Every fucking Christmas we are reminded of how problematic basically all Christmas music is (beyond it being blasted in the faces of millions who do not, in fact, celebrate the holiday, of course). There’s the yearly push and pull over the epically rapey (I mean, come on, it’s a great song, but it’s definitely not okay) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I’m not getting into that one, baby. No way. I really can’t!
“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake,” runs the Christmas classic “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which is, you must admit, not so much problematic as it is simply creepy.
When I was little, my favorite Christmas song was “Santa Baby.” I loved the Eartha Kitt version and the one recorded by Madonna for the 1987 Special Olympics benefit record, A Very Special Christmas. That song is about a woman who wants Santa, little more than a pimp in this telling, to bring her extravagant gifts like yachts and convertibles.
For people of a certain age (i.e., those who were born or grew up in the 1980s), perhaps no song is more emblematic of troublesome Christmas music than the British supergroup Band Aid’s epic holiday hit, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” If you are wondering, “They” are the people of Ethiopia, for whom the song was written and recorded in one day after Thanksgiving in 1984. Released in a whirlwind with a video shot during the recording session just a few days later, the song became the fastest-selling single in England ever, selling more than a 1.25 million copies in a week.
Though there was some back-and-forth fighting between its makers (Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, if you must know) and the Thatcher government over whether or not they should have to pay VAT (it was a hefty 19 percent then), ultimately all of the proceeds — literally every pence — went to benefit anti-famine efforts in Ethiopia. The country experienced several famines over the decades from the 1960s into the late 1980s, but the one from 1983 to 1985 in particular was devastating, leading to the deaths of more than 400,000 people. At the time, drought was ascribed as the main cause, though government policies and human rights abuses have subsequently been blamed.
The song is notorious for its ludicrous lyrics. "Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow / Do they know it's Christmastime at all?" Bad lyrics aside, a 2010 Daily Mail piece about the song says that “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — the second bestselling single in Britain’s history (just behind Elton John’s re-recording of “Candle in the Wind,” which he made especially for the death of Princess Diana) — had ultimately raised more than £100 million. It also kicked off the 1980s wave of musician-as-activist that led to events like Live Aid in July 1985 (also helmed by Geldof and Ure).
In the same Daily Mail piece, Geldof was pretty blunt: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and the other one is ‘We Are the World.’” Geldof helped organize the recording session for the latter song, another charity supergroup single, this one made by the Michael Jackson-helmed USA for Africa, just a few months after “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
“And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.”
It’s easy to write off the extreme hubris of such projects, no matter how well-meaning: That’s part of the appeal of the 1980s, on some level. Everything about these productions was so over the top that one comes away with a mixed reaction of horror and affection for all involved. And though many of the documents and anecdotes of this era are insane and amazing (One has Phil Collins randomly running into Cher on a Concorde flight from London to Philadelphia, where he was leaving one Live Aid concert to rush to the other. Cher, who apparently didn’t know about the concerts, tagged along and came on stage for the “We Are the World” finale in Philly), none is more beloved to me than the video for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
The video sort of speaks for itself on a few levels, but partly, it’s charming today because of the contrast left behind by the fact that we are ever-increasingly unsure of what (or who) is so “super” in this super group. I’d be lying if I said that I personally don’t know the names of all the people in said video, but I’m almost certainly, 32 years later, in the minority.
The video opens with Geldof rolling into the studio in London. The video, you see, is simply a recording of what happened the day that the song was recorded. Cameras outside captured the best footage, the arrivals of the most popular musicians of 1984: Geldof, John Taylor of Duran Duran, Sting, then of The Police, now of Sting. The song, we know, was recorded on a Sunday, so I imagine there were more than a few hangovers in that live room. The first man to open his mouth and deliver a line, Paul Young, has been sort of forgotten to the sands of time but eventually had a US No. 1 with his cover of the Hall & Oates song “Everytime You Go Away.” Yeah, that’s right: Hall & Oates. Boy George is up next, who was possibly the biggest draw of that exact moment: He needed to be flown in from the States because his band, Culture Club, was on tour there. He’s not in the PR photo taken that day. You can disagree with me that he’s the most important character in the video: There are plenty, plenty of others vying for the position.
Phil Collins doesn’t sing on the song. But he did lay down the drum track, there in his sleeveless cardigan, off in a room alone. It’s cool to imagine he never uttered a word, just rolled in, played the drums then peaced right back out. George Michael, Simon LeBon (of Duran Duran), Sting, the guy from Spandau Ballet, and Bono share the next verse. Sting looks more pissed every time they show him. At first, you think, “Maybe it’s because he’s sharing a microphone with a man — LeBon — who is —bold! — wearing both vertical and horizontal stripes,” but then they cut away to Spandau Ballet man and when they cut back, fucking Bono has squeezed between them and he looks even LESS happy.
Geldof said back in ’85 that there were “no egos” in the room when they recorded the song, which is impressive if true but also a little disappointing, and hard to believe, considering that fucking Paul Weller is there. If Weller was hungover that day he doesn’t show it: He is fresh as a daisy, neat, and ready to lay down his… oh right, he doesn’t have his own verse.
About halfway through the video, it cuts back to more arrivals. Bananarama, Jody Watley, Kool and the Gang. A couple of babies are there. The video ends with the whole group together in a room singing the chorus, which is honestly a little underwhelming: “Feed the world… let them know it’s Christmastime!”
“Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you. And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime.”
Bob looks happy there at the end, because he doesn’t yet know that the song, which Morrissey referred to as a “daily torture on the people of England,” would haunt him. You can’t make this big of a hit without people constantly asking about the particulars, and without them noticing when something doesn’t sit quite right. The song, which somehow manages to be both an earworm and stunningly unremarkable (the only line I can ever remember is Bono’s screeched “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of youuuuu,” another fairly fucked up sentiment).
Geldof refused to talk about the song and its recording for years, but it didn’t rankle him hard enough to stop him from recording a new version when the ebola epidemic struck in 2014, so, maybe it was just a matter of time. A few years ago, it might have been harder to express a mostly harmless affection for a song so seemingly out of touch. But, like the cocaine that probably flowed that day in the studio, all the minor offenses have been blown away leaving only a few lingering images, fondness for lost time, and a question: “Who are these people again?” And don’t feel too badly about not knowing the answers: Even in ’84, when they released the record, Band Aid felt the need to give purchasers a numbered key to the photo with all the stars' names printed on it. Thank God we still have it.