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Midge Ure talks Retro Futura, Live Aid and the 'bombastic and pompous' music of Ultravox

Published Aug. 21, 2014

If we celebrated superheroes back in the '80s, Midge Ure would have been at the top of the list -- his then-thin mustache merely the accent on his New Wave and Live Aid good deeds. The Ultravox frontman gave us classics like Vienna while teaming up with Bob Geldof to turn the entire world's attention to the famine in Africa. It's a resume that any music "star" today would kill for.

Midge is back on the road this month, crossing the U.S. on the Retro Futura tour. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to spend a half hour with him. We talked about MTV, his Retro Futura co-stars Howard Jones and Tom Bailey and even debated why the music press never gave Ultravox its due.

You can listen to the full interview in podcast form here, including some AMAZING music clips from his career. Below is the edited transcript.

MU: Hey Steve, it's are you?

SS: Thank you for calling

MU: No problem at all

SS: It's a little surreal when you're on Skype and all of a sudden you see a contact request from James Ure. I think my heart went "Urrrrppp" in my throat. Where are you calling from tonight?

MU: I'm in my very messy office at home. It's just gone 9 o'clock in the evening here

SS: Oh excellent. So, we're talking because you're coming back to the U.S. this summer with the Retro Futura Tour, which is easier to play than it is to say....


SS: Thankfully it includes a stop here in Orlando, Florida, where I live now. It's going to be a real concentration of Electronica and New Romantic geniuses of the '80s, isn't it?

MU: I think I've said to people it's a kind of soundtrack of their lives. If you were in college around the early to mid '80s, you couldn't miss this stuff. This stuff was everywhere. If you watched MTV in the early '80s, this stuff was everywhere. So, yeah, it's quite a good package actually. In this day and age of like-minded artists all kind of teaming up to keep ticket prices down, it seems to make perfect sense. You know, Howard (Jones) I've worked with before. Tom (Bailey), I'm not even sure we've ever met. I've met Alannah (Currie) many times but I've never met Tom, I don't think. But yeah, I think it will be a real fun package.

SS: It'll be interesting to me because I don't think Tom has sang any of the Thompson Twins songs in about 27 years.

MU: Yeah, it's gonna be a bit strange for him, I think. He does some kind of weird, wonderful things. He's gone through a lot of interesting stuff in his life and to go back and re-visit something -- and again, I've done recently with Ultravox -- gone back and gotten the band back together again a few years ago. It's a strange emotion to do it, but the moment you strike up and start playing those songs again, with the right people, you know, with the right band making the noise, it's just fantastic because it never goes away. There's something about the combination that just makes it work. So, I'm sure Tom and those songs will just kind of gel together -- like finding his long lost babies, isn't it?

SS: I don't know how much money I would have paid or if I could have moved time and space, but I believe Ultravox toured with Simple Minds. Was it last year or the year before?

MU: Yeah, we did four shows with them. Yeah, again teaming up. You know, Jim and I were sitting having lunch one day and we were talking about the state of the industry like two miserable old Scotsmen, and we said "You know, the reality is we should get a package together. It should be Simple Minds and Ultravox and Tears For Fears or Magazine or something like that, some of the cooler bands of the era and he jumped all over it and said "Okay" and I didn't think anything would come of it and six months later, I get a message saying that Jim's been in to see my agent and would Ultravox be special guests? It was fantastic. We had a ball.

SS: I spoke to Jim a couple years ago. We had a nice long talk and a lot of it was about his frustration of not being able to properly tour the U.S. You know, without trying to find the right package of artists to go together to have it make financial sense for everybody.

MU: Yeah, and I think you have to be very careful because a lot of the packages … it's a bit like throwing darts blindfolded at a dart board. And you think "Okay, well, they had records out at the same time as them." But they've actually got nothing to do with them at all. They're not like-minded thinkers, not like-minded musicians. But, getting the right package is the real key to it all, you know. If someone's really into Simple Minds, there's a really good chance they'll be into R.E.M. or whoever. So, that's the key to it. But trying to manipulate and control all that stuff is impossible.

SS: This might be one of the few tours that we'll ever see these days that includes three artists who played Live Aid.

MU: Yeah, it struck me the other day when I was reading about Tom because he did the American side, didn't he?

SS: Yeah, he was in Philly.

MU: He did the Philly part and of course Howard and I did the UK end, so yeah, it's fantastic. I still get very surprised today when I'm doing an interview with someone or I meet someone and they say "Hey, I was there!" You think "Oh my, wow" cause it was only in the UK -- there were only 80,000 tickets, 80,000 people and that's not a lot of people -- and you think "Oh wow, somebody was actually there and saw it and experienced it -- breathed the same air I did that day. That's fantastic." So, yeah. Three artists who all played Live Aid"

SS: Have you already decided on your set list for the American tour?

MU: Kind of. It's a strange one. We've got five different acts on here, the first three acts being Katrina from Katrina and The Waves, China Crisis, a really good Liverpool band again from the '80s and myself all using a house band. So, it's going to be a quick half-hour for each of us I think it's going to be. So trying to choose from 45 years worth of material to play in a half-hour is a bit of a tall order. But, I think I've got it. I've got to keep it as retro as possible. Although I've got a new album out, it's not the right place to play anything new, so it will be Ultravox, a bit of Visage and the rest made up of solo stuff.

SS: I just finished your autobiography the other day, from last year I believe it was, and you finally settled the score on what "Vienna" was really about. Because for years, I believed what you had said in interviews about it: Tt was about the Vienna Secession Movement. I'm like "Okay, okay, I don't understand that," but I like that it was intelligent but then I read in the book that it evolved from someone mispronouncing a Fleetwood Mac song and that it's actually about a holiday romance.

MU: Well, kind of. A "holiday romance" is a bit of a simplistic way of putting it but I think when you're steeped in history like we are over here, you walk into a city like Vienna or Venice or Berlin or whatever and it's just so evocative and provocative. They just take you away from your dull, grey miserable life and it was the idea that being there and being in that frame of mind for that two week period that you're away from your dull, miserable life that things change. I think that was probably more to do with it. I think trying to explain it as a holiday romance to various journalists is kind of "Chinese Whispers." Somewhere on Wikipedia, it says "Do They Know It's Christmas" was the worst song I ever wrote. I never said that either. I said it wasn't the best song I'd ever written but "Chinese Whispers* had turned into something else.

SS: Another thing I read in the book, since you brought up journalists, is that you'd made the remark that journalists had been tough to Ultravox over the years and maybe not really understood the band or given them enough credit.

MU: Yeah, I think that's possibly true. I think they saw us as bombastic and pompous and a bit above our station. And, possibly at some points they were quite right. But, they couldn't see that -- take away the po-faced guys in the videos and take away some of the imagery -- that if you just listened to the music, the music was actually intelligent and smart and creative and pushed an awful lot of boundaries. The band never really got the pat on the back that I thought if kind of deserved. It's kind of getting it now but in its second or third generation. The last album that Ultravox did a couple of years ago was a brilliant album and got better reviews than anything we did back in the '80s. So, maybe it's a different generation of journalists or the journalists have grown old like we have.

SS: That's probably true. Another thing I never thought Ultravox got enough credit for were your music videos in the '80s. You know, people talk about Duran Duran like they invented videos but if you look back on "Vienna" and "Reap The Wild Wind," those were WAY ahead of their time

MU: Well, I think Duran Duran didn't make a video until they'd seen "Vienna." I'm not saying that to put them down. I think when people saw the "Vienna" video and saw the parameters that we had set in there … we had major, major input in that. We weren't directing videos at the time. When we had the "Vienna" video, we insisted it be shot on 16mm film, crop the screen top and bottom to make it seem like Cinemascope. It was very film was all haunting imagery and that very much came from us. Of course, when other artists saw that video, they had to have one. So, they all ended up using the same director, Russell Mulcahy. And of course those bands were infinitely more successful in America than Ultravox ever were and could ever hope to be. And of course they kind of stole the crown. They ran off and became the kings of MTV.

SS: Why do you think they were more successful in America than Ultravox was?

MU: They were younger and prettier....I think that's got a lot to do with it. They wrote very catchy songs. I mean a lot of the bands did back then. Ultravox were possibly their own worst enemy. After the success of "Vienna," we were pressurized by the people around us -- agents, management, record company -- to write a "Vienna Part Two." We promptly took ourselves off to Conny Plank Studio in the middle of Germany for three months with no songs and wrote and recorded the "Rage in Eden" album, which I think is one of the best things we ever did. But we weren't interested in just recreating and rehashing and remaking the same thing. We wanted to continue to push the boundaries and if you're prepared to do that, you have to be prepared for the lack of commercial success, I suppose.

SS: So much has changed in the music business since that time. MTV doesn't play videos any more and now there's iTunes, Pandora and satellite radio. Videos now go straight to YouTube, artists can talk directly to fans with social media. Which of those newer tools do you personally use or embrace?

MU: I think you've got to kind of embrace almost all of it. I started doing the social media thing four or five years ago when Ultravox did get back together again but the rumors were rife. No one believed it because they just thought it was never, ever going to happen. So I got onto Twitter and started taking photographs of rehearsals and tweeted them. People just freaked! And of course, once you get into it, it's that instantaneous thing that you walk off stage and you instantly see people Tweeting you saying "I was in Row 26, Seat 15 and it sounded great to me but the bass drum was a bit loud." That instant feedback, good or bad, is a great thing to have. So you're not going through a middle person, you want something interpreted and regurgitated into type and then someone reads into it something else because they don't hear the tone of your voice. YOU can say exactly what you want to say and it gets out there. But, I suppose it's a two-way thing. You know, the fans, if they don't like something, they'll tell you and you can't say "Well, it got lost in the post" or "You sent it to the agent and I'm not with him any more."

SS: Are you Tweeting yourself and Facebooking yourself or does someone do that for you? How does that work?

MU: I do it all. I've just been on prior to talking to you. I posted some photographs of my old friend Mick Karn, the bass player from Japan whose birthday would have been today. He died a couple years ago from cancer and so I've just been doing that and I think that's important that people see it IS you doing it....that you ARE proactive because they come on and write things to you in a very open and honest way and I hate the idea that they think it's some secretary sitting here going through it all and answering as me. The great thing about Twitter and Facebook and things is that you can do it from anywhere. There's no excuse. You can't say "Oh, I don't understand the technology." I don't think they'd believe that from me, you know? And you can't say "I didn't have any time." Everyone's got time. You just have to look around you and any line that you're standing in for groceries or to get on a bus, a plane or whatever. Everyone's on the phone so there's no excuse.

SS: We talked just for a second earlier about Live Aid and "Do They Know It's Christmas?". This fall marks the 30th anniversary of Band Aid and this coming summer will be the 30th anniversary of Live Aid. When you hear "Do They Know It's Christmas?" either on radio or TV these days, what's the first thought or memory that pops into your mind?

MU: I think the initial thing is that it does exactly what it did back then. That opening "clang" -- the bell, the multitrack vocal, the drum that I stole from Tears For Fears, all of that, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It's does exactly what it did back then. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up because it's so evocative, you know. It just stimulates exactly as it was meant to do back then. It's the only piece of music that I've ever written that was designed to do one particular thing and it's a very strange thing to sit down and be as cold and calculated as that. We had to write something that opened with the clanging chimes of doom but finished with, you know, a "Happy Christmas, War is Over" singalong. You know, it was a tall order but -- and of course, it's a song with no chorus which is the most bizarre thing ever. But, the fact I think the first thing is "Wow, it's October and they're starting to play Christmas records already!"

SS: You know, it always drives me nuts because, you know, I live in America and so there is the "USA For Africa" movement and we had our own song and I just think there's no comparison between the two and I always get grief from American music fans. I prefer the Band Aid song -- I just do. I think it's more intelligent, it's better crafted. It drives me nuts that every year I have to have that little fight with people over those two songs.

MU: Well, I don't think you have to have a fight with anyone with anything that's..... They both did a phenomenal job. It's about like looking at your children growing up and they go off and do something brilliant. Those songs kind of did that -- both of them. I think the Band Aid song is a much darker song. It's not quite as instantly palatable to the American audience, certainly. But, if you listen to the production value, it was very Ultravox, very mid-European -- it was very synthesized -- all of the stuff I'd normally do either solo-wise or with the band. So, I played all the instruments on it except the drums, of course. If you take all the artists off it, it could easily be an Ultravox track! It was very steeped in that early '80s thing that America was still kind of catching up a bit with, so it was a different animal, really. But, two different things fighting in the corner for the same reason.

SS: In your book, there's some great stories of your time backstage including your first meeting -- I presume it was your first meeting -- with Freddie Mercury at Live Aid.

MU: My ONLY meeting with Freddie! I'd met the rest of the band loads because they used to hang out when you'd do a TV show or whatever and, you know, Roger would always be up for a bit of a laugh and whatever. So yeah, Freddie, it's the only time I met him. And he thought was I was the guitarist for the Boomtown Rats Burst my bubble, somewhat.

SS: I know. I felt crushed when I read that. It was like "Oh noooo!"

MU: I think it's perfectly acceptable. Had it been someone else, I might have been annoyed but it was Freddie. He just lived in his own little Freddie World so why would he know anything?

SS: I own the DVD now of that day and I've probably watched the video of you singing "Vienna" probably about a hundred times. That live performance just gives me chills every time. What memories of that performance really stick with you the most today?

MU: I think it all flew by so quickly. We all had 18 minutes to do our allocated four songs and I think we were so petrified that something was not going to work because "Vienna" is a very sparse song. If the bass synth didn't work, half the song's missing. If the drum machine didn't play the "kugh kugh" noise, it wouldn't be "Vienna." There was no soundcheck or anything. That was a time when Ultravox used to spend five hours doing soundchecks because of the technical bugs we used to have in the equipment that we used to use -- and that was a very stripped down version. So, we were just really happy that everything seemed to work during our set. And the whole thing, I have to say, flew by in a moment -- an absolute moment. To me, the key thing about the "Vienna" performance was seeing the audience putting their hands in the air and doing the double clap thing for the syndrum part, you know......"KAAAHHH KAAAHHH." It was fantastic to watch that sea of people singing along.

SS: As an American speaking, I was always so envious of the English crowds. They seemed so much more into the shows than we tend to be over here in America. When I see that double they reacted during "Radio Gaga," I would have given anything to be there for something like that.

MU: Well, it's not always like that, I have to say. I think that day was something quite special. It had been the culmination of a six month buildup to Live Aid. So, people were ready for it. People were genuinely moved and concerned. That's why the record was so successful. At a time when they were starting to feel the pinch themselves. Money was getting tight and we were down to a three day working week and socially, the country was in a bit of a mess. They still put their hand in their pocket to donate money to people they'd never meet, which is just phenomenal. So this whole thing had rolled on like a great big machine right up until Live Aid and Live Aid was the celebration. It was the party; it was the pat on the back saying "Hey....well done, people...look what we've done....this is fantastic." Not realizing that the party, which we thought was the end, was the beginning. It was going to carry on rolling around the world, which is precisely what happened. So, I think people were justified in letting their hair down and really going for it that day.

SS: A lot of people my age -- and I had just turned 18 at the time of Live Aid -- we kind of considered that day to be, for lack of a better term, the Woodstock of our generation. What do you think today is the lasting legacy of Live Aid?

MU: It's a question I've been asked many times over the last 30 years. Did it make a change. Did it make a difference? And you look at Third World countries. You look at Africa, and there's still famines. There's still crops failing and the rains fail and all of that stuff and nothing seems to have changed. The difference is I've met the change. I've spoken to the change. I've spoken to the people who were in aid camps as babies, who survived because somebody put their hand in their pocket and bought that record. And THAT is worth it. There's a great story someone told me. Two friends walking down a beach and the beach is covered in starfish. These starfish have all been washed up on the shore and one of them says to the other "Well, we'd better try and save them." And the other one says "We can't save them....we can't do that....there are thousands of them." The first one picked one up and put it back in the water and said "Well, that's the first one." And that's kind of how you've got to look at it. You can't fix these things overnight. It has to start somewhere and then it has to kind of move on. It has to roll on.

I think it's interesting that we have people in positions of power all 'round the world. If you asked Obama where he was on Live Aid day, I'll bet he could tell you. I'll bet he could tell you exactly where he was and that would be the same for almost all the world leaders because it was something that our generation connected with. Our entire generation all connected with rock music. It wasn't just a music event, it was a massive social event. It was the biggest televised event ever in history and it became the biggest ever music event in history until, I suppose, Live 8 kind of "technically" beat it. I still think Live Aid had something spectacular about it. You know, at a time when you couldn't send an email or a text because it didn't exist, you had to send telex's across the Atlantic to put this together so it really was kind of archaic in its time. And then having to pull live feeds from satellites from all over the world to try and keep this thing rolling AND have the BBC give us five hours of prime-time television -- unheard of stuff.

SS: Yeah, when you think back on it -- I remember at the time thinking "this day is not going to go well; it's going to be full of glitches." And yet, it's not. It's one of these little miracles that was handed down.

MU: Yeah! A couple of little hiccups on the day just made it more real, ya know. Paul's mic disappearing I think or cutting off or whatever. It didn't really matter because it wasn't about that. It wasn't about the quality of the performance. It was about being there. It's about standing up and being counted and it was just a spectacular moment. I'm sure I said it in the book, but just as Status Quo kicked off, we're all standing backstage and you could see the kind of glow that almost radiated off all the artists who were all standing there. It was a moment of realization to think "Wow, this is really going to happen.....this is real." Up until that point, it just seemed like smoke and mirrors.

SS: To this day, I have in my living room a Live Aid poster on my wall. I'm sure you know the one with Bob and Bono and George Michael up front. You can see Howard Jones, too. But to me, the great shame of it is I can't find you in it and I feel cheated.

MU: Well, I'm there in spirit . That stuff happens a lot. There's nothing you can do about it. I'm not a tall guy. If I'm standing in the same room as Bob, everyone sees Bob! It's just the way it is. You rewind six months prior to that and you see me a lot sitting behind the console in the studio bossing people around .