Midge Ure: 'If Ultravox were ever going to listen to anybody George Martin was the person'
Originally announced at the start of 2021, it was inevitably rescheduled due to pandemic restrictions, but is now finally wending its way around the UK, incuding several dates in Yorkshire this month and next.
“God, I hope not,” the 69-year-old chortles when asked if this tour, which follows a similar venture with Band Electronica in 2019 when they performed Vienna, his debut album with Ultravox, and the music he made with Visage, is the next step in retracing his past.
“It’s a multi-facted thing,” he says. “When I did The 1980 Tour back in 2019, when I did Ultravox’s Vienna album and Visage’s first album, it was celebrating the year 1980 which was a revolutionary year, a seismic moment in my life musically and technologically with the advent of cheaper synthesisers, drum machines and home recording, all the tools that enabled you to carry on making music without having to going cap in hand to the big guys, asking for advances and stuff.
“And when I did that tour, it was a great realisation that a lot of people that came to see it had either seen Ultravox back in the day performing the songs or had never seen them and never thought they would see or hear those tunes live, so the success of the tour was great, even though it as cut short because of Covid. Requests came in thick and fast asking could we do something similar with the next couple of albums, hence the Voice and Visions tour.”
The “good thing” about this tour, he says, is “finding the little nuggets that you’d forgotten you’d done that work incredibly well live, and people coming to the shows who realise that you’ve done more than just Vienna”.
“I’ve had a lot of hit records that have kind of been forgotten about because they’ve been overshadowed by Vienna,” he says. “There are people out there that think that’s all I ever did. It serves that purpose as well, so people see you and go ‘Oh yeah, I get that and I quite enjoyed it’ and then they’ll come and see you again. I don’t want to keep just regurgitating the old stuff, albeit with new vigour and new enthusiasm; it’s requested that this happens by the hardcore fans and the new fans who’ve come along and discovered me.”
With Rage In Eden and Quartet, Ultravox worked with two producers who shaped the landscape of pop and rock between the 60s and the 80s: Conny Plank and George Martin. Ure’s bandmates had previously worked with Plank in 1978, on their album Systems of Romance, when they were a five-piece fronted by Ure’s predecessor, John Foxx. “Conny’s music historical backround was Kraftwerk and Brian Eno – you name it, he’d been there – so I was the one who really wanted to work with Conny when I joined the band to do Vienna,” Ure says. “It made perfect sense when we did Rage In Eden that we did something radically different from Vienna.
“Vienna took three weeks to record, we’d written all the songs and toured them prior to recording, so we wanted to do the opposite and get away from all the suggestions that record labels were making as we toured the world. They’d suggest that ‘Toyko’ would be a great title for an album or ‘have you ever thought of calling an album Auckland?’ Please!” he sighs.
“Working with Conny in his studio in Germany on Rage In Eden was a great idea, but we had no songs. It was what they would call in the industry the ‘difficult second album’ because a band or an artist spends a year writing all the material to make the first album and the album’s successful so you go and tour it, and then they expect a second album straight after the tour. You think, ‘I haven’t got a year to write the same quality material’ so they always had to hash something together. We said ‘we’re not going to give you Vienna Part II’. We went to Conny Plank’s studio with no songs, no lyrics, nothing written and created the entire thing there.”
They did “the antithesis again” with Quartet, working with “the brilliant” Beatles producer George Martin. The album, Ure feels now, is “certainly more polished” than the rough edges of its predecessor. “That could possibly be to do with George’s input,” he says, “but Ultravox weren’t very good at listening to other people. We had a very stoic, concrete, fixed attitude as to what we wanted to do and how we wanted to make music.
“Conny Plank was very much an engineer producer, he created sound, that was his area, whereas George was old school, sitting down working on arrangements and working on the vocal harmonies from the piano, but if we were ever going to listen to anybody George Martin was the person to listen to.
“I like both albums, but I prefer Rage In Eden. I like the rough edges, I like the dark elements of it and I think when we ended up doing Quartet I wasn’t overly keen on a lot of the synthesiser sounds, they had changed, they’d adapted using new technology, it was digital synthesisers and it didn’t seem to have the same kind of edge. That could be just old age, I don’t know, that could just be maturing, but they’re two very different records and it’s interesting playing them together in consecutive order.”
Martin had been persuaded to produce Quartet by his daughter Lucy. “He didn’t really want to do anything at the time, I think his hearing had started to go, and the story is that he told his daughter Lucy that he was going to turn it down and she berated him, and ‘no, no, you’ve got to do this’, and I think he was glad that he did because it was a musical adventure for all of us,” says Ure. “Our worry was that he wouldn’t have kept up with technology, but that was completely blown out of the window because he’d bought a Linn drum, a massive drum machine, and he’d figured out how to programme it properly and worked out the delay that he’d have to put on the snare to make it sound human. He hadn’t lost that edge that he had when he was throwing tapes up in the air and sticking them together in The Beatles’ days.”
The added bonus was that they got to work at Air Studios in London and Montserrat. “We did it back to front,” Ure recalls. “Montserrat was a place where you’d normally go and record the actual songs and go and mix it somewhere else. When we got to Montserrat it wasn’t set up for mixing, so there are shots of George and all of the band with ten faders on the desk each doing mixes where you had to get everything right, make sure you’d panned this and ‘did you get this?’ It really was ‘is this the one?’ Unlike the computer programmed things now where you can get it exactly right a million times, when you did it manually the gods had to be looking down on you at that moment in time to get it just right.”
Ure thinks it was “inevitable” that Ultravox started to pursue in a poppier direction from Quartet onwards. “I think most bands go through that, look at the likes of Genesis – they were very much prog rock then the singers change and the band goes off in a different direction,” he says. “I think your attitude changes as well; as a musican and as a band, we all changed. In some instances yes, it got slightly poppier, whether that was us succumbing to pressure from outside or just a natural thing you do – ‘I’m getting used to having hit records played on the radio’, maybe there’s an element in the back of your mind that thinks ‘I have to keep it on this side of the line’. Not that I think we ever did that deliberately but I think it’s maybe something that just creeps in.”
Following the Rage In Eden box set that came out last year, Ure reveals that there are similar plans for Quartet. “The box sets are great,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing that record labels need our permission to do, but I have to say Blue Raincoat/Chrysalis have done a magnificent job with these things. We are very much at the core of it all, we are working hand in hand with them, because for Ultravox the graphics, the imagery and the packaging was just as important as the record that went in it, so to keep those standards high and see these beautiful box sets, the beautiful objects of desire, these 5.1 mixes, the remixes, the half-speed masterings, all of the stuff that you can do now that you couldn’t do back then, to hear these songs that I’ve lived with for such a long time clarified with modern technology is great – but clarifying it and making it hopefully better and not sullying the essence that made people like it in the first place.
“When I did the Orchestrated album (in 2017) my big worry was that I was going to change these arrangements and ruin it for people who’d always heard it the same way, who fell in love to that particular track, who had their babies to that particular track, and then you and sully that by slowing it down and turning it inside out. Luckily I didn’t get too many objections to it but it was there in the back of my mind, some things are untouchable. But the box sets are good, so we’re looking at Quartet and (his first solo album, from 1985) The Gift after that maybe as well.”
Ure doesn’t rule out Ultravox reuniting once more. The last time it happened was 11 years ago, for the album Brilliant. “I think it’s always there at the back of my mind,” he says. “You have to understand that I’m the youngest – and I’m ancient, I’ll be 70 this year. So the idea that we would physically want to go back and do it… I would love to do it again as a final fling. A lot of people would love to see their favourite band come back and perform those songs live.
“The big bonus for me the last time we did it, even prior to doing the Brilliant album, when we did the tour, was that when we all walked into the rehearsal room and plugged in and played when we hadn’t done it for 25-plus years, there it was – that intangible, untouchable thing. These four old friends who had been strangers for 25 years could create something again, and go on and make an album that I’m still very proud of. After all that time, to find that you still have this creative spark.
“But like those poor people who meet their first girlfriends or ex-wife on Facebook and then think it would be a great idea to get back together again, it might be initially but then those old foibles come out again and you think ‘oh, that’s why we didn’t get on in the first place’.
“Maybe that’s how you do Ultravox: you should do it in bite-size pieces every so often. You go ‘this is great’ and then the moment it starts to get edgy you go ‘ah, forget it’.”
He doesn’t believe another reunion would be contingent on the band making new music again. “When you’ve been making music all your life, to make something that doesn’t repeat what you’ve done in the past becomes harder,” he says. “Either subject matter or I’ve kind of heard this before: when do you start becoming a parody of yourself? It’s a difficult one to do. I always thought Ultravox could have quite easily slipped into the whole film soundtrack area because it’s very distinctive, very cinematic music. That seems to give you more scope musically. When you’re writing songs all the time, there has to be a point where you think ‘I’ve stood on this ground before’ and that’s not something you really want to keep doing. But who knows? Maybe I’ll drop them an email and say ‘a) are you still alive? and b) would you like to get back together?’”
Nine years since his last album of original material, Fragile, Ure says he has written “bits” but not complete songs. “Again, it’s the passage of time,” he says. “You write something and then you realise six months after you’re written it that it’s reminscent of something you’ve done before – not just a signature sound or a signature style that we all have, everyone has their own trademark, I suppose, without even thinking about it, but treading that path again you think ‘I’ve kind of done this, am I sure I want to put this out as something new? It’s kind of a rehash of something I did 15 years ago’, so it becomes a steeper hill to climb if you want to maintain your standards. You can knock off an album every year but they wouldn’t be very good, so when I have something that I’m happy with, it comes out.
“A record company would hate me. Ten years between records – it’s ludicrous, I’m turning into Kate Bush.”
During lockdown he did “a little stint” on Scala Radio, doing a late-night show called Space, that gave him some inspiration for an instrumental record. “I got to indulge not just playing classical music, which it mainly is, but also cinematic neo composers, from Iceland, mainly – Olafur Arnalds, Sigur Ros,” he explains. “A lot of it’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful music, and I’ve always had a need to write instrumental music, every album I’ve done has had an instrumental track or two on there, but I’ve never written an entire album of it. So I’ve just finished an album of that. Hopefully I’ll find the right home for it. It’s a very specific thing, you can’t just give it to your record label and they say ‘which one’s the single?’ None of them are the single, actually! You’re not going to get it on the radio, so you have to find the right home for it, to get this out there for people to hear it.
“And even since Fragile I’ve been writing songs. I’ve just got to knuckle down and finish it.”
Midge Ure plays at York Grand Opera House on April 30, St George’s Hall, Bradford on May 11 and Hull Bonus Arena on May 12, as well as at Let’s Rock Leeds on June 17.