♪ ♫ “This means nothing to me...” ♬♪
February 13, 2018 4:36 AM   Subscribe

It was too slow, too long and there was a violin solo - the antithesis of a commercial single.” Vienna (alternate, lyrics, extended version), by Ultravox and their replacement lead singer Midge Ure/Father Benny Cake, was created in 1980 and released the following year, being kept from #1 in the UK by Joe Dolce's Shaddap You Face. Inspired by the Walker Brothers, eternally popular and admired by Gary Numan, Ultravox performed it at Live Aid, the song becoming the title track (nearly didn't) of their Kraftwerkesque 4th album. The video - “We invented the music video clichés - cropping the top and bottom to make it look like CinemaScope...” - was allegedly based on Carol Reed’s 1949 film “The Third Man” but was filmed mostly in London.

“Ultravox began in the mid-seventies with John Foxx as their lead singer, but when Foxx left in 1979 and they were dropped by their record company, Island, the future looked bleak. However the arrival of Midge Ure heralded an unlikely revival of fortunes. Ure had been a member of the chart-topping Scottish teeny-bop outfit Slik, before teaming up with Rusty Egan and the former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock in The Rich Kids. He joined Ultravox in the spring of 1979 and they signed a new deal with Chrysalis records...”

Ultravox were oft remembered for their videos, especially in the early 1980s. A few from the time:
* The voice and the war version.
* The thin wall.
* (with The Chieftains) All Fall Down.
* Reap the wild wind.
* We came to dance.
* Passing strangers.
* Love's great adventure.
* Hymn.
* One small day.
* Dancing with tears in my eyes.
* Lament.

...and a few live performances:
* All Stood Still.
* Hymn.
* Sleepwalk.
* Vienna.

Warren Cann, the band's drummer: “The song came together very quickly. I had a drum machine/synth pad (CR-78 & 'Synare' pads) pattern in mind that I'd wanted to do something with and played that... to paraphrase myself, I said something like, “What about this, then?” and began the 'Vienna' rhythm. We started playing something to it and then had the thought of using a chorus idea that we had laying around which we'd previously worked on but had no verse for. It all clicked in a few hours and we ironed out the rough spots the next day. Except for finessing the middle 'solo' section of the song once we were in the studio, that was basically it. A hit a day keeps the dole away.”

Some Midge Ure solo and collaborative works:
* If I was.
* Cold cold heart.
* No regrets.
* Do they know it's Christmas? (with Bob Geldof, and previously).
* Yellow Pearl with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy (used as the opening theme to Top of the Pops for several years) and live.
* In the band Slik in the film Never Too Young To Rock (1976).
* Fade to Grey (live).
* Lettera dal Duca by Decibel con Midge Ure at Sanremo (Italy qualifier for Eurovision 2018).
* Live in Frankfurt last year.

“At the height of all the madness we had 26 synthesizers on stage with us. For one tour I commissioned this Peter Saville-type set – lots of columns and archways; really quite Masonic – which I insisted we lug round the world with us, even to venues which only had room for about half a plinth. That was our Spinal Tap moment.”

Previously
2014: Balearic compilations: summer sounds from EMI's archives
2013: Music for millions to die by
2012: The M in MTV Should Stand for Mulcahy
2011: Gigographies
2010: Cold Wave
2007: MTV FALL 1981-2
posted by Wordshore (34 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
(This post came about because I stumbled back across Midge Ure while browsing the Eurovision qualifiers last weekend. Nostalgically, I loaded a heap of old Ultravox tracks onto my smartphone; on a train journey yesterday was playing them and I knocked the headphones out and my phone across the table. This was at the point near the end where the piano sound slows down. And it was loud and filled the carriage. As I fumbled to put it back together, right on cue not one but several other passengers started singing THIS MEANS NOTHING TO ME, THIS MEANS NOTHING TO ME, OH VIENNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. I looked around and, yep, the song of my particular generation. I must do a post.)
posted by Wordshore at 4:45 AM on February 13 [28 favorites]


Thank you for this post! I’ve always loved this song and the music video (even “with Spiders!” as the 2009 remastered version of the video proclaims in iTunes)
posted by inflatablekiwi at 4:47 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Shaddap You Face
posted by unliteral at 4:58 AM on February 13


I'm scanning the prodigious links and I don't think I see any reference to Lee Mack, so allow me to post this from "Would I Lie to You?" It's golden.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:23 AM on February 13 [6 favorites]


This is one of my favorite of all time songs. How I wish I had a high B flat so I could sing it. The dichotomy between the low pitched verses and the leap to the chorus is so effective. This was a mainstay on MTV and I watched it each time they showed it.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:29 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Oh - and if you are coming to this post unfamiliar with Ultravox, let me particularly draw your attention to the track We Came to Dance, which is deceptively simple but extremely effective.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:44 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


allow me to post this

Year's from now, when Millie Mack is choosing her father's retirement home, I hope she will remember that moment and show no mercy.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:48 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]


While I liked more the Foxx era of the band, Vienna and Lament are two great synthpop records, and it's hard to argue against Vienna being their best song. I've used the "heartbeat" bass drum or variations of the same idea on a lot of my stuff. It's the absolute cornerstone of it.
posted by lmfsilva at 5:53 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I don't even know if I've heard the original Vienna, but this cover (by the normally a cappella The King's Singers) is in my MP3 library and gets a listen from time to time.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 5:58 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


What a brilliant post. Thank you. Will be listening this morning at work :-)
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:01 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


This cover is my favourite.

My favourite Midge fact is that his stage name was given him by a member of a previous band. His name is Jim and the band already had one. So it was reversed phonetically to Midge.
posted by gnuhavenpier at 6:05 AM on February 13 [8 favorites]


Midge got to wear the mac again in The Bogie Man (only part I can find), a TV movie of the Wagner/Grant/Smith comic. I guess if I still had the original Fat Man Press editions they might be worth something.
posted by scruss at 6:41 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Not my favorite, but it has its fans: Breathe, from 1996, which for some reason had multiple videos; church video and rainy moody video and pagan white horse video.
posted by Wordshore at 6:55 AM on February 13


Sometimes it feels like I'm the only person who preferred Ultravox under John Foxx. I kept buying their albums because they were awesome, but none became favorites the way the earlier stuff had.

I want to be a Machine
posted by bitslayer at 6:56 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]


What's weird about Vienna is that I've probably heard it dozens of times, but I can never remember any part of it except the end.
posted by JanetLand at 7:19 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


My favourite Midge fact is that his stage name was given him by a member of a previous band. His name is Jim and the band already had one. So it was reversed phonetically to Midge.

When a young man named John Wilkinson helped form the 1970s pub rock titans Dr Feelgood, he discovered the quartet already had three other Johns in its ranks. Nothing daunted, he applied a little palindrome logic to his own monicker and became ... Wilko Johnson.

Oddly enough, all the band's other members ended up going by nicknames as well. Singer John Lee Collinson became Lee Brilleaux, bassist John Sparks was known as Sparko and drummer John Martin rechristened himself The Big Figure. There's a video of the band tearing it up at the Kursall Ballroom in Southend here. My God they were good!
posted by Paul Slade at 8:11 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Being only familiar with this song through hearing occasional snatches of it on the radio, I always thought he was singing "Oh, piano!"
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:59 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Ultravox re-formed a few years ago and toured, emitting a couple of live albums and a new studio album ("Brilliant") before they started arguing again and split up (again). AIUI Warren has now retired, so re-forming is unlikely; however, Midge continues to tour and perform, currently with a couple of youngsters called Electronica (who do a wicked Ultravox tribute act). Most recently he also released "Orchestrated", an album of Ultravox songs performed with a full symphony orchestra instead of synths (much like VNV Nation's "Resonance").

... I may have been to a few of their gigs, but I've got nothing on my wife (who was in the fan club since the first time around).
posted by cstross at 9:03 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


Fantastic post -- thank you for the deep dive, Wordshore! "Vienna" will forever be a Desert Island Disc for me, and I often feel (at least from a U.S. perspective) that Ultravox don't always get their due in terms of their significance, both with John Foxx and with Midge Ure. I was a little heartbroken that it wasn't financially feasible for them to tour the U.S. when they reunited for awhile back in 2009.

That said, Midge Ure still tours regularly. I've seen him several times (and was lucky enough to meet him once -- staggeringly nice, down-to-earth guy), ranging from acoustic solo to with a full band, and he never fails to bring his A-game. His autobiography is a good read for fans, and his latest solo album is a collection of orchestral reworkings of a number of Ultravox/solo tunes, including (naturally) Vienna. (Back in the day, he also did one of my favorite covers of The Man Who Sold the World.)
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 9:04 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I loved Ultravox. I remember preening in my bedroom mirror, with probably way too much eyeliner on, to the synth solo in Sleepwalk (studio version). And how much more sensitive art boy can you get than "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes?"
None. None more.
posted by chococat at 9:58 AM on February 13 [5 favorites]


I was a little heartbroken that it wasn't financially feasible for them to tour the U.S. when they reunited for awhile back in 2009.

According to his website, Mr Ure will be performing in Texas, New Orleans, Atlanta and New Jersey at the end of May and the start of June (not leaving himself much time to get between gigs).

He may also be jetlagged as he plays at a festival in Bath just a few days before this US tour starts. Or maybe it's still the rock and roll lifestyle.
posted by Wordshore at 11:44 AM on February 13


Shaddap You Face

It’s-a not so bad.

Oh, wait. It is.
posted by non canadian guy at 12:34 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Fun Midge Ure fact - he also was a touring member of Thin Lizzy.

I'm also partial to John Foxx-era Ultravox. Especially the first two albums where they were "Ultravox!".
posted by zombiedance at 12:46 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


> Shaddap You Face

It’s-a not so bad. Oh, wait. It is.


Quite. Vienna, an intelligent, complex, musically diverse song with a video containing scenes of culture, Europe, distant places and people. Kept off the #1 spot by a banal novelty song that had more than a hint of "laugh at the foreigner speaking bad English" xenophobia about it. "Why are more people buying that song than Vienna?" we asked ourselves on the school playground, the Monday morning after the charts were revealed (5pm to 7pm, Radio One) the day before. "Who is buying this crap? Are there really more of them than us?"

And the same happened the next week. And the week after. And then Vienna started to sink down the charts, never reaching #1, despite being oft-voted as one of the best, if not the best, song or single of the 1980s ever since. And to rub it in, at the end of the year, we discovered that Vienna had far outsold the unfunny novelty record overall.

And if that's not an obvious metaphor, or even a warning, for Brexit 35 years later, then I don't know what is.
posted by Wordshore at 1:14 PM on February 13 [8 favorites]


That's a lot of links! The only early era punky Ultavox song I know is Fear In The Western World, which contains the beyond satire memorable couplet "Someone told me Jesus was the Devil's lover / While we masturbated on a magazine cover"
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 1:39 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


"Who is buying this crap? Are there really more of them than us?"

Thank you for writing what I was going to write, far better than I could have.
posted by scruss at 1:43 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


I often feel (at least from a U.S. perspective) that Ultravox don't always get their due in terms of their significance

yeah even the people I knew, in the day, who liked synth pop, were more into, say, OMD. And the biggest hit here, in that quadrant of music, was what, The Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now"?
posted by thelonius at 1:47 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Oh my. They were my favorite band for many years, though now I listen to John Foxx and that era much more. Check out John Foxx and the Maths' excellent album Rhapsody for some modern versions of old Ultravox! songs.

I still listen to Rage in Eden quite often, and I will argue it is a superior album to Vienna--this is the kind of argument that not a lot of people are interested in, but there you go.

I also ended up with an extremely rare Ultravox collectible--the first (test?) pressing of Vienna, when it was called Torque-Point... same songs but all in a different order.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:31 PM on February 13 [4 favorites]


I still listen to Rage in Eden quite often, and I will argue it is a superior album to Vienna--this is the kind of argument that not a lot of people are interested in, but there you go.

Oh, I'm very interested in precisely this! I agree that Rage in Eden is stronger in a lot of ways, too (the title track in particular just blew my adolescent mind, and "I Never Wanted to Begin" is just a killer B-side), but if forced to choose between them, I always default to Vienna because, well, "Vienna." What do you prefer about Rage in Eden?

I also think Quartet and Lament still hold up well, even sans Conny Plank's deliciously chilly production, though as far as Lament goes I am apparently the only Ultravox fan in the world whose favorite track is "Heart of the Country" and who could largely do without "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes."
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 2:40 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


For the record, I also think Dancing With Tears in My Eyes is overvalued.

As long as we are having the discussion, this b-side, Waiting, is a fantastic song that more people should know.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:54 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Oh man I loved this song.

Now I feel really old.

This doesn't mean nothing to me.
posted by biscotti at 3:02 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


What do you prefer about Rage in Eden?

I think it's a bolder album. More sparse. Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again) is perfect to me--almost like one of the slow Foxx-era tracks like Hiroshima Mon Amour. Really the whole Side 2 of that album after the first track... Stranger Within, Accent on Youth, The Ascent, and then Your Name... it's like a Bowie side 2. Very meditative.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:51 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


I've loved Ultravox since I was about 14 and they're possibly the last band that I got into from my brother's record collection at my parents house. We would trade bands later, too, but this was in that first phase that everybody who gets into music from older siblings goes through. I spent many many multiple-day marching band bus rides listening to this and Rage In Eden on my then-new orange-headphone Walkman. Later in high school, a new 26 year old English teacher told the class he had every Ultravox 45 and my ears perked up. He went on to befriend some of us, married a student (after graduation) and is still friends with most of the people I knew in high school. I saw Deep Purple with him in 2004 and my brother just went to his house at Christmas.

Later on I would get into techno, and Juan Atkins, one of the style's originators, drew a direct and explicit line from Ultravox to his work (Herr X is a Kraftwerk powerup on this point), which symbiosis has fueled a major quantity of my music taste ever since.

Never having seen them live, by far the most mindblowing thing about them for me since my youth was discovering their Rockpalast performance, which showed how much they could rock. I never knew Warren Cann was that heavy when I was a kid.
posted by rhizome at 4:57 PM on February 13 [3 favorites]


Oh, and in high school I wrote a line from "Accent On Youth" on my bedroom wall and could draw the UV horsehead icon and the Rage In Eden face from memory.

Then I discovered Wall of Voodoo and Bad Brains.
posted by rhizome at 5:02 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


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