If you were to condense the history of popular music from the mid-’70s to the turn of the ’90s into a few pages, Midge Ure would still get a pretty impressive showing.
Not just in the footnotes either, despite being in the shadows for a fair portion of that ground-breaking period. Many of us of a certain age recall his contributions to Slik, the Rich Kids, Visage, Ultravox, and even Thin Lizzy. And don’t forget a certain famine relief project that proved such a defining moment, in many respects.
There were major solo successes too, not least a top-10 cover with No Regrets and a No.1 of his own with If I Was, but it’s worth pointing out that while his last top-20 single was 24 years ago, this Lanarkshire lad has never really stood still. That said, this genial musician, vocalist and singer-songwriter doesn’t appear to be the sort of fella to track you down and shout in your face about the LPs you may have missed either.
But Midge, who turns 62 today (Saturday, October 10th, 2015), is out on the road again though, reminding us about one such ‘lost’ gem, 1995’s Breathe, his current tour running through to London’s Union Chapel on October 23rd, before a show in Copenhagen then eight dates in Germany. And next up is Wednesday, October 14th’s visit to Preston’s Charter Theatre, my excuse for phoning him.
Even beyond that he has dates in Mexico and Italy before the year is out, then joins Big Country, Nick Heyward and Curiosity Killed The Cat’s ’80s Explosion for 15 bookings in March.
When we catch up – Midge calling from his base near Bath, where he’s been these past couple of decades since leaving London – I mention how I’m amazed it’s 20 years since Breathe … not least because that means it must be 30 years since The Gift, his most commercially-successful album.
“Seemingly! Believe it or not – yes! And someone’s been tweeting how it’s 30 years this week that If I Was made it to No.1.”
While we’re playing the anniversary game, I’ll go back a little further and say I can’t believe it will be 40 years in the New Year since your first No.1, Forever and Ever with Slik. In fact, this impressionable scribe – barely eight at the time – can still see that Bell label logo spinning on the platter, listening to my big sister’s singles on her Dansette – or at least the catalogue equivalent – in ’76.
“It can’t possibly be 30 years – I’m obviously not that old! But sadly, you’re right. Crikey. It seems that everyone had one of those stacking Dansettes. A fantastic thing. with its volume and tone control – that’s all it was. But imagine how much that’s worth now!”
I was intrigued by that song, not least in retrospect. It seemed to span the genres, with Midge a pioneer in that respect, mixing electronica with … erm, Bay City Rollers-type Caledonian pop.
“Well, with Slik I’m not sure if electronica was part of that sound.”
I suppose it’s that keyboard sound you had.
“Yes, the big organ thing. But it wasn’t until I joined the Rich Kids when I bought my first synthesiser. That was 1978, still early for incorporating electronics with traditional rock instrumentation. And by buying that synth, bringing it into the Rich Kids and breaking the band up because of it – that’s where the idea of Visage was born, and through Visage ending up with Ultravox.”
Despite the sheer energy of their self-titled debut single, the Rich Kids – in which Midge joined sacked Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock, Steve New and Rusty Egan – didn’t see out 1978, a disagreement over musical direction leading to Midge and Rusty, who by then had discovered Kraftwerk, La Dusseldorf, Can and Telex, forming electronic trail-blazers Visage, along with Blitz club host turned lead singer Steve Strange.
That initial Visage line-up was later expanded as Ultravox’s Billy Currie and Magazine’s Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson joined, the line-up that oversaw chart success at the end of 1980 with Fade to Grey.
And it was his friendship with Billy Currie that led to Midge joining Ultravox (I’ll leave out the bit about Thin Lizzy for now – otherwise it just gets too complicated), a band that had more or less disbanded after the departure of (past writewyattuk interviewee) John Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon.
Midge claimed the main role in the newly-revamped Ultravox, acting as singer, songwriter, guitarist and second keyboardist alongside Billy (keyboards), Chris Cross (bass) and Warren Cann (electronic drums). And following his brief spell with Thin Lizzy, they went on to enjoy major success, their breakthrough the 1980 album (and 1981 single) Vienna.
As it turned out, the Ultravox Mk. II story continued right through until 1986, by which time Midge was already establishing himself as a solo artist. And that’s more or less where I came in, up the page a bit, The Gift the first of four albums under his own name over that next decade, with only Breathe – even the sumptuous title track failed to shift units, somwhow – failing to make the top-40.
Which all goes to show how Midge has never been one to stand still (‘We all stood still’, I hear you respond). And on that note I mention to the man himself how in his illuminating 2004 autobiography If I Was, he talks about hearing Telstar by the Tornados in 1962 on the radio and instinctively knowing what he wanted to do with his life.
That seems quite apt really, for someone who often strode that line between genres, being turned on by something that mixed early electronic sound with rock’n’roll.
“It was, they used that funny little electronic organ sound, and there was something about the atmospherics of those early records – it was like being bitten by a mosquito, it was in your system! All those early records like Telstar or Johnny Remember Me, with those haunting echoey vocals, I can still hear in what I do now.
“In my view that’s what dictates your musical taste – what you’ve heard in the past, from different genres and different eras and different periods of your life. And when you write music those influences are your apprenticeship.”
I feel a little guilty talking so much nostalgia with you. There must be times when you think, ‘Ask me about now – I’m still making music!’
“It’s all part of it. Nostalgia is your foundation. It’s what you started with. Everything you’ve done since is built upon that. So it’s understandable people want to talk about the past, because we all feel comfortable with that. It’s that rose-tinted glasses thing – it makes us all feel how wonderful it was in the past. But it wasn’t that great, you know! It was okay, but at the time, you just got through it.
“I still look at old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s and think, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great to be there’. But it probably wasn’t. It was probably pretty rough.”
There’s a parallel there with the punk days. Those who were properly there recall they weren’t the greatest of times … like Midge, maybe, who famously turned down an offer from Malcolm McLaren – ‘this effeminate-looking bloke who talked in this very whiny, sibilant voice’ as he puts it in If I Was, the avant-garde impressario having visited him in Glasgow, in the company of future Clash manager Bernie Rhodes – of being the lead singer of a certain band he was putting together, the Sex Pistols.
Not long after Midge’s ‘no’, a certain John Lydon came into the frame. And let’s face it, he could sneer far better. So, no regrets (as Tom Rush, Scott Walker and my subject might say) about that decision?
“None at all! Because it was almost secondary. It was more important he got someone who looked the part than someone who could be the part. It was less about making music than about using music as using music as a vehicle to sell clothes. I just felt that was wrong. You can’t ask someone to join a band without knowing what it is they do.”
I can map out key moments in my life through Midge’s various musical incarnations, so I’m sure he must get a lot of that directed at him, having to remind himself to be nice as strangers approach him in public. Given the chance, what might he have done differently, looking back?
“It’s all important. I do motivational speaking, and recently in Grimsby someone asked if there’s anything I’d change in my life. Well, on that ideal CV, I’d take Slik out, because I really had very little to do with it – I didn’t write the songs, or produce them. But then again, that led me on to something else and taught me an amazing lesson about having the rug pulled from under my feet.
“All of a sudden you’ve got a No.1 record, but then you’re washed up because your particular genre of music has been wiped out by the next genre. That’s an invaluable lesson, and maybe without that happening back then I wouldn’t have gone on to do what I’ve done since. So I can’t dismiss any particular period in my life.”
As it’s coming to that time of year when we’re set to hear it again, I remind Midge how he mentioned in If I Was how ‘this Z Cars-like jingle’ (Bob Geldof’s description) that became Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? ‘was a pop song that caused ripples around the globe and proved that music can change the world’, and ‘a song that will be played long after the pair of us are dust’. It’s a fair point. Was it a millstone around the neck for a while, or did he soon realise what he’d achieved there – something that went way beyond music. Because he should feel very proud.
“I am! I can’t even think of it as a weight around my shoulders. Maybe Bob saw it as that for a while – everything else he was doing was over-shadowed by the vastness of Band Aid and Live Aid, while I was reasonably unscathed by it. I was still a gigging, working musician, whereas Bob wasn’t. The Boomtown Rats were gone, so at that point they saw him as a politician, this spokesman for youth. That was very difficult for him.
“I can look at it with great fondness, and weirdly, every time that song comes on the radio, it still does its job. Every single time! You hear that opening clang, then you go , ‘Ooh!’ and the hairs on my arms stand up, even 30 years down the line.”
Despite all the knocks about organised charities and how much money gets through to the right places, you’ve seen plenty of evidence of how Band Aid has made a positive difference, haven’t you?
“A few years ago there was a big ‘to do’ about charities and money being filtered off, and when the BBC reported it they used a big picture of Live Aid on the screen. We took them to task over that – and they had to apologise. The entire might of the BBC had to back down and say it was shoddy journalism and they should never have done it, because it was all proved complete nonsense.
“That kind of thing affects every charity – the next time you go to put a pound in a box, you might think twice about it. It’s very difficult for every charity to oversee exactly where every penny goes. At the time we were dealing with a war-torn Communist country in the middle of a massive, devastating famine. But what we’ve done to ensure none of that happens is to work hand-in-hand with agencies, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Red Cross, Oxfam, Unicef …
“We don’t have an office and never did, so don’t have overheads. We said , ‘Give us a pound, we’ll give you a record, and we’ll send that pound to Africa’. And that’s what we continue to do that. The body of the trust we put together 30 years ago to oversee the finances – following advice from George Harrison about ensuring you we have good people and good accountants – is still there now.”
And Band Aid remains a going concern, its work in more recent times including help for those affected by the devastating Ebola crisis.
“Yes, and that record still generates income, so it has to all be assessed and monitored, all the projects we fund, for future generations to see. And once you get involved with something like this, you can’t walk away from it. It’s a responsibility you’ve created, and you can’t just be flippant about it. It’s too important.”
Seeing as you mentioned George Harrison, I’ll add that you’ve always had an ear for innovation in music, from early championing of The Beatles, The Who and the Small Faces through to early British blues, Roy Wood, and much more. Do you still have a passion for new music?
“I think you’d have to be dead not to! It’s tougher these days to find new music, and I’m currently bemoaning the fact I haven’t got a DAB radio in my car, where I’m a captive audience. I can’t stand listening to a lot of radio, when it’s repeating the same old manufactured nonsense, which drives me crazy. I end up turning the radio down more often than up.
“With a DAB radio I can listen to BBC 6 Music, which exposes you to the music we used to be exposed to 20 years ago, when it was less formatted and more open. Can you imagine these days national radio playing something like Wuthering Heights or Bohemian Rhapsody or Vienna? It wouldn’t happen, because it wouldn’t fit the format.
“You have to go out there and find it, but it’s still there. We’re still creating interesting music.”
Back to your early days, before joining Salvation in 1972 – the band that gave rise to Slik – I was going to ask you about your formative years in Glasgow. I recall Rick Parfitt letting on how he loves to sit outside his family homes and reminisce. But you can’t really do that … those old tenement blocks are now long gone …
“Well, I can sit in the car park that’s there instead!”
So do you still take yourself around the old home city when you’re touring? And do you have friends and family up there?
“I don’t have any family left up there. They moved out over the years to find work and move on, but when I go back I do wander around the streets and old haunts on a day off. Not purely for nostalgia though, but to remind me that what I’ve got now is exactly what I wanted. It’s so easy to forget and take it for granted. It’s easy to forget that you’re allowed to wake up in the morning and just stagger down to your studio, twiddle knobs and make noises all day. That’s a luxury, that’s an amazing job to have.
“I go back and walk past the Scout Hall where I did my first public performance when I was eight, and walk past my old school and what’s left of my background, and remember exactly walking around those streets when I was a 12 or 13-year-old kid, wishing I had something like this. ”
You answered my next question there. I was going to ask if your background helps keeps your feet on the ground, or at least inspires you to to make the best of life’s opportunities.
“Well. I’m also psychic, so there you go!”
Fast forward a few decades, and with his birthday fast approaching when we spoke, I asked if he had any plans, or was there a show to do?
“I’ve not – no. Just a few friends round for dinner or going out for dinner. I tend to just chill out, after all those years of celebrations!”
Are you very much a family man?
“I am. I’m incredibly lucky, not least with my beautiful daughters. That said, this year one’s in London and two are at university. So it’ll be a small family gathering this time, but they’re all back in a couple of weeks, so we’ll have a second birthday then.”
Incidentally, do you remain ‘Midge’ (a nickname landed on him by Salvation’s Jim McGinlay, who decided the band wasn’t big enough for two Jims, so flipped his first name) to everyone apart from your children, or are you still Jim to a few?
“I was Jim to my parents and still am to my brother, sister and cousins, and their children. That or Uncle Jim. But I think I’ve been Midge a lot longer than I ever was Jim.”
Back to the tour, and – like the recently-released Breathe Live CD, recorded at a show in Scotland – Midge’s set is built around 1995’s Breathe, with a few hits and other career highlights thrown in, delivered by an acoustic three-piece, as it was at the time.
“While the entire album’s got that kind of instrumentation, I was kind of doubtful about how some of the other songs would translate into that kind of presentation. But I was totally blown away with how songs like Vienna, Lament or If I Was make the transition. They’re equally haunting, especially the textural ones like The Maker, but done in a very different way.
“When I started doing acoustic shows, people asked how I could possibly play Vienna. I had huge doubts too, but when you play it, people hear the bits that aren’t actually coming off stage. They hear the drumbeats and the instrumentation in their heads, because they know the songs so well. They fill in the gaps.
“And the guys I have with me – Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe, of India Electric Co. – are a band in their own right and are going down an absolute storm. Their own songs are spectacular and they are seriously-talented young guys.”
Do they keep you young?
“They keep me on my toes … but I keep them on their toes too, because I keep forgetting the arrangements and they’ve got to follow me – even if it’s straight into the chorus! It really is a marriage made in heaven.
“I like to give new artists a hand up, and they opened up for me a few times, and were so good in that slot that we devised an entire tour thinking we could do the Breathe album in its entirety – which I’d never done – because they’re so versatile.”
You’ve played some major gigs down the years, but you’re not averse to a few smaller-scale shows – such as one you did recently, not far from Preston at Hurst Green Village Hall, for Hollow Horse Events (with the story of that Ribble Valley venture here). Do you appreciate ‘intimate’ as much as ‘large-scale’, gig-wise?
“It depends how you play it. If I’m doing a band thing, a big hall works perfectly because there’s a power and a volume and a strength to it. When you play an acoustic show – as a three-piece or on your own – it has to be whites-of-their-eyes!
“The first time I said to my agent – 20 years ago – I wanted to do some acoustic shows and go to all the places people don’t have to travel to see you, he tried to put me in huge big vacuumous aeroplane hangars. I just said, ‘It doesn’t work! They have to see me, and I have to see them’. It has to be an extension of me playing in a sitting room. That’s how it has to feel like.
“There’s a buzz you get, like I get in my studio watching Mark King or how I did watching Mick Karn playing bass, getting such a tingle seeing someone doing something beautifully. That’s the essence of seeing someone live – the antithesis of going to a field for a festival and watching someone on a big screen. It might sound great and might be a nice atmosphere, but it’s very different from sitting there, seeing someone’s fingers doing all that.”
It seems a while ago that we lost Mick Karn (the former Japan bassist died in early 2011), and I recently saw your website tribute to Steve Strange, who died back in February this year. You said, ‘He epitomised the vibrancy and flair of the ’80s’. You’ve had many well-catalogued lows as well as the highs over the years, but I’m guessing there were lots of good memories from that era.
“Absolutely. Even the bad bits were good when you’re doing something you absolutely love doing. People come to see you because you’ve created some of the soundtrack to their lives. It doesn’t get any better than that! We’re all affected by music, and all musicians are fans of someone else. We all fell in love with music because someone else wrote it and someone else played it, and it inspired us. That’s the case for musicians and non-musicians.
“It’s like making one of those old ‘mix-tapes’. You make an album of all your tracks that meant something to you, and every time you play one of those songs, you remember who you were hanging out with, what you were wearing, who you fancied, and all of that. That’s what music does!”
At the risk of this turning into a tribute to late greats, I ask Midge about his brief role with Thin Lizzy, filling the void left by the departure of Gary Moore in 1979, sticking around for a year, having already known Phil Lynott for some time. What’s more, the pair later joined forces on 1980’s Yellow Pearl.
Midge made some entertaining contributions to a documentary about Thin Lizzy a couple of years ago. And Phil Lynott was another artist that strode the line between genres, although in this case we’re talking hard rock mixed with great tunes. He was an amazing talent, wasn’t he?
“Philip was a great songwriter, first and foremost, and I saw Thin Lizzy as an incredibly tasteful hard rock band, very melodic. When I think about them, I think of those twin guitars playing those beautiful melodies – not moronic three-chord thrash. It was beautifully done, and that’s why the songs stand up today.”
Finally, of all the music you’ve made over the past four and bit decades, you must feel some of it has been overlooked. Is that one of the reasons why you’ve gone back to Breathe, feeling that deserved far more acclaim?
“I think it did, and the Breathe Again set is a fantastic selection of music I’ve done over the last 35 or so years, from the Vienna album with Ultravox right through, Visage, the solo stuff, right up to Fragile last year. It incorporates all that, but I’ve done it in such a way that I think if you didn’t know any of my stuff you wouldn’t be able to tell which period those songs are from.
“There’s a flow and a style, and although the songs have changed over the years, the melodic elements, the structures and hopefully the interesting lyrics are still there. And it’s very, definably me – like a stick of rock, running all the way through the middle!”
Midge Ure and his guests play Preston’s Charter Theatre on Wednesday, October 14th (7pm) with tickets £25, and hospitality packages available too. For more details head here or call the venue’s box office on 01772 80 44 44.
And for other tour dates and all the latest from the man himself, check out Midge’s official website here.
Great article, many thanks 🙂
Thank you. Midge was a joy to speak to – that always helps!
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