“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was written by Irish singer Bob Geldof and Midge Ure from Ultravox in October of 1984 to raise money for relief of the famine in Ethiopia.
Bob Geldof appeared on a show in early November with BBC Radio’s Richard Skinner, but instead of discussing his new album (the original reason for his booking), he used this opportunity to publicize the idea for the charity single.
Bob Geldof then put together a group called Band Aid, consisting of leading British and Irish musicians who were among the most popular of the era.
As a result, intense media interest developed, so by the time the world’s top musicians were recruited to participate many were already joining the project.
Then on November 25, 1984, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was recorded and mixed free of charge at Trevor Horn’s Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill, London.
Bob Geldof and song producer Midge Ure arrived at the studio before dawn so that Ure could put the recorded backing tracks (created at his home studio), into the system.
Ure also input vocals for the song pre-recorded by Sting and Simon Le Bon acquired from the artists in advance in order to provide a guide for the other vocalists.
At dawn, the world’s media began arriving at the studio.
Then around 9am, the stars began arriving: Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Paul Young, Culture Club (initially without Boy George), George Michael of Wham!, Kool and the Gang, Sting of The Police, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2, Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 (whom Ure had personally invited down) and his bandmate Martyn Ware, Phil Collins of Genesis, Paul Weller of The Style Council, Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, Jody Watley of Shalamar, Bananarama, Marilyn (who was not invited but arrived anyway) and some of Geldof’s bandmates from the Boomtown Rats.
Only one of Ure’s Ultravox colleagues, Chris Cross, attended.
Geldof, noticing Boy George’s absence (despite phoning him in New York the day before), called the Culture Club star again to get him out of bed and onto a Concorde transatlantic flight.
Ure played the backing track and guide vocals to the artists together and decided, as a way of getting all involved straightaway, to record the climax first, which also allowed the ‘team shot’ of the day to be photographed.
The artists were put in a huge group and sang the ‘Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time’ refrain over and over again until it was completed.
Then Ure sought a volunteer to be first into the studio to sing the main body of the song.
Eventually Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet did so, with plenty of rival artists watching him, and sang the song straight through.
The other singers then did likewise, with Ure taping their efforts and then making notes on which segments would be cut into the final recording.
Simon Le Bon, despite having already pre-recorded his part at Ure’s house, re-recorded it so he could be part of the moment.
Sting also recorded his words again, this time to provide harmony.
Then Phil Collins arrived with his entire drum kit and waited until Ure was ready to record him over an electronic drum track that had already been put in place.
The song ended up as a mixture of Phil Collins’ drums and an African rhythm that opens the song, taken from a sample of The Hurting by Tears for Fears.
Much later, Ure stated in his autobiography that he was constantly battling with Geldof, the song’s lyricist but someone not renowned for his melody skills, and telling him to leave when he would come into the production booth and wrongly tell the artist behind the microphone what to sing.
Ure also had to shelve an attempt by the two members of Status Quo to record the “here’s to you” harmonies because Rick Parfitt could not hit the note.
Francis Rossi of Status Quo afterwards told Ure that Parfitt never sang in the studio, only onstage, and he should have kept him away from the microphone.
This section was eventually taken on by Paul Weller, Sting and Glenn Gregory. However, Status Quo was able to contribute in other ways, according to journalist Robin Eggar:
“Once Status Quo produced their bag of cocaine and the booze started to flow – I brought six bottles of wine from my flat, which disappeared in a minute – it became a party.”
Then Boy George finally arrived at 6:00 PM and went immediately into the recording booth to deliver his lines.
Boy George was rather vocal in his dislike of fellow singer George Michael, some of which is caught on video during the filming of the Band Aid collaboration.
While recording harmonies, Boy George openly confused Michael’s recorded vocals with the voice of “Alf” (British singer-songwriter Alison Moyet, who did not participate in the charity single).
When the engineer correctly identified the voice as that of Michael, Boy George replied “God, he sounded camp. But then he is.”
Once Boy George had finished his tracks, Ure had all the vocals he needed and, as the artists began to party and then drifted away, began working on the mix.
An additional B-side, featuring messages from artists who had and hadn’t made the recording (including David Bowie, Paul McCartney, the members of Big Country and Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes to Hollywood) was also recorded over the same backing track.
Trevor Horn then put all this together in his own studio.
Despite being singers themselves, neither Geldof nor Ure had a solo line on the song, though both took part in the ‘feed the world’ finale.
Ure worked on the mix through the night and finally completed the task at 8:00 AM on Monday morning.
Before departing the Sarm Studio, Bob Geldof recorded a statement, which was added as part of a song on the B-side of the 12-inch vinyl record called, “Feed The World”.
Bob Geldof’s spoken-word statement read:
“This record was recorded on the 25th of November 1984. It’s now 8 AM in the morning of the 26th. We’ve been here 24 hours and I think it’s time we went home. So from me – Bob Geldof, and Midge, we’d say, ‘Good morning to you all, and a million thanks to everyone on the record. Have a lovely Christmas. Bye.'”.
Additionally, David Bowie recorded a similar statement which also appeared on the B-side song:
“This is David Bowie. It’s Christmas 1984, and there are more starving folk on our planet than ever before. Please give a thought for them this season, and do whatever you can – however small – to help them live. Have a peaceful New Year.”
Finally, Midge Ure – arguably the “heavy lifter” of the overall project, albeit away from the spotlight – recorded his statement as such:
“Hello this is Midge Ure from Ultravox. I forgot there were so many bloody groups here today. Ah, just have a good Christmas, and ah, enjoy yourself.”
In addition to Gelfof’s, Bowie’s and Ure’s spoken-word statements, several other artists contributed spoken-word statements, generally giving thanks, citing the famine, offering well-wishes for the Christmas season, and acknowledging the efforts of all involved – which essentially comprised the entire B-side song, “Feed The World”, which was only available on the 12-inch vinyl version of the record.
The song was quickly dispatched to the pressing plants who had promised to have the single pressed and ready by Tuesday.
A spell of publicity and final legal details followed, then it hit the shops on Thursday November 29, 1984 in a sleeve designed by Peter Blake.
The song became the biggest selling single in UK Singles Chart history, selling a million copies in the first week alone.
It stayed at Number 1 for five weeks, becoming Christmas number one, and has sold 3.7 million copies domestically.
It remained the highest selling single in UK chart history until 1997, when Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” was released in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, which sold almost 5 million copies in Britain.
Following the release of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in December of 1984 and record sales in aid of famine relief, Geldof then set his sights on staging a huge concert, 1985’s Live Aid, to raise further funds.
Worldwide, the single had sold 11.8 million copies by 1989.
The song was then re-recorded in 1989 by Band Aid II and in 2004 by Band Aid 20, again raising funds for famine relief.
The 2004 version of the song sold 1.17 million copies.
Now WE know em
The original participants consisted of (in sleeve order):
Adam Clayton (U2)
Phil Collins (Genesis)
Bob Geldof (The Boomtown Rats)
Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet)
Chris Cross (Ultravox)
John Taylor (Duran Duran)
Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet)
Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17)
Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran)
Simon Crowe (The Boomtown Rats)
Keren Woodward (Bananarama)
Martin Kemp (Spandau Ballet)
Jody Watley (Shalamar)
Paul Weller (The Style Council)
James “J.T.” Taylor (Kool & the Gang)
George Michael (Wham!)
Midge Ure (Ultravox)
Martyn Ware (Heaven 17)
John Keeble (Spandau Ballet)
Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet)
Roger Taylor (Duran Duran)
Sara Dallin (Bananarama)
Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama)
Pete Briquette (The Boomtown Rats)
Francis Rossi (Status Quo)
Robert ‘Kool’ Bell (Kool & the Gang)
Dennis J. T. Thomas (Kool & the Gang)
Andy Taylor (Duran Duran)
Jon Moss (Culture Club)
Sting (The Police)
Rick Parfitt (Status Quo)
Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran)
Johnny Fingers (The Boomtown Rats)
Paul Stanley (Kiss)
Roger Daltrey (The Who)
Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)
Boy George (Culture Club)
Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood)
Stuart Adamson (Big Country)
Bruce Watson (Big Country)
Tony Butler (Big Country)
Mark Brzezicki (Big Country)