Category Archives: Tipping points

2020 ➤ Yes, Midge Ure has Fleetwood Mac to thank for his landmark hit Vienna

40
YEARS
ON

❚ ON THIS DAY in 1980 Ultravox released one of the three most significant albums of the year that exemplified Britain’s new wave of synthesised electronic music – the others coming from Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (in February) and Japan (in October). None of them acknowledged any association with the New Romantics movement. Ultravox’s 12-track album Vienna made an immediate impact, though its title track was only its third to be released, hitting No 2 in the charts in January 1981, later winning Single of the Year at the Brit Awards and an age later voted “the UK’s favourite No2 of all time” in a BBC poll.

It was produced by the German Conny Plank with an evocatively romantic landmark video directed by Russell Mulcahy who was creating a stunning visual vocabulary for the then novel music video. Midge Ure can take full credit as lead singer and guitarist for breathing a subtle blend of Roxy Music’s style and krautrock clarity into Ultravox and building them into a credible vanguard for electronica. Even as the word punk was given the heave-ho in favour of the term “new wave”, Ure was probably the first active player of a synth among any of his clubbing pals, having bought his first, the polyphonic Yamaha CS-50, in the summer of ’78.

As one of the most innovative musicians of the new decade, having had fingers in more pop pies than most, Ure is well qualified to stake his claim to have shaped the music of the Blitz Kids (among whom he was very much an honorary member), and here he describes the inspiration for Vienna, in an extract from his eloquent and candid 2004 autobiography If I Was (Virgin Books):

The first time I plugged in and made a noise with Ultravox was in April 1979 at a rehearsal room in the Elephant and Castle. Right from the first minute I knew I had come home. This noise was what I had been searching for, not only could these people make that noise, but they also could teach me how to make it. [These people being Chris Cross, Billy Currie, Warren Cann.]

What we were doing was radical and new: synthesisers, drum machines and electric guitar mixed together, synth bass with regular drums playing on top of it, the electronic and the organic. It had never been done before. Our sound was massive, this weird crossover between Kraftwerk and the guitars, bass and drums that belonged to every rock band in the world…

I might have been a one-time teeny-bop guitarist but once I was behind the technology, the music that made me famous was the darkest, most serious stuff I’d ever done. Those early days in Ultravox were the best time of my life. The result was a complete crossover, maybe that’s why it worked. The music came from all of us: everyone contributed and we split all the songwriting credits four ways. The classic example of all of us working together was Vienna.

Midge Ure, Ultravox, pop music, Swinging 80s,

The day job: in 1979 Midge Ure (moustachioed) resurrected the name of Ultravox along with Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann. © Getty

One night I was sitting having a conversation with my old manager, Gerry Hempstead, who had co-managed the Rich Kids, when his wife Brenda said to me: ‘Midge, what you need to write is a song like that Vienna.’ I looked blank and she went, ‘You know, the Fleetwood Mac song.’ I looked blanker. ‘No, it wasn’t Vienna,’ said Gerry, ‘it was Rhiannon.’ That was the night I went home with Vienna lodged in my brain.

The next morning it was still there. I walked into the kitchen in my little flat and said to Billy, who was staying over, ‘I’ve got a line running around in my head I can’t get rid of, “this means nothing to me, this means nothing to me, Vienna”.’ We built the song from that one lyric. Every component element came from all four of us. It wouldn’t have been Vienna without Warren’s heartbeat drum sound, and it wouldn’t have been Vienna without the bass synth notes and Billy’s eerie viola… / Continued in Chapter 10 of If I Was

➢ Buy Midge Ure’s If I Was: The Autobiography

➢ Previously at Shapers of the 80s:
1978, Midge stakes his claim as the weathervane of synth-pop who helped shape the British New Wave

➢ Previously at Shapers of the 80s:
110+ acts who set the style for the new music of the 1980s

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1979 ➤ Ethereal Bowie sets the bar for one of his inadvertent hits

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Click picture to view an immaculate video of Bowie singing The Man Who

HERE’S A RARE CHANCE TO VIEW one of the most inspired renderings of The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie with the bizarre German punk Klaus Nomi as backing singer during a performance on Saturday Night Live on 15 December 1979. Wearing red on the left we see American performance artist, Joey Arias, who became a regular act at Club 57 in New York’s East Village. Anyone who visited the 2013–2015 touring exhibition, Bowie Is, from the V&A in London will have seen Bowie’s huge tubular costume at first hand…

Luckily, this 8-minute clip also includes brilliant versions of TVC 15 with Bowie in a skirt and heels, plus Boys Keep Swinging where he sports a nude puppet costume with bizarre extremities. Nomi introduces us to his poodle who appears to have swallowed a TV set. A gifted trio of performances.

The Man Who Sold the World – title track of Bowie’s third studio album – was written in 1970 but released on the B-side of a single hence missed the charts in its own right. It did reach No 3 after Lulu covered the track in 1974 and other covers followed, including one by Midge Ure. Critically the song is widely regarded as one of Bowie’s essential best and only in his last couple of decades did he start rendering it in live performances in utterly different and often haunting ways. Nevertheless, the SNL video from 1979 is powered by a cascade of supremely confident operatic flourishes, “Ohhhh-oh-ohhhh, ohhhhhhh-oh!”

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2020 ➤ Steve Dagger recalls Spandau Ballet’s fifth gig and why it detonated their lift-off

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A picture from the archive: sharply styled Spandau Ballet in 1980 playing the dramatically lit Scala cinema concert that eventually brought the record companies scrambling to sign them. (Photograph © by Steve Brown, processed by Shapersofhe80s)

40
YEARS
ON

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Spandau Ballet’s performance at the trendy Scala cinema on 13 May 1980, their manager Steve Dagger recalls how the event propelled his unsigned band towards the charts and to stardom. Prompted by the waves the band had been making, this – only their fifth live concert – was recorded by London Weekend Television and provided lift-off for the band’s ambitions.

Their first shows were always mounted in secrecy and in novel venues such as the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, which was rapidly becoming the focus for the hippest young people in London who had yet to become known as the New Romantics. The story of those sensational early days is extracted here with Steve’s permission from the full version on the band’s website.

Spandau Ballet, 20th Century Box, Scala cinema, pop music

Spandau at the Scala cinema, May 1980: bass-player Martin Kemp surveys the wild dancing by the audience of Blitz Kids captured for TV by 20th Century Box

Steve Dagger writes:

❏ 40 YEARS AGO, on a warm London May evening, at the Scala Cinema, which was then situated on the rather nondescript Tottenham Street, in the heart of what is now Fitzrovia, Spandau Ballet and its previously underground sub-sect of youth culture emerged blinking into the daylight.

Steve Dagger, Spandau Ballet, live concert, pop music

Spandau manager Steve Dagger on the road with the band in 1980

Before the show, the crowd, previously not seen en-masse outside of a nightclub, spilled over the pavement clutching drinks from the nearby pub and eying each other up as they arrived, each dressed in their own highly personalised version of the heightened street fashion/plundering of the history of style/Fritz Lang vision of the future that was going to be dubbed “New Romantic” or “Blitz Kids”. All the stylistic cards were being thrown up in the air in a post-modern reset to prepare for a new decade. The event had been advertised by our version of social media, word of mouth, as were all our early shows.

It had the atmosphere of a bizarre red carpet event before a film premiere. There was a TV crew filming and interviewing the arrivals. There were photographers recording the scene. Spandau Ballet were to play live and the performance and the audience were being filmed by LWT for a Janet Street-Porter documentary as part of a TV series called 20th Century Box. The audience was joined by various journalists, photographers and media people, including Radio 1 DJ and TV presenter Peter Powell, numerous record company execs including impresario Bryan Morrison. It was a potent mix which we could have only dreamed of six months earlier before our Spandau Ballet rebirth and was entirely consistent with our title of “The Next Big Thing” and the hottest unsigned band in the country and the new decade.

Since their first performance as Spandau Ballet at the Blitz five months earlier, the band’s career trajectory had been such that it seemed to have been fired out of some powerful pop culture cannon. A lot had happened! We had exploded from a standing start like Usain Bolt.

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Spandau at the Scala: Blitz Kids arrive in high style to watch the band perform in an auditorium for the first time, captured by 20th Century Box

At that first Blitz show in December 1979, Chris Blackwell, legendary founder and owner of Island Records – the world’s coolest record company – had approached me offering to sign the band “on the spot”. It was a hugely seductive and exciting opportunity but there was a deal to be done.

Accompanied by our newly appointed lawyer, Brian Carr, the band and I went to meet Chris at the Island HQ in London, a large relaxed converted villa on St Peter’s Square in Hammersmith. Posters and gold and platinum discs of Bob Marley, Roxy Music, Stevie Winwood and Grace Jones greeted us. Chris showed us around. He was charming and smart. It all seemed so right. For a while. He introduced us to Nick Stewart, an A&R man who was to be our point person. He had the demeanour of an army officer. I think he was a friend of Chris’s from public school. He listened to our ideas about the band – it seemed very hard to explain the band’s ethos to him. Chris was not a UK resident at the time and had a limited time in the country each year. We would be dealing with Nick day-to-day. Not good. Then they showed us the terms of the deal they were proposing.

We retired for lunch at a local Chinese restaurant with Brian to consider it. I suppose it was an OK deal for a new band, but both Brian and I thought we could do better. We went back to Island HQ after lunch and after a short discussion about the terms, on a pre-arranged cue from Brian, we turned down the deal and ended the meeting abruptly and walked out. It was spectacular! Their jaws dropped. It showed huge confidence on our part. It was a bold effective tactic. It did mean however that we were very shortly in Hammersmith Broadway, on foot, without a record contract.

Although there was a vigorous discussion about the wisdom of this move with the band and myself later that evening, so powerful was our newly acquired self-confidence everyone soon settled down. Shortly afterward Chis left town for Paris or Jamaica and although we kept in contact and he maintained interest, we didn’t sign to them. We were soon to be distracted by other suitors and opportunities.

Spandau Ballet, 20th Century Box, Scala cinema, pop music

Spandau at the Scala: the moment the band began playing, the audience filled the aisles with their dancing, captured by 20th Century Box

Meanwhile, our progress continued apace. Days after the visit to Island the band played their second show as Spandau Ballet at Mayhem Studios Battersea at a multi-media event party organised by a number of our friends and now collaborators from the Blitz. It was in effect the first Warehouse Party Brand that would morph eventually into the ubiquitous rave format. There were art-house and porn films projected onto the ceiling, DJs, alcohol, drugs, Spandau Ballet and hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into a relatively small space. The combined word of mouth powers of Chris Sullivan, Graham Ball, Robert Elms and Graham Smith reached every hip club person in London. Blitz Kids, Soul Boys and Rockabillies. All soon to merge together into “Club Culture”. It was rammed.

Hundreds couldn’t get in. It was bloody chaos. The band performed and were well received, but most people that were there couldn’t see them, it was so crowded. But that wasn’t the point. The value to us was that we were for the second time in as many weeks performing at the epicentre of hipness in the new London. Even if you hadn’t seen the band or even couldn’t get in, everyone knew that Spandau Ballet had played there. It was most certainly an event.

On New Year’s Eve as the 80s started, I remember feeling utterly satisfied with the band’s progress in the last month. We were right in the sweet spot of being the coolest band in the hippest scene in London. The decade seemed to be opening up before us. Great, but what next? . . . / Continued at Spandauballet.com

Spandau Ballet, 20th Century Box, Scala cinema, pop music

Spandau at the Scala: their audience of dancing Blitz Kids confirmed their status as the hottest unsigned band in the land, captured by 20th Century Box

ELSEWHERE AT SHAPERS OF THE 80S:

➢ A selective timeline for the unprecedented rise and rise
of Spandau Ballet

➢ Spooky or what? The amazing revelation that two bands went by the name of Spandau Ballet

➢ Private worlds of the new young setting the town ablaze

➢ Just don’t call us New Romantics, say the stars of the Blitz

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2020 ➤ Bowie on Kraftwerk and his tribute to Florian Schneider

Kraftwerk, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter, pop music, 1970s

Kraftwerk at Düsseldorf station, 1977: Florian Schneider at left. (Photo, Frähling)

➢ Extracts from some vintage interviews republished
yesterday at David Bowie’s website…

❏ You’ve no doubt heard the sad news regarding the passing of Kraftwerk founder, Florian Schneider, aged 73. A spokesperson said he “passed away from a short cancer disease just a few days after his 73rd birthday”, his birthday being April 7. Schneider formed Kraftwerk with Ralf Hütter in 1970 and remained a member until his departure in 2008. He is pictured bottom left in our photo at Düsseldorf Hbf station with the rest of the band.

In a Kraftwerk feature for MOJO magazine Ralf Hütter responded to the question “How important was David Bowie’s infatuation with you?” thus:

“That was very important for us, because it linked what we were doing with the rock mainstream. Bowie used to tell everyone that we were his favourite group, and in the mid-Seventies the rock press used to hang on every word from his mouth. We met him when he played Düsseldorf (April 8, 1976) on one of his first European tours. He was travelling by Mercedes, listening to nothing but Autobahn all the time.”

In 1978 Bowie recalled the meeting in an interview: “I like them as people very much, Florian in particular. Very dry. When I go to Düsseldorf they take me to cake shops, and we have huge pastries. They wear their suits. A bit like Gilbert and George… When I came over to Europe – because it was the first tour I ever did of Europe (1976), the last time – I got myself a Mercedes to drive myself around in, because I still wasn’t flying at that time, and Florian saw it. He said, “What a wonderful car” and I said, “Yes, it used to belong to some Iranian prince, and he was assassinated and the car went on the market, and I got it for the tour.” And Florian said, “Ja, car always lasts longer.” With him it all has that edge. His whole cold emotion/warm emotion, I responded to that. Folk music of the factories.”

Kraftwerk immortalised the Düsseldorf meeting on the title track of the band’s 1977 album, Trans-Europe Express, in its lyric:

From station to station, back to Düsseldorf City,
Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie…

David returned the compliment later the same year on the “Heroes” album, when he paid Florian the ultimate tribute by using his name for the title of V-2 Schneider.

❏ Bowie also spoke in some depth about Kraftwerk in an UNCUT interview several years back…

UNCUT: Many reasons have been suggested for moving to Berlin. Can you remember why the city appealed?

DB: Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity… Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst-ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brücke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.

Much has been made of Kraftwerk’s influence on our Berlin albums. Most of it lazy analysis, I believe. Kraftwerk’s approach to music had in itself little place in my scheme. Theirs was a controlled, robotic, extremely measured series of compositions, almost a parody of minimalism. One had the feeling that Florian and Ralf were completely in charge of their environment, and that their compositions were well prepared and honed before entering the studio.

David Bowie, Station to Station, album sleeve , pop music

Bowie’s album Station to Station: it preceded Trans-Europe Express by a year

My work tended to expressionist mood pieces, the protagonist (myself) abandoning himself to the zeitgeist (a popular word at the time), with little or no control over his life. The music was spontaneous for the most part and created in the studio.

In substance too, we were poles apart. Kraftwerk’s percussion sound was produced electronically, rigid in tempo, unmoving. Ours was the mangled treatment of a powerfully emotive drummer, Dennis Davis. The tempo not only “moved” but also was expressed in more than “human” fashion. Kraftwerk supported that unyielding machine-like beat with all synthetic sound-generating sources. We used an R&B band. Since Station to Station the hybridization of R&B and electronics had been a goal of mine. Indeed, according to a Seventies interview with Brian Eno, this is what had drawn him to working with me.

One other lazy observation I would like to point up is the assumption that Station to Station was homage to Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express. In reality Station to Station preceded Trans-Europe Express by quite some time, ’76 and ’77 respectively. Btw, the title drives from the Stations of the Cross and not the railway system.

What I WAS passionate about in relation to Kraftwerk was their singular determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music. This was their very important influence on me.

UNCUT: V-2 Schneider – a tribute to Florian?
DB: Of course.

So long Florian.


❏ ABOVE: Kraftwerk playing Autobahn in 1975 on the BBC science strand Tomorrow’s World to demonstrate their “Machinemusik”. This was their first UK appearance on British television.


❏ ABOVE: View the long-haired radicals in Kraftwerk reinventing German music from “Stunde null” in the BBC Four documentary Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany.

➢ Florian Schneider: the enigma whose codes broke open pop music – Alexis Petridis in The Guardian – “Schneider had kept such a low profile after leaving Kraftwerk that rumours of his death had circulated before, only to be revealed as erroneous.”

➢ How Florian Schneider and Kraftwerk influenced five decades of music – Mark Savage at BBC News

➢ How Kraftwerk’s synth wizard Florian Schneider rewired the world – Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone – “It’s all electric energy, anyway,” Schneider said, summing up a sonic philosophy that upended the Seventies rock ideal, and influenced everyone from Depeche Mode to Derrick May.

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1980 ➤ 40 years of musical freedom thanks to what we Brits enjoyed calling the Sony Stowaway

➢ Sony launches the cool, sexy Stowaway
in the UK, April 1980

Sony, Stowaway, Walkman, cassette player, UK launch

First posted here on 5 September 2009

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