Back in January 1981 Ultravox released the single, Vienna. It was played a lot on the radio and shot up the UK pop music chart. I had it earmarked for the best single of the year and a certainty for the number one slot.
After the musical wilderness of the seventies Vienna was a breath of fresh air. In complete contrast to the guitar-thrashing of the early punk bands it builds slowly from a foundation of synthesisers and drum machines. There’s a relaxed, solid beat behind mysterious electronic chords. It reminds us of The Third Man, the post war thriller starring Orson Welles, shot in black and white and set in Austria’s capital city. Atmospheric, shadowy, suspenseful.
A male voice soars over the pulsing electronic sounds singing about cold air, freezing breath. Instinctively, you turn up your collar. Piano notes ring out, echoing through dark streets. A viola scrapes at the mist. And the voice wails unconvincingly, “this means nothing to me”. Something awful has happened and in anguish he cries, “Oh, Vienna!”.
This is new wave music at its best. Although Vienna is often described as synth pop I think that devalues it. The piano and viola parts give it a classical pedigree; there’s nothing superficial here. The production is open, almost sparse, so that each instrument can be clearly heard – more like a string quartet than the Phil Spector wall of sound. And that, says Crotchety Man, is how it should be.
By early February 1981 Vienna had reached no. 2 behind John Lennon’s Woman (a far inferior track in my opinion). The following week, to my horror and utter disbelief Vienna had been leapfrogged by Joe Dolce’s Shaddup You Face. Well, OK, Shaddup was a novelty record and quite fun to listen to, but no-one with any sanity left would actually go and spend their hard-earned cash on it. It was a passing fad, I assured myself; it will vanish like a mayfly at sunset.
The following week the top two positions hadn’t changed. “What madness is this?”, I asked myself. When Shaddup was still at number one as March arrived I was forced to conclude that the record buying public are all morons, and I slipped quietly into the slough of despond. For much of the seventies there had been nothing on the radio worth listening to and when a precious jewel like Vienna comes along it is utterly unappreciated. Has there ever been a better illustration of “casting pearls before swine” in popular music?
Funnily enough the UK’s Official Charts Company seems to have come to the same conclusion. At the end of 2012, in conjunction with BBC Radio 2, they ran a poll to find the greatest track that never quite reached number one. Vienna won the poll beating off competition from the likes of The Beatles (Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever) and Queen (We Are The Champions). The Official Charts Company’s managing director, Martin Talbot, commented:
It is also probably the most apt winner, given the fact that it was kept from the chart summit in 1981 by Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup You Face”, which has long been considered one of the biggest chart injustices of all time.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the Official Singles Chart in 2012, we are delighted to declare it as an honorary official number one single.
And I say, “hear, hear” to that. It’s been a long time coming, but perhaps justice prevailed in the end.