Wednesday, April 05, 2006

But what's it got to do with Vienna?

I was in a city eatery at lunchtime today queuing up for a baked spud to take away when that Ultravox song “Dancing with tears in my eyes” came on the radio. I’ve never been a big Ultravox fan, but I quite like this song as well as their only other song I’ve heard of, “Vienna”. When I was on holiday in Vienna a few years ago it was going through my head the whole time and I just couldn’t get rid of it. It’s a decent song, but gets irritating after a while. I could never work out what it was about. Some philosophical rant about the futility and meaninglessness of life, I presume, as implied in the chorus bit “this means nothing to me – oh Vienna”. I don’t see what this has got to do with the Austrian capital though. Perhaps any readers or fellow bloggers out there can shed some light on this? I can picture a shot of Midge Ure with pencil line moustache (something which for some reason was considered cool back then) gyrating to strobe lights with all those whizzy ’80s graphics which were state of the art technology in those days before the advent of proper CGIs. Yes, come to think of it moustaches were regarded as a male fashion accessory during that time. They weren’t just the preserve of RUC men and boxers with high pitched voices. But then spangly flecked suits, super-thin leather ties, white socks and skintight jeans were all the rage back then. Can’t say I particularly miss the 80s. I still don’t get the Viennese connection though.

There’s no punchline or moral message to this story by the way, but the annoying thing is that the chorus to that bloody song “Dancing with tears in my eyes” (followed by “nothing but a memory”, the only two lines I know from the entire song) has been going through my head all afternoon and I can’t get rid of it.


plurabella said...

sing Jerusalem to yourself a few times and they might go away.

yes, that's happenned to me many times, irritating

W.G. Mc Farland said...

3 possible interpretations the significance of Vienna in the Ultravox song of that name:

1. Vienna is a girl's name. 95% of pop songs are about girls. Even if a girl called Vienna wasn't the object of Midge Ure's adolescent lusts, he probably thought it sounded better than Morag or whatever her real name was.

2. Vienna doesn't mean anything but is chosen for its evocative and atmospheric qualities. The cultural context here is the use by various early-80s bands of words, names and phrases associated with the Cold War, central Europe and Germany in particular. For example, the band name 'Spandau Ballet' means fuck all as far as I know, but suggests the playing-out of a fluid, sensual art form against a sinister and claustrophobic backdrop. Contemporaries of the Kemp twins eschewed the ballet motif but made much of the darkly glamorous hints of political intrigue, kinky sex, espionage, betrayal, urban anonymity and mechanized efficiency that could be achieved by sticking German or German-sounding names onto things.

Musically, synth-bands like Ultravox were influenced by David Bowie and Kraftwerk. The latter, bring German, tended to give their songs German names. Bowie, meanwhile, spent the late 70s in Berlin where he made a trilogy of albums that feature synthesizer instrumentals and names such as Neukoln, V2-Schneider, and Warszawa; Lou Reed’s album Berlin would also be relevant here. The look adopted by these artists would also account for Midge Ure's pencil thin moustache and the tendency of all eighties band who thought themselves a bit arty and serious to wear long coats.

Thus ‘Vienna’ is probably the name Midge Ure settled for when he realized Warsaw and Berlin were taken and that no-one was going to take a song called Monchengladbach seriously. The lyrics to the song do, however, suggest that Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, set in Vienna, was a source for many of the images in the lyrics and possibly the title as well. The lines ‘The music is weaving/Haunting notes pizzicato strings’ allude directly to the famous zither music from the film, while ‘A man in the dark in the picture frame’, might be said to evoke the scene in which Orson Welles’s Harry Lime character first appears– particularly if you read ‘picture frame’ as referring to a frame of film.

3. The song is narrated in the character of Rigsby from 70s sitcom Rising Damp and is addressed to his cat, Vienna.

CW said...

1. Yes, Plurabella, but the danger is that I'll have Jerusalem incessantly going through my head instead.

2. An interesting and rather intriguing analysis there, WG. Your 3rd possibility seems the most likely explanation.
However, I do agree that cold war themes were popular at the time particularly among the electro-synth bands of the era, but also more generally, such as Sting's "Russians" and Elton John's "Nikita". And I believe there was a band called China Crisis around the same time. Marillion also recorded their 1985 concept album "Misplaced Childhood" (apparently inspired by Herman Hesse's "Demian" - which reminds me of the band Steppenwolf who got their name from another Hesse novel) in Berlin and in a subsequent album wrote a song called "White Russian" about the rise of neo-naziism in Europe at the time, particularly relating to the election of Kurt Waldheim in Austria. Then later on we had German moustachioed rockers Scorpions with the cheesy ballad "Winds of change" about the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. Your Spandau Ballet/Bowie connection seems to fit in here neatly. If anyone else can provide further examples of this trend in '80s popular culture I'd like to hear from them.

I'd never connected the song with The Third Man, not having seen the film, but your explanation sheds much light on the topic!

plurabella said...

....yes there is that problem, I'd rather Vienna myself....

Anonymous said...

I read an article somwhere wich said that in the 80's Vienna by Ultravox was the most common song to be found in the collection of teenage suicides. Perhaps if the Crazy Frog had been popular then instead these lives may have been saved.....!!

I think it must be about a holiday love affair which ceases to be interesting once the trip is over and reality hits (ie why the hell did we imagine we even LIKED each other let alone were in love - it must have been the effect of the stunning romantic Viennese skyline - or more likely the Austrian wine).

Anonymous said...

Hi Claran!

I read your views regarding Ultravox's "Vienna." The song has put me in a trance whenever I listened to it with its haunting lyrics and mystic tune. I had been intensely perplexed as to what the song implies, and the title, for that matter.

I haven't seen "The Third Man," but after reading your comments, I searched for the storyline and found it fairly interesting, but not to extent that I could believe it was inspired by a hit-and-run movie.

I feel that the song might have been the result of a band member's trip to Vienna, where he might have been inspired by a painting/portrait that hung on some museum wall in the city. He might incorporated this with the some of the sights and sounds that he perceived while he was walking down the streets of the city.

What do you think? Food for thought and imagination, huh?:) Wonderful stuff! The Muse is still alive in such songs!

In any case, I think the song is superb and that you won't find anything like it nowadays (as only Shakira's ass sells nowadays, not a good song).

Thanks again!