'80s - Midge Ure / Ultravox (2013)
'We Came To Dance: The Midge Ure Story'
James "Midge" Ure, OBE is a Scottish guitarist, singer, keyboard player, and songwriter. Ure enjoyed particular success in the 1970s and 1980s in bands including Slik, Thin Lizzy, The Rich Kids, Visage, and most notably as frontman of Ultravox.
Indeed, Ure co-wrote and produced the charity single ‘Do They Know It's Christmas?’, whose reissue won an Ivor Novello Award in 2005 for Best Selling UK Single. Ure co-organized Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8 with Bob Geldof. To this day, Ure acts as trustee for the charity, and serves as ambassador for Save the Children.
Having recently played a rare North American solo tour that ran through Christmas into January of this year, featuring 16 dates across the U.S., and a single Canadian concert, he hoped that it wouuld also pave the way for the possibility of bringing Ultravox over here later in the year.
The reunited ’80s-era line-up of Ultravox - featuring Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann - this year released a comeback album called Brilliant, the first new album from that line-up in nearly three decades. The band finished a U.K. tour and then embarked on a run of European dates that kept them on the road through November last year.
Chatting earlier this year with Midge Ure, backstage at one of his US tour dates here in Detroit, MI, I first wondered when had James Ure become Midge Ure - and why? "When I was 18 and I joined my first full-time band in Scotland. A band called Salvation. It was run by two brothers, Jim and Kevin McGinlay. And, of course, my official name is James which becomes abbreviated to Jim, but everybody's Jimmy in Glasgow," he laughs. "And so in true Animal House style, this Jim McGinlay said ‘We can't have two Jim's in the band. So you're now Mij.’ He just flipped it backwards and that was it. And we just changed the spelling. It's as stupid as that."
So now everybody calls you Midge? "Yeah, but my immediate family don't. My brother and sister don't. I'm still Jim to them. Or old school friends, if I bump into them."
Early Ure Days
So, just how does a boy from a working-class family in Cambuslang (Scotland) make it all the way to an OBE? Was it an easy path? "I think it was a fun path. Whether it was easy or not, I don't know. I think a path is something that you kinda follow. And mine meandered. And it just took me into some weird and wonderful places. I've done a lot of things that I've been incredibly lucky to be able to do. But never, ever, on the cards was trying to get an OBE or any of the stuff that I've got. Like the Grammy's, all the awards and all that. None of that was ever on the cards. All I ever wanted to do was stand out there on that stage and play. And to me it didn't really matter if it was here tonight or on stage at Live Aid. It doesn't matter. It's the same thing. Just more people and a little more nerve racking," he laughs.
"Other than that all you want to do is be a musician. And the good thing about that is you can rise and fall with your fame or your success. Your perceived success. Your public success is one thing. Your actual success is what you do. So, if I write a song that I'm happy with that's a success to me. If it's commercially successful that's brilliant, because all of a sudden I'm a rock star again. So, you've got to be able to rise and fall with all that stuff. But the line that runs right across the center of all of that, the peaks the troughs, is the fact that you're a musician - which is all you ever wanted to be. So you've got to roll with it and that's what I do. I'm really happy playing an acoustic guitar in front of 100 people or standing on stage with a band and thrashing it out."
After stints in Rich Kids, Thin Lizzy and Visage, Robin Simon and John Foxx left Ultravox. Billy Currie, Chris Cross, Warren Cann and yourself than brought the band back to life, but what was it about Ultravox at that time that you saw success in that Simon and Foxx didn't? "Well, I wasn't part of Ultravox when John and Simon were in it. I was working on the Visage project with Billy Currie, the keyboard player with Ultravox. And the whole Visage project was something that the drummer with the Rich Kids, Rusty Egan and I put together. With his mate Steve Strange fronting the band. And we did it because we thought it would be great to work with all our favorite musicians. One of whom was Billy Currie and the others were from the band Magazine - John McGeoch, Martin Jackson, Barry Adamson. And we just wanted to do a studio project and Steve was desperate to be a pop star. So we kind of accommodated him. So we just wanted to be in the studio making this stuff.”
“So I was already doing that when Ultravox came back from a tour of America without John Foxx and Robin Simon. Much like a broken band. To find a letter on their doorstep from the record company saying, 'Thanx, but no thanx. We don't need you any more.' So, they were dropped from the record label. It was just a nightmare for them."
"But, for me, to join the band was really exciting. Because they were doing things at the time that were running in synch with exactly what I wanted to do. Combining synthesizers with traditional rock instruments. You get that combination of not all synthesizers and not all guitars, but that perfect combination of things. So it was an incredibly exciting project for me when I joined the band. And we started writing what would then become the Vienna album."
So you were in both Visage and Ultravox at the very same overlapping time then?! "Yeah, they were both happening at the same time. In fact, there was a moment when we were in a rehearsal studio, rehearsing to tour for the Vienna album in the UK and our manager walked in with two big, big bottles of champagne. And he said, ‘You’ve got two singles in the Top 40 and you’ve got two albums in the Top 40!’ So, Ultravox and Visage charted on the same day. So having had years of having no commercial success at all of a sudden I’m the bee’s knees. I couldn’t move for having hit records. It was crazy,” he laughs.
U-Vox Breaks Up
After all the years of success with Ultravox, come the release of 1986’s U-Vox, like a bad divorce, the band broke up. Vowing never to reform, that’s just what you guys did back a couple of years ago now. How did all that come together? “Time is a weird thing. Sometimes it heals and sometimes it exacerbates situations. You tend to let your imagination run rife. Listen, there’s no such thing as an acrimonious divorce, ‘cause someone’s gonna blame someone else. It’s always someone else’s fault. You split, you move in different ways, you’ve been really strong friends for a long time and then stuff happens and you move on and do your individual things. And it’s one of the questions we’ve been asked constantly for 25 years, would we ever get back together again and the answer was no. Absolutely not. There was no reason to.”
“And it wasn’t until three years ago when Live Nation, the promoters got in touch with all four of us and said if we were ever thinking of possibly doing anything together again ever, this is the year to do it. Because it’s thirty years this year since you wrote and recorded Vienna. And so weirdly, although some of the guys hadn’t been in music for a long time, everyone was kinda curious to what it would be like. Could we still play those songs one more time. So the first year of getting back together again was just doing the tour to play those songs. The second year we went back out again on tour in Europe and during the tour we were approached by a record company with the idea of making a new album. And we turned it down. We said no, because I didn’t think that the creative spark would still be there. It’s one thing playing old stuff that you already know and you’ve already created, just re-creating it kind of. But it’s a whole other thing writing something new.”
“But once they’d suggested it, or asked about it the seed was sown. And so we started talking about if we were to maybe try and do this, how would we do it? So, Brilliant, the album, took two years to kind of complete.”
Ultravox Reunite - Brilliant Born
And with regard how you used to write as a band back in the early ‘80s to the writing of Brilliant, have you seen a marked change is your collective writing style? “With Ultravox, yeah, it was always a collective, a combination. Whereas when I do my solo stuff it’s just me. So, it’s got a slightly different feel to it, yeah. Billy is incredibly strong at the musical side of things. He comes up with great melodies and chord structures and the way notes come together to create atmospheres. He’s great at doing that. This album, I think for an Ultravox album lyrically is very different. I think this is much more personal. Much more lyrically like me sitting down doing a solo record. Because I think the songwriting has changed over the years.”
“When we started out naivety plays a huge part in songwriting. You write what you think is interesting, but you don’t really know what you’re doing. And sometimes you hit it well and sometimes you miss it completely. But as you kinda progress over the years hopefully you’re refining your ideas and how you go about it. How you set about doing it. So this album, I think, has got a much more personal flavor than previous Ultravox records.”
And every single song title is one word - why?! “That’s simply because it looks good,” he laughs. “People don’t understand it, but when you’re working on a batch of songs you don’t have a title. It’s like when people say they’re working on a new album and they’re asked what’s it called, the answer is always ‘I’ve got no idea!’ I won’t know until the album’s finished. You don’t come up with a title and then fill it full of songs knowing what the overall title of the album is gonna be. So when you’re working on a variety of songs, especially with computers these days; which a lot of these songs were recorded in, you give them one word titles. You just call it something. And not necessarily the title that it ends up with. But most of those titles on there are what we called the tracks at the time. And we just reverted back to them rather than trying to give it some kinda long grandiose title. We just trimmed it all down.”
And so why Brilliant as the actual album title? “It wasn’t meant to be Brilliant, as in Aren’t we a brilliant band! Or how brilliant are we! It’s more self deprecating than that. It’s doubting your own abilities. Every generation has a series of bright young things who want to change every there is in the world. You know, young people come along and they hate this, they hate that, they hate the governments, they hate whatever moves. And they think they’re gonna change the world. And that’s no different from me. So this was me talking about me. Saying, ‘Just how brilliant actually are you? Did you do anything in your life that actually changed anything?’ So, it’s questioning.”
It is around this time that Midge shows me something to do with the new album cover art for Brilliant that blows my mind! “It’s subtle. I don’t point it out to many people!”, he admits, beaming knowingly. And so, based on him having brought me into his world of cover art mystery, I shall keep his secret safe even now. [That’s said, if you wish to be Sherlock Holmes about it, stare at the Brilliant album cover, the coffee mug, read and understand the above reasoning behind the title in general, and perhaps; just maybe, all will be revealed to you too!]
The Early Clothing Choices of Midge
Taking you back to those good old days, when thrift shop’s were your clothing establishments of choice, do you still wear dead men’s clothing today?! “Not really, because the standard of dead men’s clothing has gone way down hill,” he laughs. When we started doing it way back in the day, that’s all we could afford. We went to thrift shops like Oxfam and Save The Children and we would buy these fantastic demob suits. You know those fantastic big double-breasted suits with the big shoulders and have them altered a little bit. And then you’d have yourself a brand new suit for a fiver or something. And that’s what we wore in the early days of Ultravox.”
“You go to a thrift shop now and the furthest you’re gonna get back is like the ’60s or ’70s. Big collars and that kind of thing. So, no I don’t. But if I could find the same kinda suits and coats we used to wear, yes, I would certainly still wear them, yeah.”
The ‘Vienna’ Music Video Shoot
The video for the hit single 'Vienna' was magnificent, memorable still today with regard utilizing cinematic techniques such as cropping the top and bottom off the screen, using both black and white and color, shooting on film as opposed to videotape, etc. Where was it actually filmed and what is a lasting memory for you from that shoot? “I think that we shot the majority of it in the UK. We went to our record company at the time, Chrysalis and said we wanted to make a pop video. We’d already made one for the single prior, ‘Passing Strangers,’ where we’d used the same director, Russell MulKay. So, yeah, we shot the video on film, not videotape, that’s why it’s got that cinematic quality to it. And we made it black and white, cropped the screen top and bottom. Did all that stuff that became very regular pop video clichés, but we invented all of that. We started doing that.”
“So by the time we wanted to do one for ‘Vienna,’ we already had the idea of how it was gonna look. It was going to be this cinematic thing. So we went to Chrysalis and said we want to do this and they said, ‘Why, it’s already #2 in the charts? You don’t need a video.’ And we just told them that with a good video we can be on 10 different pop shows on a Saturday night all over the world at the same time. Whereas, without a video we can only do one at a time and it costs you to fly us over there, put us up in hotels and do all of that. And they still said they didn’t get it.”
“So, we went off and we borrowed 17,000 pounds from the bank to go and make this video. And we shot most of it in London. The bit with the horse is Covent Garden. The bit with the guy coming down the stairs who gets shot is the Kilburn Theatre. And we managed to scrape enough of the budget together to fly to Vienna for the day. To go to where the ‘Vienna’ single sleeve had a picture of a gravestone of a piano maker in a grave yard in Vienna. This guy’s leaning on this carved piano holding his head in his hands. And we went to the grave yard where that was to film it and other little bits. A little travelogue around Vienna. So, we did that and, of course, when the record company saw that they just freaked,” he laughs, “and they then gave us the money back, of course! But, being good lads we didn’t charge them any extra,” he again laughs.
Being that you were #2 at the time with ‘Vienna,’ and sadly the brilliant video didn’t end up changing that, do you harbor any ill-feeling towards the man with the joke-of-a-song (‘Shaddap You Face‘) that held steady at #1 all that time, Joe Dolce, perhaps? “He certainly did. But no ... in fact, and I’m sure you’ve not heard about it over here yet. But the BBC, just prior to Christmas, ran a competition for the public to vote for records that only got to #2 that they thought should have been #1. And there was nearly a thousand songs that the BBC came up with and they narrowed it down to 200 and then the public voted on those 200. And in this batch of songs were things like ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ by The Beatles, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks, ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis. Some great, great songs and ‘Vienna’ got to #1,” he smiles. “So the charts in the UK gave us an honorary #1 … 33 years after the single was released. So we finally got to #1. And I think it was because the public felt so cheated by Joe Dolce,” he laughs.
Midge Tours the US
So, now you’re here on a small Midge Ure Band tour of the US and people are suddenly realizing that you don’t just stand behind the keyboards - that you are actually a rockin’ guitarist! “The guitar is my instrument. The keyboards I dabble with. I always have. But guitars are my thing and it’s just great fun. Although these guys are mainly guitarists they are on keyboards a great chunk of the time doing this. Which I didn’t really know was going to happen till we go to rehearsals last week,” he gently laughs. “So we met a week ago Monday and had two days rehearsal in New York. These guys had worked out all the keyboard parts, and they’re doing a great job. And it just leaves me up there only having to worry about hitting the right notes on the guitar.”
Being that these songs on the tour are slightly different rearrangements to what we’re used to hearing, during their reworking have any songs given you trouble in that department, perhaps? “No, these guys have been incredibly flexible. Have adapted and taken these things on and given them their own peculiar stamp. Because I didn’t want to come here and start dictating what the musicians should play, at all. They’re all great players, they’re all putting their own little touches to it, their own flair. They had the songs though. I sent them live versions and recorded versions of the songs and told them to just learn the basics. And in rehearsals we’ll pop it together. And I have to say the songs have kind of grown and gelled as the dates have progressed. So they change a little every night which is good because it gives the flavor of this tour a different edge to what you would normally have from my band back in the UK. This sounds slightly different so I kinda like that. It makes it interesting for me.”
So, with that in mind, at what song point of the night are you finding yourself getting to, knowing that you everything is going well? “I’m gonna say, maybe ‘Answers To Nothing.’ That’s really kinda come along. I don’t know why I decided to do it on this tour. I haven’t played it since that album came out, which is probably 20 years ago. So I hadn’t done it for a long time and for some reason I just thought these guys could handle it. And we’re doing an interesting job of it. That’s a bit of a stand out.”
“I also think ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ has really come on, as well. They’ve really got a great feel for it. So, yeah, they’re really kind of gelling together these songs. Some of them are just straight out rockers, like ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes.’ But, they are what they are. And usually left for towards the end of the set. The other ones are a bit more arranged and they’re really coming together.”
Please sum up in just a few words what a Midge Ure and Ultravox fan will get from these live US tour shows? “It’s a flavor of Ultravox … and a lot of me,” he smiles. “It’s a good representation of what I’ve done over the years. Whether it be Ultravox or solo stuff.”
Midge as a Sex Pistol?!
Myth busting now, is it true you turned down an offer to be the lead singer of the Sex Pistols?! “I don’t know if it was lead singer or not. I was stopped in the streets of Glasgow by Bernie Rhodes, who went on to manage The Clash. And he asked me to speak to his mate around the corner, who was Malcolm McLaren. And I thought it was something to do with the Glasgow Apollo because I was associated with the Apollo at the time. And when bands came there and needed a bit of equipment they’d say, ‘Go find Midge. He’s round at McCormack’s Music Shop. You’ll find him there. He’ll sort you out’.”
“So I thought it was about that, but low and behold it wasn’t. It was this bizarre looking character, Malcolm McLaren on the streets of Glasgow in 1975, or whenever it was. So he proceeded to tell me all about the bands he’d looked after, and his shop, his designs, Vivian Westwood, New York Dolls, … and that he was putting this band together. And half an hour into the conversation I realized he hadn’t even asked me if I was a musician! So I said no, I didn’t want to join a band. It didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t asking if I could play. He stopped me because I had short hair. Like a James Dean look. And in those days everyone had long, feather-cut hair. I looked different and that’s why they stopped me. And thought I didn’t want to join a band based on that. It didn’t make any sense. And, of course, six months to a year later there were the Pistols.”
Being that both you and Bob Geldof wrote the infamous Band Aid song,
'Do They Know It's Christmas' back in 1984, since then you've described
it as one of the worst you've ever written! Can you please explain that
some more “I have been misquoted on that one I'm afraid. I actually said 'it
wasn't the best song I've ever written' which is true, simply because it
was all about the record and not the song. The record; production/artists involved, the cause was what made the song successful, not the other way round.”
When it came to gathering the artists for the recording of it, and
the now-infamous video therein, who did you badly want to record a line,
but just couldn't get? And who chose the lines they finally got to sing
- you and Bob? “The final vocalist/line choice was Bob and I and the only artists we really wanted were Bowie and Annie Lenox but both were unavailable.
Bowie presented the first ever play of the video on BBC television who
moved the entire evenings programming in order for it to be broadcast.”
In hindsight, do you regret Bono's line, ‘So, tonight thank God
it's them, instead of you,’ given the numerous after-the-fact
discussions about it ever since? “Absolutely not. It was one of the highlights of the record and when you understand the meaning it all falls into place. Not rather them than you, simply, thank God it's not happening to you.”
Is it true Trevor Horn donated his very own studio to you for the Band Aid single? “Yes, he gave us the 24 hours in Sarm Studios to record the artists and mix the record.”
For the huge Live Aid concert of 1985 what was it
like playing your four songs that day? “The 18 minutes we had to perform the 4 songs absolutely flew by. It was a magical, seat of the pants performance, but extremely scary because there was no soundcheck and some of the equipment we were using
could be really unstable but everything went quite smoothly.”
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive Magazine love penguins ... do you, perhaps? “Weirdly enough, … no! I’ve never met a penguin. But, ok, here’s my one connection with a penguin. Two years ago my family wanted to go to Hollywood for a holiday. Now, Hollywood is not a place you go for a holiday, but they were desperate to go see Hollywood. So I took all my daughters out to Hollywood. And one of the things we did, which I had never done was go to the Hollywood Bowl. And it didn’t really matter what was on, we just wanted the experience of sitting out there with the blanket over us, you know.”
“And it was some cheesy show about TV personalities singing songs from the musicals. My kids loved all that and thought it was great. And on stage that night, which I’m still ecstatic about, was Dick Van Dyke. Dick Van Dyke got up and he sang ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Hushabye Mountain,’ and all those great songs that he did in Mary Poppins and all the rest of it. And he, of course, danced with the penguins in Mary Poppins, so there’s the connection,” he loudly laughs, one last time.
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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