And there's still no snow in Africa
Ten years ago, `Do They Know It's Christmas?' was No 1. The song scribb led in a taxi chimed with the times. Giles Smith remembers that the price of a life then was £1.30; what price compassion now?
Friday 23 December 1994
"Do They Know It's Christmas?", the Band Aid single, was No 1 10 years ago. It was just a quickly cobbled-together song, but it changed our perception of pop stars and it changed our sense of the possibilities of charity. Judy Raven at Oxfam says: "It convinced people of the possibility of communal effort - nationally and then globally. Before then you might have felt your acts of charity were isolated, that you were on your own somehow. But not afterwards."
It didn't, however, change Bob Geldof, who nowadays greets most requests to talk about Band Aid with a cheery "fokk off". He has nobly, and with considerable difficulty, insisted that he wasn't what was important about Band Aid and Live Aid, the global concert that followed in the summer of 1985. But whether he likes it or not, Band Aid is inseparably linked in our minds with Geldof, and would have been unimaginable without his powers of persuasion, his drawling rhetoric. "It's pathetic," he announced o n Radio 1 the morning after the recording session, "but the price of a life this year is a piece of plastic with a hole in the middle." £1.30 at the time.
He had telephoned Sting, he had called Simon Le Bon, he had caught sight of Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet through the window of a Chelsea antique shop - and had got them all on board. Then, in the back of a taxi, he had scribbled the words to a song, andhad stood, embarrassed, in Midge Ure's house in Chiswick, groaning his way through "Do They Know It's Christmas?"; it was this number that Ure and the cast of thousands would tart up into an acceptable pop song. The quality of the song was beside the point, of course, but it did go directly that year into the repertoire of carol singers.
The recording session took place on Sunday 25 November 1984 at Basing Street Studios in Ladbroke Grove, home of ZTT Records and the producer Trevor Horn. The studio once belonged to Island Records and Bob Marley had recorded there. Assembled in the same building that day were Boy George, George Michael, Paul Weller, Phil Collins - the cream of British pop: or as Geldof put it, "a bunch of yobs down the pub on a Sunday lunchtime". There was nervousness, banter and much suppressing of egos. Tony Hadley, the singer with Spandau Ballet, earned many points for daring to be the first to sing.
Estimates of how many "Do They Know It's Christmas?" would sell gradually escalated - 72,000, one million, three million ... soon it was shipping 320,000 copies a day, on its way to a British record (3.5 million). It generated £8m that Christmas, and it didn't stop there. The song went to No 3 the following year, and a remixed version, with only two members of Bananarama from the original cast, reached No 1 again in 1989.
We had grown accustomed to thinking of rock stars holed up in the romper rooms of their own hedonism - the crate of tequila in the stretch limo, the satchel of cocaine in the hotel suite. But right here, in the mid-1980s, pop musicians were finally goingto do what their forerunners in the Sixties had often promised to do (though in the end, they had always been too tired, too stoned, or too dead): they were going to feed the world.
It wasn't that the worst we knew about pop stars was banished in a day. Many of those who couldn't make it sent taped messages for possible use on the B-side, among them Spandau Ballet's percussionist Steve Norman, who famously missed the point: "I'd like to say Hi to all our fans in Ethiopia," said Steve, in a soundbite that didn't make it on to the record. "Sorry we won't be able to make it over there this year, but we're going to try for next year."
But the image of pop wasaltered there, in that one extraordinary studio session, and it has never quite shifted back. The thrust of Band Aid was anti-institutional; its dash and swagger reflected the way Geldof elbowed onwards, ignoring protocol. That was how he convinced the manufacturers and the printers and the distributors and the retailers to work for nothing - and everyone else, too, until it was possible to guarantee that every penny generated by the single would find its way into the fund.
Yet, inadvertently, Band Aid did more than anything before to solidify the idea of a rock establishment. All manner of stars underwent conversions to purposefulness, the most prominent of whom was Sting, with his single-minded and much-vilified transformation from blond pop god to forest-friendly eco-warrior. Rock stars were no less remote than before, but they were doing good, so they were acceptable. The following summer at Wembley Stadium, the Prince and Princess of Wales were seen in the Royal Box with Bob Geldof and Paula Yates; behind them sat Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen.
Inevitably, a slew of Band Aid imitations followed in the wake of the real thing. Come the disaster, come the all-star fund-raiser. As surely as Margaret Thatcher, all comfort and benediction, would attend hospital bedsides, so, within days, a squad of furrow-browed pin-ups would be seen, headphones on, banked in a choir of concern. We had Ferry Aid singing "Let it Be" for relatives of the victims of the Zeebrugge disaster. We had Liverpudlian musicians getting together on "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey", rel eased after the Hillsborough football crowd disaster. These only tended to confirm that, in terms of igniting a nation, Band Aid was a one-off.
There was, of course, a comic angle to charity pop. Seen as the parading of conscience, it was rich ground for a satirist like the American songwriter Randy Newman, who was inspired by Band Aid and its American equivalent, USA for Africa, to write his own spoof hymn of humanity: "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do". The song is slow, anthemic, suitably full of itself. Newman played it in concert in London this year, where it still got laughs. In the gaps between the lines, he explained to the audience, deadpan, the video he had always envisaged: "I want you to hurt like I do - Michael Bolton here - I want you to hurt like I do - pictures of children from all over the world - I want you to hurt like I do ..."
Maybe it's the time, and the feel of the times. Last summer, a handful of chart-bound musicians - D:Ream, Yazz, Ultimate Kaos, Apache Indian - got together with a view to raising money for those starving in Rwanda. They recorded a version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" - an all-star record, just like in 1984. Except that the price of a piece of plastic with a hole in the middle has gone up with inflation. And the single stalled in the chart at No 70.
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