Here is more from my thoroughly enjoyable interview with Midge Ure...
Q: How does it feel to be back performing in America again after so long?
I really didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to do something here as a precursor to possibly bringing Ultravox out later in the year. We have a new album, so it would be nice to do it. Ultravox haven’t played in America for 25 years. I had no idea whether a) anyone would remember, and b) anyone would be interested. So the way to do it was to come over and do something on my own first and just kind of test the water a bit. So far, the reaction and the reviews have been fantastic. So I must be doing something right. The idea was to come out and just see if people remember. See if there was a need to see what I do or what Ultravox does. And it’s been good.
Q: Are you finding the crowds are recognizing more songs than you might’ve expected?
You know what? I think people discover music in different ways now. 25 years ago, it was all radio. If you weren’t played on 91X or KROQ, nobody knew about you. These days, it’s not just radio stations. I think young people hear bits of music on a movie or they look it up on YouTube to find the clip. They email it to a friend. Send links to each other. So there’s an audience I didn’t think existed. I’ve seen it happen in Europe as well. People discover the music in retrospect and they’re coming to the concerts and suddenly enjoying it. So the demographic of the audience is quite a bit different from what I remember. A lot of people who have never seen Ultravox or have never seen me perform live are coming out to see these things. And they know all the songs, which is great.
Q: How did you hook up with your backing band, the LA-based Right the Stars?
They’re from all over the place. It turns out their manager is a Scottish guy. We’re all connected somehow. Turns out I kind of know this guy from way back. My agent in New York suggested that rather than bringing a band over, with the costs and problems involved in that, visas and the like, that I use American musicians. Which I was really keen to do. He hooked me up with the band and I listened to their album. They’re great players and songwriters. Weirdly, and this is no lie, we only met 12 days ago, a week ago Monday. These guys [went over] the material and what they wanted to do. We had a couple days’ rehearsal and then straight into the tour. We haven’t stopped or had a break since. It’s worked out incredibly well. And it’s good for them. They get to play in front of an audience that might not necessarily see them. They’re expanding their audience and have an album to promote as well.
Q: I saw some recent set lists where you’ve been including half dozen Ultravox songs. Does the band have a keyboardist?
They’re all multi-instrumentalists. The bass player jumped on the drums the other night and he was fantastic. We have keyboards set up. I had anticipated that I would probably have to re-arrange the songs for a guitar band. But they turned up at rehearsal and said, ‘no, we’ve learned all the parts. We want to put our stamp on it and want it to sound authentic, but have a flavor of what we do. So these guys are doing very authentic versions of some of these tunes…I could have tried to sneak round some of that, but it’s very difficult to do something like “Vienna” without a piano [laughs].
Q: That reminds me: I went back and watched you do that song with Eddie Izzard on piano during the Edinburgh segment of Live 8 in 2005.
You know what? The great thing about that was, I was hanging out with Eddie for a couple days prior to the concert. I was up there organizing the thing, which was a horrible task. He’s a great guy to hang out with, really sweet and nice. He just wanted to do something and add his [presence] to the event. I found him the day before the concert sitting at the piano on the stage on his own playing. I thought, ‘Wow. I didn’t know he played.’ None of us did. So I said, ‘you’re doing ‘Vienna.’ He absolutely crapped himself. He was petrified at the thought of being in front of an audience playing the piano. It’s interesting how you take someone out of what they do. He can stand up at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 18,000 people, run up and down and make things up and just be hysterical. But the idea of sitting in front of the same amount of people playing the piano is petrifying. It was great.
Q: Another band you were part of, Visage, has been active in recent years. Is it true you contributed a song to Steve Strange’s long gestating band album?
My friend Rusty Egan, who I came up with the idea for Visage with, was working with Steve and asked if I had any songs they could mess around with. I gave them a song of mine. Then they kind of fell out during this reunion thing. I have no idea what’s happening with the song now. They seem to have split into two separate camps. There’s Steve’s idea of what’s going and Rusty’s. I’m just saying, I don’t want anything to do with any of it. I’ll just sit in the corner and get on with what I do.
Q: Since you tackled David Bowie’s “Lady Stardust” on your 2008 covers CD “10”, I was wondering what you thought of Bowie’s surprise re-emergence, with a new album coming.
The single is classic Bowie. You have to really love and admire him for this – he’s coming out with something that isn’t instantly commercial, that is Bowie through and through, that is dark and meandering. The video is very disturbing. It’s really strange but it’s Bowie doing exactly what Bowie should do – he’s always been an artist. He’s never followed what the current trends happen to be. He’s never had to fall into that trap. I really respect and admire the fact that he’s spent the last couple years working with Tony Visconti again. Fantastic. What a great combination of characters. To keep it under their hats like that for the amount of time it took to make it and then say, ‘Oh, here you go. Something new,’ [is incredible]. It was all over the news in the UK. It was evening national news: David Bowie got a new record out.
Q: Are you proud of how the Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and Live Aid helped create awareness about poverty in Africa during the mid-to-late 1980s?
At the time, I don’t think there was any question of pride in it at all. We were so embroiled in getting on with the daily task of generating the income, spending the income, and shipping. We didn’t actually see what we’d done until after a couple years. It was much later when a little girl who lived next door came over and said, ‘we were reading about you in history today.’ I thought, ‘What? What do you mean?’ It’s in history books. They teach kids about it in school because it’s not just a music event; it’s a social event. You look back on it and think, ’28 years later, Bob and I are still there.’ So are the Band Aid trustees. We’re all still there. Because what we didn’t see was that record would be released and played every year all around the world. Every time it’s played, it generates income for the Band Aid Trust to carry on doing what we do in Africa. Bob and I gave the songwriting royalties to the Band Aid Trust. We donated all the royalties for every time that thing is played.
You couldn’t help be proud of everything that was associated with it. Right through to ‘We Are the World’ and Northern Lights in Canada. With Live Aid...at the time, you couldn’t make a phone call across the Atlantic without [it being a major ordeal]. A mobile phone was the size of a small brick. And everything had to be done by telex! How we managed to pull off the technical aspects of it, I will never know. Whoever is up there looking down on us, it was that day. And that’s enabled the whole thing to roll on. Another great thing is, part of the legacy is, every year, teachers teach their kids in the classrooms what that song was about. The whole thing is like a perpetual motion. When the record gets played, kids sing it to nativities at holiday events at schools and they learn why the record was put together. So it’s an ongoing thing.
Q: With Live 8, what do you think of the main goal of Making Poverty History now?
It’s like a sculptor with a great big block of concrete or marble. You’ve got to keep chipping away at it before it actually turns into something you can recognize as usable. The whole Make Poverty History campaign, Band Aid, Live Aid, Live 8, all those things, are all taking steps towards trying to make a larger change we can do as individuals.
Collectively, we have a voice and can do things. The amazing thing now it that we have politicians in positions of power – I defy them to say they didn’t know about Live Aid and were not affected by what they saw. I defy them not to stand up and do something about it. We have people who can, should and hopefully will make those differences. I saw it in the UK. I’ve seen it with David Cameron. I’d like to think Barack Obama would be in the same position. He’s a music fan. Why wouldn’t he know about Band Aid and Live Aid? Why wouldn’t he want to do something about it and make that change? He’s African-American and his family is from Africa. So we’re getting closer to it.
The Make Poverty History campaign doesn’t stop. Every so often, it will re-emerge in the public eye [charity speak]. I think people get tired of artists banging on about starving kids in Africa. It’ll be interesting in the next two years, not that there’s anything official at all, but it’ll be the 30th anniversary of Band Aid and Live Aid. If some celebratory event happens to mark that. Every generation has to be exposed to it and understand what’s going on in the world because we haven’t got a solution yet. Nowhere near a solution yet. It needs something like an anniversary to fuel the fire and get on people’s minds again.
Q: Circling back to Ultravox, what did you think when “Vienna” topped that BBC2 poll of Greatest Songs of All Time to miss No. 1 on the UK charts?
[laughs] I think people felt sorry for us because one of the songs that kept us off [the top spot] was a dreadful comedy record. I listened to the program it was broadcast on Jan. 1 and it makes a fantastic record [when altogether]. Some of the songs on there – Waterloo Sunset, Wonderwall by Oasis, great songs. For us to be top of that heap was really something.