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.
Upon the single’s release, the members of Ultravox played up the Teutonic, Old World associations of “Vienna” in the music press by discussing topics related to the Austrian city at end of the 19th century, particularly the Vienna Secession art movement and its president, Gustav Klimt. Simon Reynolds picked up on this thread in his book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, where he cited “Vienna” as an example of an undercurrent of Eastern European imagery that dominated the New Romantic movement in the early 1980s. Cataloging the track as Ultravox’s descent into “full-blown Teutonica”, Reynolds described “Vienna” as “inspired by a vague notion of a past-its-prime Hapsburg Empire sliding into decadence.”
Except the song isn’t about that at all. In truth, the song originated from an episode where an acquaintance of Ure’s misremembered the title of the Fleetwood Mac song “Rhiannon”. The singer formulated what became the song’s chorus line, then wrote the rest of the song around it with his bandmates. In his 2004 autobiography If I Was…, Ure explained, “[‘Vienna’] was a love song, the story of a holiday romance, about going to a beautiful place and meeting someone special.” Ure’s lyrics were completely based in fantasy; he emphasized, “I’d never been to Vienna, never had a holiday romance.” Perhaps most disappointing to music journalists, Ure revealed that there is no political subtext in “Vienna” at all. Ure admitted in his book that he and his bandmates lied in interviews about the song’s meaning, throwing around any facts about turn of the century Vienna they could conjure in order to make themselves “sound interesting.”
Despite its actual meaning, it is not obvious from a scan of the lyrics that “Vienna” is about a holiday fling with a special someone. There’s no direct mention of romance, much less a vacation aside from the almost casual inclusion of the Austrian city’s name in the chorus. The object of the narrator’s affection is almost spectral; the only sign of intimacy is the warmth of a hand in the midst of an evening sky that “fades to the distance” as daylight breaks. The song could be about any two people on a cold, lonely night anywhere in the world.
This vagueness is key to “Vienna”. Amidst the shuttering drumbeat and Ure’s late-night-fog croon, what the listener is left with is the sad sensation of reflecting on an incident from the past that grows ever more distant until it is almost meaningless. As Ure explained, “You have this huge holiday romance, that you vow is going to continue forever, but, once you get back home and start living your nine-to-five job again, it just fades away.” The lyrics stay away from specifics because the whole event is slowly fading away from the narrator’s memory.
As the wonderful holiday memory recedes into nothingness, what is prevalent is a sense of discomfort and loneliness. Ure’s snatches of imagery conjure up impressions of unease. Chilly imagery fills the lyrics, with references to “freezing breath”, “cool empty silence”, and a “cold grey sky”. For what is supposed to be a touching memory, there is a definite sense of dread, illustrated by the “man in the dark in a picture frame” and the couplet “A voice reaching out in a piercing cry / It stays with you until”. Even so, the memory beckons: Ure sings, “The music is weaving / Haunting notes, pizzicato strings / The rhythm is calling”. Why are the narrator’s reflections so foreboding? It feels as though the loss of that special moment is so overwhelming that it bleeds into and overwhelms the memory, so that all that are left are painful sensations.
The most striking lines in “Vienna” are in the chorus. Upon first glance, the chorus seems to come from the “all that matters is the two of us” school of love songs. It appears as though the narrator is noting that whatever gloom wafted through the verses has now gone, leaving only the two lovers. However, he follows up the line “It means nothing to me”, with the more curious “This means nothing to me / Oh, Vienna”. Ure hits the last line with a sorrowful ecstasy, where one can practically envision him looking up to the heavens as he feels the past fade away. Ure elaborated in his book years later, “You say, ‘It means nothing to me,’ but you’re lying, harking back to Vienna, to a fabulous moment in time.” What the chorus illustrates is that as time goes on, not only do the events of the narrator’s sojourn mean nothing, but so does the entire episode itself, leaving him to mourn the memory of what no longer is. The “feeling is gone”, but he yearns for that time in Vienna nonetheless, no matter how much he denies it. Except there really is nothing left to pine for.
Commenting on the fading memory he conceptualized for “Vienna”, Ure said, “I’d love to have it, but it’s all gone — forever. It wasn’t real life.” And that’s the key to “Vienna”. Even though Ure has confirmed the song has no basis in reality, due to the impressionistic lyrics Ultravox is able to make the listener feel like something priceless has been lost.