In 1984, Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats teamed up with Ultravox’s Midge Ure to create one of the most politically influential singles of the 20th century, “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The song was born out of a sincere concern about the famine in Ethiopia, and it aimed to raise funds to target that cause.
The song’s “supergroup” included British and Irish musicians who flew over to London to record the emotional (yet controversial) lyrics. Some sentences were a bit off, and many claimed that the song misunderstood Ethiopia’s problems altogether. In any case, Geldof argues he meant well.
Here’s the story of this iconic Christmas carol.
In 1984, BBC released a documentary exposing the “biblical famine” in Ethiopia. The footage went viral and was shown by more than 400 television stations worldwide. The news report shocked its viewers, among them, musician Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats. Geldof was stunned by the fact that humans live in such conditions in the 20th century and felt he had to do something about it.
He arranged a meeting in London with Ultravox singer Midge Ure, and the two brainstormed on how they could generate income and raise awareness. Finally, Ure confessed, “[We came] to the ultimate conclusion that we are absolutely useless at everything, except maybe putting a good song together.”
Geldof saw the documentary in October and wanted to release the song before Christmas, so he knew he was under a tight schedule. He also knew that doing a cover was out of the question because he would have to pay royalties (which would be subtracted from the charity money).
Luckily, Geldof had already cooked up some lyrics before, with the intent of recording it as a song for the Boomtown Rats titled “It’s My World.” Apparently, his band members weren’t into it and decided to scrap it. Good thing they did!
Bob arrived at Midge’s place with an old guitar, a bunch of scattered lyrics, and an improvised melody. Ure recalled, “He started singing me this thing – it was obvious he was making it up as he went along. He sounded like a demented Bob Dylan. There was no melody, no structure, and every time he sang it. It sounded different.”
Ure did his best to arrange the incompatible pieces and spent hours in his studio building things up layer by layer. The task was far from easy. The song has a moody, dark intro, a sing-along at the end, and it lacks any proper chorus. Despite the odd construction, the boys felt that the song could become a hit with enough talented people.
When Bob invited Simon Le Bon to sing the charity hit, he told him it would be just him and Sting. Le Bon had no idea it would end up being a whole group of musical legends. He was even a bit upset when he found out his lines were given to someone else.
“I thought I was going to get half the song. I was a bit pissed off because when I walked into [Sarm Studios], they were already recording somebody else singing one of my lines! That took a while to sort of get my head around,” he confessed.
The song’s line “Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” was, of course, assigned to Sting. The singer sighed and asked if he HAD to be the one singing that line, to which Bob replied, yes. If you listen carefully to the song, you can hear a bit of hostility in his voice.
Sting eventually came to terms with his line: “There’s a touch of irony there. When we had to dole out the lines to everyone else, it wasn’t an accident. I was still the King of Pain after all,” he explained.
Boy George was one of the biggest music stars at the time, and Bob insisted on adding his voice to the record. So, he phoned George, who was all the way in New York, to ask him to join. When George didn’t arrive the next day, Bob called him again.
George mumbled, “Who’s there? [in the studio],” and Bob replied, “Every f*cker but you. Get your ass on the Concorde.” Which he did. He arrived a bit jet-lagged and confused, but none of that showed in his voice. Ure mentioned that the minute George opened his mouth, he sang like an angel.
Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet and Le Bon from Duran Duran landed at Heathrow Airport looking like a hot mess. They had flown in from Germany, where they spent the night before drinking and partying. When they arrived in London, they had to get their act together fast. Four hundred screaming fans were waiting for them outside.
“All of a sudden, we’re all in the bathroom trying to make ourselves look presentable – you know, Nick Rhodes putting stacks of makeup on. I think we all put a bit of makeup on that day, actually,” Hadley recalled.
Bono was assigned the task of belting out the most controversial line, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” The singer questioned Bob’s decision. He asked, “Why would you say that?” That can be perceived as a brutal, unfeeling line.”
Ure’s response to the misunderstood sentence was, “But we’re not saying, ‘Rather them than us.’ We’re saying how lucky we are that we don’t have to deal with that kind of extreme poverty.” Despite Ure’s explanation, this line remains a cringey sentence many people still hate.
Paul Young felt a little intimated in the studio. He didn’t personally know many of the musicians who came to record and was a bit confused about who he should approach and say hello to. He recalled feeling a little star-struck and left out after seeing Sting and Bono, two massive stars who knew each other, talking it up by the bar.
But luckily, he knew Tony Hadley, and he said that the Status Quo boys were super friendly. So, it didn’t take long for the newcomer to feel right at home in a studio full of well-established stars.
The music industry is competitive, and having your peers stare at you as you sing your lines isn’t the easiest thing to do. More often than not, one’s ego takes over as you demand to be the best singer in the room with the best lines and the most airtime. Amazingly, the supergroup left their egos at the door.
“By the end of the night, I had to throw them all out because they were having such a good time bonding and hanging out,” Midge Ure recalled. It’s amazing to find out that there was no ego-driven tension in the studio, despite the intimidating environment.
George Michael was confident that Wham!’s hit single, Last Christmas, would be that year’s Christmas hit: “Nothing looked like it could keep us off number one! And then I heard about the Band-Aid record and wanted to get involved. At the time, it didn’t seem a very big deal,” he explained.
When he realized how huge the song was, he joked, “This record might be number one at Christmas, but then again, so might ours, but I don’t care because I’m on both of them!” Bob and Midge’s song ended up being number one. And Michael confirmed he was happy about the way everything turned out.
How was Queen not in the studio on the day of the recording? Don’t worry. Bob didn’t forget them. Freddie mentioned he really wanted to be part of the project, but, unfortunately, he was at a distant part of the globe at the time.
Therefore, when Queen heard of Live Aid, it was a no-brainer. They knew they were going to take part in the show. “It makes me personally proud to be part of it,” Freddie told an interviewer before their performance.
The charity hit blew up the second it aired. It sold a million copies in its first week and remained number one for five weeks in the U.K. It was also crowned the biggest selling U.K. hit of all time until Candle in the Wind came out 12 years later.
In the U.S., the song sold around 2.5 million copies by January 1985. Bob Geldof was thrilled. What began as a humble aspiration to raise £70,000 for Ethiopia ended up at £8 million within twelve months of release.
The 1985 super concert was viewed by more than a billion people worldwide. It was held simultaneously in two venues, Wembley Stadium in London, U.K., and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, U.S. The lineup featured more than 75 acts, including David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Madonna.
At Wembley, the performance ended with a collective and emotional performance of the song that started it all, Do They Know It’s Christmas, and the U.S. concert ended on a similar note with We Are the World.
At press conferences in London and New York, Geldof made big claims that artists like Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Waylon Jennings were all going to perform at Live Aid. But in fact, none of them had made up their mind yet.
Some musicians were annoyed at first, but not because they didn’t want to do it. They just didn’t appreciate Bob deciding for them. Eventually, they understood the importance of their presence, so they agreed to go ahead with it.
Geldof expected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to waive the VAT attached to the record’s cost. He explained it was a charity single and ensured that every penny would go to famine relief. But initially, the British government pushed back.
They refused to waive the VAT and collected an estimated half a million pounds, while the Irish government took nothing. Band-Aid went public with their fury, and eventually, Margaret Thatcher turned things around. She refunded the VAT and gave her thanks “to all who contributed to that inspired piece of music-making.”
In 1989, Bob Geldof felt prompted to renew the song, so he called record producer Pete Waterman and asked him to join the team. Waterman responded with an immediate yes and even postponed his wedding for the cause!
After several phone calls and only two days later, recordings began at PWL Studios in South London. New artists arrived one by one including, Kylie Minogue, Cliff Richard, and Jason Donovan. The song hit number one on the U.K. and Ireland Singles Chart.
In 2004, the charity hit was brought back to life by different musicians, including Joss Stone, Snow Patrol, Sugababes, Chris Martin, and Natasha Bedingfield. Bono also joined the group, singing the same lines he sang two decades before.
This time, the idea to revive the charity hit wasn’t Geldof’s; Coldplay’s Chris Martin suggested it. For the most part, the rendition remains true to its original version, apart from an extra segment by British rapper Dizzee Rascal.
In 2014, Geldof and Ure proudly announced that a new group of artists would be performing the iconic single. This time, the new version included artists like Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, and Sam Smith. Bono came back for the third time and Chris Martin for his second.
The most noticeable difference this time around was the replacement of “Well tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” with “Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you.” Many fans agreed that the swap was a necessary move.
Surprisingly, Bob Geldof confessed to The Hollywood Reporter that he believes he’s responsible for two of the worst songs in history – Do They Know It’s Christmas and We Are the World. For us listeners, the songs are moving, humanistic poems. But for Bob, they’re an annoying tune.
“I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter, and it will be playing. Every f*cking Christmas,” he confessed. “Every time I arrive to buy the fucking turkey, I hear [hums the song’s intro]. The butcher looks at me with a little smile, and I go, ‘Yeah, yeah. Give me the fucking turkey, dude.’”
For the longest time, fans assumed (and maybe still assume) that Bob and Midge were swimming in a pile of millions following the song’s worldwide success. But Ure was quick to deny the conspiracies: “We have to refute that this is nonsense. In 35 years, we have never received a penny.”
Bob agreed and insisted that all the money the song generates goes to the poorest people in the world. He stated, “100 percent will go to those people. I can reiterate that, and Midge is here to confirm.”
Some people accused the song of spreading misinformation. For example, the fact that Africa’s problems were due to the lack of rainfall and failed harvests. But truthfully, the famines of the mid-’80s were “caused primarily by a corrupt government and the misuse of international aid.”
Moreover, the money that Band-Aid raised didn’t provide much relief in Ethiopia because their military dictatorship used it. In other words, there’s a high chance that our Christmas carol paid for guns. Bob himself admitted that an estimated $2 million of aid money was misused.
Band-Aid and Live Aid raised an estimated $150 million for famine relief and have probably generated a lot more through the years due to the many renditions. But despite Geldof’s best efforts, Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Still, that doesn’t discourage him. He says the project “created something permanent and self-sustaining.” He argued time and again that he intended to do good and taking action is a lot better than dwelling in cynicism and despair.
Do They Know It’s Christmas reminded everyone of music’s power to heal and unite. It reminded artists that they could use their voices to raise awareness and collect money for the less fortunate. And a few months after the single’s release, another charity hit took over the airwaves.
We Are the World was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian. Here too, a supergroup of musicians came together to sing for Africa and for hunger in America as well.
Like Ure and Geldof’s song, We Are the World’s impact was immediate. The song generated over $75 million, which was distributed to Sudan, Ethiopia, and other countries in need. The record sold 800,000 copies in a matter of days and peaked at number one on the charts in over 15 countries.
Lionel Richie proudly stated, “What [the song] did do was beyond our wildest imagination. We became a country unto itself. We became the world.” Both “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” have stood the test of time and are considered historical recordings.
When Quincy Jones approached Prince to invite him to join the supergroup, Prince offered to play the guitar instead. This didn’t go so well with Jones, who allegedly yelled at Prince’s manager, Rob Cavallo, “I don’t need him to f*cking play guitar!”
So, why didn’t Prince want to sing? According to guitarist Wendy Melvoin, Prince thought the song was horrible. But some people didn’t buy into that explanation and blamed his alleged “rivalry” with Jackson for the rejection.
Both We Are the World and Do They Know It’s Christmas are considered incredibly revolutionary songs. They’ve sparked a well-needed discussion about impoverished countries and have prompted the release of many more charity singles.
In 1985, a supergroup of Latin musicians sang “Hermanos del Tercer Mundo” (Brothers of the Third World). Half the profits were donated to USA for Africa, and the rest was used to aid Latin American countries.
Midge Ure sadly reflected on the fact that an anniversary with the song’s original lineup will never be a possibility due to the death of a few of its members. But he concluded, “Maybe some things are best just being left with the artist. There’s a magic moment in time.”
He described it as wanting to see the Beatles perform together again. “Would it live up to the dreams we’ve built over the years?” he asked, “Maybe it wouldn’t. So maybe it’s just best left the way it actually was.
British-Nigerian Keno Ogbo spoke up about the 2014 carol, which targeted Ebola as opposed to Ethiopia’s famine in the ‘80s. He told BBC: “Even in the Ebola countries, we have people saying: ‘We know it’s Christmas here, it’s not dread and fear all the time; we still have hope in the midst of what’s going on.'”
What bugged him the most was Africans’ portrayal as helpless people desperate for Westerners and Europeans to come to save them. He deeply appreciates Geldof but thought that the song could have benefitted from Africa-based musicians as opposed to just Westerners on the mic.
The Boomtown Rats’ final performance was at an event called Self Aid, a 1986 concert with many Irish musicians who came together to raise awareness of unemployment in Ireland. Afterward, the band broke up.
Simon Crowe and Johnnie Fingers formed their own band, Gung Ho, and Geldof pursued a solo career with Pete Briquette by his side. Garry Roberts continued to write songs for a while before he left the business and became a successful salesman and an engineer.
While singing for the welfare of others, Boy George was fighting to keep himself in pieces. He had been struggling with heroin addiction for years, but he began contemplating rehab when his good friend passed away from an overdose.
According to Boy George, what ultimately led to his recovery was the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, a mantra that reduces suffering by removing negative karma and karmic punishments.
George Michael parted from Wham! shortly after recording “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The talented singer embarked on a solo journey and released five albums. His last one, Patience, was released in 2004. He continued touring for several years until his life came to a tragic end in 2016.
In a cold December morning, the singer passed away in his bed at the age of 53. The autopsy revealed that the cause was dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart cannot pump blood properly.
Despite medical claims that confirmed Michael had died from natural causes, his fans believed otherwise. Some speculated he committed suicide. Long-time friend Elton John added to the heated rumors by revealing that Michael was “deeply unhappy” during his last years.
Disturbing tweets by Michael’s partner, Fadi Fawaz, further hinted that the singer may have taken his own life. But shortly after the tweets surfaced, Fawaz took those claims back and said his Twitter account was hacked.
Following his performance on Do They Know It’s Christmas, Bono continued to develop his prosperous career with U2. After years of incredible projects, the band has finally landed a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2015, Bono was recognized by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. Today, Bono spends most of his time with his high school sweetheart, Alison Hewson, whom he’s been married to for 37 years. The couple have four children, Jordan, Memphis, Elijah, and John.
Phil Collins is considered one of the greatest drummers of his generation. His skills shined in Do They Know It’s Christmas and continued to shine long after. But tragically, in 2007, he suffered a severe injury in his upper neck that left him with a crippling nerve damage.
The damage left his hands unable to function properly, and doctors said he wouldn’t be able to play the drums anymore. But he found a way to make things work! In 2020, Phil confirmed that his son Nick Collins would be joining Genesis’ tour as their drummer.
After Duran Duran’s performance in the Christmas hit, they continued their tours and released their latest album, Paper Gods, in 2015. The band described each of their albums as a chapter of their lives, and Paper God was a “special one for everyone in the band.”
As of today, the band is eager to get back on the road. They recently wrote on their website, “Much has changed in the world, particularly during this last year, like everyone else I look forward to when we can all be free again, and we all hope it will be possible to embark on a new adventure next year.”
Shortly after their collaboration with Band-Aid, Spandau Ballet’s members parted ways. They had several disputes over royalties, ending with Hadley, Norman, and Keeble performing as a trio under the name “Hadley, Norman and Keeble, ex-Spandau Ballet.”
Spandau Ballet eventually reunited in October 2009 and began to tour across Europe. Years later, in 2017, Tom Hadley tweeted that he was no longer a member of the band (due to issues beyond his control). He told Smooth Radio, “It just got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore – you know, for whatever reason. It just all went too far.”
The girl band Bananarama, formed in 1979 and participated a few years later in the iconic Christmas hit. Shortly after, in 1988, Siobhan Fahey left the band. Their former producer, Peter Waterman, described the girls as “punks” who were terribly hard to do work with.
“I fought with them about everything. They saw themselves as punks who were not prepared to be manipulated by any man,” Waterman told The Sun, “Siobhan was the feistiest one. Trying to get her to focus her talent on the band was difficult, and we have not spoken in a very long time.”
After his work on the Band-Aid project, Midge Ure pursued a solo career. His debut album, The Gift, reached number two on the UK chart, affirming that his move to leave Ultravox was a smart one. Eventually, he returned to Ultravox and recorded their 2012 reunion album, Brill! Ant.
In 2020, Midge Ure created his “Backstage Lockdown Club,” where he live-streamed songs to members of his Patreon. The live sessions include intimate interviews with artists like Howard Jones, Glenn Gregory, and Mark King.