  roles  by  his  former  bandmate  Rusty  Egan  while  he , Ure  and  Currie  were   involved  in  the  Visage  project. Ure  too  had  a  stench  of death  around  him  after  failing  to  make  a  lasting  mark  with  first  Slik  and  then  The  Rich  Kids  and  had  recently  worked  as  a  jobbing  guitarist  with  Thin  Lizzy.

On  the  other  hand  they  had  an  association  through  Visage  and  Egan  with  the  burgeoning  New  Romantic  scene  and  had  been  generously  namechecked  by  Gary  Numan  as  a  major  influence  on  his  music .  This  latter  factor  had  already  helped  Foxx  to  moderate  chart  success  with  his  solo  LP  Metamatic. It  remained  to  be  seen  whether  the  refreshed  band  could  similarly  capitalise.

"Astradyne" would  be  a  brave  choice  to  open  any  album, a  seven  minute  long  synth    instrumental  delaying  the  introduction  of  the  new  singer.  That  someone  in  the  band  was  a  krautrock  fan  could  already  be  deduced  from  the  choice  of  Conny  Planck  as  producer  but  Neu !  in  particular  are  a  big  influence  here  from  the  meaningless  title  onwards. It  starts  with  a  high-pitched  bell  ticking  before  sweeping  counter-melodies  on  the  synths  take  the  track  forwards. Chris  Cross  and  Warren  Cann  come  in  just  before  the  first  minute's  up  and  the  ensuing  passage  does  bear  a  similarity  to  Ure's  gift  to  Phil  Lynott  Yellow  Pearl  ( released  earlier  in  1980  but  a  hit  two  years  later  as  the  Top  Of  The  Pops  theme ).  At  2.20  Billy  Currie  takes  it  into  different  territory  with  a  scorching  electric  violin  solo  after  which  the  drum  and  bass  drop  out  for  a  Mike  Oldfield-ish  quiet  interlude. This  lasts  for  a  minute  before  finally  Ure  arrives  with  some  squealing  guitar  leading  to  a  pounding  climax  with  Cann  giving  the  cymbals  some  punishment.  I  must  admit  to  initially  thinking  it  was  a  bit  tedious  but  can  now  appreciate  it  as  an  impressive  statement of  intent.

Ure  makes  his  vocal  entrance  on  "New  Europeans"  expressing  Buggles-ish  concerns  about  dehumanising  technology  and  providing  a  bridge  between  that  first  wave  of  electronic  dabblers  at  the  turn  of  the  decade  and  the  New  Romantics. Ure's  choppy  punk  guitar  , Cann's  relentless  motorik  drumming  and  Cross's  brutalist  bass  synth  conspire  to  keep  Currie  on  the  sidelines  for  most  of  the  song  though  he's  allowed  a  plain  piano  solo  as  a  coda. The  references  to  parenting  and  lost  loves  remind  you  that  these  guys  were  all  pushing  30  at  the  time  which  may  account  for  the  urgency  evident  in  many  of  these  songs. This  one  could  do  with  a  slightly  stronger  chorus.

The  album then  wobbles  slightly  with  two  less  interesting  tracks. "Private  Lives " ,  a  celebration  of  night  life  tailor-made  for  the  Blitz  crowd but  for  its  awkward  rhythms, begins  with  a  questioning  classical  piano  intro  from  Currie  but  once  Ure's  wailing  guitar  comes  in  turns  into  a  mid-paced  rock  track  with  no  chorus. "Passing  Strangers" , a  poor  choice  for  second  single  which  didn't  make  the  Top  40  ( Ure  must  have  wondered  if  the  Slik/Rich  Kids  career  path  was  going  to  repeat  itself ) suffers  from  a  rather  turgid  mix  with  Cross's  sludgy  bass  too  prominent, a  dull  melody  and  some  very  cliched  lyrics  - "dance  in  the  dark, sing  in  the  rain" - about  nothing  in  particular. Currie's  keyboard  solo  in  the  middle  eight  is  more  interesting  but  doesn't  rescue  the  track. 

Things  perk  up  again  with  "Sleepwalk"  which  finally  gave  them  a  hit  single in  August  1980  after  half  a  dozen  flops  in  the  Foxx  era. With  lyrics  from  Cann  referencing  his  own  unusual  sleep  patterns  ( as  amusingly  recalled  by  Ure  in  his  autobiography  If  I  Was )  it's  as  exciting  as  synth-pop  gets  with  Cross's Moroder-ish  bass  synth  setting  a  rattling  pace  for  the  rest. Ure's  assured  vocal  is  a  plus  but  Cann's  frantic  drumming  and  Currie  and  Ure's  synth  duel  in  the  middle  eight  are  awesome. You  hardly  notice  the  chorus  is  just  a  chant  of  the  title  especially  when  the  song  fades  out  to  a  haunting  keyboard  melody.

The   opening  track  on  side  two  "Mr  X"  began  life  when  Foxx  was  in  the  band  as  a  song  named " Touch  and  Go"  which  subsequently  appeared  on  Metamatic  without  a  credit  for  any  of  his  former  bandmates. Ure  may  not  be  on  the  track  at  all  as  there's  no  guitar  and  Cann  does  the  vocal,  his  deadpan  Canadian  tones  contrasting  with  the  very  European  synth  music, a  combination  that  irresistibly  calls  The  Third  Man  to  mind. One  wonders  what  Plank  made  of  producing  a  track  so  obviously  in  debt  to  his  most  famous  clients  but  it's  up  there  with  anything  on  The  Man  Machine.  The  inhuman  machine  rhythms, Ballardian  non-sequiturs in  the lyrics  and  icy  perfection of  the  melody  line  make  it  overwhelmingly  sinister  even  before  Currie  throws  in  his  most  unsettling  violin  solo. Over  thirty  years  later  it's  still  stunning.

The  same  can  be  said  of  "Western  Promise"  indicative  of  New  Romanticism's  often -forgotten  fascination  with  the  Far  East. No  fey  talk  of  Geishas  here  though ; it's  a  very  untypical  blast  at  American  cultural  imperialism - "All  minions  to  Messiah  Pepsi  Can"- powered  by  ferocious  drumming  from  Cann  and  the  wierdest  synth  growls  on  the  LP. Currie  finds  enough  space  to  contribute  an  elegant  Oriental  melody  line and  Ure  hollers  the  message  home.

Then  we  have  the  title  track  which  I  don't  propose  to  describe  in  any  detail  as  no  one  who's  read  this  far  could  possibly  be  unfamiliar  with  it. Indeed  as  far  as  radio  programmers  go  it's  the  only  track  Ultravox  ever  recorded. I  must  admit  that  back  in  1981  it  took  its  time  to  grow  on  me  and  I  still  wouldn't  rate  it  one  of  their  best  tracks  but  I  guess  I'll  always  be  in  the  minority  there.

I  preferred  its  forgotten  follow-up  ( in  slightly  spruced-up  form )  "All  Stood  Still"  which  closes  the  album. Like  "Sleepwalk" it's  based  around  Cross's  pummelling Mini-Moog  bassline   and  is  even  more  exciting  as  Ure  trades  lines  with  Cann and  Cross  about  technological  Armageddon. If  the  internet  collapsed  this  would  be  the  perfect  soundtrack. Ure's  allowed  a  couple  of  screeching  guitar  solos  and  the  couple  of  seconds  of  bare  Mini-Moog  before  the  second  lengthier  one  is  the  greatest  dramatic  pause  in  rock.

I  don't  think  I  fully  appreciated  this  LP  in 1987 , the  year  in  which  Ultravox  gave  up  the  ghost  after  a  belated  third  single ("All In One  Day") from  the  underwhelming,  Cann-less  "U-Vox"  LP  failed  to  make  the  Top  75. Now  it's  quite  obviously  their  best , acknowledged  by  the  band  themselves  when  it's  30th  anniversary  became  the  springboard  for  their  re-activation.


  1. Hello Mike, I´m writing you from Spain, I would like to know if you could please help me to know the whole lyrics of a couple of songs from the band Red Guitars album Tales of the Expected you comentted last year, both songs are of course National Avenue and Be with me, best songs I´ve heard in my whole life, waiting for your news, thanks in advance....Regards

    1. Hi Xim Thanks for reading. The album didn't come with a lyric sheet so the following is my best guess not necessarily 100% correct

      National Avenue

      Don't be surprised, it's only me
      I've come to see just how you are
      You look very good
      Must be since you left that factory
      How's Paul ? Is he working ? No
      Who works these days ?

      But you used to have a job
      In the caravan in the street
      Even that's gone these days
      I remember when you used to wander by
      The used car of your dreams

      When you were my baby now
      You were my baby now
      You'd be free and you'd get away

      Oh it's easy to see what you did for me
      The way you lived your life
      I know it don't call much these days
      You never had a decent man to make you happy
      How's Mary-Ann ? Is she married ? No
      No one gets married these days

      She's inside me now

      And what I really came to say
      Is I'll be going away for a while
      I take in the scene just one more time
      How's Paul ? Hey I'm gonna miss him

      He's inside me now
      I've got time on my hands
      She's my baby now

      I'm leaving early

      I'm gonna miss this place
      I'm gonna miss your face

      Papa was a rolling stone

      Be With Me

      Be with me in everything I do
      Thought of you, the very thought makes me surrender
      Other men, other men only take you out
      Other men only leer at you

      I don't want to set you free

      Me and you,oh we could be Siamese
      If you please, only if you please so
      Be with me in everything I do
      Talk to me as I talk to you

      Ah be with me

      I don't want you to be 300 miles away from me

      This song, this song is for Jenny

      Oh it's three o clock in the morning
      I miss you I miss you

      Hope this is helpful

  2. Hello again, many many thanks for your help, I had the album in Spain in the 80s and it´s true there was no lyrics sheet inside, that´s why I missed the lyrics so much, I understand almost the whole song but certain parts were difficult to me...Great Job, I wish you all the best to you...