At the end of the 1970s momentous change was afoot in Britain and the world – in society, politics, fashion and culture – and the musical landscape was also about to change forever. The guitar-driven dominance that had propelled rock and punk throughout the decade was about to end, as synthesizers signalled the sound of the future and video transformed the look of the pop charts. The 1980s were about to explode into life and nothing would be the same again.
At the heart of this seismic leap into a futuristic new dawn were two records that set the template for much of what was to follow. Visage’s single Fade To Grey from the band’s debut eponymous album and Ultravox’s single Vienna from the album of the same name were global hits that shared the same stark ambience, European aesthetic and electronic heart. The albums that birthed those landmark singles expanded that sonic palette even further and brought the art-school alternative into the very centre of the mainstream.
Both records were co-written, recorded and produced by one of the leading characters in British music, Midge Ure, and not only transformed the charts around the globe but his life in the process.
The early 1980s electronic movement that Scottish-born star Ure was so much a part of opened him up to German bands like Kraftwerk and La Dusseldorf, at a time when former experience with teenyboppers Slik and new wave ex-punks the Rich Kids had prepared him for new directions.
“It was a moment when high street punk gave way to new music influenced by Bowie, Glam, Roxy, and Marc Bolan,” says Ure. “Kids were listening to music from Europe and raiding their granny’s wardrobes to come up with these outlandish, fantastic new romantic outfits, veils over their faces, it was beautiful.
“They hung out in clubs like Billy’s in London. They’d stopped listening to the third-wave punks who were out there slashing away on their guitars.
“This came with the advent of synthesiser technology at the same time.
“The kids no longer wanted to have their knees tied together with bondage trousers like the punks did - they wanted something different. New romanticism was born.
“Everything changed for me. Prior to that moment in 1980 with the release of Visage’s debut and Ulstravox’s Vienna I always felt that there was something going on behind the glass wall that I couldn’t get to or couldn’t reach and suddenly I’d made a breakthrough. The glass wall was gone. I was given the keys to the kingdom and I was allowed to do all the things I wanted to do, I was producing records for people, I was directing videos, I was making film tracks, I was doing all kinds of stuff, and it all happened in that one year.
“For me, creating Visage, and joining Ultravox was about making new adult music in studios I’d never been allowed into before. It was a growing up process. I was following my heart and wasn’t at all guided by what was going to succeed commercially, but I just felt we had the knowledge to merge traditional instruments with electro and synthesised sounds. And with Vienna we became successful with the most dark, experiemental, ominous piece - nobody could have predicted that - it was a four minute long, dark piece of experimental music. Artistically it was a huge gamble.”
Visage and Ultravox didn’t so much adopt the sartorial as the musical style and vocabulary of the movement and new romantic visuals - the video for Vienna remains a seminal example - and so paved the way for full-on synth-pop in the early 1980s. By the end of 1981 the original new romantic movement had largely dissipated but its influence lives on - Visage, Ultravox and Midge Ure had indelibly left their mark.
Ultravox and Visage were to bring new romantic synth pop-rock to the heart of 1980s music culture, with standout, landmark single Vienna joining a slew of other hits like If I Was, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, Serenade, All Stood Still, Visage’s Fade to Grey, Mind of a Toy, The Damned Don’t Cry and and Night Train, all anthemic, moody, sythn-driven tracks that showcased the best of Ure’s songwriting skills.
Now Ure and his Band Electronica have announced dates for The 1980 Tour at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on October 28.
This is the very first time in the 40 years since it was made that the Vienna album will be performed in its entirety. It is also the first time that many of the songs from the debut Visage album will be played live.
Four decades on, as we come towards the end of another turbulent decade, momentous change is once again afoot in Britain and the world.
Can we face the next decade with the optimism and futuristic brightness that flooded the 1980s, and will there be a new cultural birth that will change music, fashion and society?
The 1980 Tour reminds us that these things are possible. Both Vienna and Visage were the sound of the future...and yet they still sound unearthly, romantic, impossibly beautiful and full of promise.
“It’s an incredible period to revisit,” adds Ure. “What I find is that some of it [the music] has aged but some of it is just as great as when it was recorded and really stands up.
“I still write about songs that absolutely affect me, about what people do in the name of religion, power, or right and wrong, but I’m not sure if music is really the vehicle for change that it used to be.”
Growing up in Lanarkshire, music was always Ure’s main source of escapism and joy. His father was a van driver and it was always instilled in him and his brother that they should learn a trade. But on weekends he was playing in bands from the age of 14. At 16 he did an apprenticeship in engineering.
“The opportunity to join a full-time band called Salvation saved me. They asked me to play guitar and that was it. I told my parents I had this opportunity and my mother just told me to go and follow my heart; whereas my dad found it harder because he wanted us to have a trade.
“After I achieved commercial success they started to get it when they did a version of This Is Your Life about me. That’s when my dad got it but they didn’t really get the gold or platinum records.
“I still get the same buzz performing. I don’t underestimate audiences, I think they can always tell when you’re only giving something 80 per cent or when you’re just there half-heartedly painting by numbers. I love doing what I do. The majority of the time when I’m up there it’s glorious, it’s the ultimate drug, it’s what I’d imagine ecstasy and cocaine combined must do. I’ve never taken drugs, so I don’t know, exactly. I just know it’s a drug that you couldn’t bottle or sell.”
l Midge Ure & Band Electronica - The 1980 Tour, Ulster Hall, October 28. Tickets from Ticketmaster. Visit www.ticketmaster.ie or call 0844 277 4455.