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.