Co-founder (with Bob Geldof) of Band Aid and Live Aid, the multi-talented Glaswegian Midge Ure once turned down an offer to join what became the Sex Pistols. Alas, he has carved out a perfectly respectable career as a member The Rich Kids (with ex-Pistol Glen Matlock), Visage, Thin Lizzy and Ultravox and then as a longtime solo performer. Bob Gourley talked with Midge Ure for PKM.
Best known as the front man of British electronic/rock band Ultravox, Midge Ure has a rich musical history that he continues to tap into as a solo artist. Ure performs extensively and has been known to take songs that were originally heavily produced and prove that they still work when stripped down to the basics. This fall, Ure released a new collection, Soundtrack 1978-2019, which encompasses solo material and songs from various past projects.
Ure first achieved success as part of Slik, who worked with Bay City Rollers’ writers Bill Martin and Phil Coulter and had a UK number one single with “Forever and Ever” (1976). In 1977, he joined former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock in Rich Kids, and the following year shifted towards electronic music by forming Visage with Rusty Egan and Steve Strange.
The Rich Kids on Top of the Pops, 1978
Ultravox had already been well-established when Ure joined in 1979, but their future was in question. Guitarist Robin Simon and lead singer John Foxx had departed the band, and Ultravox was without a record deal. But the new incarnation proved to have more chart success. “Sleepwalk” (1980) became their first UK top 40 single, and Ultravox went on to have such hits as “Vienna,” “Reap the Wild Wind,” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” They took advantage of the music video revolution by creating highly cinematic promotional clips. This incarnation of Ultravox lasted until 1986, but has reunited for tours and the 2012 album Brill!ant.
Several solo albums followed, with hits “If I Was” and “Dear God.”
Outside of Ultravox, Ure is best known as the co-founder (with Bob Geldof) of Band Aid and Live Aid. He co-wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and handled production of the all-star recording. Ure remains active with the organization as a Band Aid Trustee.
In early 2020, Ure will launch an American leg of his “Songs, Questions and Answers Tour,” where the audience is encouraged to contribute questions and song requests.
PKM: You’ve been involved with many projects, but one that seems a little unusual is your time with Thin Lizzy. How did you get involved with them, and what was the experience like?
Midge Ure: Well, I had seen Thin Lizzy playing in Glasgow, Scotland, my hometown, when I was a kid, like 14, 15 or 16 or something. And I fell in love with them. I thought they were a fantastic band. Philip [Lynott] was such a great songwriter and singer. I eventually bumped into Phillip walking around the streets of Glasgow, and he remembered this when I moved to London. We bumped into each other in London. He had read interviews with the band I was in saying I was a big Thin Lizzy fan back in the early days. And we used to hang out together when I was in The Rich Kids. I was in the studio putting the finishing touches on the first Visage album and I had just joined Ultravox. The Visage album was put together with musicians who were all in other current bands, all touring, so it took a long time.
The Rich Kids, live on Revolver, “Ghosts of Princes In Towers,” 1978:
I got a phone call from Phil Lynott, in America where he was opening up for Journey. He said ‘Gary Moore isn’t in the band anymore, we’re down to a three piece, can you come out tomorrow and finish the tour for us?’ Which is pure Judy Garland material, isn’t it? You know, you step into someone else’s shoes, first time in America. And they flew me out on Concorde! I had no time to learn the songs. I turned up within 48 hours of getting the phone call. I was on stage with Thin Lizzy, opening up for Journey in Nashville, in front of 30,000 people or something. Baptism by fire, it was great.
Thin Lizzy, with Midge Ure, on German television, 1979:
PKM: Weren’t you also asked to join The Sex Pistols at one point?
Midge Ure: Well, I was asked to join a band. I was in Glasgow in 1975 or 76, and I was stopped in the streets by an English guy who transpired to be Bernie Rhodes, who went on to manage The Clash. He and his friend Malcolm McLaren were in a car, having driven from London, I think with some slightly hot equipment in the boot of the car. So, they were there trying to sell this stuff and he stopped me on the street because of how I looked. I was walking out of a music shop and when everyone else had long hair and flared trousers, I had short hair and looked like James Dean. He had me speak to Malcolm McLaren, who told me about the New York Dolls and how he had been involved in the music industry and he had a shop and he designed clothes with Vivian Westwood and whatever. And he said, ‘I’m putting this band together. Are you interested in joining the band?’ And I said no, because he hadn’t asked what I did. He just presumed I was a musician, so I turned it down. And of course, the band was the Pistols.
I had no time to learn the songs. I turned up within 48 hours of getting the phone call. I was on stage with Thin Lizzy, opening up for Journey in Nashville, in front of 30,000 people or something. Baptism by fire, it was great.
PKM: Did you know Glen Matlock at that point?
Midge Ure: No. Glen knew about me about a year or so later. There was a journalist in the UK, a music journalist called Caroline Coon who was quite well-known at the time. And she had said to Glen that I was the guy that should join his band. So, he called up out of the blue just when the band I was in, Slik, were falling apart and I moved down to London and joined The Rich Kids.
PKM: Was there any hesitation in joining Ultravox, as they were already established?
Midge Ure: No, absolutely none. I loved what the band were doing. They had just gotten into an area where I think if had they carried on they would have become very successful. They had been working with Conny Plank, the German electronic record producer. They’d made a great record with Systems of Romance. I was listening to this stuff at the little clubs in London that we were frequenting. So, when Ultravox came back from an American tour without a singer and without the guitar player, to find a note on the doorstep from the record label saying ‘your services are no longer required,’ I didn’t hesitate at jumping at it. Because these guys were knowledgeable about the area of music that I really was desperate to work in, incorporating this new electronic technology with traditional rock instruments. So, I jumped at the chance of joining Ultravox. I didn’t think for a second that anything that had been before would get in the way. It was nothing but a bonus for me.
PKM: What was it like working with George Martin on Ultravox’s Quartet album?
Midge Ure: The opposite of working with Conny Plank [producer of the three prior albums.] Conny Plank was an engineer’s producer. Conny was interested in sound and space and atmosphere. And George was very much the producer’s producer. He was interested in the arrangements and the melodies and the harmonies and the character melodies. And working with George [Martin] was just wonderful. I mean, it was amazing. Just to be in the man’s presence was amazing because he was not only brilliant at what he did musically, he was just an amazing raconteur. He would tell you the most unbelievable stories about the Beatles or working with Gerry and the Pacemakers or the time he met Frank Sinatra or whatever. You know, he was just fabulous to be around, and I have described them in the past as being a cross between your father and your favorite schoolteacher. Just a lovely, lovely man.
Ultravox, “Cut and Run,” from the Lament album, produced by George Martin:
PKM: You’ve done tours where you perform solo, with just your guitar. It can be surprising how well the Ultravox material works in this format. Was it a challenge adapting the songs?
Midge Ure: For whatever reason, in the 80s, not just Ultravox, but the from ’79, say, through to mid-1980s, there was a glut of great songwriters. The song was king. I put that down to the fact that as we were growing up, we would listen to the radio and hear The Beatles and The Stones and Gerry and the Pacemakers and Led Zeppelin and whoever. We were listening to great songwriters, learning the craft, doing our apprenticeship in a way. So, the Ultravox stuff, when you look at it, you think, well, you cannot separate the chords and melody from the textures and the atmospheres and the electronic drums or whatever. But you can; once you start looking at it, the song’s still alive, with the heart beating underneath all of that production. You have to be quite choosy about which ones you perform. But so far, I’ve not managed to make a hash of anything that I’ve attempted to, to strip away.
PKM: Are there any that you feel have taken on a new life when stripped-down like that?
Midge Ure: Yeah. A few of them. There are so many songs, and they’re like your children. You love them because they’re yours, but sometimes you don’t like them very much. I go through that with songs and I’ve rediscovered things that I didn’t think I liked. And when I played them and stripped them down, they became different songs. “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” becomes a very different song when I play it acoustically. It’s much slower, it’s much more poignant, it tells the story better than the original recording.
Midge Ure, acoustic version of “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”:
“Lament” becomes a beautiful, poignant, heartfelt piece of music when you strip away the production. I did an album 18 months ago of orchestrated versions of Ultravox song and some solo things. That was going the opposite direction. They became more cinematic because the songs lend themselves to that kind of overly dramatic, cinematic, soundtrack element. So the songs, because they exist, the songs can go either way, either stripped down to practically nothing or everything plus the kitchen sink added, and they still seem to work.
PKM: Ultravox really took advantage of the rise of music videos. What did you think about the medium back then?
Midge Ure: I remember going to the label, who insisted on sending you on a plane every weekend to Milan or Berlin or somewhere else in deepest, darkest Europe to do the big Friday or Saturday night television show so you could go and plug your record. I remember going to the record company saying we wanted to make a pop promo. And they said, ‘why?’ I said, well, because we could appear on all those shows at the same time. You know, we control what has been broadcast. And they didn’t get it. So we made a video for the second single that I was on, “Passing Strangers.” And it was unlike any video that had been before because it we shot on film.
Because with Ultravox, we didn’t stop at just making the music, we designed the sleeves the music went in and we looked at the adverts that run in the music papers. We co-directed or directed or found the directors to make the pop videos. When we made “Passing Strangers,” we shot it on 16-millimeter film. We cropped the screen, top and bottom to make it look like cinemascope. We went black and white to color. It was very grainy. It was very film noir because we knew exactly what it was meant to be. The videos at the time for most artists had no relationship to the music at all. They just happened to be a shiny presentation of the band performing on stage or acting something out, which had nothing to do with the lyrics. So we got involved very heavily in that side of things. At the time the “Vienna” video was due to be shot, we knew exactly what we wanted to do. It had to enhance this very textual ambience. That’s exactly what the video did. And once other artists saw that, they all jumped on the bandwagon and all wanted to quite rightly also have flashy looking little mini movies to help sell the records.
PKM: Do you think they are relevant today?
Midge Ure: Well, now I don’t think they are overly necessary. I’ve done a couple just with handheld camera stuff. These days, a laptop is your tool of trade. I can record music on a laptop. I can edit video on a laptop. It’s my connection to the outside world. It’s my entertainment system. By learning how, anyone could do it. You don’t have to go cap in hand to a record label and say, I need $20,000 to go and make a new video clip, because there’s nowhere to show it. But for the internet, you can get perfectly good cameras and piece together something for very little money, just a bit of time and effort and a bit of creativity. And that’s not a bad thing. But I don’t think it’s as necessary as it was deemed to be back in the 80s when MTV appeared, and you could get across to massive amounts of people because you had a good video. What ended up happening was that the money was being spent on the videos and not necessarily on good music. The video kind of superseded what was there to sale. So, in a way it’s kind of gone back the right way around, the music should come first then if you’ve got an idea for a visual for it, great. Go ahead and do it.
PKM: What was the inspiration behind the interactive nature of the “Songs, Questions and Answers Tour”?
Midge Ure: Yeah, I did a tour similar to this back in the UK about 25 years ago. I did it on my own and it was fun and interesting. I decided to go back and revisit that earlier this year in the UK and did it with a couple of multi-instrumentalists that I know. It’s the same format. It’s just very informal. You cannot prepare for something like this. You can listen to your old songs, but you don’t know what you’re going to play. You’ve got no idea what questions are coming at you. You’ve got no idea what comments are going to be made. So you have to be quite secure in the fact that hopefully you can perform okay and hopefully you can think standing on your feet because people throw weird and wonderful things at you.
So all I know is when I go out there is what I’ll start with, just to break the ice I’ll start with a couple of songs, then get into taking questions from the audience and then it’s down to me to balance between too much talk and not enough music or too much music and not enough talk and kind of guide it and hope that by the seat of my pants I know the songs that people are asking for, because if I don’t I’ll attempt it but I could quite easily fall flat on my face halfway through!
PKM: Has anything particularly surprised you in terms of questions or requests?
Midge Ure: I think that in general, I was surprised at the amount of same questions that came. Some people are a bit shy, so they write questions down on a card on the way in. I collect cards just before going on stage and the other musician will read the cards out and ask me the questions, or we take them directly from the audience. Some of the stuff is pretty anal, you know, ‘what was the synthesizer you used on such and such a B side 1981, which I’ve got no chance of remembering. Some of it is generic, so a lot of stuff about Band Aid and Live Aid, obvious things that happened. But every so often someone pops up with something that I’ve completely forgotten about and it throws me for a second and out pops a story or a tale that has never been mentioned as far as I know. And it might not be specifically to do with one specific song, but it might conjure up a song from that period or that era that I will then tie in with it.