This is the 50th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the fall of 1984, Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof and his then-girlfriend Paula Yates saw a news report about the famine in Africa. The two were so disturbed by the graphic footage that Yates by the next morning, Yates had put up a sign on their fridge informing all future guests that they’d be asked to £5 apiece until the couple had raised £200 for famine relief.
Geldof felt inspired himself, deciding to put his feelings to music. When he ultimately decided he wanted to write a song that would help famine relief efforts, he called Yates on the set of “The Tube,” the live music program she co-hosted. She then handed the phone to Midge Ure, who happened to be on the show that night. Ure – who had performed in Ultravox, Visage, and Thin Lizzy – had been a good friend of Yates and Geldof for years, so much that he had been a fixture at their dinner table.
With Ure on board, Geldof got to work on the song. He started a fragment of a song which he had previously rehearsed with The Boomtown Rats, called “It’s My World.” Geldof changed some of the words, and Ure paired with an arrangement that was more “Christmassy.”
To record the song, Geldof and Ure reached out to several musicians who were at their peak, including Culture Club, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Spandau Ballet, Bono, Sting, and George Michael. The collective supergroup formed by Geldof and Ure was called Band Aid. When Band Aid assembled on Sunday, November 25, nearly 40 musicians were present, representing some of the biggest names of music at the time.
And, not surprisingly, some of the biggest egos. Music journalist Mark Ellen said there was initially a tension in the room because so many of the people there had been openly hostile to each other in the months before:
In 1984, pop music was a huge, high-earning, bank-rolling industry… Records sold in gigantic quantities, there seemed to be room for everyone, and so there were millions of bands all at war with each other… Paul Weller used to be massively acerbic about everybody else, he was very opinionated, hated all the glam pop of Spandau Ballet and Duran, and now here he was in a room surrounded by everyone he’d been so horrible about in the press… Meanwhile, old guard like Status Quo were often rather rubbished by the young guard even though, at the time, they were probably only about 35, only about 10 years older, but that’s a century in pop years.
Ellen said it was Culture Club drummer Jon Moss who broke the tension by running up to Phil Collins and telling him, “You’re my hero.” Of course, the copious amounts of booze in the room probably didn’t hurt, either.
Moss’ bandmate (and on-again boyfriend) Boy George was supposed to be there, but when Geldof finally reached him, he was in New York. After being scolded, Boy George got on a plane and made it to the studio in time to record his lines.
Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was released about a week later.
It entered the UK Singles Chart at Number One, where it stayed for five weeks. When it was re-released a year later, it charted at Number Three. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” became the fastest-selling single in UK chart history, selling a million copies in its first week. When 1984 ended, it had sold more than 3 million copies. It remained the fastest-selling single in UK chart history until 1997, when Elton John’s remake of “Candle In The Wind” claimed that title.
The success of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” inspired a group of American artists to record a benefit song. Written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, “We Are The World” was recorded in early 1985, featuring Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Willie Nelson, and Dionne Warwick. That song became even more commercially successful than “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.
The momentum caused by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are The World” led to Live Aid, a dual-venue concert in July 1985, organized by Geldof and Ure. Almost two billion people across the world tuned into Live Aid, which was broadcast from Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. As with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are The World,” the proceeds were donated to famine relief efforts in Africa.
Despite its commercial achievements and the attention it brought to a serious issue, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has been criticized for lyrics that portray Africa as a desolate hellhole that needs white knights from the West to come save it:
But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
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
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
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 or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
I mean, yikes.
On a superficial level, those lyrics are wrong because they’re factually incorrect: there is water in Africa, things do grow there, and it most certainly snows there. And of course the people of Africa know it’s Christmas, because the continent has a whole lot of Christians there. But those patronizing lyrics reveal what else is wrong with the song: it reeks of white privilege, Western superiority, and obliviousness. Just as bad as the lyrics was the cover art for the single, which showed emaciated kids juxtaposed with white kids celebrating Christmas.
It might be disheartening that those lyrics were considered a good idea in 1984, but the song has been remade multiple times by Geldof and others, and only recently were the more problematic lyrics changed.
A second version was recorded in 1989 under the name Band Aid II. It was produced by the production team Stock Aitken Waterman, and included several members of the legendary trio’s roster: Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Sonia, Cliff Richard, and original Band Aid participants Bananarama. Bananarama’s Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward were the only people from the original recording who participated in Band Aid II. The line-up was rounded out by other dance/pop artists of the era, including Jimmy Somerville, Lisa Stansfield, Wet Wet Wet, and Bros. (This version would be the only one to not include Bono.)
As it was produced by Stock Aitken Waterman, the 1989 version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was much more poppy and synth-driven than its predecessor. That treatment certainly fit in with the sounds of the time, but in 2016, this version seems more tone deaf than the original. Not only did it feature celebrities singing condescending lyrics about Africa, but they sang them joyfully over a dance track.
In 1994, punk bands The Bouncing Souls and Weston teamed up to record a single of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The lo-fi version kept all the lyrics intact. At least the lyrics that one could understand; half of the song sounded like it was recorded in a barrel.
In 1999, the Belgium label Antler Subway recorded a Hi-NRG dance version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” under the name Antler All Stars with some of the label’s bigger stars: 2 Fabiola, Absolom, Belle Perez, Da Rick, Esther, Fiocco, La Luna, Mariëlle, Medusa, Milk Inc., Nunca, and Zohra. As dancetastic as the Stock Aitken Waterman version was, this was even more synth-y. I’m all for cheesy Eurodance, but it seems wrong to dance your face off to this song.
Pete Yorn covered “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for radio station’s 2003 compilation, “The Year They Recalled Santa Claus.” As he does on so many songs, Yorn blended folk and pop sensibilities seamlessly, producing a version that was quite listenable, considering the source material.
Deftones singer Chino Moreno teamed up with Sacramento band Far to cover “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for the 2003 compilation, “A Santa Clause: It’s a Punk Rock Christmas.” This version was grittier, with crunchy guitars and heavier drums. But it was Moreno’s subtle mimicking of the original singers that stood out on this cover.
For the 20th anniversary in 2004, Geldof assembled another group of musicians to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” this time under the name Band Aid 20. This updated version included original participant Bono flanked by who were then some of the biggest names in British music: Daniel Bedingfield, Natasha Bedingfield, Dizzee Rascal, The Thrills, Snow Patrol, The Darkness, Will Young, Dido, Robbie Williams, Joss Stone, and Chris Martin of Coldplay.
An impressive line-up, but definitely one that serves as a time capsule for the early to mid ’00s. The addition of Dizzee Rascal’s rap may have seemed fresh at the time, but 12 years later, it sounds more dated that the 1989 version. (But that’s in part because Stock Aitken Waterman are forever.)
That same year, Barenaked Ladies released “Barenaked for the Holidays,” a studio album of holiday-themed songs. The band’s version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was a faithful albeit slightly simpler remake of the 1984 Band Aid original. It was so faithful to the original that I’m not convinced that the band didn’t sample Bono himself for the line “Tonight, thank God it’s them/Instead of you.”
Comedy cover artist Richard Cheese has made a niche for himself recording tongue-in-cheek swing/lounge parodies of popular songs. For his 2006 album “Silent Nightclub” included a smattering of Christmas songs mixed with covers only tangentially related (“Holiday In Cambodia,” “Personal Jesus,” and so on). He blitzed through his version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in only a minute and a half, quitting when he got to the chorus of “feed the world,” claiming it was too high for him to sing.
Australian country/pop band Little River Band released an album of Christmas songs and covers in 2008, called “We Call It Christmas.” No one will ever confuse Little River Band’s sound with hard rock, but this song was so soft that it made the original with Boy George seem like it was edgy metal. There are elevators that would refuse to play this on account of it being too easy listening.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was performed on the third season of “Glee” in the episode “Extraordinary Merry Christmas.” The New Directions sang the song in the middle of a homeless shelter, with Mercedes belting out Bono’s “Tonight thank God it’s them/Instead of you” to all the people in the shelter. That, more than anything else in this version, might make the “Glee” rendition more tone deaf than the original.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was remade in 2014 for the song’s 30th anniversary, with Bono and Chris Martin returning as representatives of previous versions. They were joined by Sinead O’Connor, One Direction, Paloma Faith, Seal, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Bastille, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, and Jessie Ware.
Recorded at the height of the Ebola crisis, the 2014 version altered and removed some of the other lyrics. Most notable among the modifications was the change of “Well, tonight thank God it’s them/Instead of you” to “Tonight we’re reaching out/And touching you.” Additionally, “And there won’t be snow in Africa” was gone. “Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” was changed to the equally eyebrow-raising lyric, “Where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear.”
Rapper Fuse ODG, who grew up in Africa, wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian explaining why he refused to take part in the 30th anniversary recording. Fuse ODG said Geldof seemed understanding, but apparently not understanding enough to not change the lyrics even more than he did.
Also in 2014, several German artists recorded a version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That line-up, while probably unfamiliar to most readers in the UK or North America, included some names well-known to German fans: including 2raumwohnung, Andreas Bourani, Die Toten Hosen, Jan Delay, Joy Denalane, Max Raabe, Milky Chance, Peter Maffay, Silbermond, Thees Uhlmann, and Wolfgang Niedecken.
The same year, English pop punk duo Wasted Daze recorded a freewheeling version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” that bounced from bratty punk to noisy metal with screaming to reggae and ska. I can’t imagine either of them had voices left to speak for at least a month afterward.
The variations of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Geldof and the artists he’s assembled over the years pose a challenge for covers enthusiasts. Should the recordings from 1989 and onward considered covers of the 1984 original, or just alternate versions? Can the word “remake” be used instead, and if so, what’s the difference between a “cover,” “remake,” and “alternate version”?
The answer to that is a squishy blurry one, as we have seen over the last 50 weeks.
In past posts, I’ve theorized that artists can’t cover a song they wrote or previously recorded. So, the version of “Tainted Love” that Gloria Jones recorded in the 1970s could not be considered a cover of the version she recorded in the ’60s. Same goes for the live versions; otherwise, artists would be covering themselves every time they performed onstage.
Similarly, I’ve tended to rule in past posts that any version of a song that featured the songwriter(s) or original recording artists could not be covers, even if the remade version included newer artists. On a technicality, I ruled the version of “It’s Raining Men” that Martha Wash recorded with RuPaul in the late ’90s could not be a cover because Wash had been on the original Weather Girls recording.
I say “tended to rule” above because it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. When reviewing “Our Lips Are Sealed,” I ruled that Nouvelle Vague’s version of the song could be considered a cover, because even though it featured songwriter Terry Hall on vocals, he was there as a minor player. I made the same case for Tracey Ullman’s version of “They Don’t Know,” because Kirsty MacColl, the song’s writer and original recording artist, only appeared on Ullman’s version as a backup singer.
In the case of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” I’ll rule that the versions affiliated with Geldof and Band Aid are not covers, but alternate versions. And the ones by Weston, Bouncing Souls, Yorn, and so forth are indeed covers.
I’ve been harsh on this song, but I think it’s justified. As good-intentioned as this song might have been, and as much as it might have benefited various humanitarian efforts over the last 32 years, it’s still problematic in the simplified and condescending way it has portrayed Africa. That so many people have performed it — either as a cover or in an official capacity as part of Band Aid — doesn’t excuse the song’s failings. It’s just that those failings have been normalized.
The cynical side of me expects there to be a 40th anniversary version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 2024. The optimistic side of me, though, holds out hope that the musicians who participate in that recording will be empathetic and socially conscious enough to know that the song will need to not just be altered, but completely rewritten.
For his part, Geldof seems to be aware of how the song has affected his legacy.
“I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history,” he has said. “The other one is ‘We Are The World.’ Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every fucking Christmas.”