Midge Ure: Why I don’t allow DJs to remix my music
The 1980s music star from Ultravox brings his synth sound to the Irish Village. Read on for more…
The 1980s was a golden time for British pop music. One of the decade’s key figures was Midge Ure, frontman of Ultravox, who had hits with Vienna, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes and Reap The Wild Wind, and also Visage whose song Fade To Grey is considered a classic of the electronica genre. Perhaps most famously though, the Scotsman, along with his old friend Bob Geldof, was a driving force behind the historic charity song Do They Know It’s Christmas? in 1984 and the Band Aid concert at Wembley the following year.
Now 61, Midge still tours and is coming to The Irish Village on September 24.
What do you remember about joining Ultravox? It was a great period for me and the most exciting thing I’d ever done. The idea of combining electronics with traditional rock instruments and classical instruments to make this noise that nobody else was making was fantastic.
Some of Ultravox’s album covers were pretty avant garde, with outlandish fashions, weren’t they? Yes, we wore lots of skinny ties, which are back in fashion now. Without contriving a look, Ultravox had a style that was futuristic but ancient at the same time. We wore clothes from the 1940s and 1950s but our music was hi-tech, and we used Peter Saville to design our graphics. It’s a bit like the new Batman movies, you’re not quite sure what period they’re set in – Ultravox were like that.
And you were one of the first bands to embrace videos… Yes, our videos were quite film noir but, again, also futuristic. Back then record companies didn’t understand what videos were but we saw it as an amazing tool and an extension to our music. I told the record label when Vienna came out in 1981 that we must do a video. They said ‘Why? It’s already number two in the charts and videos are expensive’. I tried to explain that with a video we could be on TV in umpteen countries all the time, but they didn’t get it.
What happened next? We decided to do the video ourselves, but we had no money so we got a bank loan.
How much for? £17,000 (Dhs95,000). We showed the video to the record company and then they coughed up for it. We should have told them it cost twice as much as it did.
What was your bank manager’s reaction when you asked for a loan to make a pop video? If you’ve got a record at number two that’s a fairly strong business plan so banks tend to listen to you!
What do you think about electronic music today? At the end of the 1980s you had dance, trance, jungle and all that stuff, but they all seemed to be devoid of any songs. Electronic music turned a corner and I decided not to follow it, which I know sounds like an old man statement. All the toys were available to everyone and you could make music in your bedroom, but if you don’t know what you’re doing…, well, you end up making dance music. That’s fine, it was designed for dancing to. But then it got played on the radio and it didn’t work because that’s not what it was designed for.
Do DJs today ask to sample Ultravox tracks? We’re approached all the time for permission to remix our music. But these people are not songwriters, so very early on I refused to go down that route and allow DJs to remix my music.
What’s the plan for your Dubai gig? It’s me and a band who I’ve been working with for the last ten years – we make a hell of a noise. It’ll be synthesizers and loud electric guitars, the full monty. We do songs from the beginning of Ultravox, through to Visage, and some solo stuff.
Have you played Dubai before? Once about ten years ago I did a solo acoustic set. Don’t ask me where it was, it was on a rooftop somewhere. The humidity killed my guitar strings in about 30 seconds. It sounded like somebody had wrapped my guitar in cling film.
Your mate Bob Geldof has played the Irish Village a few times… Yeah, he does St Patrick’s Day here, doesn’t he? Maybe I should have played St Andrew’s Day for all the expat Scots in Dubai.
Spandau Ballet appeared on the Band Aid song and they played Dubai last week [September 17th]… They’ve been doing fantastically well lately. I saw them at the Isle Of Wight festival a few years ago and they were much more of a rock band than I expected. I saw them play one of their first gigs at the Blitz in London in about 1979.
Do you still enjoy touring and performing? No matter how many times I do it I still get excited about playing live. You can’t play live music if you don’t enjoy it – it’s too much hard work. Plus, an audience can tell if you’re going through the motions. Today, I still go back to Glasgow and walk the streets I tramped round as a kid because I want to remind myself what it felt like to be young and dreaming of music. It makes me realise how lucky I am.
Has your voice changed much over the years? It’s still there, just a little rougher around the edges. It’s more powerful and it’s deeper, but I still hit the high notes. It’s a muscle so the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. The oddity about playing and singing is that the moment you get successful, you stop doing it. When you start out you play as often as you can, then you become successful and you only play when you’ve got a new album out.
Are you thankful you had your big success then and not in today’s music business? I was chatting to my good friend Mark King from Level 42 last year and he said to me, ‘Maybe we’re the lucky ones. We might be the last generation to do this for a living.’ I think he could be right. Most young raw talent are making music in their bedrooms today that nobody will hear. You have the exceptions like Ed Sheeran, but the industry doesn’t have the wherewithal to sign the next interesting, quirky oddity. They’ll create pop stars live on TV. The 1980s were halcyon days but it’s a very different world today.