Viewers Choice: “Vienna” and Ultravox’s huge influence on the British synth-pop movement of the early ’80s

By on March 27, 2017

In this “Viewers Choice” episode of “Night Flight” — which originally aired on September 19, 1986, and is now streaming over on our Night Flight Plus channel — Pat Prescott introduces the video for Ultravox’s “Vienna” by calling the band “Britain’s rock fashion leaders,” which is debatable or at least perhaps a topic for further discussion. Nevertheless, “Vienna” was one of the first signs that by the early ’80s, Ultravox were already a huge influence on the British synth-pop movement that dominated the decade.

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Originally coalescing in London, sometime in the fall of 1974, and originally calling themselves Tiger Lily and releasing a single in 1975, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (their cover of the Fats Waller tune was meant for a softcore adult film of the same name), Ultravox were one of the great art rock bands of the mid-to-late 70s, but they have been occasionally forgotten too, simply because they were overshadowed by their own electro-pop success at the start of the next decade, transforming them from

Just as many bands go through a process of finding the right name for themselves, Ultravox wasn’t even their first choice of a band name — they were also, for short intervals of time, called the Zips, Fire of London, London Soundtrack and even called themselves the Damned, briefly, until they discovered that another British band had beat them to it (the name had come from one of the first songs they’d written as a band, “The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned”).

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Speaking of names, the original membership weren’t quite sure if they wanted to use their real names, and so early on their bassist Chris Allen became Chris Cross, and lead vocalist Dennis Leigh ultimately decided on calling himself John Foxx (after considering John or Johnny Vox instead), while Stevie Shears (guitar), Warren Cann (drums) and Billy Currie (keyboards/electric violin) stuck with their original names.

The band’s live performances were what first connected with their fans, and drew the attention of record companies too, leading to them signing with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in the summer of 1976.

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Early tracks by Ultravox recorded in the fall of 1976 were produced by both Steve Lillywhite — who worked in London’s Phonogram Studios, and gave the band access so they could record a dozen demos that led to their getting Island’s attention — and Brian Eno, who were initially credited as co-producers on their debut LP, released in February of 1977.

Over time, however, Lillywhite’s name would seem to disappear from the credits and occasionally from their reviews, and only Eno’s name would be mentioned — at the time listing Brian Eno as your producer was just about the best thing you could have on your record sleeve.

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The band were looking to push their conceptual boundaries, and there was no better pusher in the late 70s than Eno.

You can definitely hear his influential ideas on tracks like their minor UK hit “My Sex,” and “I Want To Be A Machine,” another early track written by the band, sparked by an idea of John Foxx’s, who claimed he intended to live his life without expressing any emotions.

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Sales of Ultravox! — originally their band name also had an exclamation point, until they stopped insisting on its usage — weren’t what everyone was expecting, and frankly disappointing to say the least, although we think the album is a rare gem that everyone should seek out if you’ve not heard it.

When the band returned with their sophomore album, Ha!-Ha!-Ha!, released later that same year, they’d punked up their sound with raucous, snarling guitars and electrified violin.

The band told music scribes that they preferred to be called “British new wave,” however, instead of being called a punk band, in part to differentiate themselves from the Sex Pistols and other bands who were making all the noise at the time.

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The album’s last track, a murky and dramatic synth-pop masterpiece called “Hiroshima Mon Amour” — titled after a film by French director Alain Resnais, from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras — proved to be one of their best songs.

It was also one of the first to feature a Roland Rhythm 77 drum machine, signalling, perhaps, a new direction for the band and perhaps were nearly all of British pop would be going in the next decade.

Perhaps this new direction — experimenting with fully electronic instruments via the incorporation of synthesizers and a drum machine — is one of the reasons Stevie Shears, the band’s guitarist, was sacked after a UK tour in early March 1978 (he was replaced by guitarist Robin Simon).

Certainly by the time their third album, the sonically introverted musical iceberg Systems of Romance, arrived on September 11, 1978, it was clear that Ultravox were moving away from rock guitars and towards moody synths as their dominant sound.

The album was produced, incidentally, by Conny Plank, who had produced the influential German band Kraftwerk.

Island Records, after the relatively poor sales of the album and its failure to find an American audience, dropped the band on January 1, 1979.

The members of Ultravox — believing they were just on the verge of major success — decided to continue on, even financing their own US tour in early 1979.

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Incidentally, your humble author saw Ultravox on this tour, at an infamous under-21 punk venue called the Cuckoo’s Nest, in Costa Mesa, California.

I arrived to the venue so early — expecting a rather large crowd that didn’t show up until much closer to their set time — that I was able to hang out with the band and even play a game of pool with John Foxx.

(This was actually a Monday night show, on March 19th, 1979, just a few days after the Elks Lodge show in L.A. which we told you about here).

Their shows in L.A. and down in Orange County, where I saw them, were their last shows before they returned back to London, and they proved to be their last gigs in more ways than one.

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Foxx would end up going solo, signing with Virgin Records and leaving the band without their lead vocalist.

The members of Ultravox went their own ways for awhile: violinist Billy Currie would end up playing with Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army for a time, while the others would find gigs elsewhere while they figured out how to proceed. Guitarist Robin Simon also quit, joining Howard DeVoto’s Magazine.

It would seem to many that Ultravox were finished, but that’s not what happened, as they were brought back to life just a few months later by Midge Ure, who was asked by Currie to join Ultravox sometime around April 1979.

Midge Ure’s real name was Jim Ure, but he had originally began using the name “Midge” in an earlier band, which already had another Jim, and so he reversed Jim to its phonetic reversal of “Mij,” which was then, of course, spelled out as “Midge.”

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In addition to having a hand in numerous bands — including former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock’s band Rich Kids, joining sometime in October 1977, and Steve Strange’s New Romantic studio project Visage (that’s where he met Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie) — Ure was a kind of utility player who helped out lots of 70s bands before he joined Ultravox.

One of those bands was Thin Lizzy, joining them to play guitar with the band on their American tour, and also co-writing a track which he’d first tried playing as an instrumental with Ultravox before they dropped it from their repertoire.

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Ure — he’s described by our friends at Dangerous Minds as “a fey Scotsman with a John Waters-like moustache” — would return to the tune years later, along with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, and record it as “Yellow Pearl,” which ultimately became the theme tune for the UK’s “Top of the Pops” in the early 80s (the one with the flying saucer which explodes pink vinyl records), which provided a steady £350 each week it was played on the British airwaves).

Ure also co-organized Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8 with Bob Geldof (he co-wrote and produced the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” too),

After the Thin Lizzy tour, Ure — who had switched from guitar to keyboards by this point — focused on his primary interest at that time, which was fronting Ultravox, playing guitar (he proved to be one of the better guitarists) and helping them get a new record deal.

That deal came sometime in 1980, after the band took money offered by Chrysalis Records to record a bunch of demos, but instead of doing that, they decided to hand the label a master recording of a single tune.

They chose a new song they’d written and were eager to record, called “Sleepwalk,” which they nailed in three days time, with Conny Plank engineering the sessions at RAK Studios, followed by mixing at Plank’s own studio near Cologne, Germany.

On the strength of that one master track, they were signed to the label by one of Chrysalis Records’ founders, Chris Wright, who created the independent record company in 1968 in a student basement flat with partner Terry Ellis.

The name of the label itself — the “Chrys” of his first name and the “alis” of Ellis’s surname — were actually meant to signify that their partnership would be represented equally.

Wright was known for having great ears, but he’s also known for famously declining to sign David Bowie (he thought Bowie was a one-hit wonder at the time, calling him “a pop artist, not an act with any longevity”), the Kinks, the Sex Pistols, Dire Straits (Wright said he found Mark Knopfler’s band “very boring”) and other popular artists of the ’70s and ’80s, not to mention he also turned down the Spice Girls and declined the opportunity to invest early on in the Cats musical, which went on to huge Broadway success.

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Nevertheless, Wright managed to make a significant impact on the music business, discovering and signing bands and artists like Blondie, Billy Idol and Spandau Ballet, the latter London band who, in 1980, were seen to epitomize the New Romantic sub-genre even more than their rivals, Duran Duran.

In 1980, Chrysalis wanted to become a label for the new-fangled New Romantic sound, and Wright inked the reinvigorated Ultravox, later telling Classic Pop magazine in December 2013 that he believed Chrysalis were a “cutting edge” label at the time: “We were able to pick up on everything – we kept our ears close to the ground.”

Wright hadn’t known, however, that Roy Eldridge, his head of A&R at the time, and Doug D’Arcy, the label’s managing director, had already turned down Ultravox two weeks earlier when they’d tried to get the label interested in them.

Fortunately for Ultravox, Wright outranked them, and apparently he heard something that they hadn’t.

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Ultravox began recording tracks for their debut on Chrysalis, which was originally supposed to be called Torque Point, but once Wright heard “Vienna,” he insisted to the band and fellow label execs at Chrysalis that they go with Vienna instead.

Ure wrote the lyrics for “Vienna” around the idea of finding romance while on holiday, imagining that a brief love affair taking place in the beautiful city of Vienna created the opportunity for a memorable song.

Originally, their record company didn’t want to release the title track “Vienna” as a single, as it was too long for radio (at nearly six minutes in length), not to mention it was also too slow, too weird and too depressing.

However, Ultravox ultimately prevailed and the track was issued as the third single from the band’s Vienna album.

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The record sleeve for the “Vienna” single featured a statue of a famous 19th Century Austrian pianomaker named Carl Schweighofer, whose grave is located in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof Cemetery, which shows a man kneeling down with his head in his hand.

The iconic artwork itself may have been a clever way to signify that, as a keyboard instrument, the piano itself was dead, but long live the sound of the new decade, the 1980s, the synthesizer, an instrument embraced wholeheartedly by the new Ultravox.

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Chrysalis also balked at doing a video for the track, and since the band’s recording contract required that the label pay for two videos to promote two singles, and they’d already produced two videos for the two previously-released singles — including “Sleepwalk” (#29 peaking in June 1980), and their first single and video, “Passing Strangers” (#57) — and they weren’t initially interested in paying for a third.

Ultravox decided, as they had done many times before, to go ahead as planned and pay for the video themselves.

Australian film director Russell Mulcahy was brought in to direct.

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Russell Mulcahy

Mulcahy had originally started off his career as a film and TV director by working at a TV station in his native Sydney, Australia, the same one where director Peter Weir also got his start.

He ended up directing two short films which won awards at the Syndey Film Festival in 1975 and ’76, before setting up his own production company to do video promos.

That company went bankrupt, but he was still in demand as a director and ened up working in England, filming punk bands, until his video for the Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” opened the doors to incredible success and career longevity as one of the top directors in demand.

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Mulcahy’s original vision for the video was to feature gondolas, bridges and boats, images often associated with the city of Venice, not Vienna, but after the geography lesson, Mulcahy realized it was much better to shoot indoors as much as possible since the video was being lensed during the winter and all of Europe was freezing cold at the time.

Mulcahy’s distinctive directing style may have begun with this early 80s video for “Vienna,” which set a stylistic precedent early on in the world of promotional music videos, embracing the kind of detail seen in both high fashion photography, the use of glamor, and the mood-enhanced use of evocative locales and atmospheric visuals.

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The mini-movie video proved to be quite an expensive production too, featuring incredible neo-classical locations in both Vienna, which were shot on the cheap, where the band found that, because it was the dead of winter, not only was it freezing but most of the locations where they’d wanted to shoot were closed at the time for repairs, with scaffolding hiding some of the exteriors where they’d planned to shoot.

Most of the scenes were, however, filmed in around London, at the Covent Garden Piazza (thankfully without the everpresent mimes) and the lavish interior sequences and the embassy party scenes were shot inside the old Kilburn Gaumont Theatre in North London, and a rented mansion, mostly showing lots of extras in elaborate and expensive costumes.

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There were also singularly visually stunning images — like the opening shot, showing a mysterious blonde in her long, flowing dress and fur coat, running after a white horse — which had really nothing to do with a story, per se.

In October 1981, Mulcahy would tell Billboard Magazine’s Cary Darling that he would sometimes get ideas from the mood of the song, and for “Vienna,” the only idea he had was “a girl on a horse walking down a foggy street.”

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Mulcahy has also said the music itself inspired the video’s overall visual style, saying that Ultravox’s music was “very rich,” and “a joy to put images to.”

Some of those images, however, proved to be too much for American audiences: for the US version of the video, a shot of tarantula spiders walking on people’s faces had to be edited out so as not to offend MTV’s young viewership.

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In that same interview piece, Mulcahy would also tell Billboard that he didn’t think American audiences weren’t quite ready for some of the imagery that was showing up already in the English-made videos:

“I think that’s because American audiences are used to having a band stand there with a microphone with some smoke and sing their songs. Whereas in England, there have been experiments with the visual medium to tell a story or create visuals which are in harmony with the song. There are some nice things happening in England, visually and musically. I think it will come over here eventually. In England, our videos aren’t considered weird, they’re normal.”

Other scenes in the video — such as children playing classical instruments — were more acceptable nods of acknowledgment to the early 20th Century Surrealist movement, which frequently juxtaposed seemingly incongruous moments that weren’t likely to happen in real life (although a string quartet comprised of children is rather tame compared to what most surrealists had done).

There were also nods in the “Vienna” video to great cinematic moments, like the use of moody shadows flitting against walls at odd “Dutch angles,” which seemed to have been directly influenced by scenes that came straight from Carol Reed’s 1948 film noir classic, The Third Man.

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Mulcahy — whose early UK credits include work with the Sex Pistols, XTC (“Making Plans for Nigel”) and the Vapors (“Turning Japanese”) — ended up becoming one of the Eighties-era’s best video directors, directing iconic videos for the Buggles (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), Kim Carne (“Bette Davis Eyes”), the Tubes (“The Completion Backwards Principle”), Spandau Ballet (“True”) and several videos each for Duran Duran, Elton John and many, many others.

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Mulcahy was profiled numerous times over the years that “Night Flight” aired on the USA Network, and we’ve got a few of those episodes up on Night Flight Plus for you to check out, including this episode, which aired on November 23, 1984.

Ultravox’s “Vienna” single was supposed to be released in late 1980, but Chrysalis decided to delay its release in December after John Lennon was assassinated in New York City, as three of his singles — “Imagine” and two from Lennon and Ono’s recently released album Double Fantasy, “Woman” and “(Just Like) Starting Over” — entered the charts, pushing their way to the top.

“Vienna” was released early in the new year, in January 1981, and then spent fourteen weeks on the UK singles charts, and would go on to be the fifth best-selling single of 1981, and win the Best Single award at the Brits Awards that year.

The Vienna album itself initially peaked at #14 on the British album charts, a respectable showing, but it would later climb into the Top Ten in several countries, including the UK (#3), as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and several others.

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However, “Vienna” never quite made it to the top of the UK singles charts, and peaked at #2 in February and March of 1981.  Somewhat embarrassingly, it never was able to dislodge the #1 hit at the time, Joe Dolce’s novelty one-hit wonder “Shaddap You Face.”

The critics weren’t always nice to Ultravox during their post-Foxx era.

Rolling Stone‘s review of their Vienna album, in fact, said the band were “… running up the flag of significance by utilizing bombast: overblown arrangements, familiar and banal electronic effects,” adding that “the results sound less like Ultravox’s old mechanized enervation than the more-is-more ‘progressivism’ of, say, the Moody Blues–anachronistic, pretentious and worn.”

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Oh, and the New Romantic phase embraced briefly by Ultravox — not to mention by bands like Spandau Ballet, Visage and Duran Duran — was soon exhausted too, but Ultravox merely transformed again and kept going, changing a few more times during the 1980s.

Watch Ultravox’s video for “Vienna” — along with “Viewers Choice” selections of videos by Frank Zappa, The Cure, Falco, Whistle, Shriekback and Phil Collins — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.