Midge Ure: The Class of the 80s
Tina Lofthouse talks to Midge Ure about playing Guildford, the success of Band Aid, and the inspiration behind his hits that helped define a decade…
Big hair, synth pop, Thatcher, and leg warmers, the eighties was the era of excess, dodgy fashion and a new musical sound. Midge Ure, and the bands he joined – Visage and Ultravox, played a huge role in shaping the decade, with tracks such as Vienna and Fade to Grey part of the definitive eighties hit list.
Later this year, Midge will be playing G-Live to celebrate 1980, the year it all happened for him. He had been in a pop band, Slik, a post-punk group, The Rich Kids, and been a stand-in guitarist for Thin Lizzy, but in the autumn of 1979 he started work on the Visage project with Billy Currie, and then joined Ultravox.
Visage’s eponymous album and the Ultravox Vienna album both charted in 1980, bringing Midge the commercial success he needed. “It was weird. My life up to that point, it was like both my hands were tied, and my feet as well. It felt like there was a glass wall and for whatever reason you couldn’t get beyond that,” he remembers. “But once you have that little bit of commercial success, the wall disappears and you are allowed to do things you couldn’t.”
But that the albums made it at all was close. While not short on creativity, resources were tight and studio time was begged and borrowed. “Out of this nothingness, we created something,” says Midge. Hit single Vienna also made it against the odds. “It went against everything that was acceptable at the time,” says Midge. “Songs on the radio had to be less than three minutes long and have a certain style. And along comes a song that is none of these things – it speeds up, it slows down, it is electronic. It is a ballad, haunting, almost filmic like a soundtrack. But people reacted, in the same way they did with Bohemian Rhapsody, and the same way they did with Wuthering Heights. The song resonated with them. But don’t ask me the formula as I have no idea.”
While Vienna may have struck a chord, the inspiration came without the band even stepping foot in the city. Midge describes how violinist and keyboard player Billie was interested in the the secessionists in Vienna. “I walked into the rehearsal studio one day and said I have this line, ‘This means nothing to me, oh Vienna’. That was it and it grew from there.”
“The idea was this mystical, haunting broken- sounding piece of music that reflected what Vienna had become – a centre for the arts that crumbled and fell out of favour. So we put that into the music but it was kind of wrapped around a simplistic love story about a holiday romance. Everything is wonderful and vibrant but then you’re back home in your dull, grey job. It is that harking for the moment when everything was magical.”
Fame for Midge soon followed as did other hits such as Dancing With Tears In My Eyes. How did the lad who grew up in a Glasgow tenement cope with being thrown into the spotlight? “After I had been on Top of the Pops, some friends said that I had changed but it was how they saw me that had changed. It was not a hardship for me to be recognised walking down the street or to have a little bit of money coming in for the first time.” He is unimpressed by those that claim to see fame as a burden. “My youngest daughter was at Glastonbury and she said she saw Dan [Smith] from Bastille in the crowd. No one else recognised him as he had a hat on. So if you don’t want to be mobbed just put a hat on! You can be seen if you want to; you can disappear if you don’t.”
Midge was also determined to put his fame to good use, forming Band Aid with Bob Geldof, and bringing together the great and the good from the eighties pop scene to raise money for famine relief in Africa. While Do They Know It’s Christmas? was an instant hit, Midge readily admits that the song he helped to pen was not the best. “But we had all these famous artists take part and we had the world’s media all over it, so it would be hard for it not to be successful,” he says. He is surprised though that what started as a six-month project has gone on for 35 years.
Bob and Midge donated the song in perpetuity to the Band Aid Trust, so even now it continues to make money for Africa. Midge is also an ambassador for Save The Children, and has been out to Africa to publicise campaigns for the charity.
At 65, Midge has no desire to retire from the music industry, a life he loves. “I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 18 so to carve out a career as long as I have is fantastic. I entered this because of my love of music and that has never diminished. People usually retire from something they don’t like to find something they do. And I won’t find anything better than what I have. My entire life has been retirement. I have no intention of giving that up.”
He is very much looking forward to his Guildford date and after many years of touring, knows Surrey well. But Midge, who lives outside Bath, laughs: “Guildford is full of mega rich rock stars – it is where the big boys are.”
It is a modest statement from a man who was instrumental in shaping eighties music, which in turn influenced so much that followed. But he concedes he has self-belief, and it is a quality that he says we should all nurture. “It is not an ego thing but believing you have something to offer. If someone says they love a song of mine, it is about accepting that graciously. I am in a blessed position – people live and die and have babies born to pieces of music I have written and I find that overwhelming.”
Midge Ure and Band Electronica come to G-Live on 15 October. The Vienna album will be played in its entirety plus selected Visage tracks.