Interview: Midge Ure Chats About 40 Years of Ultravox’s “Vienna”

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Midge Ure (Photo courtesy Erika Tooker)

The brilliantly talented Midge Ure inaugurated his Backstage Lockdown Club — a series of live performances, presentations, and chat — via his Patreon site over the last few months. The gregarious singer-songwriter takes requests, performs acoustically, shares tales, greets guests, and more several times a month for a very reasonable subscription fee! In a time of very few concerts due to the pandemic, Midge has thrown us a live music lifeline, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be greeted in song or story by his distinctive Scottish vocal.

During the concert series, Midge performs songs from his solo back catalogue as well as covers and selections from his other bands, including of course Ultravox, the influential New Romantic band he fronted from 1979-1988 (and again circa 2008-2013). Parklife DC’s Mickey McCarter caught up with Midge via Skype to chat about Backstage Lockdown Club, the 40th anniversary of Ultravox’s breakthrough album Vienna, and more.

Mickey McCarter: Can we talk about Backstage Lockdown Club? How’s that’s going for you?

Midge Ure: It’s good fun. I didn’t expect it to be that, but it’s kind of turned into it. I didn’t do one last week, and it feels like there’s a little hole in my life, what I should have been doing on Saturday night. But it’s going really well. I think people are really appreciating it. And I believe the audience feels much more connected because of the fact that they are part of a club. So, this seems to work on many, many levels.

I spent a lot of time looking into how you do this stuff and how you do it well. I wanted it to look and sound better than other things that I’ve seen, not that there’s anything wrong with any live performance at all. I just wanted to have a bit of quality to it. So I spent a lot of time, — a lot of time looking at all the technological stuff. And it’s good. I’m really enjoying it.

MM: What’s been the biggest surprise for you going through it so far?

MU: The biggest surprise! Well, the technology wasn’t too difficult to get my head round. I’ve always been into cameras and video and editing and all of that stuff. I’ve always done that. So, the biggest surprise was the amount of people who are connecting live all around the world. Bearing in mind that irrespective of what time I do one of these things here in the UK, it’s the middle of the night to someone. Had it been me, I would have stayed in bed and watched it later, but it seems that most people want to stay up late or get up early. People are setting their alarms just to be there in the moment, which is fantastic. It’s a brilliant thing that people feel so connected — so enamored by it — that they want to do that.

Once you’ve done one of these things, it stays up on the internet for a month, so they can catch up at any time, but they still want to be there. It has the buildup and the anticipation of a live show, even though I’m chatting a lot of the time. It’s not just performance. So, it’s surprising, in that respect, that I’m seeing people from New Zealand, and Canada, and America, all over the place, all logging in live.

50510345667_8863aac5da_oMM: That’s great. I’ve been watching the broadcasts, and I’ve seen you upgrade your own equipment throughout the different performances. Would you encourage other artists to do to this? And how would you tell them to get started?

MU: Well, I have indeed encouraged other people to do it. Musicians are funny people. You find a new pedal, or a new guitar, or a new amplifier that you like, and then you tell everybody about it. You want to share it with people. So, I’ve been telling lots of musicians about what I’m doing. And strangely, a lot of them knew what I was doing. They’ve seen little snippets, little posts, little pieces of shows that I’ve put up on social media. They see it, and they get in touch with me and ask about the cameras, they ask about the tracking system. Everybody loves my little tracking camera. So they ask about the details of how it works and whatever, and I furnish them with all the information.

Yeah, I would suggest that anyone gets on board to do this! It’s either that or we can have to draw a line under, at least for now, any kind of performance. It beats the alternative. This isn’t a replacement for live performance forever, but it’s a replacement for now. Without doing this, there is no way of keeping in touch with an audience, and an audience keeping in touch with you. It might not tick all the boxes, but it certainly ticks a lot of the boxes. And most artists want to perform, most dancers want to do stuff like this.

MM: In the content of your Backstage Lockdown Club performances, have there been any songs or any sort of themes you’ve revisited that have been sort of personally satisfying for you? You were talking about connecting with people all over the world, and I would imagine that would generate a little bit of unanticipated requests, or would inspire you to explore certain songs, perhaps, that you haven’t explored in a long time.

MU: There’s lots of that because of the nature of how this works. People ask questions and the questions get voted up in Crowdcast. So if you see someone online, who’s got the same question you were going to ask, something you’re interested in, you vote for it, so that it goes to the top of the pile. Therefore, I can address that particular question. And yes, and it does bring up lot of requests. For me, it’s very strange to hear people saying, “Oh, and my absolute favorite is *whatever*.” And sometimes it’s something that I can’t even remember. I have no chance of being able to sit down and perform a song like that straight off the bat. I have to relearn a lot of these songs. There’s quite a lot of songs there to delve into. Some of the more interesting things I find are songs that I’ve never attempted to perform acoustically, and they’ve become kind of new favorites.

On the show that I did last time round, it coincided with the Berlin Wall coming down. And I played “Tumbling Down,” which is a real rarity for me to play live. To be able to do it on the anniversary of the wall coming down was incredible. But equally so, you get people asking for instrumentals, Wire and Wood, Astrodyne, and you think, “How can I possibly do any of those things? It’s just me. It’s just me on my own. I can’t possibly play those things.” But I think people find it quite funny when I just go, “No, I can’t possibly do it. I have no idea how it goes.”

Stream Soundtrack 1978-2019 by Midge Ure on Spotify:

MM: Well, it’s rewarding to see you sit down in the intimacy of your studio and have those conversations, even if people don’t get to hear their favorite song. It’s like spending time with a friend, a friend who’s an experienced musician who can share those sorts of insights. There’s still some sort of satisfaction in making the request and having that exchange with you, in my opinion.

MU: Absolutely. You’ve got to remember how things were 25, 30 years ago, where artists were untouchable and so far removed from an audience, until they were on stage. People used to write fan mail, and you never saw those letters. You never got them because they’d usually sent them to the record label, an agent, or a manager, who never sent them along. Now with social media, people not only can connect directly with you, but they *expect* to be able to connect directly with you. In a way, this is an extension of that. I can sit down and chat to people and tell them stories straight from the horse’s mouth, not edited via a newspaper or a magazine, or chopped up like a radio interview. They ask a question and they get the answer from the horse’s mouth, whether they want to hear it or not.

That’s quite a good thing. There’s a closeness about it, and that’s an odd thing to say, me sitting here, in my little studio at the bottom of the garden on my own, but there is. I sit here and I laugh. I share things with people and that’s something that I just didn’t think I’d be able to do.

MM: It’s terrific. I want to ask you about your recent greatest hits package — Midge Ure: Soundtrack: 1978-2019. It was a wonderfully produced package. It looked really nice. It sounded great. The video extras were a lovely surprise. Were you yourself pleased with how that came about?

MU: There’s something about the quality of these recent re-packagings, because it’s a big thing these days. The record labels don’t have the wherewithal to go and spend the kinds of money they used to spend on European artists. So they pick very carefully what they think will be successful, but they can get more income from stuff they’ve already bought and paid for. So they re-package a lot of things. And I’ve always been very weary of it, because they tend to do them as cheaply as possible. In the past, they’ve looked dreadful. Some labels maybe don’t care about the sound quality. They put them out at bargain bin basement prices and stick them in petrol stations, fuel stops and stuff, just to clawback any money that they can. And they’ve always been really bad.

But the last few have been done by Blue Raincoat, who are basically Chrysalis. So they own the stuff in the first place, and they’ve got great pride in what they signed and what they have. And they’ve done everything in conjunction with the artists.

So, the 40th anniversary box set of the Vienna album is spectacular. They have done such a brilliant job putting this together. I know they’ve spent a year putting all this together, going through the archives, digging out all these old tracks. And they did the exact same with Soundtrack. We worked hand-in-hand, and I chose songs that I wanted on there — not necessarily just the ones that got on the radio but some of the most obscure tracks. And they’re perfectly happy to do that. If I’m happy with it, they’re happy with it. There’s a standard that we just will not go below. And I’m glad that you’ve noticed that those packages, in particular, are good, high-quality ones. I’m very proud of those.

Stream the 40th anniversary deluxe edition of Vienna by Ultravox on Spotify:

MM: Of course, my very next questions are all about Vienna and Ultravox. Yes, it is a great package. And I would love to hear your perspective on the music and how that’s withstood the test of time. “Vienna” itself, what a culturally significant song, I may say, particularly if you’re a synthesizer enthusiast. It set the template for a lot of stuff that came after it in the ’80s. Don’t you think?

MU: Straight away, it’s very odd because Vienna’s getting better reviews now than it did 40 years ago, when it was first released! I think a lot of people didn’t know quite what to make of it. It was sort of hybrid electronic-rock with a violin. I could understand that people might find it a bit alien, a bit odd. So, yeah, the fact that it’s getting reviewed in prog rock magazines and hailed as some benchmark for what was to come is great. It’s lovely to think that you’ve done something that has longevity. It was never intended to do that. It was a piece of music. It was a piece of work that Ultravox did as a new lineup, as a new venture. We were still trying to find our way within each other — whose role was what? — and I was the new guy. That changed the balance within the band.

We made the entire album in three weeks. That fact tells you a lot. We weren’t stuck in the confines of trying to make a hit record. We were trying to make a piece of interesting music. If you stick to your guns and you have a lot of luck on your side, because it could easily have gone the other way, Vienna might never have been picked up and played on the radio. But it was the success of “Vienna” the song that made Vienna the album. The album got to a much bigger audience because of the hit single. We couldn’t have sculpted a track to do that any better than “Vienna” did, which was never meant to be a single. It was never meant to be played on the radio to that extent.

It’s fabulous that people are looking back and citing that record. I saw John Taylor from Duran Duran a couple of years ago when he was in London recording a new album. And he said, “Oh, we were playing Vienna in the studio the other day.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, we were looking for inspiration.” So, they had gone back in time to find out why Vienna sounded the way it did, which I find quite bizarrely flattering.

MM: Not only that, but in his autobiography, John Taylor says that they loved the Vienna video so much that they hired Russell Mulcahy to do all their videos, which of course went down in video history.

MU: Well, a lot of people did, it wasn’t just Duran — Spandau, Elton John, a lot of people. Once they saw the Vienna video, everyone wanted one.

MM: Right. And that way, if nothing else, there was certainly a template for music to follow.

MU: True.

Watch the official music video for “Vienna” by Ultravox on YouTube:

MM: You know, as a very young American, when I was exposed to Ultravox on MTV, which is how those things were introduced to me, the idea of Vienna as this far away land took on a mythical status for me. I lived in the middle of nowhere. I never got to see anything. And Ultravox’s music, to me, tapped into this very primal thing for a young guy — who would later travel but had not yet traveled.

MU: Sure.

MM: This idea that there were these foreign landscapes, these places you could go and Ultravox seemed like they were singing about this sort of thing all the time. Ultravox had that power, it had that ability to sort of make you want to go. I talked to Peter Godwin about it recently, and he described it as your desire to be part of a new thing, perhaps a new place.

MU: There was a cinematic element to Ultravox as well. It was the audio version of going to a movie. It did paint pictures in your head; it did create landscapes; and it did create foreign lands, real or imagined. And that was great, because that’s what music should do. It should take you out of the reality you’re living in, and just close your eyes and take you away somewhere else. I’m very pleased you got that fate.

MM: Peter said that was something he never imagined when he recorded his music, do you feel the same? Did you imagine that somebody halfway around the world so removed from your own experiences might be so compelled by the music?

MU: Not really. That’s not the sort of thing you think of when you’re creating something. But as a recipient of music… I’ve heard it millions of times. When I listen to early David Bowie or Roxy Music, it took me away to somewhere else. So, I could see that music would do that, but I never dreamed that I would be the one creating the music that someone else would do it to. It’s kind of embarrassing when people say, “Oh, I love your guitar playing. I love your vocals.” It’s the sort of thing I would say to someone else, but I’d never expect someone else to say it to me. And maybe that’s just naivety, but it’s nice when it happens.

MM: Thanks so much, Midge. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you again.

MU: A pleasure, Mick. It was good to talk to you again.

***

Visit Midge Ure on Patreon for more music and exclusive live performances!

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