Midge Ure keeps things rolling with an album, book and US tour
Singer Midge Ure is best known as the baritone frontman of ‘80s synth rockers Ultravox, the British synth-pop band that had stateside success with hits such as “Dear God” and “If I Was.” Ultravox has just issued a new album and Ure plans to publish his autobiography sometime this year. As a result, he’s about to embark on his first U.S. tour with a band in nearly 30 years. In a recent transatlantic phone interview, we spoke to him about both the tour and the forthcoming book.
When you changed your name to Midge in 1972, did you ever think it would stick for this long?
Oh God, no. You must have seen that movie Animal House and it’s like the scene when John Belushi gives the new interns or whatever they are new names. It was like that. It was thrust upon me. No, I didn’t think it would last this long and yes, it will probably be written on my gravestone.
I suppose there could be worse things.
I can’t think of many.
Your first bands existed before prior to the punk explosion. How did you initially react to the punk movement?
I was living at home in Glasgow, which is 400 miles north of London. London was the center of everything at the time. All the music was emanating from there. Although we weren’t part of the movement, you would listen to the radio and hear late night programs featuring these new bands, The Damned, the Clash and the Pistols. We were well aware of what was going on. We desperately wanted to be part of it. But I was in a successful band at the time. We were very much a pop pin-up band. The whole punk thing and the whole new wave thing was a million miles away from what we were doing, yet we were very aware of it.
Being realistic about it, it probably came down to whether Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood’s clothes fitted you. If you were the right build, you might have gotten the job. It was all about selling T-shirts and trousers. That’s exactly what is was all about.
Is it true you were invited to sing in the Sex Pistols?
I don’t know whether it was sing or play guitar. They never really asked me specifically. I was stopped in the streets of Glasgow coming out of a music shop so that probably gave them the indication that I was a musician. I was stopped by a guy named Bernie Rhodes, who I didn’t know, but he went on to manage the Clash. His friend sitting in the car around the corner was Malcolm McLaren. They talked to me about this band they were putting together and they talked about his shop and the clothing designs he was putting together and how he used to work with the New York Dolls. I thought, “This is ludicrous. They don’t know what I can do or if I can do anything and yet they wanted me to join the band because of how I looked.” In 1976, no one had short hair but I did. I had just had my long hair cut off and I looked like James Dean. That’s what they were looking for. They were looking for individuals who looked the part. Being realistic about it, it probably came down to whether Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood’s clothes fitted you. If you were the right build, you might have gotten the job. It was all about selling T-shirts and trousers. That’s exactly what is was all about.
Was Ultravox your most successful band or were your other bands just as successful?
Yes, Ultravox was the one that was commercially successful on my terms as opposed to on someone else’s terms. My first band Slik had a number one record in the UK and throughout Europe but I didn’t write it and I didn’t produce it. I didn’t have anything really to do with it. I suppose Visage was the forerunner to Ultravox, but even with that project my hands certainly weren’t on the wheel and I wasn’t steering it. But when success came, I was producing the stuff and writing the stuff. I was allowed to do what I wanted to do and that was quite an amazing thing.
We did what we thought was right without concern for whether it was commercially successful or not and success found us.
Why does Ultravox still resonate with people?
I think because we went against the grain. I know most bands think they do that but we did. We were using a mini Moog next to an electronic guitar next to an electronic fiddle. We were doing things as radical as punk was meant to be but we were doing it with modern technology and mixing it all up so we were making something that didn’t have a template. There was no one prior to us doing that and having commercial success. You look back at something like the track “Vienna” and it was a huge, huge success for us and enabled us to play massive venues. Just that one track. But you couldn’t have picked a more obscure, off-the-wall song to do it with. It wasn’t an instant commercial hit. It was a weird four-minute-long electronic ballad that speeds up with a viola solo in the middle, for God’s sake. That epitomized what Ultravox was. We did what we thought was right without concern for whether it was commercially successful or not and success found us.
Talk about the current tour. Is it really your first U.S. tour with a full band since 1985?
Oh God, yeah, probably. It’s a long, long time. The last time I was in America, I had lots of hair. These days, that’s a problem I don’t have to think about any more. I toured ten years ago doing an acoustic thing and it was very low-key. This is the first time with a band and the idea being that it’s to let people know that Ultravox is still breathing again and there’s a new album. It’s easier for me to come out and do this than to put Ultravox out there because it’s an expensive toy to play with. Getting that band up and running is a logistical and technical nightmare so this is me coming in and saying, “Hey,
What will the set list be like?
A good selection of stuff. The key Ultravox songs are in there and a good selection of solo songs as well. I’ll play “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Dear God,” things that people might know. The odd part is that I haven’t actually met the band yet. We’ve only talked on Skype. I’m sure they’re capable of playing and are incredibly good musicians. The only way to make this work is to come out there and use an American band. That I’m looking forward to. I have to adapt the arrangements a bit because they’re not a keyboard band. That to me is a challenge to figure out how to get the vastness of the song with guitars rather than synthesizers.
Is it key now for foreign musicians to have a band in the states?
It’s an economic thing. It’s a sign of the times. I had to do a lot of jumping through hoops to get a Visa. And the social climate in the last 10 or 15 years has changed so much and the music industry has changed beyond recognition in the last ten years. You cannot do things the way you used to be able to do it. You used to say, “I’m going to America with Ultravox, thanks very much.” Of course, the record company would give you tour support. Not only does the tour support not exist any more, but the record company doesn’t exist any more. You have to look at it in a very different way if you want to keep the thing rolling. Live performance is incredibly important. There’s a generation growing up now that thinks live performance is something you do on a reality TV show and that’s the route to success. Not really. The next John Lennon or the next Bob Marley or the next Peter Gabriel isn’t going to come up through that route. But they’re out there and the only way you’re going to find them is by going to a little club and seeing them perform live and following them.
What was the hardest part about writing your autobiography?
All of it. The easy part was saying yes because your ego goes for it as soon as someone tells you your life is good enough to publish a book on. You say, “That’s fabulous. I’ve never done that before.” And then you sit down and start the grueling task of reliving not only the bad bits but the good bits which don’t really exist anymore. You go back over the halcyon days and the world tours and the fleet of classic sports cars and it’s all gone. It’s a moment in time and it’s there as a nice memory. When you start to dig all that up and get honest about it — which is what I wanted to do because I wanted to tell the story as honestly as possible — it’s a horrible process to go through but quite a cleansing process in a way. Weird enough, I’ve just done another set of chapters and am publishing as an eBook so I’ve been through the same thing again but looking at it from a very different angle. When I read the entire book from start to finish, it’s interesting to see if there’s a difference in flavor when it comes to the end. I have a very different look on life by the end. I’m a different person. We’re not the same people we were ten years ago.
Is there any good dirt in it?
Not really. It’s kind of sad. I wanted to do a kiss-and-tell but I just told it exactly as it was. I told the story about being swapped around at Live Aid so that [Boomtown Rats singer Bob] Geldof could perform for the royals. They didn’t say that to when they asked me if I minded moving Ultravox. I told all that stuff. I left it as speculation at the time but since then it’s all been confirmed. That’s exactly what happened. I was asked by the people if they minded if Ultravox went on later than we should have and I was told it had to do with Adam Ant’s equipment. I said it wasn’t a problem. But when I came off stage, I found out it was that they moved the Booomtown Rats so that Geldof could play for the royals. I was being lied to by the people I was working with. I walked out after the Ultravox performance, and of course all the media where they saying, “How does it feel to be shafted by your pal?” I didn’t know what they meant. They told me and I didn’t believe it until many years later. I still love him and he’s a great character but I don’t trust him.
I always thought “If I Was” was grammatically incorrect, but that’s not really the case, is it?
It is if you’re going to an anally retarded English school teacher but if you look at the great legacy of rock ’n’ roll, it doesn’t really matter. It just sounds better than “If I Were.” If we’re going to be royal about it, it should be “If One Were.”
Oyster Bay, Long Island – Sagamore Yacht Club (only US acoustic show)
New York, NY – Iridium
Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe
Stafford Spring, CT – Palace Theatre
Woodstock, NY – Bearsville Theatre
Rochester, NY – Water Street Club
Toronto, Ontario – Hughs Room
Toronto, Ontario – Hughs Room
Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom
Detroit, MI – Magic Bag
Milwaukee, WI – Shank Hall
Chicago, IL – Mayne Stage
Minneapolis, MN – New Skyway Lounge
San Francisco, CA – Red Devil Lounge
San Juan Capistrano, CA – Coach House (Co-Headline with Bow Wow wow)
San Diego, CA – Brick By Brick
Los Angeles, CA – El Rey Theater (with Sp Guests Bow Wow Wow and Gene Loves Jezebel)