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Whatever happened to Midge Ure?

HE SHOULD BE A NATIONAL TREASURE ... so why is he leaving for Canada? By Torcuil Crichton

IN Weston-Super-Mare on a grim November afternoon, the tide has left the amusement pier high and dry. There isn't even enough water to reflect the feeble sunlight in this out-of-season, out-of-the-way place.

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The nearby Playhouse theatre promises an intimate evening of music and song with Midge Ure - a 1980s pop icon, the co-founder of Band Aid and now an ageing singer-songwriter whose career seems to be fizzling out in the cold Bristol Channel.

When I meet Ure in his small, bare dressing room it is 4.30pm and the sound-check is an hour away. He tells me about the time when he was sound-checking at a venue and someone came to the stage door to buy tickets for what he thought was a Midge Ure tribute band: "When the guy found out it really was me playing, he decided he didn't want the tickets after all." Ure, 54, laughs at the irony, unperturbed that some of his fans still prefer the sepia memory of his Ultravox-era moustache, the razored sideburns and the demob suit.

The real Midge Ure has, however, moved on a long way since the days of Vienna's chart-topping success, and the poster for tonight's show says nothing about Ultravox or Band Aid. Ure is doing what he says he has always wanted to do: making music. The stripped-down set is basically Midge Ure on stage with a guitar. While his friends and tour managers set up equipment for the performance, he tells me that last night he played on the other side of the country, in Hull, and sold out. Next month Ure will be back in Scotland to take part in Burnsong, a festival tribute to Robert Burns that brings together songwriters from different backgrounds to create new music. And next year, as the first patron of Burnsong, he will curate the event, nurturing the songwriting talents of others.

The gigs Ure gets these days may be more modest than when he united the world in song to tackle famine in Africa. But as we talk further, it becomes clear that far from drowning in end-of-the-pier decay, this is a man who has already passed his career's lowest ebb. Now he is on the up, with a new chapter of his life about to begin. Weston-Super-Mare is not far from his home in Bath, but when we meet he is not long off the plane from Canada - the country where he has built a new house for his wife and three daughters. He makes it sound like an extended holiday but the move is an important staging post, a waypoint on the journey back from the alcoholism, debt and despair into which he slid after his 1980s glory days faded.

"It's one of these things," he says in a Glasgow Corporation accent that hasn't been sanded down by a 30-year absence from the city. "My wife, Sheridan, who doesn't like change, was reading about Canada and said, This is what we should be doing.' We're at a point when people around us have started dying, friends going down with cancer. For her, it's a new thing and maybe this awareness of mortality has changed her."

Skiing is the one sporting activity the Ure family do together, so they took the plunge and prepared for a move to Quebec while still healthy and relatively wealthy. "You don't know when your card is marked, do you?" he says. "It's not in the wilds, it's in Quebec and it's fairly organised - like Scotland but with seasons."

As with most recovering alcoholics, he knows the battle is not over. "It sticks with you forever and it's an ongoing thing. I don't know if I've got the better of it," he admits."The irony is that I didn't start drinking until I was 25. I was providing the entertainment for those who were doing the drinking," he says.

His addiction started with what he calls "my brother Jack" - the Jack Daniels and cola without which no evening was complete. Over time, "brother Jack" grew into a bottle of vodka a day. "I got myself to the point where I didn't want to give up and then couldn't give up. I got to the point that here, pre-show, I'd have a few drinks before I went on, a few when I was on and a lot more afterwards. And I'd be doing that every day."

Coping with living in the shadow of his earlier success, the glory that Band Aid brought his collaborator Bob Geldolf, and the fallout of a mismanaged career, took its toll. "I'd known it was coming for a long time but ignored it because it involves work to change and I thought I was happy plodding along."

In 2003, with his music going nowhere, Ure left the management company that had looked after his life for the best part of 20 years. He was left with five empty bank accounts and an Inland Revenue bill for £170,000. He laughs at what he now regards, with hindsight, as self-induced pain. "I had massive finance problems, I had career problems, a record company I couldn't get away from who were hammering nails into my coffin as fast as they could. I had an alcohol problem, no self-belief, no drive or desire. And I couldn't see the end of it. Then my father died. I'd been drinking heavily and the drinking got worse and worse."

He eventually went into rehab at Clouds, the exclusive clinic where Paula Yates sought help for her addictions. He came out after six weeks but started drinking again immediately. What finally scooped him out of the trough of depression and alcoholism wasn't therapy, it seems, but love. The prospect of losing his family - he has three daughters from his marriage to Sheridan Forbes and an elder daughter, Molly, from his first marriage to the model Annabel Giles - became the fulcrum that swung his life around.

"The obvious thing for a partner to do is to pack their bags and leave," he says. Luckily, Forbes stuck by him, and found a way "to keep us balanced and on-track".

Ure looks well now. His receding hair and grey beard are close-shaven. He is wearing loose, casual clothes. On stage he will look very understated but Midge Ure has been on one of the longest journeys - to popstardom and back, having begun playing in bands in 1975 when the Bay City Rollers were on the go.

Since his childhood in Cambuslang, Jim Ure - whose adoptive name is Jim backwards - wanted to make music. After walking out of an engineering apprenticeship aged 18, he was set to be the next big Scottish teenybop sensation in a band called Slik whose 1976 single Forever And Ever reached number one. Then punk arrived, and with it a change in Ure's musical direction. He turned down Malcolm McLaren's offer of a spot with the Sex Pistols and instead joined the competition with ex-Pistol Glen Matlock in Rich Kids.

In London, which was then the only place the industry took notice of you, Ure became a player in the music scene. For a while in 1979 he played guitar for Thin Lizzy and with Phil Lynott he co-wrote Yellow Pearl, which became the Top Of The Pops theme music for some years and paid his mortgage. But it was with the soaring, atmospheric electronics of Ultravox that he found stardom. Ure's music may not be the soundtrack of your life but songs like 1981's Vienna and 1984's Dancing With Tears In My Eyes bear the timeless mark of good songwriting.

The song that will outlive them all, of course, is 1984's Do They Know It's Christmas. The Band Aid single sold more than three million copies and led to Live Aid. Ure regards it as one of the worst songs he has ever written, but then he says all his best songs have been commercial failures.

"The template for a pop song is not there," he says. "There is no chorus in that song. It doesn't repeat itself once because it came together in such a bizarre way." The first lyrics were Geldolf's and the musical theme was worked on by Ure on a little keyboard in his kitchen. "The momentum the artists gave it in the recording studio is what made it," he says. "It has redeemed itself and when you hear it now you forgive it for not being the best song in the world because of what it became."

He now terms his association with Geldof a "text relationship". "He texts me very quickly in txt' speak and it takes me half-an-hour to decipher it. We've never been big bosom buddies. We met through Paula Yates, Geldof's former wife. She was a journalist; everyone knew Paula and so everyone knew Bob." It was while Ure was preparing backstage for an Ultravox appearance on The Tube in November 1984 that Yates, a presenter on the show, passed the phone to Ure to allow her then boyfriend Geldof to rant on about the Michael Burke news report on the Ethiopian famine.

Ure is proud to have been part of history and a musical moment that raised political awareness, even if it didn't actually change the world. But there are two ways of looking at Midge Ure's involvement with Band Aid. Either he was the overlooked partner who lost out in the limelight stakes or he was the lucky one who wasn't cursed with sainthood afterwards.

"Bob was seen as a saint, a politician, a spokesman for youth, or whatever," he says, pulling the ring on a can of cola. "I was allowed to carry on being a musician. Midge Ure: singer. Bob Geldolf: Africa. I know it irks Bob because his entire musical career has evaporated. People talk about his achievements after that defined line, after Live Aid. It's one of the things that was a major part of my life but it isn't what I still do. I've been creating music, that's my lifeblood."

Music, however, was less than kind to Ure in the wake of his 1980s superstardom. With the proceeds of his fame he bought a rock star house in Monserrat, but when it wasn't being eaten by termites it was covered in ash from the volcano that erupted in 1995. In the end, everything seemed to turn to dust. His 1997 album, Breathe, languished in Britain, even if the title song became a huge hit in continental Europe when it was used in a Swatch commercial. Latvia wouldn't be a free nation today if the crowds hadn't adopted If I Was as their anthem.

The only worthwhile investment seems to have been his own studio recording equipment, which meant he could carry on producing albums long after "some record company suit in New York would look at a list of debts and dump me". Since Ultravox he has written, produced, engineered and pressed his own material. But his recent output hasn't made him millions. He feels he is working these days to pay his children's school fees.

"Had I gone down the path everyone had wanted me to go down I'd be playing a megadome instead of here tonight," he says. "I could easily have gone down that route. I chose not to. The difficult path is more interesting and has more life to it."

Ure has an endearing knack of undercutting his own popstar pretentions. "You consider yourself an artist and go off and do whatever you want, and a lot of times you end up up your own backside. You have to allow for that and learn to take the rough with the smooth. I don't want a DJ remixing my record because they want to have a top 10 hit. But if you take a stance like that, be prepared for your albums not to go near the top 40, and for your records to come and go and no-one hear them."

But there is no denying Ure's musical reputation. He has honorary doctorates from universities, Ivor Novello awards for music and in 2005 he was made an OBE for his services to the music industry and to charity. His ambitions now extend to writing a song that is better than the last.

As for his Burnsong involvement: "I'm no Burns affectionado," he says. "Burns equated to primary school and being taught all the things I didn't want to know about music."

But his belief in the festival's worth for aspiring artists is clear. "It's like an apprenticeship," he says. "As far as I know there's nowhere to go to learn this stuff. When I started songwriting there was no-one to check your books on it, to give you any kind of guidance whatsoever. That was what appealed to me, nurturing that little speck that we all have to write a song or a poem or whatever and to try it out."

Painfully aware that he hasn't produced an album since 2001, Ure thinks there might be something to help him along his personal road to redemption at the festival. "Hopefully I'll be learning as much from other musicians as they do from me."

Eventually he would like to move back to Scotland, to the west coast or the outskirts of Glasgow. "The kids are such anglophiles that I'd love them to go to university in Scotland," he says. Before that, he adds, his prime concern is settling his daughters into French medium schools in Quebec.

With that, Midge Ure, a family man and simple troubadour moving from town to town, prepares to take the stage. Tonight he will not try to change the world; just sing songs and tell a few stories along the way.

Midge Ure appears in Burnsong at the Queens Hall Edinburgh on December 2

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