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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sunday Jukebox - Do They Know It's Christmas?

You know, amongst all of the bad news surrounding the economy, the schizophrenic nature of the value of a dollar, and the doom and gloom that today's economy seems to be plagued with, I can see how the last thing people would want to do is just give money away.

It's been reported that charitable organizations are struggling to raise money all over the world this holiday season. With pennies becoming harder to pinch, and with belts being tightened to the point where we have permanent grooves around our midsections, it's tough to spread the wealth around.

And it's not because everyone is the world is greedy, and want to keep money to themselves either. I'm sure there are some Scrooges and misers who would rather die than give their pennies away to people, but not everyone is like this. I know I would love to be able to donate to some of my favourite charitable organizations if I was financially able to.

Of course, that's not to say that one needs to have money to be able to give back to the community. People can volunteer at soup kitchens to feed the needy. They could wrap Christmas presents at a local mall for charity. They can organize toy drives where people donate toys for kids to open up on Christmas, or they can go door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Even a gesture as simple as making someone a card for the holidays can be considered giving back to someone.

Or, if your name happens to be Bob Geldof or Midge Ure, you could just record a song for the Christmas season where all the proceeds for the record went towards stopping the plight of world hunger.

And, that is the topic for today's blog entry.

I'm sure that anyone who was around in the mid-1980s remembers the single 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'. I know my sister who was twelve at the time had the single in record format. It's hard to miss the distinct cover design, which was illustrated by artist Peter Blake, and that album cover held a prominent place in my sister's bedroom for many years.

The year was 1984. During that year, the BBC had a series of news reports about the famine that was going on in the country of Ethiopia. In October of 1984, a BBC reporter named Michael Buerk was featured in a report showing scenes filmed in Ethiopia. It really was a sad sight to behold. Lots of people who were literally starving to death because they didn't have the necessarily food, water, or medicine to survive.

It kind of made you realize that as stressful and expensive as the holidays can get for us, things could always be worse. And in Ethiopia in 1984, they were living the 'worse' day in and day out.

The news reports were quite tough to watch, and it naturally affected the people of the United Kingdom in a variety of ways. In the case of Bob Geldof, the images were so powerful and emotion-evoking that he immediately came up with an idea. What if he wrote a song for the 1984 Christmas season where all the proceeds went towards ending the famine in African nations? Certainly, songwriting was something Geldof was experienced in, having been a part of The Boomtown Rats at the time. But he needed help in creating the perfect song. He called up his friend James “Midge” Ure, who was the lead singer of the band, Ultravox.

Together, they ended up writing the lyrics and melody of the song, which they entitled 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', and the date the song was to be recorded was planned for late November 1984. At the time, Bob Geldof had been scheduled for a radio interview with BBC Radio 1 DJ Richard Skinner to promote an album. Instead, he used the interview to promote 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', talking about how he had planned to assemble a group of musicians from all over the United Kingdom to participate in the recording. Geldof's hope was that the media interest in the song would be high as more and more names were signed onto the project.

By the time the recording session had been booked for November 25, the media was perched outside Sarm West recording studios, waiting to snap pictures and video of each singer and band as they arrived to record the song. The use of the recording studio was free of charge, courtesy of the owner, music producer Trevor Horn. Initally, Geldof wanted Horn to produce the record himself, but Horn was unavailable at the time. There was one catch though. The use of the studio for free was only available for 24 hours, so if the song was to be recorded, it would have to have been done in a day.

And when you have a group of musicians, some of whom had never met each other, and some of whom regularly competed against each other on the UK music charts, it was expected that the session would have some conflict and some problems. But, we'll get to the behind the scenes action in a bit.

For now, let's enjoy the song.

ARTIST: Band-Aid
SONG: Do They Know It's Christmas?
DATE RELEASED: November 29, 1984

Now, before I go on with the details behind the making of the song, I think we should find out who exactly sang on the record, as there were a LOT of artists that took part. Here's just a few...

Bob Geldof, Simon Crowe, Pete Briquette, Johnny Fingers (The Boomtown Rats)
Midge Ure, Chris Cross (Ultravox)
Bono, Adam Clayton (U2)
Phil Collins (Genesis)
Tony Hadley, Steve Norman, Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp, John Keeble (Spandau Ballet)
Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor, Andy Taylor (Duran Duran)
Paul Young
Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17)
Jody Watley (Shalamar)
Keren Woodward, Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama)
Paul Weller (The Style Council)
James “J.T.” Taylor, Robert “Kool” Bell, Dennis J.T. Thomas (Kool & The Gang)
George Michael (Wham!)
Francis Rossi, Rick Parfitt (Status Quo)
Boy George, Jon Moss (Culture Club)
Sting (The Police)
David Bowie
Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes To Hollywood)
Stuart Adamson, Bruce Watson, Tony Butler, Mark Brzezicki (Big Country)
Paul McCartney

...among others...

Most were British based, but there were a few Irish and Scottish groups that took part. The song even had a bit of American flavour to it as Jody Watley and Kool & The Gang became a part of the single's final cut.

Now, I have to say that it was quite a feat to have a whole bunch of musicians of varying styles, tastes, and levels of popularity come together to record a song where all the profits would go towards a good cause.

And the song was one that people rushed to buy. Within days of its release, the song hit the top of the British charts in late 1984, staying there for five weeks. In the United States, the song didn't quite chart that high, but it did make the Top 20 on the Billboard Charts, peaking at #13 in early 1985 (reason being that the American charts counted airplay in addition to record sales, and back in 1984, the song didn't get much airplay). In the UK, the song was re-released on the charts the following year, this time peaking at of the few instances in which the same song made the Top 5 in two different years at two different times.

The song did very well in sales as well. Between 1984 and 1985, the single sold over three and a half million copies. For thirteen years, the song held the record for being the highest selling single in UK history, the record broken in 1997 with Elton John's remake of 'Candle In The Wind', as a tribute to the late Princess Diana. With the success of Band-Aid's single, Geldof used that success as the basis towards the formation of 1985's Live-Aid, a concert extravaganza held that summer, in which an estimated 1.9 BILLION people worldwide watched the event, which much like the Band-Aid single, raised funds to end world hunger.

But as I said before, the recording of the song didn't exactly go off without a hitch. There were some rather comedic moments, and there's some interesting facts about the recording of the song itself that are worth knowing, but there were also some tense moments between some of the singers, and one almost didn't show up at all!

Did you know, for instance, that the song was recorded out of order? The first part recorded was the end of the song where the chorus of “feed the world, let them know it's Christmas time' was sung in an endless loop. The reason behind that was to have everyone get involved in the song straightaway, allowing the group shot to be photographed at the same time.

Also, it should be noted that each musician involved in singing the main body of the song, sang the whole version of the song. Some artists like Sting and Simon Le Bon had previously recorded their parts beforehand, but chose to re-record them once again. Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet was the first soloist to take to the microphone, and the rest followed suit. From there, Midge Ure would listen to each recording and cut and paste the segments that would eventually be used for the final cut.

Remember the opening of the song where there's a drum rhythm? That effect was achieved through a combination of electronic drum beats, a snippit from a Tears For Fears song, and the actual drum set that Phil Collins had brought with him to the session!

Boy George almost didn't even make it to the recording session! Despite Bob Geldof calling Boy George in New York the day before the recording session, asking him to be a part of the record, by the time the session began at nine o'clock that morning, Boy was still nowhere to be found. It took a while for Boy George to agree to fly out to England to record the song, and he arrived at around six o'clock that evening.

It was reported that Boy George did not get along with another George during the recording session. Apparently, Boy George and George Michael didn't gel well together, and both of them traded insults with each other.

As far as the band Status Quo goes, they were originally supposed to have sang the verse with the 'Here's to you...' line, but apparently Rick Parfitt wasn't able to hit the high notes for the verse, so they were replaced.  However, it was reported that they contributed to the recording session in other bringing alcohol and drugs.

Silly '80s bands.

There was even a bit of tension between Ure and Geldof during the recording of the song, as Geldof would constantly barge into the production booth while Ure was inside, telling the singers what lines to sing.

Boy George was the last vocalist to sing his part on the record (made sense since he was the last one to arrive), and after that was done, the work began on the B-side of the record, a song called 'Feed The World'. That recording featured spoken word messages from artists who didn't sing on the A-side, which included Bowie, McCartney, and the members of Big Country.

The recording was finally completed on November 26, 1984 at 8am...almost 24 hours after the process began.

Soon after 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' was released, the current #1 artist at the time, Jim Diamond, urged people to skip over his single the following week, instead prompting people to buy 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' instead. He ended up getting his wish, as the song lasted five weeks at the top, being dethroned by Foreigner's 'I Want To Know What Love Is' in early 1985.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the song's success comes with this fact. The original song was re-recorded twice more. Five years after the original version was released, a new version was re-recorded with what were the top British artists at the time. The group name was Band Aid II, and these artists included Lisa Stansfield, Wet Wet Wet, Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Cliff Richard, and Bananarama (making Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward the only people to sing on both the '84 and '89 versions) of the song. Like its predecessor, the second version also made it to #1. It was a nice effort, and some of the singers were quite good, but I preferred the original. What do you think?

A third version was recorded in 2004, but I'm definitely not a fan of that one, so I won't post it. You could probably find it if you put the words Band Aid 20 in the search engine, Google.

Other countries put out their own efforts as well to help donate money to the people of Africa as well.

USA for Africa released 'We Are The World' on March 7, 1985.

Canada's Northern Lights followed suit with 'Tears Are Not Enough' that same month.

There was even an effort put out by Yugoslavia!

But Band-Aid did it first, and in my opinion, they did it best, and the song did what it set out to do, which was to raise awareness of third world countries.

And I think if anything, it made us all realize, if only for a moment, that as bad as we think things might be here at home, it's nothing compared to what others may be going through.

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