The Original Recipe for "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
One of the driving forces behind the original Band Aid recording looks back 30 years.
THREE decades before One Direction, Ellie Goulding and others added their voices and carefully mussed-up hair to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure (pictured together above) huddled in a London apartment to figure out what a couple of rock stars could do to help starving Ethiopians. Their directive was far-fetched. First, pen a song about the difficulties of life during an African drought. Then, gather famous British and Irish bands (plus four Americans, as it turned out) to sing on the charity record. Lastly, make sure it was a number-one hit.
Mr Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, had rung Mr Ure, lead singer of Ultravox, in October 1984 after watching a BBC report about refugees scourged by hunger. Mr Ure found himself wondering how to write a four-minute song that could encapsulate both a danceable call to action and the horrors of an epic famine. But he returned home after the meeting and began to arrange the structure of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. He incorporated a sample of a Tears for Fears song into the intro and crafted the song’s signature melody—a synthesised riff derived from a simple C major scale—on a toy keyboard in his kitchen. “I started messing around with a little bell sound and it was instantly Christmassy,” he says. “Then [Geldof] turned up at my house with a guitar and started singing the bones of the song that he had. I realised that his song was much darker than what I’d been jingling about with.”
On November 25th Sting, Boy George, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, along with a dozen other groups, filed through the doors of SARM studios in west London to sing their parts on the song. The collective called itself Band Aid. During the 24-hour recording session, Mr Ure was aware that the hopeful jangle of his electronic Christmas bells and Phil Collins’s sturdy drum beats stood in stark contrast to verses about dread, fear and “clanging chimes of doom”. “Then we had to finish the song with a ‘Feed the world’, happy, hands-in-the-air choir thing,” he says. “It’s a weird record with no chorus.”
Yet the dichotomy worked. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” topped the charts and was rerecorded in 1989 and 2004. It has raised $230m for aid to Africa. The 2014 version with its revised lyrics will help fund the fight against the Ebola virus.
Some of the original lines, particularly one sung by Bono (“Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you”), have been criticised over the years. In his 2006 book “The White Man’s Burden” William Easterly, an economist, characterised the efforts of Western celebrities to promote aid to Africa as patronising and misguided. Even the new lyrics, which exchange that most infamous line for the words, “Tonight we’re reaching out and touching you”, have failed to satisfy the critics.
Mr Ure says that although hindsight may be 20/20, the bigger picture is what’s most important: turning people’s attention toward a situation that needs a spotlight, whether it’s famine or a deadly virus. “In parts, the words are quite cheesy,” he admits. “But we knew that. The song had to be moody, it had to be naive, and it had to be blatant. We were creating a statement.”
Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet played the guitar and sang on the chorus of the 1984 recording. He says that the original version was a cultural phenomenon, and that over time the song has become a symbol of goodwill in spite of its detractors. He also notes that the record’s success led to the Live Aid and Live8 concerts—intersections between music and charity that put control directly into the hands of music fans. “It made people feel empowered to make a difference [on a global scale], even when their governments choose not to,” says Mr Kemp.
Mr Ure agrees. “The power of the song is still felt today,” he says. “There was something real and honest and genuine about it. It’s not the greatest song in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but as a record, it moved mountains.”
This story was published by The Economist.
Photo: Screen shot of Midge Ure at Band Aid 30.
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