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The Story of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’

The idea of releasing a record raising funds for African famine relief didn’t begin with the “We Are The World” single.

By Gillian G. Gaar

The idea of releasing a record raising funds for African famine relief didn’t begin with the “We Are The World” single.

The roots of that endeavor go back to the 1984 U.K. single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recorded by an all-star collective named Band Aid.

Band Aid was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats. While watching television one evening in October 1984, he was deeply moved by a BBC news report about the widespread famine in Ethiopia that had resulted from a severe drought that year. Geldof contacted Midge Ure, lead singer and guitarist in Ultravox, about releasing a benefit single during the upcoming holiday season.

“We knew if we made it a Christmas song, we would pull at the purse strings as well as the heartstrings,” Ure explained.

In order to have a record ready before the end of the year the two had to move fast. Geldof and Ure quickly co-wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The song asked the listener to think of those whose lives were too impoverished to indulge in any year-end celebrations, building to the plea “Feed the world!”

Geldof then took on the task of recruiting musicians, focusing on high-profile acts whose names would spark sales. George Michael, Paul Weller, Sting, Phil Collins and members of U2, Duran Duran, Culture Club and Bananarama were among the participants, along with members of the Boomtown Rats and Chris Cross from Ultravox. The sole American act to participate was Kool And The Gang.

Geldof also asked Trevor Horn to produce. Horn was unavailable but ended up making a major contribution to the project by letting the group use his studio, Sarm West in Notting Hill, London, for free. Ure stepped into the producer’s chair himself, and a recording date was set for Nov. 25, 1984. An advance interview Geldof did with BBC 1 DJ Richard Skinner helped fuel excitement about the event.

A backing track had already been recorded at Ure’s home studio, and guide vocals by Sting and Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon had also been previously recorded. For the benefit of the media, Ure had the artists record the chorus first, resulting in a great series of group shots. The session was also being filmed for use in a video and other promotional efforts. Ure then had different artists sing through the verses individually, planning to choose the best performances of each line for the final master. Sting and Simon Le Bon also re-recorded their parts.

As the day went on, a party atmosphere developed in the studio (as journalist Robin Eggar wrote, “I brought six bottles of wine from my flat, which disappeared in a minute”). One late arrival during the session was Culture Club lead singer Boy George. Geldof had tracked George down in New York City and phoned him the day before the session to ask him to attend. When George failed to turn up on the day of recording, Geldof called again, insisting he take the Concorde back to London. George duly complied and arrived in the early evening.

George was the last artist to record, and Ure completed a final mix by 8 the next morning. An instrumental version of the song, named “Feed The World,” was used as the B-side, which also featured spoken-word messages from different artists, including those who hadn’t been able to attend the recording session like David Bowie and Paul McCartney (it had been hoped Bowie would sing the opening lines of the song, but when he couldn’t make the recording session, the part was given to Paul Young).

Geldof then went off to do an interview with BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read for his morning show, proudly announcing the single’s completion. Just three days later, on Nov. 29, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” went on sale. By then, seemingly the entire country had rallied behind the record as a matter of national pride. Top Of The Pops even agreed to play the song’s video on their program before the record had been officially released. Radio 1 played the song every hour. Jim Diamond, who was currently #1 in the U.K. charts with “I Should Have Known Better,” put out a public plea that people stop buying his record and buy “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” instead to ensure it would get the coveted #1 position during the holiday season.

That wish came true Dec. 15, when the single topped the U.K. singles charts, and remained at #1 for five weeks. The record quickly sold over three and a half million copies, becoming the U.K.’s biggest-selling single ever, a feat not surpassed until the release of Elton John’s tribute single to Princess Diana, “Candle In The Wind 1997.” The single was less successful in the U.S., only reaching #13, though it did sell over a million copies.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was re-released the following year in the U.K., reaching the Top 5. The track continues to appear on holiday compilations, with a new version recorded in 1989 and a 20th anniversary version recorded in 2004. Geldof and Ure had hoped their efforts might result in raising £100,000 for the cause; instead, they ended up generating millions, as well as providing the inspiration for “We Are The World” and the subsequent Live Aid concerts. As Ure notes with pride, “'Do They Know It’s Christmas?' will be making money for charity long after Bob and I have gone.”