Back to the 80s with renaissance Midge
Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30
I've lost count of the number of musicians who regard the business of being interviewed with barely disguised contempt, but Midge Ure is cut from very different cloth. So happy is he to travel through the chapters of his life, that I don't want our Skype video call to end.
And what a remarkable life he's had: most will know him thanks to Band Aid and Live Aid and his membership of two of the most emblematic bands of the early 1990s, Ultravox and Visage. But the Midge Ure story also includes a UK number one while still a teen in the pop band Slik, membership of The Rich Kids, the post-punk band founded by Glen Matlock after he had quit the Sex Pistols, and a brief, but memorable few months playing alongside Phil Lynott in Thin Lizzy.
And he's still making music - later this month, he will play the inaugural Proms on the Pier festival in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin.
"I tasted that little bit of 1970s Spinal Tapish corporate rock," he chuckles, at the memory of Thin Lizzy. "We did festivals with Santana and Aerosmith. I had got a call from Phil to say that they were touring in America and Gary Moore had left the band and would I come out straight away and take his place. I mean, he could have picked a much better guitarist than me, but I think he thought it would be quite cool to have a new wave guitarist there.
"So I found myself on Concorde the next day with a pile of cassettes and a ghetto blaster trying to learn the set. It was a pure Judy Garland moment."
There's something wonderfully prosaic about the very first time he met Lynott, a few years after being transfixed by the fledgling Lizzy he had seen in his native Glasgow: "I was in my Transit van and I saw Phil on the street, jumped out, and introduced myself. I think he was looking for somewhere to smoke but I took him home and my mum fed him egg and chips and he remembered this.
"So when Slik (Midge's first significant band, who topped the charts with Forever and Ever) had their five minutes of fame in 1976, he sent a book of lyrics that he'd written and signed to me.
And then when I came down to London to join the Rich Kids, I bumped into Phil in an Underground station and we just hung out together."
At the time Lynott made his call, Ure was in two bands who would help shape the sonic contours of the early 1980s, Visage and Ultravox. "It was a period when everything was changing," he says. "The young upstarts were coming along with the three chords that they had just learnt and they were giving the dinosaurs of rock a run for their money.
"At the same time there was a technical revolution going on. Synthesisers were becoming reasonably affordable to the average guy on the street. People were starting to understand that you didn't need to go cap in hand to a major record company to get a massive advance to get into a studio that cost a thousand pounds a day. You could make music with a synthesiser and a drum machine and a tape recorder in your bedroom. There was this mishmash of ideas."
One of those ideas was, Vienna, the moody slice of electro-pop that remains one of the most emblematic songs of the 1980s.
"We had no idea that anything we would ever do would chart so we were delighted when it got to number two. Up to that point, Ultravox never even bothered the top 40. It transformed the band from playing sleazy clubs holding 150 people, to one who could play the Crystal Palace Bowl."
It was held off the top spot by, first, John Lennon's Woman and then, notoriously, Shaddap You Face, the novelty song from one-hit wonder Joe Dolce.
"The great British public saw it for what it was," Ure says. "It was ridiculous. But then again, they were responsible for it!"
Ultravox's elevation allowed them to work with such people as George Martin, The Beatles' producer, who helmed their fourth album, Quartet.
"George was the antithesis of Conny Plank [the German producer who had produced the Vienna album]. He didn't really touch the [mixing] desk, he was old school. He had the same engineer with him, Geoff Emerick, who did Sgt. Pepper. George was incredibly musical and was incredibly involved in the arrangements. But as much as the album he did for us was great, it was very polished and we kind of lost some of our rough edge."
Later that year, 1984, Ure and Bob Geldof co-wrote Do They Know it's Christmas?, the second-biggest selling single in UK chart history (after Candle in the Wind). "The unspoken legacy is that it rolls on," Ure says. "It's now so embroiled in the Christmas line up - in there among White Christmas and Adeste Fideles - and teachers have to explain to the kids what the song is about and why it was written."
"Live Aid," he adds, "wasn't just a music event, but a social event. Maybe something on the downside changed - some say it was the start of the end for the rebellious rock 'n' roll. After that, big artists all ended up doing big stadium-type events which lost its edginess."
He has clear memories of U2's eye-catching performance. "That 15 minutes on stage changed everything," he says. "They showed the world what they were and what they could become. And Bono exuded such an immense self-belief."
He's still in regular contact with Geldof. "We text more than speak and he texts like a 12-year-old... that abbreviated text language. It takes me half an hour to decipher it."
Both men were honoured with an Ivor Novello songwriting award to mark Live Aid's 30th anniversary last month. "It was lovely to hang out with him for a day. For everybody, he's very serious, po-faced, sucked-in-cheeked Bob, and with me he's just this goofy guy, he's got a great sense of humour. But we're not joined at the hip."
Midge Ure plays the Proms on the Pier festival Dún Laoghaire, Dublin, August 29 and 30