Midge Ure: 'Phil Lynott protected me from drugs'

You wouldn’t pick Midge Ure for a former rock god. Shaven headed and down-to-earth, he lacks the middle-aged theatricality of former collaborators like Steve Strange and Bob Geldof. His broad Glaswegian Burr is untouched by years of living in Bath, in England. It’s difficult to imagine this slightly avuncular figure was one of the leading lights of that era of big hair and big ballads: the 1980s.

But pop star aura or not, Midge Ure’s place in music history is assured. When he takes to the stage at the Forever Young festival in Kildare later this month he will be performing a goosebump-inducing back catalogue that spans generations and music styles. He was the genius behind 1980s megahits Vienna and Fade to Grey. He co-wrote Do They Know It’s Christmas with Bob Geldof. And, like Prince, he is a Grammy-winning songwriting savant whose work has been performed by artists as diverse as The Sex Pistols and Thin Lizzy.

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“My career has been like a graph – I’ve had highs and lows – but for someone to still be in the music industry 40 years on, I think that says a lot,” he tells me. “I survived, a lot of people in the business weren’t that lucky.”

People like Phil Lynott, who Midge says shielded him from the worst of rock’s excesses.

“Phil Lynott protected me,” he recalls. “I had just joined Ultravox and we were touring America with Thin Lizzy. And in the dressing room there would be gorgeous girls and guys with long hair, all trying to ingratiate themselves with you by offering you every substance under the sun. And Phil knew I wasn’t into drugs at all and so he shielded me – probably so he could take the stuff all for himself. In that respect he was like a big brother to me.”

Lynott was not the only Irish icon who Ure worked with. The late Paula Yates introduced him to Bob Geldof, and it was a meeting that set in train one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time. “Everyone knew Paula because she was writing for music magazines and it was through that connection that I met Bob, and heard about the famine in Ethiopia and how much it had affected him. He had the basic idea for a song, which Tim Rice had turned down, it wasn’t great. He came over and I took the basic song to my studio at the bottom of the garden and turned it into what we know. I nicked the drum bit from Tears for Fears; I sampled it from their song, The Hurting. We didn’t tell them at the time – they only found out years later.”

He co-organised Live Aid with Geldof – Ure later said that it marked a turning point in his career – and they disagreed a fair bit. He recalls Geldof from that era as “a very bombastic, knowledgeable, and driven character. Luckily it wasn’t just me opposing him at various times. I had many clashes with him but he is one of the most knowledgeable people about Africa. And you had to respect what he did in music – coming from where he did and having the career he had.”

If Dublin was a bit of a pop backwater, then Glasgow in Midge’s youth was even worse, and he says that “Hadrian’s Wall may as well have still stood” for all the opportunities musicians from Scotland had to make it in London. Poverty was another bar to success; He was born in “a very basic tenement with gas lighting” where his family lived until he was 10, before it was pulled down.

“It really was the slums, but it was bearable because everyone else you know is living in those circumstances too,” he recalls. “I didn’t know any different. It was only when I got a little bit older and saw people from different backgrounds that I began to understand how difficult my parents must have had it in that one-bedroom smelly flat.”

He says Glaswegians “had no great tradition of playing live music like in Ireland. So my musical education came through the radio. You had all this music thrown at you – everything from The Beatles to Frank Sinatra.” He taught himself guitar. “I hounded my parents for it but my dad was earning £6 a week – there was no way we could afford a guitar. They got a second-hand one and I learned some chords from a book.”

He played in bands all the way through school and when he was 18 he was invited to join a band called Salvation. He recalls; “We couldn’t cross the border because nobody really knew who we were. You had to move to London to get signed. It was pure luck that Bill Martin, the partner of Phil Coulter, who also wrote a lot of the Bay City Rollers music, happened to be rehearsing in the same building as us and he helped us to get a record deal.”

By 1977 Midge had left Salvation and joined The Rich Kids with former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock. Musical tensions within the band led to Ure’s departure and the following year he formed Visage with its enigmatic vocalist, the late Steve Strange. This began an incredibly productive period for Ure, as he simultaneously worked on music for Thin Lizzy, Visage, and a revived Ultravox, for whom he recorded an album in 1980. That same year Fade to Grey (for Visage) and Vienna (for Ultravox) charted on the same day – Vienna would be re-released the following year and become one of the bestselling singles of the decade.

Ure felt he had been “handed the keys to the castle”, but it would be some time before he saw any of the money that his music was generating.

“The money was talked about but we didn’t see much of it,” he recalls. “I remember the flat that I was staying in didn’t have a phone so I had to ring my manager from a phone box to see how we were doing in the charts, it was bizarre. Back then a record label could sign 300 acts a year and if three of them became successful they made the money back. Our cut was very small but we knew the system was the only one proven to work so we happily went like lambs to the slaughter.”

There were temptations and groupies, he concedes. “I had money, I finally got to buy my own house and a classic sportscar – of course, with all that going on, there were temptations. It felt like getting the ultimate facelift, all of a sudden I was attractive to the opposite sex.”

His first wife was the supermodel Annabel Giles (with whom he had a daughter, Molly, who later found fame with the noughties rock group The Faders) but for the last three decades he has been married to Sheridan Forbes, with whom he has three daughters, Kitty, Ruby and Flossie.

Over the years Forbes kicked him out a few times because of his drinking, he says. “At the beginning, of course, the drinking was fun. It went hand in hand with tuning the guitar before I played and then after the gig I’d have a few drinks with my friends and chat up some girls.

“But slowly, almost unnoticeably, I began to cross boundaries that I’d never crossed, like drinking on my own. Sometimes I’d have a sense that I might have a problem but then I’d stop it for a few days and go back to it again.”

Drinking made aspects of the songwriting easier, he says. “It certainly made lyric writing less painful, for one thing. I felt like Jack Daniels and I could go into the studio and get the job done. But more often than not alcohol didn’t help – it would be gibberish and you’d have to go and fix it all again. There came a point when I really wondered, can I do this without the crutch of drink?”

Was there a rock bottom that so many alcoholics eventually embrace as the catalyst for change? “There were several rock bottoms to be honest,” he recalls, “but the one that stands out, I remember taking my kids to the beach in Cornwall and telling them to run down to the strand and find a nice spot for us while I turned around and had a drink of vodka at nine o’clock in the morning and my daughter came back and saw me and looked at me with absolute horror, so if that wasn’t enough to do it, nothing would be. That was the moment when I decided to stop forever.”

His marriage to Sheridan survived it all. “I have a very strong northern wife, a working-class girl from Doncaster. She made me leave a couple of times; tough love I think they call it. But we have an unbreakable bond.” 
He still tours constantly and gets joy from playing the old hits. “A lot of the songs we have been playing for decades but we have changed the arrangements so that it’s not this robotic repetitive thing. I’ll be performing a much rockier version of Vienna with a guitar solo. I still love playing the old hits: there are so many people of my era who didn’t survive, I have to feel lucky.”

Midge Ure plays the Forever Young festival in Palmerstown House Estate, Naas, on Saturday July 6. Tickets from www.foreveryoungfestival.ie

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