As he nears his 70th birthday, Midge Ure talks Ultravox, Band Aid and going back on the road again – including to Brighton - with a folk band he’s sullied with synthesisers

‘Certain things happen in your life that form a blip - either a good blip or a bad blip - on your timeline.’ Midge Ure is talking about the fateful time when, at the height of his band Ultravox’s popularity, he took a phone call from a friend while backstage on The Tube. That friend was presenter Paula Yates’ partner Bob Geldof – someone Midge had known from his days in punk supergroup Rich Kids in the late-1970s.

Bob had seen a series of sobering reports by BBC journalist Michael Buerk about the famine in Ethiopia and wanted to do something about it. From that conversation, on November 2, 1984, arose the number one Band Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, co-written by Bob and Midge, and the continent-straddling charity concert Live Aid which the pair organised with promoter Harvey Goldsmith.

‘When Paula handed the phone to me everything changed,’ says Midge, who is still a trustee for the Band Aid Charitable Trust today. ‘You don’t sit down as a spotty youth and plan your life out - you know: “At this point I’ll write this song, a song which actually makes a difference in people’s lives”. It’s just unforeseeable. Next year is the 40th anniversary of it, which is quite frightening. I’m sure we will be discussing plans with the trust about what’s going to happen and how we are going to celebrate it.’

Great British Life: The singer still has plenty to smile about with a career spanning six decades. The singer still has plenty to smile about with a career spanning six decades. (Image: Alan Wild)

Up to that point Midge was probably best known for Ultravox’s number-one-that-never-was Vienna. The glacial electronic song was famously kept at number two in the charts by John Lennon’s posthumous single Woman and Joe Dolce Music Theatre’s novelty hit Shaddap You Face. It’s the period between Vienna and Band Aid which is the focus of 69-year-old Midge’s latest tour - The Voice and Visions which comes to Theatre Royal Brighton on April 27. It is based around the two albums which followed up Ultravox’s career-making Vienna: Rage in Eden and Quartet.

‘Rage in Eden was a very personal record,’ recalls Midge, who now lives in Bath. ‘After the success of Vienna we were being pressurised to do Vienna Part Two. Every record label we visited while we were on tour would say: “You know, Berlin would be a really good title for an album”. Or Cologne. Or Edo.’The way the band dealt with the pressure was to go to legendary Krautrock producer Conny Plank’s studio in Germany bereft of ‘ideas, thoughts or songs’.

‘It was hugely indulgent and a great experiment,’ says Midge. ‘We wrote the entire album in the studio.’ It turned out to be a much more complex affair than Vienna, with longer songs, obscure and surreal lyrics, and a healthy dose of experimentation, playing with voices, backwards tapes and further integrating Midge’s guitar into the electronics. The album, which was certified gold after selling more than 100,000 copies, was home to the top 20 singles The Voice and The Thin Wall.

Creating its follow-up, Quartet, only one year on, couldn’t have been more different, with the band working up songs in rehearsal spaces before going into the studio. ‘We were working with [Beatles producer] George Martin at Air Studios in London, and finished off in Montserrat in the Caribbean,’ says Midge. ‘It was a heyday for Ultravox.’ This album, which was also certified gold, was home to a string of top 20 hit singles: Reap the Wild Wind, Hymn, Visions in Blue and We Came to Dance.

‘Whenever you look back there’s always something on every record that makes you go: “Wow! That really stands up well”, and there are other things where you have no idea what you were trying to do,’ says Midge. ‘I guess that’s just progress. If we were to write something now, you wouldn’t do it the same – but it is the naivety of what you did that was what made it so good. You didn’t really care about whether it was the right length for radio. You created this piece of music and hoped it would be successful commercially.’

Great British Life: Midge is back on tour at almost 70Midge is back on tour at almost 70 (Image: Alan Wild)

He still believes it’s important for musicians to experiment and push themselves. ‘You can’t just do a carbon copy of something with slightly different lyrics or vocals,’ he says. ‘If you keep churning them out there’s no space for creativity – for the Kate Bushes or Jeff Becks who made really interesting music, where people look back in hindsight and think: “Thank god they existed”. Hearing something that comes from the heart and soul is like oxygen – it's not contrived to be successful, it’s real.’

Midge was certainly pushing himself in the early 1980s. Having grown up in and around Glasgow he had made the move down south while enjoying some success with his band Slik in the mid-1970s – where he also got his nickname, apparently reversing his first name to Mij to avoid being confused with the other Jim in the band.

When the band broke up in 1977, following their number one single in 1976 Forever and Ever, he teamed up with former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock in supergroup Rich Kids, having turned down Malcolm McLaren’s offer to front the Sex Pistols two years previously. It was Midge’s desire to experiment which ultimately led to the end of the Rich Kids. ‘I brought a synthesiser to rehearsals and immediately broke up the band,’ he laughs. ‘Half the band hated it, the other half loved it.’

With Rusty Egan (the half that loved it) he put together the studio band Visage, fronted by Blitz scenester Steve Strange and fatefully, Billy Currie from Ultravox.

The latter band had been left in an awkward position following the departure of founder members, singer John Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon.‘There were these three guys left in the band who were so far ahead of the curve when it came to utilising technology in music,’ says Midge. ‘They were doing in rock music what I’d wanted to do with Rich Kids. But they were in a situation with no hope, no real prospects of a record label, no management behind them, and they owed their record label a fortune. We put our hands in our pockets and pooled together enough money to make a noise. The moment we got together was fantastic – it was the best thing I’d heard in my life.’

Great British Life: It's been almost 40 years since the Band Aid single Midge co-wrote was released.It's been almost 40 years since the Band Aid single Midge co-wrote was released. (Image: Alan Wild)

Midge kept up a heavy workload, recording two Visage albums alongside his first three albums with Ultravox, and producing other artists in the studio too. ‘I was young, single, had no distractions,’ he says. ‘I could work all hours on whatever project I was working on. It was like someone had given me the keys to the toy box. We had all these new electronic synth drums and sequencers and synths – why would you limit yourself and not use them?’

As Ultravox got bigger they were taking up to 25 synthesisers on stage, making sounds that Midge admits can now be recreated with two or three laptops. Sadly, the band was to break up after two more albums - 1984’s Lament, home to the number three hit Dancing with Tears in my Eyes, and the difficult post-Live Aid release U-Vox from 1986.

‘A band’s a bit like a marriage,’ says Midge now. ‘It was too easy to go: “We’re going through a rough patch – let's call it a day” and walk away. It wasn’t tugging the heart strings the way it used to, the way it did when we were creating new material. We were all pulling in different directions. We’d spent two years apart – you can’t just walk in and expect everything to slot into place.’

The classic mid-1980s line-up did get back together in 2009 for a couple of reunion tours and an album, Brill!ant, followed in 2012. But now Midge is getting back into those early albums with his new backing group Band Electronica.

'I’ve spent a lot of time doing the groundwork selecting sounds and samples so that people who never saw Ultravox live can get the essence of what we sounded like,’ says Midge. ‘I’ve cherrypicked from both albums,’ says Midge. ‘I’ve mixed in other tracks – there's certain songs [like Vienna] that we wouldn’t be able to leave town without playing.’

The touring band is based around his long-time drummer Russell Field and the duo behind India Electric Company, Cole Stacey and Joseph O'Keefe, who previously supported Midge when he did a solo acoustic tour, as he says: ‘To see the whites of people’s eyes in a hot sticky room’.

‘When I was on tour I used to give the opening slot to local acoustic artists,’ remembers Midge. ‘There was usually no more than two people on stage every time – but every time I heard these guys I thought it was a full band. I would hear a violin, then an accordion and a guitar and a mandolin. I’d stick my head around the corner and there would be these two guys just swapping instruments. They do the opening slot with Russell, my drummer, so they’re giving me a real run for my money. They were a folk band, but I’ve sullied them – I took them in and poisoned them with my electronics and synthesisers.’

Midge Ure: The Voice and Visions Tour is at Theatre Royal Brighton on Thursday, April 27. Doors 7pm, tickets from £29.90. Visit: