Midge Ure at 70: Ultravox, Band Aid, and ‘the ones that got away’

To celebrate his 70th birthday, on October 4 Midge Ure is set to headline the Royal Albert Hall, performing material from across his career, including a full runout of Ultravox’s legendary Vienna album for the very last time. Headliner caught up with him for a look back at his career, the moments that have perhaps slipped the spotlight, and what the future holds…

“People say I’m a Zelig-like figure; you look through history and you’ll see my head sticking up somewhere,” Midge Ure laughs part way through our interview. It’s an analogy that bears scrutiny, given the unique status he has held in music over the past 40 years. With Ultravox and the runaway success of their hit single Vienna in 1980, Ure gave voice to one of the most memorable songs of the decade, while his work with Bob Geldof in co-organising Band Aid, Live Aid, and Live 8, as well as co-writing and producing Do They Know It’s Christmas? established him as one of the most influential figures in popular culture. Yet in spite of his direct involvement in these juggernaut moments, he still cuts a relatively anonymous figure.

You can listen to this interview here or read on below.

As soon as Headliner connects with Ure via Zoom from somewhere on the Algarve, he’s joking about the weather and conveying contentment simply at being alive. “As long as I wake up in the morning, I’m doing OK,” he smiles. It’s this kind of friendly disposition and kindly uncle demeanour that has perhaps contributed to his ability to move so seamlessly between projects and bands down the years. There is no rock star ego on show, no reluctance to discuss those big, career-defining moments. And by maintaining such an easy going, everyman persona, it becomes far more difficult to apply the kind of rock star, celebrity spokesperson labels that befell his Live Aid co-creator.

Next month, to celebrate his 70th birthday, Ure will be performing a one-off show at the Royal Albert Hall on October 4th. He’ll be playing material from across his vast catalogue of work, including, for the very last time, the full Vienna album. But despite the gig being mere weeks away at the time of our conversation, he’s still working out what exactly the set list on the night is going to be.

“The speculation about what’s going to happen is infinitely bigger than what is going to happen,” he chuckles. “Because with social media people are saying, ‘are you going to do the stuff with the orchestra’? and I’m like, ‘no’, and then it’s, ‘ah, you’re getting Ultravox back together’! ‘No’. So, the fantasy element of it is brilliant to watch but you have to sit down and think realistically. We want to keep tickets at a reasonable price; if we are to do one tenth of what people are expecting, the tickets would have to be ten times the price, so I’m trying to be sensible about it and tap into various points in my life song-wise that I think were interesting. Not necessarily success-wise. It’s easy to do a greatest hits thing, but there are so many moments that fell between the cracks in the floorboards that nobody got a chance to see or hear, but they deserve a little nod of respect. Not that I’m going to play an entire set that nobody’s ever heard. I’m going to cherry pick what I think as a songwriter my highlights were, and that includes a lot of the hits. And I thought just a couple of weeks ago that Ultravox never had the opportunity to play the Royal Albert Hall. Then I thought, Vienna is only 44 minutes long, so let’s do it in that beautiful environment; the kind of environment it deserves to be played in.”

I joined a band that most people would run a mile from. Midge Ure

It's an album Ure still feels great affection for. Some artists can have a hard time navigating their relationship with such defining works from decades gone by. For Ure and Vienna, this is not the case.

“You can’t not feel affectionate towards it because it changed everything,” he states. “I’d just joined a band that was broken. They’d lost a singer and guitar player, they’d just been dropped by their record label, and I joined a band that most people would run a mile from. Everyone thought they were finished. But I joined because of the music, the sound they made. When we played together it was just spectacular, and it was like a Hollywood movie, against all odds. We go in there and create something together for the first time and that was the Vienna album.

“And thanks to luck, tenacity, stoicism, and this dogged attitude we had, we managed to get Vienna released as a single,” he continues. “It was the third track from the album released as a single and fighting the label not to edit it and have it released in its full glory changed everything. The album went from being heard by 30,000 people to three million or whatever. You can’t look at that and not be grateful… [he pauses] It brings its own problems. The main one being that the label wanted Vienna part two, part three, part four. And we weren’t willing to do that, so it was an interesting five or six years of my life negotiating all this and finding new interesting ways of doing things. It felt like when I joined the band that the musical shackles had been cast off. We could do anything - we had the synths, the rock stuff, we could do whatever we wanted because we didn’t fit any category.

“People tried to tag us with the new romantic stuff, but it didn’t fit. Then we were getting labelled as prog rock, where did that come from?! But because we couldn’t be categorised that allowed us to do a lot of things other bands weren’t allowed to do or couldn’t do. We could step outside of the parameters, the invisible walls that other people have thrust upon them. Joining them was one of those sliding doors moments.”

While the Vienna album was already drawing significant attention, it wasn’t until the release of the title track as a single that Ure and Ultravox fully understood the impact the record was going to have on the rest of their lives. In similar fashion to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody the previous decade, a song that was considered at almost every juncture not to be single material went on to become one of the most successful releases of the ’80s.

“We spent three weeks making the album, and you’d play some of the rough mixes and Vienna was one that you would play over and over because we knew there was something special about it,” he recalls. “But we never dreamed it would be a single. It’s too long. It went against everything that made a single at the time. Nobody could have thought it would resonate with people the way it did. But sometimes when you stick your neck out amazing things happen. And I’d love to say its success was all down to us, but it was far from it. It’s 99% luck getting it played on the radio. And we didn’t make the video until it was No.2 in the charts. The label didn’t think there was any point in making a video for it. We had to go and make it without their say so. We went off and started making it and they hadn’t even given us the budget. We told them this video will be seen all around the world.”

People say I’m a Zelig-like figure; look through history and my head is sticking up somewhere. Midge Ure

Perhaps inevitably, the unprecedented success of both the Vienna album and single would go on to cast a shadow over aspects of Ure’s work that stretches forth to the present day. And though he is far from resentful of the fact, he accepts it has resulted in what he believes to be some of his best work being overlooked on occasion.

“I could make a collection of records of the ones that got away,” he says philosophically. “Most artists are the same. When you leave a successful band, your brain says at least a quarter of the following of Ultravox will come along with me, but it doesn’t work that way. I remember seeing Mick Jagger doing a solo tour playing the Dominion Theatre and it wasn’t full. If it had a billboard outside that said the Rolling Stones it would have been filled for years. It’s perception. So when you leave a successful band like Ultravox it’s like starting over again. And all of a sudden everything is me, not we, and it takes a while to find your direction.

“A lot of what I was doing then was seen by the media and some of the fans as being too self-indulgent or too serious. And a lot of what I was doing with the first two or three solo records was perceived as something I shouldn’t be doing, but it was me finding my own feet. So, it would be nice to have people see that, as a lot of people don’t get to see what for me are some of the best records I’ve made. And bear in mind, when I was making some of these solo albums my life had changed a massive amount. I’d been to Ethiopia with the first shipment of goods out there. I’d see what was going on and you come back a slightly different person.”

Which brings us to Band Aid and Live Aid. Launched alongside Geldof who essentially served as the campaign’s frontman, Ure was to be tethered to you yet another pop culture moment the likes of which had not been seen before, and likely never will be again. The charity Christmas single Do They Know It’s Christmas? and the subsequent live concerts would go on to raise over £100 million to help combat famine in Ethiopia, while the Wembley Stadium live event has become one of the most famous concerts of all time. So how has he dealt with being synonymous with yet another pop culture phenomenon?

“Well, I wasn’t as affected by it as Bob was,” he says. “Bob is big and loud and brash and gives great soundbites and I’m the guy sitting at the mixing desk doing all the important stuff! So, he had the major problem coming out the other side of it because he was seen as something other than just a musician, but all he was was a musician, with a knowledge and a passion and a drive. He found it very difficult to get back into the swing of doing that because he wasn’t allowed to go back to that. He was now a spokesperson for youth, he was a quasi-politician, he was a global figure, whereas I was allowed to go back to being a musician because I never stopped being one. I could slip out the backdoor and go and tour my solo records in parallel with doing my bit as a Band Aid trustee, whereas Bob wasn’t allowed to do that.

“I was doing Wembley on The Gift tour and this big bunch of flowers turned up backstage and it was from Bob, and it had a note that said, ‘you lucky bastard, I wish I was you’. This is from the man who is globally renowned, virtually everyone on the planet knew who he was, and all he wanted was to be onstage doing what I was doing. And that’s a tough thing to swallow. It took him a long time to be able to get out there on the stage again.”

As we shift our focus back to the present day, Ure is emphatic in his assurance that his 70th birthday Royal Albert Hall show is far from a farewell concert and that he still has much left that he wants to achieve.

“I’ve been working on a new album for about eight years, and it’ll be finished when its finished,” he says with a smile. “I’m also looking at more touring. I still love it. I’m still as enthused as I was when I got my first guitar at 10. That will never go away. The ability to do it might, but that hasn’t happened yet. So as long as that continues, I will.”

With that, he bids us a warm farewell. When that new album will see the light of day, and what form it may take, is anyone’s guess. But with no intention of hanging up his guitar or his mic any time soon, there’s still plenty of time for that unassuming, Zelig-like figure to once again leave his mark on the horizons of history.