Songwriter Interviews

Midge Ure

by Greg Prato

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Midge Ure's biggest claim to fame will always be his work as producer and co-writer of "Do They Know It's Christmas?", the first of the big musical charity collaborations. This serendipitous seasonal single became the top-seller in UK history and has been reborn three times with fresh talent, most recently in 2014.

Beyond Band Aid, Ure has been spotted in several renowned bands over the years. Visage, Ultravox, and Thin Lizzy are all acts that this musical polymath has been associated with - in addition to launching his own successful solo recording career.

Midge spoke with Songfacts a few months after the arrival of his 2014 solo release, Fragile, whose title is in reference to his battle with alcoholism - which may explain why it took over a decade for a completely new album of solo originals to appear.

In addition to discussing his latest release, Midge talked about the thrills and challenges in creating "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and his memories of his short tenure in Lizzy.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing the new album, Fragile.

Midge Ure: I suppose most artists would say their new record is the most honest record they've ever made, and I'm no different - I'm going to say the exact same thing. I don't have to invent scenarios to write about anymore. I write about truth, I write about what happens to me: good, bad, and indifferent.

In a way, Fragile is probably the most brutally honest thing that I've ever written. It deals with the demons that I've dealt with over the last ten years, which is the gap between the last solo album and the new solo album. "Wearing my heart on my sleeve" is probably the term to use on this album.

Songfacts: When I listened to the album, the title track really stood out.

Midge: It's a fairly well-documented fact that I had a problem with alcohol over the last 10-12 year period, and I talk about that in the song. The opening line of the song is, "You might as well have asked me not to breathe," because that's how it was with drinking. You think, "What do you mean put it down? What do you mean stop? How can you possibly do that?" Because when it's got its hold on you, it's very difficult to change your lifestyle pattern. So I talked about that quite openly.

There are lots of references in that song about people trying to pull you back into that particular world. Lines like, "I see you walk through fields of golden corn," are references to alcohol. "I don't belong, just fragile."

I was the guy who could juggle 50 different things at once. I was the shortstop, I was the guy who could hold everything else together. I was Mr. Fix It. We all have a breaking point, and my breaking point proved that I was as fragile as anyone else.

Songfacts: Do you prefer collaboration or writing on your own?

Midge: I songwrite differently from anybody else I know. I create in the studio - I write the song as I'm producing the record. As I'm piecing together the elements of the song, the song starts to grow. I don't do what 99% of the songwriters I know do, which is write the songs, then go in the studio and record the "best of the batch." I create from scratch in the studio, I suppose like an artist is going to do a painting. You might make a thumbnail sketch, but you've got to start with the charcoal on the canvas at some point, and just see where it takes you. So you start with the seed of an idea, and just let it grow.

My songwriting and production process is all the one thing now. It's kind of different in that respect, and maybe that's why it takes as long as it takes, because I'm not just writing a song with some chords and an idea of a bit of a melody, and then let other musicians come in and add their parts to it. I'm cutting all the pieces out of the jigsaw. I'm creating the shapes of the pieces to make the big picture. The bass part, the keyboard part, they all have to interact with all the other parts that are in there, and I think you can probably hear that in the record. It's not just "Throw a bass on this one." It's another part, it's another important section to the music.

It sounds like I'm standing on a bleeding soapbox right now, but that's how it feels to me when I'm doing my stuff.

Songfacts: What instrument do you usually compose songs on?

Midge: Keyboards. Absolutely no doubt. I am not a keyboard player, and I think there's something about the naiveté of dabbling with an instrument that you don't really know very well. I'm a dreadful keyboard player, but in conjunction with my studio, my computer, and my sequencer, I can play three chords on a keyboard and the atmospherics that I can create using electronics gives those three chords something special, whereas if you play the same three chords on the guitar, you think, "Oh, it's rubbish," and throw it away.

So it's all part of that entire process of production alongside songwriting. Getting the atmosphere, getting the sound, getting the thing that sparks off your imagination is just as important to me as getting the opening line of a song or the hook of the song, or the little kernel of what the song is actually going to be about.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" was the first grand-scale musical charity effort. It became the top-selling single in UK history (since overtaken by "Candle In The Wind '97") and raised $14 million for African famine relief. Midge's co-writer on the track, Bob Geldof, helped organize Live Aid the following year, while American superstars took a crack at their own charity single with "We Are The World."

The group that recorded the song is credited as "Band Aid." Like Woodstock, it reappears on key anniversaries. Here are the four versions of Band Aid to date:

Band Aid - 1984
Producer – Midge Ure
Cause: Africa
Key singers: Phil Collins, Paul Weller, George Michael

Band Aid II - 1989
Producer – Stock, Aitken And Waterman
Cause: Africa
Key singers: Jason Donovan, Cliff Richard, Rick Astley

Band Aid 20 - 2004
Producer – Nigel Godrich
Cause: Sudan
Key singers: Chris Martin, Joss Stone, Dizzee Rascal

Band Aid 30 - 2014
Producer – Paul Epworth
Cause: Ebola
Key singers: Ellie Goulding, Ed Sheeran, Olly Murs
Songfacts: What were the biggest challenges in co-writing and co-producing the original version of "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

Midge: The biggest challenge I suppose initially, when I did the original one 30 years ago, was not to be laughed at by your contemporaries, by your peers. It's one thing meeting all these guys and knowing them and saying "Hello" casually. It's another thing being in charge of them and saying, "You know what? That note is a bit flat." They might not take it from a fellow artist, whereas they'll take it from a producer. So that was a tall order. Also, the fact that we only had 24 hours to do the entire thing. I was fortunate enough that I had just built my own studio.

Sting had already been in and sung his part, Simon LeBon had already been in and sung his part, and I'd done a guide vocal track that everyone could hear. So you have to remember, that Sunday morning, when all the artists turn up at the studio, none of them had heard the song, so they were listening to it from scratch, then having to do their parts straight away. Then we had to mix it. All within 24 hours.

So that in itself is a ridiculously tall order: to try and create something that's going to do the job that that record finally did in such a short space of time. But sometimes, that kind of pressure gets you to create something magical, gets you to eliminate the liberations that you end up having in the studio. It's like, "Well, maybe this one was better than that one" and "Maybe we can do this again." We didn't have time to do that - we just had to nail it and get on with it. Get the vocal track from everyone that was acceptable. As it turns out, a lot of the vocal tracks were exceptional. They were fantastic.

Songfacts: Which singer gave the most surprising vocal performance?

Midge: Bono, without a doubt. At that point, U2 were just starting to scratch America. They were working over here for a long time, but in the UK, they were still seen as kind of a "college band." So they were still the new kids on the block, as it were... not like New Kids on the Block, but they were the new guys.

When Bono took that line of the song - "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you" - I had originally sung it on the guide vocal an octave lower, and he just decided to let it rip, and it was phenomenal. Electric. It was just sensational.

And also Boy George. George had forgotten to turn up at the studio. He was in New York, and Bob Geldof called him and woke him up. He said, "Get your ass on a Concorde and get here!" And he did. So he turned up at the airport straight to the studio flying from New York. Walked straight in, had a drink of something, got behind the microphone, sang his part, and did it brilliantly.

Songfacts: Bob Geldof has said that the song is not particularly good. How do you feel about it?

Midge: You have to divide us in two. The song is OK. The song has always been OK. It's never been a great song. It's kind of grown into a better song than it ever was. But as a recording, as a production, I'm immensely proud of it. So is Bob. Because it did its job phenomenally.

As a record, you hear it now on the radio and the opening clang, the opening atmospherics, my multi-tracked vocal thing, all of that stuff, it still sends shivers up your spine. So as a record, as a production, it did a brilliant job despite the fact that the song was OK.

Songfacts: When it came to writing the song, was it a matter of you and Bob trading lyrics back and forth?

Midge: Bob had actually written the bones of the song. He didn't tell me at the time that it was something that he had kind of punted through the Boomtown Rats, who didn't like it and turned it down. So he turned up at my studio and sang this thing at me, and every time he sang it, it was different. So he was obviously still kind of gluing elements together and the melody change, because Bob is not a melody man - he's all over the shop.

I recorded what he had done on a cassette player. I sent him away, and I started fine-honing it and knocking it into shape so there was some form of structure. And even then, the song itself doesn't really have a chorus! It's a really weird structure of a song.

My major contribution to the lyrics I suppose was changing "And there won't be snow in Ethiopia this Christmas" to "And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas." Because no matter how you try, you cannot scan "Ethiopia" - that just does not work. We both contributed to the mid-section and the "Here's to you" section. We both came up with the "Feed the world" and "Do they know it's Christmas time again?" The lyrics weren't great, and I know Bob thinks that as well, even though the majority of them were his. But he said to me, "If you can come up with something better, great." I tried, and I couldn't.

It's very odd writing to a brief, which is something I hadn't done before. Some people can do it and do it brilliantly, but it's not really my kind of thing. Someone saying, "We need you to write a song about a man in a car driving from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano," I just kind of blank.

Songfacts: Did you have any input on the version of the song that came out last year?

Midge: Yes, I was an executive producer of the entire thing. I did the basic arrangement - the thumbnail sketch for the atmospheric intro, just as it is on the record. I put the arrangement all together before handing it across to a cool new producer [Paul Epworth].

How would an artist who was known primarily for his synth-pop/new wave sounds mesh with one of the top names of hard rock/heavy metal? Not a common question, but one that had to have crossed the minds of many a rock n' roll fan circa 1979, when it was announced that Midge was enlisted as a touring guitarist for Thin Lizzy.

After Lizzy's Gary Moore abruptly exited the band in the midst of a US tour, Phil Lynott and company were left scrambling for a replacement. Instead of hiring another six-string shredder à la Moore, they decided to switch gears and go with the more low-key Midge, who remained on board with Lizzy for the rest of '79 and well into 1980.
Songfacts: One of my favorite rock bands of all time is Thin Lizzy, and I know you toured with them in 1979, and you played on the Chinatown album, right?

Midge: Yep, I did.

Songfacts: What are some memories of playing with them?

Midge: I didn't think about it at the time, but looking back at it, it was very cool to have experienced what America was like when rock ruled - at the end of the '70s when rock was king. For me to have dipped my toe in that particular water, and seen what corporate American rock music was all about - people flying around in private learjets and stuff that doesn't exist anymore - was quite an eye-opener. It wasn't necessarily my type of music, but I was a big Thin Lizzy fan. I was a fan of Phil Lynott, who I thought was a great writer and a phenomenal singer. So I had been a fan since Thin Lizzy were a three-piece band, back in the very early days. I was in the studio, putting the finishing touches to the first Visage album [1980's Visage], which had "Fade to Grey" on it, and I had just joined Ultravox when I got the phone call from Phil, saying, "We're in Arkansas as special guests for Journey, playing these massive places, and Gary Moore's not in the band anymore. Can you come out and finish the tour?"

And the next day, they put me on a Concorde! Within 24 hours of getting the phone call, I was sitting in a hotel room with Scott Gorham, the other guitar player, learning all the harmony guitar parts. It was just fantastic. I had never experienced anything like that, and especially now that I was going back with some dollars in my pocket - which I never had either - to invest in the equipment that I needed for Ultravox, it was fantastic. And Philip was brilliant, because every time he'd do an interview, he'd drag me along and say, "Right, I've done my bit. Now you tell them about Ultravox." So I was being forced upon radio stations and journalists to talk about a band that they had no interest in whatsoever!

Songfacts: Did the subject of you joining Lizzy full-time ever come up?

Midge: The moments that we'd sit in a limousine and we'd all take turns playing cassettes on the car system, every time it came to my turn, you could see Scott Gorham and Brian Downey just looking distraught while I'd put on Kraftwerk or Magazine or whatever I was listening to at the time. So I don't think there was any chance whatsoever I was going to end up joining the band. My interest lay with technology.

Philip was very interested in what I was doing, so when it came to doing his solo albums - Solo in Soho and things - he wanted to incorporate some of the stuff I had been playing him in the car. I think he would have quite liked me to be a part of it, but I was never a whiz-kid guitar player. I was never the fast/flash/twiddly-diddly guy.

Songfacts: What do you recall about co-writing the Thin Lizzy song, "Get Out of Here," off the Black Rose album?

Midge: It was one of those oddities. I was hanging out with Phil in London, and he started working on this song, and I kind of strung along with him. I didn't really add an awful lot to it - he was very generous. At the end of the afternoon, when he was knocking this song together, in which I was very much a passive participant, he said, "We've written a song together." I said, "Have we? Really? Are you sure?" And to get me a percentage of the song was just phenomenal, bearing in mind I didn't have two cents in my pocket to rub together. He looked after me like a big brother. So that was my first foray into writing something that actually appeared on anything. Later on, we did "Yellow Pearl," which appeared on Phil's solo album. I had much more input with that, because we had already toured with Lizzy at that point, and this is something we used to jam at soundchecks. So it was a quick learning curve for me.

Songfacts: I always figured on the song "Yellow Pearl" that you had a major influence on the sound of that track.

Midge: When you find out what Lizzy were actually doing at the time - looking for a permanent replacement - and while they were doing that, I did the first tour, my first time ever in America, doing that tour with Journey, and then they tried out another guitarist when we toured in Japan. Phil wanted me to do keyboards, so I was relegated to the back of the stage on a platform, surrounded by synthesizers and incorporating synthesizers into Thin Lizzy. Which you could never hear, so I don't know what the point was. But he wanted that. He wanted that influence in there.

Phil was a bit like David Bowie in that respect: He was very good at being a bit of a magpie, and he could see that there was something happening that wasn't necessarily in his field of expertise, but he wanted to steal little bits of it and incorporate it. It worked better on his solo records than it ever did on Lizzy. So yes, when it came to stuff like "Yellow Pearl" and some of his other solo things, I was much more acquainted with that than anything else.

Songfacts: Regarding your solo track "Dear God," what was going on in your personal life at that point that made you write that song?

Midge: My life was actually very good at the time. There was nothing to moan about. But I have an ongoing battle with fixed religions. It's because of my background - coming from Glasgow in Scotland, where if you support the wrong football team you get a smack in the mouth or worse.

In a very small way, I saw what people were doing in the name of their religions. They were quite happy to go beat somebody else up. Look at the major conflicts around the world and staunch radical people who will happily kill somebody else because they don't believe in the same God. I just find that obscene. I find that bizarre.

So the song "Dear God" - and I know many people will say this - I woke up with a song in my head. And it's never happened before and it's never happened since. So I woke up with a song in my head, and all I had to do was go to the studio at the bottom of the garden, and kind of fine-hone it and try to remember what it was that was going on in my head.

In a way, it's a double-edged sword that song. It's like a child's prayer: "Dear God, is there somebody out there?" And in another way, it's absolute despondent despair, saying, "Dear God, is there somebody out there?" It's a question and an explanation at the same time.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Midge: Very difficult to say. There are so many for different reasons. Kate Bush is outstanding - not always palatable, not always easy to consume, but always interesting. And if a song is something that is going to help change people's lives, that's the kind of challenge that you need. I respect and admire people who do not succumb to whatever new toy the record labels want you to use. So for 20 years, I have constantly, consistently turned down having DJs remix my records. I respect other artists who do the same, who stick to their guns and write about interesting subjects. The likes of Peter Gabriel. Sting to a certain degree.

There are a lot of really good writers out there, and some of the new guys are fantastic. There's a great band in Scotland right now called Biffy Clyro - they're just a great rock band. It's great to see great rock bands coming through. It's good out there right now. It's just a scary place for up-and-coming musicians, because there is no template, there is no map to show you how to do it. It's just a bit of a mess, and there's a lot of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. So I think the good song will always come to the board. Even if there are a handful of people who hear it, if it's real and it's honest and it's genuine, somebody somewhere will connect with that song.

March 24, 2015. Photos courtesy Andy Siddens and midgeure.co.uk.
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Comments: 4

  • Jimbo from Dear Green PlacePhil Collins didn't sing on the original Band Aid - pedant that I am - but he was the drummer.

    Always liked Midge. Remember him in a band called Slik, way back in the 70s.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaThe Vienna Album is still one of my favorites. Glad he beat his demons, I was always a fan
  • Richard Antony from United Kingdomfantastic Interview. Thank you very much for asking about Thin Lizzy. Can you ask about Visage next time please. What with the recent loss of 80's icon Steve Strange.
  • Daria from Los Angeles CaWhat a brilliant interview--intelligent, thought-provoking questions indeed! Midge is an amazing performer who has literally saved millions of lives and created some fantastic music along the way. It's great to see an interviewer ask him about these important elements of his career and more. Cheers!
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