[continued from last post]
Live tracks from Ure’s Christmas ’85 date at Wembley Arena filled out the program. Two songs, “When The Winds Blow” and “After A Fashion” came from the “Call Of The Wild” 12″ B-side. Of the two, the latter was much more interesting. While the former was much better pop than the number one song that came from this album, the latter was a one-off single from ’83 with Mick Karn of JAPAN. At the time, it was an underwhelming experiment. Nowhere near the ideal of JAPAN Meets Ultravox that could have caused us all to burst into flames if it had lived up to the full promise of that premise. But the live take here took a dryly reserved bit of art rock and gave it a vocal performance that bit down hard into the song’s neck. He’s singing it like he meant it here.
Finally, two more live tracks from that Wembley show were added to the DLX RM as previously unreleased tracks. “That Certain Smile” wins no favors with me. The cloying opening lyric is hard to overcome, no matter how much the middle eight tries. The title track from “The Gift” is a stuffy bit of art rock that makes more sense on a record than trying to imaging 60,000 people in a stadium hearing in a Midge Ure concert. Wembley was ill suited for such introverted material.
This album felt like a mashup of maybe three different projects; a move into chart pop, an instrumental album, and the bones of an Ultravox album. Some of the pop was not to my liking. The first two singles were problematic for me. Ure was hitting too far below his weight for my tastes on “If I Was” and “That Certain Smile.” But I felt that “When The Winds Blow” and “She Cried” worked for the pivot to pop that Ure was obviously trying to make. I suppose he thought that there’s no reason why he couldn’t manage to get a Phil Collins-like solo career out of this. They each had a rock past [Prog Rock, in Collins’ case] but were at home on the pop charts. And Ure was certainly a much, much better singer. But Collins’ career was built on transatlantic hits of the sort that evaded Ure, who couldn’t get arrested in The States.
The instrumentals ran the gamut from perfunctory to revelatory. At worst, these were like late period Ultravox B-sides of little consequence, but “The Chieftain” was a stunning track. It held none of the bloodlessness that sometimes typified the album. The appearance of “Wastelands” and the title track… and maybe “Living In The Past” all contributed to a little back pedaling by Ure; as if he were still keeping a foot on Ultravox soil. Paradoxically, the only two songs here with an Ultravox styled motorik beat were the least ‘Vox-like songs on the disc: “If I Was” and “That Certain Smile.”
And the fallout from this album would have a lingering effect on the future of Ultravox. I couldn’t help but notice that after designing the first single and the LP cover, long-time designer Peter Saville was replaced with Michael Nash Associates instead. They had designed the “Love’s Great Adventure” single and “The Collection” album it was added to the previous year. They took over on Ure’s solo material from “The Gift” and when Ultravox re-convened, they were the design team who helped make “the pink thing” possible. Similarly, Mark Mark Brzezicki of Big Country drummed on “Wastelands” and found himself asked to sub for the sacked Warren Cann on “U-VOX” the next year. These were external signs of a sea change in Ultravox.
I also found that the lack of aggressive rock drive that typified a side of Ultravox at their best was something that would be in very short supply from him going forward. Fiery songs like the “The Chieftain” were thin on the ground for Midge Ure post-1985. As much as he wanted to be a pop star, to me at heart he’s a rock guy with rock values. Visage may have been a “dance band” but their ties to rock were much stronger than many would think at first. That band had muscular rock sensibilities at their core. The one song I could enjoy on Ure’s 2000 album “Move Me” was another powerful instrumental called “Monster.” Like “The Chieftain” it came out of nowhere to grab me by the lapels and make me notice it. In fact, the context was much stronger in 2001 when I bought a copy because it had been the 15 years and “The Chieftain” since I had heard Ure making as bold a musical statement.
“The Gift” was certainly a high water mark for Midge Ure. It generated a number one single in “If I Was.” That was a feat that evaded Ultravox’s grasp thanks to Joe Dolce. The album charted at number two, and he was able to have a live date at Wembley Stadium. That’s rock on a level heretofore unknown to Ultravox. But not to the co-architect of Band Aid. This solo career launch was, in a sense, a valedictory lap for the talented and affable Ure. After over a decade of moving and shaking, partially behind the scenes, and at other times as the face of Ultravox in their run in the spotlight, Ure had arrived with his well-honed rock chops ready to grab the brass ring. He touched it a few times, but did not get to grasp it for long.
As things stood in 1985, Midge Ure was the old guard peaking and maybe not realizing it just yet. His music oriented chops would be less important to pop going forward. The seeds of the PWL empire were growing underfoot in 1985. By 1986 they would be the tail that wagged the UK pop dog. And dance oriented house music would be taking the place of New Wave rock [on its last legs by this time, in any case] on the UK pop charts. Midge Ure would never have a berth in the UK Top 20 again, and the notion of playing a solo gig to tens of thousands of people as he did at Wembley on December 23rd, 1985 would be a distant pipe dream. Afterward, Midge Ure became an elder statesman of Rock. The go-to man for the Prince’s Trust concerts for several years afterward, but a stranger to the charts.
Following the release of “The Gift,” it was as if a five year dream of success was ending for Ure with the cold reality that he would never again command the sway that he had from ’81-’85. This album was the line in the sand for him in many ways. I had a hard time with this album when it came out and I was biased against it for the longest time. Now I find it the apex of Ure’s solo career. If I were to make a Midge Ure Rock G.P.A., this would rank at 2.5/4. Maybe 3 on a good day. It was not a bad run. There are many musicians whose time in the limelight was much shorter but “The Gift” will always have a bittersweet whiff to me for all of the sea change that it represented on what I could expect from Ure and even Ultravox moving forward.
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