|Cover Art from the UK release of the Band Aid record.|
On November 25, 1984 a good cross section of the musical glitterati of the U.K. and Ireland assembled to record a song to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief at Sarm West Studios in London. They had assembled on short notice—many said they had been “commanded to attend” by a demanding Bob Geldolf the Irish leader of the Boomtown Rats, who had conceived of the idea and was a co-writer of the song to be recorded. Geldolf’s co-writer, Midge Ure of Ultravox did most of the heavy lifting as producer of the record over an epic 24 hour recording and mixing session while Geldof reportedly mostly got in the way and had to be thrown out of the engineering booth for interfering.
Four days later, on November 29, a single of Do They Know it’s Christmas was rushed into the stores and instantly became a phenomena—shooting to #1 on the UK charts and staying there for a record shattering five weeks selling 3.7 million copies in Britain an 11.8 million copies worldwide in five years.
In late October the BBC had aired a stark documentary on the immense suffering caused by a multi-year drought and civil war in Ethiopia. Geldolf was horrified. He came up with the idea of an all-star band performing on a benefit record. He contacted Ure and within a few days the pair had written the song—Geldolf being largely responsible for the lyrics and Ure the music. The Geldof began calling the stars of the British/Irish music scene cajoling, begging, even threatening—“Do you want me to tell the press that you wouldn’t do it?” to get commitments to appear.
In early November he used an appearance with Richard Skinner on BBC Radio 1, originally planned to unveil a new Boomtown Rats LP, to publicly announce the project. The immediate press ballyhoo helped convince more artists to sign on to the project. In the end, a quite impressive roster was assembled for the band Geldolf dubbed Band Aid.
There were some notable missing stars. Paul McCartney was on board, but the other surviving Beatles were not—supposedly out of fear that if they were invited a frenzy for a Beatles “reunion” would overshadow the other artists and the project. Only Roger Daltry was on hand from The Who. No Rolling Stones were involved and neither were Elton John and Cliff Richards. Also notable for their absences and uninvited were top female performers like Dusty Springfield or Annie Lennox of Eurhythmics and Black stars other than American Jody Watley. The rest of the women were part of the Irish band Bananarama.
Studio owner, Trevor Horn was originally set to produce but had other commitments and was unable to be there. Somewhat reluctantly Geldof agreed to allow Ure to handle the recording and mixes. Horn did latter produce an extended 12 inch version of the song with spoken word greetings from many of the artists over a Feed the World groove on the B side. Despite tensions between the two creative forces behind the event, Ure proved to be a brilliant choice.
Ure and Geldof arrived at the studio at 6 am. They brought with them two vocal tracks by Sting of The Police and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran which were intended to be guides for the other singers. Ure also had a background track including percussion from a drum machine he had already recorded at his home studio. Pre-mixing and editing continued until 9 am when the other artists began to arrive at the studio, pushing through throngs of paparazzi and media swarming outside.
On hand early were Geldof’s band mates, and members of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Kool and the Gang including Kool himself, Bananarama, and Heaven 17. Culture Club, probably the hottest British act that year, were out in force—without Boy George, who was in New York and had overslept and missed his flight. A furious Geldof called him, reamed him out and got him to jump on the Concorde. He arrived late in the day but in time to lay down his solo track—and take verbal pot shots at Le Bon, who he despised.
Only one of Ure’s bandmates could be there, but Sting was on hand, Bono and a backing member of U2, Paul Young, Paul Weller of Style Council, Marilyn, and others. Phil Collins of Genesis showed up a bit later with his whole enormous drum kit, and his work was stripped in over a now subdued drum machine track. Some canned African drumming was also used in the introduction.
After getting everyone together to listen to the background track and samples, they were all herded together to record the refrain, “'Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time” over and over. Select media were invited to video and photo shoot this part of the session, and before the day’s work was done snips were being shown on the BBC and across the puddle in the US whipping up interest in the project.
Then Ure began recording each of the solo tracks. Each of the designated singers would run through the entire song, sometimes multiple times as Ure scribbled notes on how snippets would be used in the final version. No one wanted to be first in the booth in front of so many of their peers. Finally Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet agreed to be the first.
For Ure, it had to be something of a grueling assembly line and it did not go flawlessly. Geldof kept coming into the production booth and trying to tell the singers what to do and how to sing, usually not as Ure envisioned it. Some of the artists were not quite up to snuff, but nothing a deft producer couldn’t mask in the mix. Until Rick Parfitt of Status Quo couldn’t hit key harmonies assigned to him with band mate Francis Rossi. Eventually Sting, Weller, and Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 sang the critical harmonies. Le Bon asked to re-record his previously laid down track, saying that he was inspired and wanted to “be in the moment.” Neither Geldof nor Ure sang a solo, although both were in the group chorus.
Although Parfitt flunked out of the recording booth, he did bring along a huge bag of cocaine, which he generously shared—hey, it was the ‘80’s, what did you expect? There was also plenty of wine and other spirits and god-only-knows what other drugs of choice. As Uri sweated in the booth a major party broke out in the studio.
Boy George, in a bit of a snit, finally arrived early in the evening and laid down the final solo track. The artists began drifting away, some carrying on the party in London hotel rooms. Ure, with Geldof anxiously over his shoulder, began the complex job of editing and mixing. They worked through the night, finishing up almost exactly 24 hours after they had arrived in the studio. They both recorded spoken word greetings which were used along with words from artists who could not perform live including McCartney, David Bowie, members of Big Country and Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood which producer Horn layered over the Feed the World riff for the B side of the 12 inch version of record.
If Ure’s work was largely done, Geldof’s was just beginning. Over the next three days he proved himself both relentless and a man not to be crossed. When record label lawyers objected to the use of their talent and certain managers demanded star billing for their clients, he rolled right over them with threats of public shaming. Some of the lawyers might have wanted to continue the battle knowing that they could easily win, but executives quickly saw a looming public relations disaster and quietly caved.
Geldof went on the BBC and announced that every penny spent on buying the record would go directly to famine relief. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not amused. The Foreign Office fretted that money raised from the record would outstrip government contributions to Ethiopian relief—as indeed it easily did—making them look bad. And Thatcher herself was no fan of “scruffy musicians” even if pop music was one of Britain’s biggest export industries and especially of all of the Irish musicians involved who she suspected were IRA sympathizers. The government rushed out a statement that it would impose and collect the customary Value Added Tax on all sales which was invisibly imbedded in the cover price despite Geldof’s promise. Geldof took to the airways with furious denunciations. After a day or two the government announced that while the tax would remain in place, it would donate all proceeds back to the famine relief charity. Geldof became one of the few to ever get the Iron Lady to blink in a public confrontation.
Geldof got BBC 1 to break tradition and feature an as yet unreleased single on it programing. Station management ordered it be played at least once an hour, far exceeding the seven or eight plays a day usual for the biggest hits. DJs began picking the recording apart in a game to try and identify each of the soloists. The TV show Tops of the Pops featured it as the opening of every show past the first of the New Year with a special introduction by Bowie and on a Christmas special invited many of the soloists to come into the studio to be shot lip-syncing their parts to the record.
The record was rushed from the pressers and into the stores by November 29, although December 3 would be the official release date. It was #1 on the British charts before a single copy had been shipped. Sale far outstripped Geldof’s original hopes of maybe £70,000. Millions flowed in from just the UK and Ireland by the first of the year.
Across the pond, Americans were introduced to it by relentless play of the video on MTV, then at the height of its cultural influence. It easily shot up to the top in actual sales, but the elaborate formula of the Billboard Charts also factored in radio play and the single only reached to #3 by that measure. Still, enormously popular.
During the run at the top of the British charts, Wham! had a hit, Last Christmas which stayed at #2. George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley donated their royalties to Band Aid.
The record was re-released the following Christmas and hit #1 again. It has since been released almost annually and remains a seasonal evergreen. New versions mixing some of the original artists with newcomers were recorded in 1989 by Band Aid II and in 2004 by Band Aid 20.
Based on the enormous popularity of the record, Geldof went on to create and produce the epic Live Aid concerts broadcast world-wide from Wembley Stadium in the UK and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. It would raise an additional £150 million over time from contributions during the live shows and sales of videos, books, and related material.
As a result of the record and the concert, Geldof, but not the hard working Ure, was knighted. He subsequently spent most of his time on famine relief and other charity projects and was accused by some of developing a messiah complex. The example was not lost on U2’s Bono who was involved in the record early in the band’s career. He likewise became a high profile international charity powerhouse and has been accused of a similar ego.
One of the longest lasting effects of the record and concert were the imitators they inspired. The following year Michael Jackson would team with Quincy Jones to produce an American all-star charity record, We Are the World. Participants in that record climaxed the American portion of the Live Aid concert with a performance, just as many of the British performers did with Do They Know it’s Christmas at Wembley. Since then other super sessions have been arranged to raise money for many causes including for the families of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina victims.
The concert would inspire Willie Nelson, John Melencamp, and Neil Young to begin their annual Farm Aid concerts in Champaign, Illinois in September 1985. Those concerts continue to raise money for farmers beset by foreclosures, drought, flood, and other disasters.
Despite all of the success of the record in raising money, there has been criticism. Much of it directed at Geldof, who walked away with most of the credit for the joint effort and whose ego never recovered. Irish singer Morrissey who boycotted the recording summed up this attitude bluntly, “I’m not afraid to say that I think Band Aid was diabolical. Or to say that I think Bob Geldof is a nauseating character. Many people find that very unsettling, but I’ll say it as loud as anyone wants me to. In the first instance the record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of Great Britain. It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. And it wasn’t done shyly it was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.”
Other criticism is that some of the relief funds may have wound up in the hands of the main insurgent army in the Ethiopian civil war, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to buy arms—which Geldof furiously denies. But given the chaotic nature of getting relief to the needy in the midst of a civil war, it is not unlikely that despite the best efforts of Aid groups on the ground managing relief some funds got diverted to arms.
Many on the political left have been critical calling the record a simple feel-good sop that doesn’t get to the roots of poverty in global income inequality and post-colonial domination by multi-national corporations.
Finally, sub-Saharan Africans have become increasingly vocal in complaining that the original record marginalizes, victimizes, and misrepresents their lives. Of course millions of African know its Christmas and celebrate it. Others are Muslin or animist. There are plenty of rivers and rain in much of the continent, and places where food crops are plentiful and abundant.
Despite it all, Do They Know it’s Christmas remains a beloved milestone record for many. And it is not going away anytime soon. You can hear it right along with such perennials as White Christmas and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer on those 24 hour a day Holiday Music Stations right now.