American idol? No, but you know him
05:00 AM, Jan 10, 2013
If you go
What: Midge Ure, with Right the Stars.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 13).
Where: The Club at Water Street, 204 N. Water St.
Tickets: $20, available at waterstreetmusic.com and Lakeshore Record Exchange.
Call: (585) 244-8476.
The reality, Midge Ure confesses, is “I don’t have to do anything.” The potential for inactivity is a measure of his success, and we have little to do with it. “I’ve been in the music business an exceptionally long time,” he says. “Thirty-five years. With no success, to speak of, in America.”
He is being a little hard in his self-judgment. Ure is not a household name in America, but you are very aware of what he’s been up to for many of those 35 years. For a spell in the late ’70s, he was the guitarist for Thin Lizzy. That’s a rock band that a lot of people liked. And when Ultravox, a pioneer on the British synth-pop front, needed a new lead singer in 1980, Ure joined the band, helping to move its suave, lush sound to new heights of popularity. At least in Britain, where Ultravox has retained enough name recognition that, 28 years after its peak with Ure, a comeback tour and album was welcomed a couple of years ago. “Being musicians, and simple characters, we are enjoying it,” he says.
On the strength of that resume alone, the 59-year-old Ure could putter away the rest of his time at his home in Bath, England, an ancient artist colony outside of London where ruins are the major tourist attraction. Roman ruins, and Van Morrison, who also lives in Bath. “You probably wouldn’t recognize him anymore,” Ure says of Morrison.
Comfortable in his anonymity here “I am perfectly happy to stand in front of 100 people with an acoustic guitar, or in front of 100,000 people with a band” Ure comes to The Club at Water Street on Sunday. Virtually unknown, despite having co-written and produced one of the biggest hit songs in the history of the world, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Away from Ultravox, Ure describes his music as “singer-songwriter stuff,” although he is again being a bit self-deprecating. “When you’re young, you emulate your favorite songwriters,” he says. “But you move on from that. It’s a very slow learning process, and at some point you realize you’re not doing that anymore. You’ve replaced it with you, family, friends. Feelings that are your own thoughts.”
But that doesn’t mean you stop thinking about the world, and your role in it. In the ’90s, Ure wrote songs like “Beneath a Spielberg Sky” reflecting on the Bosnian War one of our TV wars and “watching these images taken from cameras mounted on bombs as they hit targets,” Ure says. “And that wasn’t on the other side of the world, that was in Yugoslavia, 700 miles away.”
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” sprung from similar world awareness in 1984. Bob Geldof, lead singer of the punk band The Boomtown Rats, “was sitting at home, looking after his kids,” Ure says. “His career was kind of over, I was still riding high, and he called and proposed the idea of a benefit for starvation in Africa. You don’t really say no to Bob, and I had seen and read what was happening in Ethiopia, the famine. And I went along with Bob blindly.
“Wealth was everywhere in the city of London at the time. People were buying Lamborghinis and drinking Cristal champagne for breakfast and talking about what their houses were priced at that day. It was obscene, the antithesis of what was going on a few miles away.
“We said, ‘Let’s write a Christmas song, and get a bunch of our cronies involved.’ That’s all we’re capable of doing. We’re not skilled at anything else.”
Geldof and Ure quickly composed “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The original Band Aid recording, produced by Ure, featured the best that the ’80s charts had to offer, including Sting, Boy George, Phil Collins, Roger Daltrey, the guys from Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and U2. Paul McCartney and David Bowie were dubbed in later. It became the biggest-selling single in United Kingdom history at the time, finally losing its top spot to Lou Gramm and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love is.”
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” resulted, Ure says, “in a seismic shift in people’s attitudes toward other people, mainly because of the medium that we used. We used musicians to deliver the message, and that transcended walls, fences, barbed wire. And we used pop culture, we used celebrity. Back then it was unheard of to get 25 rock stars all focused on one thing. All trying to help someone else besides themselves.”
Changing the world is infinitely slow work. “I took my daughter to the highlands of Ethiopia a few years ago,” Ure says. “She’s a smart girl, but she asked, ‘Why can’t they just buy some food?’ It’s insanity, the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Even people in England who didn’t have a lot had an infinite amount more than these people.”
George Harrison had tried it with The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, but Band Aid, and the companion concert Live Aid, had a bigger reach. “We were making the mould for what was to come,” Ure says. ” ‘We Are the World’ and ‘Northern Lights’ and all that came after it. You just had one for Hurricane Sandy. That’s Live Aid in a different guise.”
Does Ure feel as though he made a difference? “I’m a cog in a machine here,” he says. “Without Bob, it wouldn’t have happened. Bob without me, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s like the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart discovers that everything he has done in his life, take one element of it out and it all falls apart. We changed the world just a little bit. It hasn’t solved the problem. But it changed people’s attitudes a little bit.”