Do They Know It’s Christmas? 30 Years Later

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When I was a child, there was only a very small selection of Christmas songs that I would actually dread hearing on the radio. Most of those songs, I still dislike to this day. If I flip to a station playing Brenda Lee’s version of Rocking Around The Christmas Tree, the dial is spun faster than she can whine “pumpkin pie.” The same can be said for anything by Mannheim Steamroller. Unless that’s playing with a synchronized lights display, it has little place in my Christmas ears, and even then it’s questionable. Another that annoyed me as a child was Band-Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? Oh, the foolishness of youth.

Now, 30 years after the release of that song, there are few tracks I’d rather hear playing in the time leading up to Saint Nick falling down my chimney. Sure, the last minute and a half is still rather repetitive (that was my original gripe), but it’s repeating something that’s oh-so-beautiful and oh-so-necessary every Christmas.

For some reason Christmas seems to be a time of the year that brings out the most negative parts of even rather positive people. They like to complain about the shopping season starting early, about the snow covering the ground, and most of all, like to complain about the ways that other people try to help them. People will even go as far as to say that the Christmas season stresses them out. If you have a problem with Christmas, you’re doing it wrong. Christmas has now transcended being a simply Christian holiday. Yes, that’s still a part of it, and a very important part for some, but rather than the commercialization being a problem that detracts from the holiday, it’s simply made it accessible to people of all backgrounds, faiths, and outlooks.

Still, it doesn’t mean that Christmas can solve all wounds. That’s what Midge Ure and Bob Geldof knew when they heard about the famine in Ethiopia and knew that December would be the prime time to capitalize on public attention in a way that could actually help those that were so much less fortunate that their lives were in danger.

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The Background

From 1983 to 1985, the worst famine on record hit Ethiopia, leading to more than 400,000 deaths in northern Ethiopia alone. And even more deaths were caused throughout the country by the decades of civil war that were culminating at the time. There was a great drought that led to the shortages in food, but there were also counter-insurgency strategies put in place by the government that ultimately didn’t help the situation.

Things got so desperate that the average price of grain increased 300% between 1981 and 1984 in some parts of the country. People were dying at an alarming rate, but most of the western world didn’t have any idea what was going on. Much of the Ethiopian government’s response was as focused on containing the civil war as it was feeding its citizens, which meant that instead of simply delivering food to the famine-stricken north, villagers were relocated to camps in the south. Instead of sparking food production, all agriculture declined. Things were getting worse and getting worse fast.

The blissful ignorance was about to end for some, as BBC Journalist Michael Buerk documented the famine, bringing video footage of starving children into homes. He called it “a biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “the closest thing to hell on Earth.”

This report was seen by Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, who had become famous in the late ’70s for I Don’t Like Mondays, a catchy tune about the killing spree that happened at Grover Cleveland Elementary in San Diego. The Rats hadn’t done much since that song, and despite having a new album coming out soon, Geldof instantly knew he had to put that promotion on hold and attempt to do something about the crisis in Ethiopia.

Geldof had a talent, songwriting, so he set out to use that talent in a way that could provide relief. He called up Midge Ure of Ultravox, and they set out to make a song that could raise money for the Ethiopians in need. They called up the biggest British and Irish pop stars of the time, and started to write a song.

Considering the BBC report didn’t air until late October, Geldof and Ure knew that they’d have to rush if they were going to get the song onto shelves in time for Christmas. On November 25, they recorded at Sarm West Studios, it was mixed over the next 24 hours, and four days later it was on the shelves.

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The Song

It’s Christmas time
There’s no need to be afraid
At Christmas time
We let in light and we banish shade

That opening stanza was sung by Paul Young, most famous for hits “Love of the Common People” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat.” That section was originally written for David Bowie, but since Bowie wasn’t able to be there for the recording, Young stepped in, having a voice that’s in relatively the same range as Bowie’s. Bowie sang that part at Live Aid.

And in our world of plenty
We can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
At Christmas time

Boy George of Culture Club came in next. George was way late to the recording, showing up about nine hours after he was supposed to. When he got there, he set aside his publicized feud with Simon LeBon of Duran Duran, but continued with his favorite pastime: attempting to get his fellow pop stars out of the closet. One of his favorite targets was none other George Michael, who just happened to follow him on the record.

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmas time it’s hard

Michael, known for both his time with Wham! and his solo work, came in when the music really started to build. His lyrics are also the beginning of the weight of the song. That’s only increased as more lyrics are sung. This is the first time Phil Collins is seen on the video, drumming his brains out, sweater vest and all.

But when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window

LeBon was tasked with the next lyrics, the first ones that really make a reference to a less than pleasant world at Christmas. His nasally twang providing a stark contrast to the pure “singer’s” voice of Michael.

From here on out, most of the lyrics are sung by a few people at once, so the performers I’m noting are the ones who come in on those lines.

And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is

Those lines are where Sting, the biggest superstar of them all, at least at the time, comes in. Sting has been vocal about his support for the song in the time since the release, and has made a point to be part of numerous charity endeavors.

Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet comes in at this point as well. Although he doesn’t have a full solo line, he was the first one to sing the song in the studio, singing it all the way through and stopping after the second take. Considering he was being watched by plenty of the top vocalists of the time, it’s a bold feat go kick things off. He nails it.

The bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that are ringing
Are clanging chimes of doom

This is when Bono joins the fray. He’s paired with a few other singers, providing a quiet addition to the mix. Then, he isn’t quiet anymore.

Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

And there it is. The line that got more praise, more backlash, and more notice than any other.

It’s worth noting that Bono didn’t original want to sing the song. The story goes that he was presented the lyric by Geldof and pushed back against it. They even wrote and recorded another lyric for that spot. But ultimately, they went with this controversial line.

If you Google the phrase, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has said anything in defense of the line. Most people take it as a completely insensitive way of distancing the rich pop stars from the people who are starving in the hell-hole that was Ethiopian famine. And that’s exactly what it is. And that’s the point. It’s a line that illustrates the way that those in the western world would try to distance themselves from the troubles of the third world. It’s a line that shows that even when you want to care, you’ll still be glad it’s someone else who is suffering instead of you. And most of all, it’s a line that has stuck with people to this day.

It’s just about a perfect line.

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time.
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

The song goes on, pulling in the full chorus of some of the most talented singers of the time.

Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmas time
Feed the world
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Here’s to you
raise a glass for everyone
Here’s to them
underneath that burning sun
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
Feed the world
Feed the world
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmas time again

This was actually the first bit recorded. Ure decided that he would get everyone ready for their individual pieces by recording the group bit first. Plus, that guaranteed that if there were any problems during the day, they’d still at least have what everyone did together and could work out from there.


 

When they played it as the finale of Live Aid, Geldof introduced it by saying “If you’re going to cock it up, you may as well do it with two billion people watching.” Then Bowie started singing. If you want to know how it went, just take a look at 1:38 into the video.

Needless to say, they did not cock it up.

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30 Years Later

I was thrilled when I found out about Band Aid 30 reprising the original song with a new cast of singers. While I knew it likely wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable as the original, I’m a big fan of thinking that more of something I like is going to be something I like. (See almost every movie sequel, album re-release, and piece of fan fiction.)

I listened to the song, thought it was fine, and then I was done with it. I thought it was great that Geldof was attempting to reach out with his influence in a way that would help those affected by Ebola, but I wasn’t going to proclaim him a savior by any means. He has a position of power, and he’s using it for good. Great!

Then, suddenly articles start pouring into my feed about how Band Aid 30 is terrible. How it’s hurting views of Africa. How the doctors are the real heroes. How Adele is the real hero for saying no.

I only had one thought: You have got to be kidding me.

I didn’t write this piece because of the complaints about Band Aid. I can assure you, this wasn’t prompted by all the articles lashing out against the efforts. I had been waiting to write this piece for a year, and that’s why I’m publishing it now, the week before Christmas, instead of when the issue was at its hottest point. I wasn’t going to write it as a rebuttal, and I certainly wasn’t going to alter my publishing schedule based on the complaints of a bunch of bitter keyboard clackers. But I do think it’s important to write about what has happened over the last 50-something days.

The sites posting these articles were the same ones proclaiming that various celebrity ice bucket challenges were the “greatest thing ever.” The same sites that love to leap on when someone in the public eye stumbles were salivating over the thought of criticizing Bob Geldof and the rest of Band-Aid 30. And I find it all a bit perplexing.

First, the lyrics. I do see some validity in the complaints that both the original lyrics and the lyrics of the new version don’t portray Africa in the best light. And that the light it is being portrayed in does more harm than good. What’s important to remember is this is a pop song. This isn’t a scholarly paper on the socioeconomic status of Africa. It’s not even a Bob Dylan-esque story song about a man’s struggle to avoid an Ebola camp (though there’s some major potential there, Bob). It’s a song that’s supposed to catchy enough for people to buy. Why? Well, because how many people have donated to fight Ebola? Even donated $1.00? I’d wager it isn’t nearly as many as the people who have bought a song on iTunes before. It may not even be as many as the people who have actually spent money for add-ons in a Facebook game. The song needed to be quick, it needed to be catchy, and it needed to get attention. It accomplished all those things.

To talk about the doctors being the real heroes is just a weak attempt at finding something to criticize. Sure, any medical professionals who travel around the world to fight deadly diseases should be respected for that. They’re using their talents and training to fight the problem in the best way possible. Just as Geldof is. If I was about to go into surgery, I don’t think I’d want the guy from Boomtown Rats holding a scalpel. Just as I likely wouldn’t buy a Christmas single from your average doctor.

The worst are those who want to say that the singers were simply doing this to inflate their own egos instead of just quietly donating. Very few want to criticize Oprah, but her entire public persona is based around giving things to people in far from quiet ways. There weren’t any complaints when Patrick Stewart posted a video of himself signing a check to help fight ALS, in fact, it was written about as a great gesture. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to criticize Oprah or especially Stewart, I’m just saying that the double standard presented against Band Aid’s efforts is ridiculous. One blatantly ignorant and hateful article on Telegraph took it as far as to make personal insults toward those involved.

“It’s not the troops deployed to Sierra Leone who are going to make a real difference – that honour will go to Geldof and his merry army of pop stars, even though they probably think a hazmat suit is a creation by a hot new designer.

Someone out there is at least making an effort to help, which is more than what most can say they’ve done. And that’s fine. Not every charitable cause is worthy of your money. It’s impossible to help everyone who may need it. But to criticize those who are attempting to use their talents in a way that will have an impact is despicable.

As BBC journalist Michael Buerk said at the time, “The overriding desire was that people at the end of the day couldn’t say that they didn’t know.” It was Buerk’s reporting that made the full event possible, so he was obviously successful in his goal.

There have been many cries about unlawful tax policies and the money not going to the right places (including weaponry). Most of that is debunked by Medium in a piece that’s much more eloquent and thoughtful than the majority of rubbish that’s been written since Band Aid 30. I will say that it’s a prime case of the court of public opinion hearing one thing and never moving away from it. It was determined that the complaints against Band Aid should have never been published, because it ultimately turned out they weren’t true. The BBC apologized for publishing what they did and admitted they were wrong.

I’m assuming most of you reading this have in fact used a Band-Aid before. You know that a Band-Aid doesn’t actually do any healing of a cut. All it does is stop the bleeding and keep anything from getting worse until the body can heal itself. There’s a reason Band-Aid was selected as the name of this super group. They were never trying to fix Africa. They were simply trying to help keep things from getting worse. And any money that goes toward that cause is a mission accomplished.

As is said at one point in the documentary about the recording of the song, “All these people need is money. How you get it doesn’t matter… If the way you do it is making a song, dying your hair grey, or wearing a silly shirt, then so be it. It’s not harming anybody.” The original version of the song raised more than $24 million for those in need.

I listened to this song at least a few hundred times over the course of the past year. It still hasn’t gotten old for me. Ure, Geldof, and the rest involved found a way to raise that money and to create a lasting impact in the area. On top of that, they did it by creating one of the catchiest and most star-studded Christmas anthems ever. For that, I’d say that Do They Know It’s Christmas is the most significant song of the 20th century.

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Alex wishes he had the smarts of Will Hunting, the skills of Jason Bourne and the nose of Linus Caldwell. You also might find him sticking his fingers into spiderwebs, just in case one happens to be radioactive.

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