Duranalysis: Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
On November 25, 1984, Bob Geldof, frontman of the Boomtown Rats, and Midge Ure, lead singer of Ultravox, assembled over thirty of Britain’s leading rock and pop music talents, including Sting, George Michael, and members of Duran Duran, Culture Club, and U2, at Sarn Studios in London to form a supergroup known as Band Aid and record a Christmas-themed single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, the proceeds of which would be used to help relieve the crippling famine in Ethiopia.
Yep, you’re right: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is a terrible song (for what it’s worth,Geldof calls it one of the “worst songs in history”). The criticisms levied against it—that the lyrics are clunky, that the expressed sentiments are smug and condescending—are valid. You know what? It doesn’t matter. I love it to bits. Those involved with the project participated out of a genuine passion for it, and while the end result might be dreadful, it sure is sincere.
For the purposes of this holiday-themed Duranalysis, I’m going to examine the half-hour made-for-VHS documentary that was released simultaneously with the single, which follows Geldof, Ure, and the various artists throughout a long, frenetic day of recording. Here we go:Amidst a sea of reporters and onlookers, the musicians begin to arrive at the recording studio. The beautiful boys of Duran Duran and their frenemies in Spandau Ballet arrive simultaneously after a long evening of mutual partying in Germany. Here’s Spandau’s Tony Hadley describing the situation in an excellent 2004 documentary, Band Aid: The Song That Rocked the World: “We were in Germany the night before with the Durannies, and I remember we’d had a right night out. We looked terrible! … You’ve never seen ten perfect pop stars rushing for the toilet as quick as the Durannies and the Spandaus. And it was like, hairspray out, you know, Nick Rhodes getting the makeup on.”
Nick preens for the cameras while looking gorgeous and immaculate. Job well done, Nick.
Bob Geldof, flanked by a silent Midge Ure, talks about how it’s a “complete obscenity” that the US and Europe don’t immediately release their stores of surplus food to Africa. Whatever your views on Geldof (the ever-tactful Morrissey, for example, once labeled him a “nauseating character”and described Band Aid as “diabolical”), it’s tough to mock his passion and gumption. As this documentary makes clear, he worked with a near-maniacal intensity to write and organize and record this single in time to get it into stores before Christmas.
(On a shallow note: While I recognize on an intellectual level that Bob Geldof circa 1984 is unequivocally hot—great eyes, great hair, lanky body, superb Irish accent—I first watched Pink Floyd—The Wall at far too young and tender of an age, and after watching him shave off his eyebrows and indulge in sundry other disturbing behavior onscreen, I am fundamentally unable to find him attractive. Pretty sure I’m not the only person with this problem.)
In the recording studio, the musicians all gather together on risers to sing the chorus. As one of the track’s featured soloists, Simon gets to stand in front right next to Geldof. Two years later, Simon would serve as the best man at Geldof’s wedding to Paula Yates.
Meanwhile, Nick, Roger, Andy, and John are clumped together in the back. The official video for the song consists of footage taken while the track was being recorded, and for years, I assumed Roger hadn’t participated in this part, because I could never spot him in the group. But no, he’s there. Look at the video closely: He’s wedged between Andy and Nick, partially hidden by Jody Watley’s glorious mane of hair, looking haunted and miserable. (Quote from Roger on singing the chorus: “I was just miming it, I think.”)
Like Roger, the lovely ladies of Bananarama seem totally over it.
The soloists record their bits in the studio. Midge Ure, who seems very sweet and charming, presides over these sessions, providing gentle and supportive feedback in the world’s most lilting and delightful Scottish accent. Paul Young sings the opening lines: “It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid…” Young was well known in both the UK and the US at the time for hits like “Oh Girl” and “Every Time You Go Away”, but he’s not quite in the same rarified league of fame as the cluster of soloists who immediately follow him on the track: Simon, Boy George, George Michael, Bono, Sting. There’s a reason for this: Geldof and Ure originally planned for the opening to be sung by David Bowie, who ultimately couldn’t make it to the studio that day, and of the available singers, only Young had a low enough range to manage the part. Young: “As I was the only other person in the room who could sing down there, I think that’s why I got the part.”
Simon records his solo piece. He behaves a teensy bit like a prima donna throughout. It’s not bad, and it’s not unprecedented. The man’s a star. On occasion, he acts like one.
Sting diplomatically comments upon having so many big names and big egos assembled in one room: “Very interesting kind of chemistry going on.”
Here’s Simon, as quoted in Lori Majewski’s stellar Band Aid retrospective in Rolling Stone: “That was the first time I met Sting. He was very friendly, apart from when I said, ‘God, it's really hot and sweaty in here,’ and he told me not to do so many drugs.”
Sting, Simon, and Bono record their parts together. Sting and Simon look like a pair of golden-haired Vikings; wedged between them, Bono looks small and painfully young and innocuous.
And then Bono opens his mouth and rips out his wrenching, blistering rendition of that infamous/iconic line—“Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you”—and it’s amazing.
Here’s Bono in the 2004 documentary, discussing how Geldof initially approached him to participate in the project: “I thought he was ringing up to say, you know, ‘I like your album’. No, he told me the album was shite, but despite that, would I like to be a part of his song?”
Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of the rock band Status Quo record their bit while goofing around and mocking Midge’s name and making unfortunate “homo” jokes (there are some parts of 1984 I do not miss) and singing wildly off key. Over in the control room, Midge looks tremendously patient and long-suffering. Status Quo’s vocal contribution did not make the final mix of the song (Parfitt: “There’s that lovely moment when somebody else says to me, ‘Rick, it’s probably best if somebody else sings your bit’”).
Nigel Planer shows up, uninvited, in character as Neil from The Young Ones. He gets far too much screen time in this documentary.
Bono waxes philosophic about how best to use his growing money and fame to help the world: “I’m learning more and more that the best way I can contribute as a person is to do what I do best and make music, sing music.” It’s a little insufferable—“My gift is my song!”—but hell, he’s young here, and he’s sincere and well-intentioned, and in the intervening years since Band Aid, he really has leveraged his celebrity to do a great deal of humanitarian work. He’s been a force of good in the world; he’s allowed to be a little insufferable.
John Taylor and Spandau Ballet’s impish Gary Kemp goof around together, giggling madly and showering extravagant praise on Geldof. John seems a little blurry (in 1984, John was always slightly blurry), but he looks gorgeous, and his spirits are high. Most importantly, he’s wearing a fabulous red-and-black sweater with “DURAN DURAN” knitted across the front. I covet that sweater like I’ve coveted few pieces of clothing in my life. Any old slob can own a Duran Duran t-shirt; only John Taylor owns Duran Duran knitwear.
It’s very late in a very long day, and Boy George finally swans into the recording studio, ready at last to record his part. He’d overslept after a performance in New York, then caught the last Concorde flight of the day to London (Bob Geldof: “Fuck me! He wandered in at six in the evening!”). Culture Club drummer Jon Moss, Boy George’s then-lover, asks, “Which way does Boy George go?” The double meaning is firmly intended.
Has anyone made a sordid, sensationalistic, awesome made-for-TV movie about Boy George and Jon Moss? If not, someone needs to get on that pronto, because those two were wild. Key quote from Moss about his relationship with Boy George: “He tried to kill me with a plant pot, seriously, from two stories up, by dropping it on my head. I tried to smoke him out and set fire to him one evening, but it wasn’t very good.”
Upon spotting Simon, Boy George summons him over (“Oi! Simon!”), then throws an arm around his shoulders and leads him up the stairs to the recording booth. Flashbulbs pop, fans cheer, reporters shout questions. Boy George: “We’d been, like, sworn enemies for many years, but we ended up putting our arms around each other and posing for the press.”
Here’s a tremendously snotty/awesome (snotsome?) comment Boy George once made to a Duran fan who chastised him for saying rude things about the band to the press: ''I stand a better chance of sleeping with Simon Le Bon than you do, honey.” Wow.
So Boy George gets to the sound booth and, while swilling from a bottle of brandy, absolutely nails his part. (Per Telegraph journalist Robin Eggar: “There was no catering, and a local shop did a roaring trade in day-old sandwiches. Boy George had to buy his own brandy.”)
A reporter asks Boy George if there’s any reason “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” should hit number one. Boy George: “Well, it just means it’ll stop all these really trashy bands from getting to number one.” Boy George is a walking force of chaos. At one point, he casually refers to a then-closeted George Michael as “camp” (“I was always trying to out George,” he later explained).
Geldof talks about getting all these hugely famous and glamorous stars assembled in one place: “And then when they all got together, it just looked like a bunch of yobbos in any old pub in the world.” He’s not wrong.
Immediately following the recording session, Midge Ure stayed up all night mixing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in order to get it pressed the next morning. It entered the UK pop charts at number one on December 3rd—eight days after the recording session—and eventually sold over eleven million copies worldwide, raising a reported fourteen million dollars for famine relief and jump-starting an enduring trend of celebrity activism. As Geldof describes it, Band Aid was “…an extraordinary operation that came together just because people wanted to do something.” Not a bad result for a day’s work.