- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2015

In his 61 years, Midge Ure has been a member of The Rich Kids, Thin Lizzy, Visage and, most notably, Ultravox. He co-wrote the greatest charity/holiday song of all time — Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — and helped organize the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts.

After a successful summer team-up tour with Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey, China Crisis, Howard Jones and Katrina (formerly of Katrina and the Waves), Mr. Ure once again is hitting the road, this time for a solo acoustic tour that ends at Blues & Jazz in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 8.

Mr. Ure spoke about Ultravox, touring acoustic, Band Aid and the fine art of writing songs.

Question: Is this your first solo acoustic tour?

Answer: I did one in the States 15 years ago. I think a lot of established artists go out and do this now.

I had never played acoustically ever until that U.S. tour. When the “Answers to Nothing” album came out, my record company got me to New York and said, “We want you to do this ‘In Their Own Word’ show at The Bottom Line.” I had to learn three of my songs on acoustic guitar because I had never played them that way. I did The Bottom Line show and thought I got away with it. Then, at the end of the night, they said, “We’re taking this show on tour in two weeks [and] we’d like you to join.” So we did six weeks coast to coast and back again with Chip Taylor and Darden Smith. That was the first time I ever attempted to play any of my stuff acoustically.

Q: A lot of your songs are keyboard- and synth-based, especially the Ultravox and Visage songs. How hard is it to take something that was created on a keyboard and then play it on acoustic guitar?

A: Luckily, the audience[s] have great imaginations. They fill in the holes for me. I was very leery of doing it on that “In Your Own Words” tour. I refused to do “Vienna” back then. I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.

Q: Are there any songs you just can’t do?

A: “Reap the Wild Wind.” Impossible because it’s 50 percent instrumental. I just can’t do it. Q: How is the audience reacting to the shows?

A: Phenomenal. I think there may be some trepidation when people come at first. They think, as you asked, “How do you do those songs on just an acoustic guitar?” What they see is me onstage talking and interacting. There is something much more personal about this.

Q: Is it daunting to just be a man and his guitar?

A: It’s scary. I’ve never gone out completely alone. But I chose to do this for two reasons. First, because I wanted people to know about my latest CD, “Fragile.” As part of doing that, you play small venues, and you get some coverage in the press. There is no longer a major label out there doing it for you. You have to fill in the gaps yourself.

Secondly, because I have been reading and hearing stuff lately about fairly established artists who can no longer make a living at making music. A massive part of their income that used to come from record sales has disappeared.

When I went to Paul McCartney’s music school in Liverpool to talk to the students, as an established artist, about what they should expect when they leave school with a degree, I realized what I was telling them doesn’t exist anymore. So I thought I’d better go out and find out what you do have to eke out a living as a musician these days. You have to be able to adapt and be flexible. I’ve always been able to do things in various ways, but not many people can. They need the infrastructure around them. Billy [Currie], the keyboard player from Ultravox, couldn’t just turn up and use a rented keyboard. It’s a whole different thing to him. It’s alien. But with me I can strap on any old guitar and do what I have to do. You have to have that kind of mentality, and I think a lot of the new, young musicians have got that.

Q: So much has changed in the music business.

A: You have to be your own social media organizer. Be your own promoter. Music is now only a little part of it. There are no big machines anymore, or what is left of the big machines are looking after a handful of artists that they can generate income from. They’re not interested in signing what “might” become the next Led Zeppelin or the next Peter Gabriel. It’s too much work.

Q: How important is social media to you?

A: It is everything. You have to tell people what is going on, because they want to know. Photographs. Twitter. Facebook. All the stuff I avoided for years and years are essential.

When Ultravox got back together five years ago to do that initial tour, nobody believed we were really doing it. So I signed up to Twitter and took photos of the band in rehearsal and said, “We’re doing it. Here’s your proof.”

Q: How do you decide which songs to do from your vast catalog?

A: There are key songs you think you should do. “Vienna” has got to be in there. I think you go back and think of the songs that the audience enjoyed during their college days. “Fade to Grey” is a good one. “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.” There are so many of them.

Q: How do you keep your voice in such great shape?

A: I don’t do any warmups or anything. It’s pure abuse. It’s shouting in tune. [laughs]

I still do sing in the original keys. I think a lot of artists drop the keys. It’s the same song and same melody, but the power seems to disappear when you drop the key.

I’ve been fortunate that my voice manages to keep up there somewhere. I have to take a bit of a run at it these days to hit the high notes, but it still comes out. I’m lucky.

Q: You co-wrote one of the greatest holiday songs ever, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” How did that song come about?

A: It was born of necessity. Bob Geldof already had the bones of a song that the Boomtown Rats had already turned down. He just turned up with this half-baked idea. Between the two of us, we knocked it into shape and turned it into “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It is a weird song.

Q: Is it still as powerful a song as it was in 1985?

A: I think the song still stands up. When I hear it on the radio every Christmas, it just jumps out and grabs you. Something about it still makes the hair on the back of my neck go up. We only saw it as a one-year hit without ever thinking it would come back year after year.

Q: What do you think the lasting power of the song is?

A: I think now it has integrated itself into the fabric of our existence. It has become a better song than it ever was. Kids now do it as part of their Christmas pageants and plays. They sing “Silent Night” and then launch into Band Aid. Because that’s a Christmas tune to them. They might not know why it was there. The interesting thing is after Band Aid 30, which we did a few months back, schoolteachers started having students do videos of their own versions of it, which is amazing. For 30 years, this song has been handed down and will probably continue for years to come. Amazing.

Q: Give us one good story from Live Aid.

A: For a magical day I can only remember little snippets. Watching 80,000 people clapping to the “Vienna” drumbeat was quite something. Overhearing Harvey Goldsmith, one of the organizers of Live Aid, on the phone screaming, “We’ve lost the shuttle!” I thought he was taking about the shuttle bus that took the artists to the backstage of Wembley Stadium, [but] he was talking about the space shuttle and how we lost the signal with them. One of the astronauts was going to announce the next band. I thought, “How big can this day be?” Somebody floating across the atmosphere announcing a band?

Q: What about being in Thin Lizzy?

A: I got a phone call from Thin Lizzy’s management, who weirdly were interested in Ultravox, and they said, “Phil [Lynott] is in America and wants to talk to you.” I had known Phil for a long time. He said, “Gary [Moore] is not in the band anymore. We are in Arkansas opening up for John Lee [Hooker]. Can you come over and help finish the tour?”

It was great for me because I had a chance to come to America and talk about Ultravox and generate income, which I had never done ever in my entire life. I went back [to the U.K.] and put that money right back into Ultravox. To experience life on the road in a ‘70s rock band in America at the end of that era was just phenomenal — knowing the whole time that in a few weeks, I was going back into Ultravox to make futuristic electronic music. Just great.

Q: What was your relationship like with Lynott?

A: I was a fan of the early Thin Lizzy. I always thought Philip was a great writer and a great individual singer. It was almost like folk music put to rock music.

I met him in the streets of Glasgow when I was driving my band’s truck when I was 18. I pulled the truck over and jumped out. He ended up coming to my parents’ house and having a meal. My mother thought he was too skinny, so she fed him. When I was in London with my first band, Slick — we were a Bay City Rollers-type thing — we had a No. 1 record, and Philip sent me a book of his poetry to the venue that we were playing. We met up then. And I met him again when I started the Rich Kids.

Q: Is Ultravox still a working band, and will you and the lads ever tour America?

A: Ultravox is still in existence. We did some shows in the U.K. last year with Simple Minds, which was great to have two of the rock bands from the era.

I think me doing last summer’s Retro Futura tour was really good because it opened my eyes up to the fact that people knew a lot more of my stuff and the Ultravox stuff than I ever presumed they did. I hope promoters noticed that too.

Q: Are you one of those songwriters who writes all the time?

A: No. I envy people like Elvis Costello who seems to go to the restroom and come back with an album. I can’t do that. I spent a long time and a lot of effort sculpting the music and crafting the lyrics. I do things, then reanalyze them. It is a slow process.

Q: That explains the gap between solo releases.

A: There has been a 10-year gap between my new album, “Fragile,” and my last solo outing, which is ludicrous. But the new album I’m extremely pleased with. I know every artist talks about how their new album is the best thing they have ever done, but “Fragile” is quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever done.

Q: What makes “Fragile” special?

A: I think it’s real. Honest. I went through a lot of highs and lows while making it. And that is reflected on the album. There is something very grown-up about it. It is very uncontrived. I nearly didn’t finish it.

Q: Why?

A: I was so despondent over the state the music industry was in. I didn’t see any point in putting a record out. Then I realized you can’t win a war without getting in a battle. So I finished the record and am very pleased that I did. Normally a month or so after a record comes out I think, “Oh, I wish I could go back and fix this or that.” I haven’t done that with this record.

Midge Ure will perform at Blues & Jazz in Bethesda on March 8.

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