Monday, September 14, 2009

Beyond Ultravox - Midge Ure Delivers The Gift

Beyond his successful tenures with British new wave/synth-pop giants Ultravox and Visage (see separate posts), James ‘Midge’ Ure cut a significant figure on the British music scene during the 70s, 80s and beyond, through his involvement with several other successful bands/projects (as performer, writer, and producer), two of which scored British #1 hits, and a not insubstantial solo career which yielded a third #1. The ubiquitous pop-rock journeyman can lay claim to being one of the most influential figures in the post-punk/new wave scene, and remains to this day a highly respected, and sought after musical collaborator.

Midge Ure didn’t become a household name on the British music scene overnight. After leaving school in the late 60s, Ure worked for a time as an engineer, and indulged his love of music via a local Glasgow band called Stumble. Stumble proved a small stepping stone toward Salvation - or at least a band called Salvation - who recruited Midge Ure as a guitarist during 1972. Actually it was soon after joining Salvation, that Ure started going under the name ‘Midge’, a phonetic reversal of his first name Jim, to avoid having two members of the band having the name Jim. The other ‘Jim’ in Salvation was of the bass playing McGinlay variety, and it was he who had founded Salvation a couple of years previous with brother Kevin (vocals). The line-up was rounded out by Billy McIsaac (keyboards) and Kenny Hyslop (drums), and Salvation continued to be a much in demand covers band on the Glasgow pub/club scene. By April of ‘74, Kevin McGinlay had left to pursue a solo career, so Midge Ure stepped into the vocal/guitarist role. By November of ‘74 Salvation had taken on the new moniker Slik, and came under the creative auspices of Bill Martin and Phil Coulter. Martin and Coulter had been the writing and production team behind Scottish bubblegum-pop sensation the Bay City Rollers. The two camps had split, and in looking for a new vehicle through which to channel their teeny bopper pop fodder, Martin and Coulter spied potential in Slik. Interestingly, at this point Ure could have opted for a radical change of musical direction, as he’d been offered the lead vocal gig with the Malcolm McLaren managed Sex Pistols. Ure turned down the offer, but it’s an interesting ‘what if’ scenario to contemplate.

Instead of opting for safety pins, spiked hair, and torn jeans, Ure found himself attired in matching baseball caps with his Slik bandmates, and being presented to the pop press as the next big thing - it was no surprise that they were made to sound like the ‘tartan terror’ Rollers. Slik began promisingly enough, scoring a British #1 in February of ‘76 with the semi-glam tinged ‘Forever And Ever’ (OZ#54) - the song originally recorded by Kenny (also in the Martin/Coulter creative stable). Slik had just one more spin of the fame wheel with the weightier May ‘76 single ‘Requiem’ (UK#24), lifted from their self titled album (UK#58). But life as a teeny bopper popper wasn’t for Midge Ure, and besides, the whole punk rock explosion had just rendered bubblegum pop all but obsolete. Slik cut ties with Martin and Coulter, and adopted an all new punk rock persona, changing their name to a chemical adhesive, sorry PVC2, in the process. But the Ure led PVC2 only released a single single, with ‘Put You In The Picture’, before Ure left the PVC2 picture to hook up with an ex-Sex Pistol and his new band.

In October ‘77, Midge Ure hooked up with ex-Sex Pistol bassist Glen Matlock, in Matlock’s new band the Rich Kids, alongside drummer Rusty Egan and guitarist Steve New. Given the Sex Pistols connection, the London based Rich Kids naturally enough attracted a lot of media hype - Ure apparently filled the void left by Mick Jones who returned to full time duties with The Clash. Rich Kids took the 60s style melodic guitar pop formula (The Who, Small Faces, The Kinks) and infused it with a harder edged punk-rock dynamic, resulting in a cutting edge power pop style. Rich Kids released just the one album, ‘Ghosts Of Princes In Towers’ (UK#51), produced by Mick Ronson, and featuring the band’s only hit single, the eponymously titled ‘Rich Kids’ (UK#24), released in early ‘78. But Rich Kids affluence on the charts was short lived, as was the group, and by late ‘78 internal squabbling had led to the dissolution of the band.

Midge Ure and Rusty Egan had already begun collaborating in studio with Steve Strange, and recorded a demo tape of material including a ‘future-synth’ style version of Zager & Evans’ ‘In The Year 2525’. The trio went under the banner of Visage (see separate post), and they’d later add Ultravox synth player Billy Currie, and three Magazine alumnus, John McGeoch, Dave Formula, and Barry Adamson. Over the next couple of years, Ure would maintain ties with Visage before eventually parting ways with the project after 1982’s album ‘The Anvil’. Ure’s work with Visage led to hooking up with Ultravox in April ‘79. Though prior to that Ure had attempted to launch a new band called The Misfits, alongside Rusty Egan - that was a short lived venture. Prior to beginning work in earnest with Ultravox, Ure spent some time in studio and on a U.S. tour with hard rock powerhouse Thin Lizzy (as a replacement for Gary Moore - see separate post). By 1980, Ure had decided splitting his time between three bands, Ultravox, Visage, and Thin Lizzy was spreading his artistic capacity a little too thin, so he withdrew from Thin Lizzy duties, and by 1982 had also withdrawn from Visage. As covered in the previous post, Midge Ure and Ultravox were soon positioned at the vanguard of the ‘New Romantic’/synth-pop movement in Britain.

But the prolific Ure couldn’t help himself, and continued to work with other artists, even during the peak years of Ultravox. He collaborated with the likes of Steve Harley, Modern Man, The Skids (see separate post), and Japan’s Mick Karn (on the 1983 single ‘After A Fashion’ - UK#39). In June of ‘82, Midge Ure released his debut solo single, ‘No Regrets’, an emotive cover of the classic hit by The Walker Brothers (originally recorded by Tom Rush). Ure had no regrets over his first solo single, which soared to #9 on the British charts (OZ#53). The next couple of years saw Ultravox sustain their place at the top of the British music scene, with a string of hit singles, and the top ten albums ‘Quartet’ and ‘Lament’.

Whilst rehearsing with Ultravox for an appearance on the British TV show ‘The Tube’, Ure got a phone call from his old mate Bob Geldof, of Boomtown Rats fame (see future post). Geldof had been inspired to record a song to raise money for famine relief in Ethopia. Geldof had the initial lyrics, whilst Ure fleshed out the melody and structure of the song (with the bridging chorus completed on the day of recording). The resultant song was titled ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. Ure produced the song which was performed by an all-star cast of musicians, assembled at Geldof and Ure’s behest. The two set up the Band Aid Trust to administer proceeds from sales of the single, which was credited to Band Aid. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ entered the British charts at #1 on the week of its release in December ‘84. It became the fastest selling single ever in Britain, spent five weeks at #1 (4 weeks #1 in Australia, US#13), and eventually notched up sales of over 3.5 million. Whilst Geldof became the face and spokesman for Band Aid, and the subsequent Live Aid concerts, Midge Ure’s contribution, both artistically, and as an official Trustee for Band Aid, should not be underestimated. Ure and his band Ultravox performed at the Live Aid concert in July of ‘85 (Warren Cann’s last live gig with the band).

Ure was no doubt on a creative high following the phenomenon of Band Aid, and in late ‘85 he released his first solo album, ‘The Gift’ (UK#2/OZ#29), whilst Ultravox were on hiatus. Midge Ure handled the production and majority of instrumentation on the album, with a handful of guest players contributing, including Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory, and Level 42’s Mark King. The lead out single, ‘If I Was’, was penned by Ure and Daniel Mitchell (The Messengers), and made an immediate impact on the British charts. ‘If I Was’ was an engagingly melodic love song, featuring a soaring chorus, and it was unashamedly appealing to the masses (I also recall the striking promo video which featured three dimensional paintings made of nails). ‘If I Was’ delivered Midge Ure a much deserved solo #1 on the British charts (OZ#10). ‘The Gift’ album spawned two more top fifty singles in, the melodic synth-pop of ‘That Certain Smile’ (UK#28), and the atmospheric ‘Wastelands’ (UK#46). In mid ‘86, Ure released the non-album single ‘Call Of The Wild’, which found refuge at #27 on the British charts.

After Ultravox had effectively called it a day in 1987, Ure was finally free of band commitments and could focus his energies exclusively on his second solo album. 1988’s ‘Answer To Nothing’ (UK#30/US#88/OZ#87) was a polished effort, and saw Ure explore a wider spectrum of musical styles. Given his experiences with Band Aid and work with the associated Band Aid Trust, it’s clear that Ure channelled some ‘big issues’ into the lyrics of ‘Answers To Nothing’, including the title track (UK#49), and the single ‘Dear God’ (OZ#36/US#95/UK#55), an obvious plea for divine intervention. The album also included the track ‘Sister And Brother’, a duet with Kate Bush, which had been planned as a single, but was withdrawn. Ure’s 1991 album ‘Pure’ (UK#36), released on Arista, yielded the top twenty hit ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ (UK#17), and in 1993 a career retrospective titled ‘If I Was’, returned Midge Ure (& Ultravox) to the top ten in Britain.

Ure’s 1996 album ‘Breathe’ didn’t register a pulse on the charts, but Ure has remained active on the recording front over the last ten years including the albums ‘Move Me’ (2001), and ‘10’ (2008), and continues to play a key role with world charity organisations. As mentioned in the previous Ultravox post, Midge Ure performed with the reformed Ultravox for a special 30th anniversary tour of Britain during 2009.

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