The Curious Meaning of ‘Vienna’ by Ultravox

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

According to Ultravox keyboard player Billy Currie, the band’s lead singer, Midge Ure, felt uncomfortable with the violin solo in the song. Wasn’t this straying too far from the band’s new wave, synthpop roots? ‘This means nothing to me,’ Ure reportedly said. The legendary music producer, Conny Plank, replied to him: ‘Well, sing that then.’

And so the signature line of Ultravox’s signature tune was born. This means nothing to us … or does it? Ure apparently wrote the lyrics to ‘Vienna’ very quickly, but this doesn’t mean the song has no real meaning. But its meaning requires a little untangling, so to the lyrics we go.

‘Vienna’: song meaning

The song is about a love affair which takes place in the city of Vienna, the capital of Austria. But the lyrics are deliberately elliptical and opaque – impressionistic, we might say – so this makes it difficult to follow a ‘story’ as such.

Instead, what we have are syncopated lines drip-feeding us ‘mood’ details, conjuring the coldness of the central European city in ways which recall Auden’s glorious sonnet ‘Brussels in Winter’. (One wonders if Midge Ure is an Auden fan?)

The cold air, the freezing breath that is visible on windows: such details summon the unwelcoming climate of Vienna, perhaps an unlikely place for a heated and passionate love affair to occur.

But a passionate affair there was, by all accounts; and like all passionate flings, this one, too, passed. The feeling goes, and it just leaves two human beings, stripped of the very specific circumstances which brought them together. And now it means nothing to them. They’re just two people, in a foreign city, ships that passed in the night (albeit ships in a landlocked country).

If the first verse of ‘Vienna’ focused on the feel and look of the city, the second verse is dominated by sound: that bewitching music which draws one in, so like the enticing temptation of a romantic affair; but once the song is over, once the orchestra has packed up, all that’s left is a silence. A cold, lonely silence. The affair is over. Even the memory of his lover’s warm hand is a fading memory.

However, what makes the song so emotionally curious – and complex – is the ambivalence we sense in the singer about all this. Does he regret the fact that the affair has come to an end? He seems haunted, after all, by the memory of his lover, the warmth of her hand, that voice that reaches out with its ‘piercing cry’ (of pain, of sorrow, of longing?).

And yet the chorus to the song makes it clear that the feeling has gone and it means nothing to him. Could this be pop music’s first great song about the conflicted feelings one has about an affair that needed to end, because the spark has gone, feelings of relief that are nevertheless tempered with a regret that those happy times are now past? Is it a song expressing regret, not that the affair is over, but that the feelings which drove the affair have passed?

‘Vienna’: analysis

When the song was first released, there was an oft-repeated woozle or factoid that ‘Vienna’ had been inspired (at least in part) by the 1949 Carol Reed film The Third Man, which is set in Vienna. But Midge Ure later admitted he made that up, for reasons he is perhaps best-placed to answer.

As commented above, the main meaning of ‘Vienna’ is that it’s about a love affair being recalled. The details relate to the affair, although it just so happens that some of them do chime with that classic post-war film.

We used the word ‘impressionistic’ to describe the lyrics of ‘Vienna’, but perhaps Expressionism is a more fruitful artistic comparison. They are deliberately ‘big’ images – mental images, visual images, aural images – which suggest the intensity of the brief love affair and the way its memory continues to haunt the singer after it is over.

After all, we are perhaps not meant to take that man in the dark (in a picture frame) literally, be he Orson Welles or someone else. This vivid image is not so much post-war (Welles in Vienna opining on the dubious Austrian contribution to world culture) as Cold War: that man in the dark could almost have stepped out of one of John le Carré’s spy novels.

For one of the reasons ‘Vienna’ struck such an orchestral chord with listeners is surely its artistic value as a ‘mood-piece’, summoning early 1980s Cold War anxiety, even while the meaning of the song stands apart from such a loaded political context.

The image of the man in the dark simultaneously summons the singer (he is now lonely and in the dark, recalling the warm touch of his lover?) and perhaps another ‘third man’ (the woman’s husband? What sort of ‘affair’ was this, after all?).

Curiously, ‘Vienna’ was almost never released as a single. It was the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, released in 1980, where it precedes the much dancier and uptempo floor filler ‘All Stood Still’. The record company, Chrysalis, didn’t want to release ‘Vienna’ as a single. Too long, too slow, too atypical of the Ultravox ‘brand’, one suspects.

But Ultravox themselves saw its potential, and they were proved to be right. It very nearly topped the UK charts when it was released in early 1981, and would have given the band their only number one single if it hadn’t been for Joe Dolce’s deathless classic ‘Shaddup You Face’.


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