Midge Ure can look back on a 40 year musical career of no little achievement - co-creator of classic hit singles 'Vienna', 'Fade To Grey', and 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and helping pioneer electro-pop with Ultravox and Visage - but this is only part of the Scotsman's story.
Possibly because of his involvement with synths and electronic music, and the fact he sang lead vocals on only one of the aforementioned songs, certain misconceptions have arisen about Midge Ure.
“Two things I get when I’m in concert is that ‘I didn’t know you could sing’ and ‘Wow! You play guitar!’ but I did all that when I was in Ultravox!” Midge tells me during our Tuesday morning interview, but his laughter shows he takes with characteristic good humour. “People have this image of who and what you are for them forever. A lot of people still don’t realise I played guitar with Thin Lizzy!”
Indeed his tenure with Lizzy in 1979, though short, helped the band out at a crucial time, following the sudden departure of guitarist Gary Moore. Yet it too arose from a misconception Phil Lynott had about Midge.
“I’d known Phil from very early on,” Midge says. “I’d seen Lizzy in a little club in Glasgow when they were a three-piece. I was a big fan of Skid Row, who had a very, very,young Gary Moore on guitar, he was only 15/16 then. I thought they were brilliant and bought their albums. I’d heard a little about this other band, who had a connection to Skid Row - I think Phil might have been their singer at one point - and I fell in love with Thin Lizzy and what they did. I got to know Phil over the years and when I moved down to London to join The Rich Kids I’d hang out with him.
“Later, when I was in Ultravox, I got a call from Phil’s management, saying Phil will call you in a minute. He did, he was calling from Arkansas, saying ‘Gary Moore has left the band, can you come out and finish the tour?’ I’d never been to America, and I didn’t know how to play many of the Thin Lizzy songs. I only found this out recently from Scott Gorham - Phil called me because he thought I actually knew how to play them all!
“When I got home there was a pile of cassettes and a plane ticket, so I packed my case and got a ghetto blaster and headphones to listen to the songs and learn them on the plane, but I didn’t check the ticket. I was booked for Concorde, not a regular flight, so instead of having eight hours to learn the songs, I only had three! So I found myself in New Orleans within 24 hours of getting the call, sitting in a hotel bedroom with Scott Gorham, learning all the harmony guitar parts. It was a baptism of fire!”
Not that Midge is complaining. 'Vienna', 'Fade To Grey', and 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' were not just big hits of the 1980s, but, are now classics. 'Vienna' is a high watermark of 1980s new wave and new pop, while the reverberations from 'Fade To Grey' are still being felt within the electronic side of contemporary indie music. Midge knows it and can say with justification, "I helped create electo-rock with Ultravox and Visage." His modesty and affability come through by the fact he adds, "I look like some dreadful musical tart with all the bands and genres I've been involved with!"
Yet there was one band Midge never became a member of - The Sex Pistols - it could have happened if The Clash’s then manager Bernie Rhodes had had his way. Midge recalls the encounter:
“I was stopped on the streets of Glasgow, about 75/76, by an English guy, who turned out to be Bernie Rhodes,” Midge recalls. “He was travelling with his mate, and asked me if I would speak to this friend who was called Malcolm McLaren - who was the most effeminate thing I’d ever seen, and that was a very odd sight in Glasgow those days.
“He talked to me about the New York Dolls, about his partner Vivienne, and his shop, and about a new band he was putting together. We talked for about half and hour and he asked if I was interested in joining, but he hadn’t asked me if I was a musician. They asked me because I had short hair and straight-legged trousers at a time when everyone had flares and feather cut long hair, so I looked the part, but he never asked me what part I would play - would I be the singer? Or the bassist? It didn’t make sense to me, so I said ‘No’ - but that band was the Sex Pistols. The reality is, that they were also selling hot equipment, so I didn’t join the band, but I did buy an amplifier off them.”
Midge is currently on tour celebrating his 40 years in the business, hence the Something From Everything Tour, will see him performing songs by Ultravox, Visage, Glen Matlock’s post Sex Pistols outfit, Rich Kids, and solo material. The show comes to Galway this month and marks his first appearance here since 1996. “Twenty-one years!” Midge exclaims. “I think that was my first time in Galway, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”
What Midge missed out on with the Pistols was more than made up for by the early to mid-1980s . “In the early eighties I was a workaholic and a ‘man of the moment’, as a creator, producer, and guitarist," Midge says. "Those hit singles were high points if you’re talking about putting the head above the parapet and looking to be noticed. Band-Aid did put you on the global map, but as a musician, there are many things I have done that I’ve been proud of, but they haven’t made the same mark. But music should be about what’s good, not what’s current or cool. You have to stick to your guns and make what you feel is interesting.”
‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was Midge Ure and Bob Geldof’s response to the devastating famine which struck Ethiopia in the 1980s - the major humanitarian crises of that era, and, alongside Apartheid, one of the key global issues of the time. Today, in the era of Trump, Isis, Brexit, the refugee crisis, the war on Syria, international terrorism, the rise of the alt-right, the world seems stranger and more dangerous than it did back then, with the threats being not ‘over there’ but far closer to home.
“I think you’re right,” Midge says, reflecting on those differences. “We’re surrounded by news 24 hours a day. Back then it was six o’clock and nine o’clock and that was what you got, unless you went out scouring the papers, whereas today news is a ping on your phone, it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the 24 hour news channels on the television, so we’re bombarded by news and more bad news these very difficult times."
“Back then," he continues, "there was something very innocent and naïve about Bob seeing Michael Burke’s report on the TV, then phoning Paula, who I happened to be standing next to, and then we came to record that song, but it did start an awareness if nothing else, that didn’t exist before, and it tapped into a medium young people understood, as before people thought of charity as something you did when you were old, like the Women’s Institute, but this was something they could do themselves and be involved in.”
Away from politics and back to music, what, after four decades, keeps Midge hungry and enthusiastic as both a touring musician and a creative artist?
“Touring is a no brainer. I don’t know how not to tour,” he says. “I remember having a conversation with Mr Geldof, and not that long ago, about what we would be doing if we weren’t doing this? And we both drew a blank. We’re not skilled to do anything else - well, Bob has more skills, he was a journalist before he did music, and he’s been involved in media since - but I’ve always been a musician, so I can’t imagine what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this. It’s in the blood. I’m a rambler, a roamer, a gypsy at heart. I love going out there and doing my stuff.” Then he adds with a laugh: “Maybe I’m needy, I need the applause!”
Midge Ure's Something From Everything Tour comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Friday February 24 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie