It’s now 26 years since Ultravox last released an album. Recently reformed, they’re back with a UK tour. Andy Welch spoke to Midge Ure.
Vienna by Ultravox is among the most well-known songs of the Eighties.
No compilation of the decade would be complete without the band’s brooding, atmospheric signature song and chorus.
“It means nothing to me,” sang Midge Ure. “Oh, Vienna.”
The video to the song, alongside the title, tipped its hat to the 1948 Orson Welles film The Third Man, while the lyrics told of European sophistication and a whirlwind romance in Austria.
All in all, it was quite unlike anything released around the same time, particularly Joe Dolce’s novelty hit Shaddap You Face, which ultimately helped keep the song from ever hitting the No 1 spot despite its massive sales.
The record industry has changed dramatically and few artists experience the kind of impact Ultravox had with that song. Almost 30 years after releasing their last album, the band’s frontman Midge Ure knows this all too well. The last two years have been a steep learning curve for the 58-year-old.
“It used to be you’d release a single, hopefully get on Top Of The Pops, wait six weeks, release the album and then tour,” he says, comparing the band’s Eighties heyday with releasing an album in 2012.
“Now, who knows how you do it? The possibilities are endless.”
Ultravox released their eleventh album Brilliant in May. It’s the first featuring the classic line-up since 1986’s U-Vox, and follows on from Ure reuniting with Chris Cross, Warren Cann and Billy Currie for a 30th anniversary tour in 2010.
“We never planned to make this album,” explains Ure.
“These things are never planned. The reunion tour came about because we were approached by the promoters Live Nation, who said if ever we were thinking about getting back together, 2009/2010 was the time to do it.
“We all independently liked the idea, emailed each other and did it.”
The album happened when Universal in Germany approached the band, expressing their enthusiasm for another Ultravox record and, while initially keen, Ure soon found things weren’t as they first seemed.
“I was invited to this songwriters’ convention where there were around 25 people in a room. The moment I walked in it became clear they were going to write songs with me, and there would be some odd licensing agreement where the label would provide the songs, and we’d just record them and put the Ultravox name on the album.
“It was so manipulative and crazy, not to mention hideously insulting,” he continues.
“Not only do people in the industry want to cross all the Ts and dot the Is, they want to control how many Ts and Is you have in the first place.
“It was the X Factor-style process rather than a good creative process.”
Fortunately for members of Ultravox, they’d already been working on their own plan and by the time they realised any agreement with Universal would be untenable, they’d already spent months writing and recording their own album the way they wanted to do it.
“We went off to my house in Canada, built a studio with laptops and got to work,” says Ure.
“No one knew we were going, no one else came with us. We just wanted to go off and see what it was like. If it hadn’t have worked, no one would’ve been any the wiser.
“Three of us lived there, and it was phenomenal. We went back a couple of months later, eventually doing three trips before going to Los Angeles to record the drums and finishing it all off in the UK.”
The resulting album is, without meaning to state the obvious, pure Ultravox. There are huge, reverb-laden piano chords, haunting strings and electronic instrumentation, plus Ure’s unmistakable voice.
“What did you expect?” asks Ure when met with this observation. “It’s the sound we make when we’re in a room together. Obviously we’ve moved it on, but this album is these four characters getting together, and each of the characters is made up of a collection of influences.
“Brilliant is cinematic and dramatic and atmospheric. All the hallmarks, all the good and bad things that have ever been written about Ultravox.”
Ultravox: the road to Vienna and beyond
The band’s first incarnation, Tiger Lily, formed in 1974, and featured Dennis Leigh, Stevie Shears, Chris Cross, Warren Cann and Billy Currie.
They soon became Ultravox!, dropping the exclamation mark in 1978, the same year they fired Shears and released Systems Of Romance, their last album with John Foxx.
James ‘Midge’ Ure joined the band in time to write much of 1980 album Vienna, steering the band in a much more New Romantic direction.
Ultravox will perform at Sheffield City Hall, Oct 4.