James ‘Midge’ Ure was born in Cambuslang, on the south-eastern outskirts of Greater Glasgow, in January 1953. He joined his first band, Stumble, at 16, before moving onto Salvation three years later, where his name (Jim) was turned backwards (Mij) to avoid confusion with bassist Jim McGinlay. In 1974 he became vocalist of the renamed Slik and the following year turned down an offer from Malcolm McClaren to front the Sex Pistols.
Silk hit the top of the charts in 1976 with Forever and Ever but, inspired by punk, changed their name to the short-lived PVC2. Stints followed with ex-Pistol Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids, Visage and Thin Lizzy before joining Ultravox. The title track of Ure’s first album with the band, 1980’s Vienna, became a massive hit and kickstarted a run of hit singles. Meanwhile Visage’s Fade To Grey was issued in the same year and was another huge success for Ure.
In November 1984, Ure co-wrote Do They Know It’s Christmas? with Bob Geldof. The Band Aid charity single that became one of the highest-selling of all time and provided the impetus for Live Aid, the landmark 1985 charity concert he and Geldof co-organised. Ure went on to help organise the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988 and Live 8 (2005), while pursuing a successful solo career and was awarded the OBE for services to music and charity in 2005.
Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Midge Ure reflects on his early musical steps, struggles in later life and working with his heroes.
I’d left school by the time I was 16. I went to an academy because my brother went to one and I thought I’d be letting the family down if I didn’t go, but they taught me nothing. I was really interested in art and music, but they wouldn’t let me near the piano. So I left at 15 and got an apprenticeship at 16 at the National Engineering Laboratory in East Kilbride with a view to becoming an engineer. Because that was a proper job. My dad was a van driver all his life, so it was instilled in my brother and I that we get proper jobs; a trade, a skill. So it was music at the weekends and filing, turning and milling during the week.
It was a glorious time to be discovering music – Radio Luxembourg on the little transistor under the bed sheets. I was especially into bands like the Small Faces, The Beatles, cool young mods. I wasn’t writing songs yet, but I’d had a guitar since I was 10. I was kind of teaching myself so I could play in bands at weekends. I auditioned for Salvation, a well-known band on the Scottish circuit. And they offered me a job. So I had to go home and speak to the parents and say, “OK, this has cropped up. What should I do? I’ll tell you now, the moment I finish my apprenticeship, I will never work in a factory. I will pursue music. But I’ll finish the apprenticeship because it’s something you really want me to do.” And my mother said, “Follow your heart.” I could see my dad sitting there going, oh my god, what’s she doing? But she could see in my eyes that I was burning to do this.
I was quite a nice kid. Music kept me away from what lots of working-class kids living on council estates ended up doing, being in gangs and stuff. My gang had musical instruments. At weekends when lots of people were fighting in dancehalls, I was on the stage playing while all the fighting was going on. My mother brought me up reasonably well, she taught me right from wrong, which is exactly what I try and do with my daughters.
I was definitely a dreamer. My mother used to say, “If you shook your head it would rattle ’cos it’s full of broken bottles.” I had my fantasies of coming home from school, walking round the corner and seeing a big Bentley with three of The Beatles sitting waiting for me, saying, hey, you’re the guy we need for our band. I remember doing my 6am paper round when I was a kid, saving up money to buy a guitar. And I’d be singing at the top of my voice because the reverb you got on the empty streets was fantastic. Of course, I woke everybody up and they probably all hated me for it. But I remember one woman saying, “It’s great, you’re my alarm clock.” I loved that.
There’s a lot of naivety that goes into anything to do with the arts. You’ve got to be a bit stupid. You’ve got to be a dreamer. If you sat down at the start and had someone point out all the downfalls, you wouldn’t get over the starting line. It’s why artists sign ridiculous contracts. You could be sitting there with a lawyer telling you, this is a dreadful contract. And you’re thinking, this is brilliant, I’m going to get signed. Logic doesn’t come into it at all. Naivety absolutely rules. And thank goodness, because otherwise, we’d all be living in a very dull world.
Being on This is Your Life was a very big thing for me. Not because I had always wanted it to happen to me, but because my parents understood it. They’d seen all these famous footballers, authors, actors, musicians, politicians, whatever, getting the big red book thrust upon them. When that happened to me, both my parents were still alive. And that was something they could relate to. To them that was bigger than the concerts or the hit records, probably bigger even than Band Aid or Live Aid. Of all the magical moments that happened to me, that was the one that resonated most with them.
The first real moment of absolute clarity for me was when I walked into a rehearsal room to join Ultravox. I’d always had this thing in my head about trying to incorporate a synthesiser into a band of traditional rock instruments. Ultravox had just been dropped by their record label, just lost their singer, owed a fortune to their previous record company – but just walking in and plugging in and playing them a song, that was mindblowing to me. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. So it wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about future skills. It was about being there with like-minded people and all of a sudden, all the pieces fitted. That was a highlight of my life.
Even if I went back in time and had a word with myself about all the drinking, I’m not sure I could actually stop myself doing it. It went hand in hand with the life. It’s an insidious drug, and you just become accustomed to it. You’d do your soundcheck, then you’d set up a drink before you went on, and then you’d have more drinks afterwards. And you’d do the same again the next day and keep doing it. But then you start crossing the line you said you would never ever cross. Drinking during the day, drinking on your own. And before you realise it, you can’t stop it.
Alcohol took me from being not a bad guy to hang out with, to someone I wouldn’t hang out with if he was the last person on the planet. You lie, you cheat and you deny. And I didn’t like who I had become. But if I went back and told myself I was going to be a complete dick, I don’t think I’d have listened. Because I was a complete dick.
Fortunately, I had a very strong wife who kicked me into place. I went to rehab but it didn’t work; I didn’t listen to them because, obviously, I knew better than they did. I could see the damage I was doing but it still didn’t knock me into shape. It wasn’t until my 10-year-old daughter caught me with a bottle, sitting outside my car. Her face was horrific – all of a sudden, I wasn’t that knight in shining armour, that invincible character any more. I was just this wreck. And that was it. I never touched it again.
If I could relive any moment in my life, I’d take an opportunity I missed at the time. Kate Bush was sent a piece I’d written and very kindly said, “I love this. I’d love to sing the female part.” So that was fantastic. But I never got to see her do it. She was in the middle of making her own album, so I just sent the multitrack tapes to her and expected her to call me up in six months’ time. But she called me up two days later and said, “Do you want to come over and hear what I’ve done?” So I went over and she played me this Kate choir. She had multitracked all these vocals. I just stood there with a tear in my eye. So I’d love to go back to that moment, but only if she let me go into her studio and watch.
I’m imagining going back and popping out of the Tardis to meet my 16-year-old self and saying, one day kid, you’ll meet David Bowie. See that Cream live at the Albert Hall album you’ve got under your arm? One day you’re gonna stand on stage playing guitar with Eric Clapton and he’ll know your name. You’ll meet your heroes and you won’t be disappointed. The magic of those moments never goes away. And despite all the platitudes and the platinum records and the awards and all that stuff, you’re still that 16-year-old kid with a gleam in your eye and a dream in your heart. And when you stand on stage or you meet somebody who was a hero, you still pinch yourself. If that moment dies, you might as well give it all up and go and do something else completely.
Midge Ure’s ‘Celebrating 7 Decades: A Life in Music’ takes place at London Royal Albert Hall, 4 October. Tickets: royalalberthall.com ‘The Gift’ Deluxe Edition will be released by Chrysalis on 22 September
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