Ultravox man Midge Ure reflects upon an interesting apprenticeship and shares a clever hotel-room hack...
What was your first gig and how did it go?
“I think the first ever performance was as a cub in the scout hall at the church near where I was living when I was seven or eight. I came out from underneath a box in the middle of a scout jamboree on stage and sang a Herman’s Hermits song. They called me ‘Dyna-mite’, as in ‘tiny’, so it was obviously set in stone that I was going to have some sort of nickname that was connected with a diminutive stature!
“It did go down well - I think all the ‘yummy mummies’ at the time screamed and clapped just like it was The Beatles, so I think it quite possibly gave me the taste for following this through.”
Describe your current stage rig…
“I’m doing an acoustic thing in spring and a full electric band tour at the end of the year. The acoustic one is pretty straightforward. I use a pair of matched Taylors, limited-edition versions; I’ve been using them for 15 years now, I think. They’re probably based on the 812s but more flash. They sound great either acoustically or plugged in. They’re just DI’d, straight into a tuner, no effects.
“The electric setup is slightly different. I use Hughes & Kettners, little 36-watt amp heads - Grandmeisters - and although they’re only 36 watts, they’re absolute killers, just phenomenal, with a couple of 2x12 cabinets. They also have these fantastic DIs out of the back. Recently, I’ve been using the amplifiers on a silent stage and there are very few amps that have a really good DI out and these new H&Ks are fantastic. They have cabinet emulators and stuff like that - it really does sound like it’s been mic’d.
“For the guitar, again, just a tuner and a Boss Blues Driver overdrive pedal. A very straightforward setup. The guitars, I have two that I use all the time: one is the Vintage [V100] Lemon Drop and JHS did a special signature model for me, which is the V100MU. It’s kind of a Gold Top Les Paul with two P-90s and it has a Gibson-style Vibrola.”
What’s on your rider?
“Very little these days. We tend to trim that right back; I’ve not drunk for a long time so all the booze has kinda disappeared. Depending on the time of year, it’s a couple of non-alcoholic beers, or in the summer, non-alcoholic ciders, some Pepsi Max and some reasonably healthy stuff you can make a sandwich with or just nibble at. Coffee, tea. That’s it. Old age brings with it sensibilities and so gone are all the excessive bins full of ice filled with booze and crappy sandwiches!”
What’s your best tip for getting a good live sound?
“I think having good musicians around you. It’s to do with the fingers, the quality of the player. So, with me, I suppose, having a combination of the right amp and the right guitar gives you the sound because everything else comes from your fingers; it comes from your technique.”
What non-musical item couldn’t you do without on tour?
“A couple of things - and this is going to sound really dull. If you’re touring in Germany, most of the hotels don’t have kettles, so having a little portable hand-steamer, where you can not only get the wrinkles out of your clothes without having to resort to ironing, but it also doubles up as a kettle for boiling water. So that’s quite a handy thing to have with you. And I suppose if you’re doing long-haul flights, some form of neck pillow, because, believe it or not, we don’t all fly first class!”
What’s your best tip for getting the audience on your side?
“You have to go out there with the sense that everybody in the audience has purchased a ticket to see you and that means that 50 per cent of the audience really want to see you and 50 per cent have been dragged along by their significant other half. They’re the ones you really have to get. The other half, you’re preaching to the converted.
“And don’t go on and play an entire new album without advertising that that’s what you’re going to do, because we are creatures of habit; we like what we know. Most people will not feel satisfied if they don’t hear certain songs, so you have to be prepared for that.”
What’s the best venue you’ve played in and why?
“Mine doesn’t exist any more. Mine was the Glasgow Apollo, which used to be the Green’s Playhouse. I think when it was built it used to be the biggest theatre or cinema in Europe. I cut my teeth seeing every band who ever performed in Glasgow, before it changed its name to the Glasgow Apollo.
“My management company, when I still lived up there, owned the Apollo and so I had access to everything from The Carpenters to Led Zeppelin, and that was my musical apprenticeship. When I finally got to play there, it was everything I hoped it would be.”
What’s the worst journey you’ve had either to or from a gig?
“None of them are particularly good - that’s the dull part. You can easily do a two-day journey across America to get from one gig to another, but I suppose that has some romanticism about it as well.
“The one that stands out is my first band in Glasgow. We were driving a Transit to a gig and the gearbox packed in and so we pooled the money we had, including the fee from the night before, bought a new gearbox and changed it at the side of the road, because the singer at the time was an apprentice mechanic, and carried on to the gig.
“But things like that are sent to try us and they separate the men from the boys - you get there and do the gig with oily fingers.”
What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?
“Mine would have been complaining bitterly on tour that a rider said ‘have French Champagne in the dressing room’ and, because we were in America, it was Californian Champagne. I remember kicking off about it and then realising what a twat I was because I don’t drink Champagne and I never did!”
What’s your favourite live album?
“Well, it’s debatable as to how live it was, but Thin Lizzy’s Live And Dangerous has to be up there because it captured everything that was great about a Lizzy show. It was powerful, it was connected, the atmosphere you could usually cut with a knife and take home with you - there was something magical about it. I remember hearing it for the first time and it took me back to seeing Lizzy at their peak.”
Midge Ure is on tour across the UK for most of 2019.