An exclusive chat with Midge Ure on co-writing the all-star charity single
You may not be familiar with Midge Ure, but you almost certainly know a song that he co-wrote: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
In 1984, Ure and onetime Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof wrote the song and assembled the supergroup Band Aid, which was composed of the leading British and Irish pop stars at that time, including Sting, George Michael, Genesis drummer Phil Collins, and members of U2, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Bananarama and dozens more. All sales proceeds from the single went toward sending aid to Ethiopia, who was in the grip of a terrible famine.
When it was released, the song became a smash hit around the world. In fact, according to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is the second highest-selling single of all time in the U.K. (only behind Elton John’s 1997 elegy to Princess Diana, “Candle In the Wind”). It also inspired a massive charity concert, Live Aid, in 1985, as well as inspiring several other nations’ musicians to record their own similar charity singles to help the cause (such as “We are the World” by U.S.A. for Africa). Ure, calling from his home near Bath, England, says that it’s shocked him to see just how iconic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has become.
“When you start working on something like this, you have no idea what the outcome will be. Our initial thoughts on it, Bob [Geldof] and I, was that if we could get a few friends to help us record this, we might get to #1 over the Christmas/New Year period here in the U.K. [and] we’d make this thing generate £100,000. We ended up with a lot more than £100,000. But nobody knew this was going to happen. This was just fate.”
The idea to do a charity single came to Geldof after he watched a TV show about the famine. Soon after, talking about what he saw with his friend Ure (who was then enjoying success in the U.K. with his band Ultravox), they realized they could help the situation if they wrote a charity single. But because this idea had occurred to Ure and Geldof relatively late in the year, they only had a very limited timeframe in order to get the record on store shelves for the Christmas season. They quickly wrote the song together, then Ure worked on initial recordings for the song’s instrumentation while Geldof invited famous musicians to sing on it. Geldof also went on a mass media blitz, talking up the project until interest in it was keen.
With one problem solved, Geldof and Ure soon faced another: they would need a large enough studio to accommodate all the people involved, a very expensive undertaking that would be out of the question for a charity endeavor such as this. The producer Trevor Horn saved the day when he donated the use of his central London studio – but it was only available for one day: November 25, 1984. Ure and Geldof accepted Horn’s offer, and the invited musicians were told where and when to come for the recording session.
But as Ure explains with a laugh, it was only on the actual day of the recording that the next potential huge problem occurred to them: “Bob and I were standing outside of a very empty recording studio in central London, surrounded by [media] cameras and microphones, and it struck us that we had no idea who would turn up, because we hadn’t spoken to managers or agents or record labels – we spoke directly to the artists. And artists aren’t usually very organized! [There was] that horrible moment when we thought, ‘Do they know it’s today? Do they know what studio it is?’” Ure laughs. “But they all turned up!”
Ure points out an interesting fact: those artists all came without having any idea what the song itself would sound like. “If this was something that happened today, you could’ve emailed the song to people, you could’ve sent them MP3s so they knew the song,” Ure says. But those things weren’t an option in 1984, which means “they’d never heard it, they didn’t know the melody. So they were under huge pressure to learn their parts quickly and perform them well in front of all their peers – every other rock and pop star that the U.K. had to offer were all watching them do this. That’s scary stuff!” As one artist would record lines, Ure says, “The other musicians all had their noses press up against the control room window, watching them.” But he believes this scrutiny actually helped, because it inspired performers to do their best possible work.
Immediately after the recording finished, Ure immediately set about mixing the song – in the studio that same day. But even after helping to write, produce, and mix the track, Ure is surprisingly blunt in his assessment of the results. “I don’t think it’s a great song – and I can say that because I co-wrote it,” he says. “But I think it really captured the moment, the atmosphere, the haunting ambience of the intro right through to this massive, glorious sing-along ending. And weirdly, when I hear the song randomly on the radio or in the supermarkets or whatever, it still does the same thing to me – I still get that sensation of when that magic moment happened.”
Now, decades after “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” took the world by storm, Ure’s work still isn’t done, in a way. The Band Aid Trust, which was set up to collect and distribute funds, remains an active charity, and Ure is a member of its Board of Trustees. “So what was going to be a six month project is now 35 years,” and Ure has seen the results of this effort firsthand: “I went to Ethiopia with the first shipment of goods: high protein biscuits and medications and stuff,” he says. Twenty years later, he went back to see the difference that had been made thanks to Band Aid and other charities. “It was amazing, quite incredible. It’s something that may never be [fully] fixed, but the infrastructure was certainly better than what I had seen.”
VIDEO: Midge Ure on Studio 10 in Australia talking about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
When he’s not doing work for Band Aid (and several other charities, particularly Save the Children), Ure continues to tour the world, both as a solo artist and, over the years, with a reformed Ultravox. In January and February, he will play shows across the U.S. and Canada in January and February (tour dates listed below).
It will be a bit of an unusual tour in that Ure will play an acoustic set during which he will accept questions and requests from audience members. Doing shows this way is, he says, “fascinating but petrifying. You’re opening yourself up to questions that might lead you to a specific song, then [you have to] attempt to play it. It’s happened quite a few times that I started playing something that I thought I knew, and then completely screw up in the middle. But then I found the people kind of liked the novelty that the songwriter doesn’t know all his own songs. But I don’t listen to my music, so I’m the oddity in the venue. Most of the people there will have listened to you on the way to the venue on their car stereos, and I don’t. So I think there’s something real about doing something like that.”
Audience members should also know that Ure will play his biggest Ultravox hits, such as “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and “Vienna,” however, “[My band] will turn them radically different. I’m going to be very loose but very honest. And that in itself gives the songs a completely fresh approach – it’s not like I’m trying to recreate a record. Sometimes when you strip it down like that, the heart of the song really comes through.”
Looking back on his life as a musician, Ure cannot believe his luck. Growing up working class in Scotland, “I was destined to work in a factory. Your path was laid out, and you did what you were expected to do. So I’d started [to] get the skill to be an engineer – a trade like that, you could earn a reasonable living and have a good life. But I could always sing – it didn’t cost me or my family anything. And I always had a voice. So I’ve sung for as long as I could remember. I plead with my parents to get me a guitar when I was 10 years old, and I taught myself to play. So music was always the dream.
“I was halfway through my engineering apprenticeship, playing in bands on the weekends, and I went with a musician friend to an audition – and they didn’t pick him, but offered me the job as guitarist.” Ure couldn’t decide if he should take the risk and quit his apprenticeship, “so I gave the decision to my parents. And my mother said, ‘Follow your heart, do what you think is right.’ So they made the decision for me. They knew that this was something that I was driven by.”
Clearly Ure’s parents made the right choice. Looking back at his life, and especially his involvement with Band Aid, Ure is astonished. “I couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen. It’s been an extraordinary career that has led me into all these different things. But I don’t look back and reflect on, ‘Oh, look at all the amazing things I’ve done’ – I reflect on the fact that I’m still alive to do this. I still wake up in the morning and go to my studio and make music. I love it. I’m just unbelievably lucky.”
VIDEO: Band Aid “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Midge Ure Tour Dates:
January 15 – Oakland, CA – Yoshi’s
January 16 – Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
January 17 – San Juan Capistrano, CA – Coach House
January 18 – Sacramento, CA – Harlow’s
January 20 – Portland, OR – Doug Fir
January 21 – Vancouver, BC – Rickshaw Theater
January 22 – Seattle, WA – Recital Hall @ Benaroya Hall
January 24 – Salt Lake City, UT – State Room
January 25 – Denver, CO – Soiled Dove
January 27 – Kansas City, MO – Record Bar
January 28 – St. Louis, MO – Off Broadway Tap Room
January 29 – Chicago, IL – City Winery
January 30 – Hamilton, ON – The Casbah
January 31 – Toronto, ON – Hugh’s Room 1H
February 1 – Pawling, NY – Daryl’s House
February 3 – Boston, MA – City Winery
February 4 – Sellersville, PA – Sellersville Theater
February 5 – Washington DC – City Winery – Wine Garden
February 6 – New York, NY – Iridium
February 7 – New York, NY – Iridium
February 8 – Long Island, NY – My Fathers Place
February 9 – Bordentown, NJ – Man Cave (2 Shows)