The pop music of the 1980s was largely driven by two factors, in both of which it expanded on the 1960s and ‘70s: first, that it was “composed” in the studio as much as at the piano, and the composition method was not so much a pencil and note paper but electronic knobs and dials, put together track by track, sound by sound, as much as chord by chord. The music often sounds as if it was assembled rather than composed, but, in the hands of a highly creative artist like Mr. Ure, that’s a virtue rather than a liability.
The other factor was the performance venue itself: unlike folk music or blues, there’s nothing at all intimate about 1980s rock, its natural home is the stadium, the sports arena, rather than the small club, the audience of thousands rather than dozens. Thus Midge Ure’s creative decisions on how best to bring his music to The Iridium were somewhat remarkable. First, in that he’s now performing for a mere 150 or so listeners. (At the height of the Ultravox era, there probably were 150 roadies, techies, groupies, backstage at any given moment.) But not only does he dispense with the stadium, he also eschews all the electronic accoutrements. He performs all the classic songs of Ultravox and Rich Kids etc with the bare essentials, just the voice and the guitar. All of a sudden, the songs are no longer multi-tracked, electronic productions, but songs, and songs in which the message becomes much louder and clearer than when they are presented as electronic dance tracks.
“Dear God,” for instance, at least in my opinion, becomes something much more meaningful and profound when its rendered in this straightforward fashion; it’s not just that you can hear the words more clearly and grasp their meaning, but, in the full-on “production” version the voice is just one element in the mix, amidst all the electronic beats and chordal progressions. Here it’s actually a simple song that carries a distinct meaning, a prayer for peace and understanding in the world, one that proceeds in the path of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and David Bowie’s “Peace on Earth.”
To make the whole show even more direct and intimate, Mr. Ure centers it all around questions and requests from the house - again, something not exactly possible at Madison Square Garden. He was able to fill almost every request, only deferring a few times with the excuse that certain songs just wouldn’t “sound right” without the rest of the band or that were written in keys that he can’t quite reach at the age of 66, very young though he may be.
Of course, he knew from the beginning that there would be both a question and request concerning what is likely his single most famous song: “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Here, in the states, this 1984 release is mainly known as the predecessor to the iconic “We are the World,” but in the U.K., it’s a blockbuster, the second best-selling single of all time. Mr. Ure explained how Bob Geldof invited him to co-write and produce it, and then it became a force unto itself. In fact, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” lead to his work with Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8, which took up so much time that he had to take a protracted leave from Ultravox. This ultimately broke up the band - though not permanently, since they reunited successfully for a new of tours from 2009 to 2013, and the album, Brilliant, which is considered just as brilliant as any of the earlier Ultravox albums.
The 90-minute set at The Iridium, which also included such classics as “Call of the Wild” and the witty “Out of a Spielberg Sky,” concluded with the single best-remembered Ultravox song, “Vienna.” (My favorite version of which is in the two-CD collection, Midge Ure, Soundtrack 1978-2019). There were no better words to end with than these:
“The music is weaving Haunting notes, pizzicato strings The rhythm is calling Alone in the night as the daylight brings A cool, empty silence.”