Rhino Interview: Midge Ure
Midge Ure is one of those musicians for whom your frame of reference depends heavily on when you first started paying attention to music: he had his first #1 hit in 1976 as the frontman for a teeny-bop band called Slik, teamed up with former Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock and future Public Image Ltd. Guitarist Steve New to front The Rich Kids, saw top-10 success as a member of Visage (“Fade to Grey”), found further chart action when he took over at the lead singer of Ultravox (“Vienna,” “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes”), co-wrote Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with Bob Geldof, and has had a formidable solo career as well, earning a top-10 hit with “No Regrets” and topping the UK charts with “If I Was.” A few years ago, Ure reunited with Ultravox to record a new album (2012’s Brilliant), but most recently he’s been peddling his top-notch solo wares again, having released his most recent full-length effort, Fragile, last year.
Rhino: First things first: let’s talk a bit about your new album, since that’s how we came to chat in the first place. What are the origins of Fragile? Did you start stockpiling songs until you had enough to make an album, or did you go in with the intent of making an album?
Midge Ure: No, I think it’s been the slowest album I’ve ever undertaken. Ever! I started compiling ideas and started the recording process probably 10 years prior to finishing the record. For a whole slew of reasons, it just took me forever to get ‘round to finishing the thing.
I started off well, as you do. You’re quite enthused, y’know, as you get underway, and it was all going well, but then I started having huge doubts after the way the industry was going, massive doubts as to whether I wanted to still be part of it, and then the whole series of emotions that you have when you start doubting yourself. You doubt that anyone’s ever gonna hear it, and does anyone ever want to hear it? Does the world really need another Midge Ure record? [Laughs.] All of that stuff!
So I just kind of ground to a halt, with a whole pile of things, personal stuff, going on during that period, and it wasn’t really ‘til Ultravox got back together again and did some touring and finally got ‘round to making an album. Once we made that Ultravox album, that kind of sparked me up, y’know? I realized that, yeah, there was a reason for putting this together, and the reason was to try and rebalance the scales against a lot of the mediocrity that’s out there, so just get on and get it done. So I did!
As far as the material on Fragile, you’ve certainly had a way with a pop song in your past, but some of these are definitely not three-minute wonders, as it were. They’re semi-epic in length. But that said, they’re very intricately structured.
Well, you know what I think? I’m 61 now, and not that it happened to me very often, but I kind of grew very, very tired of record company intervention, I grew tired of people trying to A&R me and put me in boxes, and I just kind of rebelled against it and thought, “It’s time to just do exactly what you want to do.” I don’t have to tick boxes. I don’t have to please people. The only person I have to please initially is myself, and if I get it and I like what I’m doing, then somebody somewhere might like it as well. So with the demise of the major labels and therefore the demise of the intervention, I just ticked my own boxes. I just kind of followed my own path. And, of course, 10 years of playing around of that stuff, yes, of course it’s going to get intricate. [Laughs.] You’re going to get bored with what you’re doing, so you go off on tangents. I’m a very different person when I finished the album from the person who started the album. So, yeah, I think maybe this is, in a way, the truest record that I’ve ever made.
Given the evolution that you went through over the course of making Fragile, did that make it difficult to structure the album, insofar as you were coming from different places musically at different points during those 10 years?
Well, the oddity, the real strange thing on the album for me is probably the most commercial, most palatable track on there, which is “Become.” In a way, it’s almost kind of a parody of what I used to do in the ‘80s. It’s a real nod back to those days, and it’s something I’ve never really revisited before. The idea of going and doing a kind of all-out… [Hesitates.] Well, it’s not all-out electronic, but, you know, a 99% electronic track that harks back to early Visage or touches of Ultravox or whatever would’ve been alien for me to do. But I think when I finished the album and that was the oddity, I had real problems as to whether I should put it on or not. And I just thought, “Well, it’s part of that 10-year build. It’s part of that 10-year process.” It was probably one of the first tracks that I started working on for the album, and maybe one of the last ones that I completed, so I thought, “Well, it deserves to be on there as much as anything.” But, yeah, I suppose that was the strange one to try and fit in with the ambience and the atmospheres that the other tracks seem to have. But it kind of works.
For someone who’s investigating the album that may know your back catalog but hasn’t necessarily followed your more recent material, would you say that “Become” is a good gateway drug? As you say, it’s not necessarily representative of the album as a whole, but it’s still a sound that might capture the attention of Visage and Ultravox fans.
You know, I kind of try to describe this album as an album of influences, because I firmly believe that that’s all we are. When you travel through life, you are a sum of the influences that’ve affected you. And that goes from your Boy Scout leader to your favorite school teacher to your leader to your friends to music to movies… All the things that shape you to become the character that you’ve become. And that’s what music is. And that album, I can hear elements of stuff that I used to listen to when I was a kid, I can hear influences from stuff I used to listen to from early David Bowie records, I can hear bits of rock in there, I can hear bits of blues guitar playing in there… All sorts of stuff. And I think that’s kind of what it is.
So the idea of taking “Become” and saying, “This is representative of what I do,” it probably is from some decade, elements of it. But I couldn’t say that any of it is representative of what I am. [Laughs.] And I’m not sure what that is, to tell you the truth. If you’d had a 40-year long music career, things change an awful lot in 40 years: the way you think, the way you construct things, the way you look at music, your attitude towards it. So is “Become” a good thumbnail, a good snap of what that album is? Probably not, but maybe it’s saying, “Well, this is how Midge Ure was 20 or 30 years ago,” and there’s other tracks that say, “Well, this is probably more Midge Ure as he is right now.”
Well, now that we’ve talked about the origins of Fragile, I’m curious about your own origin. How did you get into music in the first place? Did you come from a musical family, or was it a path you went down completely on your own?
It was the radio. I mean, I was born in a tenement slum on the outskirts of Glasgow, in Scotland. And it really was a slum. Outside toilets. I slept in a room with my brother, and that was the only bedroom there was. But we had a radio. And when I was born, in those days, back in the early ‘50s, radio here in the UK played a bit of everything. So you’d get a piece of classical music, then you’d get a bit of Santo and Johnny, and then you’d get a bit of Frank Sinatra. So I was brought up with this really Catholic taste in music, so it was really an odd combination of stuff. But it was really melodic music, so my big desire as a young lad growing up was to have a guitar. And there was no way that my parents could afford one, but on my 10th birthday, they managed to find some distant cousin who had a guitar he was selling for the princely sum of two pounds or three pounds, which then was half my father’s wages. But they bought me this guitar, and I taught myself. But we weren’t a musical family. We loved music, but none of us could play.
I know your first band was called Stumble, but I’ll be darned if I can find anywhere that says anything about what Stumble sounded like.
You really, uh… That’s probably a godsend. [Laughs.] We actually called ourselves The Stumble, which was after a track on a John Mayall’s Blues Breakers’ album. I think it was on A Hard Road. But it was a tune that Eric Clapton played, so we fooled ourselves into thinking we were a blues band. I was 14 at the time! I didn’t know what the blues were!
I actually wondered if there was a blues element to the band, only because the lineup I saw listed featured a gentleman named Fraser Speirs credited on harmonica.
Yeah! And he was good. Actually, he’s great! He’s made quite a good career for himself, playing with Paolo Nutini and stuff. So he’s still out there playing his blues harp.
You have one of the most diverse musical careers of anyone I’ve chatted with. From playing the blues with The Stumble, you jumped to Slik, which was the same era as the Bay City Rollers, correct?
Not only the same era, but the same writers, the same producers, and – truth be told – the same session musicians. [Laughs.] Our first record, we weren’t allowed to play on. Our first single, I should say. And then when they realized that we weren’t the same as the Bay City Rollers, that we could actually play, we were allowed to play on our album and subsequent singles, at which point it was all over.
What was it like coming in and being part of an act where you didn’t have any musical say right off the bat?
You know what? Coming from Glasgow at the time, which was…the mid-‘70s, I think it probably was? There was no musical infrastructure in Glasgow. There was no recording facilities, no record labels. This was way before that. A few years later, all of a sudden indie record labels were all over the place, because the whole new wave thing had happened, but in ’74 and ’75, there was no chance of being signed in Glasgow. So the chance of signing any kind of recording deal was worth taking, thinking – naively – that you’d kind of be able to work your way through it and end up writing your own material. And, of course, that just kind of wasn’t allowed. So we found ourselves being the end of that particular pin-up boy band era. The Bay City Rollers had gone, Slik were hailed as the next big thing, and then new wave came along and – quite rightly – blew it out of the water.
Offering the caveat that this might not even be true, I hadn’t been aware until I started prepping for this interview that you apparently were offered the gig as lead singer for the Sex Pistols before John Lydon.
Well, I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, you can find it on Wikipedia…
Yeah, that’s why I offered that caveat.
The truth is that I was stopped on the streets of Glasgow by an English guy, and this English guy turned out to be Bernie Rhodes, who went on to manage The Clash. And he asked me to meet his friend ‘round the corner in the car, and his friend was Malcolm McLaren. And he talked to me for half an hour, telling me about the New York Dolls and the shops they had in London and the clothes that they were designing, and then went on to talk about this band and asked me if I’d join this band. And I realized that he hadn’t asked if I was a musician. [Laughs.] And I said, “Thanks, but no thanks. What kind of band is this?” Of course, lo and behold, a year later it was the Pistols. So, yeah, I did turn him down. But weirdly enough, I ended up joining the Rich Kids, which featured original Pistols bass player Glen Matlock.
So you didn’t join the Pistols, but right around the time punk became all the rage, Slik changed its name to PVC2.
Yeah, well, y’know, we were big enough as people to break the contract – the only contract we were ever gonna get! – when the guys who wrote the Bay City Rollers things and wrote the Slik songs came in with a new song for us, and it was called “The Kid’s a Punk.” [Laughs.] This was the token gesture towards what was happening at the time. And we just said, “No, we can’t do this anymore.” So we broke the contract and were left with nothing, so we had a crack at making a live recording, which we did. We did it in a small club somewhere, I produced the record straight onto two-track tape machine, and that was the PVC2 EP. We couldn’t put Slik on it, so we just made up a name – PVC2 – and stuck it out there, and it did really quite well. But it was never gonna change the band. Once you’re tarred with that particular brush, you’re never gonna shake that loose.
When you ended up joining up with the Rich Kids, what was the process of writing with that group? You may not have had different musical aspirations, but you were certainly coming from different musical backgrounds.
Well, I think that we probably were, but I think that’s what makes any band: a bit of Heinz 57 variety. [Laughs.] Without all those different influences, you don’t have a band, you’ve got a leader and some session musicians, some backing musicians. So for me to join the Rich Kids, who were already a three-piece band… They’d already been written about in Sounds over here – you know, the music magazine – and they’d already had a front cover and were being hailed as the saviors of British rock ‘n’ roll…and they hadn’t made a record! So it was a really weird scenario to come in and join, because although they were all very gracious and welcoming to me – Glen really wanted me to join the band – I still really felt like the outsider.
They’d already written 75% of the album, so it was an oddity. We didn’t actually write together, but I just felt a bit strange, me suggesting songs that I had been working on, like “Marching Men,” and me introducing synthesizer into the band, which half the band hated but half the band loved…and you could tell which half loved it and which half hated it! [Laughs.] And it broke the band right down the middle! It just killed the band after the first album. Because I had this thing in my head back in 1977 about getting electronics and traditional rock instrumentation together on the same piece of music, because it could be incredibly powerful. So it was an odd learning curve. But it was a band, I have to say, that were on a hiding to nothing. It would be very, very difficult for the Rich Kids to be accepted by the two areas that we had come from. You know, Glen coming from the punk thing and me coming from the teeny-bop pop thing. It was really difficult, and a very difficult route that Glen chose to take. When he could’ve chosen any singer / guitarist frontman or whatever to finish his lineup, he took the tough route, and that was me.
By the time you, Rusty Egan, and Steve got together to form Visage, with you having come from that teeny-bop background, did you really concern yourself with credibility anymore, or were you just out to make music?
I think the forming of Visage… At this point, I didn’t really care about the credibility. I was desperate to get into the studio. I was desperate to be allowed in the studio to kind of form my own ideas. I’d already had a four-track tape recorder, and I’d already started dabbling with production, and I had all this stuff in my head. I needed to get that out somehow. So Rusty and I, just prior to the demise of the Rich Kids, Rusty was running a club in London with Steve, a little club called Billy’s, and once a week all these cool kids would come up and listen to this bizarre electronic pop music coming out of Europe. Bits of Kraftwerk and La Düsseldorf, Noi! and Can, all sorts of stuff. We were really influenced by this. So for us, it was more important doing something that we thought was interesting and groundbreaking than something that we perceived “cool.”
One of the ideas that we had – ‘cause Rusty and I used to hang out all the time – was to get all our favorite musicians together to make some music, to make some electronic pop European dance music, to play in the club that he and Steve were running. And we did that. We got our favorite musicians, and Steve fronted the band. We needed someone who wasn’t signed to a record label. [Laughs.] Y’know, ‘cause the Rich Kids were still signed, the guys from Magazine were still signed, Billy Currie from Ultravox was still signed…and that was Visage! So Steve stepped into the frontman role, and he did it brilliantly.
Looking back at Visage’s chart history, it’s interesting that “Fade to Grey,” from the band’s self-titled debut album, was their biggest single, even though their second full-length effort, The Anvil, was actually their most successful album.
Now, that’s something I didn’t know. [Laughs.] It’s true! I had no idea. That’s pretty interesting. I think “Fade to Grey” has become a bigger song now than it ever was at the time. I think the association with the… [Hesitates.] It was, like, the start pistol for the whole electronic dance thing that happened afterwards. I think at the time it was maybe novel, and I think over the years you look back it and say, “No, I think that was the start of something quite special.” So it’s kind of grown up. Maybe that’s what it is: it’s grown into its boots these days.
You left Visage after The Anvil, but the band continued onward for one more album (1984’s Beat Boy) before dissolving. Did you feel like Visage could’ve gone farther?
Yeah, I think they probably could have. As you say, I did the first two albums, I was responsible for a lot of the songwriting on there, and I wanted to produce, which was the only thing I did that was anything special or anything different from anyone else who was part of Visage, which was a very democratic scenario. I didn’t take any more of a percentage or any more of the income from it than anybody else, but I spent 14 hours a day in the studio doing it – while everybody else just kind of floated in and out – because I was desperate to figure out how this worked in the studio. As I said, I had all these ideas and wanted to realize these ideas in the studio. So the only thing I got that was different than anyone else was a production credit, and that’s all I wanted. I wanted to be able to do that stuff.
During that period, Ultravox became successful, Visage was very successful, and I was the man of the moment. I was a guy that everybody wanted producing their music, because I had the ideas and I had the technical ability to do that. But after the second album, I left, and I’ll tell you why it came about, and you probably know because you’ve read it somewhere. In fact, I hear you laughing, so when I say “the camel story,” I’m sure you already know it.
You should probably tell it anyway.
[Laughs.] Okay, well, you know, Steve was in America. He was in New York, about to launch the new album. He was doing a big press launch for the album, and I was in London, still working with Ultravox, and I happened to hear one side of a conversation between my manager and somebody looking out for Steve in New York…and I heard them talking about the Washington Tunnel and the camel! And I said, “What is this?” And he said, “They’re having trouble getting the camel through the Washington Tunnel for the opening.” And I said, “What camel?” And they told me the whole story of Steve’s great idea of turning up in front of all the press and all the media, dressing in his finery, sitting on top of a camel to make his big entrance, to show New York how it’s done. And I said, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” And he said, “No.” I said, “The moment his arse hits that camel, I leave.” And he got on the camel. And I left. It was that simple! So I just walked away from it. It just turned a bit of a comedy sketch, really, y’know?
It’s funny, but I had always thought of your career as being “first Visage, then Ultravox.” Until preparing for this interview, I don’t think I ever realized that you were actually in both simultaneously for a period.
I was. I think there was a moment where the Vienna album and the Visage album… Although the Visage album had started maybe a year prior to the Ultravox album, because I hadn’t joined Ultravox when I started the Visage album. It was through working on Visage that I ended up joining Ultravox. But the Visage album took so long to make because we were borrowing studio time, and the musicians were all over the place because they were all touring in their own bands, so to try and get the thing completed took a long time. But the Ultravox album and the Visage album and the Ultravox single “Sleepwalk,” I think it might’ve been, all charted the same day! It was ludicrous! It was madness! But, yes, Visage came first, and through Visage and working with Billy Currie, the keyboard player of Ultravox, I ended up joining Ultravox. And then it was time to move on. Ultravox was my band, and…that was it. That was my serious band. Visage was fun and a learning curve, but Ultravox’s style was a very different thing.
[As it turns out, Ure was a bit off about the specifics of the timeline of the various chartings, but he was spot-on about Visage’s first album taking forever to finish: it appears that both the self-titled debut and the single for “Fade to Grey” came out on November 10, 1980…almost four months after Ultravox’s Vienna album was released!]
I have to ask you about your brief stint in Thin Lizzy, not to mention how you came to cross paths with Phil Lynott in the first place.
I saw a very early three-piece Thin Lizzy playing in Glasgow when I was…maybe 15 or 16? Around that period, anyway. I used to follow an Irish band called Skid Row, with a very young Gary Moore playing in the band. He was 16 when he played in this band. He was phenomenal. I used to see them, and then I read up on this other band which featured the vocalist or bassist or somebody who used to work with Skid Row, and that was Phil Lynott and his band, Thin Lizzy. So I went to check out Thin Lizzy, and they were great, just brilliant musicians.
Phil was a stunning frontman, with a great, individual vocal style, and I bumped into him a few years later, when I was driving my band’s van ‘round Glasgow. I was 18, 19, 20, something like that. But I saw him, I pulled in and had a chat with him, I took him back to my parents’ house and gave him a good meal, ‘cause he looked emaciated. [Laughs.] And he remembered this. We hadn’t chatted for ages, but he remembered this, and when my band Slik played a big concert in London, Phil sent ‘round a book of his lyrics, a signed book, saying, “Have a great night!” And then when I moved to London with the Rich Kids, I bumped into him again, and he remembered me, and we hung out and became great friends.
So when I was in the studio putting the finishing touches on the first Visage album, that was when I got the phone call from Phil, who was in Arkansas or something, saying, “Lizzy are on tour with Journey, and Gary Moore’s not in the band anymore. Can you come out and finish the tour?” It was, like, a Judy Garland moment! It was just ridiculous! I’d never been to America, but they sent me on the Concorde, and I spent the first night in New Orleans, sitting in a hotel room with Scott Gorham, the other guitar player, learning all the harmony guitar parts. And within 48 hours of getting the phone call, I was onstage playing “The Boys Are Back in Town” and having an absolute ball. It was an absolute ball…because I knew all the time that this was helping pay for some of the equipment that I needed for Ultravox! [Laughs.] It was great! It sounds a bit mercenary, but I have to say, it was all music. I just absolutely loved it. It was fantastic, because I didn’t have any of the pressures that you have within a band. When they had a bad night, they’d all be screaming at each other, and I’d be sitting with a glass of champagne, thinking, “Hey, I’m in Arkansas!” Or Los Angeles or Atlanta or wherever. “This is fabulous!”
Jumping back to Ultravox, as you said, your first album with the band was Vienna, which was co-produced by Conny Plank, who’d also co-produced their previous album, Systems of Romance. Do you remember how he reacted when “the new kid” came in?
I think he was probably a little bit weary, because I think up until that point John Foxx was very much hands on the rudder, as it were, with Ultravox. I think he kind of dominated the situation. According to the rest of the guys, he was a very dominant figure in the band, and I think maybe the idea of a new version of Ultravox – a four-piece, all of a sudden, with this other guy insisting that they work with Conny – I think Conny maybe somewhere in the back of his mind was thinking, “This is just a last-ditch attempt from this band to try and do something.” Because who knew it was going to be the success that it was? But I think once we sat down and talked about music and we played a couple of the things that we’d been working on, any fears that he may have had that this was a half-hearted attempt at doing something interesting were completely gone. We recorded the entire Vienna album in three weeks. It was just wham, bam. We had it all there, we’d rehearsed it all, we’d routined it all, we played most of the stuff live, so we knew exactly what it was that we wanted, and we managed to achieve it very, very quickly.
When you look back at the album, it sounds very much of its time, but how do you think it holds up? Do you think it’s something that modern audiences can appreciate as well as those who came up with it originally?
I think it does hold up. I think you can date anything, you know, especially electronics. You can date electronics very, very easily. You can tell a drum sound and say, “Oh, that’s a CR78,” or, “That’s a Linn Drum,” or whatever, and it does become very dated. It grows old, and as you say, it becomes a product of its time. But there’s something quite magical about what we did, because it wasn’t just all electronics. It was a combination of electronics. If you listen to the track “Vienna,” of course you think, “Oh, yeah, there’s the drum machine. The big heartbeat drum machine and the synthesized bass… Yeah, it’s all electronics.” But then comes the piano, and then comes the viola… [Laughs.]
It’s a really odd combination of instrumentations that makes that track, yet people still insist that there are no guitars on the Vienna album. If you listen to it again now, though, there’s guitar all over it! That’s what I am: I’m a guitarist! So there’s guitar everything, but people chose not to hear it. What they saw on television were these kind of stoic, po-faced, thin young men looking very dark and moody behind a bank of synthesizers, and that’s what they heard. It’s quite interesting. So the odd time when I hear “Vienna” on the radio now, it still stands up. Even though the sound may be dated, we didn’t just press a button on a machine that everyone else could press. We created those sounds. There was a whole different ballgame. We made those sounds from scratch.
Vienna was certainly a commercially successful album, but when you first joined the ranks of Ultravox, were there fans holding up signs saying, “Foxx Forever, Ure Never”?
Absolutely! And where I could see them! [Laughs.] It was written inside my eyelids! Of course you’re going to be absolutely aware that half the audience hates you and just wish that the stage would just swallow you up and you’d disappear, and John would walk on from the side and it’d all be great again. But it didn’t happen that way. In my head it might’ve, and maybe there was an element ‘round the periphery, but when “Vienna” happened…
Even prior to “Vienna” the song happening, when the Vienna album came out, there was a marked difference, I think, in the dynamic within the band. The band became a band, which was really quite interesting. There wasn’t a leader, there wasn’t a dominant character, there were four individuals pulling together and making a sound that only those four individuals could make. And that became very important many years later when we did the most recent album (Brilliant), having not played together for 25 years or so. The moment we played, that sound was there, that noise that only those four people could actually generate.
So once we came out with “Sleepwalk,” I think was the first single, people got it. They got it. They got it for what it was. Because it wasn’t the same as the previous Ultravox. Something had changed, and they could hear that something, whatever it was, and they kind of accepted it. And, of course, once “Vienna” the song came out, we crossed over into an entirely different audience, and they didn’t know the previous Ultravox. They just knew… Ultravox to them was the band that they’d heard on the radio that day.
Setting aside Brilliant, although it’s great, is there an album from your original tenure with Ultravox that you consider to be an underrated effort?
I think Rage in Eden. I think Rage in Eden was always one of my favorite albums, mainly because we didn’t write it before going into the studio. We sent ourselves off to Conny’s studio in Germany and locked ourselves away for three months and wrote and created the entire thing in the studio. And there’s a starkness about it, an austere, mystical distance, a coldness to it, but a coldness that kind of works. Because you have to imagine that every record company executive anywhere near us at the time wanted us to do “Vienna, Pt. 2.” Or they used to come up and say, “You know, ‘Paris’ is a really good city name…” [Laughs.] We were, like, “What, you want us to write a travelogue? What is this?” They wanted more of the same. Which is what record companies want. They don’t want to take a chance, they want to know they’ve got a guaranteed hit. And because we completely ignored them and did exactly what we wanted, we came up with something I thought was really quite interesting. I also think Lament was a great record.
Were you surprised that Ultravox never really took off in the States?
No. Not at all. I mean, you have to understand, when I came to America with Ultravox for the first time with…’79, I think it may have been? Or early ’80. But national radio in America was still playing Styx and Boston and Foreigner. Because of the vastness of your country, things move at a very slow pace. In the UK, a record comes out, it gets played on the radio, and it’s gone within a month. Out there, you can have a record still playing on the radio and sitting in the charts for six months. Things didn’t move as quickly as they did in the UK, so I can understand that, with something like Ultravox, they had no idea what the hell we were. When we presented the Vienna album to Chrysalis, they thought we were crazy. They thought something was wrong with the pressing, because the first track was an eight-minute-long instrumental. [Laughs.] “This is suicide!” Because we were arrogant young lads from the UK just saying, “Well, that’s what we want. This is what we do.”
And technically we couldn’t do anything other than play our own shows, so by the time we grew through the clubs and all of that stuff, up to the point in America where we could play theaters, like the Eddie Fisher Hall in New York – we were one of the few bands that was allowed to do that, I think because we were perceived as art in some areas – once we got to that, the next logical step for any band would be to open up for a bigger band and play before a larger audience. We couldn’t do it, because our sound checks took five hours! We were carrying equipment that was never designed to go outside a studio! [Laughs.] Every piece of equipment we had, we’d altered. We had to alter the MiniMoog to talk to the drum machine, the drum machine to talk to the manual sequencer, and all of that stuff that allowed us to create the music absolutely live, we had to have two of! So we had to carry tons and tons and tons of equipment, which ended up sitting in the back of a truck every night. We were our own worst enemy.
You first ventured into a solo career in the mid-‘80s, with The Gift. Was it a mutual decision by everyone to end Ultravox at a certain point?
No, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Band Aid and Live Aid. It took me away from the band for a long time. Once Band Aid and Live Aid were out of the way, I went back to doing the solo album that I’d started doing prior to all of this happening. Ultravox had decided to take a six-month sabbatical, and I started working on The Gift, which was my first solo record, and during that the whole Band Aid thing happened, Live Aid went on, I went back and finished my album and toured it, as I said I would. And by the time I was allowed to go back to Ultravox, they were just a very different band.
We had all moved in different directions, there was no coherence. We’d kind of lost our way, and we had wanted to move away from the sound that we were known for, but…it was just a mess. We made the last album, the U-Vox album, and it was kind of all over the place. Some of it was orchestral, with George Martin. Some of it was Ultravox with the Chieftains. How confused is that? [Laughs.] It worked on a track, but it didn’t work on an album. It was crazy! So it just seemed very obvious that our time had come to move on, and I said I was moving. I said I was leaving, and that there was an Ultravox before me, and why shouldn’t there be an Ultravox after me? But nobody felt the same way, so we all ended up walking away from it.
To ask at least one “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” session, in regards to the recording of the song, Bob Geldof said once upon a time that there were three people who were asked to participate but refused to be a part of it. At the time, he wouldn’t reveal who they were. Has he ever divulged their names?
Well, him and I were almost not allowed on it, you know? [Laughs.] We didn’t even get a line on it! But, no, he didn’t. I know the ins and outs of it all, but it’s not for saying, you know? It’s just that some people have got political opinions about it, some people have got emotional opinions about it, and some people just get it wrong. Also, you have to understand that you don’t get to talk to the artists all of the time. You sometimes get feedback and you kind of think, “Okay, the negativity, does that come from them, or does that come from somebody who’s not even letting them know they’re supposed to be answering?”
I think the interesting thing is that the majority of the people that we wanted to take part in it took part in it, and they made the thing what it was. It was a success because of those people’s collaboration and those people’s efforts rather than the fact that it was a good song. And the ongoing success is just, I think, simply because you can’t get away from the bloody thing. Every Christmas, there it is! It’s poisoning the world as we speak! [Laughs.]
When they’ve done the updated versions over the years, are you generally involved in some capacity, whether it’s to give a stamp of approval or whatever?
On the latest one, I was executive producer, and on Band Aid 20 I was executive producer. I just didn’t produce them because they’d end up sounding like the original, because that’s how I like to hear it. But the guys who did the production jobs on both of those did an incredibly good job. So I’ve been there all the way through. I’m a Band Aid trustee. The song is Bob’s and mine, although we’ve given the song and all the songwriting royalties to the Band Aid Trust. So we’re still Band Aid trustees, and because we’re responsible for every cent that that song has generated, so we have to be there to oversee it and do our damndest to make sure things are well above question. As soon as there’s finances involved in anything, you have to be absolutely on the ball, so even though our heads might just appear above the parapet every 10 years, every decade, when somebody’s gonna do a new version of it, we are still there on a daily basis, doing the boring bits that nobody’s really interested in. When it becomes glamorous, all of a sudden people think, “Oh, they’re back.” No. We never went away. We’re still doing it.
I’m probably the only person who’s ever brought this up in an interview, but I noticed that you wrote the score for the film Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God, Be Back by Five.
Wow! You’ve done your research!
Well, I’ve interviewed Jon Cryer before, and we talked about the film when we chatted.
Oh, he’s a fabulous guy.
How did that collaboration come about? Was it directly to do with him? I know he co-wrote the film in addition to starring in it.
His collaborator, his co-writer, a guy named Richard Schenckman, was a huge Ultravox fan back in the day, and Richard, for his sins, used to work for MTV. [Laughs.] So a lot of the stuff that Ultravox did, the video clips that we did back in the early ‘80s… When MTV came out at first, they had a great idea, but they didn’t have the content, so the content for MTV in the first year or so – and I’m sure you remember this – was mostly all British. So he remembered all the stuff that we had done, and he used to hang out with the band. And then he worked for Playboy for awhile – what a job that must have been! – and then he became an independent film director and writer, and he knew that I was very interested in film music. I always wondered why Ultravox were never asked to do film music, because it just seems to be a marriage made in heaven. But, yeah, he came to me, and I met up with him and Jon, and I’d seen Jon in a few bits and pieces, a few comedy things. And I loved it. I just thought it was a lovely little movie, really good, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing the thing.
I also interviewed Eddie Izzard last month, and one of the questions I couldn’t resist asking him was, “How did you come to play piano on ‘Vienna’ during Midge Ure’s Live8 set?”
Well, I hope he told you the proper story! [Laughs.]
Well, let’s see what you have to say.
Well, we were hanging out while we were putting Live8 together. He was there, he was incredibly gracious as one of the hosts / presenters. He’s got a great heart, Eddie. He’s a fantastic character. That was the first time I’d ever met him, but we ended up hanging out for two or three days prior to the concert, while I was trying to organize all of the elements and put it together. And I happened to find him sitting onstage one day in this big, empty rugby stadium, tinkling on the piano, playing really well. And I said, “Well, you kept that quiet!” And he said, “Well, it’s just something I do.” I said, “Great! Learn the piano part for ‘Vienna,’ and you come on and do it with me!” [Laughs.] But for a man who can walk out in front of thousands of people and make them laugh, which is a really difficult task, he was petrified to walk on and play the piano. He was absolutely petrified. But he did a good job.
For the record, he made sure to mention that he was absolutely petrified when he did it.
[Laughs.] Yeah, he was like a rabbit in headlights!
Lastly, as far as your solo albums prior to Fragile, is there one that didn’t necessarily go in the direction that you’d anticipated when you started it?
Well, most of them, I think. [Laughs.] Most of them didn’t go where I wanted them to go. Everyone wants their babies to do really well. Out there, I’m sure everybody wants their babies to be presidents, and I wanted my records to be hugely successful, and for people to pat me on the back and tell me I was a genius. But it doesn’t work that way. When you choose to deliberately swim upstream, which I do an awful lot, sometimes you have to be prepared to swim totally alone. That’s gonna happen. But I stand by just about everything I’ve done. I don’t think everything I’ve done has been great. I think everything I did, at the time, I firmly believed it was the right thing to do, and it was the best I could do at the time. More often than not, the albums where I didn’t really listen to the powers that be – the A&R guys, the record labels, all of that – when I was left to my own devices, sometimes, just sometimes, I’d hit on something that I could never have done any other way.
Answers to Nothing the album had some really interesting stuff on it. It was a bit po-faced and a bit serious in places, but, y’know, I was trying to find my feet. It’s very difficult when you leave a “we” and “us” situation from a band. You know, “we think this,” “we do this,” and “we do that.” Suddenly it’s a “me” and “I” situation, and that’s a strange thing to do. But saying that, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve still been allowed to do it. There are elements of what I’ve done in the past that you cannot get your head ‘round, you can’t think of how you thought at the time. And, of course, now you look back and think, “I’ve lost it, I don’t know what I was thinking,” but at the time it made perfect sense. But that’s an indication, a marker of the passage of time. I shouldn’t be thinking the same way I thought 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. I should be thinking exactly what I think and feel and what to act on right at this moment. So that’s what I try to do.