31st January 2021
Whenever I hear the song Vienna I have an overwhelming urge to join in and belt out the wonderfully dramatic hook. Dependent on the scenario, this normally results in others joining me, or raised eyebrows and mumbled comments, I’m used to both! By the time the Vienna album was released a lot of water and history had passed under the Ultravox bridge, and today I’ll attempt to take you on a quick trip through the history and background of this remarkable band.
The first incarnation was the initiative of Dennis Leigh (who took on the stage name John Foxx) who recruited Chris Allen who was performing under the name Christopher St John (later changed to Chris Cross), and three others. They initially performed as Tiger Lily and released one single, a copy of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehaving, which went on to be used in a porn film. These dubious beginnings also saw a series of name changes.
After being signed to Island Records in 1976 they decided on Ultravox! (dropping the exclamation mark soon after). The debut self-titled album was released in 1977. As fitted the times, their image was a fusion of art-school glam, popular at the tail end of Punk and the rise of New Wave. The album wasn’t a success and neither the album nor its single Dangerous Rhythm managed to make it into the charts.
Ha!-Ha!-Ha! followed, but like the previous album, didn’t make an impression, all except the final track, Hiroshima Mon Amour. This song saw a new direction for Ultravox and it was one of the first synth-pop arrangements, and the fist to use a drum machine with pre-sets (Roland Rhythm 77). Ultravox fans regard this track as the highlight of the band’s early incarnation.
Foxx was a bit of an oddball and declared that he had decided to live without emotions. As you can imagine, this caused tensions amongst the band members and there were regular changes in the lineup.
Systems of Romance, the third album (1978) confirmed the change in direction and the synth sound was brought to the foreground, possibly influenced by Kraftwerk’s producer, Conny Plank, who lent his talents to numerous Ultravox albums. Unfortunately the commercial success they were hoping for eluded them again, and despite limited critical praise, the tensions and lack of finances broke the morale of the band even more.
Island dropped Ultravox in 1979, but they undertook a self-financed tour of the USA before splitting after their final gig in San Francisco. Island not only dropped the band but also their catalogue of albums, releasing a compilation of highlights called Three Into One. And so it seemed that the end of Ultravox was assured, especially after Foxx decided to go solo and the other members drifted off to join other outfits and projects.
I must say I prefer the second part of Ultravox’s career, but we’ll get to that shortly. To represent the first stage of the Ultravox story I am sharing the clip of them performing Slowmotion and Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1978 on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Is it just me or can I hear some of the melody patterns of their later hit, Dancing with Tears in my Eyes in this?
Ultravox received the shot in the arm that was needed when the incredibly talented Midge Ure was persuaded to join the band, which he did as vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist. He had been working with Thin Lizzy at the time but was also a member of Visage (remember Fade to Grey?), who’s drummer initially asked Midge to make the move.
What followed has been heralded as one of the greatest albums of the period and cemented Midge Ure’s name in the halls of popular music. The Vienna album surpassed all of the band’s previous sales. Again, it was produced by Conny Plank and released by Chrysalis Records in 1980. Although the single Sleepwalker made it to #29, it was the single of the album’s title that took them global. With a beautifully filmed video playing to the growing popularity of MTV and the expert use of synths to lead listeners through the dramatic tale, it was a surefire winner and the single hit #2, being kept from the top spot by John Lennon’s Woman.
Rage in Eden followed in 1981 and featured two singles, The Thin Wall and The Voice (another of my favourite songs of theirs). The album peaked at #4 in the UK and Ultravox were finally becoming a household name. The Quartet album (1982) saw a change in producer with George Martin being brought on board. The album produced the highest amount of charting singles from an Ultravox album, with Reap the Wild Wind, Hymn, We Came to Dance and Visions in Blue. Their world-wide Monument Tour was recorded and a live album and video released
Lament followed in 1984 and produced another three Top 40 singles, Dancing with Tears in my Eyes, Lament and One Small Day. Whereas the first compilation released (Three In One) covered the John Foxx years, the second compilation of greatest hits, The Collection (1984) was very much in honour of Midge Ure’s influence. The Collection went triple Platinum and reached number two on the UK album charts.
It was also the year that Midge Ure co-wrote the Live Aid anthem, Do They Know It’s Christmas, and Ultravox played a selection of their biggest hits at the event. Midge hadn’t forgotten his solo career during all of this activity and released the #1 hit If I Was from his album The Gift which reached #2 in the UK.
The album U-Vox (1986) was the last of this period in Utravox’s story, and one that Midge Ure and Billy Currie described as ‘unfocused’. Although the singles Same Old Story and All Fall Down achieved mild chart success, by 1987 they decided to disband due to the obvious decline in popularity. Midge Ure left to continue his successful solo career and Chris Cross gave up music altogether and returned to his career as a psychotherapist.
Although this part of their story produced some of the band’s most memorable hits, there is only one I can possibly feature as today’s second choice, and the perfect song to sum up these important years, here’s the remastered video of Vienna.
In what could be termed the ‘Post Midge Ure years’, Billy Currie reformed the band in 1992 with no original members and recorded two albums, Revelation and Ingenuity. Neither had any success and the bad dissolved again two years later.
The next anyone saw was when Midge Ure, Chris Cross, Warren Cann and Billy Currie reformed Ultravox for the 2008 Return to Eden Tour. It was the first time that they had played together since Live Aid and the success of this classic lineup saw them extend the tour to Germany and Belgium.
A spate of digitally remastered re-releases followed and a documentary was made about the build-up to the reunion and tour. Midge Ure told the Sunday Mail, “the reunion is only a one-off, and there will be no new material from the group”. He said: “We’re not trying to recapture our youth and won’t be writing new songs or recording another album. This is about celebrating our music and our anniversary.”
Despite this, an announcement that a new studio album was nearing completion appeared on their official website in 2011. A fan store exclusive EP called Moments from Eden was released in May 2012 and contained four new tracks.
The 11th studio album was released shortly afterwards. Named Brilliant, the band embarked on the Brilliant Tour across the UK and Europe in 2012 and finished their dates as special guests on a four-date UK arena tour with Simple Minds. This was the last album release, and when Billy Currie left what had basically become a tour band in 2017, Midge Ure revealed to the Daily Express that any further reformation of the band was unlikely. I am not sure if Ultravox’s sound would have remained relevant for long, even had they stayed together. After listening to the Briliant album I was unconvinced and found it much of a muchness.
The clip I’ve chosen to close the feature is from the 2012 Brilliant tour and shows that classic lineup of Ure, Cross, Currie and Cann in a somewhat static performance of White China, which I found to be one of the more interesting tracks from the album.
After researching this feature (and as I only became a fan after hearing the Vienna album), I can’t help but think that Midge Ure was the man that saved, and made Ultravox the phenomenon that they became, and thank him for some of my favourite songs from the 80s. I’m glad he did because I can’t think of a life where I couldn’t sing OOOOhhhh VIENAaaaaaaaaa at the top of my voice on regular occasions!
Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021