Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #13 in January 1985.
If your idea of Christmas includes Tony Hadley, then you can skip this entry. Little else needs be said about what was for many years the best-selling single in British history (until this gem outsold it). I enjoy the ominous opening: for a moment it’s 1979 and Gary Numan ruled Britannia. Midge Ure’s production, done only because Trevor Horn could not finish the record well after Christmas 1998, has the feel of the world’s most expensive and examined demo (organizer Bob Geldof donated lyrics and bits of a marooned Boontown Rats tune, Ure hammered it into shape musically). Other good bits: the ghostly harmonies — manipulated on a Fairlight? — beneath Paul Weller’s vocal; the accelerating tempo; the way Ure’s synths can sound like chimes of doom or chimes of freedom; the entrance of Phil Collins’ drums.
But the vocalists sold “Christmas,” or, rather, the participation of the vocalists — people bought “Christmas” on learning if their favorite pop star was on it. The first three appearances knock it on the head. Paul Young, not yet an American name, weighs each line with care and purpose. Boy George brings a spontaneity and jubilance that would sound inapposite elsewhere; here he’s playing what Cyndi Lauper would in a certain song of similar provenance released not long afterward. George Michael, in the video overcome by a mop of un-moussed thatch-colored hair, belts without irony, the only performer who can sing “But say a prayer for the other ones” generously. Then the nightmares begin: an off-key Simon Le Bon, a vaporous Sting, Tony Hadley auditioning for Evita, and, well, Bono, after several years of notices and steadily increasing sales turning into the Bono we hate and sorta like. Ure’s mix tries to harmonize these elements and often succeeds. There’s a moment in the video when Sting looks grumpy, as if it just occurred to him that not only was he working with Duran Duran’s lead singer but standing beside him. Ah, Sting — he’ll always be the King of Pain.
I noticed for the first time that “Christmas” is a bloke’s record. Where are the women? Jody Watley and Bananarama participate in the mass chorus. No Annie Lennox? No Alison Moyet? No Dusty Springfield (i.e. the legend coaxed out of semi-retirement). The other pop star absence was Human League’s Phil Oakey, reportedly because he thought he’d been asked to record a duet with Bob Geldof — a thought that would chill me too. Also, besides the Watley and Kool & the Gang cameos in the video, where are the people of color — where are Ranking Roger and Grace Jones? If the starving in “Africa” (“Ethiopia” is never said; Ure nixed a mention because it didn’t scan, which makes sense) don’t know it’s Christmastime, then the malest and whitest pop stars of Albion will remind them. Paul Weller’s in the mix, somewhere, more fascinating for the haircut.
As for what the success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” portended, Dave Rimmer and Tom Ewing have done estimable work explaining it over the years. “It felt and looked like the sealing of pop’s new establishment, when in fact it was their peak,” Ewing writes. “The bands split, faded, took ill-advised sabbaticals, leaving U2 and George Michael the great survivors” — the end of New Pop. Checking its chart stats again, I was struck by how poorly “Christmas” performed in America. After a spectacular start — it rocketed to #20 in its second week from a #65 debut — it climbed to #13, whereupon it tumbled. Although it sold well — a rarity in 1984-1985 — airplay was minimal. Those chimes of doom didn’t clang as loudly in January as they would in December.
Me, I’ll take USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” released three months later — ghastly as a song, into which Quincy Jones poured several decades of wizardly arranging skill, but graced with the best performances on a charity single ever recorded. For every Billy Joel and Kenny Loggins chewing on ham, there’s a Daryl Hall and Steve Perry singing for their lives. There’s the dissonance of hearing Dionne Warwick and Willie Nelson sharing a verse, as if to say, “This integration and stylistic clash are what pop music should look and sound like.” Or give me Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” whose poignancy and compassion are what we expect from celebrating Christmas, even as non-believers. Here’s to them.