Though I don’t celebrate Christmas, there are songs I like to listen to every year when Christmas time rolls around. “Little Drummer Boy,” “River” by Joni Mitchell and Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” always bring a smile, and always help me to enjoy the holiday season a bit more.
Although it is remains one of the best selling songs in British history, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” feels like it does not get much airplay, and that’s too bad because it really is an excellent song, it is a fine Christmas song, and it is a wonderful capsule of a time in musical history and a sincere effort to positively change the world.
Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Thin Lizzy wrote the song in response to news reports they saw of people starving in Africa. The song was recorded by what one might call a supergroup, a virtual “who’s who” of British recording artists of the day in late November 1984 and released early December, after being recruited by the song writers to perform on a track that they hoped would help people desperately in need in another part of the world. And succeed the song did. In many ways.
Yes, the song sold over 3 million copies in less a month. And yes, the song inspired the international Live Aid concerts the next year which raised over $150 million dollars. But maybe the biggest success of the “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” at least for the sake of this article, is that it is an excellent song.
We know this is a Christmas song from very beginning when we hear what sounds like lonesome church bells chiming, backed up by muted percussion and an airy acoustic guitar. The very heart, the very core message of the song appears right in the first verse, and it is a message for all time.
“And in our world of plenty
we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
at Christmas time”
The first verse of the song is sung in turn, by Paul Young (who had several top ten hits in 1983 and 1984), Boy George (lead singer of multiple platinum band Culture Club) and George Michael (who had the monster hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go) with Wham UK in spring and summer 1984.
For any child or teenager of the 1980’s, this is a time capsule, a veritable who’s who of Top 40 radio of the day. Songs we heard in every restaurant, on every radio station and at every Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Listening to these voices now brings the listener back to a different time.
A percussion session led by Genesis drummer Phil Collins carries the song forward, and the Christmas message continues, along with a reminder of the pain around us.
“But say a prayer
Pray for the other one
At Christmas time, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear”
Okay, so maybe it’s a bit much, but the song stays on message, and the 1980’s rock gods keep on coming. Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran, Sting from the Police and Bono from U2 all take turns singing lead. On the video we see everyone from Spandau Ballet to Kool and The Gang (I still don’t know what that American disco band was doing with all those British rockers), to Status Quo and more.
“And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do the know it’s Christmas time at all?”
Then, standing on risers in a studio singing and smiling, the once in a lifetime supergroup all sing together, over and over again “Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time again” as the tubular bells ring. These rockers. These seemingly superficial, sycophantic publicity seekers were spending their time doing something for someone else. Raising millions and millions of dollars to feed people who could not feed themselves.
This model would be repeated often through the late 1980’s. Every now and then we would see a new group of music superstars and actors on risers, singing to raise money. Artists in the United States singing “We Are the World” (a truly horrendous song, in my opinion), and artists in Canada singing “Tears Are Not Enough” (almost as bad as “We Are the World”).
“Do They Know It’s Christmas” is where it began, and it is a bar that other similar charity efforts would never quite reach.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas Time”
Written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure
Performed by Band Aid
Released December 3, 1984