Albums from the Lost and Found: Vienna

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

One of the coolest new-wave albums you’ve almost certainly never heard, 1980’s Vienna by the synth-pop band Ultravox was wildly successful in the U.K., where the album climbed into the Top Three and yielded four hit singles, including a near-Number-One. In America, the album did virtually nothing, stopping at #164 and yielding no hit singles. (Ultravox sadly never would go on to have a Top 40 hit in America at all, although you’ve certainly heard a song they’re indirectly linked to. Band frontman Midge Ure would go on – with Boomtown Rats leader Bob Geldof – to co-write, co-produce, and provide the keyboards on Band Aid’s perennial Christmas classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which fellow Ultravox bassist Chris Cross would also appear on as part of the all-star choir during the song’s closing “feed the world” section.) Why the U.S. never warmed up to Ultravox is a bit of a mystery.

Vienna found the group newly reconfigured after losing its original frontman John Foxx. The band was originally more of a glam-rock outfit, and a very strange one at that. (The first two Roxy Music albums are an obvious influence.  Fittingly enough, Brian Eno would produce Ultravox’s first full-length.) It’s not surprising why this lineup of the band failed to have any chart success even in the U.K. – they simply had yet to figure out how to weld its idiosyncrasies to something a bit more audience-friendly. By their third album, Systems of Romance, they had started to find a sound that worked, reinventing itself as more of a synth-heavy, electro-pop band. “Slow Motion” (reminiscent of Gary Numan’s later material) was their strongest single to date, and “Blue Light” also hinted at good things to come, but elsewhere, the band still had yet to really show much of a talent for pop songcraft.  

After Systems of Romance, Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon would both depart the band, leaving the group a trio of Cross, keyboardist Billy Currie, and drummer Warren Cann. That might have been the end of the band right there, but the band soldiered on, wisely bringing in Midge Ure, a former guitarist for Scottish rockers Thin Lizzy, as their new frontman. A better move could not have been made, as Ure helped the band to sculpt a sound distinctly their own and discover an ability to write great pop hooks.

It’s not simply that the songs were better. The reconfigured band also had more muscle, finding a way to yield its new love for synth-laden art-pop with a hard-hitting rock attack, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than on Vienna’s opening cut, “Sleepwalk,” which is almost maniacal in its intensity, even in spite of its whispered choruses. Ure’s ironically smooth croon unexpectedly gels nicely with Cann’s propulsive drumming and Currie’s synth bursts. The deliriously catchy track peaks with a cutting and chillingly powerful guitar solo from Ure that stabs right into the mix yet fits right into place, leaving no doubt about the chemistry and musical chops of the new lineup. For perhaps the first time, the band’s dark and ambient synth-pop suddenly has a real pop sensibility in its songcraft and some real sense of purpose to the guitar work, and the final product grabs your attention immediately.

The band dials it down for the equally catchy “Passing Strangers,” the band’s most purely-pop-oriented song to date and one boasting an impressively layered chorus. The haunting but harder-rocking “New Europeans” again shows off Ure’s stabbing guitar work to powerful effect. Cann takes the microphone on “Mr. X,” narrating the song’s ominous lyrics to chilling results, and gets to show off his muscular drumming on the prog-rock-tinged “Western Promise.” That track segues directly into the album’s chilling title cut, the band’s most famous song, a sweeping ballad in which the synths and syndrums are used as little more than subtle atmosphere while Ure croons the tune’s haunting melody against some lovely piano accents. By the time Ure hits the majestic high note in the song’s chorus, there’s no doubt that Ure brings much more power and emotion to the table as a lead singer than his relatively mechanical and detached predecessor. The song may have failed to chart in America, but it won the Single of the Year trophy at the 1981 Brit Awards and would go on decades later to be voted in a BBC Radio poll as the U.K.’s all-time favorite song to peak at #2 on the nation’s music charts.

The album closes by returning to the furious synth-pop/art-rock blend of its opening cut on the driving “All Stood Still,” deservedly a second U.K. Top Ten hit for the band and sporting yet another instantly memorable guitar solo from Ure. Cleverly, the band shifts into something of a reggae mode for the song’s final verse while managing to retain the intensity in its performance throughout.

Like many of the albums I feature in this column, Vienna is sadly currently only in print on CD as an import, an even more unfortunate circumstance considering that the European version of the album has the tracks in a radically different order. (The European version opens with the overly long instrumental “Astradyne” and foolishly does not get to “Sleepwalk” until the end of Side One, which completely alters the feel of the album and not for the better.) The American version of the album did exist on CD for a while back in the ‘80s, though, and can still be found if you look hard enough. (Naturally, vinyl and cassette copies of the American version also exist.) It’s worth the hunt.