This Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a track penned by Irish rocker Bob Geldof and recorded by charity supergroup Band Aid to raise money to help the relief effort for the Ethiopian famine of 1983–85. The song, one of the biggest and fastest selling in UK history, brought together some 40 megastars of the era and, along with counterpart performance Live Aid, would result in more than $200 million in donations. The project’s overwhelming success would make it the model for modern rock-charity events, and subsequent re-recordings of the song, including this year’s Band Aid 30 offering, would meet with the same chart and fundraising success as the original, as well as the same criticism.
To Heal a Wound
On October 23, 1984, the BBC aired coverage of a widespread famine in northern Ethiopia, which by that time had claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and threatened to kill as many as a million in the absence of any large-scale humanitarian intervention. The international community remained reluctant to send aid to the ailing nation, however, as its Cold War–era Marxist government was considered to be partly responsible for the famine, having diverted most of its resources to its military objectives. Among those who watched that BBC report was Bob Geldof, singer of the popular ’80s rock group the Boomtown Rats. Moved by what he saw and frustrated by the lack of any meaningful global response to the crisis, Geldof decided to make a difference.
A Man with a Plan, a Band with a Cause
Using his celebrity, Geldof contacted some of England and Ireland’s biggest pop stars of the era and convinced them to donate their time to record a song titled “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Among the 40 members of the charity supergroup who showed up at a studio in west London on November 25, 1984, to lend their voices to the cause were Geldof, Midge Ure (who acted as producer), Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Bono, Boy George, George Michael, Sting, Paul Weller, Paul Young and members of Duran Duran, Bananarama and Spandau Ballet, as well as Americans Kool & the Gang and Jody Watley. Geldof announced the project on BBC radio the following day. But what came next would far surpass his greatest hopes for the venture.
Off the Charts and Onto the Stage
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was released in the UK on November 29, 1984, and immediately went to number one on the charts, where it would stay for more than a month. The single sold more than 20,000 copies on the first day, making it the fastest selling in UK history at the time, and would go on to sell more than two million copies worldwide, ultimately earning tens of millions of dollars more than anyone had expected. Seeking to capitalize on Band Aid’s overwhelming success, Geldof worked with members of the group to put together a massive charity event called Live Aid. Held on July 13, 1985, with simultaneous performances at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, the 16-hour-plus event was attended by more than 150,000 people and watched on satellite broadcasts around the world by more than 1.5 billion people. Featuring big name acts from Elton John to Run-DMC, Bob Dylan to Judas Priest, the event was a huge success, raising nearly $250 million in famine relief for Ethiopia, and earning Bob Geldof an honorary knighthood in the process.
Legacy and Controversy
Since the release of the original “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Geldof has over the years brought back Band Aid in various incarnations, each time meeting with great success, both chart and charitable. A re-recording of the song featuring a new cast of pop stars was released in December 1989 and spent three weeks at number one, while 2004’s Band Aid 20 recording (intended to raise money for the humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region) also topped the charts, selling more than 70,000 copies in the first day and making it that year’s best-selling single.
On November 16, 2014, the Band Aid 30 recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was released. With the stated aim of raising money to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which at writing has been responsible for upwards of 5,000 deaths, the song features revised lyrics, and contributions from the likes of Chris Martin, One Direction and Clean Bandit, as well as veteran Band Aid members Bono and Simon LeBon. Band Aid 30’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” sold more than 300,000 copies in its first week, putting it well on its way to earning millions in aid.
Yet despite their undeniable effectiveness at raising both money and awareness for their causes, the Band Aid project and “Do They Know Its Christmas?” are not without their controversy. Both in the ’80s and the present, the project has been derided by its critics as self-righteous and condescending, while the lyrics to both the original and the revamped Band Aid 30 version have been accused of perpetuating the image of Africa as a doom-laden and foreboding continent. But ask the famously cantankerous Geldof what he thinks of such condemnations and he’s likely to give you the same one-word answer he gave a BBC anchor during a recent television interview when she brought up the topic—“bollocks.”