Best known as the frontman of Ultravox, Midge Ure’s musical history dates back to the late 70s with bands including Thin Lizzy and Visage. He talks to STYLE ahead of his appearance at Symphony Hall.
Tell us about the Voice & Visions tour coming to Birmingham Symphony Hall?
It’s a follow on from the tour we did in 2019, The 1980 Tour with my band Electronica, where we performed the Vienna album and Visage’s first album. They both came out in 1980, so it seemed to make sense, but Covid kind of got in the way. We were still touring in Australia and New Zealand and everything ground to a halt, so we had to find a way back home. I had started working on the idea of this tour as a sort of follow-up. You get it in line, you get it in place, get it all set-up, you know what you’re going to do then it’s postponed, then it’s a year later, then it’s postponed again, which is heart-breaking for everyone concerned. Finally, we get to come out and do it, which is great. So, it’s the follow up performance, using the two albums after Vienna, Rage In Eden and Quartet.
All Ultravox music, or is there any Visage or anything else mixed-in?
There is some Visage in there; there are certain songs that you just cannot NOT do, but the bones of it is Ultravox. It’s been a popular thing, people touring their old albums in entirety. I had to go back and listen to all of this stuff which I don’t listen to. Some of it rang a bell and was relevant, and other bits I had to sit and pinch myself and think was I actually there when we recorded this because it’s so far removed from where I now. We all move away from our youth. It’s still there but you see things differently, you think of things differently. So, I cherry-picked from both albums. The ones that made the cut are the ones that worked well live. It’s quite surprising which ones they were as well. Not just the rockers, it’s a lot of the atmospheric ones for me that really sound great live.
Your voice is recognised and associated with New Romantic and synth pop. Have you seen your influence in any other bands?
I don’t want to name bands, but you can hear elements of what you’ve done and you can read when they’re brave enough to actually sit down and do what I’ve always done and say “I was influenced by …, or “I heard this album and it made me want to go and do …” whatever. You can hear it in the dance stuff certainly. A lot of the dance guys who got involved in the technology side of things, got into it because they heard Ultravox or Visage back in the day as kids. You can hear the musical influences in various artists that’s great, that’s kind of how it should be, and it’s a real honour to think, ‘Oh, I’d like to have written that because I can hear myself in it’. A bit like when song writers used to take songs to Elvis, they had to get someone to record them, a ‘sound-a-like’, so Elvis could listen to the song and hear how he would sound singing it. To hear that influence in some people’s songs – it’s an honour, that’s great.
What were your influences?
It depends. I have this great belief that we’re all the product of our influences. Whatever influenced you at 12 is still in your system somewhere and helped mould who you finally became. So, musical influences, you know The Beatles, The Mersey Sound sort of thing, Gerry and the Pacemakers, which I would have heard coming out the radio when I was tiny. Then you discover the British Blues boom. You’re an aspiring guitar player, you want to learn how to play guitar, so you start listening to Chet Baker, Eric Clapton. Then you discover David Bowie, and then you discover Roxy Music, and then you discover Kate Bush, and then you discover Peter Gabriel. It just sparks, and opens a door in your imagination that you didn’t know existed, and ALL of those influences are still there.
When did you get your first break?
I suppose I was 18, I’d been playing in bands part-time and the keyboard player of the band I was in at the time, (we didn’t really like him very much, he didn’t really ‘fit’), had read about a fairly well-known band in Scotland who were looking for a keyboard player, so I went with him to the audition. And, of course, they weren’t just looking for a keyboard player, they were looking for a guitarist and a drummer at the same time. They knew who I was because I played in the local bands so they said ‘Would you play guitar while we check out the keyboard player?”. So, I did. They didn’t give him the job but they asked me to be guitarist! It put me in that position where I had to make a decision: do I finish this apprenticeship, another two years of engineering which I wasn’t really interested in, or do I go down this opportunity where I might make £25 a week playing music? Unheard of! I called my parents. My mother said ‘follow your heart’, and that’s exactly what I did.
Who’s been your favourite person to perform with?
That’s really difficult. Ultravox are always great to perform with. All of them are such a good team on many levels. I think working with Mick Carne from Japan was always great. He had this unbelievably distinct style which was very difficult for anyone to copy. Not just playing wise but stage presence as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on stage with most of my heroes. Working with any of those, they’re magic moments to any musician.
Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy, Visage, Ultravox, and co-writing the iconic Do They Know it’s Christmas are such amazing accolades. What stands out for you?
They all stand out. People ask you what are your highlights of your career so far and it really depends on what you think of as a highlight. Musicians are fans of other musicians. That’s why we get into the business. The idea that you can get together with any of these people is amazing, so sitting playing guitar one-on-one with Eric Clapton in Monserrat when nobody saw it, is just as much a peak for me as say doing a duet with Kate Bush, or going on stage with Peter Gabriel, or standing on stage at Live-Aid. All of those are magical moments and I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to have more than just one.
Technology has transformed the industry, for good or bad? That’s a double-edged sword. There’s this thing, a statement about if you gave a hundred monkeys a typewriter each and enough time, one of them would write the entire works of Shakespeare, and it’s a bit like that with technology. Not everyone you give a guitar to is capable of being the next Jeff Beck, or capable of writing a great song. If the raw talent isn’t there, if that little invisible seed of whatever it happens to be doesn’t exist, you’ll just get another noise. I think a lot of dance music was that. Technology came along and people who didn’t have any kind of musical talent other than the fact they knew about beats and stuff, put things together. They became successful because they were designed for dancing to, not necessarily for being played on the radio. But somehow, they managed to make their way onto the radio. You get these tuneless discordant things. Now this is an old man talking here!
What as the first album you ever bought?
I think it was called 40 Blue Fingers. It was ten shillings and it featured all the great British blues players, and I bought that when I was about 14.