Bob Geldof and Midge Ure both enjoyed chart success in their own right but it is a hastily produced charity Christmas single that they will forever be best known for.
As the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, Geldof twice topped the UK singles chart with Rat Trap and I Don’t Like Mondays. Ure’s band Ultravox had a platinum-selling single with Vienna and he would go on to record a number one as a solo artist with If I Was (which fellow grammar pedants will know should have been correctly titled as the subjunctive form If I Were. Just saying.)
Of course, both sealed their place in the pop culture pantheon by co-writing Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?
The story behind the creation of the song is well-known but it’s often overlooked how quickly the whole thing came together. Geldof decided to take action after watching a BBC news report by Michael Buerk on the famine in Ethiopia on October 23rd 1984. Ure was recruited to the cause on November 2nd after appearing on Geldof’s wife’s Paula Yates’ TV show The Tube. The pair met and decided to write a charity song three days later (the 5th). Recording took place on the 25th, with the single being released on December 3rd. That’s less than six weeks from inspiration to release. It takes me longer to finish my Christmas shopping.
The song went straight to number one in the UK where it remained for five weeks. It sold over a million units in its first week and surpassed three million by New Year’s Eve. This made it the UK’s biggest-selling single of all time until it was overtaken by Elton John’s 1997 re-release of Candle in the Wind in tribute to Princess Diana.
It features a veritable who’s who of the biggest names in British pop at that time, from Paul Young (who had the privilege of singing the opening line) to Bono, Boy George, George Michael, Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, Sting, Spandau Ballet, Status Quo, Bananarama and Phil Collins, who laid down the drum track. Oh, and Robert ‘Kool’ Bell from US group Kool and the Gang.
Musically and lyrically it’s not the greatest song ever. The lyrics have frequently been criticised for portraying patronising stereotypes and for the over-generalised inaccuracies of lines such as “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” and “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow” – but that was never really the point. For a rushed effort for which Geldof set a modest fund-raising target of £70,000, the record went on to raise £8 million and paved the way for the following summer’s transatlantic Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia.
It also led to American artists following suit, forming the charity super-group USA for Africa and producing the horrendously saccharine We Are the World. But nobody’s perfect. In terms of raising both awareness and money to help the victims of famine, it set the template for many charity efforts – both musical and non-musical – that followed.
In all, four different versions of the song have been recorded – the others marking the fifth, 20th and 30th anniversaries of the original’s release – with each going on to top the chart. The 2014 version featured reworked lyrics that focussed on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.
For all its flaws the original is still the best if for no other reason than the genuine spirit of generosity in which it all came together so quickly. Not just from the musicians who participated, but also from the music press who offered up free advertising space to promote the record (although many of them panned the song itself in their reviews).
How many of the artists in the original video can you name?