25 Days of Mariahmas: Do They Know It’s Christmas — Band Aid
“There’s a world outside your window”
In the 1790s, William Blake produced his famous collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience. They depict (amongst many other things), two ways of seeing the world: the charming Innocence of youth, with its concomitant need for attachment, and the hardened fortitude borne through Experience: where the world’s injustices and complexities gradually bite away at the child’s framework for interpretation.
In 1984, Bob Geldoff assembled a dream line-up of over 40 of the 1980s top stars. Moved by the BBC’s harrowing footage of the famine that struck Ethiopia, Geldoff’s wife Paula Yates encouraged Geldoff to produce an ensemble cast for a charity single that would raise funds for much-needed aid.
It succeeded beyond Geldoff’s wildest dreams, and beyond any charity record that has been attempted since.
Because when Geldoff put out the call, Sting picked up the phone, as did George Michael, as did Boy George, as did Bono — whose star turn at the end of the first verse would arguably make him the constant in Band Aid’s ever-morphing incarnations (more on that later).
And thus Band Aid was born — and out of it was birthed one of the most ubiquitous and infectious Christmas singles of our age.
The vocal line up of the original was stellar, as each of the constituent parts blended perfectly, with Boy George, George Michael and Bono getting their opportunity to have their unique vocals foregrounded. Of course, it should not go unnoticed that the original Band Aid (in contrast to later reworkings) is entirely male dominated. Bananarama and Jody Whatley feature on the record but are only part of the ensemble sing-along at the end. Their voices drowned out by the men surrounding them.
And what’s interesting about the original version, is that it’s very self-consciously a march (perhaps inspired by the memory of Jona Lewie’s “Stop the Cavalry” three years earlier). Throughout the whole song, the drums are the driving force, and are put high in the mix. At the start of the song the drums beat out a relentless marching rhythm, with only some feeble bells breaking the tension. Paul Young’s mournful voice start’s the soldiers’ cry, before being slowly joined by the swelling voices of Geldoff’s batallion.
And herein lies the intoxication of Band Aid, and its flaws. The instinct to want to help, to intervene, to stop a human tragedy unfolding is understandable and praiseworthy. But the Africa of Band Aid is wholly Other. No snow falls in it. No rivers flow. Despite both being demonstrably untrue (and the latter not even true for Ethiopia, the area that Band Aid’s efforts sought to have their impact), the rhetorical effect is irresistible. Band Aid Africa is a desolate land, where nature conspires to make human being suffer. It needs an army of charity, regiments of aid and food. And arguably Ethiopia did. And, on balance, I’d say on this occasion the ends justified the means. An outpouring of that innocent need to help, when confronted with intolerable, inhumane experience.
But it’s a law of diminishing returns.
The song would be wheeled out a few years later, ostensibly to refocus attention on the plight of Ethiopians, but was pretty nakedly a vehicle for Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s pet projects. Admittedly at Geldoff’s request.
On its twentieth anniversary, Geldoff again assembled the great and the good of the day. This time, however, it felt like a eulogy for philanthropic success. Its aim was different this time, a call for political change, rather than strict fundraising. It reached number 1 comfortably, but largely fell on deaf ears. Notwithstanding Dizzee Rascall’s emotive plea to “give a little help to the helpless.”
On its thirtieth anniversary, targetting the ravage of the Ebola virus in West Africa, Geldoff’s marching army stuttered to a halt. Their voices, still proclaiming a helpless Africa devoid of hope and in never-ending need of pop star intervention, met opposition and dissent. Africa is not a wilderness. Stars like Fuse ODG refused to accept Geldoff’s recruiting call, claiming that the Africa Band Aid depicts was irreconcilable from their experiences. Where could Band Aid go from there? When its army arrived, it found it was no longer wanted: its arsenal rendered obsolete by changing time.
Do They Know It’s Christmas is a cracking song. And it’s unabashedly one of my favourites (I even love the Band Aid 20 version; Band Aids 2 and 30 never happened as far as I’m concerned, however). That intensely human need to help when confronted with unimaginable suffering is so laudable, and the song crafts and captures that so perfectly. And musically, I will never be able to resist singing along to that closing refrain: “Feed the wor-orld!”
Yet, as its long and complex trajectory shows, that impulse cannot last if it cannot successfully adapt.
Do They Know It’s Christmas? A song of Innocence and Experience.