The Popdose Interview with Midge Ure
They may have never climbed any higher than #71 on the Billboard Hot 100 – and they only even appeared on the US singles chart once – but the influence of English synth-rock quartet Ultravox looms large today. Rare was the act in the early ’80s who dared to combine guitars, electronic instruments, and then make room for a viola solo, but Ultravox did just that, and earned a devoted following in their native UK for their troubles (all of their album releases in the ’80s went gold or platinum, and cracked the Top 10). It seemed that the band was bound for even better things as the modern rock movement began to take shape, but as fate would have it, that was the precise moment the band imploded, and they were unable to capitalize on the good fortune that nearly all of their peers would experience in the years to come.
None of this, though, seems to bother Midge Ure, Ultravox’s lead singer and guitarist. If anything, he’s proud of the fact that several present-day groups – particularly a certain English power trio – have incorporated elements of Ultravox’s style into their music, and wishes them nothing but the best. To be fair, though, when you’ve co-written the most successful benefit single of all time (Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas”), it’s a little easier to be happy for the success of others. In the middle of a quick solo US tour following the release of the, um, brilliant 2012 Ultravox reunion album Brilliant, the first album by the band’s ‘golden years’ lineup since 1984, as well as an electronic release of his 2004 autobiography If I Was, Ure spoke with Popdose about his desire to bring Ultravox to the States, the aggressive tactics he employed to get the band released from their US contract, the unflattering (but hilarious) nickname he’s given to the band’s last album from the ’80s, and how Bob Geldof texts like a teenage girl. Yep, you just read that.
Welcome back to the United States. We’ve missed you.
How are the shows going so far?
You know what, it’s very heartening and very warming. There have been a couple [shows] where it’s been a little thin on the ground…three people and a dog watching you. It wasn’t quite that bad, but the majority of it was absolutely fantastic. New York was a ball, Toronto was great. We did a great show last night in Detroit, and Cleveland, before that, was fantastic as well. People have been so patient; it’s a long time since I’ve played over here with a band, it was 20-odd years. So they’ve been very patient and really respectful, and came out and supported us. It’s lovely.
I was going to ask you about the Cleveland show (read our own Annie Zed’s review of the show here), because you played the Beachland Ballroom. Glenn Tilbrook wrote a song about that place. Have you heard of that?
They told me about that! I haven’t heard it, but I know Glenn. That’s interesting, I’ll have to set up my wi-fi and fire up my Spotify and check it out.
Did you like playing there?
It’s great, and you know what, I [played there] before, about 10 years ago, in the little one, a bar, an acoustic room. And when I walked in [this time], I’m thinking, “I don’t recognize any of this place at all.” But it was great, and great to see proper music venues have music on seven days a week, because we’re sadly lacking that these days.
Why is this a solo tour and not an Ultravox tour? You have that great new album from last year to support.
Thank you. It’s very simple: We haven’t been here for 26, 27 years, and Ultravox is an expensive thing to fire up. And although there have been offers, we can’t do it. It really is pure logistics. There’s X amount you’re offered, and it costs Y to do it. We don’t have, as you can probably tell…I’m not even sure the album was released here properly. It’s a download-only available record, which means that EMI, as they exist – if they exist now – aren’t going to do anything [to promote the album]. Which is understandable. I know musicians moan about it, but it’s just the reality of the situation. So there isn’t really an album to promote, so I suggested that me, being much more flexible than Ultravox, that I come out and do this tour, to gauge the reaction and see whether people were interested or if there was something to follow through on. And right now, I have to say that yeah, there probably is. There’s a lot of love here for the band, and people would like to see [us come to the States]; it’s just how we make that work. There’s talk about maybe doing a package tour, which is possibly the way forward, where you’re splitting the costs and the overheads, but you still get reasonably-sized crowds to perform in front of.
Those tours have always done very well over here. I would like to see that happen.
We’re working on that, and we’re very enthused. The reviews I’ve been getting for this [tour] are just ridiculous. Some of them, [says jokingly, aware that he’s using a cliche] I couldn’t have written them better myself, if I was good enough to write them. The response has been amazing. And [those reviews] of course are now going on Twitter and Facebook, so the people who haven’t seen this tour and thinking, “Whoa, if they did come, I would definitely see that.”
One of the things I love about Brilliant is that you brought back that distinct snare drum sound that anchored songs like “Passing Strangers” and “All Stood Still.” When I heard the drums fire up at the beginning of “Live,” I honestly pumped my fist in the air and said, “Oh, hell yes.”[Laughs] I can imagine that! You know what, it sounds stupidly obvious, but it’s absolutely true: the four of us, when we get together, we make a noise. That’s the noise we make, irrespective of what time or what era – we did that in 2010, we did that in 1985 – that’s the sound we make. I think the album is as contemporary-sounding as Muse, or the Killers, or anyone else who’s obviously been influenced by Ultravox over the years. All of the classic traits and trademarks that the four people of Ultravox put together, it doesn’t sound like my solo records, it doesn’t sound like [keyboardist and violist] Billy [Currie]’s solo records, it sounds like Ultravox because that’s the sound the four of us make.
You clearly got a copy of my questions, because the next one I have is going to be about Muse, and how I feel that they stole several chapters from the Ultravox playbook. I was going to ask if you hear a little bit of yourselves in them, but obviously you do.
It’s been pointed out a few times – it’s not subtle. You know, it’s absolutely fine; the way music is spread, [it’s nice to see that] I influence people. You know, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t been influenced by the people I listened to as a kid. You suck all that stuff up, and you turn that into your own thing. What Muse have done is combine the ideas of the people they were listening to growing up, and Ultravox was obviously one of them. You can actually hear a lot of what I do, and what Ultravox does, in the Killers, and in Sigur Ros, elements of our sound, and that’s how it should work. It’s not plagiarism: it’s just influence.
I wasn’t implying plagiarism, just that the minor-key melodrama aspect of their sound…I was playing one of your records, and my son asked me if it was Muse. And he’s only 5. But he could hear the similarity.
Wow! I think Muse are an overly dramatic version of Ultravox. [Laughs] They’ve out-pomped the pompous band. It’s incredible; I don’t know how they get away with it.
It is my mission to get them to cover “The Thin Wall.”
That would be interesting. I can actually hear them doing that. I think they’d do a great job of that.
That makes me think of the great video that Russell Mulcahy shot for that song. Do you have a good story about shooting that clip in particular? It was just so…big.
Chris [Cross, Ultravox bassist] and I, we were storyboarding for the video, and we were almost directing them at that point. Russell was a bit confused as to what was going on. We wanted to do that slightly mad stuff with the [wobbly] floor, the car filling up with water while it was dry outside, the arms through the wall, very surrealistic stuff. It was mad. I don’t know how we did it on the very small budget we had to make those videos. And Russell Mulcahy, he was cutting his teeth as well. I’m not sure how many videos he made prior to working with Ultravox; he was an editor. But he did a magnificent job on “Passing Strangers,” that’s the first one I think we did with him. And then, of course, “Vienna,” which kind of set the standards for Duran [Duran] and whoever jumped all over to find out who directed these videos, and found themselves in the Caribbean somewhere.
Yeah, I think it was you and Kim Carnes that he made his bones with.
That’s right, “Bette Davis Eyes”!
Yes, and then Duran Duran stole him, and the rest is history.
And Elton [John], and everybody else.
I have a theory that I’d like to share with you. Ultravox started running out of steam in 1986, just when the modern rock movement was gaining momentum. I am convinced that if you guys had been able to hold on for one more year, Ultravox would have been grandfathered in as forefathers of modern rock – because you are – and your status in the States would have received the same boost that Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths, New Order, and Echo & the Bunnymen all experienced.
You’re quite possibly right. We were very lost on that last album [1986’s U-Vox]. The fact that we got rid of our drummer [Warren Cann], who had been with the band since forever, shows you how confused we were. There are a variety of reasons for it; not excuses, just reasons. We were having major problems with our record company in the States. They were insisting that we stay with Chrysalis Records, who weren’t having any success with any of the UK bands that they had signed. They were doing well with Billy Idol, Pat Benatar and Huey Lewis and all of that, but anything that was fairly successful anywhere else in the world wasn’t making the transition to America. I had fought with the record company for two years to get off the label. “Just let us go – don’t even pretend that you’re putting our records out and doing a good job, because you’re not.”
Between you and I, the reason I managed to get Ultravox off the Chrysalis label in America was because of the Max Headroom movie [Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future]. I did the music for the original Max Headroom movie, and then they re-shot the movie in America, with American actors. And they ripped off the soundtrack, copied it almost note for note. I used that as leverage to get the band off the label, we were so disgusted with what was going on. There was a whole political [mess] going on; it wasn’t just a musical problem. I think when we started and released “Vienna,” people didn’t quite understand what we were. It was a time when radio played Boston, Styx, and Foreigner, day and night. So why would they play the four-and-a-half-minute-long piece of electronic music with a viola solo from a bunch of characters from Europe? But thank God we had college radio, who took a chance and played a lot of really interesting stuff. But beyond that, we couldn’t [break through].
So many follow-up questions to that. The first one that comes to mind is that I have to confess that when I first saw the U-Vox record in stores, I thought it was a reissue of a record from the John Foxx era. [Note: Foxx was the leader of Ultravox before Ure took the reins.] I didn’t think it was new, so I didn’t buy it.
Well, it was also pink. With the hardcore fans, it’s like the Voldemort of the Ultravox catalog. They won’t even say its name. They just call it ‘the pink thing.’
You were talking about rock radio. I have to tell you, for somebody who grew up in the Midwest, what a godsend it was for me to get MTV and see these bands that I never would have heard of otherwise, and get exposed to all of this music that was happening in England.
That first year of MTV was great for British music because, as I said, Americans hadn’t gotten the flair or the style for it because, being such a huge country, it was still hanging on to the old corporate rock thing; that was the be all and end all. And it took a long time before they started getting into this MTV thing. So that first year of MTV, it was fantastic! Everything you made was played on MTV. It was much more powerful than radio was at the time, not to take anything away from the college stations, but yeah.
Speaking of classic rock, how exactly did you come to record a cover of Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past”?
(Laughs] That album, that came, as you can see, is very sporadic. It’s all over the place. It’s simply songs that I remember as a kid being played on the radio. And for whatever reason, it touched me. [Note: Ure is referring to his 2008 covers album 10, though the Jethro Tull cover is in fact on his 1985 solo debut The Gift. We didn’t stop him because he clearly had a lot to say about the album.] Whether that’s the Carpenters, and “Goodbye to Love,” and whether it’s…one of the songs I contemplated but never put on the album was Doris Day’s “Move Over Darling.” Which is just a fantasic record! You know, maybe I didn’t want to [cover] it because I didn’t want to touch it. But all those things, they’re all sporadic. Why would I put a Queen cover next to a Jethro Tull cover next to a Badfinger cover? It doesn’t make any sense. But that’s all it is – it’s a collective of tunes that really touched me and probably sowed the seed of wanting to be a songwriter in my head long before I realized it was there. They’re just classic, classic tunes. So, Jethro Tull, don’t care who it was: it’s just a great song. I played it for Ian Anderson. We were on the same label, and I said, “Yeah, we’ve done this track of yours,” and he went, [feigning interest] “Mmm.” That was it. [Laughs]
Your press release says you’re working on a solo record. When can we expect to hear it, and what is the status of Ultravox?
The solo record, hopefully before I die I’ll finish it. I’ve been working on it for probably five or six years. I’ve now gotten bored with it and, probably when I get back to the UK, start working on something new. I want to get something out this year. As for Ultravox, we’re on hiatus. There’s talk of coming to America at some point. There’s talk of doing some shows in the UK late in the year. The good thing about Ultravox is that for 26, 27 years, we were going to do absolutely nothing, at all. Now we’ve done three European tours, made an album. We can rest on our laurels for a little while, and if something else interesting comes our way, we’ll contemplate it and decide whether or not we want to do it. For right now, let’s get back to doing what we do on a daily basis. So the door is open, and there was no door before – we were never going to get back together. That’s not a bad position to be in. But I wouldn’t pretend that Ultravox is an ongoing band that we’ll go back and concentrate on, and start working on a new album. We’ve done all that, we need to take a breather and decide where to take it from this point on.
All right. I’m just hoping you don’t pull a Tears for Fears on us and make this great reunion record, then disappear.[Laughs] Tears for Fears and Ultravox on the same bill. That would be quite interesting, don’t you think? And Roland [Orzabal] lives in Bath. I live in Bath. I should go and talk to him, pop in for a cup of tea and say, “This is what we need to do.” [Laughs]
YES. Yes, please, do that for me?
Wouldn’t that be good?
That would be great. I know you have a show coming up, so I want to keep you on schedule. The only question I have left is: when was the last time you spoke with Bob Geldof?
Probably a couple of years ago. No, it was just over a year ago. I was invited to his birthday, and you have to tell people he is actually 60, because I keep reading that he is three years younger than I am, and I’m 60. But I couldn’t go, and it was going to be a massive party. So that was the last time I spoke to him, but we text each other. But Bob texts in ‘youth’ text, you know, abbreviations.
Does he really?
Oh yeah, he’s really fast at it. So I’ll get these texts from him and he’s in the middle of Africa somewhere, and I write back with proper punctuation, real writing. And at the same time I’ve hit the ‘Send’ button on [my text], he’s already replied. It takes me half an hour to decipher what he’s written. It’s like heiroglyphics.
I’m a holdout like you. I still use proper punctuation.
Neither can I. It’s just nonsense.
Did you ever think that the benefit record thing would explode the way it did in the wake of [“Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which Ure and Geldof wrote together]? You weren’t the first ones to [use music to raise social awareness], but that song changed the game, at least on this side of the pond.
It did. It…George Harrison had done it before with the concert for Bangladesh, and the first advice we were given was from George, who said, “Get yourself good accountants. I love the fact that you’re doing that. Get yourself good accountants. Don’t go anywhere near the money. Don’t have anything to do with it.” And that was a great piece of advice for us. So yeah, it had happened before, but it was the first deliberate, ‘let’s get everyone in a studio, get this collective together, let’s show that we’re seriously trying to do something here.’ We’re not trying to climb mountains, we’re not trying to cure cancer. We weren’t asked to do anything outside of the realm of being a songwriter and musician. It was easy: all you had to do was come up and do it, and add your name to it. It was a time when music was an incredibly powerful tool, and it might not be the same powerful tool today that it was back then. Right then, it was the be all and end all: everybody was into music. We didn’t have Playstations and Xboxes and all of the things that are consumed today – all we had was music. So we used a medium that everybody on the planet would understand. It transcends all of those barriers, it goes through walls, barbed wire, it’s something that’s constantly there, it’s in the air. And once that happened, we sat back and we watched Northern Lights, we watched “We Are the World,” we watched the Australian one, and Farm Aid, and the rest of the stuff that happened. When people realized how powerful things can be when you get together with like-minded people. And that’s what it’s all about: it’s about the collective. It’s not one person, or two people instigating that. Maybe we had the idea, maybe we had the gumption to start the thing. But it was the people coming together that makes the difference. And now you’ve got someone in the White House who I defy to tell me he didn’t sit and watch Live Aid. We’ve got somebody in Number 10 [Downing Street] who obviously sat and watched Live Aid. Those guys in the position of power, make the change that needs to be made. [Pause] I’ll get off my soapbox now. [Laughs]
It has been my great pleasure to talk with you. If you had told the 1984 version of myself that this would be happening, he would have said, “Pffft, no way.”[Laughs]
Enjoy the tour, and I will keep my fingers crossed for that Ultravox/Tears for Fears double bill down the road.
Let’s start spreading a viral rumor that it’s happening, and maybe it will.
We should start doing some hash tags on Twitter.
“We need to see Ultravox, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds…”
Ooh, I like that. Thanks a lot, Midge. Take care.
My pleasure. Bye.