It begins with a drumbeat that pulses like a human heart but sounds more like shutters flapping in an empty manor. A synthesizer whines as a voice wafts in like a cold wind over the sparse backdrop. It smolders for a while; then, as keyboards enter like rays of sunlight, the voice bursts out into full force in a cry verging on the operatic, punctuated by delicate piano keys. The song is nothing less than poised grandeur, mourning a deep loss in a somber, moving fashion.
The single “Vienna” was an affirmation for struggling synthpop pioneers Ultravox. At the dawn of the 1980s, the group was in a precarious situation. Not long before the song was recorded, original frontman John Foxx had departed the group, and his replacement, Midge Ure, arrived in the middle of a group whose chance at stardom was widely considered to be long past. “Vienna” proved Ultravox was ready for another shot. In fact, the song was so strong that Ultravox’s record label, Chrysalis, changed the band’s fourth album title name to Vienna from the less straightforward Torque Point. Released in January 1981, “Vienna” hovered at number two on the UK Singles Chart in the early part of the year. Oddly enough, it was kept from the top slot first by a pair of singles by then-recently slain ex-Beatle John Lennon, then by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit “Shaddup You Face”.
Although it never reached the top of the charts, “Vienna” is nonetheless Ultravox’s greatest triumph. “Vienna” excels at creating a mood suggestive of reflection, despair, and longing. The song’s restraint of composition is its strength, keeping its more sensational moments from coming off as overblown melodrama. This does not just apply to execution of the music. The beautifully-realized atmosphere of “Vienna” is crafted in part by lyrics that suggest emotions instead of outlining hard details. The words do not explicitly state what the song is about, for the lyrics are concerned with conveying the feeling through word choice and phrasing rather than explaining what exactly the narrator is ruminating about.