Although its immortal title track battled fruitlessly to topple Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face from the top of the UK singles chart, famously stalling at No.2 for an enervating three weeks, Ultravox’s fourth album thoroughly deserves to be viewed as one of the great creative pop triumphs of the early 80s. Originally led by the charismatic, lethally cheekboned John Foxx, the band’s first three albums had drawn in fans of artful and forward-thinking rock. But it was Foxx’s departure and the subsequent arrival of frontman Midge Ure prior to Vienna that turned them into bona fide pop stars
With hindsight, Vienna is an extremely inventive and peculiar record. Ultravox would swiftly become one of the great singles bands of the 80s, but this was an album that proclaimed its debt to the experimental likes of Kraftwerk (Mr X is essentially an overt and charming tribute to the German pioneers), Tangerine Dream and Roxy Music.
It may amuse readers to imagine how many people bought the album first time round, inspired by that ubiquitous title track, only to discover that Vienna begins with a seven-minute synth rock instrumental, Astradyne. Similarly, Western Promise’s otherworldly intro could hardly be more proggy if it put on a cape and sent someone out for a curry halfway through. Meanwhile, New Europeans, Passing Strangers and All Stood Still proved that Ultravox were shoulder-to-shoulder with the new wave/post-punk set and, most importantly, knew how to write a cracking tune. Co-produced by the legendary Conny Plank, Vienna would have been a classic even without that song.
Four decades on, this five-disc extravaganza allows listeners to choose between the original 1980 analogue master and Steven Wilson’s absolutely dazzling 2020 stereo redux. The latter is the real gold here: Wilson’s precise but caring touch has brought endless new nuances out of these songs. One can only imagine the grin on his face when he finished making Vienna itself sound bigger and more irresistibly pompous than ever.
Meanwhile, Ultravox completists can dive into several additional discs of singles, B-sides, live rarities, an entire concert captured in St Albans in 1980 and a DVD featuring a surround sound mix of the full album. You may have to be an Ultravox obsessive to wade through the fourth disc’s cassette recordings from pre-tour rehearsals, but the sound quality is decent enough and if your spine doesn’t tingle during (again) that song, you are probably a close personal friend or relative of Joe Dolce.