1981 – Vienna, Ultravox

A grave concern

In the same way that “Bohemian Rhapsody” did not invent the music video, MTV did not invent the idea of music television. That’s not to suggest that either of those two events aren’t significant features in the development of their respective fields, but neither are the originators. The idea of “videos”, in the modern sense, had been around since at least 1966 with The Beatles recording specific promo clips for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, and arguably could be tied all the way back to A Hard Day’s Night. And certainly the song portions of Magical Mystery Tour, free of any other contextual connection to the movie they’re in, are straightforwardly music videos.

Similarly, the idea that music, and specifically that music videos, could be something that people would sit down to watch rather than simply listen to, had been around in the UK mainstream for far longer than it had in the US. Top Of The Pops regularly played music videos for more than half a decade before MTV arrived on the scene – this is where “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes in – and British acts were, generally speaking, much more attuned to the power of the music video than their American colleagues at the turn of the decade. Take for example last entry Adam Ant, and more specifically the video for “Prince Charming”. It’s a Cinderella riff, with Ant playing Cinders, the Ugly Sisters portrayed by two men in drag as per the usual panto approach, with Ant/Cinders liberated from a life of drudgery by the frankly astonishing sight of Diana Dors as the Fairy Godmother in a gravity-defying black dress leading us to a masque ball where everyone dances the “prince charming”. It’s an excellent promotional tool by 1981 standards. It has some wit (Pironni’s “harp” playing) and panache, a simple storyline, an easy-to-replicate dance, and Ant looking his best as he imitates other pop-culture legends at the end of the clip (a confounding selection that consists of Alice Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Rudolph Valentino (!) and Ant’s own Dandy Highwayman).

What’s interesting about the video is that Ant isn’t remotely unusual in doing this – quite the reverse, in fact, it’s an established part of what a pop band does in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The launch of MTV in 1981 saw America catch up with this “video aesthetic”, and in doing so paved the way for the Second British Invasion (since dozens of British groups had good-to-go content ready at their fingertips for the emergent station looking to fill air time) that gave synth-pop groups and the New Romantics, especially, a way into a marketplace that they would otherwise struggle to get a footing in.

The video itself was an evolutionary process, as one might expect – if we take 1976 and “Bohemian Rhapsody” as our relatively arbitrary starting point it is, even by 1981 standards, pretty simple. The famous four-heads pose, a series of video effects and some live footage, all blended together to create a whole. But by 1981 that approach was not simply dated but laughably inadequate. Videos moved into a whole new register, becoming little mini epics that gave an artist or band the scope to really indulge themselves as technology improved and everything became that much more achievable and, significantly, affordable. Videos could be aspirational (Duran Duran’s entire oeuvre, though let’s take “Rio” as the most obvious example), operatically over-the-top (Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”), surreal abstractions (Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”), or, well, just about anything really. No longer simply a tool to shift singles, they became an art form in and of themselves. The age of the video had arrived.

Ultravox’s “Vienna” is an absolute classic of the genre. It’s a mini Cold War epic, a fog-bound video that finds the band striking moody poses in among waves of dry ice on the cobblestones of Vienna (or bits of London that could convincingly pass for Vienna – both are used). Visually it’s clearly a riff on any number of mid-century black-and-white epics like The Third Man which capture the mood and feel of a location as much as plot or characters. There’s lots of billowing dry ice with vast, outsized shadows thrown on to the plumes and the surrounding architecture. Characters slip in and out of frame. Cold breath wreathes into the air. The black and white parts are presented in widescreen, stretching to a standard 4:3 ratio when we move to colour as the video shifts through time and relative dimensions. There’s not really a “plot” as such, more a sequence of events, while Midge Ure stands austerely off to one side lip-synching as the action unfolds, as if commenting on it.

The instrumental break is illustrated by a ballet dancer giving a performance in an opera house in front of a grand piano. This is intercut with a faintly debauched party the band are attending at a mansion, populated by hoorah Henry’s in 80’s make-up. Near the end a woman at the party shoots a man on a vast, sweeping flight of stars. Midge Ure again impassively watches the event unfold from the side-lines, as remote and distant as ever. The body of the man collapses and the shutterbug jackals from the press rush in to photograph the corpse. Finally, the band walk off into the rising dawn of Vienna as the song crashes to its conclusion and comes to rest on waves of synthesizer. It’s breathtaking.

This vast, staged epic takes just a little under five minutes to run. And it would all be unbearably, unspeakably pretentious if “Vienna” itself wasn’t such a fucking great song. Because the truth is “Vienna” is good enough a song to carry the weight of all that pretention. It’s swooningly romantic in the way it’s assembled and the lyric – about the end of an affair in the titular city – is absurdly extravagant and overwrought but in a way the music absolutely supports. The percussion – all artificial – bears the weight of the verses, distinctive in its construction and overlaid with a single haunting keyboard line, carried on the synthesizer. It’s all deeply remote and imposing in a very studied manner, yet it’s not cold – because Midge Ure’s voice is more than enough to infuse this combination with plaintive regret that puts a real emotional heart in the middle of all this grandiose isolation.

And that’s before we get to the chorus, a powerhouse performance that’s preposterous in its melodramatic surge and yet… it isn’t. Again, Midge Ure’s voice – and he’s giving a career-best performance here – carries the weight of the melodrama, and can bear it. And all that is going on before we reach the bloody viola solo in the middle of the song. “Vienna” is produced by Conny Plank, one of the finest producers of his age and a veteran of the krautrock scene who had worked with Kraftwerk and Neu! in his time. You couldn’t ask for a better producer for this kind of material, effortlessly shifting from the synthetic to the classic and capturing the essence of both.

New Romantic has never been quite so, well, romantic as it is in “Vienna” but the romance here is the aching sense of its passing – it is the romance of loss. It’s almost bewilderingly over-the-top but it all just works, because it’s carried off with confidence and flair and, more importantly, because the music, the voice, the lyric and the performance are all good enough to truly capture the style of the piece. The fact that the video is a knock-out too is, in the final analysis, simply the cherry on the cake. There’s almost no song in the 1980’s quite as genuinely classy as “Vienna”. It’s genius.

“Vienna” was held off the top spot in the UK by Joe Dolce’s “Shaddap You Face” for three of the four weeks it was at Number 2. To call that an injustice is a bit like describing the atomic bomb as “a bit of a firecracker”. I mean, it is, but that’s not really getting the point across. Not that novelty songs don’t have their place, obviously, but come on. The other week – well, actually its first week – it was held off Number 1 by John Lennon’s “Woman” which, while not a particularly great song, was experiencing a return to the charts because of the death of its writer and is at least forgivable in light of Lennon’s murder.

And because of that Ultravox never had a Number 1 hit. Indeed, “Vienna” is their highest-charting single – “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes”, a far more traditional slice of New Romantic synth-pop, got to Number 3 in 1984 but that was the height of their post-“Vienna” career. It must be endlessly frustrating to have been stopped by a trivial throwaway like “Shaddap You Face” but there is at least some solace for the band. The Official Chart Company in the UK gave “Vienna” an honorary Number 1 in 2012 after being voted the nation’s favourite Number 2 single, holding off competition from the likes of “Hound Dog”, “My Generation”, and previous-article runner-up “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”. Hopefully that provides Midge and the boys with some kind of consolation because, despite what we’ve discussed before about songs “deserving” their place, few songs quite deserve to ascend to the top of the charts as much as “Vienna”. It might have taken thirty-one years to get there, but better late than never.

What Else Happened In 1981?

Lennon’s murder means that “Woman” became the fourth-biggest selling single of the year, though the best-seller is the solid-but-improbable “Betty Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes (Number 2 is the considerably-more-worthy “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell and Number 3 is “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins). Diana Ross leaves Motown after twenty years to sign with RCA/EMI, very much the end of an era. The very first issue of venerable guitar magazine Kerrang! is published, while Iron Maiden play their first show with Bruce Dickinson. Simon & Garfunkel play a reunion concert to half a million people in Central Park, and The Specials top the UK charts with “Ghost Town”, one of the best singles of the era. One of the finest-named albums in all of popular music is released with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Architecture And Morality (it’s a good album too), and Kraftwerk complete a trilogy of genuinely perfect albums with Computerweldt. Grace Jones is Nightclubbing and the Rolling Stones want to Tattoo You. Abba release their final, and best, album – and one of the best albums of the 80’s – with The Visitors and Billy Idol leaves Generation X and goes solo. Mötley Crue and The Throwing Muses are formed and Wings, The Bay City Rollers and Steely Dan all reach the end of the road. Justin Timberlake enters the world and one of the great pioneers of rock and roll, Bill Haley, leaves it, dying from a heart attack.

What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?

Nothing. “Vienna”, unsurprisingly, is the other song this whole series was conceived around, so there was no possibility of anything else taking the 1981 slot.

Rankings:

1.   The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2.   Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3.   The Kinks – “Lola”
4.   Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5.   Ultravox – “Vienna”
6.   Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
7.   The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
8.   Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
9.   Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
10. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
11. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
12. Queen, “Killer Queen”
13. Blondie, “Denis”
14. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
15. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
16. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
17. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
18. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
19. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
20. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
21. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
22. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”

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