Sunday, March 21, 2010

Two on MIDGE URE and ULTRAVOX

Part I: Text by Chris Van Valen and David G,
© FFanzeen, 1981
Part 2: Text by Abby Sheffield
© FFanzeen, 1986
Images from the Internet

The following interview and article originally appeared in
FFanzeen Number 7, which was issued in 1981, and in Number 14, from 1986.

PART 1: Ultravox – Not Standing Still
By Chris Van Valen and David G., 1981

Ultravox’s song “Vienna,” their third single since reforming after the departure of lead singer/lyricist John Foxx (nee Dennis Leigh), was number one on the British charts for quite a while. “Vienna” has established the band as legitimate stars, a distinction they so richly deserve but were denied due to a disregard for fashion and poor reception by the British press. The current band’s members, Billy Currie (keyboards, violin, questionable guitar), Chris Cross (bass guitar, synthesizer, vocals), Warren Cann (drums, electronic percussion, vocals), and ex-Rich Kids Midge Ure (lead vocals, guitar, synthesizer), have avoided the danger of collapsing due to the loss of a key member by abandoning those aspects which characterized Foxx’s presence – a highly serious image, mechanical stage manner, and intellectual approach – and taking a romantic view of living in a modern world.

We met Midge Ure (who spoke with a very thick Scottish burr) and Chris Cross (whose real last name is St. John) fall of 1980, during the band’s extensive (U.S) East Coast tour. They proved to be as entertaining off stage as on.

FFanzeen: Let’s have a quick summary of what the band was doing between the first American tour (Fall ’78) and the break with Island, and then with Foxx.
Chris Cross: The break with Island was before the tour. The main reason we came over was because we didn’t have a record company. It was something that we really wanted to do, so we came over.

FF: There were tracks recorded, weren’t there?
Chris: That was before we went to America, as well. It was that stuff that we played on that tour.

FF: “Radio Beach” and “He’s a Liquid”?
Chris: Yeah, and “Touch and Go.”

FF: What happened to that stuff?
Chris: John put it on his album, being a friendly sort.

FF: What was the story behind the compilation, Three Into One?
Midge Ure: He put a writ on me and I didn’t have anything to do with any of the other albums. I had nothing to do with it.
Chris: We didn’t want it to come out. He didn’t want it t come out. The only way we could try and stop it was if he sued us or we sued him. So he sued us. Island was trying to make a free buck from us and it worked.

FF: Midge, how did you join the band?
Midge: It was just when they’d come back from that first American tour and they parted their ways. I’d met Billy (Currie) just before the tour. I didn’t know any of the guys in the band at all. I was doing a studio project with some of my favorite musicians.

FF: Was that Visage?
Midge: Precisely. I asked Billy if he wanted to do some stuff, and he was well up for it. He thought it would be just great working with some other musicians for a while. Just like a busman’s holiday. When they came back from America, I didn’t know that the band was ready to split. When they did split, I started working with Billy and he didn’t want to do anything with the band at that particular point. The whole thing had become one big pain in the backside, and he just went away and did the Visage stuff. When I got through working with Billy on it, I wangled my way into the band.

FF: What do you mean “wangled”?
Chris: Not really [laughs].

FF: The band had a direction on Systems of Romance [the band’s third and last album with Foxx]. Did this point in the direction from which you were coming?
Midge: Definitely. I think Systems was half a great album. There were some really good songs on it, but it was still a bit confused at that point. But the band was starting to get somewhere. I didn’t like the first two albums at all. When I joined the band, my idea was that it would be an obvious step up from “Slow Motion” and “Quiet Man,” while still keeping an experimental state, like “Just For a Moment,” and continue from that point. What we’ve got now is what I’d personally liked to have seen the band doing before. But it was just too mixed up before – it lacked the right ingredient.

FF: I read in one paper where you and Billy said that this album is a stopover to get yourselves together before going on to more experimental stuff in the future. What direction will the follow-up to Vienna take?
Midge: It’s started already. We recorded while we were in Miami for a couple of days. When we go into the studio, we have no idea at all what we’re going to do. We just recreated something in the studio. The track is pretty good, too. It’s only now that we can do that because we’ve been together a year and a half. We’re starting to rely on each other and bounce ideas off each other. You go into the box and you’re under pressure to be as good as everyone else has been, and make it mix.
Chris: Instead of having everything meticulously planned, we’ll do half that way and half very, very loose and free, and just see what we come up with.

FF: The set was similar to the first tour with the new band. Was the first tour just to show that the band was still alive?
Midge: Yeah, and it helped us break in the new material. We don’t like the idea of recording material before we’ve played it for a while. Once you’ve recorded it, that’s it, you can’t really change it that much.

FF: What was the idea behind trying to get a contract while insisting on not doing demos?
Chris: Demos are a real problem because when you do them, there’s always something on them. For example, drums: that’s impossible to recreate the magic. We have demos that we’ve done before that are much better than the finished tracks.
Midge: It’s not that we’re trying to be elitist. We blew more record deals because of that then anything.

FF: I guess Chrysalis is treating you better than Island?
Chris: Oh, yeah. The mafia treats us better than Island [laughs].

FF: Midge, I saw Glen Matlock at the gig last night. What does he think about what you’re doing now?
Midge: I’m sure he’s quite pleased. He could see what was happening when the Rich Kids started to split. I wanted the Rich Kids to sound more like the way we’re doing things now, and he wanted the Rich Kids to sound more like what he’s doing now with the Spectres. I went to his gig and I could see all the Rich Kids things from his point of view, and he saw my Rich Kids ideas from my point of view. I’m sure he thought it was…bloody awful [laughs].

FF: Where do you think Ultravox fits in right now, with Gary Numan capitalizing on the style of music you pioneered?
Chris: I don’t think we fit in with the Numan thing or electronic thing at all.
Midge: We don’t want anything to do with that.
Chris: We’re similar to what we’ve always been; we’ve never really quite fit into what’s going on. We basically don’t want to be a fashionable band because as soon as you are, it ends in six weeks. We’re really very conscious of that.

FF: In every interview that Gary Numan gives he mentions Ultravox as his primary influence.
Midge: We can’t see the connection, musically. We can see some basic ideas, but he’s taken them off on a tangent. I can’t see any similarity between him and us at all.
Chris: The whole similarity is more in his mind. It’s sort of like is version of what Ultravox sound like to him.

FF: One of his songs, “The Joy Circuit,” sounds as though it was ripped off from “Astradyne.”
Chris: We actually recorded pretty much during the same period of time.

FF: What sort of relationship does the band have with Foxx?
Chris: We never see him. He does exactly what he always wanted to do. You know, he wants to be a pain in the ass artist [laughs]. Really, all he wants to do is sit home and beat people away from the front door.
Midge: I’m sure he’ll come up with something eventually, but it must be alienating for him to step out of a band that, whether or not he admits it or not, had a lot to do with the music. The music was the band. To step out of that and try to do it all yourself must be a bit…lonely.
Chris: He has a really good keyboard player that works with him. He does all the good bits.

FF: How did you get back to working with producer Conny Plank?
Chris: He just really liked the idea of doing it. He’s the only person that we have a good working relationship with. We feel confident about the way he works and the sounds he gets.
Midge: We keep saying that it would be nice to work with somebody else. I’ve only done one album with him, and found it great and interesting working with the guy. This is the band’s second album with him so we looked around and couldn't come up with a single other name worth trying.

FF: He seems to have a handle on the electronics. He gets a good sound out of machines.
Midge: People try to use synthesizers as cold machines or an effect, like plugging in a fuzz box or whatever. He uses it like an acoustic instrument. He plays it back through a speaker cabinet and mics it up just like a guitar amp or a drum kit, an ambient thing. He treats it different ways like any other instrument, not just an electronic one.
Chris: He gets a natural sound.
Midge: And it comes across on the record. Most synthesizer groups are cold and plunky-plunky.
Chris: It’s a lively sound.

FF: Roxy Music started the idea of the synthesizer as more than just a fancy organ that makes funny noises.
Midge: I like the idea of Eno playing out front, from the mixing deck.

FF: You do (Eno’s) “King’s Lead Hat” and the encore. Have you ever talked to him about it?
Midge: He came to see us in LA, just as we walked off stage. He missed it. He said he’d liked to have heard it. We asked him what the lyrics were. He said he didn’t know, ‘cause we don’t know either. We sort of made them up. It’s the only thing we do that incredibly loose. It changes every night. We don’t know what the next line is. Really spontaneous.

FF: What’s your schedule like now? You recorded in Miami. Is that going to be your next single (this song is “Passionate Reply,” the B-side of “Vienna”)?
Midge: That was an experiment. It’ll probably be the B-side or an album track. We started recording early in 1981, after a short tour of England.

FF: The “Passing Strangers” video was very cinematic, not just the usual close-up of the singer’s face.
Midge: That’s what we were trying to steer clear of. We even added a violin that’s not on the record.

FF: You got Billy Currie to sing on it, too.
Midge: That was hard [laughs].
Chris: He couldn’t remember the words. Twenty times I had to tell him the words and he still said, “What’s the second line?”
Midge: We just wanted a video that didn’t look like a band playing. That’s why we did the live stuff.

FF: It summed up the idea of the song. It must not be as hard as having him play guitar, though.
Midge: Well, that’s hard to listen to more than it’s hard for him to play.

FF: The crowd cheers when he puts it on.
Midge: Part of the crowd cheers when he puts the guitar on. The other part cheers when he doesn’t. He says, “I fancy the guitar,” he doesn’t say he plays it. He enjoys himself.

FF: Have you any idea of what your next phase will be?
Midge: Hopefully, it’ll be a step up from what we’ve done.
Chris: We’ve got four or five set songs. It’s more interesting to go in not knowing what we’re doing.
Midge: It’s a whole different way to working. On Vienna, it’s a layered thing, not more than two of us playing at one time. It was all done bit by bit. That’s hard in itself, trying to get a sound like a band playing. This time we’re going to let one person go in at a time and play whatever they want to play.

FF: Vienna suggests several possible directions, such as the title track’s use of space.
Midge: The really sparse introduction. Then we built to a crescendo.

FF: At your shows, the crowd’s mood seems to go up and down, but at the end, they all go crazy.
Midge: Dance songs. It’s got to go up and down. When I go from guitar to keyboards, there’s not much happening on stage. It’s sort of a listening period. Then we do some older stuff.

FF: Will you be stepping out more on guitar?
Midge: I’m doing one or two more solos than on the first tour. I hate guitarists that just do straight-out solos. I play a backwards solo at the end of “Passing Strangers.” It’s a great song to solo over. I never played much guitar with the Rich Kids. I let Steve New do most of the live stuff.

FF: You seem to enjoy yourself on stage. Foxx just stood there.
Midge: I do enjoy myself.

FF: How were you accepted initially by the fans?
Midge: I didn’t know that the fans thought that Foxx was the whole band until we went out on the road. I never thought that at all. I thought he was the singer and wrote good lyrics and that’s it. The fans thought that Foxx was the savior of the band, and I wanted the band to get the recognition they deserved. That was hard for the fans at first.

FF: Your vocal style is different. You’re a singer and he sort of spoke-sang. Both versions are good in their own context.
Midge: I suppose that’s ‘cause I’m a singer before I’m a guitarist and he’s an artist before he’s a singer. He hadn’t been in a band before he was in Ultravox. I’ve been singing for years.

FF: Was it conscious or a coincidence that a few of the riffs, for example “Vienna” and “Maximum Acceleration” from Systems of a Romance are similar?
Midge: Someone else pointed that out to me. It’s a coincidence. On “Vienna,” it’s much slower [Midge sings both]. We use those scales that Billy knows. “Quiet Man” and “Sleepwalk” use similar scales. Those chord progressions and scales make up the sound which is Ultravox.

FF: When Billy plays more I guess he’ll learn more scales.
Midge: Well, I’m teaching him all I know.

FF: How does the new recording techniques differ from the earlier albums, Ultravox! and Ha-Ha-Ha?
Chris: It was basically similar. “Fear in the Western World” was done live. Everything else was just bass and drums with other parts overdubbed.
Midge: “Astradyne” and “Passing Strangers” were done that way. With a synthesizer; it’s easer to mix from the control room.

FF: How’s the writing distributed now?
Midge: We all contribute. Some of the stuff Warren’s done totally. He did “Mister X” and part of “Sleepwalk.” Then Chris and Warren will change a line there and there.

FF: On stage, the vocal parts were very cleverly altered. Was this done by your sound man?
Midge: I do all that on stage. I use foot switches so I don’t have to depend on the sound man in case he’s having a chat and forgets to switch it on. I’ve got a set of switches that does echoes and megaphone, stuff like that.

FF: “Mr. X” reminds me of “Touch and Go.” Was this an effort to salvage a piece of old material that Foxx used?
Chris: We didn’t know he was putting out an album. We had “Mr. X” done before he had his album.
Midge: The band wrote the music. John used it and said he wrote it.

FF: Chris, how do you keep it together on the freak out during “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”?
Chris: I find playing the reggae really the easiest to play. Like on “Dangerous Rhythm.” I like mixing it into berserk electronic surroundings. It’s almost like dub.

FF: Did you play sax on the album cut? The record says, “Sax by C.C.”
Chris: Everyone asks me that, but no, I didn’t.

FF: Would you like to do dub records?
Chris: I’d like to do one. I was trying to think of a song that would suit it and I couldn’t think of one.
Midge: I like the way Andy Partridge (of XTC) does it because it’s not very reggae-ish. He totally changes things. I’m sure we’ll eventually do one, but it’s very expensive; studio time and everything.

FF: Whatever happened to Stevie Shears?
Chris: Last thing we heard, he was playing in Cowboys International. I haven’t heard anything since then.

FF: The album cover of Vienna looks very robotic. What that intentional?
Midge: To me, it looks like a ‘40s fashion photograph of a band. We were trying to get a natural look and it just turned out that way. We stole the crumpled up paper idea from an old Vogue magazine picture. It was a lady standing there in an evening gown with all these shadows in the background. It looked really nice. And it was just crumpled paper. But ours just looked like crumpled paper.

[Special thanks to Jackie Boone]

PART 2: Midge Ure: A Recollective Conversation
By Abby Sheffield., 1986

It’s an 82 degree day in Miami. Images of poolside leisure or a cruise to the beach usually accompany days like this. Midge Ure, affable Scottish spokesman of Ultravox pushes such thoughts aside – at least temporarily – for the duration of the afternoon. After all, it’s not that tough a choice; a challenging interview with another journalist or a few more hours in the hot, baking sun. No choice at all.

When Sir Bob briefly left Boomtown and proposed an idea to Ure, one that would introduce some charitable ideas into the music marketplace and aid a suffering nation, little did either musician realize that the result of this collaboration would be on such a grand scale. The Band Aid project brought a slew of rock heroes to the forefront and propelled Bob Geldorf into knighthood. Ure actually had an equal partnership in the beginning of the project, musically and in the business sense.

“I actually saw some of the Band Aid shipments getting there,” Ure recaps. “Everyone said to me that it must have been an amazing feeling knowing that you’ve been involved since the beginning. That was the best feeling of all, to be able to take the supplies over there.”

Ure still waxes enthusiastic over rock’s charitable snowballing efforts since his project moved to the back of people’s minds. Gone but not forgotten.

“I didn’t see them as jumping on the bandwagon. I see them as taking over where Bob and I left off. It was great to see that when the (“Feed the World”) single start to die, ‘cause it was a Christmas record, the Americans took over; then the Canadians, then many more.

“I think the music business, when it all pulls together the way that it has, can become a very powerful piece of machinery. It’s nice to see that power channeled into something worthwhile. I don’t see why the musicians and the music business in general can’t get involved by helping in various ways.”

The Scotland-born, English-bred Ure interestingly enough introduced his most recent solo work into the conversation. A solo project from an artist may differ form his band’s collective release in a variety of ways. There’s, perhaps, less reasons to compromise and the artist may pursue a style that the entire band may not have agreed on. A Phil Collins situation was discussed, since the drummer/vocalist of Genesis successfully forged a path that Ure aspired to follow. It’s tough being one of the creative beings in a group and then stepping out alone. Dedicated fans may know where to apply the credit for such inventiveness, but what about the rest of the world?

Granted, Ure (and partner Chris Cross) have written the music and produced the videos for Ultravox and is well versed on several instruments, and even is designated as the main warbler in the group, but what happened when this creative being unleashed his talents with only his name on the album’s front cover?

By now, we know that Ure’s solo album did not do as well as his collaborations with his band. Moreover, the album’s appeal did not go unnoticed.

“I didn’t think that it was radically different form what I do with Ultravox,” he recalls. “My only thought was to make it half instrumental-half vocal. I was rebelling against the fact hat everyone knew me for my voice, rather than as a musician.

“There were influences propping out that I didn’t know I had – touches of Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno.”

Would the musician in him want to expand and experiment with other instruments?

“I bought a koto from Japan. It looks like a softball with strings on it. It’s that classic Japanese plucked instrument sound that you hear on any Japanese music. I had the idea for a piece of music with a slight oriental sound to it.

“The album sounds very orchestrated without having to use an orchestra.”

There were several opportunities for the versatile musician-songwriter if he wanted to grab the solo spotlight. He was, after all, involved in the Prince’s Trust; an annual benefit sponsored by Price Charles, and had a couple of solo singles released. Why was that specific time chosen for the solo?

“Well, Ultravox had a phenomenon happen. When “The Collection” was released, it sold a million copies in Britain – more than ever before. All of a sudden Ultravox became a household name. It gave me a bit of breathing space. After the success, it would be nice to take a break. This gave me the time I needed to go into the studio. The time was right. I don’t think that if I had done it two years before, that I would have been satisfied.”

Ure is well practiced on reviewing his evolution from Scottish pop-belter to the versatile performer we know today. When Ultravox revamped the personnel involved at the time and omitted the exclamation following the name, there was a vacancy looking to be filled. Along rambles Ure, the survivor of such bands as Slick and the Rich Kids. After an invitation from friend Cross, Ure passes the audition and joins right in. Fueling the band financially meant outside touring to Ure and his guitar joined Thin Lizzy. His part in Ultravox’s Vienna established him as a potent musical force.

Musical credits aside, Ure has also directed the band’s last eight video clips, as well as the promotional pieces for Bananarama, Fun Boy Three, Visage, and the late Phil Lynnot.

As time marched on, Ure held more of a creative place in his band. Keyboards are added to his ever growing list of accomplishments. Though the group was always democratic in their decision making procedures, Ure was noticed as more of the creative force. When he built a small studio in his English country home, the opportunities became more frequent for his experimentation. Soon, other projects were thrust in his direction.

Ure concludes, “I’m very happy with what I’m doing with Ultravox, but there’s something inside me that wants more.”

Stay tuned.

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