Midge Ure on early days of Visage and Ultravox: 'Using synthesisers was almost a punk thing'
Midge Ure is set to perform Ultravox's hit album Vienna in full for the first time since its release almost 40 years ago. In advance of his Irish dates next month, the Scottish star told David Roy about revisiting his synthpop days with Ultravox and Visage on The 1980 Tour
MIDGE Ure will soon be revisiting his electronic past with The 1980 Tour, which celebrates what could understatedly be called 'a very good year' for the Scottish rocker and synthpop pioneer.
Along with backing group Band Electronica, the veteran musician will be hitting the road to perform Ultravox's 1980 LP Vienna – the title track of which became a huge hit the following year and remains one of the definitive 1980s pop singles – along with highlights from the 1980 self-titled debut album by his other synthesiser-enabled project of the era, the Steve Strange-fronted Visage, including the era-defining classic Fade To Grey.
However, when Ure (65) takes our call in a recording studio in his adopted hometown of Bath, the Glaswegian is preoccupied by the electronic present – specifically, his new emissions-free motor.
"I've just got myself an electric car," he says of his new Jaguar I-PACE. "It's cool – it's a great car, but I'm finding the recharging thing a bit of nightmare. I'm doing a show in Essex tomorrow, so in order to get there without any major heart-failure incidents, I'm stopping off in London overnight.
"It's a very long-winded process, but I'm doing my bit for the environment."
Pleasingly, the self-deprecating Scot – who enjoyed his first number one in 1976 with Forever and Ever by his early band, Slik, before topping the chart yet again in 1985 with solo single If I Was – is only too aware of the formidable carbon footprint he's currently nibbling away at, built up through the years while touring with the likes of Thin Lizzy (Ure was an emergency replacement for guitarist Gary Moore on Lizzy's 1979 US tour), Ultravox and latterly as a solo artist.
"Aw jeez, yeah," he chuckles. "If I could learn to fly it would help offset it a bit more."
On the subject of flying and indeed Thin Lizzy, Ure recalls the first time he racked up serious air miles was in 1979 after receiving an 'SOS' call from his pal Phil Lynott.
"I'd seen Lizzy playing in Glasgow when they were a three-piece," explains Ure, who co-wrote the chart-topping 1984 Band Aid smash Do They Know It's Christmas? with Bob Geldof and helped organise 1985's historic Live Aid charity show at Wembley.
"I was a fan of Skid Row [featuring Lynott and a young Gary Moore] – I'd seen them perform when I was 15 or 16 and was blown away by them. Then I read about this new band featuring a guy who used to be in Skid Row, and that was Philip.
"I went to see them and absolutely fell in love with the songs and, kind of weirdly, ended up befriending Philip [legend has it that the teenage Ure took him home for tea at his mum's].
"When I moved to London we used to hang out together: I was in The Rich Kids [Glen Matlock's post-Pistols project, also featuring Ure's future Visage co-conspirator, Rusty Egan], Lizzy's Live and Dangerous was just starting to become a mega album for them."
Then, during the 1979 sessions for the debut Visage LP, came a fateful phonecall: Lynott asked Ure to fly out the the US the next day to help Thin Lizzy complete a three-week stint opening for Journey in the US.
"Part of your brain screams 'yes!' and the other part says 'no chance, you're not good enough – nobody can step into Gary Moore's shoes'," says Ure, who would join his Visage bandmate Billy Currie in Ultravox later that year, replacing departed vocalist John Foxx.
Having accepted Lynott's offer, a bag of Lizzy cassettes and a plane ticket were delivered to Ure's doorstep that evening. He duly packed a portable 'ghetto blaster', resolving to learn all Moore's harmony guitar parts for a 20-song set during the long transatlantic flight to New York.
"Of course, they flew me out on Concorde – which took three hours or something!" laughs Ure, who notes he'd never been to the US before this fateful trip, which involved catching a connecting flight to join Lizzy in New Orleans.
"That was my first night in America and it didn't look anything like America to me – I'm furious because I'm expecting Starsky & Hutch and here I am in the French Quarter!"
The tour was a big success – but not as big as the success which awaited Ure at home with his new, electronically enhanced musical projects.
"1980, that whole period, it wasn't just about the fashion – there was a technological revolution," he says of the early days of Visage and Ultravox, the former a lynch-pin of the extravagantly styled new romantic scene that was erupting at the time.
"All of a sudden, this technology was like an extension of your guitar or your keyboard – you could make noises with synthesisers, drum machines meant you didn't have to have a drummer nearby every time you wanted to throw down an idea."
While Ure's recent appearances at popular retro festivals like Rewind and Let's Rock have seen him playing rockier versions of his 80s hits – "I love plugging in my guitar and going 'kerrraaaaang!', because it's what I did long before I was allowed anywhere near a synthesiser," he comments – The 1980 Tour finds him taking the Ultravox and Visage material back to its synthpop roots with his appropriately tooled-up group Band Electronica.
Such newfangled electronic gear represented something of a dividing line among musicians in the late 1970s – one which ran right through the middle of the Rich Kids, resulting in their demise.
"Glen [Matlock] was saying, 'well if you want a piano player, you get someone like Ian McLagan from the Small Faces – a proper piano player'," recalls Ure, who was very much 'pro-synth' along with bandmate Rusty Egan, who is set to make some guest appearances during the Visage sections of the upcoming 1980 Tour.
"But it wasn't about being a 'proper' player. To me, using a synth was almost a punk thing – it was about having a go at it ourselves. If you look back at that period and all those guys with synthesisers on Top of The Pops, they're all playing one note at a time with two fingers. But you got instant soundscapes and atmosphere from that. We weren't keyboard players – but we were using the technology to do something different.
With a laugh, Ure adds: "I still write on a keyboard today – and I'm still not a keyboard player!"
:: Midge Ure and Band Electronica, October 28, Ulster Hall, Belfast / October 29, Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Tickets via Ticketmaster.ie.