Sep 09

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

FT + Popular/120 comments • 13,677 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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  1. 31
    Dan R on 4 Sep 2009 #

    A chastened and apologetic Marcello? How do we know it’s really him?

    *Reads essay-length comments* It’s him lads!

  2. 32
    LondonLee on 4 Sep 2009 #

    I didn’t buy this but I bought ‘Soul Deep’ and ‘Strike!’ by The Enemy Within.

    I’m wondering in what order Bob and Midge called the various pop stars to get them to participate and if there was ever a sense of “well, Sting and LeBon and Boy George are doing it so I’d better be there too..” behind some of the decisions.

  3. 33
    MBI on 4 Sep 2009 #

    I heard somewhere that Bono himself, despite the gusto with which he sings The Line, was himself a little disquieted by the lyric and took it up with Geldof himself, asking if that was REALLY how the song should go. Geldof response was yes, that’s EXACTLY how it’s supposed to go, “think about it,” and Bono was all like, yeah, I did think about it, that’s why I’m talking to you right now. I like to think this anecdote isn’t made up.

  4. 34
    Billy Smart on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Altogether now – #2 Watch: Five weeks for ‘Last Christmas/ Everything She Wants’ by Wham!

    A lot to say about those two fantastic songs.

  5. 35
    punctum on 4 Sep 2009 #

    “Strike!” by the Enemy Within – great record! Adrian Sherwood, Keith LeBlanc and Arthur Scargill in unlikely dub-hop conference – and KLB also pulled off the unlikely feat of making Malcolm X a chart artist (well, the record got to #64) with his “No Sell Out” cut-up from earlier in ’84.

  6. 36
    johnny on 4 Sep 2009 #

    i definitely have a soft spot for this song. as a four-year old with a 10-year old sister, this was a Major Event in my household. it’s become one of those songs where you feel that the holiday season isn’t quite complete until you’ve heard it at least once (just the once being preferable, of course).

    still, one of my pet peeves is faux-‘dramatic’ contrasts in art, and unfortunately it is the key device used throughout this song. it’s easy and it’s lazy. how dare we celebrate anything while someone somewhere is having a hard go of it? several of the participants here learned a lesson in the importance of the guilt-trip in Pop, and would use it to great effect in the coming years (Phil Collins and Bono, I am looking at you).

    after all, here we sit typing away, happily poking fun at “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, while people in other parts of the world are suffering. may i propose a charidee single featuring the Popular regulars, to be recording and filmed at the upcoming get-together? make sure to reserve the line you’d like to sing by initialing the sign-up sheet (i’m taking “it’s good to be Popular/but better to be free”).

  7. 37
    misschillydisco on 4 Sep 2009 #

    #34 billy, i can’t listen to last christmas without thinking of ‘reunited’ by peaches and herb.

    as for band aid – like pete (way above), after this i too thought pop can do ANYTHING.

  8. 38
    koganbot on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Hi Marcello. Also nice to see you over on Yet Another Year In Pop. I barely pop in here myself, not knowing most of the music and often not having the time to listen.

    Other business:

    Had no clue about this “Marilyn” so I went a googling.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 13,400 for marilyn “do they know it’s christmas”. (0.24 seconds)

    First hit: BAND AID – “Do They Know It’s Christmas” | FreakyTrigger

    Also, here’s Nick Tosches’ “The Heartbeats Never Did Benefits,” which offended me when I first read it in Fusion back at the time of the Concert For Bangladesh, and I suspect it still would but also know that some of its attitudes (in that piece and many others) seeped into me and became mine. Won’t have time to reread this morning, but looking briefly at the start, Tosches is no better than some of you guys at knowing which religion is associated with which country, though Tosches could well be deliberately making the “mistake,” as he is with the Krishnas, all part of his takedown of piety. (By the way, the first musical group ever to be associated with “punk” is, indeed, the Heartbeats, Tosches being the one to make the association, the piece being “The Punk Muse” in summer of 1970, iirc, “muse” being as important to Tosches as “punk,” the punks being the ones envisioning the muse.)

  9. 39

    we should totally do a charity single! kat can play bass and pete can play drums! i will write the words! *grips pencil, tongue in corner of mouth: the clanging chimes of glee*

  10. 40
    Tom on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Blimey, ringing out the old, ringing in the – er – also old.

    (Meaning longevity of commenting, naturally ;))

    Goodbye Rosie – really enjoyed your comments here, hope you’ll pop in sometimes, and not just on Popular.

    Marcello – apology fully accepted. I was in a very odd place personally at the time too, so we’ll say no more about it.

    #39 – who’s got a recording studio handy then?

  11. 41
    Pete Baran on 4 Sep 2009 #

    I can play drums but by guitar skillz are better. And I do have a recording studio handy too.

  12. 42
    Tom on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Poor Marilyn has become almost ungoogleable.

  13. 43
    lonepilgrim on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Great to see you back Marcello – and I for one recommend your blog which has been a revelation – John Wesley Harding got to number 1?

  14. 44
    punctum on 4 Sep 2009 #

    I really liked “Calling Your Name” – very smart New Pop take on Northern Soul, one of Langer/Winstanley’s best productions.

    For those curious to investigate further, his solitary album has recently been reissued on CD by Cherry Red.

  15. 45
    koganbot on 4 Sep 2009 #

    OK, I couldn’t stop myself from reading the Tosches (though by the way I’ve never heard “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which tells you something about my priorities). Here’s Tosches, with a line that I did remember more or less correctly over 38 years:

    The Harptones never played any benefits for anybody. But they benefited more people than George Harrison ever will.

    Then he goes on, ever more problematically:

    I mean really benefited people, not in the monetary or philosophical sense, but in an immediate gut-level, affective sense.

    Seems to me that in getting food into people’s guts (as opposed to failing to get food into people’s guts) Harrison may actually be benefiting quite a lot of people in a gut-level affective sense. Tosches’ argument is basically that affiliating rock with this sort of socio-humanitarian Meaningfulness is bad for the music and bad for its audience; even if this is true (and you should definitely read the article, though the change in meaning, from small m to big M, that Tosches decries was a fait accompli, benefit concerts or no benefit concerts)… even if this is true, so what? That’s not whom George was trying to benefit. Not that there can’t be arguments about such benefits not benefiting those they intend to and about benefits perpetuating bad systems etc. But Tosches isn’t making those arguments, or anyway is only hinting at them.

  16. 46
    Tom on 4 Sep 2009 #

    One of the things we’ll explore later (or we could explore it now, but there’s records which fit better later) is the idea that charity records are DELIBERATELY bad. There’s a tension between “hurrah I get to party with my pop pals and people benefit” and “this is serious and should not be fun too”.

  17. 47
    Rory on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Blimey, pop out for lunch and follow it with a meeting and in the meantime a dozen encyclopedias get posted, including the return of DJ Punctum and the departure of Rosie (a tip of the hat from the still-relatively-new bug to you both).

    There was more I was going to say, but a lot of it has already been said, so there remains only my personal response to this single. Nearly 25 years ago I held that picture sleeve in my hands (yes, lonepilgrim @25, it was the original), forked over A$2.99 (if I remember the 1984 price of 7″ singles correctly) and took it home to wrap up and give to my brother for Christmas. For me, it represented a passing of the torch: he was the one interested in pop singles now, and he was the one excited to hear a full-throated Simon Le Bon jockeying for space with the two Georges. The only bits that held my attention were Bono’s contribution and the greeting on the b-side from Stuart Adamson of Big Country, which along with U2 was now one of my favourite bands. It also helped that I was quite partial to the sound of bells.

    I strongly remember the air of spontaneity surrounding the single at the time, that “Instant Karma” aspect noted by Marcello, which made buying it feel like a spontaneous act too, even if it was no more so than most of my single purchases. I’m still prepared to forgive the lyrics and music their infelicities for being such a rush job, but actually, I don’t feel there’s that much to forgive; this stands up as far more listenable than… certain songs to come… and as charity songs go, is only rivalled for me by 1985’s “Sun City” (which came nowhere near bothering our spoiler bunny). Those first ten seconds and the “Feed the World” finale still get me, whether they’re accompanied by the video or not. (I’d forgotten that the video cut to Sting for the “bitter sting of tears” line. Ha! You guys.)

    I can’t remember which came first, my awareness as a teenager of the Ethiopian famine or my awareness of this song, but it doesn’t really matter: Geldof raised awareness of the wider issues among my generation even if he didn’t create it, and gave us something to focus on other than nuclear brinkmanship and our own personal dramas. All credit to him for giving it a go without over-obsessing about the potential ramifications.

    I agree that this isn’t a song that can be considered in isolation; it isn’t even a song that can be considered only alongside its video. It has to be considered in relation to its moment, to the much bigger moment it led to six months later (and no, I don’t mean its sister single), and to the attitudes and lives that were changed along the way. Did all of those changes stick? Undoubtedly not, but that’s no reason to downplay the effort.

    Perfect? Of course not; I still don’t like half the singers on it, and that synth sound in the middle still sounds thin and weedy. I’m not even sure I’d call it “superb” or “excellent”; if I were considering it just as a song, I might give it 6 or 7. But “The sort of singles that justify the existence of pop music by themselves. Impossible to imagine ever not enjoying it. Difficult to imagine anyone else not enjoying it.”? For very different reasons than “I Feel Love”, “Heart of Glass” and “Stand and Deliver”: yes, yes and yes. 10.

  18. 48
    anto on 4 Sep 2009 #

    ok time for me to admit I have something in common with Peaches Geldof.
    We have Fathers who share the same alma mater – Blackrock College South Dublin don’t ya know?
    Anyone who has read Geldof Seniors autobiography “Is That It?” (worth a look as it’s far better than anything he’s ever put on a disc bless him) will know young Bob even as a teenager no shrinking violet had many a run-in with the Masters at the strictly authoritarian and devoutly Catholic Blackrock and even long after the Boomtown Rats became famous the gangly vocalist was considered an embarressment to his former school.
    Attitudes changed because his charity work and my Dad recalls going to a re-union at Blackrock in about 1985/86 as he walked in he was faced with a poster of the Band Aid organiser with wording along the lines of


    Well it’s one way to impress your Teachers.

  19. 49
    Jonathan Bogart (but as they say logged out innit) on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Like Frank, I am a poor benighted American and have never heard this song. (I’ve barely heard its American counterpart; as a vice-president who will not go away long enough for us to miss him said of Vietnam, I had other priorities in the 80s.) (Like motor skills, feeding, and learning to read.)

    But I wanted to pop in and recognize both Rosie and Marcello, both of whom made Popular fascinating reading for me when I first discovered it two years ago. Sorry that it seems we have to lose one to gain the other, but I hold out hope that Rosie’s hints of something more will bear fruit.

  20. 50
    intothefireuk on 4 Sep 2009 #

    A day is long time in pop(ular). Nice to see Punctum back in the house – fully recommend his albums blog as a companion piece to this (kind of).

    So, Band Aid. I bought it of course – I felt I had to. I was, like so many, caught up in the moment. It did, after all feature quite a few of the artists whose work I had bought into over the last few years. I was,at the time, a little disappointed that Bowie wasn’t able to make a contribution to the A side – I think he was supposed to sing the opening line instead of Young – but thankfully that passed. A lot of what I have to say about this has already been said and probably more succinctly than I could. The intention behind the project far outweighs the recorded results. The record itself doesn’t entirely hang together despite reasonable contributions from all involved. The verses are ok but the middle 8 and the final refrain are pretty ham-fisted and grate somewhat. It certainly didn’t fit with my idea of a Christmas single and I still wince when I chance upon it on a Christmas Compilation.

    Personally I like to believe that none of the artists involved thought that it would enhance their respective careers – I always got the feeling that their participation was well intentioned even if there was an air of competitiveness in their presence – they couldn’t possibly know what the future held (other than perhaps a one hit wonder due to their fame and the projects charitable aspirations). Live Aid, however, was a different matter.

  21. 51
    tonya on 4 Sep 2009 #

    I think this went to #13 in the US, and it was a huge deal to MTV in America. Far from the end-of-rivalry-we’re-all-friends some commenters are mentioning, my memory of the making-of video is how bitchy the stars all seemed to each other. Maybe that was just Boy George.

    I don’t know where these other American commenters who claim to have never heard this reside, I still hear it every Christmas in grocery stores and the like. I went to an emo label showcase last December which ended with all the bands onstage playing this, and everyone in the audience singing along.

  22. 52
    swanstep on 4 Sep 2009 #

    I thought the first few bars recycled (+Bells) the opening of Ure’s cover of ‘No regrets’ (not ‘Vienna’ let alone Joy Div.)… moreover it’s fairly easy to bust out into ‘Do they know…’ at any point though No regrets, e.g., ‘No turning back, do they know it’s la la la…’

    Like the end bit (like everyone else)…Appreciate the hortatory ‘Feed the world’ and much prefer it to the self-regarding ‘We are the…’ note of…argh narf bunnies. It was the climax of the year’s didacticism (Relax, Choose life, Hide yourself, Stop making sense, Tag that body for identification purposes…), and it was all a bit much, but in something like xmas tradition, the end bit saves it.

    7 for the sing along. 3 for everything before that except 10 for Geldof getting Bono to do the wicked global reductio of how many religious folk actually do think: ‘Thank you god for not killing us with that tornado and instead using it to kill all of our neighbors.’ (Watch CNN during tornado season and you get versions of this every day from multiple hayseeds!)

  23. 53
    MBI on 4 Sep 2009 #

    Yeah, seriously, I hear this song every year in the winter months, and I’m certainly an American. The song I don’t hear very often is “We Are the World.” (Thank God.)

  24. 54
    Billy Smart on 4 Sep 2009 #

    #28. My version of the Oakey reasoning comes from an NME interview (I think) around the time of ‘Human’ a couple of years after the event, so I can see how he might have changed the story by then.

    December 1984 is also the time of the transmission of the sacred text of inter-band pop star tribal rivalry, of course – the Spandau Ballet vs Duran Duran Pop Quiz Xmas Special!

  25. 55
    Billy Smart on 4 Sep 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Band Aid performed ‘Do They Know Its Christmas once on Top of the Pops.

    25 December 1984. Also in the studio were; Frankie Goes To Hollywood (performing all three of their hits), Howard Jones, Duran Duran, Nik Kershaw, Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Jim Diamond and Paul Young. “The Appearing Artists” were the hosts. IIRC this all-star spectacular was broadcast live, with Wham! due to appear but held up in traffic, and it was, alongside ‘Doctor Who – The Caves of Androzani’ that March, just about the most exciting thing that I’d ever seen on television.


    Note not just the notorious substitution of Weller for Bono, but the inclusion of Black Lace amongst this line up of the greatest British pop luminaries of the day…

  26. 56
    TomLane on 5 Sep 2009 #

    Tonya: this did go to #13 in the States, and like you I hear it every year on any station that plays Christmas music. At the time of its release this got as much video play as airplay in the U.S. As a Christmas chestnut maybe it’s not “White Christmas”, but there’s no doubt that it feels like a Christmas song. I’ll give it an 8 for Christmas nostalgia, and will say that the lyrics aren’t any worse than the ones on “We Are The World”.

  27. 57
    Kat but logged out innit on 5 Sep 2009 #

    #39 – actually I’ve already appeared on a recording of this song, that GK did as part of Kooba Radio’s Broadband Aid in someone’s house in Catford a couple of years ago. Lord knows what happened to that. Anyone who has heard me sing at karaoke can guess what sort of vocal performance I put in.

    As for Band Aid itself, I’ll have to wait till the next time round to comment – I was just too young to remember the original and my memories are all mixed up as to who was in what version etc.

  28. 58
    Mark M on 5 Sep 2009 #

    Re 38: Frank, the link to the Tosches piece isn’t working, at least for me.

    I’ve got to say that I’ve always enjoyed multi-artist videos, the simple pleasures of the “look it’s so and so” aspect, and this was a significant chunk of the Smash Hits stickers album come to life, although sadly Band Aid, unlike the Smash Hits stickers album, did not include The Fall.

  29. 59
    peter goodlaws on 5 Sep 2009 #

    Rosie, thanks for the memories. Hope you, like me, will pop back every so often too. I have been recovering my steps back in 1970 and when I finally reach the point I originally came in (Spring 1972), I hope to find time to fill some spaces back in the sixties too. Meanwhile “Peter Goodlaws” (ang: “Waldo’s Protege”, as if you didn’t know) is also shoving off at this time. Like Rosie I shall soon be faced with records I have no remembrance of. Looking down the list, there are one or two in 1987 which are simply references in a book to me and nothing else. The “Curse of Baby Jump” gets us all in the end.

    Marcello – Very pleased that you are back. You fled the scene just as Waldo was saying goodbye in a less dramatic fashion. I hope that you will do your own “Time’s Arrow” and double back now. You are a mighty wordsmith, my friend. Sorry about “Marshmallow Hamilton”.

    Interesting that Conrad at # 19 responded to Rosie’s (Enithmarmon’s) departure by paying tribute to Erithian! I know both these folk personally now and I suspect that our Kentish Manc friend will be wetting himself.

    Hope to turn up at one of the Popular nights out sometime.

  30. 60
    enitharmon on 5 Sep 2009 #

    Indeed – I am Rosie from Barrow and not Ian from Erith (actually I believed for a long time that Erithian was Ian from Erith but I understand that is not ion fact the case. Humble apologies, Erithian!)

    I still have some tidying up to do in Popular as I go over the old ground where my comments were lost in the great Haloscan bubble, so I’ll be mooching around the stacks for a while yet. Meanwhile, look out for a great new FreakyTrigger occasional series, coming soon from a long cul-de-sac a considerable distance from you. And one day I hope to join Populistas in the pub way down in the grimy South ;)

    Oh, by the way Peter/Waldo, there are things in the bunny’s gander-bag that are very familiar to me, but that I never knew were number one singles!

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