Scottish musician Midge Ure has performed in the Bay Area many times as frontman of the 1980s synthpop band Ultravox. He fondly recalls his most recent visit to San Francisco for a solo show in the Mission district that brought a full house together in song.
“The last time I was there it was in a church or a chapel in very cool part of town,” Ure said. “I was doing this tour totally alone with my acoustic guitar and I just remember a sea of people singing every word of every song. It was fantastic.”
That was at The Chapel on January 10, 2015. Now, two years to the day, Ure will play The Mystic Theatre in Petaluma before returning to San Francisco on January 11, this time stopping at Social Hall SF.
For this tour, Ure has a full band — former Right the Stars drummer BC Taylor and Los Angles keyboardist Tony Solis. Ure will play a range of material from his legendary music career that spans decades, sure to include hits from his time with Visage and Ultravox and as a solo artist.
“It is very much a plugged-in tour and between the three of us we make a mighty a sound,” Ure said. “I am doing quite a bit from the Vienna album, which is really odd. I have chosen to do that because I haven’t played those songs for a long time. I delve into the past and pull out some juicy little numbers that I’m thoroughly enjoying playing. Then I bring in a couple Visage songs and right up to Fragile, my last solo record.”
Ure’s respected and diverse career dates back to the early 1970s. But it is in the early 1980s when he earned his reputation and, through his innovation and work ethic, rose to New Wave grandeur. Ure was in three notable bands playing guitar, keyboards, and/or synthesizer; wrote a legion of songs that achieved popular chart success; and released multiple albums including his acclaimed first solo record The Gift. He had simultaneous ground-breaking hits with Visage and Ultravox, co-wrote Phil Lynott’s hit “Yellow Pearl” that became the theme of the BBC show Top of the Pops, and alerted the world to famine in Ethiopia when he co-wrote “Do They Know It's Christmas?” and co-organized Band Aid and Live Aid.
Ultravox. Midge Ure, second from left.
With the sheer quantity of accomplishments crammed in just a few years, Ure may well have been the hardest-working musician of the time. But to hear him tell it, he was just a simple lad of 26 years old trying to make the most of an opportunity.
“Within a year I had two albums and two singles in the Top 40 in the UK which was just glorious. I couldn’t imagine ever doing something like that,” Ure said. “So when you have that moment of success and realize that this is working for you, you don’t just sit back and think, ‘Well I’ll go to the seashore and have six months holiday.’ You jump in thoroughly...It was a very creative period and you were allowed to be creative, so I was no slouch.”
Ure chalks up his rich catalog of influential and chart-topping songs as being “a product of its time.” During that time, he said musicians were encouraged to experiment, and a technological revolution made drum machines and synthesizers affordable. “With little bit of being able to get my hands on some modern technology and a lot of naivete, you put all of that together and you come out with some weird and wonderful things,” Ure said. He instead turns attention to other British artists of the time, and the period as a whole, to shine a light on why many aficionados consider the '80s to be the golden era of music.
“Between 1980 and 1985, '86, music was incredibly important. Songwriting was spectacular,” Ure recalled. “You had Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran. You had Heaven 17, Human League. You had all these people who wrote really interesting music because they were allowed to do it.”
Early Years and Early Bands
Starting out as a teen, Ure let go of an engineering apprenticeship and played music in bands based in Glasgow. In 1972, he joined Salvation as guitarist and later became its singer. The band changed its name to Slik in 1974 and a couple years later had a taste of success with a UK No. 1 single called “Forever and Ever.” For Ure, it was bittersweet.
“I had this number one record and, truth be told, it was written by the same guys who wrote the Bay City Rollers records,” Ure said. “We were given a chance of a small record deal in 1976. But the reality is we went to London to make this record and as we walked in, the session musicians walked out because they had just finished recording it. So when this record got to number one, I felt absolutely nothing. It wasn’t my song. I hadn’t produced it. I hadn’t played it, which was hugely humiliating. I found success but not success that I was looking for. I found esteem and adulation but I didn’t want that, I wanted to be seen as a musician.”
In 1977, Glen Matlock, formerly of the Sex Pistols, asked Ure to join The Rich Kids with drummer Rusty Egan and guitarist Steve New. Ure moved to London and despite living in the epicenter of the music industry, began listening to electronic music created by bands such as Kraftwerk. Egan liked it, too.
“We were both listening to music coming out of Europe which was really unusual because in the UK, we were very snobbish,” Ure said. “We created music and in our minds, we were the leaders. For us to listen to music out of Germany was quite something.”
That’s when Ure first heard and became enamored with a new-fangled instrument which he bought and taught himself to play.
“I fell in love with it. Here’s an instrument that could create sounds that you couldn’t imagine, that you couldn’t even conjure up in your head. This instrument was limitless, and it was the synthesizer,” Ure said. “I wanted to incorporate the synthesizer with traditional instruments that we had in The Rich Kids. We used it a little bit in the first album and half the band hated it and it broke the band in two.”
Visage and Ultravox
With the demise of Rich Kids, Ure and Egan, with vocalist/club owner Steve Strange and Ultravox's Billy Currie, formed Visage in 1978. Ure said he reveled in being able to go into the studio and to write and produce his own music (and likely to use the synthesizer as he saw fit). Ure left in 1979 to fill in for guitarist Gary Moore on tour with rock band Thin Lizzy. He played keyboards for part of the group's 1980 tour.
Visage remained in full swing, exemplifying the New Romantic movement of the era. The band signed to Polydor Records in 1980 and “Fade to Grey” became a smash hit. They released their second album, The Anvil, in 1982 and Ure left the band soon after.
“When I wrote ‘Fade To Grey’ for Visage, I didn’t realize at the time that this thing was going to bounce all around the world and it was going to shape generations to come for making dance music,” Ure said.
Meanwhile, Ure had already joined forces with Currie to resurrect Currie’s defunct band Ultravox. In that same eventful year of 1980, Ultravox recorded its iconic album, Vienna, which reached No. 3 in the UK. The title track “Vienna” made the band an electropop phenom and gave Ure simultaneous global hit songs.
“When I wrote ‘Vienna’ with Ultravox I didn’t think that that was in any way, shape or form, a commercial-sounding record. It went against everything we had been told you were meant to do,” Ure said. “It was a long electronic ballad that speeds up in the middle with a viola solo. It was just so bizarre...having the tools at your fingertips enabled you to do that.”
Ultravox’s fourth album, Lament,produced the hit “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” The band’s fifth and final album, U-Vox, was released two years later. All five albums made during Ure’s tenure reached the top 10 in the UK.
Ure downplays that his work was instrumental to a genre of music that is New Wave. “I was there. I was part of it,” he said. “I may have had a hand in a lot of it, but I was just part of something that was natural, something that grew out of nothing.”
Ure's first solo album, The Gift, reached No. 2 in the UK in 1985 and his single "If I Was" was a No. 1 hit.
In 1984, Ure was at the helm of an historic music and charitable event when he co-wrote “Do They Know It's Christmas?” with Bob Geldof. They co-organized the supergroup Band Aid to record the song in order to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Band Aid consisted of the biggest British and Irish musicians of the ‘80s, including George Michael, Bono, Sting, and Duran Duran.
“I played all the instruments on the record except for Phil Collins’ drums. I spent four days in my studio putting all of it together before we brought in all the vocals and Phil’s drums and then mixed the record,” Ure said. “When I hear it on the radio just out of the blue...the opening piece still raises the hair on my arms.”
The song went directly to No. 1 on the UK singles chart and sold more than 3 million copies within about a month of its release. Ure and Geldof organized the Live Aid concert a year later. The effort raised millions for the cause and inspired America’s “We Are The World” and Canada’s “Northern Lights.”
“We made a difference, we have spoken to the difference. We have met kids who were in those camps...who have been fed and educated and are doctors or teachers or doing something for their community because of that piece of music and that is something that is too hard to get your head around,” Ure said.
“It is 32 years now since that record came out and it still works as a piece of music,” he said. “It still does its job. I am actually proud of that.”
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been re-recorded three times — in 1989, 2004, and 2014 — to benefit various causes. The latest version included artists Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, One Direction, Seal, Sam Smith, and Chris Martin.
Now 63, Ure lives in Bath and is married to Empire of the Sun actress Sheridan Forbes. He has four daughters and continues to be a hardworking and charitable musician.
Over the years he wrote an autobiography titled If I Was, served as musical director for The Prince’s Trust concert and for the concert honoring Nelson Mandela, was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and contributed the song “Touching Hearts and Skies” to the movie soundtrack Fly about Olympic skier underdog Eddie the Eagle.
Ultravox reunited for the Return To Eden tour in 2009 and released the album Brilliant in 2012. There are no plans for Ultravox to reunite at this time. “I am not sure what is going to happen with Ultravox now,” Ure said. “It has been dormant again for the last few years.”
Ure appeared in the Retro Futura Tour of 2014. He embarked on his solo acoustic Fragile Troubadour tour in 2015 in which he traveled completely alone: no tour manager, no crew, and no other musicians. He recorded the experience for a documentary highlighting the harsh reality touring musicians face in today’s music industry.
Currently, Ure is finishing his latest pet project, a cinematic orchestral album of Ultravox and solo material. “It is some of the old songs orchestrated kind of like a soundtrack for a movie that does not exist,” Ure said. “The songs really lend themselves to that kind of bombastic and incredibly sparse, at times, arrangement.”
Midge Ure, Brad Brooks
Social Hall SF
January 11, 2017