Midge Ure of Ultravox Talks Highly Influential Career & Current Tour With Paul Young (INTERVIEW)

To paraphrase the singer, if you don’t know what a Midge Ure is, you’ll find out soon enough. A virtual musical god in the UK, Midge Ure is the voice behind some of Ultravox’s biggest hits; he co-wrote the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with Bob Geldof to raise money and awareness for the famine that had overcome Ethiopia, then co-organized one of the biggest concerts in the world, Live Aid in 1985; his autobiography, If I Was, became a bestseller in 2004; he has been awarded an OBE (Order Of The British Empire) for his years of charitable work; he has honorary degrees and top 10 songs and been on worldwide tours. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For those who came of age with leanings more toward the new wave sound in the early 1980’s, then bands like Ultravox were your musical (and oftentimes fashion) heroes. Ure, a Scottish-born guitar player who had been honing his skills in Glasgow bands, was elevated to frontman when vocalist John Foxx departed Ultravox, and his first album with them, 1980’s Vienna, was a hit, propelled by the title track single. Other hit songs and videos followed: “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “We Came To Dance,” “Hymn” and “Reap The Wild Wind.” Ure began to make solo albums and become more involved with charitable concerts, like Live Aid and the Prince’s Trust.

In 2018, Ure has teamed up with old friend Paul Young for the Soundtrack Of Your Life tour. Each playing their own sets, the first half of the tour has been a happy success and they are about to kick off the second half later this month in America. Ure’s Orchestrated solo album, which was released in the States in June, has won raves for it’s revitalizations of some of Ure’s biggest Ultravox hits and it is absolutely breathtaking in it’s depth of soul that Ure and the orchestra have pulled from the frameworks of the original compositions.

While enjoying a nice evening at his home in Bath, England, Ure called to talk with Glide about what he calls his favorite pastime: “Me,” he said with a hearty laugh.

You were born and raised in Scotland. Why did you end up moving to England?

Scotland is beautiful, it’s great, but I had to leave Scotland back in the mid-seventies because all the music industry was based in London, of course. So I had to move away from home if I wanted to be serious about being in the music industry. And of course you set your roots here so I’ve been living in England for a long time now. But Scotland is just outstanding. The west coast, the Highlands, the islands, it’s just beautiful.

With Scotland so full of traditional music, did that have any kind of an influence on you in your own music?

Well, I didn’t think it had any influence at all because if you rewind to when I was a young kid taking an interest in pop music for the first time, everything around me was the Beatles and the Stones and The Who and all of that. But what we were taught musically at school was traditional Scottish music, which I had no interest in whatsoever. BUT, many years later, I wrote a song which I performed with the traditional Celtic band, the Chieftains, who are Irish – and the Scotch and the Irish are very closely intermingled, intertwined – and when I heard the melody I had written played on traditional instruments, it was so ridiculously Celtic. And that only comes from being surrounded by these beautiful melodies, these wonderful songs that I was taught at school as a kid but just had kind of mentally rejected. But these melodies obviously sunk in somewhere deep so I think absolutely there is no doubt that the traditional Scottish music, and Irish music, has connected with me somewhere along the line and it comes out in the melodies I write.

Did the big orchestral arrangements on Orchestrated come out of those Scottish traditional influences at all?

It didn’t drive the idea of doing the Orchestrated stuff but there are pieces of music on there, “Lament” was written in Scotland, “Man Of Two Worlds,” which actually features Scottish-Gaelic vocals on there, was written in Scotland. So a lot of the music has very strong Scottish connections. And you don’t really hear that until you hear those melodies played on traditional instruments or sung in the traditional language. The girl who sings on “Man Of Two Worlds” in Gaelic has got this wonderful voice and it’s so evocative of what the Highlands are like. You know, when you go you will see it. In fact, when you go, when you take your bucket list and you go to Scotland, take a copy of Orchestrated with you and play it when you’re looking at those mountains. It’ll take you all the way back to your ancestors.

Mae McKenna actually came back and re-recorded her vocals on “Man Of Two Worlds”

She came back, yes. I found her via social network, of course, because I just didn’t think anyone could do that vocal quite the way she did and I wanted to find her and it turns out she lives thirty miles from where I live now. So it was just incredible that we could team up again. And hasn’t she got a very, very pure voice. It’s beautiful.

Since you’ve done this album with orchestrated pieces, what kind of show are you going to be giving us on this tour with Paul Young?

You know, you might get a nod towards the arrangements from the orchestrations but I’m certainly not doing it with the orchestra (laughs). No, this is guitar and synth and bass and drums. I delve back into the past, I play quite a few of Ultravox’s tunes and a couple of Visage tunes which I did and some solo stuff. So if you have no idea of what a Midge Ure is and you’ve never heard any of the music, if you see this show, over the space of an hour or so, you will get a very good taste for what I’ve been doing for the last forty years.

How has the tour been going so far?

It’s been great, it’s been really, really good. Paul and I have obviously known each other for a long time, we’ve been friends for a long time, but we’ve never ever toured together. So this just seemed to make perfect sense, on paper at least. We thought, this could be interesting. Obviously, we worked together on the Band Aid record and I think Paul did Live Aid and stuff so we’ve done a few big things together. And this is just a bit of fun for us. We go out and we share the evening, share some musicians, make it fun for ourselves and entertaining for the audience. It’s like a road trip with music, with a few concerts thrown in, really. We’ve already done the East Coast and we’ve gone into Canada and we’ve done the Midwest. Then we came back and I’ve been doing all the festivals in Europe for the last six/seven weeks. Then we go back and finish off the West Coast and then sweep our way around through Salt Lake City and then we’re finishing up in Florida.

Who actually brought up the idea for this to happen?

I did. Paul toured in America last year for the first time in over twenty-five years and he went down incredibly well. He was doing one of these multi-act packages with various bands, mainly 80’s bands, and it went incredibly well and he wanted to do more and he was asking me about how you do it, cause I’ve been working and touring over there for the last six/seven years. I said, “Why don’t we just do this together. It’d make sense, get bang for the buck. You know, two artists for the price of one.” And it just seemed to work so it appealed to both of us. We picked up some American musicians, all ex-Berklee music students, fantastic musicians, and we’re having an absolute ball.

How advanced have you updated your equipment?

Well, equipment has changed a lot, especially recording equipment has changed an awful lot. Every musician has a little recording facility because it’s basically a laptop and some software and a keyboard and a microphone and you can just about do anything. So therefore, when I tour, mainly over in Europe – the touring I’m going to be doing in America I’m not actually playing keyboards on this set; we have a keyboard player doing it much better than I can; I’m sticking to guitar. And guitar stuff hasn’t really changed that much over the years. But when I tour in Europe with my own band, things get very technical. It’s all the synthesizer sounds generated from laptops so I don’t have to tour with twenty keyboards like we used to. We have two or three keyboards and a laptop and with those two or three keyboards we can access all the sounds that we want without having multiple synthesizers everywhere. So it keeps things tidy and smart and very neat and very movable, which kind of has to be these days. So I keep up with the technology, yeah.

When did you start playing guitar?

My parents saved up the princely sum of three pounds when I was ten, which was half of my father’s wage at the time. He saved up three pounds to buy me a guitar and I taught myself how to play. So I was a guitarist long before I was allowed anywhere near a synthesizer or a recording studio or any of the other toys that I have.

What kind do you play?

Oh I have loads of them (laughs). It depends which day of the week it is. But the one that I’ve been using on the American tour is a customized Fender Stratocaster, because it gives me the variations I need for the different types of songs that we’re doing. So I will probably be bringing that with me this time also.

Going back to Orchestrated, I wanted to ask you about the song “Death In The Afternoon.” The way you have built it up, it has so much more depth than the original recording. How did you bring that to this song?

I would love to take the credit for all of that but I have to say that’s all to do with orchestration. The song hasn’t changed but the approach to it has changed slightly. I’m much older now, I have a different thought process and I put different inflections in things, I put a different feeling into music, especially songs I wrote a long time ago. But the melody was always there and the atmosphere was always there so I’ve got to give all credit to Ty Unwin, the guy who arranged and produced the album, because he was responsible for pulling out all of the melodies and countermelodies and all the hidden little things that I know are in the original recording but were never really heard; they were just part of the overall cacophony. And he is responsible for pulling these things out and giving this thing a whole new breath of life, a breath of fresh air. It’s one of my favorites on the album.

The song itself, a bit like “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” they were inspired by books and things I read when I was younger, particularly a book called On The Beach [by Nevil Shute], which was written in the 1950’s [1957] when everyone was absolutely petrified of nuclear war. It was written about the aftermath of a nuclear war and the only people left alive were on Australia, and the people on Australia knew that this cloud was coming and they knew it was the end but they had time to think about how they wanted to choose their final moments. And that’s what “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” was about. But so was “Death In The Afternoon.” You hear about someone you love passing and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry and you don’t know what to do with yourself. So it’s about feeling helpless in certain situations. But, as I said, I’ve got to give absolute credit to Ty for taking that and putting it into this masterpiece he’s done.

You added in a new song called “Ordinary Man.” Was that an older song you had written or a newer one that you knew you were going to do with orchestration?

We didn’t know we were going to write something. This album was all about taking some of the old songs and giving them different treatments, hopefully without ruining the original versions of the songs for people. I was very aware that some people might not like new versions of songs that resonated with them for half their lives. So I was very wary of ruining people’s memories of those tunes. So it was all about taking those songs and doing something new with them. It was only halfway through making the album, we had done six or seven tracks or something, and Ty said to me, “Wouldn’t it be really interesting now that we know what we’re doing, now that we know what the shape of this record is, wouldn’t it be interesting doing something brand new.” And that was it. We started working on an idea and I started writing the lyrics and I started thinking about where I am at this moment in time in my life. And “Ordinary Man” came out.

And the thing that I think is lovely about it is that, again, for all those people that don’t know anything about me, if they listen to the Orchestrated album and didn’t look at when the songs were written, I would defy them to tell the difference between “Ordinary Man,” which is brand new, and “Vienna” or “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” which is now forty-five plus years old. So the entire album works incredibly well, whether it’s an old song, whether it’s a more recent song or whether it’s a brand new song.

You mentioned “Vienna” and it’s one of your songs that keeps coming back. It was recently in the TV show about Gianni Versace. That must feel good.

Yeah, it does but the directors keep using it at really miserable moments (laughs). There was 13 Reasons Why, which was a big teen series on Netflix about suicide and they played it just before the girl slashed her wrists. And then they play it just before the guy shoots Gianni Versace. It really wasn’t that miserable of a song (laughs).But look, I am just quite pleased they find the song, that they found it atmospheric enough to use it. I love the way they used it in the Gianni Versace thing cause they used it as a soundtrack. There was no dialogue, there’s nothing; they just played the music and the atmosphere that they created with the image of the guy walking towards the camera was just outstanding. So it worked incredibly well.

What instrument in the traditional orchestra did you find captured your music the best when you went to redo these songs?

I think it’s got to be the violins. There is something about the pitch, the high notes the violin can play. You have to be a very good violinist to keep them in tune because the increments between where your fingers work from, where your fingers sit on the strings on the board, is so miniscule between notes that they have to be excellent players. But when you hear violins playing, especially something you’ve written, something you’ve created, there is something mournful and sad and haunting about that instrument; especially when they play in unison. The thing that really threw me was when we went to record the orchestra, cause we had done all the arrangements prior to this of course, had spent a year doing the arrangements, and when we went to the orchestra and I saw these fifty or sixty strangers all walking in and sitting down and they are all handed a piece of paper with some dots on it, some notation on it, and then the conductor clicked his baton and the orchestra would go quiet and then he’d wave his hand and all of a sudden these strangers all connected and made this most magnificent sound, playing one of my tunes. And I sat there with an inane grin on my face and a bit of a tear in my eye. It was just the most magnificent thing. But the expression that this group of people can do in unison, certainly for the string section, when they express something, it’s very, very, very emotive.

What was the most important thing you learned from working with George Martin, who produced the Ultravox album, Quartet?

I spent a lot of time with George. I loved him dearly. He was such a gentleman. I’ve described him many times as a cross between your favorite school teacher and your father cause he was a bit of both. He was very knowledgeable but very loving. A lovely, lovely man. We spent a lot of time in Montserrat, in the Caribbean at his studios, and we used to have these ridiculous conversations, cause you do when you’re living with someone for weeks and weeks and weeks. And George, when he was sitting at the mixing desk and I was sitting in front of the mixing desk on the sofa, I just heard the voice, “Midge, what occupation do you have written in your passport?” Cause the old British passports used to have your occupation written in them. And I said, “It says musician, George, but I think that’s a bit of a con.” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “I don’t read or write notation.” And George come around the desk and he stood and looked at me and he said, “Midge, music doesn’t come from here”  – and he pointed at his eyes and then he touched his heart and he said, “It comes from here.” I thought, that is just the best thing ever, because he said, “If the classical musicians who wrote all the classics, you know, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Mozart, if they had one of these” – and he held up a recording cassette player – he said, “If they had one of these, they would have recorded their playing into that and someone else would have transcribed it. But they didn’t have one so they would have used the technology at hand to create the music they made and that’s exactly what you do.” So I thought it was wonderful.

Did you fancy all the fame that came with Ultravox’s success?

Oh God yes! Yes, of course (laughs) You know, you sit as a spotty teenager watching Top Of The Pops on the television and seeing all these bands playing and thinking, God, if only females could find me remotely attractive, maybe a guitar would do it (laughs). Of course you do. You want people to look at you and go, “Wow, well done, that’s really good.” And that doesn’t necessarily mean on a global level or you have to be on television. Whatever it is you do, if you’re a writer or you’re a sculptor or you’ve done a great day in a factory or whatever, you want your boss to turn around and go, “Hey, that was well done.” That’s it. So it’s the pat on the back that is the important part; just fortunately for my state of things that involved fame as well (laughs).

But some people don’t like that part of it, the fame

They say they don’t like that part of it but then they’ll go out complaining that the paparazzi are taking photographs of them but that’s because they’ve gone out looking like a rock star as opposed to going out the backdoor with a hat on with a bit of a beard and you can blend into the background. If you want to be noticed, you can. If you don’t want to be noticed, you can slip out the backdoor. It’s not that difficult. I was on tour about five or six years ago in Germany and it was a multi-act tour, a kind of rock thing, and Alice Cooper was the headline. And with a night off in this beautiful ancient old town in Germany, I’m walking around this town and there is a bunch of kids, eighteen/seventeen years old, and they’ve got rock t-shirts on, the classic kind of Ozzy Osbourne type things, and walking in their direction is Alice and his wife. Alice has his baseball cap on and he’s standing there having a chat right next to these kids and I’m thinking, if only these kids knew who was standing right here! (laughs). But it’s true, if you want to be noticed, you can be.

Do you still cook?

I do but not as much as I did. In fact, the last time I was in New Orleans I went to a fantastic spice shop there, and that was only a couple of months back that I was in New Orleans, and I go in there and they’ve got all the different rubs and the different creole spices. So I stocked up on some of the spices to bring back home. And I’ve just been told by my daughters to bring more back. So when I’m stopping there in a couple of weeks time, I’ll be filling my suitcase (laughs).

What do you like to cook most nowadays?

You know, I’ve always been simple, I love simple food, and I don’t mean simple as in rubbish food. Simple food is great so you look at the planet and you think anything with rice or noodles, anything with potatoes; just really simple things done well is the best food in the world. It’s not pretentious, it’s not frou-frou. I hate going into restaurants where you are not sure what it is you’ve got on your plate because there is only two little things and a piece of foam on top of it. And you think, that’s not food, that’s nonsense. It’s art but it’s not food. But I love Asian food, I love TexMex, all of that stuff.

When this tour is finished, will you be going back into the studio for some more original material?

I will. I’ve already started. I am in the studio doing various bits and pieces. I live in the same little city as Peter Gabriel and when I went to Peter’s studio, I see Post-it Notes all over the studio and they are all different colors and they are all different projects. So he just doesn’t go and do one thing: he’s making an album, he’s doing a soundtrack and he’s doing something else; then he’s doing a film and doing whatever and that’s a bit like my life. So I’ve already been in the studio writing some new material. I’ve been mixing some live material. And trying out new technology. So it depends on what I feel like doing that day. But I’ve already started that process, so yes, I will be back in the studio trying to do something new.

For these new songs you are working on, what’s on your mind?

You know what, I have seeds of ideas I want to write about and it tends to be about my life and my perspective; it tends to be about worries and feelings or what I’ve read in books, as I said earlier. Right now the world is a very volatile place. I mean, more volatile than I ever remember it being. I don’t know whether we have more on our televisions and it’s always been volatile, I don’t know. We have 24 hour news hammering at us all the time, telling us it’s all going to end tomorrow. So I think that and the fact that I’m growing older. “Ordinary Man” was about that perspective. All of a sudden I’m not looking forward to a life, I’m looking back at a life I’ve had. So it’s a different perspective. It’s not morbid, it’s just reality. And you see things differently. So a lot of what I’m thinking about and want to write about is about what happens to me on a daily basis. And I think if you’re honest about what you write, someone somewhere will say that was about me, that’s my life, that has happened to me, does happen to me. I think that’s the only way to be.

You did Live Aid and continued doing that kind of work and you have an OBE, hit records. What is left for you to strive for?

You know what, I’m content carrying on doing what I do. I never had a list, like a bucket list, a life list. I never had a list that said, okay, by the time I’m twenty-five or something, I want to be in a great electronic rock band; and by the time I hit thirty, I want to have written the biggest song ever in British music history; and I want to put on the biggest global concert and I want to have an OBE. None of that stuff, none of it existed. It all happened because I fell into it or it’s come my way or it was my moment in time. I had no idea. None of it was planned.

So from here on end, I have no plans. You know, things happen. If you are out there and you’re creative and people admire you for what you’re doing and what you stick to, the phone will ring or an email will come through: how’d you fancy doing a duet with whoever, or how do you fancy doing a film soundtrack or whatever it happens to be? That’s what happened in my life so I don’t have to have a bucket list, really. I don’t have to think, well, okay, I’ve got X amount of years left, what do I want to achieve? I want to achieve getting up the next morning and be able to go to the studio or get on a plane and put on my guitar and go and do a concert. That’s what I was meant to do and that’s what I’m very happy doing.

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