Midge Ure admits he was not a very nice man in Ultravox’s heyday, but he’s learned to laugh, love his daughters – and stay away from the drink, he tells Aidan Smith
Midge Ure is dressed in Bible black and the hotel conference room made available to us is stark, soulless and designed for business – grim business. “I know what you mean,” he says. “It’s like we’re here to discuss the winding up of our band rather than us getting back together, and my gear disnae help.”
But Ultravox, the electro-pop pioneers who helped soundtrack the 1980s, have just released their first album of new material in almost three decades, and their 58-year-old frontman from Cambuslang, Lanarkshire, can’t quite believe it.
“There was a standing joke in our band that when you wanted to scratch your nose you had to wrap your arm twice round your neck to do it,” he says. “If there was an awkward way, that’s generally what Ultravox did.” By that rule, a full-scale reunion after all those years would have involved almost as many contortions as there were in Harry Houdini’s final performance, and so was discounted as a lunatic idea some time ago.
“But suddenly there we all were, the four of us, together again for rehearsals and wondering if we’re going to end up killing each other. Not only had the rest of us not spoken to our drummer in 26 years, we hadn’t seen him since we’d sacked him.” This is Warren Cann, although Ure will mostly refer to him as “the drummer”. So why was Warren canned? Ure speaks in general terms of a band losing its mind, with everyone culpable. “It was madness, absolute madness. We’d started small, but then when we became successful, everything got huge, more grand, pompous and totally over-the-top.”
Ure bears much of the guilt for the band’s demise and it’s hard to equate his self-criticism – “I was a little Hitler” – with the happy, relaxed Live Aid legend sipping his post-red-eye tea with me in Edinburgh. He smiles much more than in the Ultravox videos, but then for their most famous song, Vienna, he was trying very hard to look “mystic and soulful”.
This remarkable pop life began not far from our hotel, in the old Clouds disco, where every weekend – Fridays in the capital and Saturdays at the sister hop in Glasgow – Ure fronted early-1970s covers band Salvation, who quickly caught the ear of Bill Martin, the Scottish half the of the Martin- Coulter hit factory. “Bill heard us trying to master Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us. He flared his nostrils and said, ‘I’m gonna make these boys stars.’”
The process would take a little while, but some would contend the 1980s properly began with Vienna; certainly the video with Midge in mystic and soulful raincoat, fedora and pointy sideboards became as famous as the song. “Ah, the Burberry. I still have it,” he smiles. “And I think it’s probably fair to say we invented quite a few of the video clichés.” More hits followed, but Ultravox broke up shortly after Live Aid.
Ure reflects on his career up to that point with no little candour. “At the outset, I didn’t really know who I was. I was incredibly naïve, but you know, naïvety is a wonderful state: you can do great things. But then you start to believe the acclaim and end up a right pain in the arse.
“I was a megalomaniac, a workaholic, and I expected everyone to have the same ridiculously high standards as me – the guy with all the toys who was having all the fun. Our shows would last two hours, but sound-checking took five hours. At the height of all the madness we had 26 synthesizers on stage with us. For one tour I commissioned this Peter Saville-type set – lots of columns and archways; really quite Masonic – which I insisted we lug round the world with us, even to venues which only had room for about half a plinth. That was our Spinal Tap moment.
“I broke a fair few lighting engineers and monitor engineers because I was asking them to do the impossible. After what had clearly been a great show, I’d be furious because one light hadn’t come on at the right time. These guys used to fear me; I wasn’t a nice person to be around. Horrible, horrible.”
Three years ago, Ure and Cann, plus Billy Currie and Chris Cross, reformed for some gigs but the leader was adamant they wouldn’t be going back inside a studio. For bands of a certain era, and this is certainly true of those of Ultravox’s time, there is nothing more likely to send the crowd scurrying to the bar or – worse – the car park, than: “And now we’re going to play some new songs.” So why the change of heart?
“The impetus came from Germany. It’s true that no band ever really dies there. Half of us were interested in making new music; I was in the half that wasn’t. You know, a band is just like any relationship. You meet up again after 25 years or whatever – a spark, lovely, fantastic – but then the things that made you split up start to fester again.” But did he look at his 1980s peers peddling new wares and feel the competitive urge? “Yes, because there’s always ego. Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were huge back in the day but their new music really wasn’t very good.” Ultravox clearly think theirs is superior – they’ve called the comeback album Brilliant.
“We worked on it for two years in secret, so if it turned out to be crap no-one ever needed to know.” After the bombast of before, there was a strict rule for instruments-per-musician. “We went out to Montreal, where I have a house, and built a studio with laptops. We cooked, washed up and lived together, just like The Odd Couple, slightly expanded. The whole thing was oddly liberating, and we got through it.”
Now Ure must get through the tour. “Obviously, I could be putting myself in danger, but the other guys are being phenomenal with me; I hardly ever see them drink.” He’s talking about his own battle with alcoholism which almost cost him everything. Ure didn’t drink until he was 25, the addiction really taking a grip after the death of his father. “There was a whole slew of events, but that was the big one. I just went over the edge and couldn’t face a new day without a drink. Career-wise, I could hear the nails being hammered into my coffin. My time was up and I was going to have to move on, but where? I didn’t stick at the NEL [National Engineering Laboratory] in East Kilbride because all I would have been good for there was sweeping up the iron filings. I wasn’t skilled in anything else.”
Ure has four daughters, one by first wife Annabel Giles and three by his second, Sheridan Forbes. “The horrible thing about addiction is that you think it’s only harming you, but it isn’t. Am I ever tempted to drink again? I think you always are, it’s the monkey on your shoulder. The vulnerable times are when you’re tired and a bit emotional. I must admit I still wake up after dreams where I’ve been drinking again and they’ve been so hideously real that I’ve wondered, ‘Did I?’ But what always stops me doing it is my family. I didn’t notice how badly they’d been affected until the cloud lifted.”
Tell people you’re meeting Midge Ure, and they want to know about the state of his relationship with Bob Geldof. Do the men who changed the concept of giving after writing Do They Know It’s Christmas? send each other Christmas cards? “God, no!” he laughs. “We’ll occasionally text, although Bob attempts ‘yoof-speak’ but he hasn’t quite got the hang of it and his messages come out garbled.”
I tell him that, before the interview, my neighbour said he felt sorry for Ure because Geldof seemed to get nearly all the credit for Live Aid. “I’ve heard that said so often I almost believe it myself. Seriously, Bob didn’t get involved for the acclaim, or to bludgeon us all until he got his knighthood. I did get fed up when folk kept asking, ‘Where’s yours?’ But that stopped when I got the OBE.”
Now he’s laughing again, having remembered how Ultravox were bumped down the bill for the Wembley mega-gig so the about-to-depart Prince and Princess of Wales could see Geldof’s Boomtown Rats. “When I got told this I was like, ‘No no, Bob wouldn’t do that.’ It was 15 years before I mentioned it to him. He said, ‘Yeah, OK – guilty.’”
As he’s revealed today, Ure has been guilty of rock-star behaviour himself, though maybe he’s never possessed the big, loud personality to fully exploit his position. “There’s a classic shot from the end of Live Aid where we’re all on stage together and, three rows back behind Freddie Mercury and Bryan Adams, all you can see of the wee guy from Cambuslang is an elbow and a corner of shirt.”
And this suits a man who is conscious of not wanting to embarrass Molly, Kitty, Ruby and Flossie any more than dredged-up footage, of him in his mystic and soulful heyday, already do.
“What’s it like sharing a house with five women? I could say it’s why I’m taking my chances back out there on the road, but really it’s wonderful. Screechy and bitchy, too, of course, but you can my minding your own business, and one of them will sidle up and give you a cuddle. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
• Ultravox play Glasgow’s SECC on 7 October. Brilliant (EMI) is out now.