Midge Ure - Interview & Ultravox Signed Quartet Half-Speed 2LP Giveaway
Updated: Jul 8
Today sees the release of some very special Deluxe Editions of Ultravox's album 1982 Quartet, a record which signposted major changes for the band, none more significant than having Beatles producer George Martin at the helm. "Having helped create a movement renowned for its fashion victims and superficiality, Ultravox recoiled from the Frankenstein they'd birthed" is how AllMusic characterise the album's unique identity in the synthpop pioneers' catalogue.
We caught up with frontman Midge Ure in his home studio to answer Townsend Music's questions about this fascinating record and we are very proud to offer a limited edition Half-Speed 2LP of Quartet (Deluxe Edition), signed by the members of Ultravox for one lucky winner.
Quartet was Ultravox’s third album with Midge Ure on vocals, following two hugely successful albums, Vienna and Rage In Eden. The previous albums were produced by German producer, Conny Plank, whereas on Quartet, the band took the bold decision to use George Martin to produce, with his frequent co-collaborator Geoff Emerick as engineer. Quartet features four UK Top 40 singles: 'Reap The Wild Wind', 'We Came To Dance', 'Visions In Blue' and the silver-awarded 'Hymn'.
As with the previous releases in this series, Quartet Deluxe Box Sets include a comprehensive host of extras: B-sides, previously unreleased rehearsals, monitor mixes and a full concert from Hammersmith Odeon 1982.
"With their toe-tapping rhythms, billowing synths, and rousing melodies, one is often tempted to ignore the darkness of Ultravox's themes, but with Quartet, the band deliberately made that nigh on impossible" - AllMusic
TM: Quartet was Ultravox’s third album with you on vocals, following the huge success of albums, Vienna’ and Rage In Eden, both produced by Conny Plank. For Quartet, you left the commercially safe confines of under Conny’s wing to record with legendary Beatles producer George Martin. What was the impetus behind that decision?
Midge Ure: I think it was always an Ultravox trait to shake things up a bit.
Conny was very much an 'engineer' producer - he was a technician. He would never get involved in the arrangements. He'd never really comment on the music unless he thought it wasn't very good. He'd never say "You know what? That guitar solo was a bit rubbish, you should do it again". His job was to transfer the ideas and the atmosphere that we had in our heads onto tape. When it came to the Quartet album, we were looking around for producers; we talked to Chris Hughes, who was doing Tears for Fears at the time because he seemed very compatible. But we wanted to do an album that was quite a quick thing, not to take six months out of our lives and record forever. We spoke to Chris and he said, "Well, it takes as long as it takes". And he was quite right: it does take as long as it takes! We spoke to a few producers and we never thought we'd get George. It was our manager who bumped into George at one point and said, "Ultravox would love you to do it". George was near the beginning of his retirement and near the end of his musical career, studio-wise at that point. When his daughter Lucy found out that she'd he'd been asked to produce Ultravox, she kind of forced him into it. She said "Don't be stupid Dad, just get out there and do it", so George was the guy to do it. Plus, he was the only man on the planet that we might actually listen to! We were absolutely dreadful at listening to other people's interpretations and takes on what we did.
TM: This is still a very synthpop album - it's not suddenly got a colliery brass band on there or anything you'd necessarily associate George with from what the Beatles did. As far as the arrangements and songwriting, what did George bring to it that felt different? MU: I think in hindsight, it brought a polish, which could be perceived in a couple of different ways. It sounded like a real record, it sounded like a proper record.
If you're cynical about it - which I'm sure many people are - you'd say it was the album that we tried to convert America with, but that was never the intention. But it sounds that way. It works really well in many respects, but in other respects, I think, I kind of liked the roughness that Ultravox always got with Conny and even later on, when we started doing stuff on our own without a producer. There was an edge to it. There was still that dark side that used to come out.
So George didn't do all the tricks that we thought he would; the stories had them throwing Beatles tapes up in the air and editing them all around and backward guitars and all of that. He was up to date with the technology as we were. The Beatles had to kind of create those sounds and those atmospheres with the tools they had, which were incredibly limited. With technology, you don't need to do tricks like that; what you can achieve is as limited as your imagination.
TM: In an interview about the album you said “I was very disappointed with a certain element that criticised us for using George Martin”. What was the basis of that criticism?
MU: I think that it looked as though Quartet was very mainstream. I think that's what the criticism would have been at the time; it was perceived as playing safe, which it wasn't.
What it was was a weight off our shoulders, because every musical aspect that was done on Rage In Eden and Vienna was from the band. So any given point, we were all sitting around the mixing desk, creating this stuff. With George - and let's not forget Geoff Emerick, who was his engineer, these are the guys who did Sergeant Pepper! - you felt as though you were in safe hands so you could step back a little bit from it. I think for most artists that would be fine. But for us, it felt a bit odd to hand your baby across to someone else to bring up
TM: Speaking of not playing it safe, you guys also changed your writing style: On Rage In Eden, Ultravox wrote the songs in the studio, but for Quartet you apparently developed a pattern whereby you'd go into a rehearsal studio for three weeks and put down ideas. Then you took a week off and listened to the cassettes and pulled out the best bits. Was this also to shake things up and how do you think that the differences between the two writing styles manifest on the finished album?
MU: Well, every album had a different process. When we did the Vienna album, we'd had enough time to write and tour 90% of the material. When we got to the studio, we only had three weeks to do the entire thing. So we had the arrangements in our heads and just went and did it. For Rage In Eden, on the other hand, we wrote everything in Conny Plank's studio. We were there for three months and created the entire thing in that environment. So when it came to Quartet, this was the first time where we would go into a rehearsal room, write the ideas and record them on cassettes and dodgy tapes. These things are actually on the box set as well, the warts-and-all ideas. And then we would record for two or three weeks. I'd write these things and stick them on cassette, then go and start working on lyrics and melody and constructing arrangements from them. Then you'd go to George, who has had a hand in just about every piece of music you've ever heard since you were a kid. So you want to get it right and you'd know that there are going to be changes made. And we'd present the tracks to George who would at times, like a schoolteacher, call you over and go "Right lads, let's sit round the piano and let's work this out because I think I think you've said what you needed to say and you're still going on two minutes later... let's try and edit things back."
And that's why that's what I meant by us needing someone we'd listen to, who commanded the kind of respect where you'd go "Okay, He knows more than we do. Let's listen to what he's got to say. Let's sit down and do this." So in that respect, it was completely different from anything we had done before. It was a very different way of presenting the ideas. We never did demos. That's why all the cassette recordings are in here because sometimes there's something in a demo you capture that you never capture when you go to the studio to do it live. That essence.
TM: Chrysalis Records’ line-up of deluxe editions includes the 6CD/1DVD box set and 4LP versions of the album, including a host of previously unreleased and live tracks, plus a stunning Picture Disc version of Quartet. Are you surprised with your fans’ and general listeners continued dedication to collecting physical formats in the streaming age?
MU: Well, you know, the physical thing is that object of desire. The great thing with Blue Raincoat Music and Chrysalis Records is that they take as much time and effort over the graphics and the artwork and the packaging as Ultravox always did. We spent untold hours and untold amounts of money to make sure that the music was in the right environment. Using Peter Saville's graphics and artwork, designing things that were different from everybody else's sleeves, paying fortunes for high gloss dots highlighted on sleeves and great photographers and all of that stuff... and it's a joy. That's why we work hand-in-hand with Blue Raincoat Music and Chrysalis because they do care; they care about it as much as we do. The fact that they go into the archives and delve through these reams of material - it must be like something out of Harry Potter. They go into these mouldy old basements, pull out tapes and send us photographs and say "What's this?" They find all this stuff and then they transfer it to digital. There are elements of it where you listen to some of those cassette recordings. You think, "I've got no recollection of doing" this because rather than sit down and write down ideas and write down notation, we'd record onto a cassette, Warren (Warren Cann - drums) had one and Billy (Billy Currie - keyboards) had one as well. And they'd record various jam sessions and you can hear over the course of the jam sessions, the songs start to evolve.
There was that Beatles documentary recently (The Beatles: Get Back - The Disney Channel) where you watched them jamming about in the studio playing the plain old rock rock'n'roll roll tunes used to play. And then someone would start something. You go "Hold on a second" and they'd all jump on it and out would come a song that you've lived most of your life to. It's the inception of something that's magnificent
Ours may not be as magnificent as The Beatles' but these cassettes captured those moments of something that actually ended up on the recording. You hear it going off on tangents, then coming back together again and bang - lo and behold - there's the bones of a song
TM: As well as the demo tracks, another feature of the deluxe version of the album is a brand-new stereo mix by Steven Wilson. Steven also did mixes of the deluxe versions of Rage In Eden and Vienna, so it's clear you're very happy with his work. What is it that Steven brings to the new mixes and is that something you let him get on with on his own, or is there input from your side?
MU: Steven Wilson doesn't do things that he doesn't like because it's too time-consuming. It's really hard work going into someone else's work and delving into it and then trying to find the essence of what he thinks it should sound like. We have input, but we're not there when he does it. We might get the mix and say "I think that's a bit quiet or that's a bit loud" and whatever, but that's just personal opinion. Like any band, Warren will say he wants the drums louder and I'll be saying "Well, the guitar isn't loud enough" so in a way, he's like a musical referee and he does what he thinks is right.
I think this is about giving the record a whole new lease of life. With all the technological advances that are in digital mixing like plug-ins, a lot of the sounds can be cleaned up without losing the atmosphere that those noisy old synths have. This gives us clarity; he's not altering the sounds as such but he's cleaning up the holes; he's cleaning up the air between the sounds and it gives it space that wasn't really there before because old analogue tape distorts and compresses. This just widens the whole thing. And that's great. That needs new blood to come in and do it because we'd just end up trying to recreate what we had done in the first place.
Steven's got that touch on everything he does. He's got that essence that he's managed to put into this, which is great. The big worry for anyone doing remixes of old stuff that people have lived with all their lives is that you ruin it for them. You take it outside their comfort zone which is obviously what none of us want to do. But you do want to give it something different, something new. And he does that.
TM: From ‘Reap The Wild Wind’ to ‘Hymn’, fans have their own favourite memories from Quartet, but what is your personal favourite track from the album and why?
MU: When you do them at the time, they're all kind of favourites. But in hindsight 'Visions in Blue' really stands up because it was so Ultravox: it's got odd time signatures; it speeds up, it doubles up tempo in the middle. It's this kind of repetitive, hypnotic thing in the whole middle section but it's also incredibly atmospheric and haunting when it starts. It's like different chapters of a book; it's heartfelt; it's anxious; it's tense.
It still stands up today. I've been playing it a lot live recently and I've kind of reconnected with it. They're all songs. I think the good thing about Ultravox is that it was in a period when songs were king. You had to write good songs and we managed to be able to do that, still experimenting and still being dark, still being moody and miserable, but still ending up with something that was a song. It captures where Ultravox was at that moment in time, I guess.
TM: There's a maturity in it that's distinct from the early albums. It's a track that encapsulates Ultravox's songwriting but it's also a track that sonically really does encapsulate the Quartet period of the band and what you were looking to achieve with George.
MU: When you think about that particular track, it's almost orchestral, but it's not. George understood that - this would have been right in George's comfort zone. Take away the synthesiser and replace it with classical instruments and 'Visions In Blue' is exactly what he would have done all the way through his career.
Quartet is out now on Limited Edition 6CD/DVD Box Set, Limited Edition 4LP Clear Vinyl Box Set, Half-Speed Mastered 2LP Black Vinyl and Ultravox store-exclusive Limited Edition Picture Disc alongside Quartet Merchandise.
Enter our exclusive giveaway to be in with a chance of winning a Half-Speed 2LP of Ultravox's Quartet (Deluxe Edition), signed by the members of Ultravox.
The winner will be chosen on Monday 17th July 2023.
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