In Mad World: The Book, the final chapter is a tribute to the song that was the death knell for the new wave party: Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” So it’s only fitting that we keep an eye on all of the hubbub surrounding the latest recording of that most bleak of holiday tunes.
On the eve of Band Aid 30, Mad World co-author Lori Majewski interviewed Midge Ure — three decades on, still an active member of the Band Aid Trust that helped to “feed the world.” For the song’s fourth rendition, the Ultravox frontman and Bob Geldof have convened another pop-star super group — including Band Aid alumni Bono and Chris Martin, along with fresh faces One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, and more — to “heal the world,” as they face down the ebola crisis in West Africa. Below is a a more comprehensive version of the piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone.
In late September, Bob Geldof was in no mood to reminisce about one of his life’s greatest accomplishments. On the morning Rolling Stone was to interview him for a story timed to the 30th anniversary of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — the November 1984 charity single that benefitted the victims of the Ethiopian famine — his publicist emailed to say he wanted to cancel. The reason: “Bob does not want to discuss Band Aid.”
Geldof eventually relented, mostly because he did want to discuss the recent reunion of his beloved Boomtown Rats, the band he’d formed in Dublin in the mid-seventies. “I do the Africa stuff every day of the week,” the 63-year-old humanitarian/singer explained. “The only thing that actually stimulates me, that really, truly interests me, is music. It’s so exhilarating to be on a stage. To forget about all that other stuff that I do, is amazingly cathartic.”
When the topic inevitably turned to Band Aid, Geldof grew cranky. “Sixty-thousand documentaries, you can look at them — you don’t need me talking about it,” he said. And as for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: “I associate it with the meat counter at my local supermarket. Every time I arrive to buy the fucking turkey, I hear [he mockingly hums the song’s intro]. The butcher looks at me with a little smile and I go, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the fucking turkey, dude’.”
Not six weeks later came the announcement that there will be a Band Aid 30 — a “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” update to be recorded on November 15, featuring the likes of One Direction, Ed Sheeran, Adele, and Ellie Goulding alongside returning artists like Bono and Chris Martin, who was a part of Band Aid 20, which benefitted the troubled Darfur region of Sudan. If Geldof can barely stomach hearing the song, why would he want to spearhead a fourth recording of it?
“It was the hideous synchronicity of the ebola crisis and the way it’s escalated, and the fact that we had this 30th anniversary coming up that everybody was asking us about,” said Midge Ure, Geldof’s longtime Band Aid partner and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” co-writer, speaking early Friday morning. “A month ago, this wasn’t in the cards. Then Bob got a call from the UN saying, ‘Can you do it again?’”
At a London press conference on November 10, Geldof said they were inspired by “the phenomenal bravery of the National Health doctors and nurses who volunteered” to go into the heavily infected areas — Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria — to help.
“Can you imagine how hideous it must be, getting sent out to Liberia or Sierra Leone, knowing you can catch this thing just by touching a tear, or anything?” says Ure. “We want to show them some kind of camaraderie, that we care.”
Another, more lofty, goal is to spur on world leaders to do more to help ebola victims and to curb the spread of the disease. “I presume governments are incredibly aware of what’s going on,” Ure says. “But maybe they’re just slow, lumbering machines. Whereas, you get people in the entertainment industry to start rattling cages and it’s media-worthy. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now about it if there wasn’t going to be a three-ring circus happening on Saturday. Maybe it doesn’t help focus politicians, but it certainly embarrasses them. It embarrasses politicians to think that masses of people can be moved into action because of a bunch of pop stars.”
During our conversation, Geldof recalled how world governments were forced to do more to aid Ethiopian famine relief efforts in the aftermath of the original Band Aid and 1985’s Live Aid, the super concert that he and Ure staged in London and Philadelphia. “It isn’t a record, and it isn’t a concert,” he said. “It’s a 30-year endeavor so far, and Band Aid just happened to be the spark. The aid effort was increased hugely. It began the long journey of a political conversation. Thatcher immediately put it on the next G8 agenda.
“Charity is the simple understanding and acknowledgement of another’s pain,” he continued, “and the most that most people can do is give a buck in the care box for Oxfam or Save the Children or whatever. But where it really counts is when a million people put the dollar in the care box, because that’s political, and politics is numbers.”
That’s why Geldof and Ure are urging people to do something very 1984 and buy the re-recorded version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, either as a 99-cent download, which will be available starting Monday, or on CD, which is set to go on sale in three weeks. (For more information, go to BandAid30.com.) Streaming services like Spotify will not have access to the song until after the new year.
“All we can do is hope that on Saturday Ed Sheeran and One Direction and everyone else plead with the fans not to stream this, not to download this for free,” Ure says. “We don’t want people engaging for free. We want people engaging emotionally. All these kids know this song because they’ve sung it in every Christmas play they’ve ever been in, they’ve heard it blasting out of radios every Christmas since they were born. What they now have to learn is why the song was done in the first place and why the song’s being done this time — for slightly different but equally valid reasons.”
Read on, as Ure — speaking by Skype in the middle of the night following a concert in Germany to promote his latest album, Fragile — talks about the rush to record the new version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, what they’ve learned from the new generation of artists, and the importance of passing of pinpointing artists to whom they can pass the Band Aid torch. “It’s probably going to be the last time we do it,” he says.
LORI MAJEWSKI: I presume you were Geldof’s first call after he hung up with the UN. What was the call like?
Midge Ure: He opened up with an apology: “Sorry.” [Laughs] I’m a bit of a sounding board for him, the voice of sanity in his mad world. So we talked about what the possibilities were, who we would have on board, and how we could change [“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”]. Because the song is very geared toward hunger, and there are references to the burning sun and no water — “no rain or rivers flow,” and all that stuff — which isn’t true anymore. Africa’s changed a lot over the last 30 years.
RS: You’re in the middle of a tour and suddenly you have Band Aid 30 to deal with. What have the last few weeks been like?
MU: We weren’t going to do a 30th anniversary thing at all. Then Bob got the call from the UN, and, from that moment on, it’s been an absolute whirlwind. It’s forever changing. Every day is different names, different people, a different set-up. I don’t remember the last one being this hectic, or the original one. Things have gotten a lot more complicated over the years, I think, when technology should make things easier. The first time around, we didn’t really speak to managers; this time, we’re dealing with managers and labels. The artists are great, but there’s a whole lot of middle men trying to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, and it makes things move kinda slow. It’s difficult to try and organize logistically, because so many artists have to be away at a certain time because they’re playing that night, or they’re flying into the country at a certain time and have to have their vocals done. But it’s going to be fantastic. We’ve got a great lineup.
LM: You could’ve just had the artists record their parts wherever they were in the world and email you the files, something that would have been possible back in 1984 with the original Band Aid. But it seems important to you that you have all the artists on site on Saturday.
MU: Because that shows commitment. It also makes the event a real event. The whole thing about Band Aid that you get off your backside. You turn up, and you hang around, and you wait for your turn. You leave your ego at the door and you come in and you engage. How can you ask complete strangers all around the world to buy the record if you’re not engaged enough to be there to make the thing in the first place? For instance, we’ve got Bastille, who have cancelled two of their concerts, in Vancouver and in Seattle, to to come in and be a part of this. Not just to record a bit of video and a bit of singing and then email it to us, but to actually come over and be with us. Now, that’s the kind of commitment you want to see in young bands, in young musicians. They feel it’s important enough to do that, which could affect their career, their finances. But they’re coming to do it, and that’s phenomenal. So it was incredibly important, and the diversity of the artists is as well. It always has been. We had Bono and Bananarama the first time around — you would never see those guys in the same room ever again. That’s exactly what we’ve got this time as well. You’re going to have Bono in there and you’re going to have One Direction in there, all standing side by side and chatting away, being a part of something together.
LM: For the original Band Aid, you’ve said that you and Bob had a modest goal of raising a couple hundred-thousand Pounds. Do you a goal in mind this time — a certain number of downloads or an amount of money that you feel you need to make in order to make a difference?
MU: When we figured out the first time around that we could make generate a couple hundred-thousand pounds if we had a Christmas number-one [on the UK charts], that was because we a template. We knew what a Christmas number one would sell. We had figures. These days, I don’t know. It’s so multi-faceted, isn’t it? You get little bits of income from different income streams. It’s almost impossible [to come up with a guesstimate] — you can’t even talk in the number of downloads. There’s some hideous statistic that Bob mentioned the other day that [Comic Relief founder] Richard Curtis had told him: When One Direction had done a charity record for Comic Relief, they had 48 million hits online but sold no records. [After being leaked online and made available for illegal downloading ahead of its Feb. 17, 2013 release date, the single, a cover of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another,” went to number one in the UK but sold only 113,000 copies.] So I have no idea. It’ll be an interesting project, if nothing else.
LM: Assuming you do raise some money, how will the Band Aid Trust go about dispensing the funds? Will you being giving it out to aid agencies on the ground in Ebola-stricken countries?
MIDGE: Band Aid is a draw-down facility — a bank. We are called upon by the aid agencies who cover their own overheads to fund various projects. Because that’s what works best for us. We don’t own a telephone; we don’t have an office. We don’t spend any of the money on any of that. The money goes directly to where it should go. So I presume we will carry on doing that. It’s not a million miles away, funding projects for ebola, as it is from funding projects for hunger. It’s very closely linked. For example, we’ve been funding a charity in Africa called Mary’s Meals. It’s a charity [that] feeds children. We just got an email the other day from Mary’s Meals when [Band Aid 30] was announced, saying “Absolutely fantastic, because we are feeding 80,000 children right now in Liberia.” One of the side effects of ebola, they said, is, if children aren’t dying of the disease, then they are dying of hunger, because food has rocketed in price.
LM: The good news for Band Aid 30 is that Millennials are, on the whole, innately charitable. One Direction recently helped to raise $341,000 when they asked fans to donate to its Prizeo campaign to support Stand Up to Cancer. And tens of thousands of dollars have already been raised by a Prizeo campaign for Band Aid 30 on the back of a few tweets from Ellie Goulding, Paloma Faith, and Rita Ora.
MU: We are learning from the young guys, to tell you the truth. Bob and I were sitting in a room a couple of weeks ago, scratching our heads and going, “How do you generate money from this?” I knew about the One Direction stuff, about the fundraising that they can do via the social networks. So we stole the idea from them. And we wouldn’t be using Paul Epworth, the producer we’re using right now for making the record, unless they had said, “He’s the guy — you’ve got to go and check him out. He’s the guy who produced Adele[’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’], and ‘Skyfall’.” So we’re listening to what the younger generation and what they’re bringing to the table. They’re not just transient, pretty faces that you stick on there just to get the fan base. The fan base is huge, so it’s great to have that on board, but they are teaching the old dogs new tricks.
LM: Speaking of old dogs, last time we talked you said that you and Bob were starting to look around for possible successors. Chris Martin has been involved in a previous recording of Band Aid, and he’s been recruiting artists for Band Aid 30. Is he someone to whom you might consider passing the baton?
MU: I think Chris Martin already is. There is a little clique of artists you could put in a bag — it’d be Bob and I, Bono, Sting, Chris Martin. Chris Martin is one of the newer guys to come on board, so, yes, I think he’s very engaged. But you need people from the One Direction [generation] to come in and get engaged in this and spread the word. Chris Martin: great talent, lovely guy; great to have him on board, great to see him doing what he’s doing. But he’s a generation in between Bob, Sting and I and the younger generation. So I’d like to see some of the younger guys… I’m sure we’ll be bending their ears on Saturday. While I’m doing my work behind the desk, I’m sure Bob will be out there beating them up.
LM: At the press conference there was some talk of Quincy Jones readying an American contingent for a new rendition of “We are the World.” Any idea if that’s going forward?
MU: I know Bob’s spoken to Quincy, and I believe Quincy was taking it on board. So, keeping fingers crossed that there will be an American version, just as today it’s been announced that there’s a French version, and there’s a German version going on right now. Once one of these things starts, it’s like pushing a boulder down a hill: It starts very slowly, then, once it starts to gather momentum, it picks up an awful lot of [speed] along the way. So I like to think that this thing that we’re starting in the UK, other territories will pick up on it and do their interpretations — not necessarily a record, but something, towards raising awareness and generating income to try and help people out there on the ground who are trying to fight this thing.
Could the artifice and escapism of new wave co-exist with the authenticity and unpretentiousness of country? The answer is probably no. But there was a period in the early 80s when both Britain and America played home to cliques of musicians who labored mightily to fuse both genres. The Americans did it sincerely. The British did it for fashion. But it definitely happened, and here’s some of the best and worst records from this brief era.
“Stranger In The House,” Elvis Costello
Obvious choice. If any one artist spearheaded the growing fascination of new wave fans and performers in country music, it was Elvis Costello. His Almost Blue album was filled with reverential interpretations of classic weepies but his own compositions had a little more life to them.
“Labelled With Love,” Squeeze
This was a one-off dabble in country from Squeeze whose Difford & Tillbrook were, at that moment, at the peak of their songwriting powers. “Labelled With Love” starts off sounding a wee bit condescending, like it’s teetering on the verge of being a parody, but it doesn’t take long before it’s melancholy become contagious.
“Duck For The Oyster,” Malcolm McLaren
From the fantastically chaotic Duck Rock album, a classic example of early eighties culture plunder. Some of the components that went into assembling Buffalo Gals showed up here.
“John Wayne Is Big Leggy,” Haysi Fantayzee
And this is what Duck Rock wrought: two consumptive-looking London scenesters done up like Dickensian ragamuffins do-si-do’ing their way through an anti-American square dance.
“Ring Of Fire,” Blondie
This is terrible. I think I’v demonstrated my love for Blondie lo these many mixtapes but they could not be any less into this version taken from the Meat Loaf movie Roadie, which along with Americathon and Tapeheads is one of these new wave comedies I never got around to watching
“Pioneer Girl,” Yip Yip Coyote
Classic British bandwagon-jumping garbage from a band thrown together in a matter of weeks to exploit a scene that only existed in a few London clubs. The posh-voiced singer was never heard of again but the guitarist went on to be a multimillionaire co-writing much of Adele’s first album.
“Get Your Feet Out Of My Shoes,” Boot Hill Foot Tappers
Another band that got on TV, in the music press and earned a record deal after approximately seven seconds of existence. Weirdly, they sound more contemporary now in a mumbling busker way than they did in their heyday.
“Seven Year Ache,” Rosanne Cash
So here’s an actual country singer, Johnny Cash’s daughter no less, with a song that probably wasn’t intended as new wave country but I’m going to insist is a shining example. listen o those mournful synths— unless they’re actually steel guitars, in which case don’t— listen to the tempo, listen to the bitter lyrics. look, I don’t know whether this actually qualifies as new wave country or not but it’s one of my all-time favorite records.
“Wildwood Saloon,” Rachel Sweet
From another of my all-time favorite records, Rachel Sweet’s Fool Around album, the-then 16 year-old Akron singer who found herself signed to Stiff, belted her way through an incredibly,almost suicidally, eclectic bunch of songs. This is her hard-drinking ballad.
“Anywhere With You,” Rubber Rodeo
This is DEFINITELY new wave country. That’s how this Boston band even billed themselves
“Promise Your Heart To Me,” Blood On The Saddle
Probably more cowpunk than new wave but this LA band were better than the Boot Hill Foot Tappers—high praise, I know— and their singer seemed like a delight.
“Ways To Be Wicked,” Lone Justice
The most legendary and best-reviewed of any band who found themselves under the new wave country umbrella, Lone Justice also stand as the main reason the genre never produced any stars. They were too country for new wave fans and too mc of a rock band for country fans. If they could get in a time machine and jump forward to right this minute, they’d be enormous.