The Ultravox frontman on Glasgow, London and Largs
By Gill Sherry
“There’s something about the Barrowland Ballroom. In fact, there’s something about the Glasgow audience.”
That’s what you call the perfect start to an interview!
“Glasgow was always a great place to play,” Midge Ure continues, “because if the audience liked you, you were in. Musically, they absolutely go for it, it’s great.”
The Scottish musician/singer-songwriter is making a welcome return to Glasgow in May as part of his Voice & Visions tour, after a lengthy and involuntary sabbatical.
Back in 2019, Midge was reaching the end of his 1980 tour when the world began to close down.
“The day we left New Zealand to finish the tour in Australia, New Zealand shut the borders. We knew something big was going on… it was turning into something ominous. We got round most of Australia as it was falling apart. Places were closing left, right and centre as people started to get to grips with what was actually going on. We never quite finished the tour.”
Like most people, Midge found himself at home twiddling his thumbs and began making plans for the follow up tour. Unbeknown to him, this would be postponed not just once, but twice. Another reason why he’s so excited to get his Voice & Visions tour on the road.
“After the success of the 1980 tour, the requests came in thick and fast. ‘Rage in Eden’ and ‘Quartet’ were the two albums that people most requested. They are two very different albums and the new tour is based around that, with the obligatory songs that you have to play or you’ll be hung drawn and quartered if you don’t!”
One of those songs is, of course, ‘Vienna’, the breakthrough track that saw Midge and his band Ultravox catapulted to stardom in 1981. But his musical journey started way before that particular success.
“I was born in a tenement on the outskirts of Glasgow. Before I remember having a television… I remember the radio.
The radio was on all the time. They played everything from Mantovani to the early Beatles. When I was starting to listen to music in the late fifties, early sixties, it was whatever came out of the radio. It was a really odd musical upbringing, but a great musical upbringing. I discovered what melody was and that served me well later in life.”
Midge (real name James) was ten years old when he was gifted his first guitar.
“We weren’t allowed to play an instrument at school. I plagued my poor parents for a guitar. I could draw a guitar long before I had a guitar… and I could sing because that didn’t cost anything. When I was ten they scraped together the princely sum of three pounds. Bearing in mind my dad’s wage was six pounds a week as a van driver, it was a major commitment to get me this second-hand dance band guitar. It was actually a very good guitar, I’ve still got it.”
He taught himself to play, relying on a tuning pipe to tune it and a book – Bert Weedon’s Play In A Day – to play it.
“It’s a book of lies!” he laughs. “It took me weeks and weeks to learn three chords!”
But he persevered and began playing in bands in his teens.
“I left school at 15, they wouldn’t teach me anything I wanted to learn. So I got myself an apprenticeship… being an apprentice engineer was a really good job, a job for life. But I found myself leaving the apprenticeship and joining a fairly well known band in Scotland at the time called Salvation.”
Midge joined as a guitarist and later, when the singer eventually left the band, took over as lead vocalist. The band changed its name to Slik and reached number one in the charts with ‘Forever and Ever’. That was also Midge’s first ever appearance on Top of the Pops.
“We all travelled down to London on the train,” he recalls.
“We recorded it that day and then got back on the train to go back to Scotland. We were Scottish, we didn’t want to be in England!”
In those days, an appearance on Top of the Pops was a big deal with the programme attracting millions of viewers every week.
“It was huge! We were excited by it but we didn’t realise how huge it was. That afternoon, when Top of the Pops went out… it was New Year’s Day and after that, everything changed. You couldn’t walk down the street, everyone knew who you were. It’s funny because everyone thinks success changes you, but it was everyone else’s attitude towards me that changed. It was really odd.”
Something else that was odd was the fact that Midge didn’t actually play on the record itself.
“I didn’t write the song, I didn’t produce it, I wasn’t allowed to play on it. All Slik did on that song was sing it. It was a harsh music industry.”
Apparently, having travelled from Glasgow to London with a truck full of equipment ready to record the song, they were told that the music had already been recorded.
“As we walked up the stairs we could hear the strains of what sounded like a bad Bay City Rollers B-side. That was our record! The session guys had been in that morning, the same guys who played all the Bay City Rollers stuff. It was cheaper and easier… that’s why if you listen to the Slik record, it sounds like the Bay City Rollers!”
He’s right, it does. And not long after that, things changed again.
“Six months after that I was washed up, finished. It was all over. New Wave had come along and blown us out of the water. We were seen as old hat, quite rightly so.”
He doesn’t sound in the slightest bit bitter or even disappointed. He tells the tale matter-of-factly with just a hint of humour.
“It was a learning curve. Sometimes you’ve just got to pick yourself up and get on with it again. You learn that nothing can last forever.”
It’s fascinating to learn of Midge Ure’s long and varied musical career, which includes no less than nine different bands including the synthpop band Visage.
“After the demise of Slik,” he continues the story, “I ended up moving to London to join ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock in his new band The Rich Kids… they were being hailed as the saviour of British rock – until I bought a synthesizer into the band!”
This was 1978. He recalls that half the band hated it but the other half actually liked it. The half that did like it, formed Visage.
“We formed Visage and put Steve Strange in the front of it. One of our favourite musicians was Billy Currie, keyboard player with Ultravox. We watched Ultravox go off to America and only half of them came back. The singer left, the guitarist left, they’d been dropped by their record label, they had absolutely nothing. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d jump in and join, but I did! Musically, it was so incredibly exciting.”
The band went on to score seven Top Ten albums and 17
Top 40 singles in the UK, the biggest of which were ‘Vienna’,
‘Dancing with Tears in my Eyes’ and ‘All Stood Still’.
I ask him about the songwriting side of things and whether or not it comes naturally.
“I find the entire process quite harsh,” he admits. “There are times when you dream a song, something just pops into your head and you just have to jot it down or record it. That’s like a gift. The rest of it is graft.”
That said, songwriting is still very much a part of Midge Ure’s continuing career.
“I juggle lots of things at the same time… so I’m very slow. I don’t have a record company banging on my door… those days don’t exist anymore. It used to be you had to knock off an album and get it out there every year to 18 months while you were on a roll… but since everyone became independent and they all have recording facilities of their own, that has all changed beyond recognition.”
Which isn’t a bad thing from his point of view. When you’ve been writing songs for as long as he has, it’s difficult not to replicate what you have already done in the past. Taking time over his songwriting not only reduces this risk, but also allows him to work on other projects at the same time.
“I’ve just finished an entire instrumental album,” he tells me, “which I’ve loved doing. Not having to sing on something has been an absolute joy, but I’m also working on an album of songs.”
He refers again to his time in Slik when decisions were made by other people on his behalf.
“I vowed after Slik never to allow anyone else to force me to do something I didn’t want to do. My gauge for anything that
I write is my family. When I’m gone, I want my daughters to stand up and say: ‘He did really well on that’. That’s the only thing that matters.”
With that in mind, presumably he enjoyed the experience of being a solo artist and not really being answerable to anyone else?
“It was dropping the ‘we’ and ‘us’ to ‘I’ and ‘me’ that was difficult. All of a sudden it’s just you and you’re responsible for it all. And it feels infinitely more personal when someone gives your latest record an absolute hammering! You miss the comradery of a band but you don’t miss the bad bits. Like any relationship, when it’s going well it’s fabulous but when it starts to get a bit jagged and edgy… the grass is always greener. You can’t have it all, you have to put your big boy pants on and get out there and just be you.”
Thankfully, after a forty-year career, that’s exactly what he’s still doing. Of all the ups and downs of those four decades, I wonder which memories are the most precious.
“The highlights I would talk about would be the ones that other people wouldn’t know about. Doing a duet with Kate Bush or playing guitar in an empty room with Eric Clapton… to musicians, they’re highlights. The highlights other people would see would be the success of ‘Vienna’, stepping on stage at Live Aid, getting the gong from the Queen… but it’s the little bits that still make your heart jump. I hope those moments never die.”
Bizarrely, it’s mention of a very different memory that brings our conversation to a close.
“Largs! That’s where I used to go as a kid, from one tenement to another! Great memories, the best holidays ever.”
He’s not bringing his Voice & Visions tour to Largs, but he is performing in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall as well as the Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow. For tickets visit www.midgeure.co.uk/shows.html