Listen to this track by one-time experimental electronic outfit turned stadium-ready synthpop merchants Ultravox. It’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” as taken from their seventh album Lament. The song was an important stage in the revitalization for the band who scored top ten chart showings around the world (but not in the States – whaaat?).
The song features the vocals of lead singer Midge Ure, a seasoned musician who’d by this time played with bands as diverse as Thin Lizzy, Rich Kids (with Sex Pistols original bassist Glen Matlock), and Visage. It was through the latter band that he came to Ultravox, bonding with Billy Currie who also played part-time in Visage. When he came into the fold is was to replace original Ultravox lead singer John Foxx when Foxx left for a solo career.
Midge Ure’s obvious songwriting talents and incredible lead voice helped to usher in a new era of more pop-oriented direction. Within this new era for the band, “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is a career highlight, and known for the accompanying video which reflected the lyrics about a last ride home before some cataclysmic event with the man on the wire crying “it’s over, it’s over!”.
As kids listening to the radio and watching videos at the time, most of us knew what that meant. Because apart from the pop appeal of the track rooted in some of the aesthetics of the time, this song captured something else which was very pervasive in pop culture and the general atmosphere of that era; fear.
There are quite a few bands today who hook into the general feel for ’80s pop music, with Haim and Chromeo being two examples of some of the better ones. But, missing from music being made along these lines today is a key ingredient that made ’80s pop music unique; that the world could end at any moment in a third world war. This was a reflection of the times, with the Super Powers making incendiary speeches about each other, racing with arms, funding dirty little wars, and generally rattling their sabres. As far as pop music goes, this was practically the basis of a subgenre, from Modern English’s “I Melt With You”, Prince’s “1999”, to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes”. Even former Band-man Robbie Robertson explored this theme on his “Showdown At Big Sky” in which he pleaded “give us the strength, give us the wisdom, give us tomorrow!” It was a heavy time.
In the 1980s, we children talked about the possibilities of dying in atomic fire while we were on the school ground in the same way that adults talked about the weather. We didn’t understand the intricacies of cold war politics. But, the broadstrokes of a third world war were not beyond us, which is perhaps all we were meant to understand from governments looking for the support (and the ignorance) of their respective populations, kids and adults alike. This is not to mention what had happened at Three-Mile Island, and the fear that nuclear power itself could wind up, well, nuking us even before the Evil Empire could. Artists sang about all of this in protest, but also to reflect that fear that seemed to be so inescapable for those of us who were listening.
Ultravox had always hooked into a sort of futurist vibe, even before they changed their tack to appeal to the mainstream by the early ’80s. Like their musical forefathers Kraftwerk, they made music using cold technology to talk about how cold technology can be, which was a rich seam to mine by a lot of synth-based bands. On this song, that feel is contrasted by Midge Ure’s plaintive and decidedly passionate voice, a texture that represents humanity and all that would be lost should the technology we cling to undo the civilization it was designed to serve. That was another dynamic that was beginning to emerge in the decade. When this song came out, we were feeling a shift in the tectonic plates where technology was concerned, but without an Internet to talk to each other about it and gain important perspective on what it all meant.
The 1980s was a double-edged sword when it came to technology in this way. We were just beginning to fall hard for high-tech by then. The era produced some of the technology that would change everything, with some of it providing the basis of our lives in the 21st century today; increased global communications infrastructure, computers in the average home, “virtual reality” and digital images, and more. And of course, our music changed, too. That sense of wonder around technology was the bright side. But the shadow of nuclear annihilation remained. As with any era, technology changes everything, delivering the good with the bad. But in those years, it really felt like everything could come to an end at any moment. But, we had the pop charts to help us process it, or at least to remind us that we were not alone in our fears. That seems like a small thing now, perhaps.
This single would be the end of another kind of life, when Midge Ure went solo by the next year with a concurrent career, and leaving the band by 1987. The band continued on for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s, with less mainstream success.
But by 2009, the band reformed with Midge Ure up front again. You can learn more about them at Ultravox.co.uk.
And to lighten things up, and to flesh out the atmosphere of the 1980s a little more, here’s Kevin Bacon to explain things for those of you who weren’t sentient when fuchsia headbands roamed the earth unimpeded .