Editor’s Note: Midge Ure has announced his return to Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016! (Tickets are available online.)
I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with a great Scotsman, singer-songwriter Midge Ure, best known in the United States as the frontman of Ultravox in the 1980s. Midge is in the midst of a solo acoustic tour at the moment, and he stops by the DC metro area to perform at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in Bethesda, Md., on Sunday, March 8. Tickets are available online and at the door.
Midge was quite generous with his time and shared his perspectives on touring in America, writing hit songs and his history with Ultravox as well as his late friend Steve Strange, his bandmate in Visage. (This may be a lengthy interview, but there was so much wisdom in so many of his answers that I couldn’t bear to cut it!)
Mickey McCarter: How’s the tour going?
Midge Ure: I’ve done the first half. I did that back at the end of June. So I’ve done the West Coast — the warm part! That was great. It was really good. I’m looking forward to the second part now.
MM: What’s been the highlight for you so far?
MU: I lost contact with all form of life in America probably for 20 years! Don’t ask me how that happens, but it just did.
I suppose when my band Ultravox broke up, I didn’t have an agent or any of that. So now that I’ve reconnected, I thoroughly enjoy coming back. I had forgotten how huge your country is and how much people in America love music. The fact that I can come and perform in different ways with a band or acoustic solo is amazing.
I tour Europe all of the time so the idea of coming to places that I haven’t seen in a long time is really appealing.
MM: I saw you in Philadelphia a few years ago. You said you hadn’t been back to Philly since Live Aid [which Midge produced with Bob Geldof in 1985], and that brought it home for me.
MU: It’s been a long long time, absolutely. Now that I’m back, but now that I have a toehold again, I’m going to come back every year or 18 months or so.
MM: What can we expect from your show when you play in DC?
MU: It’s totally acoustic. It’s me doing something which I’ve never done before. I’ve played acoustic shows before on stage alone, but I’ve never toured 100 percent alone. I have no infrastructure; I have no tour manager; I have no crew. I’ve set myself this task of coming out in so many years of touring of going out with no one around me.
Hence, I’m calling the tour “The Fragile Troubadour Tour.” It really is a troubadour show. You walk onstage with your guitar. And if you break a string, you have to say, “I’ll be back in five minutes.” Then you go and fix it, come back and carry on the show.
I’m weirdly enjoying that aspect of the show. I’m very strangely enjoying it. When I walk on stage, there are no explosions or big guitar solos — there is none of that stuff. There’s me and a huge amount of songs I can choose from — and hopefully my ability to sing these songs that people want to hear — everything from early Ultravox right through to cuts from the latest album.
MM: You’re revisiting some songs you haven’t seen in a while? How are they coming?
MU: I have a wealth of material to delve into. I would like to say like Van Morrison or Elvis Costello, I can pull these songs out of my hat and play them perfectly! But I can’t. [laughs] I can’t remember half of them. I have to think about what I might want to play and try to adapt those songs for an acoustic performance. A lot of those songs were never designed to be played on an acoustic guitar. But they make the transition very well. I probably have got about 40 songs I can just pull out at any given moment, depending on where the evening is going.
I chat about a particular song and that reminds me of something else and I play something that I haven’t done in a while.
The tracks that are proving the most difficult simply because they are the newest are the tracks from Fragile album. It’s quite a lush sounding record. To take those songs and to rework them for an acoustic guitar is a tall order, but I’m managing it.
MM: Are you going to come back with a band again? Are you going to continue with the Retro Futura tour [a summer tour that Midge joined last year with other ‘80s artists]?
MU: I enjoyed the Retro Futura thing. It was an odd thing to do, working with a band that isn’t necessarily your band.
To bring my band across would be an incredibly cost-prohibitive thing to do. You have to be flexible! If you’re going to be a performer, you should be able to perform in any kind of format.
My goal is to get Ultravox back over. Ultravox haven’t played in America for many many years — probably 30 years or more.
So I would love to get the band back over. When we did the touring in Europe, it was phenomenal if I may say so myself. The fact that we hadn’t played together for 25 years, and these senior citizens get rolled on stage and out comes this ridiculous noise — out comes this powerhouse of a band. I had forgotten how powerful Ultravox were.
My ultimate goal is to find some vehicle that will allow us to come back and do something in America. That could be a possibility of a collaboration tour with one or two other like-minded artists from the era. That takes a while to try to put together. And it’s understandable that promoters would be a little nervous about that.
They would be a little nervous thinking, well, this band hasn’t been around for such a long time. Who’s going to go see them? So I can understand the reticence right now. But the more I come out and do some stuff in America, and get the reviews and build up the following again, the easier it’s going to be for me to bring the band over.
MM: It seems realistic given that some of your peers are doing it. Simple Minds had a successful little tour not too long ago, and Spandau Ballet are in the middle of their return to America right now. It seems like it’s a possibility.
MU: Simple Minds and Ultravox did four shows in the U.K. last year. It was just magnificent! It was such a great pairing.
It came about simply because Jim Kerr and I were chatting one day at Peter Gabriel’s studio, which is just down the road from where I live. We were talking about how you tour a band these days while trying to keep the value and the ticket price reasonable without piling it all on the fan all the time.
And we agreed the real way to do it is to do a compatible-artist tour. Unfortunately, I don’t think many promoters get it. They might think well, you, Blondie and Men Without Hats are from the same era and that will make a good package. Well, not really, it doesn’t.
If you think a little bit more about it, the more compatible the artists are, the more complementary they are to each other, the more appealing that package is going to be.
Jim and I remembered this conversation six months later, and he said, “We are going to do some arena shows in the U.K., will Ultravox come and be our special guests?” Ultravox had never done that before for anyone. It was just phenomenal. We played the O2 in London in front of 12,000 people. It was just fantastic!
We have talked about the possibility of trying to do something with Simple Minds or Tears for Fears or some of the quality end of the bands from that era — together doing something. That would be the way forward, really.
MM: That would be exciting.
MU: I think it would — if we can control it with compatible acts! The bands feel better if they tour with someone they respect and admire as opposed to someone who was around during the same period, but the music isn’t necessarily compatible.
MM: It seems to me more bands are eager to tour in general these days because that’s where you put your personal stamp on the music and touring is more of where the money is these days rather than depending on making money off an album release. What do you think?
MU: There is a lot of reminiscing going on with a lot of bands, and I have a theory as to why.
When you are struggling as an up and coming artist to achieve success and get your record deal, up until the moment you become successful, you play every club you can play to learn your craft, to get better at what you’re doing, and to achieve that goal.
So once you achieve that goal, what do you do? You stop touring. You put out an album every two years, and you only tour when the album is out because that’s what you do. You put the album out, and then you back it up with a tour. In those days, it didn’t matter what that tour cost to do, because you were generating the income from the album. So one was sustaining the other.
I realized after the demise of Ultravox when we only toured once every two years, I was missing this. I vowed to go back out and to play live as often as I could. That’s what I’ve been doing nonstop for the last 25 years because that’s why I started doing this.
It’s kind of remembering what scratched your itch back in the day when you were 15 or 16, playing in front of your school and the buzz you got from doing that. You kind of forget that.
A lot of people have rediscovered what it was that came first. Playing music live came long before you were allowed in a studio. So people are rediscovering that.
So maybe it’s not just a fiscal thing. It’s certainly not with Ultravox. Ultravox obviously have to be paid something to cart themselves and their equipment around and do a tour. But it’s not a business for us. We are four individuals who like to make some music now and again. We make music elsewhere. We are financed from other sources.
Thank god people still want to go see live music. It’s one thing the Internet hasn’t managed to replace yet!
MM: I find your songs and those of like-minded artists endure because you have a lot of positive things to say. Your songs are very uplifting. When we talk about popular music today, I think too often we get lowest common denominator stuff that doesn’t necessarily have any message much less a positive one.
MU: With regards to popular music, there was a great thing I saw on social media the other day when Beck received his Grammy for Album of the Year.
There were two columns. One column said the amount of writers contributing to Beyoncé’s new album: 26 writers.
Next to it, it said the number of writers contributing to Beck’s new album, and it said: Beck.
And then it said the amount of instruments played by Beck on his new album? 16. The amount of instruments played by Beyoncé on her album? None.
An example of the “Grammy album comparison” from Buzzfeed
When one person voices his thoughts and opinions in the form of a song, it’s an adult thing; it’s a grown-up choice.
I don’t write songs for them to be commercially successful. I write songs and sometimes they are commercially successful, almost despite my efforts! And I think that’s the same for a lot of artists.
But then there is the other side of the wall, where there are songs that finely chiseled and polished, and they are designed to be hit records. That’s a whole different craft; it’s a whole different art.
And it’s not an art I’m particularly good at, and it’s not an art that I particularly want to be a part of. I don’t think if someone put a gun to my head and said, write the next Beyoncé hit, that I could do it.
I could maybe write a great song. And she might have a hit with it, but I certainly couldn’t do it for one particular person.
For songs that are real and honest and heartfelt and come from the soul, there are a lot of great writers out there that do that. But sometimes radio isn’t particularly interested in playing them.
So it’s a decision you have to make. If you choose not to use certain tools or take certain paths, and you choose the difficult path, be prepared for the difficult route. Be prepared for the odd pat on the back now and again and a little bit of respect, possibly.
Don’t think you’re going to get a swimming pool full of Lamborghinis. It’s not going to happen. That tends to be the divide: people who do it to get their thoughts and feelings out there — and people who do it to get a Lamborghini.
MM: Steve Strange died recently. He was an old friend and colleague of yours. Any thoughts on his passing?
MU: It’s been an odd thing seeing pictures of Steve on television and all over social media and the newspapers — pictures of how he was back in the ’80s when we were in Visage together and pictures of how he was now.
It’s sad. There’s something not right. Steve was six years younger than me. To see your friends and peers falling by the wayside is wrong. It’s not right.
It’s an understatement to say that it wasn’t unexpected that something would happen to Steve. But how it happened was unexpected. Steve lived in that murky club world for a long time. And if you inhabit that nightlife world, you can get involved in things you shouldn’t. And we all worried for him. But as it turned out, he died of something perfectly natural — just ill health. That was unexpected.
It was a very odd day. I got a phone call from Rusty Egan, my old friend and cohort from the Rich Kids and Visage, and he told me what happened.
It was a very weird, emotional day.
MM: Somebody on Facebook said that one of Steve’s strengths was that he was a great social curator. I was sad that I don’t see a lot of that sort of thing anymore where someone is creating a scene full of music where everyone has a lot in common. At least, I don’t see it.
MU: It was a revolution. Steve had originally come from the punk and new wave scene and so had all of the Blitz Kids. They all started as punks. But then it bottomed out very quickly, and they wanted to do the antithesis of that. They wanted to be glam; they wanted to be cool, smart, and sophisticated. They formed this other thing, and they rebelled against what everybody else was doing because everybody else was doing it. They wanted to make a change.
The last time in music I’ve seen that kind of change was when rap music started. It was rebelling against music as we all knew it. Love it or hate it, every generation should have a musical rebellion.