Do You (Still) Know It's Christmas?: An Interview with Midge Ure
Midge Ure reflects on just how far his career has come since his days in the new wave pioneers Ultravox, including what he's realized 30 years after the release of the classic charity single he wrote with Bob Geldof, "Do You Know It's Christmas?"
It is really hard to imagine that British singer/songwriter Midge Ure had once seriously considered giving up on music about 10 years ago. After all, this is an artist who has played a key part in the development of synthesizer-driven pop music starting in the early '80s, first as a member of Visage with the electropop hit "Fade to Grey", and then most famously as the lead vocalist and guitarist for Ultravox, the new wave band best known for such hits as "Vienna" and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes". Most notably, Ure co-wrote with Bob Geldof "Do They Know It's Christmas?", the 1984 charity single recorded by Band Aid for Ethiopian famine relief that is now considered a holiday music staple.
But as he now recalls, Ure went through a personal crisis that undermined his confidence in his musical abilities -- a period that saw him drinking heavily. "I realized I could not stop and I set about the whole process," he says. "When I kind of got through that process, which was tough, a difficult thing to do -- once I got to the other side of it, my initial reaction, ‘Could I write anymore?' ‘Do I have the drive to make a new album?' ‘Do I really want to do this anymore?'"
That dark period in his life inspired Ure to write and record the autobiographical and uplifting "I Survived", off of his latest solo album, Fragile, released this past summer. It comes at a time that finds the musician busy with activity, from participating in the all-star Retrofutura tour that spotlighted '80s, performing solo acoustic shows in the States, and re-teaming with Geldof for a re-recording of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" on its 30th anniversary this November.
"'I Survived' was one of the first things I wrote," Ure says. "Once I done that, it led the way to the rest of the album. If you're gonna be honest about something, be honest about it. So I wrote exactly about that process."
The making of Fragile coincided with Ultravox's 2012 reunion record Brilliant, which features the classic lineup of Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann. Both records share the same sonic DNA of atmospheric electronic-dominated music. "I think by doing the Brilliant album, it certainly gave me the confidence to go ahead and finish my album," says Ure. "So it actually worked out incredibly well. I think Brilliant gained a little bit because of the sound – the way we started sculpting with Fragile. Fragile certainly gained a lot from doing Brilliant because of the confidence factor. So it was good that the two albums came out within 2-3 years of each other."
Musically, Fragile is a work that recalls aspects Ultravox's sound, due to its dramatic washes of New Wave, art rock, and synthpop, as well as its ambient textures and soundscapes. These sounds span the hauntingly sublime "Let It Rise" (a song he co-wrote with the German artist/composer Schiller) to the dark and melancholy "Are We Connected", a commentary about the divisions within society despite advances in communication, and the lovely-sounding "For All You Know". The record is literally a solo affair, as Ure performed all the instruments on the record, a decision motivate more by practicality than being a control freak.
"In reality, sometimes it's easier," Ure explains. "Because it took such a long time, it's easier just to go ahead and do these things yourselves. Often it can be programmed -- I don't have to be a great bass player to play a bass part. I just thought, 'You know what, the important thing for me is to end up with an album that I feel comfortable with.' The way it worked this time, it was easier for me to do this on my own."
The only track on Fragile that features an outside musician is "Dark Dark Night," which finds Ure collaborating with Moby. "He sent me two tracks, one of which was kind of the heart and bones of "Dark Dark Night,"" says Ure, "I think I used all of the track he sent and started writing sections for it. Eventually I wrote the melody and lyrics. By the time I finished it, I think his album was done and out, and that track had become pretty much part of my album. It still has a flavor of what I was doing, although you can still hear the Moby influence in there -- the little trip-hop groove things that he does. It grew into part of my record, so I ran it past him and I [said], 'Are you okay with me using this?' He [said], 'Absolutely.'"
The album showcases Ure in the role of an instrumental composer, as in the case of the cinematic-sounding "Bridges" and "Wire and Wood", with the latter starting off acoustically and then building into something symphonic. "I've always indulged in instrumental music, from [Ultravox's 1981] Vienna album, like the opening track "Astrodyne." When I did The Gift, my first solo album, it had instrumental music on it. So I've always kind of done that. And because I wasn't making this album for anyone but myself, I didn't have a label breathing down my neck, trying to guide me through the process, trying to manipulate and mold me into something that I'm not. I was kind of making what I felt was hopefully interesting music. I wanted to see what I can do... if I was given the opportunity to orchestrate a piece of music, what would it sound like?"
Of all the music that has recorded up to this point, Ure described Fragile as a mature work. "It takes a lifetime of music to get to the point," he says, "where you're like, 'You know what, I really don't care what people think. I want to do something that I find is interesting and hopefully that will resonate with other people.' The response that I'm getting from the album on both sides of the Atlantic has been phenomenal. So people are connecting with it, which is fantastic."
Ure himself hast gotten a taste of that acclaim when he performed last summer in the States, which has been kind of like uncharted territory for him, although Ultravox was hugely successful in its native UK. At that time, Ure was a part of the Retrofutura tour with fellow ‘80s acts Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey, Howard Jones, and China Crisis, all of who performed their hit songs. During one of the tour stops in New York City, Ure played the Ultravox hits "Vienna" and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes", as well as solo songs "If I Was" and "Dear God".
"The interesting thing is that by doing the Retrofutura tour," says Ure, "I've kind of woken up to the fact that all these people know these songs. I'm getting people to standing up singing all those songs. I'm getting taken aback by it. I still in my mind feel that Ultravox as a band came over here and were known in some college stations but not a lot. But I've spoken to a variety of journalists assuring me there are enough new bands citing Ultravox as a major influence. It's the best pat on the back that you can possibly get."
Even if Ure isn't exactly a household name, particularly in the States, his mark on music is stamped forever on a global and humanitarian level with the success of "Do They Know It's Christmas?", which marks its 30th anniversary in 2014. As the familiar story goes, the impetus for the song came from the Boomtown Rats' Bob Geldof, who watched a TV report on the famine in Ethiopia, after which he and Ure co-wrote the song.
On November 25, 1984, with Ure producing, the song was recorded by Band-Aid, which featured an all-star cast that included members of Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, U2, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Kool and the Gang. Released three days later, the song quickly shot up to number one on the U.K. charts, raised 8 million pounds for Ethiopian relief, and paved the way for Live Aid the following July. The song has been re-recorded twice by different versions of Band Aid: one 1989 and the other in 2004.
Recently, Geldof and Ure revisited the song again to help those in the West African countries affected by the recent Ebola crisis. Some of the stars that participated in Band Aid 30 included Ed Sheeran, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Bono, Elbow, and One Direction.
Looking back at the pivotal track after three decades, Ure (who gave this interview a few months before the official announcement of Band Aid 30) says: "I think it's amazing that the song still gets played. In hindsight, Bob and I were incredibly naïve in thinking that all we could think about was making a record that would generate money instantly for the cause. We thought maybe this song would play every year and keep rolling on and on and on and generate income forever, which it has been doing 30 years down the line. It's an amazing feat. It's something that the world grabbed hold of and made happen. We didn't make it happen; we made a record. And the situation is that the record gets played every year".
Some of Ure's memories of recording "Do They Know It's Christmas?" include a rift that he had with Geldof in the studio. "I think Bob trying to sing [to] whoever was on the microphone at the time," Ure says now. "That became Bob trying the song with a different melody, because he wasn't quite sure where the melody went. So it was probably confusing for the person they were already singing. I think I kind of lost my temper. I said, ‘Leave him alone, have him sing it, I know where the melody goes.'"
Another things that stands out to him from that session was Bono, who memorably sang the line, "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you." I had done a guide vocal for everyone to hear the tune, because nobody has heard the song when they turned up that day," Ure says. "So I did a guide vocal and in my guide vocal, I kind of threw that line away. And Bono just grabbed it and jumped up the octave and just belted this thing out, which was just phenomenal. It was a real highlight, because once he had done that that became the song. It was just so important."
Ure says the song resonated with people because they knew it was all for an important cause. "The song has grown into itself. You see children singing it every year at Christmas Nativity plays or whatever. To sing that among 'White Christmas' and 'Jingle Bells'... that's amazing. Another amazing thing is the teachers get them to sing at these events and then explain how the song came about. So the story gets passed along, so that people understand why it was done, how it was done, and who was it done for."
Meanwhile, the artist is already looking ahead: next year, Ure will be embarking on a UK tour to mark the 20th anniversary of his solo album, Breathe. The music will be of an acoustic nature, which is nothing new to Ure given his experience with solo unplugged shows, including those during his recent stint in the U.S. "The challenge is to try and translate those songs, to take those ideas and work [them] into an acoustic sense. Of a course, a lot of the stuff -- especially the old stuff done back in the '80s -- was all about the technology. But I realized not too long ago, when you start stripping the songs down to the basics, the songs take on a whole different meaning. So when I perform acoustic now, I still do 'Dancing with Tears in My Eyes' [and] 'Vienna'. But when done acoustically, something like 'Dancing' becomes much more poignant. It's still the same song, it's just a different thing."
Already, Ure has his eye set upon a return trip to the US soon. Among the many reasons for the return, unfinished business ranks chiefly among them: Ultravox did not tour the US in over 25 years, never having the success that was afforded to other British acts like Duran Duran and Culture Club. Ure once said in an interview that he and the other Ultravox members were frustrated that they were never able to pursue the American market due to technical limitations. But lately he has been making an effort to reestablish that relationship with the States. "I'm getting my foot back in the door of America," he says. "I'm not gonna let it disappear as it has done in the last 20 years. I'm really really looking forward to forging that connection."
Photo: Andy Siddens.