‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ is a charity single organised by Bob Geldof, who was the lead singer of The Boomtown Rats. He got the idea after watching a BBC documentary on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof wrote the lyrics and Midge Ure from the band Ultravox wrote the music and produced the track, which was no easy task since so many voices were involved.
In the UK and much of the Northern Hemisphere, snow and numerous displays leave no doubt that Christmas is near. In most of Africa, however, it’s quite warm on 25 December, since it’s summer there. This song asks us to think of those who are living in poverty and hunger in Africa during the Christmas season, reminding us that they might not even know it’s Christmas. While the sentiment and melody are full of good tidings, the lyrics are quite bleak: ‘The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.’
Most of this song was recorded and mixed over a 24-hour period on 25 November 1984, at Sarm West Studios in London. Sting and Simon LeBon had recorded their parts ahead of time, but everyone else came that day. None of the vocalists heard the song before they arrived, so they learned their parts by listening to a guide vocal producer Midge Ure created. With such a tight schedule, there was no time to quibble. In an interview with Ure, he said this time constraint helped the effort. ‘Sometimes, that kind of pressure gets you to create something magical, gets you to eliminate the liberations that you end up having in the studio,’ he said. ‘We just had to nail it and get on with it. Get the vocal track from everyone that was acceptable. As it turns out, a lot of the vocal tracks were exceptional.’
The performers who sang verses are, in order: Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, and Bono. The chorus includes David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, Geldof, Ure and many other artists who weren’t given a verse but sang the “Feed The World” part and lent their images to the effort by appearing in the promotional photo (Band Aid photo with list of performers). The artists were not all friends, but they set aside their differences and were at least cordial to each other during the recording – with one exception. In the book I Want My MTV, George Michael said: ‘The only person who didn’t succumb to the charitable nature of the day was Paul Weller, who decided to have a go at me in front of everybody. I said, ‘Don’t be a wanker all your life. Have a day off.’
In the UK, this became the best-selling single of all-time, selling over 3.8 million. Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind ’97,” which was also a charity single (benefiting the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund) later claimed that title, with sales of over 4.9 million. Not everyone in the UK was a fan of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Morrissey told Time Out in 1985 that the project was ‘diabolical,’ adding, ‘It was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.’