One band’s reinvention became the New Romantic mission statement
Not only was Vienna by Ultravox the sound of a band rebooting itself and discovering its destiny in the process, it marked the beginning of a movement that would reshape pop music, giving Europe a beloved anthem along the way.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The original incarnation of Ultravox had crashed on the rocks. After three albums blending glam, art rock, and the bleeding edge of post punk, the Londoners had made nary a mark, and after being dropped by Island, they split in 1979. A deus ex machina by the name of Midge Ure arrived later that same year. The Scottish singer/guitarist was coming off a stint as frontman for The Rich Kids, blending punk and power pop, but he found himself in the loose-knit but visionary cabal surrounding singer/scenester Steve Strange in Visage.
Ultravox keyboardist/violinist Billy Currie was part of the crew too, and Visage unleashed its first single, “Tar” that September. The world wasn’t quite ready for the band’s forward-looking mix of synth pop, dance music, and Bowie-influenced rock yet. That would change in late 1980 when Visage’s self-titled debut LP appeared, but in the meantime, Currie invited Ure to help him restart Ultravox, calling on him to take over both the vocal and guitar chores previously handled by John Foxx and Robin Simon, respectively, while bringing bassist/synth player Chris Cross and drummer Warren Cann back to the fold.
AUDIO: Visage 1980 (full album)
The reconstituted Ultravox applied the innovations of Ure and Currie’s Visage sessions to the record that would become Vienna. German producer Conny Plank was a huge part of this process. Plank was famous for his work with krautrock pioneers like Kraftwerk and Cluster. He had already worked on the previous Ultravox album, edging the band in a more synth-friendly direction. Coming off the predominantly electronic Visage recordings, Ultravox was ready to embrace the shift with arms open wide.
The band was also readier than ever to define a distinctly European sensibility, ridding itself of every vestige of blues-derived American influence (not that they were anybody’s idea of roots rockers to begin with). This was reflected in the lyrical imagery too, in the title track and “New Europeans.” Ultravox positioned themselves as participants in a bold new futurism, where synths overruled guitars, Eurodisco trumped old-school ideas about rock ‘n’ roll, and punk fashions were replaced by a look that evoked extras from a highly stylized sci-fi film set. All these ideas together formed the core of what quickly became known as the New Romantic movement.
Ultravox weren’t the very first to arrive there. Japan’s 1979 album Quiet Life and Visage’s aforementioned “Tar” beat them to it by a few months, but neither of those made much commercial impact. Vienna, on the other hand, brought Ultravox the stardom that eluded them on their first three albums, becoming the biggest album of their career.
Much of that success could be laid at the doorstep of the title track, which would come to lodge itself in the pantheon of great British singles, popping up in films and TV shows and inspiring cover versions for decades to come. It’s basically synth pop’s first big power ballad, shot through with epic art-rock flourishes from the classically grounded Currie’s piano and viola, with Ure’s near-operatic delivery of the chorus slamming the whole thing home.
VIDEO: Ultravox “Vienna”
Ultravox displayed considerable cojones by beginning the album with “Astradyne,” a seven-minute instrumental. But the tune served to clear the decks right from the start as to what Ultravox 2.0 was all about. Besides showing off the band’s sleek new style, it featured what would quickly become their instrumental signature: the ARP Odyssey. Currie had played that synth previously, but in this newly electronic-based context (Cross and Ure also doubled on synthesizers, and Cann’s kit included electronic percussion) it just naturally leapt to the fore. Within just the next couple of years (and probably still to this day) electronic instrument makers would be programming patches into their synths based on Currie’s wailing Odyssey sound.
“Sleepwalk” was the album’s first single, and one of Ultravox’s finest moments. Like Vienna’s final single, “All Stood Still,” it’s a masterpiece of sweeping, hook-laden synth pop, and both songs would become U.K. hits. The record’s other single, the more guitar-centric “Passing Strangers,” sported the sort of dance-rock beat and heroic riffs that would be picked up by Spandau Ballet and other budding New Romantic bands a heartbeat later. But it was “Vienna” that became a smash all over Europe and landed the band’s stylish image on front covers across the continent.
VIDEO: Ultravox perform “Sleepwalk” at Top of the Pops 1980
By 1981, England would be overtaken by the scene that Vienna helped to set in motion, as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Classix Nouveaux and the like ascended the charts. And when the New Romantic revolution in turn led in an even more widespread way to the danceable, synth-savvy New Pop movement that would dominate the ’80s all over the world, the impact of Vienna reached its apex.
AUDIO: Ultravox Vienna (full album)