It’s Christmas time… Except, in the real world, we’re as far as possible from the festive season. Hey ho. We pass the midway point of the 1980s then, with the decade’s biggest-selling single. What was, for a time, the biggest-selling single ever. And one that ushers in a new era of popular music…
Do They Know It’s Christmas?, by Band Aid
5 weeks, from 9th December 1984 – 13th January 1985
First, a bit of background. Throughout 1984, news reports had been showing images of an ongoing famine in Ethiopia. Bob Geldof, of The Boomtown Rats, and Midge Ure, of Ultravox and before that Slik, were inspired to form a supergroup in order to record a single, the sales of which would raise money for the starving millions. The song was recorded in a single day, barely a fortnight before it made number one.
The word iconic is bandied around willy-nilly these days. But this is an iconic song. A lot of Brits can sing this word for word, will know what song it is the second those opening chimes come in… Each generation has had its version (we’re up to four now), but this is the original, the one that still gets (over)played each festive season.
It’s Christmas time, There’s no need to be afraid… Paul Young opens proceedings in suitably earnest fashion. In fact, this is a giant reunion of artists whom we’ve already met on this countdown: Geldof and Ure, Young… Next up is Boy George, followed by George Michael… Then I have to check the video as I’m not sure who the fourth voice we hear is (it’s Simon Le Bon, then Sting, then Tony Hadley… with Phil Collins on drums…)
Then it’s time for Bono, a man who is yet to feature on a #1. His time will come. He belts his line out like only Bono can do… Well tonight thank God it’s them, Instead of you…! It’s a line that gets a lot of stick, but I think it’s actually the one line that goes beyond patronising cliché: when you see starving, emaciated people with dead-eyed stares and flies crawling over them yes you feel deeply sorry for them, but there is a part of you that’s thankful. No way would you actually want to be there with them. It’s the next line that’s the dumbest: plenty of people before me have pointed out that yes, there will be snow in Africa at Christmas time, because Africa is the world’s largest continent, one that takes in a huge variety of environments and habitats.
Other people involved in Band Aid: the rest of Duran Duran, U2 and Spandau Ballet, as well as Status Quo, Bananarama, Kool and the Gang, Paul Weller, Heaven 17… The video feels very male-heavy, but the charts at this time were very male-heavy: the last British female singer to score a #1 was Bonnie Tyler almost two years ago. They all record their lines in big headphones and simple, understated clothes – even Boy George! – with weighty expressions on their faces (we’re not the story here…) setting the standard for charity single videos from here to eternity.
(The off-mic stories from the recording are much more rock ‘n’ roll, though. Boy George only made it after catching the last Concorde of the day from New York. Status Quo were too hungover to record any solo lines, and brought a large bag of cocaine to add to the festive atmosphere. George Michael called Paul Weller a ‘wanker’, after Weller accused him of voting for the Thatcher….)
Underneath the stars, there’s a chugging synth beat, and some Christmassy chimes. It’s a tune, especially in the soaring chorus, and there’s a reason why it still gets played today (though after repeated listens you can tell it was thrown together in a day…) And yes it’s patronising, yes it presents a very Westernised view of ‘Africa’ as if it were a country all by itself, and yes the words have been updated in the more recent versions. But, as Midge Ure bluntly put it, ‘it’s a song with nothing to do with music. Its sole purpose was to make money…’ And make money it did: eight million pounds within the year.
I skipped the ‘first of … #1s’ from the top of this post, as I’m really not sure if this is Band Aid’s 1st of four chart-toppers, or their one and only (some of the people on this will feature on the later versions…) Anyway, that’s my problem and we don’t need to go into it. What we do need to go into is the fact that this song came out on December 3rd, and by the end of the year it was already the best-selling single, ever. Its total sales currently stand at over 3.8 million. The following summer would see Live Aid, something that probably wouldn’t have happened had this record not been so successful.
In the intro I mentioned that ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ ushered in a new era at the top of the charts, and I was referring to the era of the charity single. Before this, the earnings of particular records had been donated to charity. But the idea of getting the biggest stars of the day together with the explicit goal of making money for charity started here, pretty much. Since 1984, there haven’t been many years go by without a charity chart-topper of one kind or another… for sick kids, for natural disasters, for Grenfell or the NHS… And, sadly, very few of them are anywhere near as enjoyable as this original…