There were not too many people dropping the name of Ultravox in 1979, but Gary Numan was certainly one of them, and that’s how I first became aware of the group at the age of 12. Always refreshingly candid about his influences, Numan readily acknowledged the debt the two Tubeway Army albums owed to John Foxx’s terminally unfashionable synth-punk unit. Since I was both a fanatical Numan fan and a fervent Smash Hits reader, Ultravox didn’t escape my notice for long, even though they were actually dormant at the time.
When they emerged from hiatus with a new frontman in the shape of Midge Ure, I alighted upon the Vienna album with some interest. The first single off the album, “Sleepwalk”, was a powerful and immediate slash-and-burn song; but it was the follow-up, “Vienna”, that really sealed it for me. Here was a five-minute mini-epic (not, perhaps, entirely dissimilar to that other five-minute mini-epic that had sparked off my whole love of synth pop a year or so earlier, Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) whose dramatic piano and viola and general air of European melancholy signalled a whole new paradigm of what pop music could be. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that this song instilled in me a fascination with the mystery of Vienna that is indirectly responsible for the fact that I’m here today.
If the truth be told, though, my liking for the new Ultravox was a fairly transient phase. Subsequent records traded that sense of drama and mystery for limp verses that lumbered their way towards inevitable bombastic choruses. With a few exceptions (“Hymn” and “Visions In Blue” in particular have remained with me), the appeal of the post-Vienna Ultravox quickly palled. In the meantime I picked up Three Into One, a brilliantly compiled selection from the group’s three albums with John Foxx, and was bowled over by it (for a longer appreciation, see here). In those three original Island albums I found an energy and an imagination that the Ure-led incarnation of the group would never come close to capturing.
One might have hoped that Foxx would carry some of that energy into his solo career, but the four albums he put out under his own name between 1980 and 1985 were drab affairs. I know this because my younger brother became a hardcore Foxx fan in parallel to my own Numan fandom, leading to a certain amount of friendly rivalry between us. I wasn’t unduly concerned, though, since by 1985, when Numan had gone totally rubbish and Foxx stopped making records altogether, I had fallen under the baleful spell of Pink Floyd and had no further need of synth pop in my life.
Fast forward 28 years (gulp), and I was finally able to catch Ultravox live for the first time, in the city that inspired their best and best-known song. The gig was originally supposed to take place at the Szene Wien, but was moved to the Gasometer presumably due to better than expected ticket sales. The unfortunate but inevitable change of venue made the gig much less intimate than it should have been. Compounding the loss of intimacy, I also had to deal with a contingent of drunken Hungarians right next to me who insisted on talking, drinking and (oh, the effrontery) dancing throughout the set.
Regardless of these setbacks, Ultravox presented a startlingly efficient run-through of their hits with a sprinkling of new songs on top. I was particularly taken by “Rise”, whose effortless melody and relaxed lyric pointed towards a friendlier, more open sound than the rather dehumanized approach adopted elsewhere. Other highlights included a spare and haunting “Mr X”, a barnstorming “Sleepwalk”, a joyous “Hymn” and the endless motorik groove of “Astradyne”, a tune that references Neu! as surely as does the exclamation mark adorning those first two, superlative Ultravox! LPs.
As for “Vienna” itself, it was something of an anti-climax. Its gorgeous blank romanticism only just survived being dumped midway through the performance, in obvious deference to the standard shape of the setlist. It wouldn’t have hurt Ure to acknowledge that there was something precious and unrepeatable about this group playing this song in this city, but nothing of the sort was said and the opportunity was lost. (I felt much the same when Leonard Cohen failed to say anything about “Take This Waltz” when he played it at the Konzerthaus a few years ago.) In a way, this moment summed up how I felt about the concert. Fine things abounded, but a little more rawness and spontaneity wouldn’t have gone amiss.