Ultravox – Vienna (1981, Chrysalis)
Why It’s Perfect: When I was younger, I somehow got it into my head that Vienna was actually Austria’s national anthem. Can you imagine if there were a country whose anthem sounded like this? What a strange place it would have to be. The thoroughly processed majesty of its chorus sounds like a kitsch Also Sprach Zarathustra, the climax of an old commercial for high-end consumer electronics: BEHOLD the new Phillips Magnavox CD player! The most pristine digital audio device on Earth, now no larger than a toaster oven!
And yet, much as you might like to puncture Midge Ure’s air of Eurotrash self-importance, Vienna has such an uncommon sense of grandeur and drama for a pop song that mistaking it for a national anthem somehow doesn’t seem completely ridiculous.
Vienna’s arrangement has a very clear narrative. It begins in the wholly synthetic, the non-representational sound of New Wave futurism; a metronomic Roland CR-78 drum machine beat, a droning computer tone, a primitive Yamaha string synth. These devices may have been intended by their manufacturers to simulate live instruments, but Ultravox are not trying to fool you into believing that you are hearing a “real” performance. The canned, processed unreality of these sounds is the key. It is different, and therefore new, and therefore modern (or even futuristic). But slowly, subtly they introduce more traditional instruments, first a hammering piano on the chorus, and later a Baba O’Riley-esque violin solo. The temporal distance between these two distinct modes of instrumentation is blurred. This is music for an old future, an 18th century Viennese court on the Moon.
Vienna moves along with the unhurriedness of zero G. There are only very slight shifts in tempo over the first three and half minutes, and with the extremely Spartan production it makes the song seem even slower than it is. The drum machine and Ure’s crystalline vocals are granted central position, but the rest of the instruments have a cool, CD-age distance that removes a sonic dimension, almost as though they are merely elements of a film being projected behind the singer. Ure’s lyrics are impressionistic snapshots (“A voice reaching out and a piercing cry / It stays with you”), enigmatic evocations of love and loss that refuse to cohere into the easy broadstrokes pop usually relies on. Even the song’s one unsubtle moment, its momentous chorus, avoids an obvious interpretation. Feeling is denied, yet Ure’s cry of“This means nothing to me” sounds like sorrow, his stricken “O, Vienna!” like triumph.
Defining Moment: Definitely the transition from the spellbinding bridge into the final chorus, the piano cascading as the synths surge up to support Ure’s final showstopping lunges. It’s pop drama at its best.
Other Great Songs by Ultravox: Early Ultravox! (note the exclamation) was helmed by a guy named John Foxx, who would go on to some success as a solo artist in the early ‘80s (with records such as Metamatic, a minor classic). Foxx-era Ultravox! is far less “mannered” than their later work, spitting out a number of synth-pop gems like Slow Motion and the subterranean Hiroshima, Mon Amour. They were joined subsequently by, to quote another reviewer’s brilliant turn of phrase, “band-eating locust” Midge Ure, a move which pushed them to stardom with singles like New Europeans and the megahit Dancing with Tears in My Eyes. Underrated group overall, I’d say.
Oh, and as a bonus, here’s a quite serviceable cover by sleepy Dutch doom metal act Celestial Season: