The age of the celebrity supergroup charity single truly began in October 1984, when Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof watched in horror as footage of the worsening Ethiopian famine played across his television screen as part of a BBC News documentary. He was still haunted by the images a week later when a chance encounter reunited him with an old friend, Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, who was just as troubled by what he had seen on the report. The men decided to channel their outrage into a new charity single.
The plan grew significantly larger in scope after Geldof made some calls to the British pop community. “I rang Sting and he said, ‘Yeah, count me in,’ and then [Simon] Le Bon. He just immediately said, ‘Tell me the date and we’ll clear the diary,’” Geldof told Melody Makerin 1984. “The same day I was passing by this antique shop and who is standing in there but [Spandau Ballet’s] Gary Kemp, just about to go off on tour to Japan. He said he was mad for it as well and to wait 10 days till they got back in the country… suddenly it hit me. I thought, ‘Christ, we have got the real top boys here,’ all the big names in pop are suddenly ready and willing to do this… I knew then that we were off, and I just decided to go for all the rest of the faces and started to ring everyone up, asking them to do it.”
Now they needed a song. Recording an old standard would cost royalties, thus eating into the proceeds, so they adapted a semi-complete tune Geldof had written for the Boomtown Rats, tentatively titled “It’s My World.” Following a yuletide overhaul by the pair, the result was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — a song to, in Ure’s words, “touch people’s heartstrings and to loosen the purse strings.”
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The group assembled at Sarm West Studios on November 25th, 1984 was a venerable who’s who of recent U.K. chart toppers. The verses were sung by Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Le Bon, and Bono (respectively), while the “Feed the world” chorus featured Geldof, Ure, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Status Quo, Bananarama, Paul Weller and many others. The singers had not heard the track in advance, and learned their lines on the spot with the help of a demo tape Ure prepared. This caused a minor incident with Bono, who was not pleased with having to sing the acidic “Tonight, thank God, it’s them instead of you” passage. “I told [Geldof] I didn’t want to sing the line,” Bono recalled in the book U2 by U2. “He said, ‘This is not about what you want, OK? This is about what these people need.’ I was too young to say, ‘This is about what you want.’ But it was his show and I was happy to be in it.” Despite Bono’s misgivings, the line became one of Ure’s favorite parts of the song. “I had originally sung it on the guide vocal an octave lower, and he just decided to let it rip, and it was phenomenal,” he told Songfacts in 2015. “Electric. It was just sensational.”
The vocal track was completed in one marathon 24-hour session, and — amazingly — in shops just days later, credited to “Band Aid.” Thanks to a massive publicity campaign and an hourly push on BBC radio, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” shot to number one in the U.K., where it remained the biggest selling single until Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” In addition to the tens of millions of dollars it raised worldwide for Ethiopian famine relief, the song helped sew the seeds for Geldof and Ure’s Live Aid concert the following year. Though some have criticized the tune’s musical shortcomings, Geldof remains defiant.
“Please, it’s a pop song. Relax,” he said in a 2014 interview with The Telegraph. “It’s not a doctoral thesis.” Ure echoed the sentiment in his 2004 autobiography. “It is a song that has nothing to do with music. It was all about generating money… The song didn’t matter: the song was secondary, almost irrelevant.”
In 2014, Geldof and Ure re-recorded the song to help with the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, tweaking they lyrics and corralling some of the biggest British and Irish acts of the time, including One Direction, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Emeli Sandé, Ellie Goulding and Rita Ora.