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Sep 09

BAND AID – “Do They Know It’s Christmas”

FT + Popular/104 comments • 8,994 views

#543, 15th December 1984, video

“Do They Know It’s Christmas” is significant in one way, and insignificant in another. First, it raised a lot of awareness and money and established the pop single as an excellent mechanism for doing those things. This was significant. Gargantuan “supergroups” like this fell out of favour but charity records will be a constant from here on.

This isn’t an unalloyed good, and not just because most of the records are atrocious: private charity can generally do very little about the root and structural causes of bad situations, and Band Aid’s chosen name is a dark pun. Band Aid – and subsequently Live Aid – provided a readymade narrative of success: a way to give the famine story a happy ending. The Ethiopian famine set the tone for media coverage of Africa as a failed continent: a basket case constantly requiring the help of Western governments and citizens.

But it would be absurd to have expected Geldof and Ure to be able to change this, and wrong to have preferred that they did nothing. They did their best, it was a very good best, and there are individuals alive now who would not be if it wasn’t for this single, which isn’t something I can say with confidence of “Mouldy Old Dough”. However, feeding the world is well outside what I’d generally expect pop to do – so this whole introductory hand-wring is a way of saying that I’ll be listening to charity records as records, not as charities.

And as a record, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has stuck it out better than I thought it would, mostly because it’s become a record about Christmas, not a record about tragedy. As a record about tragedy it’s notoriously heavy handed, but heavy-handedness is exactly what Christmas hits thrive on. It starts with a lift from Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” and then gets jauntier and jauntier until by the end it’s positively festive. Because I’m lucky enough to enjoy Christmas, and because this record came out when I was small and enjoyed it even more, the main feeling I get from “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is one of immense well-being and the sense that all is right in the world.

The cognitive dissonance works because it’s what the song’s very clearly about: “Here’s to you – raise a glass to everyone! Here’s to them – UNDERNEATH THE BURNING SUN!” (a line that always makes me imagine the song as a comic strip). So the more “Christmas” turns into a drunken singalong, the more we giggle at the scratched-up, awkward greetings on the 12″, the more we bellow out That Line, the guiltier we then feel, and the more we give. Well, that’s the theory. Since the recording session turned into a massive party when Francis Rossi got his bag of coke out, it’s fair to say that the song’s immense capability for inappropriate bonhomie has been coded in from the start.

The main contemporary criticism of Band Aid – voiced by Chumbawamba, but also by every playground cynic – is that the stars involved were doing it for the sake of their careers. This is surely completely true, but that’s how celebrity charity operates. It’s also worth pointing out that from this perspective the Band Aid single didn’t actually work: it’s not just Marilyn whose career headed dumperwards. This is where “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is insignificant: it felt and looked like the sealing of pop’s new establishment, when in fact it was their peak. The bands split, faded, took ill-advised sabbaticals, leaving U2 and George Michael the great survivors. Within only a couple of years the British pop landscape would look very different.

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Comments

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  1. 76
    CarsmileSteve on 9 Sep 2009 #

    oh, this just occured to me, the reason DTKIC was so thrilling to me as a ten year old comic reader was OMG, TEAM-UP!!!! if duran duran and wham! and all the other people were individually great then SURELY all of them together must be ZAWESOME…

  2. 77
    Tom on 9 Sep 2009 #

    Did you ever read HEROES AGAINST HUNGER Steve?

  3. 78
    thefatgit on 8 Oct 2009 #

    I’m not sure if it has been mentioned on threads of xmas #1′s previously, but I thought I might mention that 1984 was the year that The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty chart.

    I only mention it as I feel more inclined to discuss that particular single than DTKIC. Ho hum.

  4. 79
    CarsmileSteve on 14 Oct 2009 #

    The year-end polls of the time tend to get a mention in the poll posts at the end of each year, if you see what i mean, eg: http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2009/09/popular-84/ for this one (although it was only about this point that the festive 50 became “the last year only” rather than all music ever, isn’t it?)

  5. 80
    Tom on 14 Oct 2009 #

    It was 82 I think – he did an “all time” one which was the then-cemented pop canon, and a “this year” one which had Shipbuilding at the top IIRC (obviously I wasn’t listening at the time, I was more concerned with Doomlord.)

  6. 81
    Glue Factory on 14 Oct 2009 #

    “Is it worth it?/A new winter coat and energiser ring for the wife”

  7. 82
    mike on 18 Dec 2009 #

    Just popped in to say that a remix of my comment at #73 is in today’s Guardian Film & Music.

  8. 83
    Tom on 18 Dec 2009 #

    The whole of today’s Film and Music is well worth a look for the Popular fan, since there’s also Bob Stanley discussing all the 00s #1s, Jude Rogers on the RATM/X-Factor thing, and comments box reg’lar The Lex reviewing the Electrik Red album. Good times!

  9. 84
    mike on 18 Dec 2009 #

    And according to the Jude Rogers column, you’ll be taking up a more regular residence in Guardian Film & Music in the New Year, Tom? This is good to hear.

  10. 85
    Tom on 18 Dec 2009 #

    Yup, fortnightly column – I’ll hype it more when it starts, worry not.

  11. 86
    Billy Smart on 2 Feb 2010 #

    Re 54: Oh wow, here it is! (sadly copyright restrictions mean that we can see, but can’t hear, parts 2 & 3);

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42qMebiJCCE

  12. 87
    Brooksie on 5 Mar 2010 #

    @ CarsmileSteve # 76: I was a comic fan too, and I had the same mentality when it came to a team-up; ‘Spiderman and Daredevil’? Twice the value and twice the excitement! That was definitely where my head was at when Band Aid came out… every pop star on earth has combined forces to make a Christmas record?!!! MEGA!!!!

    I forgive the song all its faults because of how fast it was made. When that is taken into account I just think what they produced was something akin to magical.

    I don’t subscribe to the theory that people were trying to boost their careers at all. Nobody knew this would be the biggest single ever, or that it would spawn the Live Aid concert and ‘We Are the World’ or any of that. In fact, people didn’t even know whether it would be a good song. Geldof just tried to rope them in and they either said yes or no. It’s worth pointing out that half the people who walked into that studio were bigger than both Geldof and Ure; Paul Young, Duran, Sting, Phil Collins, Boy George, George Michael – do we really believe any of these people needed (or thought they needed) a career boost? Yes, some of them were reaching a peak that would slide a year or so later, but they didn’t know that. It would be fair to say that the record wouldn’t have been half the hit it was without those big artists, and it would also be fair to say that not one of those artists owes their career or their fame in any way to this record. The record needed them – not the other way round.

  13. 88
    Paytes on 12 Oct 2010 #

    Anyone know if there has ever been a decent book written about New Pop?

  14. 89
    Billy Smart on 12 Oct 2010 #

    ‘Like Punk Never Happened’ by Dave Rimmer, and the second half of Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up & Start Again’.

  15. 90
    punctum on 12 Oct 2010 #

    Rimmer’s is an invaluable historical document but makes the elementary mistake of confusing New Pop with New Romanticism – two connected but very different movements.

    RIU&SA is so thoroughly wrong-headed it makes one wonder whether the author actually listened to any of the music under alleged examination. This is a common factor in his other books.

    Lena and I intend to put this right and write a proper New Pop book; currently in preparation.

  16. 91
    wichita lineman on 12 Oct 2010 #

    DJP I took your recommendation on Like Punk Never Happened and was quite surprised by how literal the title is. Apart from it being so Culture Club heavy (I shoulda guessed from the cover and full title), there is a thread that New Pop is like Old Rock and rather a lot about making money, buying yachts, accruing mansions. That’s not how I remember ABC, for one. I remember them saying their aim was to soundtrack the eighties. A very enjoyable book, but even writing in 1986 I’d have thought Rimmer could have got a clearer, truer perspective than that. Then again, maybe I’m misremembering/misinterpreting the meaning of New Pop.

    Looking forward to yr book. When’s it due? Are Zero doing it?

    My main problem with RIU&SA is that there is no thread at all, no connection of the chapters which all read like stand-alone essays. And it includes 2 Tone, chronologically post punk but the total opposite of Post Punk – sonically backwards-looking at a time when there were so many new vistas opening up.

  17. 92

    I thoroughly recommend Dave Rimmer’s memoir of his life after he left Smash Hits; in Berlin and Eastern Europe before and after the Wall came down: “Once Upon a Time in the East”. It’s a kind of glamour-detox; very funny and rather moving.

    Isn’t part of the argument of Like Punk Never Happened that his perspective (not to mention that of his subjects) is so very sharply delimited by the process they’re caught up in?

  18. 93
    Billy Smart on 12 Oct 2010 #

    Oh, perhaps the best New Pop book, and certainly the most fun, is ‘The Best of Smash Hits’ edited by one Neil Tennant in 1985.

  19. 94
    Tom on 12 Oct 2010 #

    Morley’s Ask: The Chatter Of Pop would be another necessary volume on the New Pop bookshelf.

  20. 95
    wichita lineman on 12 Oct 2010 #

    Re 92: I think I know what you mean. It’s very well written; I suppose I was disappointed that it didn’t give me an idea of why New Pop happened or what it was supposed to do.

    Previously recommended by Punctum, Ask by Paul Morley has some entertaining and revealing interviews with Boy George, Marilyn and Adam Ant, plus a frank and miserable one with Phil Collins (a good refresher course, just in case you were starting to think, as I was, he might be a little misunderstood).

  21. 96
    flahr on 12 Oct 2010 #

    “My main problem with RIU&SA is that there is no thread at all, no connection of the chapters which all read like stand-alone essays.”

    !!this was exactly my problem with it too – especially since I read it straight after “The Last Party”, which has a proper narrative to it [perhaps too much of a narrative, but we will come to this in time]

  22. 97
    punctum on 12 Oct 2010 #

    I do feel bad about slagging off RIU&SA since I am quoted in the book and thanked in SR’s acknowledgements but my main beef (and it’s been a sufficiently big beef that SR and I haven’t spoken in five years) is SR’s habitual Achilles heel of forming the theory first (and arguably, throughout all his writing from Monitor onwards, I’d say it’s been the one unchanging theory) and fitting the music into it second; if it doesn’t fit, then it’s a craven failure/a sell-out/not valid. Also, as WL says, the various pieces in this book don’t form themselves into a complete picture; all we really get is SR bought lots of new records until 1983 when he got bored and bought lots of old records instead and what happened and why (but where does SR himself come into all this? Apart from the introduction, scarcely at all) and New Pop was all down to Thatcherism but actually Britain was in a bad state the unions had too much power and we needed Thatcher oh dear. Factually it’s misleading and in places downright ill-informed and my concern is due to lack of competition it’s going to end up the set text for this period in music – in my opinion, it deserves far better and Lena and I are going to do our best to make sure it gets far better. First step will be to adopt a considerably lighter approach. Not necessarily thinking of Zero Books (need colour, pictures!) but who knows?

  23. 98
    Paytes on 12 Oct 2010 #

    Thanks all for the suggestions – and look forward to reading the book, Marcello!

  24. 99

    [...] So how do you write a good festive protest song? Well, there’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which isn’t a world away from No Christmas in Kentucky in terms of emotional blackmail and grim melodrama, only with the leavening presence of ramshackle pop-star bonhomie and actual bells, but that’s a fundraising tool before it’s a pop song. (Tom Ewing discusses the song with customary insight here.) [...]

  25. 100

    [...] Ewing and his followers’ comments on his Popular entry for “Do They Know It’s Christmas” address Live Aid as the last and biggest hurrah [...]

  26. 101
    Web Development on 31 Jul 2012 #

    Admire the information published.its really informative and innovative keep us posted with new updates. it was really valuable

  27. 102
    maqbool mirza on 3 May 2013 #

    This site is excellent and so is how the subject matter was explained. I also like some of the comments too. Waiting for the next post.

  28. 103
    enitharmon on 10 Nov 2014 #

    We’re going to get a 30th anniversary version then. Yawn! Can’t somebody come up with something original?

  29. 104
    James BC on 11 Nov 2014 #

    Do They Know It’s 2014

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