It should be clear on an objective basis that Midge Ure was - is - a very competent musician and composer, who has undoubtedly made his mark on popular music across a variety of different projects, from power-pop of Slik via leading the electronic dance-rock explosion in Visage and Ultravox, through to his more reflective solo work, not to mention of course his charitable contributions through Band Aid and his lesser-known work as a sideman for other acts - the legendary rockers Thin Lizzy among them. He is far more than a synthesiser player or pop composer; he knows his way around guitar riffing and rock-driven performance too - I seem to recall he started his interest in music growing up in the dismal back streets of Glasgow and built himself a guitar from scratch! The man has a natural gift, and his commercial performance, albeit constrained to the first five years of the 1980s in the main, demonstrated a melodic sensibility that was the driver behind numerous well-crafted and memorable pop moments, culminating with 'If I Was'.
The problem? Two-fold. First, that he and Ultravox did seem to take themselves a might too seriously despite being essentially 'just' a synth/guitar pop act. They were capable, but never had the attitude of punk or the guts of metal, and were never as danceable as the funk, soul or disco acts of the time. So kind of fell between several stools as a sort of sub-rock pro-electro set that would please none of the hard-arsed NME critics, albeit that for a while it passed very successfully among British and European teen audiences as decent pop. Perhaps U-vox were too broad in their capacities - although always recognisable, they were never formulaic; take following-up 'Vienna' - a cod-pompous sub-classical steely synth ballad with a virtuoso violin solo - with 'All Stood Still' - a rocky, new wave uptempo guitar explosion with a reggae breakdown for the middle-eight! Yet both were Top 10 hits in 1981. Subjective preference aside, surely they couldn't have been accused of being limited, or even necessarily desperate for commercial attention with choices of output like that. I suppose it was the pseudo-romantic lyricism and earnest looks that did Midge no favours and led to assumptions of pretence, especially once that fad passed come 1984. It all sounded impressive and intellectual, but actually probably meant very little. Okay they're far-from the only artist to fall into that bracket, but I do feel they tried a little too hard to be the archetypal New Romantics, and were called-out for it - especially as they had neither the stage presence nor sex appeal of say Duran - who were far-more shameless in their pursuit of commercial paydirt, yet straddled the synth/guitar interplay in a pop format not-so-dissimilar at the same time, and who have received a marginally-better hearing from the rock press. I guess looking back it just felt like Midge never quite saw the irony, although when you see him perform, appear in an interview, or indeed read his early 2000s autobiography, I think he is more-than-able to laugh at himself - it's just that didn't come across at to people in 1985 and so the dye was cast for some.
The second issue is because he found his fame in the early '80s, a time that's seldom looked-back on by more earnest rock revisionists as a period of genuine creativity, choosing to see only the flamboyant surface gestures and heavy reliance on dated-sounding tinny electronics rather than the actual true talent and ability that lay behind some of the more enduring songs and artists. You're right to say that it's received a better, softer appraisal from press in the last 10-15 years, partly because of the growing sense of nostalgia, and possibly because it's finally been recognised as a very rich era for British music, however populist, which simply isn't being exhibited in the same breadth today. But the hard-core muso types will never rate the era in general - and if they do it will be acts that were decidedly uncommercial, probably from the more rock-end of new wave or out-and-out indie oddities. Hell even U2 still get better reviews than Ultravox! I fear that this is partially-driven by the perceived politics of the big acts of the period too - although never overtly political in any way, acts like U-Vox, Duran, Spandau, et al were seen as proto-Thatcherite go-getters with few scruples. Some like Gary Numan who dared to align himself with Conservative views were openly ridiculed for it. Sadly, if you were Labour 'Red Wedge' a la Billy Bragg you were a hero, but if you were outside of that, you and consequently your music, must by default have been content to ignore at best, or be celebratory of at worst, the divisive regime of Thatcher. I like a lot of early '80s music for its lack of apparent political rants, but for an era so characterised for some by the red vs blue clash, they can never escape forging relationships between that and the music of the period, however unfair or over-generalised. It isn't as if fame and fortune, and the narrow pursuit thereof at almost any cost was solely an '80s thing; it is seen just as vigorously - and I think more shamelessly - in modern hip-hop, which also appears to revel openly in gang culture, violence, law-breaking and misogyny, yet nobody dares slate that because it has the protected characteristics of being 'from the streets' (and so 'honest') and of black origin (ergo from those subjugated in the past by white people).
Poor old Midge is I suppose too white and too middle class in his sensibilities to be taken as seriously as he could've been, then and now. But personal bias aside, he deserves the accolades that will probably never be given him, and every time I see some leftie Jimmy Somerville-ite singing along to 'Do They Know It's Christmas' as heartily as everyone, I smile and remember that that irresistible tune came not from Geldof and his guitar as many probably assume, but from Ure and his synth! What a great legacy.
And he had amazing sideburns.