Ultravox’s seminal album ‘Vienna’ took the band from the edge of oblivion to pop stardom. Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann remember the turbulent times and twists of fate that set them on the path to glory
It was a make-or-break year for Ultravox. A run of bad luck that would have destroyed most bands began on New Year’s Eve, 1978. While others were enjoying a night down at the pub or watching the special edition of ‘Larry Grayson’s Generation Game’ on the box at home, the five members of Ultravox were taking on board the news that they’d just been dropped by Island Records. Their third album, ‘Systems Of Romance’, recorded in Germany with krautrock visionary Conny Plank at the helm, was the sound of a group hitting its sonic stride and the record had shifted about 40,000 units, but it clearly wasn’t enough for Island. Like Hogmanay amateurs outstaying their welcome, Ultravox were out on their collective ear.
As 1979 got underway, worse was to come. Label-less and also manager-less, they embarked on an arduous, self-financed tour of America at a time when relations within the band were becoming untenable. By the end of the US trip, five would become three. The remaining musicians – Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann – found themselves back in London without a singer or a guitarist, derided by the music press and with each of them approaching personal penury. Frontman John Foxx had left acrimoniously at the end of the tour in San Francisco and then guitarist Robin Simon decided to return to New York to pursue romance. To lose one member may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness. Did any of the three survivors believe the game was up?
“No, not really… not because we’d lost Robin anyway,” says keyboardist and violinist Billy Currie, speaking from his studio in north London. “He was a friend of mine from Huddersfield and it was me who actually invited him into the group, an idea that John and the other guys liked. He’d been great to play with, but it didn’t bother me too much that he’d left. I knew he’d got a girlfriend and he was going to stay in New York.”
“We were on a wing and a prayer at that point,” adds bassist Chris Cross, on the phone from his home near Bath.
So did he think it was all over?
“Um, no, I never thought that.”
Why were they dropped by Island in the first place?
“We were a bit odd,” he muses.
Ultravox’s labelmates at the time included Bob Marley And The Wailers, Burning Spear and the almost-as-odd Roxy Music.
“Roxy Music’s management was really strong,” continues Chris. “We didn’t have strong management and we had quite a hard time with Island. It was the kind of label where you had to have a champion and the guy who was ours [Fred Cantrell] left to run Beserkley Records, which had Jonathan Richman and stuff like that. There was also the fact that the five of us were all quite opinionated in different ways, which probably didn’t help our cause.”
The difficulties of Ultravox’s American tour were compounded by a subsequent interview in Rolling Stone. The article, which had no doubt felt like a glimmer of hope at the time it was commissioned, arrived on the newsstands just as the band were imploding and rubbed fresh salt into the wounds. To the outside world, Ultravox looked as though they were going places, and there was no hint of any dissent within the ranks in the Rolling Stone piece. But as they drove from one side of the US to the other with the bare minimum of kit in the back of a hire car, things had fallen apart.
“That was a proper ending,” says drummer Warren Cann, recalling the dark disunion. “John went one way and we went the other. When I talk about this I think, ‘Bloody hell, what an intense year 1979 was’.”
“I thought it was unfortunate Dennis took it all on himself,” says Chris, referring to John Foxx by his real name, Dennis Leigh. “I always call him Dennis. When people say ‘John’, I don’t know who they’re talking about.”
Chris believes the spitefulness of the late 1970s UK music press had got to Foxx.
“He could never take criticism very well and he effectively just blamed himself. He thought, ‘The only way I can go forward now is to do everything on my own. And then if it doesn’t go down well, it’s my own fault’.”
Warren, who was born in Canada and now lives in Los Angeles, is more withering in his assessment of Foxx.
“Things had been going downhill for a while, because he was a megalomaniac,” he says. “As far as he was concerned, he was the band and we were fucking idiots who didn’t do anything. We were at each other’s throats for a long time. From my position, we were so fucked off, but we just hadn’t quite figured out what we were going to do about that. We’d put so much work into making Ultravox what it was.”
Warren says youth and a lack of experience meant that the situation was handled badly. Things came to a head after the band had played the final date of their tour in San Francisco and were conducting their usual post-show autopsy in the makeshift dressing room-cum-kitchen they’d been given by the promoters.
“We were hearing lots of applause and I was thinking, ‘Where the fuck’s that coming from?’,” he says. “So I looked out of the door from this kitchen and John Foxx was still onstage taking bows. I turned around and said to the others, ‘You’re not going to believe this’. They had a look and we were all completely flabbergasted. When John came back into the kitchen, we got into a huge row. I’m only roughly paraphrasing this because it was a long time ago, but at the same time it’s a moment I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Well, maybe I should go my own way, I’d be better off on my own anyway’. And I said, ‘How can you quit when you’re fucking fired?’.”
Billy can still remember the despondency that descended on him when he returned to the UK.
“I was feeling sad and desolate when I got off the plane,” he says. “I was living in a bedsit in Herne Hill and I’d been there for about six years, putting all this time into Ultravox. I was also working in a Dunhill warehouse for a while. It was a bum job, but it was nice to get dressed and go to be a part of the human race. I loved living in London, but I remember thinking, ‘God, I’m still only just about in this flat… and I owe six months rent’.
“The first thing I did when I got home was to go into a Camberwell newspaper shop and try to find this article in Rolling Stone. I was desperate to see it. It was actually very positive, which was surprising and a bit frustrating. It was like, ‘We’re on the way! We’re in Rolling Stone!’, which is a pretty big magazine, for god’s sake. But it wasn’t the case at all, because there we were splitting up.”
Prior to joining Ultravox, Midge Ure must have had one of the most eclectic three years in the history of pop – from a boy band to a hard rock outfit via a punk supergroup and an arch electronic collective made up of alternative minstrels and new romantic fashionistas. Growing up in tenement housing in Glasgow during the 1950s and 1960s, James Ure had dreams of rock stardom and took up the guitar, an instrument he’s far more proficient at than most people realise.
“Midge is an amazing guitarist,” enthuses Warren. “He’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever met in my life.”
In the early 70s, Midge joined a Scottish group called Salvation and picked up his nickname as there was already a (larger) James – bassist Jim McGinlay – in the line-up. In time, Salvation morphed into Slik, a teeny glam four-piece manipulated by management, moulded by producers, and substituted by session men in the studio, all with an eye to replicating the success of the Bay City Rollers. For one hot week in February 1976, when Slik knocked ABBA’s ‘Mamma Mia’ off the top of the UK charts, it was a strategy that worked. Four months later, the aptly named follow-up, ‘Requiem’, only limped to Number 24.
“Yeah, Slik was perceived as a boy band,” says Midge, who lives not far from Chris Cross in Bath. “We were naive and thought we were more in tune with Roxy Music than the Bay City Rollers. I was the guitarist in Salvation and we were doing the Scottish circuit for three or four years, then I took over on vocals and we changed our name to Slik. That’s when we got a deal. It was the only deal we were ever going to get. Scotland might as well have been behind the Iron Curtain at that point, as the whole industry was so London-centric. We took what we could get – ‘Here’s a Bay City Rollers-type song, away you go!’ – and so, yeah, overnight we made this dent as a boy band. And, of course, that stuff is difficult to shake off.”
Midge’s second break came in 1977 when Glen Matlock, fresh and lightly soiled from the Sex Pistols, put together a new band with Steve New and Rusty Egan (plus Mick Jones, temporarily at least) and invited Midge to move down to London and become the singer. Rich Kids failed to live up to their initial hype and their large signing fee from EMI, but it was a big boost in credibility for the boy from Glasgow. Meeting Rusty Egan indirectly helped change the course of his life. Matlock’s patronage was a boon too.
“I have to lift my hat to Glen Matlock, who wasn’t fazed by the fact I’d been in a boy band,” says Midge. “If that hadn’t happened, Christ knows where I’d be or what I’d be doing right now. I owe him a huge debt of thanks for that.”
In the end, which wasn’t far away, the weight of expectation did for Rich Kids.
“We hadn’t played a note and there we were on the cover of Sounds being touted as the saviours of rock. How can you possibly live up to that, irrespective of how good the music might be?”
There was also the fact that Midge and Egan had discovered synthesisers through artists like Kraftwerk, La Düsseldorf and Telex, groups that Egan was playing during his DJ spots at Billy’s Club on Dean Street in Soho and later at the infamous Blitz nights in Covent Garden. They’d both become musically curious about the possibilities of these futuristic instruments.
“And that’s where we locked horns,” continues Midge. “Glen and Steve weren’t interested in synthesisers, while Rusty and I were very intrigued by what you could do with them.”
Rich Kids’ ‘Marching Men’, penned by Midge and featuring a synth, was the first proper stepping stone in his career as a songwriter, according to the man himself.
Rich Kids didn’t quite make it into 1979. As the band entered its death throes, Midge and Egan formed Visage – a collective rather than a band – with Egan’s Blitz Kids compadre Steve Strange brought in as the fashionable face to front the project. The pair drew up a list of people they wanted to get involved, including Barry Adamson, Dave Formula and John McGeoch from Magazine, plus producer Martin Rushent, and everyone they approached seemed to be up for it. Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie was also on the list.
“Billy was trying to find something to keep busy,” says Warren. “He was sitting on the fence thinking, ‘I want Ultravox to move forward, but I’m going to hedge my bets to see if I can get something else going too’.”
The answer to Billy’s problems was under his nose, but it took someone else to point it out to him. It was Rusty Egan who played suitor between Midge and what was left of Ultravox.
“I’m quite a shy, retiring character,” notes Midge. “I wasn’t going to wave a flag at Billy saying, ‘I’m the guy! I’m the guy!’. So Rusty did it. We were working on the Visage album when Ultravox went on tour to America and then they came back as this broken band without a singer. It was Rusty who said, ‘The man you need is right here. He’s a songwriter, a keyboard player and a guitarist. That’s what you need, isn’t it?’. So I have to say thanks to Rusty for sticking his oar in.”
“It gets slightly brushed under the carpet, but I’d made contact with Midge after Ultravox had done our last gig at The Marquee,” says Billy, referring to a show they played with Foxx on Boxing Day in 1978, just before being dropped by Island. “I’d gone to Rusty’s club in Soho and Midge was DJing. It was nice to see this club with this new kind of feeling. Rusty had invited me and Robin Simon round there. That was when I first met Midge.”
Midge and Billy became friends before they were bandmates and went on excursions looking for musical equipment together.
“Rusty kept bending Billy’s ear about Midge,” confirms Warren. “He was saying, ‘Midge would be perfect for you guys, he would be great’. He kept nagging him. Billy finally told us, ‘Well, Rusty’s mentioned Midge’. I was saying, ‘What do you mean? Rich Kids? Slik? I don’t know about that one, Billy!’. But Rusty had said we should meet him and I had a lot of respect for Rusty so I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it’.”
“I distinctly remember not being flavour of the month because I was arguing that it sounded like a good idea,” says Chris. “Where Midge was coming from was completely different. It was like with the original version of Ultravox, only this was even more different. I knew we were perfectly capable of doing the experimental stuff, but I thought the idea of having someone more tune-based was interesting. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but it all fell into place after that. The only thing that made it tricky was Phil Lynott wanting Midge to go and play guitar for Thin Lizzy for a month or so.”
Having fallen out with Gary Moore, Phil Lynott had invited Midge to fill in as Thin Lizzy’s second guitarist on an American tour. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Ultravox. And Midge was a strange choice for the job, wasn’t he?
“It took many years for me to figure out why Phil asked me to do it,” laughs Midge. “Yes, there were other people who were much more suitable. I only found this out three or four years ago, but Phil told Scott Gorham [Thin Lizzy’s lead guitarist] he was under the impression that I knew all the Thin Lizzy songs and they had to get someone instantly.”
But while Midge had been a fan when Eric Bell was the group’s guitarist in the early 1970s, he hadn’t really kept up.
“I think Phil convinced the others that I could fly out and fill the gap very quickly. In a way he was right, but absolutely under the wrong premise.”
Accounts vary as to where and when the first Ultravox run-through with Midge Ure occurred. In the singer’s autobiography, ‘If I Was…’, he claims it was in a practice room at the Elephant and Castle in London in April 1979, which was before Midge’s brief spell with Thin Lizzy. Billy doesn’t remember the Elephant and Castle, but he does recall introducing Midge to Chris and Warren in a pub on St Peter’s Square near the Island Records HQ in August of that year, just after the Lizzy tour. Wherever and whenever it was, it had a profound effect on everyone who was present. Ultravox was reborn.
“Was I nervous about it?” considers Midge. “Only in the respect that the three guys I was joining knew a lot more about the technology and the whole electronic creative process than I did. I wasn’t going in there to fix something or to make something better, I was going in to make the noise I’d heard in ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Quiet Men’ at one of Rusty’s club nights. That sound was so exciting and here I was going to be a part of that, so I wasn’t particularly bothered about getting flak from some of John Foxx’s hardcore followers. If they didn’t like what they were hearing, they’d fall by the wayside and not bother us. And who knew that Ultravox was going to continue as a successful band anyway?
“But it wasn’t about aiming for success, it was about being a part of something that was so far removed from Slik that it was like being on another planet – and musically it probably was. Bear in mind that this was three years after Slik had been to Number One with ‘Forever And Ever’. All of a sudden, I’m in this synthesiser art school rock band, not worrying about trying to write three-minute pop songs, but thinking about what we could create without any parameters. That was the driving force and it completely overshadowed any thoughts about upsetting the odd John Foxx fan.”
The first material for a prospective new Ultravox record came together quickly and, in another unusual move, the group decided to tour the US again at the end of 1979. They did so in the hope of being picked up by an American label.
“At the time, the 24-carat ironclad rule in the music business was that you didn’t go to America unless the record company was backing you financially,” says Warren. “But we’d heard that Squeeze had gone out there and they’d done it themselves.”
As well as being a fishing trip for a deal, the tour was a chance to road test the songs written with Midge. The setlist included ‘Astradyne’, ‘New Europeans’, ‘All Stood Still’ and ‘Sleepwalk’, with old favourites such as ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Quiet Men’ and their cover version of Brian Eno’s ‘King’s Lead Hat’ for the encore. The dates concluded with a five-night residency at the Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood. The shows were a hit with the audiences, but the band had overlooked an important factor in their calculations.
“I think we borrowed the money off NatWest to do that tour,” says Chris. “And then we arranged to do five nights at the Whisky. What we didn’t realise was that LA is a desert at Christmas and New Year. Everyone goes away. The shows all sold out, but none of the people there were record company people. After that, we came back to London and did one gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. We told all the UK record companies that we were going to sign with an American label unless someone else picked us up. We were saying, ‘We’d rather sign with a British company, but we’ve got these offers from America…’. So we did this one gig and Chrysalis said they loved it. Thank god someone was there.”
Most of the album that would become ‘Vienna’ was ready to record by the time Ultravox signed their deal with Chrysalis. At Midge’s suggestion, they decided to once again work with Conny Plank, who had produced ‘Systems Of Romance’. Konrad “Conny” Plank, the bear-like genius of left-field German rock, was plucked from his comfort zone on his farm near Cologne and brought over to RAK Studios in London for the first part of the recording.
“I think he always felt out of his depth and uncomfortable in studios that weren’t his,” says Midge. “So you could see a marked difference between him working at home in his own studio, with his little boxes he’d created that he would put things through, and working at RAK. He was an interesting character to watch.”
Ultravox and Plank spent 10 days at RAK, during which time Warren remembers a convivial curry with legendary record producer and RAK founder Mickie Most, who lived upstairs. Billy remembers the acoustics.
“The reason we chose RAK is because we liked the big room and we were into ambience. We didn’t just create our sound from the synthesiser, we liked that it could be changed a lot by adding mics in different positions.”
The big room ambience, which was harnessed memorably by The Cure two years later on their landmark album ‘Pornography’, is evident with the more atmospheric tracks on ‘Vienna’, like the instrumental ‘Astradyne’ and the ostentatious ululations of ‘Western Promise’. Incidentally, ‘Astradyne’ opens the European version of the album but, for the sake of impact, it was swapped for ‘Sleepwalk’ on the North American release. Ultravox never did crack America.
“We then took the tapes to Conny’s studio in this little village in Germany,” says Warren. “Trust me, it really was in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing around us except cows.”
The studio itself had once been a pigsty and the complex was a family-run hub of musicianly camaraderie, with none of the competitiveness often associated with close groups of artists. Midge recalls Holger Czukay from Can turning up to work on quarter-inch tape in the downtime when Ultravox returned to their hotel at night. The bohemian milieu was in stark contrast to the “vorsprung durch technik” associated with Kraftwerkian electronic music.
“They were hippies,” states Midge. “If you listen to Kraftwerk’s early stuff, they were playing flutes. They had long hair and they wore corduroys. They were a corduroy band! It was the graphics on the records and the whole robotic thing that gave electronic music that cold, mid-European, distant feel, but that’s not the reality of how it was.”
“Conny’s studio was great,” enthuses Warren. “He had one of the very first computerised mixing desks. There were only a couple in the UK at the time, so this was super high-tech. The automation was relatively limited by today’s standards, but any automation was real ‘Star Trek’ stuff in those days.”
Mixing often involved Plank delegating instructions, with all four members of Ultravox leaning over the desk.
“Each one of us might have one or two faders and we had our tasks during the mix – mute something, unmute it, push the gain up on the fader, pull it down, and so forth,” continues Warren. “Conny’s desk would memorise that, so you could build the track up layer by layer and update it as you went along. It was fantastic. A big leap forward. There’s nothing that would bum you out more than finishing a mix and saying, ‘I nailed mine’, and then someone else saying, ‘I fucked it up in the bridge’.”
The ever-idiosyncratic Herr Plank had a Polaroid camera above the desk, which he used to photograph the dials in the hope of being able to restore the settings at a later date. A man of few words, his working methods were unusual but remarkably effective.
“Conny was a very interesting bloke,” says Chris. “He really related to the sonic part of sound. He would have an absolute feel for the noise.”
Each member of the group can recount details of Plank’s highly impressive work history, from his four albums with Kraftwerk to overseeing sessions with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Marlene Dietrich for the German broadcaster WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk).
“His dad played the viola,” says Billy. “Or maybe he made that one up. He did smoke a lot.”
Conny Plank’s diverse background helped him to tune into the classical element that Billy brought to Ultravox, as heard most notably on the title track of ‘Vienna’. It was one of the last songs to be written and was born out of a need for something slower to offset the more uptempo and poppy numbers like ‘Sleepwalk’ and ‘Passing Strangers’.
Much has been made of the tonal, fin de siècle mood of ‘Vienna’, but Billy’s main classical influences at the time were dissonant, modernist composers such as Béla Bartók, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. The more florid parts on that particular song were in a style that the former orchestral musician had not brought to his own work to that point.
The impetus came from two places. Firstly, the Ravelian pomp of the chorus, with three notes repeated in variations, had actually begun life as something Billy had been improvising towards the conclusion of the song ‘Dislocation’ on the ill-fated American tour in early 1979. Secondly, Plank played the group an unfashionable and long-dead German composer called Max Reger as an example of bombast, a blast of sound that counterintuitively inspired Billy.
“After Johann Strauss [II] died, Reger was trying to take over from him, but he was trying a bit too hard,” says Billy. “All the parts were over-embellished and too fancy. It was interesting, though. I knew where Conny was coming from with it. It did make you feel a bit sick, but then the cold, eerie, electronic side of what we were doing really nailed it down.”
But it was on the ‘Vienna’ bridge where Plank fully came into his own.
“I had never known anything like that before,” says Billy, admiringly. “It was a bit like when we later worked with George Martin [on ‘Rage In Eden’], but Conny was just something else.”
Billy wrote the score for the famous instrumental mid-section of the track, with the descending pianos cascading onto a bed of major chords, but he and Plank decided it was “a bit too sweet” and modified it accordingly. More skilful still, given they were using electronic equipment that didn’t yield to the push of a button as it does today, was the ritardando at the end of the bridge and before the final triumphant chorus.
“That was something I really wanted to do,” says Billy. “I wanted to bring classical into electronic music, which was quite unusual at that time.”
Not that deceleration ahead of a crescendo is common in electronic music now.
The ‘Vienna’ album came out on Chrysalis in July 1980. The reviews were mixed and the sales were initially sluggish, although the lead single from the album, ‘Sleepwalk’, went into the lower reaches of the UK Top 30. It was the first time Ultravox had charted. The follow-up, ‘Passing Strangers’, fared less well, peaking at Number 57. It looked as though what had happened with Slik was repeating itself all over again.
The band wanted the title track to be the third single from the album, but Chrysalis were reluctant to begin with. The label viewed the song as having limited commercial value and insisted on a radio edit. When they finally relented and allowed the group to have its way, releasing the single in January 1981, ’Vienna’ became an enormous hit record.
Midge soon found himself jabbering to the music papers about Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession art movement, even though the lyrical inspiration for the song was an imaginary holiday romance. He hadn’t set foot in Austria until Ultravox hurriedly shot the video for the single, by which point it was already riding high in the charts.
“We’d be talking about the Secessionists and whatever else because that was what was expected of you. It would have been dreadfully uncool to say it’s about your feelings when you’re away from home and you meet somebody and it’s all wonderful, but then you later realise that moment in time has gone and is in the past. The NME wouldn’t want to write about that stuff, so it was playing to the gallery in a way.”
If Ultravox had had a rough time of it from certain sections of the press, Midge admits he understands how “the stage sets, the graphics, the videos, and too much sucking your cheeks in” might have antagonised journalists. Some of it still clearly cuts to the quick, though. When Paul Morley interviewed the band for NME in September 1980, after ‘Sleepwalk’ had come out, he focused on the journeyman aspect of Midge’s career and Ultravox’s lack of success up to then, calling them “two losers made good”. Midge laughs it off, but there’s a trace of annoyance in his voice when he talks about it.
“It’s all part of what you present. It’s no different from Kraftwerk cutting their hair and putting on their red shirts. A few years later, Chrysalis did a market survey when they put ‘The Collection’ out. I insisted on reading it and people said we were po-faced scientists. I can see why the press would go for us, but it was just vicious. It wasn’t about the music, it was personal as well. As Paul Morley said, ‘two losers made good’. In a way, he was probably quite right.”
The ‘Vienna’ single climbed to Number Two in the UK charts in February 1981 and stayed there for four weeks. It was held off the top spot first by John Lennon’s ‘Woman’ and then by Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap You Face’, a freak novelty record that sold six million copies around the world. Midge and Billy really hit paydirt when Visage’s ‘Fade To Grey’ followed ‘Vienna’ up the charts, peaking at Number Eight. Four decades on, ‘Vienna’ has entered the pantheon of true classic songs. In 2013, Radio 2 listeners voted it the greatest Number Two single ever, ahead of ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Fairytale Of New York’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and many other indelible 45s from the last 60 years. The ‘Vienna’ album has weathered well too.
“It really stands up,” agrees Midge. “I bumped into John Taylor from Duran Duran a few years back and I asked him what he was up to. He said he’d been recording in London and he’d been listening to the ‘Vienna’ album for inspiration. And I thought, ‘Wow, really?’. It’s quite interesting that what was damned at the time still resonates now.”
With today’s pop music an omnium-gatherum of sounds, it’s perhaps hard to imagine how radical and misunderstood Ultravox’s electro-rock hybrid was. Chris believes it was the musicians’ different backgrounds that made them unusual.
“We were a bit proggy, really electronic, and we had Billy’s classical influences,” he says. “But then I’m from Tottenham, so my influences were Desmond Dekker and all the reggae bands.”
Chris and Warren both recall playing at The Marquee and somebody in the crowd calling out, “Fuck off, synthesisers!” before they’d even started the set.
“Well, they didn’t feel the same way when we pinned them up against a wall with blood coming out of their ears,” says Warren with a chuckle.
As the technology improved, many groups dispensed with acoustic instruments altogether in the 1980s, but Ultravox always saw themselves as a rock band augmenting what they did with synths. Bringing the two together was often so laborious in the early days that Warren compares their plight to that of the Pointillists, that pioneering faction of the Impressionists who would fill canvases with whole universes of exacting painted dots.
And whatever the technological developments, it was still sometimes erratic, particularly in the live arena. Warren talks about a very awkward show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, when their drum machine burst into activity just at the wrong moment.
“Oh god… that,” he moans. “We took a great deal of effort in creating an arc for our set – a long intro and then a medium phase and so on – in order to give light and shade. We were in the home stretch, at the tail end of phase three of four phases, we’re starting to put the pedal to the metal, we’re playing ‘Vienna’, we’ve got them just where we want them, and Billy steps forward to do his violin solo. It’s high drama, everyone is on the edge of their seat… and all of a sudden my drum machine goes totally batshit.”
Apparently, it was a malfunction that you couldn’t help but notice whether you were in the band or in the audience.
“I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was horrified.”
While it’s true that Ultravox were sometimes undone by their own ambitions, it was these musical aspirations and pretensions – “haunting notes, pizzicato strings” – that made them special, no matter how the press saw them at the time.
“We’re all working class guys,” says Midge. “But that does not stop you from being drawn to things that are beyond your ken. Ultravox were all about creativity, we were all about trying to make something interesting. It wasn’t for everybody, but then nothing is. You want to be perceived as something unique and Ultravox were certainly that.”
The 40th anniversary deluxe edition of ‘Vienna’ is released by Chrysalis