Tim Arnold with Midge Ure/Ultravox Single collection in Spain, 2017
Without doubt, Midge Ure is the reason I chose, at the tender age of 10, to live the rest of my life writing songs and singing quite often about love and/or social activism. I recognise the importance of celebrating great musicians when they have shuffled off this mortal coil, but I think it’s equally, if not more important to celebrate those who deserve acknowledgement for their musical contributions whilst they still walk among us. And I refer in particular to Midge’s music, not even the extraordinary humanitarian work he’s been involved in throughout his career.
I was blessed to grow up with an older brother who owned an eclectic record collection, although between The Doors, Bowie, Mahler and Ian Dury long-players, it was his girlfriend’s collection, dominated with early eighties imagery that grabbed my attention: Steve Strange’s nods and winks to Lindsay Kemp, Siouxsie Sioux’s Geisha poses, Toyah, Japan and with more romance than a classic, heroic matinee idol: Midge Ure. The look was arresting, but the music is what hooked me. My cassette copy of Ultravox – The Collection (the first cassette I ever bought) was seldom out of my Sony Walkman in 1985. I digested every instrument, every guitar riff, classical motif, synth pattern, piano chord and lyric until I couldn’t fit anymore in to my 10 year-old brain. His lyrics conjured up a romance that, even at ten, had me already dreaming of singing to that one special woman when I grew up. As soon as I did fall in love for the first time (at 17), the songs began to make their way out of me, and they have never stopped to this day. Ultravox songs like Dancing with Tears in My Eyes, All Fall Down and All In One Day also connected me to the anti-war movement that Lennon also sung about. It instilled in me the idea that music should be employed as a weapon of awakening and compassion in a world constantly threatened by war and unjust laws.
In 1985, Midge released his single If I Was. The release coincided with a difficult time of my childhood when I had to leave England to live in Spain with my mother. It was hard saying goodbye to my brother, his girlfriend and their treasure chest of music. Before getting on the plane to Spain, my brother gave me a mixtape. The first song was If I Was with a personal message from him that he recorded before the song began. Sometimes I think perhaps the connection to my brother at that time gave the song extra meaning as I went on to live a new life without him. The family became splintered, but the song and the tape became a lifeline, made of the music I had just started to discover in England. The music would become my route back home.
I can still remember being in the back of the car as my mother drove around the Spanish mountains to our new home, calling out ‘Look how beautiful the view is Tim!’ and I would turn the volume up on my Walkman and sing along to If I Was defiantly. It got to a point when her friends would ask what kind of music I liked. By way of an answer, she would launch into singing the chorus of If I Was. Although she meant it affectionately, I had not yet developed a sense of humour and I can remember sulking quite heavily when she did that!
22 years later, I finally braved performing the song at an intimate gig in Toronto. Nerves did set in which is pretty unusual for me, but there’s not any other song that I have more reverence for than If I Was. I look forward to giving it another go at my next gig now that I’ve broken it in.
Tim Arnold performing If I Was, Toronto, December 2017
My timing of discovering Ultravox could not have been better. After listening to all their hits for a year between ’84 and ‘85, I believed I had discovered a great secret, but suddenly the lead singer was No 1 in the charts. After that, the great unravelling happened – I realised that Midge has also written Do They Know it’s Christmas? and Fade To Grey. The discovery of his song-writing alone categorically made me decide that when I grew up, I would do the same thing that Midge did. Write honestly, poetically and powerfully about love, peace and everything that matters to me. It also informed my appreciation of writers. I was never drawn to frontmen or musicians in bands as much as the writers in the band.
Although with Midge, it seemed that you could be drawn to all three at the same time. It’s well documented how influential and innovative he has been as a producer as well. On my 13th Birthday, my mother and brother got together to buy me a Yamaha DX7 keyboard – that I painstakingly learnt how to program and try to emulate most of the synth sounds Midge had used on his songs. I realised at the time how much effort had gone into the sounds he created for his songs. I use strings on most of my albums. Even my first album with Jocasta was a classical/rock crossover project, and pretty much everything I have done ever since, right up until I Am for You and of course my own classical music project Sounds To Pictures are soaked in string arrangements. That’s all down to Midge and Ultravox. Classical, epic form and structure with sharp electric edges. Billy Currie obviously also plays a large part in that influence as well. But it’s Midge’s lyrics that complete the first picture of pop music that I ever engaged with on a profound level.
In 1993, after I formed Jocasta, I learned that my drummer’s brother Jerry Meehan was playing bass for Midge. He invited me to an acoustic show at the old Hemel Hempstead Pavillion. I shall never forget how Midge filled in everything that was missing from the recordings with just his voice and guitar. I got to meet him afterwards and it remains a beautiful moment for me, having been away from England for many years and then returning, starting my own band and then meeting the man who had played a part in me choosing the life I now lead in music. Jerry Meehan went on to produce my first single ‘Go’. The song debuted on radio on Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session on BBC Radio 1 in 1995. So the path that began with me listening to Midge Ure on a Sony Walkman on the way to Spain at 10 years old resulted in a happy and poignant musical conclusion by the time I was 20.
Nowadays, people are often referred to as an artist when in truth there are at least 4 to 12 other people responsible for creating the actual art. If you’ve ever been critical of ‘artists’ who lip sync live or who actually just cannot cut the mustard with their voice in a live performance, listen to Midge Ure live. He is without doubt one of the greatest vocalists to ever have emerged from the United Kingdom. Phrasing, annunciation, timbre, tone, range, character – he has everything a great singer needs.
MIdge Ure, live in Köln, September 2017
When you understand that he also wrote all the words he sings, you begin to grasp what it means to be a genuine artist, and one who is, in my humble opinion not acknowledged nearly enough. One of the most valuable experiences I had as a child was listening to the title track from his debut solo album The Gift. I remember listening to it over and over again wondering ‘What is he talking about?’, ‘What gift? ‘That who gave?’. I thought it was another love song. You know: ‘The gift that you gave’. Luckily, Tanith, (my brother’s girlfriend at the time), explained that the song was a tribute to the great Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I listened to the song again, and ever since, I have looked at buildings and structures curiously, always wondering how they were built, questioning how an artist makes the choices they make, and why. I became interested in Gurdieff And Ouspensky because of Kate Bush, Lindsay Kemp and Kabuki Theatre because of Bowie, Antonin Artaud and The Theatre of Cruelty because of Jim Morrison, Carl Jung because of Sting and architecture because of Midge Ure.
The art of learning is built in to all the greatest music. The kind of music made by genuine artists. This, to me, is pure treasure. Not having children of my own (yet), I have no idea if this is still the same for ten year olds listening to popular music today. I suspect not, but I don’t want to make a judgement on a survey I haven’t done. What I do know is that I was blessed to grow up during such a rich period of popular music and even luckier that Midge Ure is still making records and performing live today. I hope we’ll meet again one day. Until then, I keep looking to his music for answers. Not answers to nothing. Answers to everything.