Band Aid was a trendsetting charity supergroup, which created the idea of getting superstar musicians together for a one-off recording to raise funds for a charitable cause. Its first incarnation came in 1984, with the hit song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” making this Spotlight perfectly timed for the season. The song’s proceeds went to Ethiopian Famine relief efforts .
The song was the brainchild of Boomtown Rats front man Bob Geldof and Ultravox’s Midge Ure. Geldof had seen BBC reports on the famine in late October, and after running into Ure at the studio, the pair decided to record a charity single. Geldof claims that he first called Sting, then Simon Le Bon, then ran into Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet outside an antique store, and before you know it, Britain’s biggest stars were clamoring to do it as well, for free.
Do what, exactly? No song had been written, and by this time it was November, with plans for a Christmas release. Ure and Geldof banged out the melody and its treacly lyrics, then Ure recorded the backing tracks at his home studio. He used a sample of Tears for Fears’ “The Hurting” for the drum intro and laid down the guide vocal himself. Le Bon and Sting also came early to record their parts.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood producer Trevor Horn donated the use of his studio for 24 hours, and Geldof built up excitement for the record by letting the Daily Mirror get exclusive access to the all-star session, which sounds like it was chaotic. You’ve got Ure and Geldof yelling, divas like Bono and George Michael trying to out-croon each other, uninvited guests, hungover rock stars who couldn’t hit their notes but did bring cocaine, Boy George arriving ten hours late, and Phil Collins sitting quietly throughout the entire session, waiting for the singers to be done so he could record his drum solo. Also, ’80s mullets everywhere.
The song was a smash: it raised $24 million, got tons of radio and MTV airplay, and topped the charts for weeks. Geldof likely enjoyed the fact that after he publicly called out Margaret Thatcher, the British government relented and waived the VAT (i.e., sales tax) on the record. The indefatigable rock star also harangued the BBC into starting Top of the Pops five minutes early that week, in order for the single to be aired without violating the program’s rule that it only features charting records (there was a gap of a few days between the song’s release and its appearance on the weekly sales charts).
I know what you’re thinking: this song kind of sucks. And you’re not alone. NMEgave it a negative review, while a handful of other artists spoke up that both the song and the concept were dumb and/or patronizing. Morrissey called Band Aid “diabolical,” Geldof “nauseating,” and the song itself “absolutely tuneless.” It also inspired Chumbawumba’s 1986 album, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, though it’s not like I’m turning to Chumbawumba for guidance in my life. And by the way, Morrissey, this record literally saved thousands of lives, so maybe stop being a dick, at least temporarily?
Anyway, if you’re old enough, you know what came next. Band Aid’s success led directly to its U.S. counterpart, USA for Africa, which produced We Are the World, a celebrity supergroup charity album spearheaded by Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Quincy Jones. The recording and promotion of the album (which featured the titular single and nine “donated” tracks by participating artists) followed a similar path as “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and was recorded just two months after. As a youngster alive in America at the time, I can confirm that “We Are The World” was ubiquitous for weeks after its release.
But back to Band Aid. They had a hit song in 1984. Why not do the exact same thing in 1989?
I have to be honest, with the exception of Kylie Minogue, I did not recognize any of those people. Even after reading the personnel credits from Wikipedia, the only additional artist I can identify is Bananarama — and former boy band star Luke Goss on the drums, now best known for playing Nomak in Blade II and Prince Nuada in Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
So … guess what happened in 2004? You got it: Band Aid 20. This time, the money raised was going to relief efforts in Darfur. Once again, it was the UK’s top single of the year. Sorry, no YouTube exists of the full song; click on over to long-forgotten alternate video hosting service DailyMotion for your fix.
Yes, that’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood playing piano and guitar, along with popsters Snow Patrol, Joss Stone, and the Sugababes, plus mainstays Bono, Phil Collins, Brian May, and Sir Paul McCartney. Dizzee Rascal raps for some reason, totally not tokenism though. Apparently, Justin Hawkins of The Darkness laid down a version of Bono’s line from previous recordings of the song, but Bono overruled him for the final cut.
Each successive version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been better produced than the last, making it an interesting case study on the improvements in recording studio technology. Of course, with more production sheen comes the loss of gritty authenticity, or whatever you want to call it, and the song appears more and more like a vanity project wherein millionaires congratulate themselves after asking regular people to pony up for charity.
You run into this opinion about celebrity activism all the time, particularly from your uninformed Facebook uncles: “Bono should just give all his money to whatever his latest cause is, instead of getting up in everyone else’s faces about it.” But, you know, Bono does not have literally ninety billion dollars (the total amount of third world debt relief proposed by Jubilee 2000); and social change requires millions of voices behind it, not one dude with a checkbook.
I assume that is why this song had to be covered on Glee. Which it was, in 2011.
GUESS WHAT HAPPENED IN 2014 YOU GUYS
This is getting exhausting! Band Aid 30 lent its financial support to aid organizations helping with the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa at that time. A few lyrics were changed to fit this scenario, including Bono’s exclusive lines, and the video premiered on The X Factor. Several of the artists here, like Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora, One Direction, and Sam Smith, were born after the original recording was released.
Critics and artists were much more willing to disparage “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” this time around. Fuse ODG wrote an op-ed in The Guardian about why he dropped out of the project, saying its depressing lyrics and video imagery paint all of Africa as a place of suffering and disease. Lilly Allen turned down Geldof’s request to participate, stating that she prefers “donating actual money.” Emeli Sandé said that she and Angelique Kidjo both wrote new, less patronizing lyrics for the song and recorded those at the session, but they were not incorporated into the single.
Not everyone felt this way. Sinéad O’Connor told the Telegraph that artists who participated in the recording but criticized it afterward “should shut the fuck up.” And Geldof got himself kicked off of Sky News for telling an interviewer that criticisms of Band Aid and the song were a “complete load of bollocks” (this is a bad word in England).
Will there be a Band Aid 40 in 2024? I guess that depends on what famine or outbreak is happening at that time, and whether Sir Bob is still alive. I, for one, can’t wait to find out. For real.