Three-Minute Records is a periodic feature at Pop Culture Has AIDS where we take a closer look at great, notable or interesting songs in pop music history.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is perfectly emblematic of both its time and its genre — those being the mid-’80s and charity celebrity supergroup one-offs, respectively.
It’s also one of the handful of best Christmas songs ever, and at turns stirring and hilarious. It’s pompous, overblown and lovely. It features one of the most fascinating groups of musicians to ever get in a room or appear on a track together. Let’s all watch and listen, then meet back here for a quick chat, OK?
In 1984 or so, the United States and Western Europe suddenly became fascinated by African famine…a severe, tragic problem that had been around for a long time and would continue for a long time thereafter. But in 1984, we decided we cared and wanted to help.* Then, we helped by watching a couple concerts, buying a couple records, felt good about ourselves and went on our merry way. We thanked God it was them instead of us, indeed.
* Yes, the famine in Ethiopia was particularly awful at this time, which is what initially drew our attention. Still, the whole thing is symptomatic of a culture (particularly in the United States) in which we care about something for a limited time with oddly chosen parameters.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas” was written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, who had been in Ultravox and Thin Lizzy, among other bands. But Geldof is the intriguing figure here.
The leader of the Boomtown Rats, a group that ping-ponged between punk and new wave without excelling at either, Geldof had become a figure of some small acclaim in the UK by the early ’80s. The Rats’ best song, the Springsteen-aping “Rat Trap,” was also their first #1 hit, though it was eventually eclipsed in popularity by the lesser “I Don’t Like Mondays” — minor Boomtown, you might call it.
By the time the famine reached its apex in terms of notoriety, the Rats seemed to be petering out, making Geldof an unlikely figure to collect a supergroup and mastermind a massive hit single.
Somehow, Geldof and Ure had the capital to recruit the likes of: U2, Phil Collins, Sting, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Spandau Ballet, Paul Young, Culture Club, Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Wham!, Heaven 17, Kool & the Gang, Big Country, and Status Quo.
That collection is so intriguing largely because of how massive some of those acts would become but also because of how big some of them already are. Compare it to the “We Are The World” celebrity list, which had more massive stars but also way more “what the fuck are they doing here?” types like James Ingram, Dan Aykroyd, Kenny Loggins, Sheila E., LaToya Jackson, and Harry Belafonte. (And it goes without saying that “We Are the World” is a pile of rotting garbage as a song, making “Do They Know…” even better by comparison, and serving as a national embarrassment for the United States.)
Best of all, Geldof and Ure managed to arrange the song in an almost ideal fashion, so that singers received the lines best suited to them.
After the opening bells and synth/percussion line, which manage to sound both Christmas-y and ominous (no small feat), Paul Young starts us off.
Young is largely relegated to a historical footnote now, known only for “Every Time You Go Away” if anything at all, but he had a couple pretty solid albums and a distinctive, soulful voice. He’s a great choice to bat leadoff, because his voice draws you in and also sets a baseline. If the producers had chosen to allow one of the more ostentatious singers to begin, the flow from one voice to the next would have been awkward.
But Young leads perfectly into Boy George’s velvet-throated croon, as the melody grows more dramatic in its second couplet, and the drums explode as George finishes up. (Yes, Phil Collins’s drums explode. What of it?)
With the song in full motion, George Michael takes over and adds a little drama and Mariah Carey-like melisma to the proceedings. Young to George to Michael…that’s pretty fucking big-time for 1984 British rock.
Simon LeBon takes the baton next, and while he doesn’t have the pipes to match his predecessors, he was so famous at the time that hearing him jump in had to be a kick. That brings us to one of the two best moments of the whole song…
Sting joins LeBon on harmony for the line, “where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.”
How excited do you think Geldof and Ure were when they realized that Sting could sing a line with his name in it? Do you think they wrote the line just hoping Sting would eventually participate? And check out the tantric one’s deadpan face as he delivers the line in the video, there’s not even a hint of winking recognition. Just a great job by everyone involved.
No time to relax though, because here comes Bono in full mulleted piety. He harmonizes with Sting (LeBon drops out) on the “clanging chimes of doom” line, as the bells go nuts in the background. And then it’s time for the best moment in the song…maybe in any song.
“Well, tonight Thank God it’s them instead of you!” Bono cries, getting his shoulders into it. It’s one of the most absurd, grotesque and marvelous lines in music history. So pompous…which of course makes Bono the perfect person to sing it. So tone deaf. So weird.
Listen to Geldolf’s demo (you have to skip past or sit through a Geldolf/Ure interview first) to hear the difference between Geldolf’s flat reading of the line and Bono’s wonderfully over-the-top howl to the heavens.
The interview is also notable to hear Geldolf trying to explain away the ridiculousness of that line, and for showing how much all the singers added to the tune compared to the original version.
Then, after a Phil Collins drum fill, we move to the really good stuff. Voices come in and out, you hear Boy George, this track’s secret weapon, holding a note a little longer than everyone else, and the group singing part of the song is just masterfully done. Even better, this part of the video sets the tone for every charity single to come.
Everyone’s having fun…but not too much fun, because this is a serious occasion. The non-singing members of the bands try to look like they have something to do and that they’re there for a reason. Producers fiddle with knobs on control boards. Quick cuts. Hands on headphoned ears. DO THEY KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME AT ALL???
Finally, Geldolf and Ure make one more brilliant choice: when the closing “Feed the woooooorld” chorus begins, they wait two times through before the answering line comes in, “Let them know it’s Christmas time again”. It builds anticipation so when that answer does come, it’s powerful and climactic.
The rest is history. Hundreds of subpar celebrity songs for various causes followed, including poor imitations of the real thing with Band Aid 2 and Band Aid 20. The song exploded, raising 14 million pounds. Geldof, unable to be knighted due to being Irish, was dubbed “Saint Bob” by the British media and became much better known for his charity work than the Boomtown Rats. And of course, his wife eventually left him for Michael Hutchence, forming one of the strangest love triangles in rock history. (Geldof now raises Tiger Lily, Htuchence’s daughter by Paula Yates.)
And Saint Bob doesn’t even know what he’s done. In 2010, he said, “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, 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.
Oh Bobby, you’re half right, but you couldn’t be more off about your own creation.