Do They Know It's Christmas – The History

A few days ago I posted a listing of my favorite Christmas songs. Without a hard drive full of music, I actually spent a lot of time searching google and youtube for the songs I remembered the most and best from Christmases past. During the search, I found a tremendous number of the same songs being sung by different artists. I remember having this problem back before getting married; sometimes it is difficult to decide which version of a particular song you like best. Another problem I found when compiling my list of songs was choosing songs that were meaningful in some way; what made these songs stand out any more than any of the others? You can only hear so many versions of "Jingle Bells" before it all starts to sound alike.

I could go through my list of songs and explain to you the choices I made, but I think my post from last Thursday does that well enough on its own. It's quite clear that I tend to prefer choral Christmas songs with a bit of pop, piano, and Christianity thrown in. Instead, the song I want to focus on today is Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas".

I've actually done a lot of research on this song since my original posting, and I've been somewhat surprised at what I've found. Before last Thursday, I knew the song as a song that was frequently played on the radio. I wasn't really aware of the lyrics or the reasoning behind the song and, to be honest, I probably couldn't have told you anything about the "band" behind the song. A big eye opener was when I took the time to read the Wikipedia page on the song followed up by the Song Facts webpage. The thing about the internet is that you never know if what you are reading is fact or fiction. So after I finished with those webpages, I had to keep reading… and then I spent another 2 hours (or so) watching Youtube footage of the making of the video and that of the LiveAid concert. Then… that led to reading about "We Are the World", another song by Bob Geldof. And then… a bit more about Africa and the Ethiopian famine. It just kept going on… and on… and on.

Here are a few things I've learned:

1. Famine is bad.
2. Artists don't always like to work together… even for a good cause.
3. People don't always give to a good cause unless they feel they are getting something in return.
4. Motto from the '80s: Go BIG or go home. (Hair, make-up, clothes, personalities)

So as it turns out, there was a particularly bad famine occurring in Ethiopia in 1984. I haven't figured out if it was the result of extremist ruling in Africa at the time or if it was something else, but I'm leaning towards the first. Either way you look at it, one of the biggest controversies related to this song was whether or not the song actually aided the African people (specifically Ethiopian) in getting the help they needed. Yes, millions was raised for the cause, but where did it go exactly? To the rulers who were causing the famine? Or to the people who needed the help? Beyond that, was this song meant to promote the celebrities involved including Bob Geldof whose own band, the Boomtown Rats, was slowly disappearing from existence? Or were these celebrities truly participating to promote a cause greater than themselves?

The story goes that Bob Geldof was watching the news with his family one night in October 1984 when a story came on about a famine in Ethiopia. In the story, a 21-year-old Red Cross nurse was shown who was having to make decisions about which people she could help save given her limited resources and which she had to turn away because they were too sick or elderly and would most likely die anyway. (Can you imagine being 21 and having to make those life or death decisions for others?) Apparently Geldof, after seeing the news report, decided it was time to do something, so he called up a friend whose name I don't recall (another controversy) and they decided to write a song and bring a bunch of artists together to support the cause. They needed big names in order for the album to sell, and if they wanted the song out before Christmas they had to work fast.

While I'm not too certain of the time span, fairly soon after coming up with the idea, Bob Geldof was suppose to go on a radio show to promote an album he was working on with his dying band; instead of talking about the new album though, he shared on the show about how he was working on Band Aid to promote the Ethiopian cause. Even before a single celebrity had agreed to participate, Geldof was making history by promoting a song that wasn't even in existence yet. Would he be able to pull together the bands he needed to make this song, this dream, come true?

From what I understand, it was very iffy up until the day of the recording. Geldof and co. managed to snag a bit of free time in a recording studio in Notting Hill for the recording of this song. He had asked a number of singers to come record voluntarily and then it was a waiting game to see who would show. Luckily, whether through fear of Geldof, desire to be charitable, or whatever, a number of celebrities did show up in studio that day to record "Do They Know It's Christmas" including Paul Young, George Michael, George Boy, Bono, and a bunch of other artists. They began by singing the chorus "do they know it's Christmas" and "feed the world", parts added to the song last minute. Then each artist, one by one, took a turn singing the song in it's entirety with all of their competition watching and judging their every word.

After all of the celebrities left for the day, Geldof had limited time to finish compiling and mixing the many voices in the song as well as putting together a short music video for tv. With the recording having taken place on a Sunday, their goal was to have the album (song) finished and available in stores by the Tuesday following. In actuality though, the album was released on Thursday instead.

The song quickly rose to #1 in the UK although it never made it to #1 in the US (due to different rules for getting to Billboard's Hot #1 status in comparison to those of the UK). The album sold millions of copies worldwide and made lots of money staying at the top of the charts for about 20 weeks only dropping down when a new song by Foreigner was released. Even more exciting, was that artist George Michael of Wham!, having participated in "Do They Know It's Christmas" had also just released his own Christmas single "Last Christmas" in which he donated all proceeds from the sale of to the Band Aid fund.

This is where many of the song's controversies begin:

1. First, Bob Geldof argued with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about where the VAT money should go. He told her in no uncertain terms that he felt the taxes should go toward those dying in Ethiopia rather than the government. Obviously she disagreed but relented when the public made their opinion clear.

2. Then, Bob Geldof refused to go to Ethiopia to make sure the funds were going where he announced they were. He was afraid his publicist was trying to make a spectacle of him. In the end, Bob Geldof did go and was made a spectacle of, but it also gave him a chance to see how difficult it was for those that lived in Ethiopia. This made him more determined than ever to continue fighting for their rights. He is even said to have told off an Ethiopian government official because of his disagreement with how Africans were being treated whilst wearing socks for the meeting since his own shoes had been ruined.

3. And one of the key controversies that has me writing this post is that of the lyrics.

1. I don't know if it snows in Africa, but it could.
2. Do they celebrate Christmas in Africa? Are they Christians?
3. Does no food grow there?
4. Is the world outside my window (and throughout Africa, really) actually filled with fear?
5. Do all of the Christmas bells in Africa sound like doom? Do they have Christmas bells?
6. Are all the people in Africa hungry?
7. Does it really never rain in Africa? Are there no rivers there either? Is the continent not surrounded by water?
8. They get no other gifts ever. Just life. That's all they deserve really.
9. The sun: it BURNS!! (That must be why there are no crops.)
10. Thank God it's them and NOT me!

I don't actually have time to do so today, but I'm certain I could write a whole other post on these (sometimes false) ideas that stem from the lyrics. Generally, my thoughts are that it was 1984 (nearly 30 years ago), and the song was written and put together very quickly in the hopes that not only would people participate and give of their time freely but also that the public would buy the album supporting the cause. I have to agree with the most hated lyric in the entire song though in that if I had been alive at that time I probably would have been thanking God it was them suffering and not me. (I'm sorry, but it's true! Sometimes the truth hurts!)

Anyway, that's as far as I am going to go on the history of this song and the controversies behind it for today. I hope you learned a little something, and perhaps tomorrow I will conclude with my feelings about the lyrics and how it led to this whole other period in the '80s where LiveAid and "We Are the World" were put together. For now, I will just say that I have learned a lot about this song and the reasoning behind it enhancing my enjoyment of the original 1984 version of the song and making any other version (by the Barenaked Ladies, Band Aid 20, or any other choral group) less appealing. (Although I may have listened to this song too much in the last few days and I might just be happy to never hear it again while still respecting it for what it did. *sigh*)

Happy Wednesday all!

And as always, feel free to share your opinions in the comments.

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