I’m a lucky bugger says Bury St Edmunds bound Midge Ure
- Credit: Archant
Ultravox’s Midge Ure heads to Bury this week. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage spoke to him about his career, the problems of songwriting by committee and why he’s reviving his less than enthusiastically recieved Breathe album.
“I’m a lucky bugger what can I tell you,” laughs Ure. Now 61, he’s still allowed to do what he loves. There have been ups and downs it’s just his, he adds, have been a bit more public than most. Being quoted - wrongly - as saying he hated Beyonce for example?
“What I was actually saying was there was an article recently about the Grammys in America where Beyonce for her new album had 20 writers writing one song. Twenty. I made a comment saying surely music is all about you wanting to hear what the artist is thinking, what they’re saying, what their feelings are; not this group of people who are there to (write) a hit song?
“There’s always been people out there trying to write successful hit songs, there always will be. But 20 people? That’s the equivalent of going to the National Gallery and looking at a painting that’s been painted by 20 people, all doing little bits themselves. It ends up being a bit of a mess. It might look okay but there’s no passion to it.”
The former Thin Lizzy, Visage and Ultravox star believes in writing about life, what affects him, what he feels, in the hope somebody out there will relate to it because it’s an honest representation.
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“I write from the heart, I don’t sit down and invent scenarios to write about. I’m not sitting sculpting a song that is going to try to sell a million copies.”
“Ups an downs are all parts of life’s rich tapestry, whether you’re on stage or working in a factory we all have them.
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“If I’ve got to look back over things I’ve done... I’ve done some really bizarre, wonderful things. I’ve had moments in my life that as a teenage kid growing up in Glasgow I could never have dreamed of. Sitting playing guitar one-on-one with Eric Clapton. As an aspiring guitar player I would have drooled over the thought of doing that but thought it was a complete pipe dream. Duetting with Kate Bush, standing on stage in front of thousands of people at Live Aid - all magnificent things.
“You’ve got to take the bad bits along with the good, it can’t all be good, that’s a very one-sided life. It’s how you deal with it that teaches you.”
Right now, the multiple Brit Award and Ivor Novello winner is dealing with being stuck in hideous traffic in central London. He’s just dropped his daughters, bound for Disney World, at Gatwick airport.
I’m calling to discuss his latest tour, Breathe Again - 20 Years On which comes to The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on September 17.
Fourth solo album Breathe saw Ure ring in the changes 10 years after the successes of Band Aid and Live Aid; it boasted a strong Celtic feel, employing acoustic instruments like Uilleann pipes, mandolins and accordions. It went triple platinum and was a massive success across Europe.
After Ultravox’s successful reunion, he felt it was time to revisit his Celtic roots and will perform the whole album for the first time accompanied by two musicians from India Electric Co.
“It was the 20th anniversary and because, maybe I’m just being dogmatic, it wasn’t overly successful when it first came out in the UK. (But) this album was worth making... It was a very different album for me, very organic. We used technology on there but you wouldn’t be able to tell; it’s all very acoustic and for me it was an interesting period to go through,” says the multi-platinum selling artist, whose single Vienna was voted the most popular and respected record of the 1980s by Absolute Radio listeners.
“I think maybe the album came out at the wrong time. Maybe if I’d done it 10 years later it would’ve been hailed as genius alongside Mumford and Sons or whatever because it was all that organic instrumentation; but you do what you do and you put it out there. I have no control over the success of a record. All I have is control over the quality of the music, the recording and whatever.
“Once it goes out there it’s up to a myriad other people to try to make sure its reviewed, played on radio, gets the coverage it’s meant to. Then it lies in someone else’s lap. For me to go back and choose an album that wasn’t overly successful and say ‘I’m going to go tour this one’ is just indicative of what I’ve done my entire life, my entire career.”
He had his reservations about doing an entire album a lot of people might not know, but reaction to the first half of the tour was phenomenal. Some didn’t know these songs existed, the more hard-core fans knew every word.
“(They) probably knew the words better than I did, which is a little annoying when you see someone down the front singing the right words and you’re singing the second verse twice,” he laughs. “It works, so don’t be afraid to come along because you don’t necessarily know it. They’ll be plenty of songs you do (expect Vienna, Fade to Grey and If I Was as well as songs from the recently released Fragile) but the songs you don’t know seem to be touching people’s hearts.”
Talk of control brings us on to Vienna. Ure remembers having to fight the record company to put it out in its entirety.
“They wanted to edit it down, we said no. We finally put the record out in its entirety and in all reality it could easily have disappeared off the face of the Earth because it went against everything that was going on at the time.”
The synthpop ballad was unusual for its time and genre given two of its most distinctive sounds are conventional instruments - the dramatic grand piano in the verses and chorus and the viola solo in the middle of the song.
“You couldn’t script something more ridiculous but we wanted to put it out because it was a great representation of what we were thinking and doing at the time. As luck would have it, it got a few plays on the radio and it connected with people. We’re very lucky but I can’t look now and think ‘yeah that was the record of the 1980s’. It was one of many good records of the era.
“The music from the early through to the mid 1980s was what everyone calls the New Romantic period, but the whole technological revolution that happened with electronics and synthesizers and drum machines, it wasn’t about that.
“That stuff enabled us to make the music but the songwriting in that period was phenomenal. You look at Soft Cell, Japan, Heaven 17, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or Depeche Mode - they all wrote really good songs, it was a heyday for songwriters,” says Ure, who still gets butterflies, the excited rather than nervous kind, before performing.
The day he doesn’t get them is the day he hangs up his guitar.
So far this year he’s toured Australia, New Zealand and America. No tour manager, no crew; just him and a guitar.
“None of us start out in a recording studio. Maybe the first thing people do once they’ve done a TV show like X Factor is go straight into one, but in my day you went out and you played live until you were good enough to get into one. It’s one of those oddities, the moment you become successful at your chosen career you stop doing what made you successful and that was playing live.
“When Ultravox became successful we only toured when there was an album out, one tour every two years or so. When I left Ultravox I decided to change that and get back to doing what I’ve always done. I’m a live working musician so I tour as much as I can because I love it, there’s something about that connection with an audience; something that’s real and honest and true.”
Seeing an artist perform in a small intimate venue is the antithesis of going to Glastonbury, he adds; where you’re standing in a field with 150,000 people looking at a TV screen. There’s something about watching someone do something to a very high standard when you’re right next to them. When you can see, hear, feel and sense it; when it’s as close as you can possibly get without them sitting on your sofa performing for you.
“That has, I think, stimulated people to come out and see performances. You get to a certain age and it doesn’t mean you stop listening to music, stop appreciating it. It probably means you appreciate it more. You go out there and you’re seeing something that’s real and tangible that still makes your heart beat a little faster.
“There’s a nostalgic element, people want to hear certain songs that take them back to a moment in time... There’s also that thing about it’s real, live music can’t be manipulated, it can’t be re-tuned. If you can’t sing, if you can’t play, if that artist is looking bored and a bit jaded; people are going to know; it is what it is. There’s no pretending so yeah I still absolutely enjoy playing live.”
Midge Ure appears at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds on September 17. Read his recollections of Live Aid, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, here.