When Jonathan and I were making the list of songs to include in Mad World: The Book, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” wasn’t on it. After all, it was a novelty hit (albeit a huge one). But as we progressed with our interviews, we realized how important Band Aid was to new wave. For one, it was a song that brought so many of the pivotal artists in our book together. But it also signaled the end of the era: After Band Aid in 1984, the new wave party quickly came to an end. It only seemed fitting that we include “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as the final chapter.
Then, this past summer, after about book came out, I began working on a piece about Band Aid pegged to its 30th anniversary. Though many of the artists were eager to reminisce about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and proud of all of the good that it’s done, I initially had trouble getting Bob Geldof to talk. Apparently he had had a moratorium on the subject for years. After months of chasing him down through various managers, publicists, and friends, an interview was finally scheduled for late September…although on the morning of our chat, his rep emailed to say he still didn’t want to talk about Band Aid. That afternoon he relented, but when I finally got him on the phone, he let loose a barrage of expletives before allowing himself to recall a few of his favorite memories.
But, as Geldof told me, he never got into music to change the world. Nor did any of the other artists in Band Aid. That’s exactly what happened, though. And whatever one thinks of Geldof and his prickly nature, or the song’s controversial lyrics, or Band Aid II or III or IV, it cannot be disputed that the record altered the course of the 80s musical landscape and, more importantly, it saved lives. When I was in Los Angeles recently, my Uber driver told me that he was a victim of the Ethiopian famine who owes his life to the song.
Below is an “extended mix” of the Band Aid story that was published by Rolling Stone. Happy holidays, and have a peaceful and prosperous new year! —Lori Majewski
By Lori Majewski
Weeks before Thanksgiving, those commercial-free holiday-music marathons are already inescapable. Listen long enough and, along with repeat playings of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” and the bludgeoning of countless classics by Mannheim Steamroller, you’ll eventually be treated to that darkest of year-end chestnuts: Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
“The lyrics are bleak, but essentially so, and a welcome change from the bromides of mistletoe and the saccharine Christmas fare that is usually served up,” says Sting, recalling the charity single he recorded 30 years ago on November 25th as a member of the mostly-British supergroup.
Nearly 40 artists — many of the biggest acts of the early eighties: Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham!, even a then-bubbling-under U2 — converged that day at London’s Sarm Studios in response to a harrowing BBC report on the starving victims of the Ethiopian famine. And every year since, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” reminds us, as we gobble down our holiday dinners, that “there’s a world outside your window/it’s a world of dread and fear,” and, in its bluntest moment: “Tonight thank god it’s them instead of you.”
“It was a song written for a specific purpose: to touch people’s heartstrings and to loosen the purse strings,” says ex-Ultravox singer Midge Ure, the song’s producer and co-writer, along with Band Aid organizer Bob Geldof, frontman for the Boomtown Rats. “[The lyrics] had to be brutal. We were looking at television pictures of children spending five minutes trying to stand up.”
Their initial goal was for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to claim the coveted Christmas number-one spot in the UK and raise about 100,000 British Pounds (approximately $160,000), Ure says — enough to fund a few shipments of food to Ethiopia and hopefully urge world leaders to take action. But the record became bigger than anyone could’ve imagined: According to recent figures from the Band Aid Charitable Trust, it’s made more than $190 million to date.
“Band Aid helped to keep, I would say, millions of people alive — certainly hundreds of thousands,” Geldof says. “It was deeply satisfying, because we [saw] an immediate benefit to a number of people.”
In stores just three days after it was recorded, the song became the fastest-selling single in Britain. A world-wide number one, it spent five consecutive weeks atop the UK singles charts (it got as high as number 13 in the U.S.) and was the country’s biggest-selling record until Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute version of “Candle in the Wind” in 1997.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” also opened the floodgates for myriad rocker-led charitable efforts — most notably USA for Africa’s “We are the World” and the bi-continental mega-concert Live Aid (also a Geldof and Ure production), along with Farm Aid and Hands Across America — consequently turning the Me Decade into the We Decade.
“Band Aid and Live Aid were a great contradiction to what people thought, another side of the decade,” says Boy George. “The eighties were about greed and excess — we were called Thatcher’s Children.”
“We got lumped in with Thatcherism because people thought we were living the high life,” says Simon Le Bon. (Though Duran Duran were the yacht-lounging, supermodel-squiring embodiment of eighties extravagance, he insists they weren’t Tories: “We absolutely hated Thatcher and her policies.”) One reason Le Bon and his contemporaries found Band Aid so attractive, he says, was because it “was this opportunity to do something that wasn’t about ‘me.’ It made you feel you could do something useful. We made young people believe they had some kind of power and were able to do something that did have an effect. Bono and Bob[’s philanthropy and activism], the Red foundation, the whole Drop the Debt campaign — it all started with Band Aid.”
Three decades on, the work of the Band Aid Charitable Trust — still led by Ure and chairman Geldof — is far from over. Thanks to the more than $480,000 in annual licensing fees and royalties from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the trust is able to provide consistent support to aid agencies on the ground in Ethiopia, Niger, and Chad.
“While it was modestly and ironically called a ‘band aid’ designed to react to an emergency, many of its projects were designed to be sustainable, and continue to this day to be useful,” says Sting.
In recent years, the trust has helped to fund “orphanages, medicines, blankets, fields of stuff,” according to Geldof, as well as larger projects, such as a gravity pipeline built by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to supply fresh water to Somali refugees in eastern Ethiopia. Meanwhile, $300,000 gained from the 2011 cast singalong on Fox’s Glee will likely go toward the building of a new school in the country.
Though at least one member of Band Aid is calling for a 2014 update (“Tell Bob we need to do it again,” says JT Taylor, whose Kool and the Gang was the sole American group on the record. “The world is a mess, man”), Ure says he and Geldof are thinking about moving on. “In the not too distant future, we’re going to have to hand this over to someone else,” says the Scot, who was made an officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2005. (Geldof, an Irishman, was granted an honorary knighthood in 1986.) “We’re getting older. We have to think: How do we ensure that it carries on [and that the money is allocated] safely, securely, and with the same kind of passion about it that we have?”
For now, Geldof wouldn’t mind going a holiday season — or 20 — without having to hear the song that made it all possible.
“I associate it with the meat counter at my local supermarket,” he says. “Every time I arrive to buy the fucking turkey, I hear [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’.”
Read on, as Band Aid alumni share stories about “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, what it was like that day in the studio — and why Bono had a problem with the song’s most dramatic, climactic line.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” began life as a rejected Boomtown Rats tune.
Midge Ure: Bob turned up at my place with a guitar that looked as though he’d found it in a dump. It had hardly any strings on it. He started singing me this thing — it was obvious he was making it up as he went along. He sounded like a demented Bob Dylan. There was no melody, no structure, and every time he sang it, it sounded different. He presented me the idea for the lyrics, the “It’s Christmastime, there’s no need to be afraid.” My main contribution was changing “And there won’t be snow in Ethiopia this Christmas,” which doesn’t scan in anybody’s book. We changed that to “Africa,” and we wrote the middle section together: “Here’s to you, raise a glass for everyone,” which is the nod to the irony of [it being a] Christmas record.
Simon Le Bon thought “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was going to be a duet between him and Sting.
Simon Le Bon: I was the first one Bob called. He called out of the blue and said, “Simon, did you see the [BBC report on the Ethiopian famine] last night? We’ve got to do something.” I didn’t see the program. He told me what it was about, and he said, “I have an idea. We should make a charity record. What do you think?” I said, “Yes, mate. Absolutely.” But it wasn’t sold to me as, “This is going to be a whole pile of musical legends”; it was, “You and Sting do it.” I thought I was going to get half the song. I was a bit pissed off, because when I walked into [Sarm Studios] they’re already recording somebody else singing one of my lines! That took a while to sort of get my head around.
Sting didn’t want to sing the lyric, “the bitter sting of tears.”
Bob Geldof: Sting was moaning: “Do I have to sing that?” I said, “Yes, because it’s just a coincidence that the word sting is in it.” If you listen to the song, there’s a deep bitterness in Sting’s voice.
Sting: There’s a touch of irony there. When we had to dole out the lines to everyone else, it wasn’t an accident. I was still the King of Pain after all.
Bono didn’t want to sing his line — “Tonight thank god it’s them instead of you” — either.
Ure: Bono had a problem with it. He said, “Why would you say that?” That can be perceived as a brutal, unfeeling line.
Geldof: He said, “Are you really sure that’s what you want to say?” And I said, “I’m really sure.” I went through it with him rather like a director goes through a line that the actor may not be happy with.
JT Taylor (Kool and the Gang): I hated that line. All these years, I thought I was the only only person who felt that. For me, it was the worst line in the whole song.
Ure: But we’re not saying rather them than us; we’re saying how lucky we are that we don’t have to deal with that kind of extreme poverty. [After] Bob explained, Bono got it, and turned it into this magical moment on the record.
Geldof: He just has a profound rage. If you listen to the way the emotion of the song scales up, that’s the big powerful explosion.That became a phenomenon, which none of us expected.
Ure: I think he probably scared himself when he did it. He jumped way up an octave, and it was just astonishing — the sound that this little guy could radiate! It was like standing next to an opera singer. He did it twice but I think we kept the first [take].
Band Aid taught Bono that rock ’n’ roll can change the world.
Ure: The Band Aid process changed a lot of people; it changed him quite considerably. I saw a U2 concert three, four years ago, and they stopped the concert in the middle and said, “In the audience tonight…” And the spotlight came on me. Bono said, “Him and Bob taught me how to care.”
Geldof: I pulled him into Band Aid. [U2] were young turks on the make; they hadn’t really crested yet. But I thought, He’s got such a voice… And then, Live Aid — they thought they blew it. It actually pushed them over the top. A few years later, he wanted to get involved in a related subject [i.e., the ONE Campaign, which fights extreme poverty and disease in Africa; Bono is a co-founder, Geldof an advisor]. We argue all the time; it’s kind of a good cop/bad cop [friendship]. He wants to give the world a big hug; I want to punch its lights out.
Boy George almost missed the recording session entirely.
Boy George: Culture Club had just done a show at Madison Square Garden, and I was in bed at the Plaza hotel. I got a call at 3 o’clock in the morning from Bob Geldof, whom I’d never met.
Ure: We had to have him. So Bob woke him up in New York. George said, “Who’s there?” Bob said, “Every fucker but you. Get your ass on Concorde.” And he did — at his own expense, I might add.
Boy George: When I arrived, around 8 o’clock in the evening, there was no time to practice or maybe have a go at the song to make sure you’re in the right key. It was literally: “You’re on!” I was thinking, “Oh my God, what’s going to come out of my mouth?”
Ure: He turned up, and he said, “Can someone get me a brandy?” I had to press the intercom button and say, “No! We don’t have anyone here to go running about for you.” We didn’t have mountains of food, we didn’t have champagne, there was no sponsorship going on. It was incredibly basic.
Boy George: I did pretty well, though. I remember Bob saying, “Oh George, you sound like a black lady — like a black mama!” I was like, “That’s what I’m aiming for, so thank you!”
Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet arrived together, and a little worse for wear.
Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet): The night before we were in Germany on the piss with Duran, having a real good drink. By the morning, we were all pretty rough. We didn’t look great. I remember arriving back at Heathrow and someone said, “There’s all the press, there’s cameras out there, there’s about 400 screaming fans.” All of a sudden we’re all in the bathroom trying to make ourselves look presentable — you know, Nick Rhodes putting stacks of makeup on. I think we all put a bit of makeup on that day, actually.
Le Bon: I remember turning up in the car with a hangover. I did everything with a hangover in those days. I don’t think John [Taylor, Duran Duran] had been to sleep at all. But that was John. He just didn’t need much in those days because of chemical sleep.
The session was “like a carnival of celebrities,” according to Boy George.
Boy George: You could not move for famous people. I remember being in this room with a lot of people I hadn’t met before — Bono, Phil Collins — just thinking, “Everyone’s being quite well-behaved. People have really parked their egos for the evening.”
Sting: It was a funny day, like a school reunion for truants. All of us had a lot in common but had rarely been in the same room together. There were no fights as I remember.
Le Bon: That was the first time I met Sting. He was very friendly, apart from when I said, “God, it’s really hot and sweaty in here,” and he told me not to do so many drugs.
Boy George: I had had a feud with Simon Le Bon, a bit of a confrontation in Paris, and we ended up walking into the studio arm in arm for the press.
Nick Rhodes: We were among the first people to say yes, which I am proud of. Because I think it helped to say “I’ve got Duran Duran on board.” It was such a bizarre mix to have us, Spandau [Ballet] and [seventies British rockers] Status Quo. And you had Paul Weller, who I seem to remember arrived by bus.
Le Bon: My God, he was grumpy! Paul Weller wasn’t very friendly. He was very political…and [Duran Duran] as a band had always stayed clear of politics. But [Band Aid] wasn’t about politics, it was about saving lives. People wanted to have an effect, and that really is the line that joins me to Paul Weller. He wanted to help feed some kid in Africa, same as I did.
The “Feed the World” chorus was inspired by Lennon’s “War is Over” refrain.
Ure: There was a moment in the studio when Bob said, “We need something like the John Lennon thing, some anthemic thing we can sing along with.” Between the two of us, we came up with “Feed the world/let them know it’s Christmas time again.”
When Boy George first heard George Michael’s vocals, he thought it was Alison Moyet.
Boy George: I remember hearing the voice after me and saying, “Who’s that? Who’s the girl?” and then being told it was George Michael. I said, “He sounds really camp.” Then I said, “But he is, though, isn’t he?” I was always trying to out George.
George Harrison advised on how to prevent Band Aid from turning into another financially questionable Concert for Bangladesh.
Ure: The Concert [for Bangaldesh]…all of the money didn’t get where it was meant to go. It was spent on overhead and ad men. So [Harrison’s advice to Geldof] was, “Get yourselves good accountants.” We have the same accountants today who [ensure] we don’t spent a penny on anything. We’ve had no office, no secretaries. We begged, borrowed, and stole telephone lines, space, whatever we could. We didn’t spend a penny of Band Aid money on running Band Aid.
The record sleeve was designed by the same artist who did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Ure: It’s a Peter Blake original. Peter Blake is kind of a British Andy Warhol. All those Victorian cut-outs, he pasted the whole thing together. And he did it for free.
Compared to USA For Africa’s meticulously-planned “We are the World,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was like Britain itself: cold, dark, and pessimistic.
Sting: Ours is less slick, less polished and thrown together, with a spontaneous, make-do enthusiasm and passion that translates into heartfelt authenticity.
Rhodes: The British one was very naive, and then suddenly America stormed in with “We are the World.” The title alone says something to you. It was a big, lush production. In many ways, it does define the differences between American music and British music at the time.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” created the mold — and then broke it.
Boy George: If there was an extreme situation like [the famine in] Africa, I can imagine most of today’s artists being drawn into it. Whether it would have the same impact, I don’t know. It’s such a different time now, because we are bombarded with so much information. You tend to get neutralized by all the different tragedies and situations going on in the world.
Le Bon: Yes, it could [happen]. Would it be the same? No. I think a lot of people would [think] “Oh, we need to do this because everybody else is doing it.” We’re going through a time where everybody’s scared of sticking their neck out. Not only do they not have politics in their songs, they don’t really have a lot of anything in their songs.
Taylor: When we were coming up, we had Motown, the Beatles and the Stones, Woodstock, Joe Cocker, and Sly Stone. We had Santana saying, “You can be an artist, and you can speak your voice.” Today, they only sign youths, beautiful-looking young girls, handsome young boys, and their world isn’t so much about the politics of life; it’s about, “Wow, I’m a star now.” It’s refreshing to hear someone singing about doing something other than shaking your ass.