Sep 09

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

FT + Popular/119 comments • 13,225 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.



1 2 3 4 All
  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 94
    Tom on 12 Oct 2010 #

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

  5. 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).

  6. 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]

  7. 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?

  8. 98
    Paytes on 12 Oct 2010 #

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

  9. 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.) […]

  10. 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 […]

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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?

  14. 104
    James BC on 11 Nov 2014 #

    Do They Know It’s 2014

  15. 105
    Erithian on 25 Nov 2014 #

    Kudos to James Masterton for pointing out that Band Aid 30 (and it’s a long way away so never mind the bunny) is the first Christmas song to reach number one in November since Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child” in 1957.

  16. 106
    Erithian on 30 Nov 2014 #

    – and now the first Christmas song to be knocked off number one before we even got to December!

  17. 107
    Lazarus on 30 Nov 2014 #

    What ever happened to ‘God Only Knows?’ Been and gone, or release held back? I just had a look at the new chart, can’t say I know many of the titles although I dare say some would be familiar if I heard them. Shocked at the longevity of several hits though. I see Mariah Carey and the Pogues w/ Kirsty McColl have spent 81 and 78 weeks on the chart respectively!

  18. 108
    Lazarus on 30 Nov 2014 #

    ‘God Only Knows’ 20 – 38 – gone by November

  19. 109
    Mark G on 30 Nov 2014 #

    So what became of Punctum & Lena’s book? I’d say that the time was right for it now!

  20. 110
    punctum on 1 Dec 2014 #

    Everybody thinks TPL ought to be published in book form apart from publishers.

  21. 111
    Mark G on 1 Dec 2014 #

    Yes, but I was meaning the “Post-Punk” book mentioned in #90 and #97

  22. 112
    punctum on 1 Dec 2014 #

    Four years is a long time in pop.

  23. 113
    hectorthebat on 20 Dec 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    CMT (USA) – Impact: Songs That Changed the World (2002)
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 83
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 10
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  24. 114
    mapman132 on 21 Dec 2014 #

    Looks like the right time of year to comment on this. As noted by previous commenters, this reached #13 in the US. That may not sound very impressive but the structure of the Hot 100 back in those days made it nearly impossible for seasonal songs to gain much traction on the chart, so getting that high was actually quite extraordinary at the time. I’m surprised by the American commenters who say they haven’t heard the song as to me it’s become a regular part of the Christmas song pantheon – I heard just today in the supermarket in fact (and yes, it was the original, not the still bunnied version). I have to say my cynicism over the song has waxed and waned over the years – with three official remakes and counting, I’m waiting for a bunch of African musicians to record an answer song “Yes, We Know It’s Christmas Time (Now Shut The **** Up).” It’s almost a ritual looking for a cause at this point, although perhaps not as blatant as the godawful “We Are The World 25” in 2010. Anyhow because it’s Christmas and because its original intent was (probably) good, I won’t subtract a point for every misguided remake since, and agree with Tom’s original 6/10.

  25. 115
    hardtogethits on 11 Dec 2017 #

    Charities, asking for money at this time of year, honestly! Do they know it’s Christmas?

  26. 116
    Kahless on 18 Aug 2018 #

    I know I’m late to this; but I wanted to add that I was the child of an American Airman living in England when this single debuted. Obviously; then & now, I gathered what it was about. All these years later however, it has become the prime nostalgia generator for my first Christmas in the U.K. What a great time to have been living in England (ducking from the tomatoes sure to be thrown my way by some English natives who don’t look back so fondly on the early 80s!) all the best!

  27. 117

    […] and looked like the sealing of pop’s new establishment, when in fact it was their peak,” Ewing writes. “The bands split, faded, took ill-advised sabbaticals, leaving U2 and George Michael the […]

  28. 118
    Walter Scott on 22 Sep 2019 #

    This maybe isn’t the right place to ask (haha) but seeing as it was mentioned (albeit almost a decade ago!) I was wondering if anyone here has a PDF of Morley’s Ask. It’s out of print and is currently going for about fifty quid on Amazon, which isn’t money I’ve currently got to spend on a book.

    Thanks to any sympathetic readers!

  29. 119
    Kinitawowi on 1 Jan 2021 #

    And the number 2 is now officially bunnied.

    I wonder if, when Popular gets that far, there’ll be a discussion about why certain Christmas songs seem to endure and some don’t…

1 2 3 4 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)

If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page