16. Band Aid - Do They Know It's Christmas?

I wrote the beginning of this post before my Grandpa died, so there is  no irony attached, it's just a coincidence, albeit a sadness inducing one for me and my family.  I thought about taking that first line out, but it conveyed so much in a way that another quote or something stupid written by me wouldn't have.  Besides, Grandpa wouldn't have minded.  He liked the way I wrote, and if I told him that the line needed to be there, he would've nodded with that smile of his.  Anyway, on to #16....

"People are dying NOW.  Give us the money NOW.  Give me the money."

Bob Geldof wasn't going to mince words.  After seeing a BBC report about famine wracked Ethiopia, he was spurned into action.  The cynic in me would point out that Geldof wasn't tirelessly fighting for justice his entire life, finding causes to throw his support behind - he just happened to be watching the news.  But while most of us would see a story like that and give a sad sigh before we took our next bite of dinner, Geldof immediately took up the fight against starvation in Africa.  He was convinced that while many musicians had said that music could change the world, he would actually do it.  He was cocky yet naive enough to think he could pull it off.

And he did.  He pulled in all of his markers throughout the music industry in England and set out to gather as many of the hugest pop stars that he could to make a charity record to fight hunger in the forgotten continent.  The more popular you were, the better.  If you could actually sing, that was good, too.  But from the start, Geldof was smart enough to know that the publicity the event would generate, rather than the actual record sales, would be the difference.  He called the one-day supergroup, Band Aid, a straightforward pun acknowledging the fact that no matter how much they raised, their effort would most likely be a band aid to the deep cut that afflicted Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.  Also, it was a "band" of pop stars, you know, providing "aid."

Band Aid was one of those classic "why didn't anyone think of this before?" moments.  Rock & Roll music had been around for almost thirty years, but it had never occurred to anyone to actually get popular artists together for the benefit of a needy charity and record a song.  Well, it may have occurred to someone, but they'd never actually pulled it off.  Bob did, and it inspired a plethora of other charity singles.  "We Are the World" is certainly the most star studded and famous of the charity singles that followed Band Aid, but there was also the lesser known Canadian artists "Tears Are Not Enough" and the underrated and awesome heavy metal bands single, "Stars."  It all started with Bob Geldof and Band Aid.  But it didn't end there.  Geldof went on to organize the worldwide concert Live Aid in 1985, raising millions of dollars, which led to Farm Aid and other charity concerts, raising millions more for other needy causes.  It all culminated with the gigantic Live 8, which had ten concerts across the globe going on simultaneously, raising awareness on third world debt and the crushing weight it put on countries that were barely standing, if they were even that lucky.

But back in '84, it began with a gaggle of reporters outside of Sarm Studios in London, documenting huge star after huge star arriving to record their part.  Sarm had donated 24 hours of studio time, so the schedule was tight.  There would be cameras running the entire time, catching all of the performances, culminating in a choir of 45 of Britain's biggest stars in the music business singing the chorus of the song, titled "Do They Know It's Christmas?".  Verses would be sung by various vocalists, giving most every pop music fan out there a line or two from their favorite singer.

Geldof co-wrote the song with Midge Ure, lead singer and songwriter for the band Ultravox.  Ure wrote the music - an almost haunting minor key melody that also had that instantly recognizable chorus that you'd find yourself singing moments after you first heard it.  Not only were there the vocals by hugely popular singers, but there was an all-star band behind the words.  John Taylor, vastly underrated bassist from Duran Duran, helped lay the rhythmic foundation with the help of Phil Collins on drums.  Yes, kids, before he became a pop superstar as lead singer of Genesis and then as a solo artist, Phil was (and still is) a world-class drummer.  Gary Kemp, guitarist and main songwriter of Spandau Ballet, handled the guitars while Midge Ure did the keyboards.

Even though the entire world could have felt guilted into buying the record, they bought it because it was an amazing song.  Sure they had dozens of superstars in the music business, but if the song had sucked, it wouldn't have changed much of anything.  Starting with that haunting church bell and almost ghostly resonance of background vocals, signifying the ignored pleas of Ethiopians already lost, it's clear from the start that this isn't your normal Christmas song.

Starting with the richly voiced Paul Young*, who sang the first two lines that were actually intended for David Bowie (who couldn't make it to the recording in time, but did record a message for the b-side), "Do They Know It's Christmas?" served as a lyrical indictment of the prosperity and complacency that the citizens of the richest nations have (including you and me).  He needed to shake us out of our normal routines of ignoring things outside of our back yard and subtlety wasn't going to do it.  He wasn't above using lyrics that would shame us into doing something to help. 

But like any smart poet, you don’t start off with the “beat you over the head” message. You soften them up a bit.

And in our world of plenty
We can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
At Christmas time

So you’re feeling a bit better about yourself. We’ll just smile and things will be better. We’ll throw our arms around the world, metaphorically, and feel less guilt. Geldof has you just where he wants you. The gloves then come off:

But when you're having fun
There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
Is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring
There are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you

Oh, man, are you an asshole. People are dying in Africa and it’s your fault. If you do nothing, thousands more will die. Deal with that while you eat that Snickers bar. The time for gentle prodding was over. Bob was going to do what he had to do to get people to react and help, and if it took buckets full of guilt, so be it. People were dying.

His final message was simple:

Feed the world
Let them know it's Christmas time

"You have to give something of yourself," Geldof said, "and what I do is sing and write songs.  So that's what I did."  And it worked. Band Aid raised awareness not only of the plight of the famine in Ethiopia, but raised all awareness in general. People found other causes and ended up doing greater good across the board. So it turns out that pop music can indeed change the world. It just took a man who was just watching the news and just had to do something. Top it off with the fact that it’s an amazing song, and that’s why “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is one of the greatest songs of my life.

Below is the video that they shot at the studio.  Is it just me, or does Sting look kinda pissed off when he’s singing his lines “the bitter sting of tears?” He gives that look, like, “You had to give me that line?”

*  Paul Young has always been a favorite artist of mine.  In the early 80's one of our friends, Joan, had a brother Leo who was into early British new wave music big time.  She borrowed his records and played them for my friends and me.  That began our love of British pop music, including the not yet humongous Duran Duran, the soon to be huge Depeche Mode, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Wham! and Paul Young.  I was always so enthralled by Paul's soulful voice.  There was a richness to it that no one else had.  Even though he had a huge hit in the US with a cover of Hall & Oates' "Every Time You Go Away," I highly recommend that you give some of his other stuff a listen that you might never have heard.  Some of his lesser known great songs are "Love of the Common People", "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)", the underrated and provocative "Sex", and "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down."  But the one that always brings a smile to my face is the humorous ode to a breakfast staple that he did in 1978, "Toast."  I found a clip of it and wanted to share it with you.  Check it out.

0 Responses