Feed the World :: VOTD (The Holiday Edition)

Do They Know Its Christmas? :: Band Aid

Do They Know It’s Christmas? is a song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in 1984 to raise money for relief of the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia. The original version was produced by Midge Ure and released by Band Aid on November 29th, 1984.

In October 1984, a BBC report by Michael Buerk was aired in the UK, which highlighted the famine that had hit the people of Ethiopia. Irish singer Bob Geldof saw the report and wanted to raise money. He called Midge Ure from Ultravox and together they quickly co-wrote the song, Do They Know It’s Christmas?.

Geldof kept a November appointment with BBC Radio 1 DJ Richard Skinner to appear on his show, but instead of discussing his new album (the original reason for his booking), he used his airtime to publicise the idea for the charity single, so by the time the musicians were recruited there was intense media interest in the subject. Geldof put together a group called Band Aid, consisting of leading British and Irish musicians who were among the most popular of the era. On November 25th, in 1984, the song was recorded at Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill, London, and was released four days later.

The 1984 original became the biggest selling single in UK Singles Chart history, selling a million copies in the first week alone. It stayed at # 1 for 5 weeks, becoming Christmas # 1, and has sold 3.7 million copies domestically. It remained the highest selling single in UK chart history until 1997, when Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997 was released in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, which sold almost 5 million copies in Britain. Worldwide, the single had sold 11.8 million copies by 1989.

Following the release of Do They Know It’s Christmas? in December 1984 and record sales in aid of famine relief, Geldof then set his sights on staging a huge concert, 1985’s Live Aid, to raise further funds.

Bob Geldof approached Trevor Horn to produce the song, but he was unavailable (he later produced and performed on the 12″ version). Instead, Horn offered the use of his studio in London, Sarm West Studios, free of charge to the project for 24 hours. Geldof accepted and assigned Ure as producer instead. 

Geldof and Ure arrived first at dawn so that Ure could put the recorded backing tracks (created at his home studio), into the system at Sarm until he found out he got sick. Ure also had vocals for the song recorded by Sting and Simon Le Bon which he had acquired from the artists in advance in order to provide a guide for the other vocalists.

The world’s media were in attendance as artists began arriving, starting at 9 am. Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Paul Young, Culture Club (without Boy George, initially), George Michael of Wham!,Kool and the Gang, Sting of The Police, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2, Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 (whom Ure personally ordered down) and his bandmate Martyn Ware, Phil Collins of Genesis,Paul Weller of The Style Council, Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, Jody Watley of Shalamar, Bananarama, Marilyn (who was not invited but arrived anyway) and some of Geldof’s bandmates from the Boomtown Rats all arrived. Only one of Ure’s Ultravox colleagues, Chris Cross, attended. Geldof, noticing Boy George’s absence (despite phoning him in New York the day before, demanding he sing on the record), called the Culture Club frontman again to get him out of bed and onto a Concorde transatlantic flight.

Ure played the backing track and guide vocals to the artists together then decided, as a way of getting all involved straightaway, to record the climax first, which also allowed the ‘team shot’ of the day to be photographed. The artists were put in a huge group and sang the ‘Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time‘ refrain over and over again until it was completed.

Then Ure sought a volunteer to be first into the studio to sing the main body of the song. Eventually Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet did so, with plenty of rival artists watching him, and sang the song straight through. The other assigned singers then did likewise, with Ure taping their efforts and then making notes on which segments would be cut into the final recording. Le Bon, despite having already recorded his part at Ure’s house, re-recorded it so he could be part of the moment. Sting also recorded his words again, this time to provide harmony.

Phil Collins arrived with his entire drum kit and waited until Ure was ready to record him over an electronic drum track that had already been put in place. The song ended up as a mixture of Collins’ drums and an African rhythm that opens the song, taken from a sample of The Hurting by Tears for Fears.

Ure stated in his autobiography that he was constantly battling with Geldof, the song’s lyricist but not renowned for his melody skills, and telling him to leave when he would come into the production booth and wrongly tell the artist behind the microphone what to sing. Ure also had to shelve an attempt by the two members of Status Quo to record the “here’s to you” harmonies because Parfitt could not hit the note. Rossi afterwards told Ure that Parfitt never sang in the studio, only onstage, and he should have kept him away from the microphone. This section was eventually taken on by Weller, Sting and Gregory. However, Quo were able to contribute in other ways, according to the journalist Robin Eggar:

Once Status Quo produced their bag of cocaine and the booze started to flow – I brought six bottles of wine from my flat, which disappeared in a minute – it became a party.”

Boy George arrived at 6:00 PM and went immediately into the recording booth to deliver his lines. He was rather vocal in his dislike of fellow singer George Michael, some of which is caught on video during the filming of the Band Aid collaboration. While recording harmonies, Boy George openly confused Michael’s recorded vocals with the voice of “Alf” (British singer-songwriter Alison Moyet, who did not participate in the charity single). When the engineer correctly identified the voice as that of Michael, Boy George replied “God, he sounded camp. But then he is.”

Once Boy George had finished his tracks, Ure had all the vocals he needed and, as the artists began to party and then drifted away, began working on the mix. A B-side, featuring messages from artists who had and hadn’t made the recording (including David Bowie, Paul McCartney, the members of Big Country and Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood) was also recorded over the same backing track. Trevor Horn put this together in his own studio.

Despite being singers themselves, neither Geldof nor Ure had a solo line on the song, though both took part in the ‘feed the world‘ finale.

Ure worked on the mix through the night and finally completed the task at 8:00 AM on Monday morning. Before departing Sarm, Geldof recorded a statement, which was added as part of a song on the B-side of the 12-inch vinyl record called, “Feed The World“. Geldof’s spoken-word statement read:

This record was recorded on the 25th of November 1984. It’s now 8 AM in the morning of the 26th. We’ve been here 24 hours and I think it’s time we went home. So from me – Bob Geldof, and Midge, we’d say, ‘Good morning to you all, and a million thanks to everyone on the record. Have a lovely Christmas. Bye.‘”.

Additionally, David Bowie recorded a similar statement which also appeared on the B-side song:

This is David Bowie. It’s Christmas 1984, and there are more starving folk on our planet than ever before. Please give a thought for them this season, and do whatever you can – however small – to help them live. Have a peaceful New Year.”

Finally, Midge Ure – arguably the “heavy lifter” of the overall project, albeit away from the spotlight – recorded his statement as such:

Hello this is Midge Ure from Ultravox. I forgot there were so many bloody groups here today. Ah, just have a good Christmas, and ah, enjoy yourself.”

In addition to Gelfof’s, Bowie’s and Ure’s spoken-word statements, several other artists contributed spoken-word statements, generally giving thanks, citing the famine, offering well-wishes for the Christmas season, and acknowledging the efforts of all involved – which essentially comprised the entire B-side song, “Feed The World“, which was only available on the 12-inch vinyl version of the record.

The song was quickly dispatched to the pressing plants who had promised to have the single pressed and ready by Tuesday. A spell of publicity and final legal details followed, then it hit the shops on Thursday November 29th in a sleeve designed by Peter Blake. It went straight to # 1.

Editor’s Note: I can still vividly recall standing in line to buy a stack of the 45″ of this song. I was 15 years old, standing with a few of my friends, excited for the release of a song that not only addressed the first other world tragedy that I was of age to know and be passionate about, but it was also a collaboration between all my favorite bands and artists. I was shaking in excitement. I bought up as many as I could, giving them as my holiday card that year, and I played it over and over and over again. I would later buy a copy of the 12″, along with a VHS tape of the making of Band Aid that I wish I still had. 

The song still gets to me emotionally, especially the line that Bono sings “Well tonight thank God its them, instead of you.” That lyric sends chills up and down my spine, and brings tears to my eyes, every single time. 

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