Why Band Aid Gave US The Greatest Ever - And Worst - Christmas Song
“It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid…”
You now the rest.
If, like me, you hit your teens in the 1980s, chances are Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” is your favourite holiday song.
You can keep your Slade, Maria Carey, Bing Crosby and David Bowie, Shakin’ Stevens and even John Lennon. And you can certainly keep your Chris Rea.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas” is more than just a Christmas song. Indeed more than just a song, even for the millions of music fans who don’t celebrate the Yuletide.
It’s an anthem, a call to arms, one that’s quite impossible not sing along to. And then there was that video.
Pretend you’re Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, Sting and of course, Bono for those solo bits, and scream your head off for the goose-bump-inducing finale of “feed the world”.
It is, for so many reasons, the greatest Christmas song of all.
And a big part of that, apart from its maddeningly catchy melodies, lies in the way it was dropped on the public.
Here’s the back story. Bob Geldof, erstwhile lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, is horrified by a television report on the famine in Ethiopia. He decides to do something about it, writing, alongside Midge Ure of Ultavox, the lyrics and music that would make up “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, and calling on all his friends in the music industry to record it on November 25, 1984.
On December 3, the charity single is released along with a memorable publicity shot of some of British pop music’s biggest names. The legend of Band Aid was born.
It’s hard to underplay the impact it had on mid-80s pop culture.
For a generation it was their first experience of something resembling activism through music, something their parents would have grown up with in the 1960s. It felt good to be involved, albeit somewhat remotely, in the same way that people today share, retweet or like posts in the belief they are making a difference. Except those who donated to Band Aid actually made a difference, however small.
It was played round the clock, and you just couldn’t help singing along. A great tune for a great cause. At Christmas. You couldn’t ask for more.
But there was one small problem. "Do They Know It’s Christmas" is also, in a way, a terrible song.
It is schizophrenic, at once catchy and uplifting, while at the same time tackling a tragic subject with all the breeziness of an office party, and, far more seriously, in a stereotypically racial manner. The two are not easily reconciled.
From its first chiming bars, it has become one of the most recognisable songs of all time. But the lyrics, once you get beyond that harmless first verse, are mostly awful.
“Bitter sting of tears” is synchronised, unnecessarily, to Sting singing the line. Just in case we've forgotten his name.
“And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom” is banal, pompous nonsense.
“The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life,” is steeped in saviour complex.
The song’s biggest crime, however, is reserved for its most famous line.
“Well tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you,” Bono belted out before he became the world’s most famous preacher.
Lyrically, it’s a poorly-constructed line; well-meaning without question, but recklessly leaving enough ambiguity to be taken in bad taste.
Band Aid’s noble origins, after the initial period of sustained interest, produced other similarly themed songs and campaigns with diminishing returns, and charity fatigue, over the next three decades.
America’s response was USA for Africa’s “We Are The World”, a thoroughly cringeworthy effort that, all the same, also raised awareness and million of dollars.
“We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving” sang Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and, curiously, Bob Dylan, among others, with the faux earnestness that only blissfully unaware pop stars can enact.
Band Aid also spawned Live Aid. July 13, 1985 saw the staging of twin concerts at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, with all the proceeds going to African famine relief.
Everybody wanted a bit of the action and the result was a mixture of sublime and comical.
Some careers, like U2’s, where launched into the stratosphere. Some, like Queen’s, were revived, and others, like Duran Duran’s, came to a halt.
Phil Collins performed at Wembley before boarding a Concord flight to the US to perform in Philadelphia.
And Paul McCartney’s mic failed as he sang “Let It Be”, only to be saved by a backing quartet of Geldof, David Bowie, Alison Moyet and Pete Townshend.
Live Aid is also responsible for the monstrosity that is David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s cover of “Dancing in the Street”, a song brutally satirised on Family Guy.
“This happened, and we all let it happen,” Peter Griffin says looking into the camera after a full screening of the song.
But at the end of it all, it was left to “Do They Know It’s Christmas” to crown a momentous day.
And who couldn’t get a lump in the throat at Geldof’s endearingly euphoric, exhausted reaction? To Bono improvising “let them know that springtime is coming”? To McCartney singing along to the chorus of “feed the world” like a delirious child, along with the 72,000 people?
Despite three increasingly risible re-issues - in 1989, 2004 and 2014 - and its dated, un-PC lyrics, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” has stood the test of time, never losing the power to make you want to sing your heart out.
Cynicism has no chance against this song.
It is inevitable that in the coming days, you will hear it at least once. And when it comes on, well, you’ll know what to do.
Altogether now, “feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time….”.