Scottish musician Midge Ure co-wrote the 1984 charity single Do They Know it’s Christmas? as well as the mega-hit Vienna. We spoke to him about his life and career to date. 

I remember…

…Being in a pram

Midge Ure as a baby in a pram

A sign was swinging in the wind above my head.

I was born in a tenement in Cambuslang, on the outskirts of Glasgow, so my mother would have to take me out all the time. There was no way you could stay in that tiny little flat all day.

 

…Life was pretty tough

We had an outside toilet, a scullery, a sink by a window and a fireplace.

Opposite the sink was a cavity bed, which was a recess in the wall with a mattress on that my parents used to sleep in. It was tight, especially when my sister came along—she slept in the cavity bed with my parents while my brother and I shared the bedroom.

It was very cold, very damp and [had] the smell of paraffin oil, which we used to supplement the heat from the fire, only in the winter. So to this day, the smell of paraffin oil reminds me of the build-up to Christmas. To me, it was great. 

 

…My father Jimmy was a van driver

Midge Ure's father

He worked particularly long hours driving for a bakery.

My mother Bet was at that time a stay-at-home mum—housework seemed to be the thing that consumed her life, just looking after us. We didn’t really have an awful lot, but what we had was each other and that was an incredibly important thing. 

 

…At Cambuslang Primary School

The one outstanding person was a teacher from the Highlands—a lady called Miss Gebbie. I wasn’t academic at all, but I could draw and paint and could always sing. I loved this lady. I thought she was wonderful, and because she was young she was completely different from all these other big, Victorian-esque schoolmarms who were quite stoic and very Scottish and a bit violent.

Even if you were six or seven, they wouldn’t think twice about giving you the strap on your hand if you spoke in class or did anything supposedly wrong. Miss Gebbie was kind, and quite possibly a kindred spirit—she was artistic, she could paint and draw. It was wonderful because she really took time with me.

 

…Annoyance that nobody ever suggested to me that if I did well at school

Midge Ure with family

I could quite possibly go to the Glasgow School of Art.

It was just decided somewhere, very early on, that I wasn’t academic material and would end up in a factory. I was about ten, heading up to secondary school, and I think it was just accepted that that’s what you were.

It was only the top ten percent that would end up going to university—it was such an elite thing. Everyone else just set off to work in shops or factories, or drive vans like my father did. My parents instilled in my brother and me that we should try and get ourselves a skill—an apprenticeship as an engineer, electrician or plumber.  

 

…Leaving school at 15.

I hated it. I couldn’t stand the fact that I was a square peg in a round hole and being forced into doing something that I wasn’t cut out to do.

At this point, I was already playing music and had taught myself guitar. I left school and attended engineering college for six months, and then went for an apprenticeship at the
National Engineering Laboratories on the outskirts of Glasgow. After two years, I ended up leaving to join a band full-time at 18. 

My father was horrified because here was the son who’d been told his entire life he was fantastically “adequate”—or possibly inadequate—and not well-equipped for life at all. I’d got the job of their dreams and here I was, about to leave it and join a band and have this incredibly flaky career. But my mother—she ruled the roost, she was a feisty old character—just said, “Follow your heart, you’ve got to do what you think is right,” which was a hugely adventurous thing for her to say, and a bold thing for her to let me do.   

 

…In the early 1970s, any career in music in Scotland was a bit of a pipe dream.

Midge Ure I remember

Everything was so London-centric.

If you were trying to become successful or were hoping to be spotted and signed by a record label, it really wasn’t going to happen in Scotland. But then, ironically, I suppose it did. I was spotted by this guy called Bill Martin, who was a songwriter and producer, along with his partner Phil Coulter. Those guys were like the Stock Aitken Waterman of their day—they were writing songs for The Bay City Rollers. Bill Martin happened to hear the band I was in at the time, Slik, performing live at a venue in Glasgow and he couldn’t believe that this young band were making that noise. He signed us to his record label. 

 

…After breaking the contract to get away from the teeny bop bubblegum thing

I got a phone call from a guy I’d never met before.

It was Glen Matlock, the original bass player for the Sex Pistols. Glen had been talking to a music journalist who was a writer for the magazine Melody Maker. This journalist had suggested that I would be the perfect person to join Glen’s new band The Rich Kids, and they called me up while I was still living in Glasgow and said, “Would you come down to London and do a rehearsal with the band?” It was a phone call from heaven for me. 

 

…When I was in Ultravox, we wanted “Vienna” to come out as a single

Ultravox Midge Ure

It was so uncommercial and so different from everything else around at the time.

The record company wanted to edit the track down because it was too long for the radio, but we insisted that if it was coming out, it should only come out in its entirety. So we eventually knuckled down and they let us release this four-minute-long track.

It could quite easily have disappeared, but I think there was something unique about it that just touched people, and it went the other way. All of a sudden, Ultravox were elevated to a much higher stature as a band, playing regular and much larger concerts. We toured the world. It was just the most glorious sensation ever. 

 

…I was making a solo album in 1984 when I got the phone call from Bob Geldof about Band Aid

 That changed everything again.

I was on music programme The Tube, which was co-hosted by Paula Yates—Bob’s girlfriend at the time. I was chatting to Paula in her dressing room when Bob called and said, “Let me speak to Midge.” He told me he’d just seen the first news footage of the famine in Ethiopia on the BBC and said, “I’m disgusted and I want to do something. The Boomtown Rats has gone and I’m not in a position of power. Will you help me put something together?” 

 

…Deciding that if we could have a Christmas number one, then we could possibly generate £100,000

Midge Ure and Bono

So we had to write something and then donate the money that the writers would usually get to Ethiopia.

If we could use the talents and kudos of our friends to get it to number one in the charts before Christmas—the charts freeze over the Christmas/New Year period—that would generate more money than at any other time of the year. 

So it was quite a cold and calculating thing that we did. By the time we got to the day that everyone saw [in the video], with all the artists, we’d knocked together the idea of how this was going to be. We’d come up with the name, Band Aid, we had the artists on board, we had the studio lined up in London. The media had already grasped what we were trying to do.

 

…At eight o’clock in the morning, Bob took a cassette to BBC Radio One

He gave it to Simon Bates, who was doing the breakfast show.

I was driving home in my car and was listening to the radio when I heard the song being played on cassette for the first time ever. The moment it finished, they rewound it and they played it again. That was unheard of—Radio One don’t play cassettes and they don’t play the same song back-to-back. So at that moment I knew that something amazing was happening. At the time, it raised around £7m. With Band Aid and Live Aid, it’s raised in the region of £150m.  

 

…The downside of Band Aid was that it kind of finished my band.

Midge Ure playing guitar

I was a very different person—quite possibly a better person for having done it.

I’m a musician from the outskirts of Glasgow; I wasn’t cut out to go to aid camps on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. But I did it because I realised that if Bob or I or any other musician didn’t go, the media wouldn’t go. 

It was a bizarre experience, shall we say, and a very humbling one. You’ve seen various images on TV—you’ve been seeing this stuff for months, but I suppose you’re not prepared for the taste and the smell, for all the other senses kicking in. It’s quite shocking. And you come home with a huge admiration for people working out there, who dedicate their lives to dealing with those extreme conditions.     

 

…Kidding myself that alcohol is an aid to creativity.

Of course, it’s a crutch.

Like all these things, it made me taller and more handsome and infinitely more funny—I thought—but it just makes you boring. I had very good, strong family around me who pointed this out and helped me through the process. You have to decide to turn off that madness in your head and get on with life, which I did about ten years ago.

 

…When my parents were both alive 

Midge Ure with family

The ultimate accolade they could understand was when This Is Your Life happened to me in 2001.

Because something they’d known all their lives superceded all gold and platinum discs and all of that stuff. My father wasn’t well, but they sent a car and a nurse to bring both my parents up from Devon, where they were living, and it was great. It was a lovely event—it’s the big party that you always thought you’d organise but never got round to, and they’d organised it all for me.

 

…The five honorary doctorates I got [for charity work]

They were the only ones I was ever going to get.

I was never going to get a degree, so they were lovely things to have and it was the ultimate pat on the back, I suppose. But I was pleased that the OBE I got was for services to music. That was important to me—a major part of my life has been about music and still is. It’s like all the recognition you didn’t get at school all rolled into one. And the Queen pinning something to your lapel...well, that’s just wonderful. I was in a kilt and it was lovely.

Nerve-wracking really, because it’s a bit like being called up in front of the headmaster—for something good for a change. It’s all pomp and circumstance and you’re feeling full of yourself, a bit proud—thinking of those Victorian teachers that used to give you the strap for being useless. You can’t help but think, now they would see things slightly differently.

Feature image via Essentially Pop

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