As Scottish singer-songwriter Midge Ure brings his three-piece live show to Preston Guild Hall, MALCOLM WYATT tackles the legendary hit-maker on Slik, Ultravox, Band Aid and more
If you were to condense the history of popular music from the mid-70s to the turn of the 1990s in just a few pages, Midge Ure would still get a good showing.
Not just in the footnotes either, despite being in the shadows for a fair portion of that period.
Some of us recall his contributions to Slik and early new wavers The Rich Kids.
Then there was Visage, Ultravox, a certain ground-breaking famine relief project, and his solo successes.
But while his last top-20 single was 24 years ago, it’s worth noting that he never really stopped.
Forever And Ever can’t possibly be 40 years ago – I’m obviously not that old!
This genial musician, vocalist and writer, is not the sort to shout in your face about LPs you missed.
But Midge, who turns 62 this weekend, is keen to remind us about one such ‘lost’ gem, 1995’s Breathe.
His current Breathe Again tour visits Preston Charter Theatre this Wednesday, October 14, and I mentioned how I’m amazed it’s 20 years since Breathe – not least as that means it’s 30 years since The Gift.
“Believe it or not – yes! And someone’s been tweeting how it’s 30 years this week that If I Was reached number one.”
Playing the anniversary game, I’ll go back even further and say I can’t believe it’s 40 years since your first number one, remembering hearing Forever and Ever on my sister’s dansette.
“That can’t possibly be 40 years ago – I’m obviously not that old! But sadly, you’re right.”
I was always intrigued by that song. It seemed to span the genres – part-electronica, part-Bay City Rollers type pop.
“Well, with Slik I’m not sure if electronica was part of it.”
I suppose it’s that keyboard sound.
“Yes, the big organ thing. But it wasn’t until my time in The Rich Kids that I bought my first synth.
“That was 1978, still early for incorporating electronics with traditional rock instrumentation.
“Buying that, bringing it into The Rich Kids, breaking the band up because of it – that’s where the idea of Visage was born.
“And it was through that I then ended up in Ultravox.”
Midge mentions in 2004’s If I Was autobiography how, on hearing Telstar by the Tornados in 1962, he instinctively knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“Yes, they used that funny little electronic organ sound, and there was something about the atmospherics of those records – like being bitten by a mosquito, it was in your system!
“Or Johnny Remember Me, with its haunting echoey vocal, I can still hear in what I do now.
“That’s what dictates your musical taste – what you’ve heard in the past. And when you write music those influences are your apprenticeship.”
I feel a little guilty talking so much nostalgia with you.
“It’s all part of it. Nostalgia is your foundation. Everything you’ve done since is built upon that. It’s understandable people want to talk about the past.
“I was recently asked if there’s anything I’d change. On an ideal CV, I’d take Slik out, as I had very little to do with it.
“Then again, that led me to something else and taught me an amazing lesson about having the rug pulled from under my feet.
“You’ve got a number one record, then you’re washed up as your particular genre of music has been wiped out by the next genre. That’s an invaluable lesson.
“Maybe without that happening back then, I wouldn’t have gone on to what I’ve done since.”
That takes me to the punk days, famously turning down Malcolm McLaren’s offer of being the lead singer of a certain band called the Sex Pistols. No regrets?
“None at all! It was more important he got someone who looked the part. It was less about making music than about using music as a vehicle to sell clothes.”
With Band Aid, you mentioned ‘this Z Cars-like jingle’ (Bob Geldof’s description) that became Do They Know It’s Christmas? ‘was a pop song that caused ripples around the globe and proved that music can change the world’.
Was it a millstone around the neck, or did you soon realise how it went way beyond music?
“I can’t even think of it as a weight. Maybe Bob saw it as that for a while – everything else he was doing was over-shadowed by the vastness of Band Aid and Live Aid.
“I was reasonably unscathed, still a gigging, working musician, whereas they saw Bob as a politician and this spokesman for youth.
“Weirdly though, every time it comes on the radio, it still does its job. Every single time!
That opening clang, and the hairs on my arms stand up… even 30 years down the line.”
Despite the knocks about organised charities and how much money gets through, you’ve seen plenty of evidence of how Band Aid’s positive outcome.
“There was this big ‘to do’ about charity money being filtered off, and the BBC reported it using a big picture of Live Aid.
“We took them to task over that – and they had to apologise.
“The entire might of the BBC had to back down and say it was shoddy journalism.
“It was all complete nonsense. It’s difficult to oversee where every penny goes though. We were dealing with a war-torn country in the middle of a massive, devastating famine.
“What we’ve done to ensure none of that happens is work hand in hand with agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Red Cross, Oxfam, Unicef …
“We don’t have an office and never did, and the body of the trust we put together 30 years ago to oversee the finances is still there now. And that record still generates income.”
The set at Preston involves Breathe and a few extra tracks, played by an acoustic three-piece – Midge joined by Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe of India Electric Co.
“I was doubtful about how some songs would translate in that presentation. But I was totally blown away with how songs like Vienna, Lament and If I Was make that transition.
“People asked how I could possibly play Vienna. But when you play it, people hear the drums and instrumentation in their heads. They know the song so well.
“And the guys I have with me go down an absolute storm. Seriously talented young guys.
“They keep me on my toes ... but I keep them on their toes too, as I keep forgetting the arrangements and they’ve got to follow me, even if it’s straight into the chorus!”
“We include a fantastic selection of music I’ve done these last 35 years, from Ultravox and Visage to my solo stuff, right up to Fragile last year.
“I’ve done it in such a way that if you didn’t know any of my stuff you wouldn’t be able to tell which period those songs are from.
“And it’s very definably me, like a stick of rock running all the way through the middle!”
Midge Ure plays Preston’s Charter Theatre on Wednesday, October 14 (7pm) with tickets £25, and a hospitality package available.
For details go to http://www.prestonguildhall.com/ or call the box office on 01772 804444.