This is a charity single organized by Bob Geldof, who was the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats. He got the idea after watching a BBC documentary on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof wrote the lyrics and Midge Ure from the band Ultravox wrote the music and produced the track, which was no easy task since so many voices were involved.
In the UK, and much of the Northern Hemisphere, snow and numerous displays leave no doubt that Christmas is near. In most of Africa, however, it's quite warm on December 25, since it's summer there. This song asks us to think of those who are living in poverty and hunger in Africa during the Christmas season, reminding us that they might not even know it's Christmas. While the sentiment and melody are full of good tidings, the lyrics are quite bleak: "The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom."
Most of this song was recorded and mixed over a 24-hour period on Sunday, November 25, 1984, at Sarm West Studios in London. Sting and Simon LeBon had recorded their parts ahead of time, but everyone else came that day.
None of the vocalists heard the song before they arrived, so they learned their parts by listening to a guide vocal producer Midge Ure created, then recorded them. With such a tight schedule, there was no time to quibble. In the Songfacts interview with Ure
, he said that this time constraint helped the effort. "Sometimes, that kind of pressure gets you to create something magical, gets you to eliminate the liberations that you end up having in the studio," he said. "We just had to nail it and get on with it. Get the vocal track from everyone that was acceptable. As it turns out, a lot of the vocal tracks were exceptional."
The performers who sang verses were, in order: Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, and Bono. The chorus included David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Geldof, Ure and many other artists who weren't given a verse but sang the "Feed The World" part and lent their images to the effort by appearing in the promotional photo. Check out the Band Aid photo with list of performers
The artists were not all friends, but they set aside their differences and were at least cordial to each other during the recording - with one exception. In the book I Want My MTV
, George Michael said: "The only person who didn't succumb to the charitable nature of the day was Paul Weller, who decided to have a go at me in front of everybody. I said, 'Don't be a wanker all your life. Have a day off.'"
In the UK, this became the best-selling single of all-time, selling over 3.8 million. Elton John's "Candle In The Wind '97
," which was also a charity single (benefiting the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund) later claimed that title, with sales of over 4.9 million.
Not everyone in the UK was a fan of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Morrissey told Time Out
in 1985 that the project was "diabolical," adding: "It was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music."
This was the first of the big group charity songs. A year later, US artists banded together under the banner USA For Africa to release "We Are The World
," which also directed aid to Africa. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was the template for that effort; Geldof showed up to the session at the urging of the song's producer, Quincy Jones, and addressed the performers, telling them to get ready for "the world's biggest concert," which ended up being Live Aid
USA For Africa had much more star power than Band Aid, with the hottest stars (Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper) joining a collection of legends (Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross). Geldof also sang on the chorus, making him the only non-American to sing on the track, which was recorded the night of the American Music Awards.
Soon, more charity singles followed, including "Sun City
" and "That's What Friends Are For
." Geldof's innovation was getting famous artists together to record an original song for charity; to this point, benefit concerts were the only way to do it on a grand scale, and those could be extremely difficult to organize, especially on short notice.
This song was conceived, recorded and released very quickly. The BBC news report the prompted Geldof to action aired October 23, 1984. Most of the song was recorded on November 25, and it was released in the UK on December 3, then in America on December 10. It had to be done very quickly to be ready for Christmas.
The single raised $14 million for famine relief in Africa. Geldof is Irish, so he cannot be knighted, but he did receive a KBE, which is equivalent and is popularly known as Sir or Saint Bob.
Flo - London, England
The video was directed by Nigel Dick, who had done some videos for The Boomtown Rats. He got the request to make the video on short notice, and had no idea what the song was going to be. He didn't have a budget either, so he simply set up two cameras - one outside and one inside - to capture the action. As the artists trickled in to record their parts, Dick filmed them entering the building and then recording. This footage was used not just for the music video, but also for a 30-minute behind-the-scenes piece documenting the making of the single. This video was also sold, with proceeds going to the relief effort.
In our 2015 talk with Midge Ure, he said: "It's never been a great song. It's kind of grown into a better song than it ever was. But as a recording, as a production, I'm immensely proud of it. So is Bob. Because it did its job phenomenally.
As a record, you hear it now on the radio and the opening clang, the opening atmospherics, my multi-tracked vocal thing, all of that stuff, it still sends shivers up your spine. So as a record, as a production, it did a brilliant job despite the fact that the song was OK."
Who gave the most inspired vocal performance on this song? To Midge Ure's ears, it was Bono. He told Songfacts: "When Bono took that line of the song - 'Tonight thank God it's them instead of you' - I had originally sung it on the guide vocal an octave lower, and he just decided to let it rip, and it was phenomenal. Electric. It was just sensational."
Boy George was nearly a no-show, asleep in New York the day of recording. His band Culture Club was huge at the time and Bob Geldof was counting on him for a key vocal, so Geldof called him, woke him up, and told him to get on a Concorde. George flew to London, got behind the microphone and delivered the vocal they were looking for.
Trevor Horn, who was a member of the Buggles and Yes, donated the use of his studio (Sarm Studios in London) to record the song. He also pieced together the B-side of the single, which is an instrumental version with the artists delivering messages over the music. It is called "Feed The World" on the single.
Bob Geldof wrote the original pre-chorus line as "There won't be snow in Ethiopia this Christmas." Midge Ure convinced him to swap "Ethiopia" for "Africa."
"No matter how you try, you cannot scan 'Ethiopia,'" Ure told us. "That just does not work."
John Taylor from Duran Duran played bass; Phil Collins played drums. The rest of the instrumentation was done by Midge Ure, who handed the programming and keyboards.
Two versions of the single were released. The 7-inch, which is what radio stations usually play, runs 3:55. The 12-inch runs 6:18 and features spoken messages from some of the performers. The 7-inch single was re-released the next year, raising more money for famine relief in Africa.
Downloading didn't exist in 1984, so obtaining the rights needed to sell downloads of this song proved very difficult, and for many years it wasn't available on iTunes or Amazon except in knockoff versions.
When Geldof wrote the basic part of this song, he envisioned it as a Boomtown Rats song, but when he played it for his bandmates they turned it down.
The cover of the single was designed by Peter Blake, who is famous for shooting the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Bob Geldof explained in the book I Want My MTV: "To me, the '80s were characterized by overwhelming generosity and kindness. Prior to Live Aid, people had been participating in this phenomenon for months. 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' was sold in butcher shops all during Christmas. For whatever reason, this song - not a particularly good song - tapped into a groundswell of compassion. We never said we'd eliminate world hunger, but we could draw attention to a monstrous human crime, a moral and intellectual absurdity. It worked."
In 1989, a group of artists including Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, and Bros (Featuring Luke Goss on drums) re-recorded this as Band Aid II. The only artists left over from the original Band Aid were Bananarama.
This effort was produced by the team of Stock, Aitken And Waterman and once again raised money for African famine relief.
In 2004, a new version recorded by a group of artists including Bono, Paul McCartney, Chris Martin and Dido was released as a single in the UK, with proceeds going to help victims of political and humanitarian crisis in Sudan. "Band Aid 20," as this collective was known, was produced by Nigel Godrich. Bono is the only artist on this version who was also on the original.
In 2014, a fourth permutation of Band Aid
was assembled to once again record this song. Known as "Band Aid 30," this rendition was produced by Paul Epworth with proceeds going to Ebola relief. Singers included One Direction, Sam Smith, and once again... Bono.
Bob "Humbug" Geldof told Australia's The Daily Telegraph
in a 2010 interview: "I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', the other one is 'We Are The World.' Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every f---ing Christmas."
Geldof added that he gets irritated when carol singers perform the charity hit in front of his home during the holidays. "They think 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' is as old as 'Silent Night
.' Sometimes I think that's wild because I wrote it. Or else I am thinking how much I want them to stop because they are doing it really badly."
After this song generated about £10 million for famine relief, Bob Geldof traveled to Ethiopia to oversee distribution of the aid. He took a very hands-on approach, meeting with relief agencies to determine where the money could do the most good. To acknowledge the artists and the folks who bought the album, he made sure that "Love from Band Aid" was emblazoned on many of the supplies, including vehicles.
Geldof never glorified the relief effort. Asked if he was proud of his work to end hunger in a 1985 Radio Times
interview, Geldof replied: "Not at all, It's exhausting and a total bore if you want to know truth. It's not fulfilling at all. I'm endlessly frustrated."Spin
magazine later reported
that the money Geldof brought to Ethiopia was used by the war-torn country's dictator to arm his forces and crush his enemies. According to the report, the Ethiopian famine was mostly caused by its government, which poisoned farms of its opponents.
A high-profile absence from the Band Aid project was Queen, who weren't invited because they had played South Africa earlier that year, violating a boycott against the apartheid-torn country. Bob Geldof would later forgive them and invite Queen to perform at Live Aid, where their invigorating set was a highlight of the concerts.
George Michael released "Last Christmas
" around the same time. He gave all proceeds from the song to Geldof's relief effort.
Bono enjoyed the song except for the line "Tonight, thank God, it's them instead of you." He recalled in the book U2 by U2: "It's the most biting line, and actually reveals how selfish a mindset we all have underneath. I think Bob was trying to be honest and raw and self-accusatory. Rather than sing, 'We're lucky it's not us' he was saying: 'Well, when you say that, you mean 'lucky it's them.' Now look at it. Now look at yourself.'"
As it turned out, that was the very line Bob Geldof expected Bono to sing. "I told him I didn't want to sing the line. He said, 'This is not about what you want, OK? This is about what these people need.' I was too young to say, 'This is about what you want.' But it was his show and I was happy to be in it. I knew it needed some force, the line. I kind of did an impersonation of Bruce Springsteen, that was really what was in my mind."
In 2003, Deftones lead singer Chino Moreno recorded a rock version of this song with the band Far for the A Santa Cause (It's A Punk Rock Christmas) compilation. The song spread thanks to peer-to-peer networks.
In America, this sold 500,000 copies, far fewer than "We Are The World," which sold 4 million. But, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" gets played every holiday season around the world; "We Are The World" is only played as a novelty.
An all-starrier version of Band Aid sang this to close out the London Live Aid concert
. David Bowie started the song, then passed it to Geldof. The next vocalist was George Michael, and Bono came in to do his line from the original. It was, as Geldof said when introducing the song, a "a bit of a cock up," but the crowd went crazy. There was a bit of a disconnect with a jubilant audience singing along to a Christmas song in July with rather morose lyrics.