Midge Ure was born in Cambuslang, on the outskirts of Glasgow, a coalmining town also regarded as Scotland’s biggest village.
That’s just an hour or so away from the area of Scotland that the Bowies came from, 160 odd years ago. That means me, and Midge quite correctly points out that it’s a damn fine surname no matter how you pronounce it. He also revels in the act that the Scots are everywhere, and where would the world be without us? Dire Straits, I guess, but they weren’t so bad either…..
So, tell us about the making of Vienna. Your first album with Ultravox, and concurrently you were still involved with both Visage and Thin Lizzy, am I right?
Midge had started the Visage project, after his previous band Rich Kids had folded because he bought a synthesizer. Visage was designed as a vehicle for working with different people, and one of Ultravox’s members, Billy Currie, was working in Visage. Over the year it took to make the Visage album, Ultravox fell apart, so he joined them. And then Phil Lynott called and asked him to join him to finish an American tour because Gary Moore had left. All in 1979.
And all this just a year after Midge had left Glasgow and come down to London! His wee brain didn’t explode, but it was close, because “someone had given me the keys to the toybox…for the first time ever, I was allowed to go into the studio and make what I thought was interesting music” It was a fantastic time, with all the new technologies coming into play.
Vienna was done then, the old-fashioned way, by writing the songs and then touring them before returning to the studio and recording them quite quickly, considering the new technology used, in just three weeks.
What surprised me, in going back to that time, was Conny Plank as producer. (Conny Plank was a legendary German musician and producer who was a key player in the emergence of German Rock, which they themselves called Krautrock).
Tell us about Conny?
Conny Plank was a big bear of a man, an engineer, whose basic philosophy was to leave the melodies, lyrics and arrangements to the musicians (even though he was a musician himself and played on a few of the albums I own). In his mind, his job was to create the atmospheres, using his little box of tricks.
Ultravox played their music to Conny in the studio, and his reaction was:
Conny: “in my mind I see this old man at a piano, and he’s been there for forty years, playing the same melody over and over, and he’s tired”
And when the band heard what he had done with his recording, it was exactly that that they heard.
Midge: “he had found this piano sound that sounded very fragile and broken and tired and distant and haunting. That was his creativity”
So readers, when you hear me use the term Krautrock, don’t think I’m a Nazi, because that was what those early German pioneers in electronic rock called their music. Bands like Can, Neu, Kraftwerk and Guru Guru all used Conny to break new ground, and British bands like Ultravox, Eurythmics and Flock of Seagulls used him as a producer in the early 80s.
(So, watch out Radio 13/Planet FM fans, our music collective has often talked about doing a Krautrock show, and I think this conversation has just made it imperative!)
Now we talk about Midge’s continuing role as a Trustee of Live Aid, the movement he started with Bob Geldof in 1985 in response to Bob’s outrage at the lack of international help for the Ethiopian famine. I’m keen to know how it works, and how they have managed to ensure that raising money for global causes (the easy bit) translates into effective fulfilment of aid programmes (the hard bit).
Not surprisingly, I’m impressed. They have deliberately set out not to create another charity, with its own infrastructure and money eating bureaucracy. As Midge explains it, it has been set up all along as akin to a drawdown facility at a bank, and their role is to assess the projects and appoint the organisations who are delivering the aid, as well as set the targets and provide the governance to ensure objectives are met. I’m super impressed. No office, no overheads, no employees.
Another big and unexpected turn in Midge’s life, similar to the year 1979, but different, and unexpectedly lasting, 26 years instead of six months, and still rippling, as Midge references last week’s concert in Australia, where Queen did a reprise of their Live Aid set. Of course, he says “you guys”, so I’m obliged to remind him of the fundamental difference between New Zealand and Australia. You’ll have to listen to the interview to find that one out...
And so he’s on his way out to New Zealand, where he’s been many times and loves it. Scotland with seasons, except our mountains make Scotland look like Holland. He’s looking forward to playing with The Mockers again, after nearly 30 years, and this time he’s bringing his 1980 Tour which comprises the entire Vienna album, along with samples from the Visage album which came out at about the same time.
Check out the tour details, it’s just around the corner.
See you at the Powerstation on March 6th