Arts

Midge Ure ready to hit the high notes with Vienna at Belfast's Proms tonight

As the Ulster Orchestra warms up for tonight's Proms at Titanic Slipways, the headline act for the Belfast concert, Midge Ure, tells Gail Bell he will still be hitting the high notes in a new orchestrated version of Vienna – but he won't be wearing his famous raincoat

Midge Ure, former frontman for Ultravox, who is headlining this year's Proms in Belfast
Gail Bell

HE MAY have just spent the night at a casino in Las Vegas, but Midge Ure is nothing if not sensible these days – even on a 'night off' while on tour.

The Grammy and Brit Award-winning musician is still on the second leg of the extensive US Soundtrack of Your Life tour with old buddy Paul Young, but is taking a detour across the Atlantic just to perform for Belfast fans at the BBC's Proms concert at Titanic Slipways this evening.

Now aged 64, a night in Las Vegas is not like it sounds, though: "Every hotel in Vegas is a casino, but even though we had a night off last night, we were all extremely sensible," stresses the former Ultravox frontman down the line while en route to his next stop at Salt Lake City.

"We all just caught up with each other this morning and someone was saying, 'Well, I had a steak', someone else said, 'I went for a walk' – and you think, 'Hold on, where's all the rock 'n' roll stuff gone?

"How many TVs did you throw out of the hotel room? The answer to that is not one, not even a remote."

Despite the extra travel involved, the Proms gig is a welcome interlude for Ure who has been a regular visitor here since the 70s. The name Midge, by the way, came courtesy of a former band mate and is, apparently, a phonetic reversal (of sorts) of his 'real' name, Jim.

"There is always a great vibe in Belfast," enthuses the affable Glaswegian who now lives in Bath with actress wife, Sheridan Forbes, and one of four daughters not yet flown the nest.

"Belfast is just like Glasgow in many ways; same sort of characters, same sense of humour – we're all connected in a way, and my grandma is from Northern Ireland, so there is an even closer link for me."

It will, however, be the proverbial flying visit, as he jets back to Texas on Sunday, but despite the excitement, Ure is surprisingly "petrified" at the thought of performing alongside the Ulster Orchestra.

"It's going to be great," he says, "but I'm petrified about doing something like the Proms where you know the orchestra is going to be brilliant and you know the conductor is going to be spot-on and I'm going to be the one kind of under-rehearsed for the grand occasion.

"That bit is definitely a bit scary, so I'm going to be spend most of today listening to some of the songs and re-learning my stuff."

The 'stuff' of which he speaks is a selection of songs from the new Orchestrated solo album released in the US earlier this summer and featuring some of the biggest Ultravox hits, among them signature track Vienna, widely regarded as a staple of the synthpop genre popularised in the early 80s.

"When I haven't got a cold, I can still hit the high notes," he assures me. "I might have to take a run at the mic these days, but the song is still in the original key; it's all still there and I hope it sounds the same – even with jet lag."

With Orchestrated, he spent 18 meticulous months redoing the arrangements although, like a pentimento, the original artwork is recognisable beneath newly added layers.

"The thing I'm most proud of in the new album is that the songs still stand up, they still sound fresh," he says. "What I wanted to do was take a deeper look at the lyrics and see what they were really saying. Dancing with Tears, for instance, is now almost a ballad.

"What I didn't want to do was just rehash old songs and throw on some strings. The old Ultravox songs are very cinematic, sort of grand and atmospheric anyway, so I think the orchestra just enhances all of that."

As co-writer (with Bob Geldof) of the African fundraiser, Do They Know It's Christmas and co-organiser of the subsequent 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley, Ure revealed a strong social conscience, probably rooted in his own penurious upbringing in tenements on the outskirts of Glasgow.

He tells the story – with characteristic good humour – of his parents saving up £3 to buy him his first guitar when he was 10, how his back garden was laced with stagnant water from the sewers and how "clapped out old cars" became an adventure playground.

But, after playing throughout the 70s in bands including Slik, Thin Lizzy, The Rich Kids and Visage, it was Ultravox and Vienna which catapulted him to the top, at the same time instigating a dramatic turnaround in his finances.

Yet, the musician, who in 2005 received an OBE for his dedication to various charity causes, remains focussed on what is important in life.

During trips to Africa, he once observed that while the poorest have nothing, they are have "something that we have lost: generations of one family living together".

On a personal level, the now successful solo artist says the Live Aid concert actually left him out of pocket as it spelled the beginning of the end for Ultravox, but a recent flashback to that heady July day in London had him having a laugh – at his own expense.

A few months ago, he unexpectedly met Martin Compston – who had portrayed him in Sky Arts Urban Myths satire Backstage At Live Aid – while at Glasgow Caledonian University where the actor was receiving an honorary degree.

In the programme, the Line of Duty actor gives a manic portrayal of Ure who is having a blow-up with fellow Live Aid organiser Geldof ( Jonas Armstrong) over the Boomtown Rats man not "jumping at the end of songs any more" and being unable "to land on the beat".

"It was so funny," Ure recalls. "Martin was petrified of meeting me, in case I had hated it, but he was the 'me' that I would like to be at times: slightly manic, twisted, hard, a bit threatening... I thought he did a brilliant job. And he wore the raincoat well too."

But, while songs from the past will top the bill tonight, the ankle-skimming raincoat from his Vienna video, won't be part of the act.

It is currently on display, along with his Live Aid coat and sunglasses, in the new Rip It Up exhibition of Scottish pop memorabilia which opened at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in June.

"I found them all in a box in the loft, so when they asked if they could display some of the stuff, of course I said, 'yes'," Ure says. "But, the strangest thing was speaking to the head wardrobe lady at the museum and seeing her handling my coat wearing white gloves.

"She said they handled the items the same way they handled Mary Queen of Scots dresses. I thought, 'I've been so irreverent; all that stuff had been crumpled up and shoved in a box and now they are nostalgic museum pieces. Life is very strange indeed."

:: Extracts from BBC Belfast Proms in the Park will be shown across the UK on BBC1 and BBC2 this evening and viewers will also be able to watch selected highlights from the Belfast concert online at bbc.co.uk/proms

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