Midge Ure: Back in the spotlight

A couple of years ago, after I had finished an interview with a minor pop luminary-cum-actor, his driver offered me a lift in the direction of home. As it turned out, the driver's motivation wasn't entirely altruistic: he was looking for an audience for his tales of 40 years spent driving the stars - Sinatra, Bob Marley, he'd got stories about them all. The highlight was an extended anecdote about a couple of run-ins he'd had with Bob Geldof - it was revolting, very funny, and sadly unpublishable even in countries with libel laws less restrictive than our own.

A couple of years ago, after I had finished an interview with a minor pop luminary-cum-actor, his driver offered me a lift in the direction of home. As it turned out, the driver's motivation wasn't entirely altruistic: he was looking for an audience for his tales of 40 years spent driving the stars - Sinatra, Bob Marley, he'd got stories about them all. The highlight was an extended anecdote about a couple of run-ins he'd had with Bob Geldof - it was revolting, very funny, and sadly unpublishable even in countries with libel laws less restrictive than our own.

The point he was keen to make, though, was that while Geldof was a complete [expletive deleted], Midge Ure was a sweet, lovely man. "What people don't realise," the driver told me, "is that Midge was the one who organised Band Aid. He did all the work and that [expletives deleted] Geldof took all the credit." By all accounts, including Ure's, this is a monstrous slur on Geldof.

As Ure makes clear in his autobiography, If I Was, published last autumn, Band Aid and Live Aid were Geldof's initiative, and it was his energy, "terrier" persistence and willingness to blackmail recalcitrant stars ("I'll tell the world that you've fucking turned it down, that you're not doing it because you can't be fucking arsed") that made it all happen. But Ure was the first person Geldof called, and he co-wrote the Band Aid song "Do They Know It's Christmas?", helped to produce the single, sat on the committees that decided where the money went, and flew to Ethiopia as the face of Live Aid when Geldof wasn't available - he hated the experience.

Somehow, though, while Geldof managed to parlay his involvement into honorary knighthood, honorary sainthood, media moguldom and a place at the conference table with presidents and prime ministers, the less assertive, less charismatic Ure got left behind. "I've always said," he told an interviewer a few years ago, "that I was the guy waving a tenner at the barman for a quarter of an hour, while Bob was the guy getting the drink."

After huge pop success in the early Eighties, he all but vanished. These past 10 days he has bounced back into public view - appearing on the platform with Geldof as one of the moving spirits of Live 8, the series of concerts to coincide with the G8 summit in Gleneagles, and then, after Geldof had urged a million people to converge on Edinburgh, coming out to reassure the anxious citizenry of Edinburgh that that was "just Bob being Bob".

To those who don't remember Midge Ure first time around - who have only seen the little bald man at the press conferences - puzzlement might seem faintly absurd: what, you think, that's what a rock star looks like? But in the first half of the Eighties, Ure was a shoulder-padded, pencil-moustached, pointy-sideburned style icon. He was also a far bigger star than Bob Geldof ever was, bestriding the charts like a, well, at five foot seven clearly not a colossus, but you get the idea - as front man of the synthpop band Ultravox, as songwriter and éminence grise of the art-fashion-pop collective Visage, and as solo artist.

His finest hour was Ultravox's portentous "Vienna", with its damnably memorable refrain, "This means nothing to me - ah, Vienna". Released shortly before Christmas 1980, it spent interminable months at number two in the charts, at its peak selling 30,000 copies a day - now, shifting that many in a week would virtually guarantee a number one. It was kept off the top spot, first, by the just-assassinated John Lennon, and then, notoriously, by Joe Dolce's "Shaddap You Face".

At this point, Ure was 27 and already had a couple of pop careers under his belt. In the mid-1970s, having quit an engineering apprenticeship in his native Glasgow to try to make it as a musician, he joined a popular local band, Salvation, as guitarist. Until then he had been known as Jim, but Salvation already had one Jim, who insisted that to avoid confusion Jim Ure should reverse his name: Mij.

Salvation saw themselves as an art-rock band in the tradition of Roxy Music and Bowie, but - by now renamed Slik - they were taken up by a producer hoping to produce the next Bay City Rollers. Their first single, "Forever and Ever", shot to number one - for one week only - and on the back of it they started touring. But they didn't have enough material, or enough fans, to capitalise on the hit. Slik fell apart, leaving its members flat broke.

Ure had made some important contacts, though. Via a journalist for the NME, he received an invitation from Glen Matlock, the one who got thrown out of the Sex Pistols before they were famous, to join a new band, the Rich Kids. They were by all accounts rubbish, but Midge found himself playing in London pubs and clubs alongside other New Wave bands such as The Police and the Boomtown Rats - lead singer, R Geldof.

Ure didn't find his niche until, in the wake of John Foxx's departure, the self-consciously arty Ultravox were looking for a new front man. In the autobiography, Ure complains that people thought Ultravox were humourless. Well, how on earth did they come away with that impression? A glance at their celebrated video for "Vienna", with its shadows, wet cobbles, mysterious raincoated figures and meaningless switches between black and white and colour, offers a clue. Another comes from a glance at their song titles: "Reap the Wild Wind", "Hymn", "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes", "Lament", "I Remember (Death in the Afternoon)" - this last from an album called Rage in Eden.

Quite what they were being so serious about is hard to tell. At the height of "Vienna"'s popularity, Ure liked to tell interviewers that the song was all about Klimt, the Secessionists and the fin de siècle; he now says that was all rubbish, and he just liked the sound of the name.

Ure's versatility is not in question; he is a multi-instrumentalist (though he is best remembered as a keyboards man, those who know about these things rate him very highly as a guitarist), a producer, a director of videos for, among others, Fun Boy Three and Bananarama; but the thinking behind it all is vague. In the early Eighties, when he was asked to name his favourite book, he came up with Errol Flynn's autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways - this at least helps to explain the moustache.

He has not been too sharp in his business dealings, either. The early catastrophe of Slik - a hit that left him with no money - should have taught him the importance of self-preservation in the pop world. But though he likes to talk about himself in terms of Scots canniness, signs of this are elusive. After Ultravox went down the toilet - their final album, U-Vox, should, Ure says, have been called U-Bend - he enjoyed brief solo success, even having a number one single, "If I Was". But the money was frittered away on "classic" (read "unreliable and expensive to maintain") cars and a house in Montserrat that was successively eaten by termites, demolished by a hurricane, and engulfed by an erupting volcano, before he gave up on rebuilding.

By 1992, tied into an unfavourable deal with a label reluctant to release or promote his material, he was practically bankrupt. Ure does not seem unduly bothered by a lack of money, though: after Live Aid, he devoted a lot of time to charity, organising the Prince's Trust and Nelson Mandela's birthday concerts. No doubt his perspective is helped by his upbringing in Cambuslang, a poor suburb of Glasgow, in a house with rats in the walls and running water under the floorboards.

Apart from, so he says, a lot of sex with groupies during the heady days of Ultravox's popularity, he has never been much of a rock'n'roll animal. During his brief marriage to the TV personality and writer Annabel Giles, in the mid-Eighties, their intimate social circle included the squeaky-clean children's TV presenters Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene, Janet Kay ("the hand model") and Andy and Nicky Hill, the songwriters behind Bucks Fizz. His mother told him "Never do drugs, never marry a Catholic girl, and never be tattooed", and he says that he has stuck to that, apart from one unfortunate incident with a hash cake, and a small star on his upper right arm. His main concession to the lifestyle was a fondness for Jack Daniels which more recently developed into full-blown alcoholism, culminating in a spell in detox early last year.

He is unhappy with the state of the music industry in Britain, calling it a "factory pumping out sausages in white suits and spiky hair". But even as his career in Britain has languished - and he never did manage to break America - he is not forgotten elsewhere. On the back of a Swatch campaign that used one of his songs, he suddenly became very big in Italy in the mid-Nineties; while in Latvia, where his song "If I Was" was adopted as an anthem by pro-independence protesters, he remains positively huge.

An appearance on This Is Your Life four years briefly boosted his back catalogue over here. But it's Band Aid of which he remains proudest - the thought that a song he wrote raised nearly £8m for the starving, and helped to put Africa back on the map. After all this time, it seems only fair that he should be back in the spotlight again, getting a little credit for it.

A Life in Brief

BORN James Ure, 10 October 1953 in Cambuslang, Lanarkshire

FAMILY First marriage to Annabel Giles, one daughter; married now to Sherri Forbes, three daughters.

EDUCATION Apprentice engineer at the National Engineering Laboratories in East Kilbride.

CAREER Bands: In 1974 joined Salvation, which became Slik; then short spells with Rich Kids, Thin Lizzy and Visage. In 1980 he joined Ultravox; the band broke up in 1987. Co-wrote, with Bob Geldof, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (1984); and helped Geldof to organise Live Aid in 1985. Number one UK single: "If I Was" (1985); number one world-wide single "Breathe" (1996), following its use in a Swatch television advertising campaign.

HE SAYS "Band Aid was an analogy. A band aid will heal or cover a cut but it won't fix a severed arm and Ethiopia's got two severed arms."

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