Musical pioneer, producer, song writer and front man; Midge Ure has done it all. A key figure behind Ultravox and Band Aid's ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, the Scott has made an indelible mark on the world of pop. What’s lesser known is that for a while, his guitar playing skills were called upon to help out Thin Lizzy when a U.S. tour was threatened with derailment. We sat down with Midge at Rewind Festival, for a chat about his tenure with the Celtic rock legends, playing Live Aid, and what lies ahead. Freezing breath on a window pane; Eamon O’Neill
Hi Midge, welcome to Rewind; how has it been for you?
It’s great. This is the first one I’ve done this summer. We’ve done two months’ worth of these festivals up and down the U.K., and it’s the first one that’s not sunny, and I prefer it this way!
Do you like being associated with the 80s Rewind ethos?
Do you know what? There’s something that, when I started doing these I felt kind of uncomfortable about it, but I remember seeing Phil Oakey [The Human League] being interviewed on television, and they asked him the same question, and he said; “These days, there are no advances from record labels to make music; there’s no way of funding stuff, so if I have to do a couple of festivals where I’ve got to get up and just do the hits and not all what I think is the interesting stuff, that pays for the next album”, and that’s how you’ve got to look at it, in a fiscal sense.
So you’re happy to play the hits?
On a purely artistic sense, yeah, I’d love to get up and play the new stuff or whatever, but that’s not what these things are about. These are about keep it hit-led, you know?
You’re still releasing albums, and you do have a fan base that come to hear the newer material too.
I do yeah, of course, and when I do my own tours, it’s a whole different ball game; you can choose the interesting b-sides, and you can choose the ten minute long instrumentals. That would just kill something like this, this is not about those shows. At your own shows you can indulge a bit, because you know that the audience have gone out especially to come and see you do your thing. It’s a very different thing.
I wanted to chat to you about joining Thin Lizzy in 1979. The phone rings, and you’re told; “Gary Moore has gone AWOL; can you come and replace him” – how do you feel when you get that call?
Petrified, absolutely petrified. Of all the guitarists Lizzy could have asked to step in, especially Gary’s shoes. I saw Gary when he was 16 in Skid Row, and he was just exceptional then. So, when something like that happens, you say; “Yes”, and then you figure it all out later. You never turn something like that down.
Is it true that you had to learn the songs on the plane on the way over to join the U.S. tour?
Yes. I was finishing in the studio the night that I got the phone call, and by the time I got back to my little flat in London - because I was recording in the country, there was a pile of cassettes and a plane ticket, and I had three or four hours to pack, be picked up and taken to the airport. And I took my big ghetto blaster and my headphones, and I thought; “I’ll learn the songs on the plane”, because that’s the only time that I had to do it. And of course they flew me out on Concorde, so I was in New York in three hours. It was crazy!
Thin Lizzy are a band known for their exceptional guitar solos; did you have many of those to play?
Scott [Gorham] was doing all the solo stuff. I had my hands full just learning all the harmony guitar parts – of which there were many. Every song had a harmony guitar part, so that was enough for me. It got them out of that sticky situation. In fact, even when they were looking for a permanent replacement guitarist, Phil [Lynott] insisted I came out an did a bit a bit of keyboards with the band, and then came out at the end of the night and did like, six or seven songs on the guitar until they were settled.
Do you think you got the gig because of your friendship with Phil?
Only recently, I have to say in the last five years, I heard Scott Gorham being interviewed, and he told the story, saying that Phil had sold him the idea of getting me out [to play the tour] because I knew all the material - which I didn’t! I was a Lizzy fan, but I certainly didn’t know the chord structures or the harmony guitar parts or whatever, so I think they sold the idea that in order to get someone out immediately, who could be on stage tomorrow night; Midge is the guy.
In 2016 you joined Thin Lizzy on stage at Ramblin’ Man Fair festival to perform ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and ‘Cowboy Song’; was that the first time you’d done that since back then?
Yeah it was the first time I’d been on stage with Lizzy since 1980, so it was a bit of a refresher course for me trying to learn the songs again. But weirdly, I’ve kind of done something again recently with Scott and Ricky Warwick from Black Star Riders. We did a tour together in Europe with an orchestra – Rock meets Classic – and I was on tour with that doing my own thing, and of course I got up and did ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ with them as well, which was just an absolute ball; an old pair of shoes, old comfy slippers!
Moving on, and I have to talk to you about Live Aid; what was it like for you performing on that day?
I did it with Ultravox, and the big scary thing for us was; no sound check. We were using technology, and it was incredibly flaky, the synthesisers, so we had to choose the songs that had the least technology, so there was as little as possible that could go wrong! And touch wood, we did it.
Did you feel there was more pressure on you, performance wise, as it was you and Bob Geldof who were the figureheads of the entire event?
No, it all pales into insignificance. It was scary enough, without having to think about who else was on the bill. You cannot do that; you cannot think; “David Bowie’s going to be walking on here, and Elton John’s going to be playing, or Queen are going to come out here and steal the day” – you’ve got to go out there and do it to the best of your ability.
Finally, what’s coming up next for you?
I’m off to America next week with Paul Young. We’re doing a double-header of the second part of a tour. We’ve already done the first part. And I’m doing a tour at the end of the year with The Human League with my band Electronica, and then next year, who knows what’s going to happen? I’m thoroughly enjoying playing my guitar, so you’ll hear me doing some of those leads that you think I can’t do, out there!
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Midge Ure and Paul Young's 'Soundtrack of Yout Life' tour resumes in San Francisco on 29th August 2018. For a full list of dates, visit MidgeUre.com.